For over five years, the brief presidency of Donald J. Trump and its wake have produced a certain kind of editorial that still doesn’t have a name. You know the topic, and the template: earnest reporter from a coastal city visits patrons at a diner in rural America, ostensibly to find out why such folksy, salt-of-the earth people—white evangelicals, typically—would vote for a philandering, incompetent liar from Queens. The results are frequently irritating, occasionally hilarious, and always baffling.
No matter how many times Trump voters show us who they are, the default position of so many journalists is to ignore all that and trouble another diner with the same questions. In their minds, Trump voters must have been duped somehow. (They weren’t. Trump represents them just like they represent him.) There must be some coherent set of policy goals that Trump voters hope to achieve. (There aren’t. It’s all tribalism.) And there must be a way to reach them, to show them that they’re voting against their own interests! (There isn’t. Reason didn’t get them here, reason won’t dig them out.)
But while the diner essays have faded since the election of 2020, a similar piece of journalistic detritus just keeps chugging along, appearing every few days, it seems. Like the profiles of “real America,” this one also needs a universally recognized name, so we can call it out as soon as we see it.
The template goes like this: a journalist who is perhaps an inch or two to the left of center, and who identifies as Christian, wonders out loud about the state of the Church since the 2016 election. In their mind, Christianity—true Christianity, mind you—is purely good, and can never be wrong. But somehow it got corrupted, veering away from the core messages of peace and love.
That something happened to the church or the religion, rather than the church or the religion being responsible for what happened, is the overriding assumption of all such essays. It’s the water in which the fish swim. There’s no questioning it. It’s a brute fact of this tiny universe. With that assumption in place, the writer deploys a series of defense mechanisms intended to funnel all serious criticism toward a small subset of Christians, who can then be labeled and waved away as “fake Christians.” Those defense mechanisms include, but are not limited to:
- conveying a state of perpetual shock at how bad things are, which leads to…
- conducting selective interviews with elites within the church (with virtually no pushback on their talking points)
- pushing “both-sides” arguments in order to downplay criticism
- claiming that one can separate politics from religion
- lamenting the perceived persecution of the church (rather than acknowledging that the criticism may, in fact, be legitimate)
It brings me no joy to be so dismissive. Many of these authors mean well, and they deserve credit for sticking their necks out. But their good intentions extend only to preserving Christianity’s reputation. Dare I say they’re fixated on protecting the brand, rather than exploring the harm that the brand has caused. This evasiveness may feel good at first, and may identify the author as the designated adult in the room. But more people than ever are noticing that this framework seems designed to avoid the real problems, while solving imaginary ones.
The latest example, “The Evangelical Church is Breaking Apart,” from Peter Wehner at The Atlantic, includes the subtitle “Christians must reclaim Jesus from his church.” We’ll get to that subtitle soon enough, as it implies this “true Christianity” mentality I described above, but if you look at the tab in the browser, it shows this:
Everybody got that? Trump is tearing apart the church. Something simply happened—something no different from a hurricane or a meteor. It’s just an unfortunate collision. How could we have seen it coming? Authors aren’t generally responsible for headlines, but we’re clearly off to a bad start here.
Let’s look at how the aforementioned defense mechanisms play out in Wehner’s article. At the very least, I hope this will help readers spot essays like this one in the wild, because there will be more. Many, many more.
Wehner begins with a recent power struggle at McLean Bible Church, in which a “small but zealous group” (such groups are always small in these articles) pushed a MAGA-style agenda in the election of some church elders. While I share Wehner’s revulsion, I have trouble sympathizing with his confusion over what’s going on. “I wanted to understand the splintering of churches, communities, and relationships,” he writes. “I reached out to dozens of pastors, theologians, academics, and historians, as well as a seminary president and people involved in campus ministry.”
Of course, such experts could have something useful to say. But in many ways, they’re merely well-rehearsed versions of the diner patrons, and Wehner gives them the space to rehash their favorite talking points without so much as a follow-up question. And why would he push back, when their goals so clearly align? Rather than diagnosing a longstanding problem of authoritarianism, they’re protecting Christianity’s reputation, which, in their minds, is a noble end in itself.
Thus, Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, gets to blame Trumpism on an “anti-institutional tendency” among evangelicals. Good luck trying to pin that down. But honestly, does that “tendency” as a mitigating factor really make evangelicals look better? Is their “intrinsically good” religion too weak to overcome it? The historian George Marsden complains about “political loyalties” that can sometimes corrupt “a more traditional religious faith”—as if a more traditional faith weren’t already political.
Not once does it occur to such experts that perhaps there are some authoritarian and tribalistic tendencies built into Christianity, which can be traced all the way back to Jesus himself (as Andre E. Key notes here). I’ve written about this before—the lazy assumption that anything authentically Christian is “good,” and anything we can call “bad” or “wrong” is simply not authentic. As Chrissy Stroop has observed, such a stance “serves to absolve more liberal Christians from the necessary work of grappling seriously with the ways in which they benefit from, and are complicit in, historical and contemporary Christian hegemony and its attendant violence.”
To Stroop’s criticism, I would add that the “fake Christian” deflection constitutes the death of critical inquiry. In my opinion, a more reasonable assessment of Christianity would be to say that there are good things and bad things. There are doctrines and practices that are beneficial, and there are doctrines and practices that are not (or that are outright harmful). What’s so difficult about saying that? Certainly, Wehner would have no trouble viewing other religions that way. But Christianity gets special treatment. To admit that the theology itself could be even partially responsible for Trump would blow up the author’s entire thesis.
Wehner’s tentative conclusion, which he elaborates through more
monologues interviews, is this:
“When the Christian faith is politicized, churches become repositories not of grace but of grievances…The result is not only wounding the nation; it’s having a devastating impact on the Christian faith.”
Notice how the passive voice is doing a lot of heavy lifting there. And it leads to the next question asked in a state of perpetual shock: “How is it that evangelical Christianity has become, for too many of its adherents, a political religion?”
Now, the smart aleck response is to point out that Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire. It’s been political since the Emperor Constantine converted in the 4th century. But even if you ignore that and focus exclusively on American born-again Christians, you see how Trumpism is not some recent, surprising shift, but instead has roots in slavery, segregation, anti-women’s rights movements, anti-LGBTQ movements, and all of the other wrong-side-of-history issues that evangelical churches have typically supported. Wehner’s framing suggests that, say, a generation ago, mainstream Christianity was somehow more centrist, both in demographics and theology, which simply isn’t true. Ronald Reagan built his presidential campaign around that obvious fact. So did Nixon.
And for those tempted to deploy the “fake Christian” defense here—i.e., that they were following a corrupted or distorted version of Christianity—let me remind you that the churches found plenty of justification for their behavior in the Bible (including Jesus’s own words), and in the history of Christian conquest and colonialism. If you interpreted the scripture and the tradition differently, good for you. But those “bad Christians” are still Christians, and they represent Christianity whether you like it or not.
But don’t bother telling that to Marsden and the other interviewees. “The United States has largely avoided the most virulent expressions of such political religions,” the historian declares. Compared to what? The Crusades?
Wehner marches us through more pastors and theologians who make the same points. Alan Jacobs, a humanities professor at Baylor, claims that many Christians are more invested in their “political tribe” than they are in the “catechesis” of the church. To temper such a wild accusation, Jacobs assures the reader that an obsession with politics “is true of both the Christian left and the Christian right.” [A gentle reminder: the Christian right is the side with actual white nationalists on it.] Scott Dudley, a pastor at Bellevue Presbyterian Church, adds to the lament by saying that he often feels like his values are “under assault.” By quoting all of that without comment, Wehner ticks the obligatory “both sides” box, without which the article would be incomplete.
To his credit, Wehner includes history professor Kristen Kobes Du Mez, who is willing to tie the toxic politics to Christology. But that’s as far as the criticism will go. Du Mez merely serves as cover, and gets completely ignored in Wehner’s sweeping conclusion. “Something has gone amiss,” he states. Yeah, something. And we’ll never find it by talking to the paid spokesmen for Christianity.
What’s truly stunning is the omission of the elephant in the room: A lot of Christians voted for Trump in two elections, and will do so again if given the chance. White evangelical voters deserve most of the blame, with their support topping 75% in 2020. But half of all Roman Catholic voters chose Trump that year, and about 60% of voters who identify as Protestant did so as well. If we really were talking about a “small but zealous” minority, I might be tempted to agree with articles like Wehner’s. But here on Earth, being a devout Christian is a reliable indicator that a person has supported Trump at his most craven. Such people will be happy to tell you they did it because they’re Christian, because they’re doing the will of God, because there is a spiritual battle being waged at this very moment! This is what happens when the stakes are raised so high, and the reality checks are removed.
If something can be said to have happened to American Christianity, it would be the fact that so many people have opted to leave, and in unprecedented numbers. While authors like Wehner plead with their congregations to reclaim Jesus, the churches continue to shrink in size, power, wealth, and influence. I wonder if this is where the real change in American Christianity will begin. Perhaps the only way to expose the rot is to report on it from a safe distance, as so many former Christians have done. As that process evolves, church leaders will continue to reveal their true selves. Authoritarians like to control people. And as the last few years have shown, nothing makes them react with more fury than an empowered person telling them no.
If Wehner had interviewed a few apostates—or Christians with enough courage to look in the mirror—they probably would have told him that the question of how Christianity moved to the right seems deliberately superficial. It avoids deeper and more painful issues, such as: What is it about Christianity that makes it so easily manipulated by authoritarians? Why do authoritarians feel so welcome within the religion? Could it be, heaven forfend, that there is something about Christianity that enables or encourages all of this? The day is coming when The Atlantic and other publications will actually explore these issues. Until then, be on the lookout for more examples of the blueprint for Christian deflection.