Monthly Archives: January 2017

How Christianity Got Co-Opted and We Got Trump

David Tigabu is a producer and writer based in Washington, DC. In this post, he explores how and why the white American evangelical movement rejects core Christian teachings and embraces Donald Trump.

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David Tigabu

In the wake of the 2016 presidential cycle, readers have been treated to a barrage of think pieces focused on factors that led to the November outcome. Seemingly every publication worth its salt has featured an analysis zeroed in on one demographic in particular—the white working class. This has set off a debate, particularly within the Left, on issues of race and class, how they intersect, and the complex dynamic that is identity. However, the spotlight on the white working class has also overshadowed a much-needed look at a more decisively Trumpian constituency—white evangelicals.

Exit polls reveal that just over 80 percent of white evangelical voters pulled the lever for Donald Trump. 80 percent. Trump cheerleader and neo-nazi rag Breitbart gleefully celebrated this occurrence, pointing out that the President received more votes from this faction than any Republican presidential candidate since 2000. To put it more starkly, this means that shameless Bible thumper George W. Bush received fewer votes from this group than a guy who says his favorite book in the Bible is “Two Corinthians.”

So how did this happen? How could white evangelicals vote for a candidate who mocks the disabled, promises to ban adherents of an entire religion from entering the country (a promise he is already acting upon), brags about not “giving unto caesar,” and speaks of groping women by their vagina? How could family values dogmatists and reputed practitioners of morality support the thrice-married candidate with a penchant for lies and a bloated sense of vanity? The answer can be found in two basic truths about white evangelical Christianity—its current state of decline, and its moral and political commitment to maintaining white American hegemony.

The first revelation can be found in the institution’s demographic problem. Simply put, Christianity ain’t the only game in town anymore.  According to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), in 1974, sixty-three percent of Americans identified as protestant, but by 2014, that percentage had fallen to forty-three percent. Most of this religious decline has been concentrated in white protestant communities. In that same PRRI study, 51 percent of Americans identified as white protestants in 1993, but that number dropped to 32 percent over roughly two decades. Black and Hispanic religious identification has held steady during the same period.

A quick scan of the white protestant blogosphere reflects deep anxiety over this predicament. Attempting to address this issue, a subculture of think-pieces, denominational meetings and conferences have sprouted, devoted primarily to understanding why young people are leaving the church. Some younger protestant groups point to conservative stances on social issues taken by church leaders, while the evangelical wing maintains that the exodus stems from what they perceive to be an increasingly liberal church. Where there is consensus, however, is the idea that the church is currently in a state of crisis.

Former Republican and rigorous evangelical Michelle Bachman echoed this sentiment during an interview on Christian Broadcasting Network’s (CBN) program Brody File, claiming that she believed “without a shadow of a doubt this is the last election. This is it. This is the last election.”

Trump cleverly tapped into this conviction while appearing on the same CBN show. “I think it’s going to be the last election that the Republicans can win. If we don’t win this election, you’ll never see another Republican and you’ll have a whole different church structure. You’ll have a whole different Supreme Court structure,” he said. The group with the most fatalistic view of American cultural change are white evangelical Protestants, three quarters of whom (74 percent) say that American culture has changed for the worse since 1950.

It’s within this context that voting for Trump came to be an act of desperation, a last gasp of sorts. For many white evangelicals, the 2016 election represented a last-ditch effort at preserving a way of life that seemed to be coming to an end. “It’s a math problem of demographics and a changing United States,” Bachmann pointed out. This was in many ways an attempt to cling on to some notion of Christian America

Interestingly enough, today’s concept of a Christian America is a relatively recent development in American political life. Contrary to conventional wisdom, its history does not go back to the country’s founding, and it did not come out of debates over abortion and school prayer. As Kevin Kruse points out in One Nation Under God, the modern evangelical Right was actually formed out of opposition to the New Deal, a series of major public investment initiatives put forward by President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s.

These policies were developed to address the Great Depression that had hit the country only several years prior, and through programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), provided millions of people with employment, retirement income, and housing assistance. To be sure, these programs were far from perfect. For instance, the exclusion of African Americans from many of these wealth building programs played a major role in the racial wealth gap that we see today.

However, a different kind of opposition emerged, one that did not take issue with exclusionary elements of the New Deal as much as they found its programs too generous. Fearing the immense popularity of the New Deal and a nation they thought was heading towards socialism, groups like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) attempted to undermine public support for Roosevelt’s legislation and the broader virus of “collectivism.” Understanding the clout that ministers had, NAM leaders began pushing preachers and religious influencers like James Fifield and Billy Graham, ministers that could peddle a brand of theology more palatable to the interests of big business. Over the ensuing decades, these leaders pushed ideas like the synonymy between Christianity and capitalism, God’s preoccupation with the salvation of the individual, and the broader notion of a Christian America. Once capitalism and individualism were situated under the Christian banner, the fusion of religion and state could be rendered complete.

Issues like abortion, public prayer, gay marriage, and school vouchers would eventually join Christian Libertarianism in shaping white evangelical politics, becoming the most potent political force in the country over the last 40 years. The focus on these issues is ostensibly Bible-based, as Ben Carson and many other evangelicals often like to point out.

Which is all well and good, provided one doesn’t pick up a Bible and read what’s in it. The Sermon on the Mount, perhaps Christianity’s fundamental ethical decree, makes no mention of homosexuality or abortion, issues that most certainly existed at the time. The passage contains no celebration of entrepreneurship or family values. What is found, however, is a concern for the poor, an embrace of pacifism, a condemnation of judging others, and a rebuke of false prophets masquerading as true teachers. What’s also found is a repudiation of public prayer in which Jesus commands that people “not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others,” a point that does not fit too squarely with school prayer advocates.

Both testaments emphasize a commitment to social justice and liberation, ideals that are nowhere to be found in the white evangelical ethos. Concern for the indigent, the sick, and the immigrant are a constant theme throughout the Old Testament, especially in the prophetic books like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. In Luke 4:18, Jesus says “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”

While it may be tempting (read: easier on the conscience) to believe that Jesus was speaking directly to the need to develop more first-century Jewish philanthropic institutions, a more honest reading of that passage indicates that Jesus cared about systems that oppress marginalized people. Yet seeking to confront such systems in an effort to create a more just world is jettisoned by the white evangelical in the name of personal responsibility. These problems are better left to charity. The issue at hand, to paraphrase U2 singer Bono, is that many white evangelicals are more interested in modes of charity than the presence of justice.

At the end of the day, what’s happened in evangelical America is simple: the language and iconography of Christianity has been co-opted to serve a set of narrow political interests, none of which have anything to do with Christianity. The outcome of such a project is the transformation of a social revolutionary murdered by the state into an abstract proponent of American imperialism, greed, patriarchy, and bigotry.

In her book All About Love, feminist bell hooks refers to this dynamic when she writes: “Fundamentalists, be they Christian, Muslim, or any faith, shape and interpret religious thought to make it conform to and legitimize a conservative status quo.” The fundamental truth about the white American evangelical movement is that its real ethical commitment lies more towards its white American prefix than its evangelical appendage. Donald Trump, with a Republican Congress behind him, is now set on destroying an already meager U.S. social safety net and facilitating environmental disaster, and already appears to be signaling violence towards the country’s most vulnerable communities, all with major support from this particular group.

It’s up to all of us who give a damn about living in a world not governed by white supremacy, corporate rule, theocracy, and environmental destruction to expose these false prophets for who they really are, and how far removed they are from the truly radical message of Christianity.

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“March for Life” and “Pro-Life” Are Misnomers

Every year since 1974, thousands of people have come to Washington, DC to rally against Roe v. Wade.  Protestors argue that pregnant women should be stripped of the ability to choose whether or not they want to have an abortion.  Referencing the unborn fetuses pregnant women carry inside their bodies, these anti-abortion advocates call their demonstration the “March for Life.”

Politicians who support these efforts use similar language.  Senator and former Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, for example, declared the “simple truth that all human life is sacred” to be the most recent march’s inspiration.

Yet neither Rubio nor the vast majority of marchers can credibly claim to have “pro-life” views.

I do not think fetuses should be viewed the same way as people, but let’s imagine you disagree with me.  Suppose, based on that disagreement, you believe an abortion kills an innocent person.  You think enabling the death of innocent people is wrong, and you thus think abortion must be opposed in all circumstances.  Isn’t that a “pro-life” view?

Well, it depends.  The logic of the ostensibly “pro-life” part of that reasoning is that, because X kills innocent people, and because killing innocent people is wrong, nobody should be able to choose X for any reason.

Here’s the problem with that logic: “X” could be any number of things.  Drone strikes kill innocent people.  More generally, war always does.  So does the death penalty.  And many other policies, while less active and direct than drone strikes, war, and putting people to death, effectively kill people.  Refugees are potentially given a death sentence when the countries to which they’re fleeing don’t let them in.  Thousands of people die each year due to inadequate access to health care.  And societies’ refusal to invest in substantial benefits for poor people both here and around the world leads to preventable deaths all the time.

People who truly have a “pro-life” position, therefore, oppose all of these things.  Those who are anti-war, anti-death penalty, pro-inclusive immigration, pro-universal health coverage, and pro-substantial benefits for the poor in addition to believing that fetuses are people and abortions are wrong may have a coherent, “pro-life” philosophy.

Needless to say, that’s not a description of Rubio.  He, like so many other anti-choice Republicans, opposes aborting fetuses but none of the preventable deaths mentioned above.

That doesn’t mean Rubio wouldn’t offer a justification for his positions.  He’d likely argue that drones, refugee bans, and military actions save more innocent lives than they sacrifice, that the death penalty is reserved for bad people who deserve it, and that providing health care and money for poor people slows economic growth, discourages work, and harms the very people such measures are intended to help.  He’d be wrong about all of these things – the United States perpetrates far more violence than we prevent, there are innocent people on death row, and meeting the needs of poor people, which we have the resources to do, would be perfectly consistent with a strong economy and boost long-term economic mobility – but that’s not the point.  The point is that Rubio does not allow the idea that “all human life is sacred” to guide his policy positions.  Instead, he balances the sacrifice of human lives against other things he thinks are important and decides which he thinks matters more.

In the realm of abortion, Rubio and others have decided that a fetus’s right to be born is more important than a woman’s right to make a personal, intimate decision about her body.  Again, if you believe fetuses are people and that life starts at conception, that may be a defensible position.  But if you also oppose raising taxes on rich people to provide health care and other basic needs to kids after they’re born, or if you support war, or the death penalty, your position definitely isn’t “pro-life.”  If you contend that “human life is sacred” only when that belief deprives women of rights but not when it consigns innocent people to death or cuts a little bit more into your fortune, you don’t really believe it.

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U.S. Intelligence Agencies Scoff at Criticism of Police Brutality, Fracking, and “Alleged Wall Street Greed”

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The Office of the Director of National Intelligence just released a report on Russia that lacks evidence and casts legitimate critiques of United States policy as part of a Kremlin plot.

On Friday, January 6, The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) released a report – Background to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”: The Analytic Process and Cyber-Incident Attribution – that had been ordered by President Obama.  The report’s headline assertion, consistent with what anonymous officials had been saying to media outlets for months, was that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.  Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency” (thus electing Donald Trump, the candidate for whom “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference”).

While U.S. intelligence agencies “did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election,” the report did claim that “Russian military intelligence (General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU) used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets and relayed material to WikiLeaks,” actions that some Democratic Party leaders and media pundits believe contributed to Trump’s win.  Predictably, then, the report’s release has led to renewed outrage, with some prominent public figures declaring that Russia committed an “act of war” deserving of an aggressive US response.

One major problem with this response is that the report offered “no new evidence to support assertions that Moscow meddled covertly [in the election] through hacking and other actions,” as a piece in The New York Times noted.  Though it’s certainly possible that the Russian government was behind an email to John Podesta that a Clinton IT staffer mistakenly called “legitimate,” the American public has yet to see proof that Russia ordered such a phishing attack.  What the American public has seen, on the other hand, is a parade of misleading and sometimes outright false stories about Russian hacking that likely have something to do with 50 percent of Democrats’ belief that “Russia tampered with vote tallies to help Donald Trump,” a claim for which even the report admits there is no justification.  Especially given our intelligence agencies’ history of deceiving the public into wars in Vietnam and Iraq – not to mention current DNI James Clapper’s false claim about NSA spying in 2013, the FBI’s attempt to get Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide in 1964, and various other violations of people’s rights and the law over the years – skepticism of their current claims about Russian hacking, at least until they present some convincing proof to back up those claims, is well warranted.

Even more alarming than the report’s lack of evidence about Russian hacking was its ironically propagandistic accusation that the television network RT is a “propaganda machine” engaged in a “Kremlin-directed campaign to undermine faith in the US Government and fuel political protest.”  Among what the United States government appears to consider part of this “Kremlin-directed campaign” of “propaganda:”

  • “RT broadcast, hosted, and advertised third-party candidate debates and ran reporting supportive of the political agenda of these candidates. The RT hosts asserted that the US two-party system does not represent the views of at least one-third of the population and is a ‘sham.’”
  • “RT framed the [Occupy Wall Street] movement as a fight against ‘the ruling class’ and described the current US political system as corrupt and dominated by corporations[,] created a Facebook app to connect Occupy Wall Street protesters via social media[, and] featured its own hosts in Occupy rallies.”
  • “RT’s reports often characterize the United States as a ‘surveillance state’ and allege widespread infringements of civil liberties, police brutality, and drone use.”
  • RT programming has criticized “the US economic system, US currency policy, alleged Wall Street greed, and the US national debt.”
  • “RT runs anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health.”

Those reading this list would be forgiven for being more convinced that RT is worth watching than that it peddles in Russian propaganda.  Violations of civil liberties in the United States are ubiquitous.  So is police brutality.  It’s an undeniable fact that our government’s use of drone strikes routinely kills innocent civilians.  Millions of social justice advocates across the United States oppose fracking, Wall Street greed, and America’s undemocratic electoral system for good reason.  And while fearmongering about the national debt is a definite problem, those doing it are more often moderating U.S. presidential debates than abetting the Kremlin.

To be fair to our intelligence agencies, RT is state-owned and does, as the network’s Editor in Chief Margarita Simonyan has admitted, have an explicitly Russian agenda.  But as Simonyan correctly points out, “there is not a single international foreign TV channel that is doing something other than promotion of the values of the country that it is broadcasting from,” and that includes the US-backed Voice of America network.

In fact, mainstream media outlets in the United States, despite their technical independence from the federal government, often uncritically advance the ideas of those in power as well.  The Times’ publication of inaccurate information about former RT anchor Abby Martin after the intelligence report came out is a good example: they said Martin had quit RT because of her view that it was a propaganda outlet when Martin did no such thing – she was actually supported by RT even while she produced content critical of the Russian government.  The Times modified its article post-publication, but the piece still blatantly misrepresents what happened with Martin.  Recent and egregiously incorrect reports on “fake news” and the U.S. electrical grid in The Washington Post are other prime illustrations of this problem.

None of that makes any actual propaganda from RT less pernicious, demonstrates that the Russian government wasn’t behind a phishing attack on John Podesta, or means that U.S. intelligence agencies must be lying.  It just means that we should be skeptical of claims presented without evidence to support them, particularly if the sources for those claims have a less than stellar relationship with the truth – even if those sources happen to be the United States media and/or the United States government.

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