I, Too, Was Once a Soldier of the Apocalypse: Why White Evangelicals Must Choose Between Reform and American Extremism
Trump supporters hold Stop The Steal rally in DC amid presidential election confirmation
Pro-Trump protesters gather outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021. Trump supporters gathered in the country's capital to protest against the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's victory over the electoral college against President Trump in the 2020 election. A pro-Trump mob later stormed the Capitol, broke windows and clashed with police officers. Five people died in the process. Photo credit - Photo by Brent Stirton / Getty Images
In my little Pentecostal church, we all expected the guillotine to be put up in the parking lot, probably by the One World Government. It was Arkansas in the early 1980s, and certain truths were known to our youth group because they were repeated by friends and adults long before Twitter or Gabon.
You should avoid Procter & Gamble products as there is a hidden 666 in the company logo, the mark of the beast. If you played certain rock songs backwards, you'd hear requests to smoke marijuana. A film shown in the Ecclesiastical Shrine, "A Distant Thunder," showed what would happen if the United Nations gave free rein during the coming tribulation, as predicted in the Book of Revelation. The world government would chop off the heads of those who honored Jesus and refused to bow to state tyranny. Better be ready for the rapture.
On January 6, when I saw crosses, "Jesus Saves" signs, and the Christian flag among the crowds who stormed the US Capitol, my stomach grabbed me. It was a reminder that I too once considered myself a foot soldier in a divine cause.
The story we told ourselves was all courage and justice. A diabolical elite was raised against us, so we prepared to fight the "world," the name given to everyone else. The boys went into the forest to shoot guns, clad in khaki uniforms, our church's alternative to secular scouts. The girls made macrame. We knew some Italian Catholics, had heard of Jews (we believed they were misguided, but mysteriously favored by God), and maybe spoke once or twice to a black person from a neighboring town. But we assumed that when Christ returned and established His kingdom, people like us - white and righteous - would come first in His heavenly place.
Despite important statements by some evangelical leaders in the weeks since January 6, versions of these ideas swirl around pulpits and classrooms of Sunday School every week. For the United States to fully count on Donald Trump and his legacy, white evangelical leaders and their communities must go through a deep process of inward discernment. It is beyond the time for a new Reformation within evangelical Christianity that will reject holy war against liberals, journalists, scholars, infidels and other real people. Without them, this form of belief, despite its glory and intimate truths, will remain the official ideology of America's white tribalism.
Of course there is no such thing as an "evangelical" one. American Christians who could use this label to describe themselves share a wide range of commitments and experiences, including a personal salvation story, belief in the authority of Scripture, and a mandate to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. However, the differences are huge, even from parish to parish. Some, like the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination, have long courted political power. Others, like the Congregations of God, the largest Pentecostal group - with their openness to ecstatic worship and contemporary miracles - tended to avoid this. Unaffiliated, cross-denominational, and multisite churches like the international Hillsong franchise or Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, add further complexity to the American evangelical landscape.
However, some of Trump's most dedicated supporters share what could be termed radical Christianism, a view of politics and culture that has remained largely unchanged for decades. It deals with conspiracy and encourages distrust of one's own eyes and ears. It replaces the idiosyncratic interpretation of ancient texts with the questioning of the commitment led by real experts in languages and history. It's thanks to charismatic leaders who combine consumerism, celebrity culture, and stadium-level entertainment, a mix developed by Aimee Semple McPherson in the 1930s and exploited by Jimmy Swaggart and others in the 1980s.
The leading companies have long used new technology to build their fan base, from radio to television and beyond. They have sparked a conspicuous identity politics that has sparked a boom in self-affirmative consumption in recent years. Retail stores like Altar’d States and Hobby Lobby, which owners financed the great Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, offer faith-based fashion and home decor. The blockbuster Left Behind Books and Movies brought the end times to mass audiences in the 2000s. They prepared the market for a new mainstream genre, Christian films, including Miracles from Heaven starring Jennifer Garner and The Trump Prophecy, the story of an Orlando firefighter's vision that Donald Trump would become president if inappropriate enough Christians blow a shofar would.
In all of these ways, the most ardent supporters of Trump and his successors are less like supporters of an autocrat and more like supporters of televangelists like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. At the height of their PTL club in the 1980s, the Bakkers solicited money from the rural poor, wooed middle-class suburbs, and even built a theme park before parting - Jim to become a convicted criminal and dealer in counterfeit coronavirus medicines , Tammy Faye becomes a gay icon. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if Trump's next step was to organize a church. His base and that of the Bakkers - older Americans prone to cultivating Hucksters and QAnon - are dauntingly similar.
Today Christian leaders who once held Islam accountable for its alleged role in triggering terrorism among a small group of extremists should now look in the mirror. When religion merges with complaint and existential struggle, it can be a powerful motivator for action. If there is any touch of power, from fundamentalist Hinduism in India to violent Buddhism in Myanmar, the results are even more dangerous. Without hard work, Protestant Christianity will cement its place as the church of narrow American nativism.
There are ways of healing. Church leaders can organize de-radicalization programs based on those that have been successfully used by some mosques. You can break the god-and-guns connection that turns legitimate sports gear into a sacred relic. Internet literacy courses and addiction recovery groups can help older Christians use online information and social media responsibly. Ministers can speak openly about conspiracy theories and the sin of white nationalism. Preaching in this direction is not "political". It speaks directly to the pressures and temptations that harm the people in the pews.
To break free from the quicksand of tribal Christianity, white evangelicals also have a powerful tool in their midst: their own teenagers. Evangelical youths mirror their parents in some ways, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. They say more often than other Christian youth that religion is very important in their life, for example, and two-thirds say that only one religion is true. However, a generation difference can already be seen. According to other research, evangelical youths are more world-conscious than their elders, more likely to have friends of different races or ethnic backgrounds, and to be more comfortable with cultural differences. You are more at home in the near future America, where white people can no longer accept demographic dominance or easily insist that the United States is a "Christian nation." Young people have a pent-up talent for loving acceptance unless the responsible adults are afraid of it.
"Don't let the liberal professors change you," one church leader told me when I went to college, the first in my family to leave the farm in the Ozarks. They did and I even became one. Despite everything, I still see myself as a Pentecostal. As with secular Jews and cultural Muslims, Christians who have been born again may find things in their own tradition that go beyond strict doctrine and orthodox beliefs. For me, this particular form of religion is like a mother tongue, the convenient grammar of my encounters with ultimate things.
Interpreted with openness and self-confidence, the many styles of evangelical Christianity can be heartbreaking and profound - mysterious and secure, grounded and soaring, practiced in diagnosing human pain. To reshape the Church, white evangelical leaders need only do what I have asked more of my mentors to do: stop teaching their young people not to love.
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