Angry Conservative Congresspersons

When Christianity Becomes Toxic ‘Christianism’

Many people appear baffled about the hard-right turn in U.S. conservative religion.

It’s not just a turn to politics, or to hard-right politics, that is problematic. It is the apparent amorality, the cruelty, bigotry and snarling spirit that is so impossible to reconcile with the Spirit of Christ.

It’s the nasty cast of characters who are most associated with “Christians” in politics today, including (just for a start, the list is endless) the rogue’s gallery of Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz, Georgia Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, Colorado Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate and election-denier Doug Mastriano, the supposedly newly converted Trump dirty trickster/pardoned criminal Roger Stone, and of course Donald J. Trump his very own self.

It’s the way the crowds at the rallies of these people eat up the toxic red meat these figures throw to them. Christians used to be the victims in the Roman Colosseum. These “Christians” are more like the Roman leaders and their debased crowds, baying for blood.

“These ‘Christians’ are more like the Roman leaders and their debased crowds, baying for blood.”

The debasement of U.S. right-wing Christianity is only baffling to those who have been exposed to a different understanding of what being a Christian is supposed to be about. You know, old-timers like me, who walked uninvited into a Southern Baptist church building in 1978 looking for something I did not know how to name, but whose name turned out to be Jesus Christ.

Over a four-day conversion experience, I learned enough from and through devout Christian people to be led into an encounter with Jesus himself. I was exposed to people whose demeanor was gentle, whose speech was clean and kind, whose integrity turned out to be rock solid, whose moral plumbline was the instruction offered in the New Testament, whose life purpose was to follow Jesus, and whose mission was to share the gospel with others. These were the people who led me to faith in Christ and who discipled me at the early stages of my walk with Jesus. They were not perfect. But they were recognizably and seriously Christian.

There were other versions of old-time, pre-Trump Christianity that I might not have liked as much but that were still very different from the cancerous thing that is spreading among white conservative Christians in America today. I was exposed to these other varieties as well. There was the smart, humane, post-Vatican II Catholicism in which I was raised, the charismatic Anglicanism of a girl I dated, the earnest social-service mainline Methodism of some friends of my parents, the doctrinaire Lutheranism of a few folks I knew, the passionate Black church faith of some of my friends from school.

Even the handful of proto-Christian Right types I met at my own church still were playing by the same faith rules as everyone else there. I remember when a woman from church asked me to be a bit actor in a film called “Can Soviet Imperialism Be Stopped?” (Will someone please find this film, in which young David Gushee, dressed as a Soviet soldier, menacingly pours red paint over a globe? Thank you.) This woman was a serious Cold War Republican who worked hard to get Ronald Reagan elected. But she — and her organization — bore no resemblance to the debased freak show we are now seeing wrapped in the banner of Jesus.

“There is no single version of Christianity or any religion.”

Here is what I have learned: There is no single version of Christianity or any religion. A religious tradition is like any other living thing — it is organic, dynamic and changeable. It can grow healthier or sicker. It can become more like, or less like, or completely unlike, its founder, spirit and original vision.

There are many names for what has become of this era’s right-wing white American Christianity. The most commonly used is (white) Christian nationalism. Some are going with Christian right-wing populism. Some are calling it imposter Christianity. Others call it Christofascism. I have been tempted to call it “Christianism,” like the way the term “Islamism” was used to separate radicalized terrorist movements from mainstream Islam.

In the manuscript for a book I will be calling Defending Democracy from Its Christian Enemies, I settle on “authoritarian reactionary Christianity” as my main label, although this book and label focus mainly on the anti-democratic dimension of this movement.

Whatever we call it, anyone who has any understanding of and commitment to a healthier, recognizably Christ-following version of Christianity must fight hard for the integrity and survival of such faith — and for the excising of the cancer that is overtaking Christianity in this country today.

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6 thoughts on “When Christianity Becomes Toxic ‘Christianism’”

  1. This reactionary Christian nationalism deviates so much from the the evangelicalism I knew and espoused as a younger person, that I hardly recognize it as a valid Christian faith. Thanks for speaking out and enouraging this far over the hill guy to continue holding on to my his virtually shattered faith in the living Christ..

  2. Hi David.

    First, I’m Canadian, and have been working on peace and justice issues ever since having graduated from Regent College in 1976. I’ve also for decades been a keen America culture vulture. My website is dedicated to “The Gospel as Counter-Narrative to Empire”–with the obvious consequent incentive to track our neighbour to the south . . .

    Thank you for this sobering yet hopeful reflection.
    Please keep on keeping us grounded!

    Warm blessings in your work, writings, etc..

    P.S. I did read your Still Christian, and much more, with appreciation.

  3. Raymond Manasia

    I truly love being validated when I read a well written, intelligent article that crystallizes my experiences so perfectly.

  4. I was speaking with a friend of mine recently and expressed my opinion that a great book title would be “Onward Christian Soldier: The Rise of Militant Christianity in the US”. I, too, no longer recognize the term “evangelical” as I grew up with it. I see little difference between today’s howling crowds and the Jews who wanted Barabas in order to foment a Jewish political uprising. If you have not seen the recent CNN special titled “Deep in the Pockets of Texas”, it is worth the watch and speaks at length to what is driving this phenomenon. Billionaires who believe they have a mandate from God to run the world. Pretty scary stuff.

  5. WN: Thanks Mike, for a great title idea.

    Without doubt, likening the phenomenon to the cries of “Crucify him!” is spot-on, and a profound act of scapegoating. You may know of the work of anthropologist/literary scholar René Girard. If not, and you look up his work (and that of multiple scholars who engage it), you will understand how deeply violent Christian Nationalism is in the U.S.–and here in Canada, though less “out there,” so far!

    I’ll also look at the documentary.

    A couple of interesting titles, one an article, the other a book, came to mind with your title suggestion. Please read on.

    “Onward, Moderate Christian Soldiers,” by John C. Danforth (Op-Ed Contributor John C. Danforth is an Episcopal minister and former Republican senator from Missouri.), June 17, 2005, New York Times

    We read:
    For us, religion should be inclusive, and it should seek to bridge the differences that separate people. We do not exclude from worship those whose opinions differ from ours. Following a Lord who sat at the table with tax collectors and sinners, we welcome to the Lord’s table all who would come. Following a Lord who cited love of God and love of neighbor as encompassing all the commandments, we reject a political agenda that displaces that love. Christians who hold these convictions ought to add their clear voice of moderation to the debate on religion in politics.
    The above sentiment has been overwhelmingly ignored in today’s religious climate. What a grand tragedy!

    A book-length work addressing this, published two years later is:
    “Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity,” by Charles Marsh, 2007.

    Of it we read:
    Over the past several years, Marsh observes, American evangelicals have achieved more political power than at any time in their history. But access and influence have come at a cost to their witness in the world and the integrity of their message. The author offers a sobering contrast between the contemporary evangelical elite, which forms the core of the Republican Party, and the historic Christian tradition of respect for the mystery of God and appreciation for human fallibility.

    The author shows that the most prominent voices in American evangelicalism have arrogantly redefined Christianity on the basis of partisan politics rather than scripture and tradition. The role of politics in distorting the Christian message can be seen most dramatically in the invasion of Iraq, he argues: Some 87% of American evangelicals supported going to war, while every single evangelical church outside the United States opposed it. The Jesus who storms into Baghdad behind the wheel of a Humvee, Marsh points out, is not the Jesus of the Gospel.

    Indeed, not since the Nazification of the German church under Hitler has the political misuse of Christianity led to such catastrophic global consequences.

    Is there an alternative? This book proposes that the renewal of American churches requires a season of concentrated attention to faith’s essential affirmations–a time of hospitality, peacemaking, and contemplative prayer. Offering an authentic Christian alternative to the narcissistic piety of popular evangelicalism, Wayward Christian Soldiers represents a unique entry into the increasingly pivotal debate over the role of faith in American politics.
    WN: Both pieces were prescient enough when first published. Today, even if shouted from the housetops, would anyone in the conservative evangelical camp even hear amidst the sin of din, let alone “listen” (a profoundly spiritual act)?

    Thanks again.


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