‘A spiritual battle for hearts and souls’: white evangelicals grapple with post-Trump America

A Washington, D.C. rally held by pro Trump evangelicals revealed the fascism in their worldview.

Credit: Gilbert Mercier/Flickr

Prominent right-wing Christians organized a prayer rally and an affiliated “Jericho March” in Washington, D.C. last Saturday. The ceremonial act, which also took place in a number of state capitals across the U.S., was meant to echo the Biblical story about the Israelites bringing down the walls of Jericho by circling it while blowing trumpets; in its modern iteration, evangelical Trump supporters walked seven times around various government buildings while praying to “bring down the walls of voter fraud” and undo the presidential election results. Although there is no evidence of widespread election irregularities, and the Trump administration’s frivolous lawsuits have been shut down—most recently by the Supreme Court—the rally-goers and marchers believed they were engaging in an act of spiritual warfare that would “reveal” the election had been stolen and prevent Joe Biden from taking office. Michele Bachmann, former Congresswoman from Minnesota and a notorious evangelical conspiracy theorist, said in a video posted on Facebook that this was “a Hebrews 11 moment,” referring to what Christians sometimes call the Bible’s “Faith Chapter,” which recounts the righteous deeds of Biblical heroes.

Mike Lindell, CEO of My Pillow and a prominent Trump supporter, addressed the D.C. rally, while several other speakers peppered their talks with plugs for his company. The headliner was Mike Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, who was compromised by Russia while in office and whom the president recently pardoned after he was convicted of lying to the FBI. At the rally in Washington, Flynn, who recently called for “limited martial law” to impose a new election, said: “We’re in a spiritual battle for the heart and soul of this country.” And, as might be expected for an event based around the invocation of a trope from what Christians call the Old Testament, the D.C. rally featured shofar blowing and “a prophetic word” from Curt Landry, a so-called “Messianic Jew”—i.e., a Jewish convert to Christianity.

Evangelicals have deservedly received negative press for their efforts to convert Jews; indeed, America’s Christian nationalism goes hand-in-hand with an appropriative Christian Zionism that has profoundly influenced Trump’s foreign policy, not least in his decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Mike Pence invited a Messianic “rabbi” to a 2018 campaign rally to mourn the then recent shooting deaths at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue; this was a stunningly tone-deaf insult not only because Jews don’t recognize Christian “rabbis,” but also because most evangelicals subscribe to the belief that Jews who do not convert to Christianity are damned to hell.

The philo-Semitism of Christian nationalism is never very far from anti-Semitism. This is neatly illustrated by the fact that the emcee of the D.C. rally, evangelical radio host Eric Metaxas, recently released a racist, conspiracy-mongering “parody” music video about alleged election stealing that depicts four Jewish men—Michael Bloomberg, George Soros, Jerry Nadler, and Chuck Schumer—as puppet masters manipulating Biden’s “strings.”

Once a writer for the relatively innocuous evangelical cartoon series “Veggie Tales,” Metaxas has more recently made headlines for writing fascist children’s books like Donald Builds the Wall, and for sucker-punching a protester after a Republican National Convention event. At the opening of Saturday’s rally, he “joked” about someone in the audience taking out a bazooka and shooting down a media helicopter. Metaxas clearly embodies the values and desires of most white evangelicals, but his recent behavior has alienated right-wing Christians invested in respectability. Phil Vischer, the creator of “Veggie Tales,” has rejected Metaxas’s brand of culture warring. And  Rod Dreher, the reactionary editor of The American Conservative and a convert to Orthodox Christianity, referred to Metaxas’s extreme rhetoric in a recent interview with Charlie Kirk—for example, Metaxas said that calls to concede that Biden won the election are “the voice of the Devil”—as “hysterical.”

Since Saturday’s bizarre spectacle in D.C., some of the more prominent “respectable evangelicals” have been trying to distance themselves from both Metaxas and the charismatic excesses of Trump’s most enthusiastic Christian supporters, who are holding out for a “miracle” that will somehow overturn the 2020 presidential election.

For example, Southern Baptist author Beth Moore tweeted that Trumpist Christian nationalism is “not of God.” Similarly, conservative commentator David French called Christian Trumpism “idolatry” and Metaxas’s rhetoric “a form of fanaticism that can lead to deadly violence.” Of the Jericho marchers, he wrote: “They believe that Trump had a special purpose and a special calling, and that this election defeat is nothing less than a manifestation of a Satanic effort to disrupt God’s plan for this nation.” French added that far from “holding their nose” to vote for Trump, his evangelical base was “deeply, spiritually, and personally invested in his political success.”

I am glad that French has called out this dangerous language and dehumanizing rhetoric, which he correctly identifies as a common precursor to physical violence. But when he writes, “A significant movement of American Christians—encouraged by the president himself—is now directly threatening the rule of law, the Constitution, and the peace and unity of the American republic,” I can’t help but focus on that little word “now.” The abusive, authoritarian nature of right-wing Christianity is not new.

How do I know? I could point you to reams of well-sourced writing by myself and others on the topic, but what I want to say here is that my most visceral and primary knowledge comes from the simple fact that I grew up in the trenches of the culture wars that men like David French and Michael Gerson, who also recently criticized Metaxas, helped to build and further. From the time I was five or six years old, I remember the churches my family attended, as well as my Christian school, drilling into our heads at every opportunity that abortion was “murder,” a “literal Holocaust,” and that we needed to do everything we could to stop the “baby-killing” Democrats. I remember being taught through the 1980s and 90s to see our society and current events not just in starkly black and white terms, but as reflections of “spiritual” warfare being fought by the forces of God and the forces of Satan through human agents.

And the God and country Christian nationalism of my childhood was hardly subtle. One of my elementary school’s walls was emblazoned with Psalm 33:12, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,” and our talent shows ended with an audience sing-along of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”

Fascism backed by Christians does not emerge ex nihilo. And in our current case, it did not emerge without significant contributions from men like Gerson and French (and women like Moore), along with other “respectable” evangelicals. And until they are willing to take accountability for that, and to discuss explicitly how they might have to examine their theology and rethink its authoritarian components in order to avoid enabling the worst of Christian nationalism in the future, they should not be heralded as heroic for reaching the low bar of opposing violence based on obviously false conspiracy theories.

Religion journalists and political pundits are still far too favorable toward the idea that there is a meaningful rather than superficial ideological gap between “respectable” evangelicals and the types that showed up at the Jericho March.  Remember the reaction to the December 2019 op-ed by Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today? Titled “Trump Should Be Removed from Office,” it stirred up a storm of reaction and was covered by legacy media platforms as evidence of a schism within Trump’s evangelical base. For journalists, the temptation to see greater diversity of views within the right-wing, mostly white evangelical establishment than is actually present there can be difficult to avoid. Given the extent to which Christian hegemony influences our society, criticizing the beliefs of any large Christian demographic is still largely taboo. But the truth is that white evangelical subculture, in both its “respectable” and its rabidly pro-Trump varieties, is thoroughly authoritarian; the divisions in play here are much less significant than they may seem.

The real story about respectable evangelicals is that they still want to have their cake and eat it too. They reject loudly the never-say-die Trumpist Christianity that Metaxas has embraced, but they have failed to acknowledge their complicity in the current conservative Christian circus—or to examine the authoritarian nature of their own theology. We should not let them get away with such “cheap grace” by applauding them for enabling the worst of Christian nationalism, only to then shrink from the monster of their own creation. Nor should we read into the current divisions between evangelicals the seeds of any forthcoming substantive internal reform, given that authoritarian evangelical subculture is impervious to any such possibility.

Chrissy Stroop

Chrissy Stroop grew up in central Indiana and Colorado Springs, Colorado, attending evangelical schools in both places before going on to earn a B.A. in history and German from Ball State University in 2003 and a Ph.D. in modern Russian history from Stanford University in 2012. She is co-editor, together with Lauren O'Neal, of a collection of personal essays by former conservative Christians called Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church. Follow her on Twitter @c_stroop.

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