In an era of “fake news,” “fake science,” and even “fake law,” I suppose it was inevitable the term “fake Christians” would pop up. On Twitter, it’s most commonly used as a means of criticizing Trump voters. As such, it’s of a piece with commentary from the 2016 election cycle asserting, for example, that Evangelicals are “political” as opposed to “really religious” (as if these things were entirely distinct or there were any such thing as apolitical religion). Even scholars such as the widely (and rightly) respected Randall Balmer, who should know better, have argued that, in terms of their voting, “Evangelicals are secular now,” a claim that is frankly absurd. If this is the kind of thing that gets you riled up, then you’ve surely observed the hashtag #FakeChristians and the acronym CINO (“Christian in name only”) on Twitter, but in case you haven’t, here are some examples of relevant tweets:
There are a lot of Christians out there who don’t want support for #IllegitimatePresident Donald Trump to define their faith. I understand them. I’m as outraged and disgusted as anyone that the white Evangelicals I come from are the demographic most singularly responsible for bringing us this nightmare presidency, and that they remain Trump’s most supportive demographic. Conservative Christianity in the U.S. is undoubtedly authoritarian through and through, and those of us who escaped from it have been sounding the alarm on this for some time. Does that mean, however, that we can dismiss as “fake” those Christians who understood voting for our incompetent, volatile, pussy-grabbing narcissist-in-chief precisely as a religious imperative? Spoiler alert: No. There are no solid intellectual grounds for equating Trump support with “fake” as opposed to “real” Christianity. Politically, such an approach may be cathartic. It may even be of some immediate tactical value in some engagements. But as the claim underlying this approach is patently false, I believe we will be better off in the long run without using it.
Before I get to the why, consider a few pro-Trump Christian tweets:
Who Died and Made You Chief Theologian of the Universe?
A modest proposition: while defining Trumpist Christians as “fake Christians” might feel good to the people who understand Trump support as a violation of their Christian values, this categorization is inaccurate from any empirical perspective. In other words, what represents “true” or “pure” Christianity (or Islam or Judaism, etc.) can only be debated within the discourse of the religion in question, that discourse being inevitably multivalent, tension-ridden, and subject to reinterpretation and internal contestation. Arguing over interpretation is part and parcel of text-based monotheisms. Put more simply, theologians and believers get to debate what the “pure” form of a given religion is; no one else does. However, there are no universally accepted grounds they can appeal to on which their contradictory metaphysical claims can be adjudicated, which means that, empirically, there is no such thing as a singular, timeless “pure” form of any religion. “Not so fast,” I hear an imaginary reader objecting, “Why can’t we make the argument from the religious texts they use and what we know of their founding figures?”
At the risk of appearing pedantically socratic, my first impulse is to answer that question with this one: “Have you ever read a text-based religion’s entire canon?” Even conceding for the sake of argument that we can leave aside centuries of theology and tradition for a sola scriptura approach, if you can e.g. read the entire Bible and come up with an objectively, empirically demonstrable, singular and entirely coherent “pure” interpretation of Christianity that is accessible and convincing to all, well… #SorryNotSorry but if you are able to continue thinking you have done this after putting your interpretation out into the world, you will have up and moved to #AltFactistan, because this is 100% not how religion works in the real world in which people live, read scripture, and practice their faith.
Think about it for a minute. If the question of what constitutes the “real” essence of a given religion were really so simple, why would history have given rise to a never-ending proliferation of groups with competing theological claims, all revering the same founders and professing allegiance to the same confession? When it comes to theological hairsplitting, if you want to spend your days parsing how many demons can dance on the bridge of Kellyanne Conway’s nose, be my guest, but don’t expect your answer to ever become universally definitive, even if you could somehow get a church council to ratify it.
I predict you’ll have precisely as much success trying to demonstrate definitively exactly where “religion” ends and “ideology” begins, something that e.g. Julie Goldberg simply assumes is self-evident, as so many others have done, in a recent piece for The Establishment. “Christianists,” as she argues, certainly do want to take dominion over America. I was raised and socialized to participate in their program of “taking back America for Christ,” and I’m always ready to emphasize the seriousness of the theocratic threat we face from conservative American Christians. But given that these conservative Christians understand their drive to take dominion as a theological imperative, why should we understand their religious worldview and goals as only “ideology,” at the expense of “real” religion? Goldberg does not tell us. For her, as for so many other commentators, the evident answer is that “ideology” is religion they don’t like, and “religion” is religion they do. This is intellectually sloppy:
In pointing out that this is an intellectually sloppy approach, I do not mean to impugn Goldberg’s intellect, or Balmer’s, or that of any of the numerous other commentators who argue from the same ungrounded set of presuppositions: that “real” and “political” religion (or “religion” and “ideology”) are distinct; that “real” religion is benign. The temptation to believe these things is powerful. Many of us want religion to be inherently good, and it can make for feel-good politics to reject fundamentalism as “fake” religion. But it is not. Religion is not anymore inherently good than it is inherently bad.
As a survivor of oppressive Christianity, I feel erased by claims that the Christianity I grew up with was not “real.” Let me tell you, I experienced myself as intensely religious well into my 20s, and I do not appreciate it when the Balmers and Goldbergs of the world tell me I was not “really religious” after all. Also as a result of my religious PTSD, I am naturally inclined to the position that organized religion, on the upshot, does more harm than good. I admit this may be my confirmation bias, and this claim would be very difficult if not impossible to demonstrate for the whole course of human history (although it is worth noting that the Abrahamic faiths have served as powerful vehicles for the propagation of patriarchy). The more salient point to my argument here is that harmful practices carried out in a religious context, as religious imperatives, do not stop being “really religious” just because they are harmful. This belief is nothing but wishful thinking and/or political expediency, even if many intelligent people cling to it, having failed to check their own confirmation bias on this point.
From an empirical, outside perspective–one informed by such fields as history, anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, etc.–we must accept that there are a wide variety of Christian communities with competing theological claims. And since we have no universal grounds to appeal to on which to adjudicate these claims, we must accept these varied groups as Christian, as representing varieties of Christianity. We must treat religions as multivalent “cultural systems,” to use the classic terminology of anthropologist Clifford Geertz.
“But wait,” you will object again, “Are you saying Christianity is anything anyone says it is?” No, I am not. If I tell you that true Christianity preaches that every believer must stand on one foot for five minutes every weekday starting at precisely 3:27 p.m., except on Tuesdays, which are to be set aside for pouring out drink offerings of Unicorn Frappuccinos, you may reject my claim as “fake Christianity,” because this claim has absolutely no relationship to Christian scripture or any Christian community’s tradition or practice, either historical or contemporary. It is precisely the complex of such practices, traditions, and approaches to scripture that make up the cultural system of a text-based monotheism.
So What about the Bible?
But let’s juxtapose my #FakeChristian assertion that Christians must stand on one foot with the Christian case that good believers were morally required to vote for Trump. The crucial difference is that the latter case was formulated within a community, or more precisely a multiplicity of overlapping conservative U.S. Christian communities, that exhibit clearly defined religious practices and beliefs, the justifications for which illustrate that these communities have a clear relationship to the Bible. And what about the Bible, by the way? As a collection of books written over millennia, it does not hold together so neatly and tidily as many believe. Despite frequent protestations to the contrary, the Bible is often unclear and tension-ridden; there is in fact no such thing as a consistent literalist interpretation, or any consistent interpretation without some picking and choosing. So while you may try to make a case for better and worse interpretations from a variety of perspectives (from hermeneutic to moral to historical), the Bible is not going to be the “trump” card you want for your claims of #FAKECHRISTIANITY. Things are not so simple.
Consider the white Evangelicals. 81% of them who voted in the 2016 presidential election voted for Donald Trump, and today they remain his staunchest supporters. “Ah,” you will say, “But surely these are not the churchgoing Evangelicals.” To quote #NotMyPresident, “WRONG!” The latest Pew data have revealed that it is precisely the most frequently churchgoing white Evangelicals who are currently most supportive of #SoCalledPresident, so you can give up what was literally a #FakeNews narrative concocted by a mainstream media that simply refuses to face the extent of white Evangelical illiberalism. The Evangelicals who voted for Trump are the kind who in many cases send their children to Christian schools or homeschool them, who memorize Bible verses, and who practice daily “quiet time,” that is, a period they spend praying and reading a devotional gloss on scripture or the Bible itself. We must face facts: this group is a Christian community.
When these Christians read the Bible, what do they get out of it? For starters, they appeal to the narrative of the fall and the doctrine of original sin to support an extremely dark view of human nature, the kind of paranoid view that imagines any number of “inherently lustful” men might put on dresses and claim to be transgender in order to spy on women in bathrooms, even though there is zero evidence that this ever occurs (while the medical community’s consensus on the validity of transgenderism is unequivocal). This extremely dark view of human nature leads to a sense that fallible human beings must be subjected to strict discipline or moral and social chaos will result, which in turn serves as “justification” for these Christians’ willingness to use coercive law in order to enforce on all moral norms that are not shared by all and that have no secular justification. (This aspect of conservative Christian ideology is unpacked at length in my “The Russian Origins of the So-Called Post-Secular Moment: Some Preliminary Observations.”) This reading of the Bible leads to a sense that only Christians can be expected to behave morally at all, and comes with a concomitant rejection of pluralism (on which see this Twitter thread).
Do you think there’s nothing in the Bible that can be used to support such conclusions? If not, uh, have you read it? But, as the great American sage LeVar Burton was once wont to say, “You don’t have to take my word for it.” I give you Romans 1:18-28 (NIV):
18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
24Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
26Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
28Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
These conservative Christians, with their dark view of human nature, also find in scripture typologies through which to understand the world in terms of Providence and apocalyptic prophecy. This leads to what I call a “politics of Providentialism,” which entails reading the will of God into history and current events. Often it involves “recognizing” divine “blessings” and “punishments,” which believers of this sort insist can be applied not only to individuals, but also collectively to nations. One of the walls in my Christian elementary school was emblazoned with the phrase, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD,” the first part of Psalm 33:12.
While the psalmist was referring to the covenant between God and ancient Israel, many contemporary American Christians believe the same type of relationship to exist between God and the United States of America. Thus they argue that if the U.S. “sins” by, say, removing officially sanctioned prayer from public schools, legalizing abortion, and/or legalizing same-sex marriage or passing transgender non-discrimination protections, God may punish the nation with some sort of catastrophe, or at least allow catastrophe to befall the nation by removing the “hedge of protection” with which God supposedly surrounds us when our nation is “obedient” to him (this version of God is always a him).
“But,” you will object, “How can such people claim to follow Christ and at the same time seek to deprive fellow Americans of healthcare and social support?”Many such conservative Christians would argue this is not what they are doing. Believing, as they do, in the inherent and indeed extreme corruption of human nature, and having a deep suspicion that such corruption will be expressed in a high degree in the secular state, which we can make into an idol if we’re not careful, they will argue that individual Christians and churches, and not the government, should provide for the needy. (Yes, this is utopian.) Some go further, either taking the road of the prosperity Gospel, in which health and material success are signs of God’s favor, or arguing, through an extreme interpretation of the Calvinist concepts of “total depravity” and “limited atonement,” that Christians are only to take care of other Christians. I don’t find any of this to be in the spirit of the Gospel as I read it, but nevertheless it is “real” Christianity.
So why Trump? Abortion is key. While many conservative white Christian Trump supporters are uncomfortable with some of Trump’s mannerisms and behaviors, they saw in him a man who would protect them and pursue their agenda, and he is following through. Indeed, #IllegitimatePresident is expected to sign an executive order on “religious freedom” tomorrow, and this EO will most likely allow for widespread discrimination against marginalized populations on the grounds of “sincerely held religious belief.” You may think that sounds contrary to Jesus as you understand him, but I hope that in what I’ve laid out above I’ve shown how such a thing can be “justified” from within authentically Christian discourse. What Goldberg calls “Christianism,” and some others call “Christofascism,” is a way of being Christian, although it is of course far and away not the only way. Nevertheless, I believe it is inevitable that such fundamentalisms will arise within the complex cultural systems that religions represent. Fundamentalism cannot be stamped out, and it is no use treating it as “not really religious.”
I could adduce many more examples of illiberal ways of reading the Bible in a devout community of regular Christian practice. I could also spend some time focusing on how to read Jesus in an illiberal way, something that many of the Twitter critics of so-called “#FakeChristianity” seem to get hung up on. Jesus, even as represented in the four canonical gospels apart from any other sources, is more complicated than those in the “religion is benign because religion is benign” school make him out to be. I may write a later post on the illiberal Jesus. But this post is long enough as it is, and, besides, at this point I have to get ready for this afternoon’s five minutes of standing on one foot, may it be pleasing to God.