A lot of ink has been spilled over the question of why it was white Evangelicals above all who propelled the vulgar and amoral Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016, and why, at 67% according to the Pew Research Center, these Evangelicals remain Trump’s most supportive demographic. Commentators are now expressing similar confusion over white Evangelicals standing by former Alabama State Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, after five women have come forward with accusations that Moore dated and sexually assaulted underage girls when he was in his 20s and 30s. But if the “grab ‘em by the pussy” Access Hollywood tapes were not enough to deter 81% of white Evangelical voters from pulling the lever for Trump, Evangelical leaders’ refusal to denounce Moore should not surprise us.
How can we resolve the confusion in America’s chattering classes? To date, we have mostly seen numerous cycles of hand-wringing think pieces, supplemented with statements and op-eds from supposedly moderate established and up-and-coming Evangelical leaders putting the best spin possible on the movement. And this has resulted in a mainstream media impasse. These cycles do not help Americans understand what to make, for example, of 72% of white Evangelicals, our quintessential values voters, claiming in 2016 that personal morals are not necessary for the ethical carrying out of public duties by elected officials in 2016, when that was only true of 30% of white Evangelicals in 2011. There is a way to break out of this impasse, but it demands a radical shift in mainstream discussions of conservative Evangelicals that is sure to make many elite American commentators and journalists decidedly uncomfortable.
The elephant in the room is that the vast majority of (mostly white) conservative Evangelicals hold to a fundamentalist, authoritarian version of Christianity that is incompatible with pluralism, but for that no less “really” Christian, as “real” Christianity comes in both reactionary and progressive versions. Combined with political power, conservative Evangelicalism threatens democracy and human rights, and to continue to treat conservative Evangelicals as if they are operating in good faith within the acceptable boundaries of American democratic norms will serve only to normalize extremism, allowing Evangelicals to further erode our democracy. And pretending that “real” religion is incapable of being abusive and anti-democratic only serves to deflect from the rot within American Christianity that we as a society need to face.
The appearance of headlines such as “Evangelical Conservatives are Proving their Harshest Critics Right” may indicate that we are reaching a tipping point, but many barriers remain to achieving a sustained substantive shift in mainstream discussions of Evangelicals. Mainstream American culture struggles to view any “real” religion as not essentially benign, and the Evangelical establishment remains in possession of a well-heeled institutional infrastructure, skill in lobbying and PR, a highly mobilized base, and access to often sympathetic prominent journalists such as Emma Green, Molly Worthen, Peter Beinart, and others. As journalist Josiah Hesse recently told me about his reporting on Evangelicals, “It’s a tricky job, attempting to report objectively on evangelicals while being a recovering one myself. I try not to stray into activist territory… Often they’re so reluctant to speak to a reporter, I try not to be too antagonistic.”
It seems to me, however, that Evangelical leaders need the press more than it needs them. Furthermore, contextualization of Evangelicals’ statements and the inclusion of more critical voices in stories will allow for more accurate reporting on Evangelicals’ illiberalism without compromising journalistic standards of objectivity. For example, when noting that Dr. Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has spoken out against his fellow Evangelicals who continue to support Roy Moore, it may be worth reminding readers that Dr. Moore is also a prominent signer of the hateful anti-LGBTQ Nashville Statement who explicitly advocates “a theology of Christian patriarchy.” Or, when President of the National Association of Evangelicals Leith Anderson attempts to deflect any examination of systemic Evangelical Islamophobia by quipping that he’s “never heard of anybody wanting to burn the Qur’an,” a journalist might note that 76% of white Evangelicals approve of President Trump’s illiberal attempts to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
A journalist might also talk to ex-Evangelicals such as myself, who can recall hearing Islam equated with terrorism from Evangelical pulpits. Indeed, as an ex-Evangelical, I find myself frequently wanting to say “I told you so” as Evangelicals’ Trumpist excesses continue apace, and abuse scandal after abuse scandal breaks within Evangelical organizations. Although I did not then use the term ex-Evangelical, I have been publicly calling for the elevation of ex-Evangelical voices as an antidote to the American media’s too rosy picture of Evangelicals since 2015. More recently, as an ex-Evangelical advocate, I launched the #EmptyThePews hashtag campaign as one vehicle through which those who have broken with Evangelicalism over its racism, anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion animus and activism, and/or Trump support, can make their stories available to a broader public. I am encouraged to see some journalists, notably Sarah Posner, Julie Zauzmer, and the aforementioned Hesse already integrating ex-Evangelical perspectives into their reporting. Evangelicalism, with its #ChristianAltFacts, insistence on biblical inerrancy, and theocratic tendencies, is incompatible with healthy democracy and should be relegated from the mainstream of American political discourse to the fringes. While this outcome hinges on a serious shakeup within the Republican Party and conservative movement, the willingness of journalists to tell the truth about Evangelicalism’s authoritarian nature can only help.