Un-Christian Christians

From Matt Hanson writing for The Baffler:

After a set in Tennessee, the story goes, a couple of locals confronted the Texas-born comic [Bill Hicks] and declared that they were Christians and they didn’t like his act. Without missing a beat, Hicks responded with “well then, forgive me.” Instead, they broke his arm.

You might think reacting in such a spirit of vengeance is pretty much the exact opposite of how any self-professed Christian is supposed to behave. Yet there were deeper and more distinctly American pathologies at work: the guys who supposedly beat up Hicks were responding politically, not theologically. It wasn’t an attempt to defend Jesus’ honor or the tenets of whatever church they might have belonged to—it was to show that little punk who was really boss. They probably didn’t even notice the irony; and why would they? They may have grown up in an evangelical culture, but that culture glorifies what we now refer to as toxic masculinity. This “muscular Christianity” encourages both aggression and victimhood, emboldening believers, especially men, to impose their collective will on the rest of the public whenever they suddenly feel empowered or aggrieved.

In Jesus & John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted A Faith and Fractured a Nation, the historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez explores this moral schizophrenia. We know there are legions of people on the religious right who talk a good game about following Christ but end up voting overwhelmingly for venal, crass, blustering wannabe tough guys like the current president and his enablers in Congress. But much of the evangelical leadership is this way, too . . .

The question is often asked . . . why the white evangelical community consistently supports people who don’t practice what the Gospels preach. Du Mez argues, using an extensive amount of research, that white evangelical culture often glorifies the aggressive, patriarchal idea of manhood, which has become intertwined with what it means to be a conservative Christian in the modern age. They conflate a guy like John Wayne with Jesus because their idea of evangelical Christianity rejects the gentle, egalitarian aspects of Jesus’ teachings in favor of all the usual culture war gripes about big government, gun control, immigration, and gay rights. Thus, “a nostalgic commitment to rugged, aggressive, militant white masculinity serves as the thread binding them together into a coherent whole.”

It’s not hard to see that religion has always been one of the most effective ways of enforcing the social order, especially in a relatively young and wide open country like America. It’s more effective to tell the weirdos and the sissies—those pesky un-American types—to get off your lawn when you assume that the creator of the universe is in your corner. In [a country]obsessed with religion and rugged individualism, where holding your own and taking no shit is considered a cardinal virtue, sticking to your guns (metaphorically and literally) is how you define the rules of the game and make sure you win it in the end. Harold Bloom once quoted Spinoza’s comment that one must love God without having any expectation that he loves you back, which he called the most un-American idea ever. . . .

One of the book’s . . . insights is that being evangelical isn’t just about agreeing to a certain set of theological principles—that’s just where the rest of the lifestyle management begins. . . .

You don’t have to go very far in the evangelical world to see how a “God made boys to be aggressive” mentality is more or less taken for granted. Even if physical purity, restraint, and accountability are supposed to be the name of the game, plenty of pastors brag about how hot their wives are, and how the Bible encourages women to submit to their husbands sexually, and if their hubby strays, it’s their fault for not keeping him interested or satisfied. When notorious televangelist Jimmy Swaggart was caught with a hooker for the second time he refused to confess and told his congregation “the Lord told me it’s flat none of your business.”

Such confidence is seductive to a certain kind of white evangelical male. Du Mez points out that for many white men,

to obey God was to obey patriarchal authorities within a rigid chain of command, and God had equipped men to exercise this authority in the home and in society at large. Testosterone made men dangerous, but it also made them heroes. Within their own churches and organizations, evangelicals had elevated and revered men who exhibited the same traits of rugged and even ruthless leadership that President Txxxx now paraded on the national stage.

For anyone who still wonders why the president’s base seems to hold fast no matter what he says or does, we should recall that inflicting the merciless cruelty—to dominate, as he often says—is the point. . . .

Zooming out from the hierarchical model of the nuclear family, we then have divinely inspired conservative government, which now shows its attitudes toward discipline by deploying military might against rebellious citizens. Then, naturally, at the top of the social pyramid is the Lord God almighty, whose ways may be mysterious and capricious (and quite harsh at times) but since he’s the almighty master of the universe, he is the ultimate giver of Law and Order. Best get with the program in this so-called Christian nation. Call it “God’s chain of command” in a trickle-down theocracy.

So today all that wounded pride and self-assumed authority make large swaths of the religious voting public want to vicariously identify with the loudest, crassest, most ignorant and arrogant, and least constrained president in modern history. And if the ravages of Late Capitalism have left you feeling emasculated, since your job isn’t paying what it used to and it’s hard to get a new one, then the thrill of identifying with a very rich playboy who promises to stick it to the people who did you wrong becomes pretty obvious. . . .

If you actually believe, as some Christians do, the Biblical principle that the devil is stalking the earth looking to devour vulnerable souls (1 Peter 5:8) then you’re not going to think twice about lining up to do political battle by way of spiritual battle. The difference between the two is almost nil. And the right wing has always known how to make that kind of paranoia work for them. The idea that money is spiritually corrupting is discarded, because money equates with political power and spiritual endorsement. Survival and success are all that matters, and it doesn’t come from being meek and poor.