William B. Turner
In the history of the United States, we have excelled at proliferating flavors of Christianity. One of the first major groups of Europeans to settle in British North America, the Puritans, came here primarily because of their religious beliefs. They refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Church of England and thus suffered various forms of persecution in England. So they escaped to America.
The idea that they came here for “religious freedom” in any modern sense is false. They were quite certain that they were right and anyone who disagreed with them was wrong, so once they were in charge, they were quite happy to persecute and prosecute anyone who expressed any dissent in their colonies. In 1659, Puritans in Boston hanged Quakers (as in, by the neck until dead) for proselytizing in the colony. Quakers are pacifists.
It is a peculiar feature of the culture of the United States that the vast majority of the general population seems deeply unwilling to look too closely at the history of Christianity in “the Americas,” preferring to rely on their own idealized interpretation of the bible to decide who is and who is not a Christian, and dismissing as a “bad Christian” anyone who fails to live up to their personal ideal.
We have seen this incessantly since Donald Trump became president with lots of votes from Christians. People who do not want to admit that any Christian could support Trump like to refer to those who did so as “evangelicals.” This is a verbal sleight of hand that allows people to persuade themselves that any man who has notoriously cheated on all three of his wives and won the presidency only by willfully ignoring every rule of common decency in our political culture could not possibly be a proper Christian, even though several prominent Christians have testified to the faith of the so called president.
This is a fantasy. Ever looked much at the history of the Catholic Church? It was the single most powerful institution in Europe for several hundred years and during that time, deeply involved in all manner of political intrigue. Ever looked much at the history of Christianity in “the Americas,” a name two continents only bear because of Christian “discovery”? The first thought Columbus had after he stepped off the boat in what is now the Caribbean was that the locals would make fine slaves. In the centuries after he arrived, uninvited and unwelcome, he and other Christian invaders raped, pillaged, and murdered Natives, eventually stealing two entire continents from them entirely. It is not a pretty picture.
Trump is not a bad Christian. He’s the best Christian ever. He is the logical culmination of Christian culture. He is Columbus resurrected in the twenty-first century. Christianity has always been primarily a highly useful tool for persuading large numbers of people to acquiesce in their own oppression and allow the people – mostly men – at the top of the hierarchy to exploit everyone else at will, and so it has consistently served in “the Americas.” What matters is not Trump’s beliefs or his religious practice, but the fact that he embodies the culture of Christianity as it has dominated throughout most of the history of the United States.
Call Trump’s Christian supporters “evangelical” all you like, they are quite certain that they are the best Christians in the modern United States. What defines them as “evangelicals” is precisely that they make their Christian belief a more prominent, determining aspect of their lives than most people. Their Christianity is more consistent with Christianity as most people in the history of the United States practiced it in the past than most anyone else’s. They are bastard neo Puritans who are also quite certain that anyone who isn’t Christian the way they’re Christian is not a good Christian. They’re thrilled to bits with Trump because they think he’s going to help them take their country back, and they’re not wrong in their historical assessment of what the country’s history looks like and their role in it.
Christians are mad because they used to be able to assume that the president and nearly all national political leaders shared their prejudices. Then Lyndon Johnson lent his incomparable political skills to the project of passing laws for the purpose of ensuring some minimal respect for the rights of African Americans, including the right to vote. This was a major departure in the history of Christian America. No one had ever done that before, and the Christians did not like it one bit. Since that time, it has been unseemly to express in public one’s wish to return to legal discrimination against African Americans. Richard Nixon taught Republicans how to say it in code, so they could pursue discriminatory policies without saying so out loud. George Wallace ran for president in 1968, too, calling explicitly for a return to segregation. Nixon’s famous “Southern strategy” was really a border South strategy because he realized that he would have to be explicitly racist to compete with Wallace in the deep South, and that would cost more moderate votes than it was worth, so Nixon let Wallace win Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, but still won the presidency comfortably.
It is an indication of how thoroughly the racist message had imbued the Republican Party that, when Trump inverted Nixon’s approach by going full racist, the Party nominated him, and, in combination with their cheating techniques, won the presidency in the electoral college, although not in the popular vote. Note also that the Republican is officially the Party of Christianity. Several of its candidates either claimed that god told them to run for president, or made their Christian faith a prominent part of their campaigns.
Christianity and racism are in no way incompatible or inconsistent.
Plainly there are lots of good leftist/liberal/progressive Christians in the United States who are ever eager to insist that “real” Christians would never support Trump or any other racist. History is not kind to this belief. In terms of the history of the United States, the “evangelicals” are not wrong. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act really were major policy departures in much the same way as the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments immediately after the Civil War were major policy departures in eliminating legal slavery and trying to establish a minimum of equality for the freed slaves and their descendants.
The United States is not an officially Christian nation. The Founders were well aware that Christians were only too happy to kill each other in large numbers over what flavor of Christian to be, so they decided to prohibit official religion and religious tests for public office in their new nation. Empirically, however, the United States has always been emphatically a Christian nation, with Protestant Christians being almost exclusively in charge from the founding up to the present. The profound racism of most public policy in the United States, with major breaks in the 1860s and 1960s, were indisputably reflections of Christian belief and preferences. What has varied is how explicit and how vicious has been the racism. Trump just won office by being more explicit and more vicious than any national political leader in two generations.
Anyone who wants to rescue Christianity from the clutches of overtly racist “evangelicals” must explain how. Resort to the bible is no use. “Evangelicals” know their bibles. Hurl bible verses at them and they will hurl bible verses right back. Your version of Jesus is no use. Jesus is an entirely mythical figure whom anyone can make into whoever s/he wants. White people in the United States notoriously have a highly idealized version of white Jesus they worship.
Christianity is arguably the oldest institution in western culture. It is inherently conservative, quite apart from its utility to racists in the United States. Deriving a liberal/progressive political platform from Christianity is not going to happen.
If you really are a Christian, if you really believe, then that will inform your politics. That is inevitable. Fashion a liberal/progressive friendly version of Christianity if you wish. To each her/his own Christianity. Of course, that approach renders Christianity completely meaningless, but it is anyway. No matter the major issue in the history of the United States, one can find persons on either side who claim to be good Christians and espouse the correct Christian position.
But if one looks at any major issue facing the republic right now, the fastest, easiest way to advance in a progressive/liberal direction would be to eradicate all of the persons who explicitly rest their politics and policy positions on Christian belief. Of course, we cannot do that. A cornerstone of western liberalism as our Constitution embodies it is respect for the right of individuals to choose their religious beliefs and practices.
But the underlying point remains that Christian belief and practice has never been and never will be a useful source of ideas for liberal/progressive political goals. We need a new moral theory. We need to break politics in the United States away from Christianity.