Evangelical Christians have captured the nation’s attention in recent years, and the first point to make is that they are a diverse group politically. Evangelicals of color for the most part vote Democratic. White evangelicals make up the base of the Republican Party, and the evidence mounts daily that this group poses an existential threat to the continued existence of multi-racial, democratic government in America. Because of the profound significance of this threat, it is important to understand why. What is driving this MAGA movement of white evangelical Christians? The answer as you will see is ideology and not religion.
David French provides us with an important clue in his essay “Evangelicals Decenter Jesus.” (The Third Rail, September 23, 2022) French cites four core beliefs held by evangelicals who are concerned with theological issues. The second core belief is the scary one in which evangelicals see as their Christian duty the need to encourage nonbelievers to come to Jesus Christ as their savior.
The MAGA movement has adopted this missionary stance and undertaken a concerted effort to impose their values on the larger society. You see this demonstrated on issues like abortion, gay marriage, book banning in local school districts, efforts to sanitize the teaching of American history in those same schools, and the goal of many, in violation of the first amendment to the Constitution, to declare the country to be a white Christian nation. Because they represent a minority of American citizens, they are pursuing extralegal strategies, like disenfranchising voters who disagree with them, to achieve their goals. Following the 2020 election, 33 laws have been passed in 19 states to do just that.
To fully understand the why behind this movement, it is necessary to introduce one additional characteristic of their religion. Many believe they are saved by correct belief. In order to be accepted into heaven, one must believe the Bible is the literal word of God, that Jesus died to erase the stain of original sin, and that salvation in heaven is only possible through faith in Jesus Christ. These core beliefs serve as a litmus test for true believers.
When you combine these two factors, correct belief and missionary zeal, the answer to why becomes clear. These two factors add up to an ideology, a term most often applied to a system of ideas that form the basis for economic or political theories. The religion of most white evangelical Christians has become an ideology.
Ideologies can provide meaning and purpose for the members of the movement, but they are not transforming. They are mind games with no connection to a loving heart. The focus is on ego-centric goals which work to separate the members from a loving God. They may talk a good game, of course God is all about love they say, but their actions speak louder than words—immigration policy, bigotry toward homosexuals and transgender citizens, “dog whistle” campaigns focusing on bogus claims of critical race theory, use of conspiracy theories to demean opponents, supporting violence in an attempt to overturn the 2020 Presidential election, and the list goes on. Such actions are an expression of hate rather than the love that comes from God.
Some may object to labeling a branch of the Christian faith as an ideology. If you happen to be in that camp, please explain why a large majority of the Republican base, largely made up of evangelical Christians, continues to support former President Trump, a man who plotted an insurrection against the government and has demonstrated a total lack of common decency in conducting the affairs of state while in office. This same base will most likely come out in large numbers to support Herschel Walker for the Senate in Georgia next month. It’s all about winning political power. Religion and politics have become one. It’s called Christian nationalism, an ideology that is pro- capitalism, pro-American exceptionalism, pro-gun, misogynistic, anti-gay, and anti-abortion. None of the above values has anything to do with God’s love or the teachings of Jesus.
The problem is that religion as political ideology misses the point. The truth about religion comes from an encounter with a loving presence. From this experience, you sense you are one with the universe, that life is good and beautiful, that love is built into the structure of the universe. It’s a love that wants to reach out to others in need or who are different.
But if we are honest with ourselves there is another problem involved here. There is a reason many evangelicals miss the point about religion. God doesn’t make it easy to encounter this loving presence. A psychological perspective centered around self, blocks it. Humans must move beyond a self-centered perspective to encounter divine love.
The trouble is we are born with a self-centered perspective. Our brains are hard wired with our need for survival. It’s a part of human nature. A religion focused primarily on personal salvation doesn’t help because it’s all about me. Life in a society organized around economic consumption is also all about me. Spending so much time in an artificially created world keeps us away from the beauty of the natural world where God is so often met.
The best way I know to encounter the loving presence of God is to live the teachings of Jesus. To move beyond self by reaching out to others brings God into your life. It’s about putting yourself in another person’s shoes, about embracing his or her point of view. By opening ourselves to others, we enlarge our hearts the Buddha taught.
To create a loving community where members are motivated to love their neighbor can also bring God into your life. In the spirit of Confucius, you begin with a small community and move outward from there to the larger society. The goal is to extend God’s love to more and more neighbors. And then there are those blessed moments of surprise when the ego is quieted which creates space for divine love to enter.
The practice of meditation can also help. I began many years ago hoping that meditation would help me connect to God, but that never happened. Instead, meditation has helped me gain control over my mind which has made it easier to move beyond ego. Coming to understand your fears and grievances through meditation helps you move beyond them. You also learn to distinguish between ego driven thoughts and thoughts that reflect the better angels of your nature.
The time has come to recognize an inconvenient truth. Christianity for many has become a political ideology with no connection to the love and goodness that comes from God. The best way to fix this problem is to change the focus of our religion away from personal salvation to living the teachings of Jesus. It would also help if church services were centered around coming to know God rather than on affirming religious belief. Reciting creeds, singing about a God in heaven, praying for the President, hearing about a Jesus who died for my sins doesn’t do much for me. It’s no wonder that church attendance where the focus is on such beliefs is on the decline. In making such a change, we will not only bring God into our lives but we will also be joining with God to make the world a better place. That’s an exciting prospect.
Dr. Rick Herrick (PhD, Tulane University), a former tenured university professor and magazine editor, is the author of six published novels and two works of nonfiction. His three latest books are: A Christian Foreign Policy, A Man Called Jesus, Jeff’s Journey and A Second Chance. His musical play, Lighthouse Point, was performed as a fundraiser for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Herrick is currently retired, living in Bluffton, SC. He is married with three children and seven grandchildren. You can find him at https://rickherrickauthor.com.