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Bringing Back

 
Can America survive as a multiracial democracy? That is a question being increasingly asked by many Americans following the January 6th insurrection against the national Capitol. A large part of the problem are white evangelical Christians. Over eighty percent of them voted for President Trump in the 2020 Presidential election, the man who called for the insurrection as part of a concerted effort to overturn the result of an election he clearly lost. At minimum these evangelicals represent a significant part of the Trump base. A small minority of them participated in the violent January 6th insurrection at the Capitol.

To attain some statistical understanding of the problem, the American Enterprise Institute undertook a recent survey of white evangelical Christians. (1) The survey found that more than a quarter of them believe the QAnon conspiracy theory that Trump is leading the battle against a cabal of pedophile Democrats. Sixty-two percent of white evangelicals believe there was widespread voter fraud in the recent election, and sixty-three percent see Biden’s victory as illegitimate. Forty-one percent believe the violent insurrection on January 6th was an appropriate action taken to remedy the problem.

These are scary political attitudes, and an important question arises as to why they exist, what brought them on. Here is my explanation in brief. Over the last fifty years the world of white evangelical Christians has been shattered. They have created an identity around the myth of America being a white Christian nation. Immigration and demographic trends have worked together to destroy this myth. In twenty years the white race will lose its majority status, a fact that terrifies many of these Christians. In addition, science and modern biblical scholarship have created serious doubt with regard to a central tenet of their religious faith that the Bible contains the word of God, that Christian scripture is inerrant.

Globalization and the digital economy have had a devastating effect on the rural economies where many white evangelicals reside. Many of them are earning less today than they did twenty-five years ago. Unemployment rates in rural America are at record levels. As a result, they feel they have been victimized by the modern economy. They also bitterly resent what they perceive as a federal government bias to help African Americans at their expense.

Who is responsible for this existential threat to their way of life? The answer is clear: elites of every stripe—Democratic politicians, business leaders, academics, the news media, Hollywood, the mythical deep state to name several of them. This has resulted in a deep hatred for these elites. Modern brain research tells us that humans do not look at reality objectively. None of us do. There are too many variables in our awareness environment for the brain to evaluate information objectively. Instead the brain selects out of the environment in terms of human preference. We all literally believe what we want the reality out there to be. Conspiracy theories help to explain a chaotic world. They tell a story many people desperately want to believe.

Can the sting be taken from these toxic, irrational beliefs? Can evangelicals be brought back into the democratic fold?  I believe many can. To begin with, evangelical political beliefs are not monolithic. A recent article was published in the Religion News Service about Bluefield West Virginia, a town of 10,000 residents where there are three evangelical churches. (2) Almost everyone in the town is evangelical, and the town overwhelmingly voted for President Trump in the recent election.

The January 6th insurrection was a watershed event, however. One church expressed solid support for the insurrectionists. The pastor participated in the riot, although he did not enter the Capitol grounds. A second church strongly opposed the insurrection. Christians do not commit acts of violence the members of this church firmly believe. This is what happens when Christians become too involved in partisan politics. The members of the third church were more neutral. The general response of members was apolitical. The common plea was for Christian unity and less political bickering.

Over the last two months there have been many opinion pieces published on the Religion News Service website echoing the opinions of the last two churches. (3) These evangelical leaders take on Christian nationalism, the ideological stance that wraps Christianity around the American flag. A summary of the arguments of these leaders goes along these lines. We are a nation of many faiths. Christian nationalism, especially when it takes on a violent form, is dangerous to democracy and against the teachings of Jesus. The point of our faith is to worship the one God and his only son, not a political leader who has created a dangerous personality cult. Christian nationalism cheapens the gospel and creates a political environment of us versus them. Hate can never unite us as Christians. The church needs to be united around humility, gentleness, patience, and love.

In an important recent development along these lines, the Religion News Service reported that Beth Moore is leaving the Southern Baptist Convention. (4) Ms. Moore is a beloved mentor and Bible teacher to millions of evangelical Christian women. She has long criticized Trump for his abusive behavior toward women, but she is leaving the SBC because of her belief that Christian nationalism and partisan Republican politics have nothing to do with the gospel. Several evangelical leaders believe she will take millions of evangelical women with her.

As the above evidence suggests, January 6th was a defining moment for many evangelical Christians. It dramatically illustrated that there must be a better way. While there is hope that many white evangelicals will come back to the democratic fold on their own, there is one looming crisis that we as a nation must solve to allow this to happen. We must solve their economic problems.

Take West Virginia as an example. The coal industry is dying and will probably not survive the next ten years. Thousands of miners have already lost their jobs through no fault of their own and many more job losses will soon follow. These miners have not only lost jobs but a way of life. We as a society must help them transition to a new, hopeful future. If we want them to support the democratic system, the system must be seen as working for them.

The same considerations relate to victims of globalization and the digital economy. These victims must also come to see that the system can work for them. The disrupting forces that are fundamentally changing the way our economy works are not going to be slowed let alone stopped. The result is that we will survive as a multiracial democracy only if we have the wisdom to make the new economy inclusive, an economy where every citizen has the opportunity to succeed, where the political system works for all of our citizens.

Notes
 
1. “Survey: More than a Quarter of White Evangelicals Believe Core QAnon Conspiracy Theory,” by Jack Jenkins
 
2. “Election Turmoil Splits West Virginia City’s Evangelicals,” by Luis Andres Henao and Jessie Warlasski

3. I came across more than fifteen of these opinion pieces over the last two months, too many to list individually. Readers interested in sampling them should consult the politics section of the Religion News Service.

4. “Bible Teacher Beth Moore, Splitting with Lifeway, says I am no Longer a Southern Baptist,” by Bob Smietana.

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Dr. Rick Herrick (PhD, Tulane University), a former tenured university professor and magazine editor, is the author of four published novels and two works of nonfiction. His most recent book, A Christian Foreign Policy, presents a new way of looking at the relationship between religion and politics.

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