A neo-Nazi demonstration and accompanying anti-Nazi counter-demonstration turned bloody and violent recently in Charlottesville. A shocked nation looked to its top-level leaders for courage, justice, and determination–and got only waffling and a bizarre show of support for the neo-Nazis who’d congregated and shed blood there. Justified outrage erupted at our leaders’ cowardice–and toward the religious leaders nationwide who showed similar reluctance to condemn and speak against racism and bloodshed. Recently someone started a Twitter hashtag called #EmptyThePews to encourage Christians to let the horrifying events of this week be their breaking point–and to walk away from their churches to show that they do not stand with their racist leaders. Immediately stories began pouring through that hashtag–stories about deconversion and disengagement, indignation and anger, disappointment and betrayal: vast narratives revealed in 140 characters or less at a time. I’ll show you why this hashtag matters today.
An Emptying That Is Long Overdue.
It seems to me, in hearing years’ worth of ex-Christians’ deconversion stories, that we’ve all got our point of no return, that magic moment when whatever held us in the pews for so long finally totally lost its hold over us. It happens, and suddenly we think, as Kate Schechter did in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul after a lot of fuss trying to help a “muddled” bodybuilder obtain a ticket to the plane she’s also trying to catch, that we are out. We’re done. Whatever emotional investment we had with this religion or this person or this attempt to help a giant blond dude at an airline check-in desk, it’s over, and it will never come back.
“This is where I get off,” she said, and simply walked away. She felt that she had made every effort a human being could possibly be expected to make to catch her plane, but that it was not to be. She would send a message to Jean-Philippe saying that she could not be there, and it would probably sit in a slot next to his message to her saying why he could not be there either. For once they would be equally absent.
That point varies by the person, but we’ve all got one.
Until now, however, our breaking points with Christianity happened quietly and individually. There was no call to arms; there was no large group of people saying at once forget it, I’m outta here, you’ve hit my limit of wackadoodolatry. I’ve made every effort a human being could possibly be expected to make to remain a member of this broken system, but it just isn’t meant to be.
It’s not a surprise to me at all to see that these tweets are mostly aimed at the Religious Right, that unholy coalition of super-politicized fundagelicalism and fanatical Catholicism that has been the vanguard and richest source of that nauseating blend of race-baiting, misogyny, poor-shaming, ignorance-glorification, and bigotry that has at once become the face of Christianity and the reason the religion is failing as hard as it is. The people in that end of the religion are the most visible supporters of Donald Trump and the most common elements of the various white supremacists and sexists who form his core fanbase. Most of the liberal denominations came out strongly against all that mess ages ago–and even a few big-name evangelicals (like some of the SBC’s top brass at the time, to be fair) denounced Trump in no uncertain terms–and were shocked, I really do believe, by their flocks’ indignant pushback of those denunciations. It couldn’t have been easy for them to discover that their followers were only following as long as their leaders led them in the direction they already wanted to go.
That said, evangelicals are the core of Donald Trump’s support, the biggest bloc of his supporters, and thus they are also the core of alt-right, white supremacists’ support and membership.
We told those assholes last year that we knew exactly how Donald Trump, a candidate that any loving Christian would denounce loudly and instantly, got elected. We knew that it was the Religious Right’s support that got him to the White House. And we told them that we would be holding them fully accountable for the damage their candidate did to the country.
They didn’t believe us. They’re very good at forgetting stuff that bothers them, so I guess they thought we would do the same thing.
But we didn’t.
The Christians who still support Donald Trump certainly don’t think that what they’re doing might cost them members and further erode their already-precarious credibility in the public sphere. Indeed, all they’ve done since the election is drill down even harder on their toxic ideologies and conspiracy theories. If anything, events since November have only made them worse: emboldened and validated by no less than a President giving them tacit permission to keep going as they wish, they openly march under swastika signs and shout white supremacist slogans. It’s like they don’t even exist in the same world we do.
I’ve been telling people for years that there is only one language that people in broken systems understand, and that is power. The only way to successfully deal with a broken system is to walk away from it. It cannot be fixed from the inside by anybody but the system’s controllers and architects, and they by definition do not want to lose a single bit of the power they’ve clawed out for themselves. The only way to fix its deep errors and injustices is to dismantle it completely and then build a new system from scratch with the best values in place and protected by procedures with teeth.
None of that is happening within Christianity as a whole, particularly not in the groups that are causing so much trouble.
In the case of the church groups and ideologies that nurtured the neo-Nazis who marched and murdered in Charlottesville, the language those churches’ leaders understand is the benefits that flow to them from a healthy, sizeable group. We speak here of the money, time, and other resources that a healthy membership bestows upon their group’s leadership, given in confidence that those resources will be used efficiently and wisely.
#EmptyThePews speaks that language.
It does so by showing Christian leaders real cases of people who have indeed removed their butts from their onetime pews, and along with those butts their volunteer time and their money.
The leaders of the most toxic groups in America didn’t listen before because they didn’t need to listen. We’ve been telling them for months that something like this was coming if they didn’t clean up their act. But as long as their flocks remained in their pews, they didn’t care. There’s a damned good reason why Donald Trump’s lost so many advisors and staffers over this past month and yet only one evangelical so far from his evangelical advisory board–which itself reads as a Who’s Who of the Most Toxic Christian Leaders in America.
Seriously. Sixty-nine other advisors have left their respective boards as of this writing. Entire boards have quit en masse in protest. Most leave ominous resignation letters that hint at impeachment and resistance. But the evangelicals are still right there, applauding and Jesus smiling as their stooge breaks every bit of china in the shop. That’s their man, bought and paid for, and there doesn’t seem to be any way he can lose their approval. They adore him and call him a gift from their god.1
It gets worse. Some Christian leaders actually do condemn Donald Trump personally–but fear that their flocks are supporters of the man, so they keep their mouths shut lest they drive their remaining adherents right out the door to find pastors who support the correct political figures. They’re right to fear that. Washington Post did a survey just this past April that discovered exactly that truth: Politics made for perfectly understandable bedfellows, not strange ones. Christians who remained in their churches tended to agree with their pastors about Donald Trump, for good or ill. If their pastors voiced very different opinions about the President, then they’d leave to find more agreeable leaders.
Fourteen percent of Christians in the WaPo survey changed churches or left church culture entirely after the election. That’s a downright catastrophic number, considering that the average church congregation is about 75 people (according to a Duke University study). Even in the Southern Baptist Convention, still the biggest denomination of Protestantism, almost half of their church congregations are smaller than 200 people–with almost a quarter being smaller than 100 people.
Imagine the disaster that happens when 14 people out of a 100-person church decide to fly the coop! Considering that #EmptyThePews is mostly aimed at and written by fundagelicals, that may well be the image that best fits reality.
For a while now I’ve predicted that Donald Trump’s successful campaign would alienate Christians from their churches and authority figures, and well, the WaPo research seems to back up that speculation in spades. I’ve also been noting white evangelicals’ love for their Great Orange Hope and everything he stands for: hatred, exclusion, violence, bigotry, hardcore racism, lying, white supremacy, misogyny, classism, victim-blaming, false certainty, blustering belligerence, science denial, and ignorance glorification. If any candidate could be said to represent the real core of evangelicals, it is this one. He carries evangelicals’ torch into the world in a way that absolutely no other candidate ever has–not even Mitt Romney or Dubya. It was white evangelicals who propelled Donald Trump to victory with their unparalleled and fast-growing fount of self-pity, rage, hatred, and fear, and he knows it very well–which is why he so directly, constantly, and shamelessly panders to this group. They own him, and he’s well aware of that fact. If the Rapture happened tomorrow and they all vanished, his future time as President would be measured in days.
But look, it’s not like white evangelicals changed radically over the past 12 months. This is how they’ve always been. They might have gotten more obvious and vocal about that stuff, but it’s literally always been there.
It’s just that those more loving and compassionate evangelicals among them could kinda ignore it and try to concentrate on their own salvation, or however they reconciled themselves to their tribe’s many glaring negative qualities before (that’s the way I managed the trick for as long as I did, but I’ve no doubt there are lots of other ways, including a carefully-instilled terror of Hell).
As WaPo discovered (here’s the link again if you need it), every single religious group except for one opposes Donald Trump’s travel ban, for example. Everyone else hates it and vocally opposes it. But the most important group in the President’s life loves it. That one group, of course, is white evangelicals.
This is the same group that consistently and proudly comes out overwhelmingly in favor of rolling back no-fault divorce, abortion rights, contraception coverage, an end to spanking, and aid to poor families. It’s the same group that thinks that torture is great, too, and that celebrates ignorance, distrusts non-fundagelical educational systems, and denies any scientific consensus that might interfere with their religious grandstanding or continued takeover attempts of American culture and law.
White evangelicals are among the most regressive, oppressive, and suppressive people in the entire Western hemisphere. And yet somehow they are also the most self-pitying people as well. If you ask them, they’re very outspoken about being the very most persecuted people in the whole wide world! (One study over at PRRI discovered that 57% of evangelicals thought that Christians faced a lot of discrimination, while only 44% of evangelicals thought the same of Muslims.2)
There exist only two places where fundagelicals can see a world that matches their fantasies and imaginary persecution. One of those is in their movies, which routinely show worlds that don’t operate at all like the real world operates–but which show instead a world that fundagelicals really really really wish existed.
The other place is Donald Trump’s Twitter account.
The Beginning of the End, Perhaps.
An ex-evangelical named Christopher Stroop started the hashtag itself amid a very long tweetstorm offering moral support and courage to evangelicals who are struggling with their groups’ insistence on supporting terrible people who are doing terrible things to a lot of innocent people. He himself appears to have left evangelicalism a long time ago, but like most of the rest of us, he sees his still-evangelical friends struggling to reconcile their ideology and that idealized form of Christianity they carry around in their heads with the vicious, tribal, brutal, regressive reality that is modern American fundagelicalism.
He expanded on the hashtag creation in his blog post on the topic:
I’m not naive enough to think that I can tweet a mass exodus from conservative Evangelical churches into existence, but I do know that empirical data has linked the rise of the nones to the Christian Right’s culture wars. And the latest data has white Evangelicals’ favorability rating of #SoCalledPresident at 65%. That’s disgustingly high, but it’s down from 78% in April.
Mr. Stroop begins his tweets by asking the question that so many of us asked (and probably still ask): “How can we respond to Evangelicals’ complicity in the
#Charlottesville terrorism when they won’t listen to most criticism?”
Indeed, broken systems protect themselves very effectively from any kind of pushback. They nullify it if they can, invalidate it if they can’t, silence the messengers, and in all cases demonize and vilify the people who are raising that criticism. They have no way whatsoever to deal with truthful criticism. They’ve so successfully redefined simple words like “love” and “tolerance” that they’re turned completely around morally–calling good evil, and evil good.
They glorify ignorance and demonize education. They must, because their beliefs do not hinge in the slightest upon reality, and they’ve shaved themselves totally free of any mechanism for dealing with feedback that runs contrary to their ideology. They’ve turned compromise into a nasty word, created a cottage industry of persecution fantasizing out of the few times the law prevents them from seizing the control they crave, and view change as an evil they must fight with all their might. And in all cases, they’re totally okay with lying, stealing, and breaking any other law imaginable to get their agendas passed through school boards and governments alike, at all levels. Hell, not only are they okay with it, but they are also totally happy to see it happen–and will view any punishment meted out for those misdeeds and crimes as more persecution.
Their support of Donald Trump and assorted white supremacists and criminals is simply the natural outgrowth of the sickness that lies at the heart of their church body. The people they support solemnly promise to hate who they hate, to hurt who they want to hurt, and to give them the control over those hated foes that they’ve ached to regain.
That, friends, is the Taliban’s kissin’ cousin: American Fundagelicalism 2017 in a nutshell (also known as the tealiban or teavangelicals).
There is simply no way to get through to the people who proudly declare their affiliation with these sorts of groups.
They’ve left nothing whatsoever to chance. Their leaders have destroyed their gullible flocks’ trust in every single technique of critical thinking that could possibly help them see what’s happening, and installed in the place of those techniques a whole range of preposterous talking points that function as a substitute for rational thought.
And when Christians had the power to coerce people to go along with their demands, this whole broken system worked great–for them! Any opposition to their overreach was effectively invisible, because nobody had the strength or the organization to protest in large enough numbers to matter.
Christians lost that power somewhere along the way, and their stated response to that loss is not Well, we really shouldn’t have had that kind of power anyway because it made us really hateful, nasty people. We need to go rethink our lives, because dang, Hoss, we sure went bad somewhere.
It is, instead, How can we get that power back and then some, so we can go back to forcing people to do the stuff we think they should be doing? It is also WAAAAH everyone’s bein’ all mean to us!
There is only one way to get their attention, and that is to speak their language.
That’s where #EmptyThePews comes in.
And sure, they might not hear us even then. I’ve no doubt that pastors are gearing up to respond to this hashtag’s popularity in the usual way. (I’m guessing it’ll take the form of yet more OMG cultural Christians are just the WORST amirite.)
We’ll look at their response later. For now, though, perhaps I’ve given you a bit of hope about America’s future. Yes, the overreach is getting out of hand. Yes, the very worst Christians among us appear to derive a lot of encouragement from their president and religious leaders. But there are limits to how far they can go–limits imposed not only by law but by simple resource allocation. Every single Christian who withdraws from their church is another chunk of resources removed. Sooner or later, the house of cards will collapse for simple want of funds and volunteers.
The compassionate, loving, social-justice oriented Christians still clinging to those broken groups are starting to realize that as long as they remain in those pews, they are contributing in no small way to the evils their leaders and peers wish to perpetrate. Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas. You are known by the company you keep.
Next up, we’ll be talking about why Christians’ supernatural claims about miracles and divine communication simply don’t hold water–and why those claims actually say something terrible about their religion that they don’t realize they’re telling us.
So we’ll see ya next time!
1 Hey, they might be right. I’ve speculated for a long time that somehow along the way Christians began worshiping the wrong god by accident. IT FITS THE DATA. We just need to figure out what god is that evil.
2 A lot of places ran with headlines like “Christians think they’re more persecuted than Muslims are,” but this time I must side with The Christian Post–that’d be a misinterpretation of the question, which IMO was worded a little strangely. Basically, white evangelicals were asked if Christians faced a lot of discrimination, and they were also asked if Muslims did. 57% of white evangelicals thought that Christians faced a lot of discrimination. And 44% of those same white evangelicals thought Muslims did. They weren’t asked if they faced more discrimination than Muslims. They were more likely to say that their own religious peers faced discrimination than that Muslims did, that’s all.