White evangelicalism yesterday performed the purpose for which it was designed: It elected a white nationalist as president.
This was not a failure, but a success. This was not a side effect or an accident or a collateral consequence. This was not the end of white evangelicalism, but the culmination of its purpose, its origin, its intent. White evangelicalism is white nationalism. This is what it is, and always has been, for.
This is evident when you consider the two primary doctrines, the two paramount identifiers of white evangelicalism. One of these was adopted and embellished, the other was concocted from scratch, but both became white evangelical litmus tests in service of white nationalism.
These are, first, “biblical innerancy” — the idea of the Bible as a collection of selective clobber-texts which can be cited as ultimate authority, and, second, opposition to legal abortion because of the claim that human personhood begins at conception. (Or, really, based on growing white evangelical opposition to contraception, the claim that human personhood begins at ejaculation.)
These are the two non-negotiables of evangelical identity. On almost everything else, white evangelicalism can admit a wide array of difference. One can be charismatic or anti-charismatic, Reformed or Arminian, etc. There have been prominent white evangelicals who were annihilationists, and universalists, and monists, subordinationists and super-supercessionists. White evangelicalism can accommodate any of that, but it cannot accommodate anyone who strays from the twin pillars of clobber-text inerrancy and anti-abortionism.
There’s no wiggle room on those two things. Those are defining boundaries and fiercely enforced aspects of identity. And both were adopted by white evangelicals in service of the larger agenda of white nationalism.
The weaponizing of “inerrant” biblical clobber-texts as the ultimate authority is the older of the two, but it’s still a relatively recent development. It had to be — this approach to the Bible, this use of the Bible, simply was not possible for English-speaking Christians until the 17th century, when English translations of the Bible were finally able to be mass-produced. But the invention of this idea also required a second ingredient — a massive, howling injustice in need of rationalization.
Those things arrived at nearly the same time with the publication of the King James Bible and the beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Slavery was a morally indefensible horror, an atrocity that was utterly incompatible with the spirit of Christianity — so that spirit had to be exchanged for the letter. This is when and how literalist inerrancy was invented. It was a tool to allow selected clobber texts to be cited as “biblical authority” that trumped that of the Golden Rule.
Historian Mark Noll’s The Civil War as Theological Crisis offers a fine summary of all this. Noll describes this as a “debate” over “the Bible and slavery,” but it’s really an account of the invention of the literalist clobber-texting (anti-)hermeneutic and of what would later come to be called “inerrancy” and a “high view of the authority of the scriptures.”
The purpose of that invention, from the start — and the invention, too, of white evangelicalism as a whole — was the defense of slavery. This was not simply a “biblical” defense of immorality and injustice, it was also a form of self-deception — a device that allowed white evangelicals to defend the indefensible while pretending to themselves that doing so put them on the side of the Bible and of God. The need to think of themselves as good and righteous despite defending the massive injustice of white nationalism led to the invention of a new doctrine that allowed them to pretend that they were good and righteous because they defended the massive injustice of white nationalism.
This new doctrine worked well until it suffered a minor setback at Appomattox and, briefly, the indignity of Reconstruction. But then it rose again, reasserting itself with a vengeance as a “biblical” defense of segregation. It served that purpose efficiently and effectively for nearly a century, during which white evangelicalism grew and prospered, hand-in-hand with white nationalism.
But then came calamity — the Civil Rights Movement turned America upside-down and exposed the disgraceful evil of segregationist white evangelicalism for all to see. Adding insult to injury, that movement was led by Bible-soaked preachers who cited scripture with greater frequency, fluency, and moral authority than any of the defenders of “biblical authority” had ever managed.
White evangelicalism was laid bare as white nationalism in all its ugly glory. It’s claims of moral authority and moral superiority were proved to be a sham. White evangelicalism lost all credible claim to the moral high ground, and that dealt a heavy blow to its political agenda of white nationalism.The only thing to do, then, was to change the subject. And so, with stunning abruptness, white evangelicals adopted a second, and suddenly non-negotiable defining doctrine: anti-abortionism.
This was new and alien. White evangelicals had mostly applauded Roe v. Wade, regarding anti-abortion views as a peculiarly Catholic mistake. The prevailing attitude among white evangelicals, on the rare occasions they thought about it at all, was similar to the prevailing attitude in Judaism — that a developing fetus has great value and moral significance as a potential person, but that this value and significance did not equal the full personhood of infants or adults.
That belief — the majority opinion among white evangelicals as recently as the mid-1970s — was soon to become anathema. After Nixon’s failed presidency failed to reverse the losses for white nationalism, white evangelicals pulled a 180 and embraced anti-abortionism as their path to regaining moral legitimacy. This would be their ticket to reclaiming the pretense of the moral high ground while still continuing to promote a political agenda of white nationalism.
It’s simple, really: Redefine abortion as baby-killing and you redefine everyone who supports it as a baby-killer. And you’re always guaranteed to hold the moral high-ground compared to a bunch of baby-killers, even if you’re a white nationalist. Who’s worse? Segregationists? Or baby-killers? The baby-killers, obviously. They kill babies. It’s murder.
And thus, with truly stunning speed, the previously alien idea that human personhood begins at conception was adopted and embellished as the core and the essence of white evangelicalism. Within a decade it became impossible to belong to white evangelicalism unless you affirmed this new doctrine and its primacy above all else.
No white evangelical born before 1970 grew up believing this. No white evangelical born after 1980 grew up not believing this.
The period during which this shift took place, by the way, corresponds with the infamous Satanic Panic of the 1980s. This is not a coincidence. Millions of white evangelicals were being asked — being required — to quickly adjust to the idea that the majority of their neighbors and fellow citizens were Satanic baby-killers. It is not surprising that some of those required to swallow this idea did so in colorful terms. (And still do, hence the pre-election panic claiming that members of Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff participated in Satanic blood sacrifices.)
An entire stream of American Protestantism was redefined, in about a decade, into a religious movement organized around the core principle of opposition to Satanic baby-killers. And who were these Satanic baby-killers? Everybody else.
So now white evangelicals were no longer in the morally indefensible position of explicitly defending segregation and white nationalist politics. Now they were able to regard and portray themselves as moral champions battling against Satanic baby-killers, just as earlier generations of segregationist, pro-slavery, white-nationalist white evangelicals regarded and portrayed themselves as moral champions battling against those who disrespected “the Bible.”
Oddly, the political battle against the baby-killers has always been eerily congruent with and indistinguishable from the earlier political agenda of explicit white nationalism. Every vote against the baby-killers also conveniently served as a vote for white nationalism. Every Supreme Court justice hailed as a champion in the battle against the baby-killers also turned out, coincidentally, to also be a proponent of white nationalism. And when it comes down to it, those justices — the ultimate prize in white evangelical politics since the Civil Rights Movement — have largely left Roe v. Wade intact, but they gutted the Voting Rights Act.
Yesterday, white evangelicals again voted for white nationalism. They supported a candidate who explicitly and unambiguously made white nationalism the centerpiece and driving passion of his campaign. The fig-leaf for this support was abortion. And once again we are asked to believe — after centuries defending slavery, segregation and Jim Crow — that it was only about abortion, and that the 100-percent correlation between this anti-abortion politics and white nationalist politics is just an unfortunate and unforeseen coincidence.
That’s not believable.
White evangelicalism is white nationalism. That’s how it came to be. That’s what it’s for. If you can’t see that after yesterday, you’re choosing not to see it.