I’ll never forget the first night I attended a youth group meeting during high school. Somehow I made it to my junior year before finding out the youth ministry was its own separate thing—I mean separate from the Sunday School program I already attended at least a couple of times a month.
I had recently “rededicated my life to Jesus” during an evangelistic youth conference and since then had started calling inactive students from the class roll to encourage them to start attending again. An alert Sunday School teacher who was impressed by my zeal encouraged me to add Sunday night activities to my schedule and I had no idea what I had been missing.
My First Night in Youth Group
It was a big church, so naturally it had a big youth group as well. The first night I attended I believe there were over two hundred kids in attendance. They were getting ready for a mission trip, so we were broken up into smaller groups in order to practice sharing our “testimonies” with each other. My story was particularly riveting, evidently, because they volunteered me to get up in front of the whole meeting the next night to retell the story of what had happened to me a few weeks before.
It was a dramatic conversion story, as they often are. And I was a quick study, so it didn’t take me long to grasp and internalize the testimonial template: I used to be bad, and I was so empty, but then Jesus came along and saved me and now I just want to tell the whole world about what he did for me.
I was sixteen. In retrospect, I wasn’t really that bad at all. I mean, sure, I had gotten into some trouble from time to time, and I got grounded enough times to lose count. But really, though, it was all typical restless teenager stuff, and at the time I lacked the perspective to see that. The standard format I was following colored my perception, squeezing my story into a mold that I had no idea was so cliche.
After I finished my talk, the youth minister made a beeline toward me and sat me down in order to correct a glaring error in my underdeveloped theology. See, I had gleaned my thinking about final judgment from Hollywood and pop culture more than from my own church, and consequently I thought that all the bad things I had done up until that point would have to be overridden by doing at least as many good things from that point forward in order to make up for the years before.
The minister explained to me that Baptists don’t believe your good works get you into heaven, but trusting in Jesus as your savior does. This was crucially important to her, and she wanted to make sure I corrected my thinking about this in any future resharing of my story. As it turned out, the next time I shared it I was up in front of more than two thousand of my peers, so I guess it was a smart move on her part.
Faith In Faith Itself
My first lesson in evangelical theology was that you must have faith in order to “be saved,” to be forgiven of your sins so that you could spend eternity in heaven after you die. You cannot think of it as “earning it” in any way, shape, or form. Nothing else is more important to them than that you grasp this one single theme: You are saved by grace or you are not saved at all. All those other kinds of churches and religions say you have to earn it, but not us. We know how it really works. We stand apart from all other religions (and from Catholics!) in that we believe in “grace.”
I learned that first night in youth group that evangelicals ultimately prize faith—not just in Jesus or his death on the cross, but in faith itself—above all else. Because I was raised in this church and had already heard the pastor talk a hundred times about Jesus dying on the cross, I already believed that Jesus was the savior of the world, somehow. But until that point I had never understood that, according to my church tradition, the only way to appropriate that sacrificial death was to properly believe that his death satisfied God’s requirement for righteousness.
It wasn’t about me being good, it was simply about “tagging up,” as the late Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon sarcastically called it, with the finished work of Jesus. You don’t get the benefit of the sacrifice unless you believe it is your only chance for getting into heaven. The faith itself is what saves you…
…which is a theological contradiction, when you think about it. If nobody is “saved” until they properly believe in Jesus—or rather that they properly believe that believing in Jesus is the only way to be saved—then ultimately faith itself becomes a “work” that a person must do in order to be saved from their sins.
We reserved so much judgement for other religions (including Catholics) because from our point of view they relied too much on “what we do” for salvation. They were about works, while we were about grace. We understood Jesus better because of this, you see, and that made us exceptional among all other religions.
In fact, we were taught to despise being called a “religion” since we believed what we had was a “relationship.” Nevermind the fact that if anyone rejected this relationship, they’d be punished forever and ever; it’s totally not a religion.
Related: “It’s a Religion Too, Not Just a Relationship“
If you think about it, from this perspective the only thing that sends people to hell is not believing. All manner of awful criminals will make it into heaven because they believed the right things about salvation, but millions of good, moral people will go to hell because they grew up in countries with different religions, so they don’t believe the right things.
Most evangelicals feel the same knot in their stomach over the injustice of this scenario, but they learn to shrug it off because they’re taught that “God’s ways are higher than our ways.” You can accept all kinds of incongruous things if you believe that things don’t have to make sense in order to be true.
Ultimately evangelicals are taught to have faith in faith itself. As Jesus compulsively told the people he healed, “your faith has made you well.” At the time I had no idea how reliant we were upon the early Pauline communities for our stories about Jesus, nor could we have understood how much his theology shaped which versions of Jesus survived for posterity. But that’s a conversation for another day.
If you don’t have the right beliefs about salvation, according to the tradition in which I grew up, then you will get everything else wrong.
Creating a Separate RealityNow imagine how this pits the evangelical community against everyone else in the world.
For evangelicals, this theological watershed separates the sheep from the goats, so to speak. Nevermind the fact that when Jesus used that metaphor, he was talking about how we treat one another, not what we believe about salvation. For Baptists like me, it was all about belief, not behavior. The distinction was so crucial it overrode how we read the gospels themselves.
Ultimately belief separated humanity into an “Us vs. Them” duality that determined to whom we should listen and to whom we should not. It created an epistemic enclosure in which information bounced around inside the walls of the reality bubble we inhabited even while those same walls protected us from any outside perspectives that would influence the way we thought, nudging us away from toeing the party line.
Evangelicals cannot trust sources of information if they’re not on an approved list. If a source of information isn’t sanctioned by the guardians of religious orthodoxy, it is excluded at the outset. They just tune it out or change the channel or whatever they have to do in order to close off that perspective lest it influence them in a direction away from what they’re supposed to think and feel.
Consequently, for evangelical Christians facts are never neutral.* They always carry a moral value of some sort, and if the facts originate from an illegitimate source, they must be disregarded lest the Devil use those ideas to tempt them away from the truth. Granted, some of the more educated traditions within evangelical Christianity avoid explicitly admitting their belief in the Bogeyman, but ultimately they all believe in him. And they believe he’s busily at work within academia and popular culture in order to trick people into believing lies through a cunning use of science, the public educational system, and popular culture as a whole.
Imagine how closed off this much paranoia would make you toward the rest of the world.
It would render a subculture ripe for manipulation by savvy pundits and media conglomerates who know how to tailor their messaging to suit a community already riddled with trepidation toward the rest of the world. When fear dominates a community, it makes them easy targets for those who know how to scare the hell out of people in order to keep them coming back to a single source of information about everything.
If you read or listen to FOX News very often, you probably see why they believe the whole world is constantly on the verge of collapse because everyone is out to get them. Maybe you think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. I live in Mississippi, and FOX News plays in every public place or doctor’s office or gym you can frequent. I have found zero exceptions.
Consequently I hear what they have to say a lot, and I can tell you from experience that they use fear almost constantly, and it’s mostly directed toward brown/black people in general and toward Muslims in particular. They are deathly afraid of everyone who’s not a Christian, and sometimes they’re even afraid of them, too, if they’re not of the right kind. Liberal Christians either do not exist or else they are simply not legitimate and should be disregarded. Also liberals are too stupid to tie their own shoes, and millennials are eating Tide pods and are destroying everything.
For what it’s worth, liberals often talk the same way about conservatives. But I think the tribalism sinks in deeper on the right because distrust of “the other” is much more central to conservatism than it is for liberalism and progressivism. But that’s an argument for another day.
Dog Whistle Theology
My point is that faith—or rather faith in faith itself—makes evangelicals especially susceptible to distrusting and disregarding anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the same epistemological assumptions that they do, and as a result it is incredibly difficult to change their minds about pretty much anything.
Why should they listen to anything you have to say if you don’t even understand the most important thing in life, which is that Jesus is the only way to be saved from damnation? If you don’t agree with them on that, then nothing else you have to say could be relevant to them. Your perception of the world is controlled by the Devil, so disregarding what you have to say to them is an act of worship, an act of obedience toward the One who will save them from the fate of the wicked world around them.
Granted, not all of them would verbalize these assumptions out loud. I’m not even sure they’re all aware of how much their indoctrination influences the way they see the world. Self-reflection isn’t among the strong suits of this subculture. Criticism of everyone else is really their forte. The bitter sarcasm in their humor is positively toxic.
The bottom line for evangelicals, though, is that the rest of the world is not to be trusted. Even our perception of historical facts is suspect, so they rely heavily on their short list of news sources that will properly honor the things they value most, which ultimately boils down to paying lipservice to their religious tradition. They don’t even have to admit their affiliations explicitly; they only have to employ the right vocabulary to be counted as an insider.
Most conservative news sources and talk show hosts (and political figures) are cesspools of moral depravity, but selective perception prevents the devout from ever seeing that. If they consistently praise the right tribal delineations, that’s all it takes to earn the trust of a subculture which believes that ultimately we will all be judged, not by how we behave toward one another, but by whether or not we pledge allegiance to the correct set of beliefs.
[Image Source: Unsplash]
* When I say they believe “facts are never neutral” I really mean it. One of my seminary professors did a whole talk about how non-believers cannot ultimately grasp that 2 + 2 = 4 because mathematical truth is predicated on metaphysical truth, which unbelievers reject. I kid you not.
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