The American Church has been feeling the loss of their cultural relevance, and they’re not taking it very well. It offends them deeply. The last thing they needed was to lose the social privilege they’ve enjoyed for so many generations they have become convinced it’s just the way things are supposed to be. As they say, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
But without a means for feeding their persecution complex, they would lose one of the few remaining identity markers connecting them to their titular Object of worship. Of course, there have been plenty of versions of this faith that did a better job of exemplifying Jesus’s commitment to elevating the poor and marginalized, but those aren’t among the franchises that came to dominate the American religious landscape.
It seems to me that religions survive and thrive in direct proportion to how many of their beliefs are unfalsifiable. That’s why they bank so heavily on belief in an afterlife—it’s probably the most unfalsifiable of all, making it the most reliable.
Beyond that, however, the Christian faith makes a number of other promises that fail to materialize unless they are completely redefined, drawing a new target around wherever the arrow actually lands. It takes a lot of mental gymnastics to reverse engineer some of these beliefs around what actually takes place in real life, but with practice you become really good at it.
In time this produces an atmosphere so permeated by cognitive dissonance that it becomes like the ocean in which they swim. Incidentally, you’ll have just as much luck describing water to a fish as you will detailing for a true believer how much mental friction you see in their daily lives. They’re so used to it they can scarcely feel it anymore.
The disparities between what they are told and what actually happens is like the background noise of their lives, making them yearn for an escape plan. The good news is that one day, they are told, Jesus and the angels will return to rescue them from this timeline like a mothership returning to take an alien colony back to their true home, torching the world they leave behind in their wake. Incidentally, that’s also a decent plot summary of one of the Cloverfield sequels.
How much responsibility do you suppose churches with this theology feel toward managing the natural resources of the planet? Wouldn’t they be more likely to pity those wringing their hands over the environment given how upside down that means their priorities must be? You don’t polish brass on a sinking ship, ya know.
The same could be said about their outlook for the rest of humanity. The God of the Bible has no qualms about destroying all life in order to start over again, so why should the church put any energy into fixing anything? Even those looking for a Final Boss to show up and wreak havoc on the world believe that Jesus will one day defeat him, beaming his people up into Heaven so they don’t have to get their hands dirty.
But now comes the deepest irony of all. Despite all their convictions that they shouldn’t care too much about the world or this present life (because what is visible is temporary and what is unseen is eternal), as God’s representatives they also believe they are supposed to be in charge of things because that expectation is baked into the core of their faith’s story.
Say all you like about Jesus as the suffering servant, but the faith tradition he inherited begins with God telling a single family that they alone had the right to own land that another group of people was graciously keeping fertile for their arrival. They are still fighting over it today, in fact. The only good thing I can say about the ancient conquest stories is that they never actually happened. Jesus later spoke of a kingdom that would cover the whole earth–one he will rule without rival, ultimately subjecting everyone to the Christian way of life. The idea is still there, albeit in a different form.
There is a presumptuousness inherent to evangelism that is lost on Jesus’s followers because they believe people are neither authorized nor qualified to decide for themselves what’s good for them. Besides, see how nice God is! He’s a benevolent dictator, you see, so naturally his human incarnation would be doing everyone a favor by subjecting them all to his rule. Real freedom comes from surrendering your personal agency–your sense of self-ownership–over to him.
What they don’t tell you is that this rule is to be mediated through a whole bunch of people who are not Jesus. In theory, they are imbued with the same spirit that animated their Crossbearer-in-Chief, but the reality is that they become indignant when people fail to give special place to their religion. They believe the whole earth has been given to them, so any apparent reduction of power or authority is seen as an affront to God himself.
Can you imagine Jesus stepping up to a microphone or firing off an angry tweet to whine about getting cancelled?
The last place you’d expect to find so much entitlement is hanging on a cross, yet there it is. I suppose as long as the crosses are of your own making, they don’t leave too bad a mark. But American evangelicals don’t just want deferential treatment for their faith, they need it. They depend on it. The disparities they live with between promise and reality are so great they need all the outward validation they can get.
But think about the confusing dynamic this scenario creates: Here you have a privileged group of people emotionally identifying with ancient slaves and crucified scapegoats, rehearsing daily the narratives of persecution they inherited until they are completely convinced that they of all people are the most disenfranchised–even while in charge.
At first, it seems irreconcilable to see both martyrdom and entitlement coexisting so comfortably in the same people. But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. They do it via an unconscious maneuver that is the exact opposite of projection: Instead of pushing your vices onto others in an attempt to disown them, you appropriate the virtues of others that you do not possess in an attempt to claim them as your own.
Both defense mechanisms produce the same off-label benefit: They impair the user’s vision, blinding them to their own shortcomings while the rest of the world shakes their heads in disapproval. It also renders the user incapable of recognizing real virtues or vices whenever they do come along.
I’m suggesting there is a collective narcissism woven into the gospel that teaches you to speak of your own personal insignificance and unworthiness even while believing you belong to the most important and valuable community in the entire universe. The derivative nature of your significance doesn’t seem to diminish its potency for shaping how you view your rightful role in the world, whether in the here-and-now or the hereafter.
After being told the world would try to silence them, you’d think the church would appreciate it when they’re handed a microphone instead, but you’d be wrong. They still seem to feel they’re being mistreated somehow. Some take the opportunity to speak of the places in the world where Christians really are being mistreated, but even this can inadvertently draw attention away from the kinds of self-scrutiny that would open their eyes to just how different expectation and experience have truly been for them at home.
I remember how validating it was to find somewhere in the world where things were actually unfolding the way Jesus said they would, but looking back I see how we managed to make even that about ourselves in a way. Rather than framing our support for the persecuted church worldwide as a fight for human rights in general, we always saw persecution as a matter especially merited by our own faith. Exceptionalism is an essential ingredient in the Christian faith, you see. That’s why their campaigns for religious liberty so rarely extend to Muslims, Hindus, or–God forbid–the atheists.
Unlike all those other groups, an invisible enemy prowls about like a lion seeking to devour the followers of the only correct belief system in the world. Their enemy is everywhere, larger than life, which is why in the end Christians will aways identify with David, even when they’re Goliath. They can’t tell the difference, and that’s my point.
They seem to be uniquely incapable of recognizing power differentials. Isn’t that how privilege blindness works? They believe so firmly that they’re supposed to be persecuted by an invisible enemy that they go out looking for it, picking battles they know they will lose because at least that way it will feel like the world dislikes them the same way that it disliked Jesus (regardless of whether or not it’s for the same reasons).
When they can’t find persecution close enough to home to claim as their own, they can always log into PureFlix and watch Christian-made movies about alternate realities in which a teacher can get fired or even jailed for daring to utter the name of Jesus in Arkansas–you know, that hotbed of liberal godlessness in the buckle of the Bible Belt.
Here you have a group of people predisposed by their origin story to see themselves as perpetual victims even while victimizing others because both privilege and their worldview have blinded them to the concept of systemic injustice. Their religion has evolved to focus so completely on their own personal salvation and piety that they no longer have any larger vision for the church’s role in the world other than to leave it.
Evangelical pastors see social justice as a distraction from the real work of the church. To their minds, things like racism, sexism, and classism are strictly individual transgressions, so those battles must take place in the privacy of your own heart (ergo no real accountability). These are overcome only through believing harder in Jesus, not through pushing the church to get involved in the messy affairs of the world, save for the intentionally polarizing identity markers branded into their souls though decades of indoctrination into Republicanity.
The Civil War marked white evangelical theology in ways I don’t believe can be overcome. In time they settled on a gospel devoid of any real social conscience—no hooks upon which pastors and influencers today could hang any real responsibility for what life-before-death is like for those not already a member of their tribe, or who at least could become one someday.
The seeds of today’s mess were sown long ago, but I feel like it’s gotten much worse lately. They’ve started saying all the quiet parts out loud, and I’m not seeing enough Phil Vischers calling out their evangelical cohorts for either picking the wrong battles or fighting on the wrong sides.
Whenever there is a real-world inequity of power or privilege, my faith tradition always seems to side not with the oppressed but the oppressors. They chose wrong during both the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, and now they’re doing it again with things like gender and sexuality, dutifully falling in line with the Republican Party’s valiant efforts to protect the powerful from the powerless.
The church can’t seem to tell the difference between the former and the latter. It’s as if they have no social depth perception at all. They only see two sides fighting each other and they never ask which side is punching up and which is punching down. That’s not really important to them. The ground is level at the cross, they insist (it isn’t). What matters most is adherence to their purity codes and social norms, and whichever side contradicts those is their mortal enemy. End of discussion.
It must be nice to have such a simple moral code. You never have to think too hard about anything. I’m pretty sure there are some who believe that’s a sin, anyway.
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