Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and white evangelical nihilism

Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and white evangelical nihilism January 28, 2016
Donald Trump and Ted Cruz / Getty Images
Donald Trump and Ted Cruz / Getty Images

It’s going to be hard to write this without it coming across as trolling, but I’m really trying. People on my side of the debate within evangelical Christianity are far too gleeful about the way that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are capturing the conservative evangelical vote. They’re such monstrous caricatures of everything we want to believe our opponents are: rude, self-righteous, narcissistic, greedy, pretty much every fruit of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-20.

Many thoughtful conservative evangelicals are horrified by the popularity of Trump and Cruz and what it means for the future of conservatism. My friend Alan Noble wrote a post asking how did Trump happen. Alan is one of the most humble and introspective conservatives I know. Conservatives like him are genuinely seeking to be faithful to Christian teaching amidst the furious and sometimes unfair barrage of attacks from people like me.

I think Alan makes a lot of good points in his post about the way that conservative evangelicals have too uncritically embraced the outrage industrial complex of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, et all. Trump and Cruz are the Frankensteins produced by the Faustian bargain conservative evangelicals made to whip up white working class hysteria as a tactic for gaining a lock on political power. But I wanted Alan to go deeper and ponder the theological underpinnings of the conservative evangelical attraction to Trump and Cruz. It’s not just a question of embracing unsavory tactics and unscrupulous allies. There’s a genuine ideological foundation for the ethos that makes Trump and Cruz so popular. I call it white evangelical nihilism.

When I use the word “white,” it’s not a racial epithet, but merely a recognition that evangelicals in communities of color are shaped very differently than white evangelicals. For instance, black evangelicalism may share the social conservatism of white evangelicalism, but it also has at its core an identification of God’s salvation with the exodus of the world’s slaves from all of their respective Egypts (for whom Jesus serves as the Passover lamb) and a recognition of Jesus’ suffering on the cross as solidarity with black victims of white oppression. This prevents black evangelical salvation from being as pristinely formulaic and coldly transactional as the white evangelical account.

For white evangelicalism, the human predicament is simple, ahistorical, and abstract. God is a perfectionist. Humans are sinners. Therefore humans deserve to be tortured forever in hell, which is why Jesus had to die on the cross to pay the price for their sin. God’s response to human sin is akin to a banker’s response to a delinquent debt. The moral checkbook of the universe must be balanced. The only explanation for the brutality of the cross that Jesus suffered is that the sins of people around us must be profoundly egregious from God’s perspective and God must be exceptionally angry with them. Even if the unsaved seem like decent people to our fallible sensibilities, the Bible supposedly tells us they are utterly wicked and we should not be “unequally yoked” with them (2 Corinthians 6:14).

This is why I think evangelical theology creates a nihilistic, misanthropic politics. When you’re told by your pastor that all the people outside of your ideological tribe are utterly wicked and deserving of eternal torture, that’s how it becomes a sin to compromise with your opponents politically and work together for the common good. Because the point is not to find common ground with your opponents. It would be “unloving” to condone anything about their ideology since they’re going to hell. They need to be utterly defeated and brought into submission so that they can be saved.

Everything about secular liberalism must be utterly antithetical to the Christian gospel and profoundly offensive to God. It has to be, or else secular liberals wouldn’t be worthy of damnation. So everything about liberalism is put into binary opposition with “God’s truth.” To believe in climate change is to believe that God is not in control of the environment. To believe that the government should provide for the poor is an emulation of atheist communism and a usurpation of God’s sovereignty. To promote “political correctness” is to silence the courageous proclamation of “Biblical truth.”

This is where it gets really interesting, because when “political correctness” and “Biblical truth” are put into binary opposition, then a Biblically illiterate, previously socially liberal mainline Christian like Donald Trump gets to be on the side of “Biblical truth” simply by saying things that are politically incorrect. Though Ted Cruz is much better at sounding evangelical, what makes him “Biblically truthful” is not his foundation in actual Biblical principles but his willingness to be politically incorrect. Thus, a misanthropic, nihilistic understanding of the Christian gospel results in the support of nihilistic misanthropes as presidential candidates.

We can have a robust Christian doctrine of sin and salvation that doesn’t result in a misanthropic nihilistic politics. We just need to read the Bible differently. There are two basic presumptions that evangelical Christians should bring into our politics: 1) I am a sinner who cannot be trusted. 2) God stands in solidarity with everyone whom I oppress and neglect and will hold me accountable for how I treat them. The way that I put it in my forthcoming book is to say that our Christian salvation is the process of begging Jesus to save the world from us.

Recognize that nowhere am I saying we should imagine God to be a toothless, blithely benevolent Santa Claus who doesn’t care about sin. God cares immensely about sin, but not because he’s a banker balancing an abstract moral checkbook. We need to remember the first name that Gabriel gave to Jesus: Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” The primary message of the Christian gospel is God’s solidarity with humanity. That solidarity should be the foundation of how we understand God’s love and the wrath that necessarily accompanies that love. Jesus’ cross and resurrection are the ultimate expression of God’s simultaneous solidarity with every sinner and every victim of sin.

Our plight is not that we have a miserly, perfectionist heavenly schoolmaster who wants to punish us, but that we’ve created enormous structures of sin through our markets, wars, and power struggles, which cause real suffering to people God loves enough to make him fiercely angry. This sin is our hell, and if we remain enslaved to it, we will never experience the communion with God that is heaven. Essential to our understanding of our need for deliverance is the recognition that we are always actively contributing to the hell that other people are living. My most important task is to be justified and sanctified by God so that I can be made less toxic for the people around me whom God desperately loves.

Philippians 2:3 says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” Imagine if Christians, and especially Christian politicians, were known as the people who regard everyone else as “better than [them]selves.” The way we should understand the difference between Christians and non-Christians is not to think that Christians are righteous and non-Christians are wicked, but that Christians are convinced we are sinners in need of God’s grace. Whether or not this will make us better people remains to be seen because far too many Christians believe in the total depravity of everyone else instead of their own.

The other side of white evangelical nihilism is to presume that since I’m covered in the blood of Jesus, I am completely unaccountable for how I treat my political opponents and the victims of the systems that privilege me. I’ve got my heavenly handstamp so I can just shrug my shoulders and expect others to forgive me when being un-Christ-like toward my enemies is necessary to achieving political power. It’s true that Paul teaches us we are justified by God’s grace and there is nothing we can do to justify ourselves before God. But we shouldn’t see this teaching as somehow canceling out Jesus’ two most prominent parables about heaven and hell: the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 and the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46.

According to Jesus in Matthew 25, the way that he decides who’s “in” and “out” of eternal communion with him is to ask who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, etc. Likewise, in Luke 16, the rich man goes to hell not because he directly violated any explicit teaching of Torah but because he ignored the beggar Lazarus who was sitting at his gate. When we build our sense of morality around our need to feel comfortable ignoring and justifying the plight of Lazarus (e.g. the “family values” that make “welfare mamas” responsible for their own plight), then we are condemning ourselves to hell. Whatever else is true about God’s grace, Jesus makes it clear that he will judge all of us from the perspective of his solidarity with the marginalized.

If God were to evaluate how well American society is working, he would not go to Wall Street to ask how smoothly the capital is flowing. Nor would he go to the Pentagon to ask how superior our fighter jets are to the decaying Soviet-era weaponry of our enemies. Nor would he go to our most glamorous megachurches to see how many kilowatts of amplification are being used to sing about how awesome he is every week. God would go to Lazarus wherever Lazarus is and ask how Lazarus is being treated, whether Lazarus is an undocumented immigrant, a single mom working 80 hours a week of minimum wage, a homeless schizophrenic, an HIV-positive retired sex worker, or a runaway transgender teen. If we actually intend to follow the teachings of Jesus, then Christians need to ask ourselves one question. Is Lazarus languishing outside our gates? Because if Lazarus is, then we’re going to the same place that the rich man in Jesus’ parable went.

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