There are many different factors at play in the rise of Donald Trump. His popularity lies in his perfect embodiment of reality TV celebrity culture, his white supremacy, his anti-intellectual populism, his strategic use of scapegoating, his mastery of sales pitch psychology, etc. But most people who vote for Donald Trump this year won’t be voting for him because they love him. They’ll be voting against Hillary Clinton, who may be the most hated female politician in our nation’s history.
The constituency that hates her the most are white evangelicals. In a recent Christianity Today article, Ed Stetzer explains that to white evangelicals, she is the “personification of progressive secularism,” even though she’s a committed United Methodist. So how did this hatred of progressive secularism become so visceral and absolute? It’s because the religious right understand themselves to be in an epic battle against what they call “humanism,” and they see Hillary Clinton as the humanist of humanists. Stetzer writes, “Evangelicals simply don’t want the secular progressivism of Clinton’s village to raise their children.”
If you ask a white evangelical Christian where they think their liberal enemies go wrong, they will likely respond that liberals have too positive a view of human nature. Liberals are understood to be “humanists,” which means they believe that people are basically good, that the world keeps on getting better as science and technology advance, that government agencies can be trusted to behave rationally, that people who do bad things are just acting out of pain and fear. There are plenty of legitimate things to critique about the naivete of liberalism. But the assumption that liberals are trying to write God out of the universe is what makes them mortal adversaries whose existence is an existential threat to Christianity.
According to white evangelicalism, humanity is totally depraved, which may have a technical theological meaning but on a popular level means utterly nihilistically wicked to the point of deserving eternal torture in hell. If other people appear to be reasonable and basically good, that is because our perception of them is distorted by our own sin. If we saw them with the eyes of God, we would see why God wants to torture them forever. This means that presumably the closer we get to God, the more repugnant the wickedness of humanity will look to us, which is why Christian preachers are said to be more “biblical” the more emphatically they denounce humanity’s sin.
Under this nihilistic view of human nature, people should not trust their intuitions or experiences (especially if they soften our view of humanity’s wickedness). The Bible is the only truth that can be trusted. In addition, people cannot be trusted to read the Bible on their own because their wicked feelings will evoke twisted, watered-down interpretations of “hard truths” (which is why it’s so important to have some “hard truths” in your ideology to prove that you’re authentically “biblical”). Most importantly, a wise, self-certain patriarch (a.k.a. megachurch pastor) is needed to explain what the Bible says.
But here’s where the ideological sleight of hand happens. If you’re living under the guidance of a wise, self-certain patriarch in a “biblical” church, then your human nature is no longer totally depraved because you’re “walking in the light.” I mean, sure, you’ll say that you’re the greatest of sinners to be theologically correct, but functionally, your membership in a “biblical” church means that you’re right and other people are wrong. The doctrine of total depravity becomes the total depravity of everyone else, especially the “humanists” who claim that people are basically good.
What has made this ideology so potent over the past thirty years is the way that it dovetails perfectly with the resentment of working class whites against “liberal urban elites.” Rich people are fine as long as they’re not “elitist” (i.e. as long as they wear cowboy hats, own a ranch, and talk “blue-collar”). And it’s easy to transfer your trust of the wise, self-certain patriarch at your church who emphatically denounces sin to an anti-intellectual billionaire whose entire campaign is built on the total depravity of everyone else. If you’re talking about how bad sin is, you’re being “honest,” which is why Donald Trump can tell lies till he’s blue in the face, but he will never lose his “honesty.”
“Make America Great Again” is a slogan for people who believe that humanity is fallen; “Better Together” is a slogan for people who believe that humanity is good. You can’t be “better together” with people who are nihilistically wicked and on their way to eternal damnation. 2 Corinthians 6:14 is the Bible verse I’ve seen thrown around the most to attack bipartisanship: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”
The only loving thing to do with “secular progressives” on the other side of the aisle is to sabotage them at every turn and assassinate their character ruthlessly so that they can be defeated decisively enough to “accept Jesus as their personal Lord and savior” and join Team Total Depravity. Even though conservative majority Supreme Courts have upheld Roe v. Wade over the past 44 years, the Supreme Court is the symbolic battlefield which will determine whether Team Humanism or Team Total Depravity has won.
When your goal is to stick it to progressive secularism no matter what, then you will have no problem supporting a narcissistic, emotionally volatile, grossly incompetent sexual predator who has been pro-choice his whole life as long as Hillary Clinton goes down in flames. American Christianity is toxic to the degree that it is committed to this kind of nihilistic view of human nature that makes Christians unwilling to compromise with others who are viewed to be opaquely and irrationally wicked. Trump’s presidential victory will reveal an American Christianity that has reached peak toxicity.
James 4:4 says, “Friendship with the world is enmity with God.” For early church fathers like St. Basil, “friendship with the world” meant attachment to wealth, power, and other worldly idols that get in the way of our connection with God. But for many white evangelicals today, being addicted to wealth and power is not a problem as long as you don’t associate with liberals. Because progressive secularism is the “world” you’re not supposed to be friends with. This is just one example of the many Bible verses whose meaning is utterly distorted by a culture war lens. When zero-compromise nihilism is the measure of your Christian faith, then you really don’t have to go to church anymore as long as you don’t vote Democrat.
I wrote my book How Jesus Saves the World From Us because I really believe that many good Christians have been taken hostage by toxic beliefs. I don’t think the Bible requires us to adopt a nihilistic, anti-humanist view of human nature. Sin is very real and very imprisoning to humanity. And yet, people are capable of many good and beautiful things, even people who have never “accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and savior.”
Whenever anything good or beautiful or true happens, God is at work no matter whose human agency God is using to accomplish his work. Creation, sin, and redemption are not linear, sequential events in human history. God never stops creating and redeeming even though we keep sinning. The goodness of creation and the brokenness of sin are realities that perpetually coexist in paradoxical tension. There are many atheists and people of other faiths who are holier, more Christlike people than I am. I don’t have to project nihilistic wickedness onto them. I just know that I can’t amount to anything good unless I am crucified and resurrected with Jesus.
A healthy view of sin makes me humble and self-suspicious enough to listen and compromise when I have to work with people who have different views. When Christianity works right, it makes us into empathetic, malleable people whose love for others supersedes our disagreements with them. Imagine if Christians sought to win over secular progressives not by trouncing them at the ballot box but by exuding such compelling love that God’s existence became too obvious to question. Christians who are following Jesus’ example of cruciform witness do not have to control every group they associate with, because their understanding of victory doesn’t look like Caesar on a chariot but like a lamb who was slain.
To be clear, I’m not saying that conservatism is innately toxic. I’m saying that the nihilism of a hyperbolic understanding of human wickedness makes Christians into toxic trolls and saboteurs whose scornful sanctimony has almost destroyed our democracy. True conservatism is very wary of itself because it studies history and values integrity. True conservatism is anal retentive about its nuanced precision because true conservatism loves the truth more than it loves defeating its enemies.
The greatest threat to conservatism today is not the secular humanism that so many define themselves against, but the industry of false witness that became profitable over the past three decades of culture war. Every time conservatives share manipulative propaganda pieces from hyperpartisan websites, they are destroying conservatism. When all that “absolute truth” means is opposition to “political correctness,” then truth itself has been murdered. Toxic populism is not conservatism. Its political potency makes it an incredibly seductive temptation.
My hope is that somehow Donald Trump’s candidacy will be the catalyst for white evangelical Christians to embrace a season of repentance and deep listening to God. I am starting to see signs of this that make me hopeful. And I’m grateful for the conservatives I know who see the world differently but are capable of genuine dialogue because they haven’t damned me to hell as a nihilistically wicked secular progressive.