The Gravitational Center of Evangelicalism is Not Jesus.

The Gravitational Center of Evangelicalism is Not Jesus. August 16, 2016

We spoke yesterday about how fundagelicals have evolved in how they view Donald Trump, and why they keep rallying around people like him.

One reason I’m talking about racism lately is that a provocative interview just came out with a very well-respected, well-known Republican that has been rattling a lot of people lately. At the same time, some new information’s coming out about Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters that dovetails with that interview. And while those two stories are happening, yet another scandal is rocketing out of the Religious Right that we’ll just have to talk about later, because holy cow, a lot is going on right now on this particular issue.

With a national Presidential election looming ever closer for Americans, this question of why one of our political parties is so shot through with racism is starting to gain more prominence–as well it should.

(Credit: Elentir, CC-SA.)
(Credit: Elentir, CC-SA.)

The Money Quote to End All Money Quotes.

Avik Roy is what Vox calls “a Republican’s Republican.” An intellectual who has spent his whole life advancing Republican ideas and agendas, he’s a past advisor to a great many big-name Republican politicians (Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, and many others). Mr. Roy is uniquely situated, therefore, to observe and recognize the trends coming out of his party–and to make some very educated guesses about where his party is heading.

Like a lot of Republicans who are vaguely aware of reality–and yes, they do exist–he feels a lot of despair about his tribe’s reckless plunge off the twin cliffs of credibility and integrity.

And he thinks he knows where their problems began.

In the 1964 Presidential election, Barry Goldwater made a big part of his Presidential campaign revolve around vocal opposition to the Civil Rights Act. Maybe he opposed it for reasons that he at least thought weren’t racist; it doesn’t matter. At that point, Mr. Roy argues, the Republican Party flew off the rails. White racists who also opposed the Civil Rights Act rushed into the tent from the Democratic Party to embrace the party that validated their racism, while minorities abandoned that same tent in order to join the Democrats who were vocally embracing the Act. Thus, Democrats became known as the party that was friendly to civil rights, while Republicans got known as the party that opposed those rights.

With the Southern Strategy, future Republican candidates only worsened that underpinning of racism by directly appealing to those white supremacists who were still outraged over America’s adoption of civil rights. The polarization that Mr. Goldwater had set in motion only got worse, because intellectual Republican leaders–who liked to set the tone for the party and who were the group’s rational, respectable figureheads–couldn’t engage with what was happening on the ground with rank-and-file Republican voters.

Republicans never got the ship righted. And now they really can’t. Very few of them even understand that the ship is running aground in the first place. At this point, Mr. Roy says (emphasis mine),

“The gravitational center of the Republican Party is white nationalism.”

This proclamation might seem revolutionary and shocking, but it really isn’t. All that’s really surprising is that any Republican at all sees the reality facing their party.

Untangling the Death Spiral.

How the National Day of Prayer Grew Out of the Red Scare.
How the National Day of Prayer Grew Out of the Red Scare.

It’s hard even to know how to untangle this particular death spiral. In the 1950s, as I’ve written, right-wing Christians gravitated toward a certain kind of ultra-patriotism by equating their religion with American exceptionalism–which is how the National Day of Prayer came about. As with any group that can’t base itself on the touchstone of reality, Republicans drifted further and further away from any checks on their growing polarization and radicalization.

Conservatism itself became aligned with both racism and a certain raft of economic and political dogwhistles that hugely disproportionately favor white people over black people–and which validate both those white people’s sense of superiority over all other races and their anger over losing some of their onetime dominance over minorities.

Many intellectuals in the Republican Party may well think that they advocate policies like school vouchers and voter ID laws because they are just that incredibly, passionately interested in liberty and integrity, but their racist voter bloc hears the undertones of the message loud and clear: Vote for us, and we’ll put you back in charge where you belong. Once the right people are in charge, people like us, you can bet that we’ll stop giving what’s yours to all those moochers who don’t deserve it.

Even when one begins with the purest of intentions, if the behavior that results is hateful and nasty, then that’s what counts. And no matter how virtuous and concerted the attempt might be to redeem an essentially toxic message, believers themselves will stop that redemption from happening.

That era’s exclusionary, selfish, and bigoted message resonated with a religious group whose origins are themselves intimately linked with white supremacism. As Republicans and right-wing Christians began borrowing ideas from each other’s leaders and encouraging their respective adherents to get more and more extremist in their outlook, the two became so intertwined that now it’s hard to see where one group’s influence ends and the other begins. Republican leaders are the filthy hands of the Religious Right, while fundagelicals are the unwitting foot-soldiers of those same leaders.

Now right-wing Christianity is shot completely through with racism and over-politicized machinations–and right-wing politics is indelibly linked with Dominionism and Reconstructionism.

Worse, at this point only right-wing Christians themselves don’t see what’s happening.

The Southern Strategy might have been a downright desperate attempt to lock down the right-wing Christian vote, but it was also a stunningly successful gambit. Fear, hatred, and naked greed sell very well to fundagelicals. Little wonder they eventually preferred a fetid slurry of all three in both their religious worldview and their politics. The problem is, they weren’t thinking ahead. They saw a super-easy, super-convenient way to grab a demographic but they never wondered if that demographic would always be around–or what would happen when the grown-ups needed to talk about policy-making or when the people being marginalized finally had had enough.

He Told Us So. Sort Of.

Quite a few evangelicals might lament their religion’s affection for racist policies and its constant string of scandals, but very seldom do we see one who understands why it’s always been so difficult to separate their form of Christianity from racism–and why that difficulty is only dialled up to 11 now.

Indeed, if that crowd even recognizes that there’s a problem at all, they usually pin the cause on the exact wrong thing–and demand a solution that doesn’t actually address the real problem.

Insufferable fundagelical mouthpiece Ross Douthat recently whined up a storm on The New York Times about exactly this mistaken perception, saying that the big problem here was that Christianity had lost so much dominance that a godless heathen “playboy” like Donald Trump had been able to swoop into the gap to gather up the Republican vote.

His stated solution, of course, is one you can easily guess: everyone needs to shut up and let his kind of Christians take the wheel again. After quite a lot of pearl-clutching, he intones ominously at the conclusion of his post, “Ten years ago, liberals pined for a post-religious right, a different culture war. Be careful what you wish for.”

Unfortunately for him, here are the facts about exactly what’s going on there:

This image never gets old to me.
This image never gets old to me.

1. Most of the people supporting Mr. Trump are, in fact, right-wing Christians just like Ross Douthat himself.
In fact, the further right-wing the Christian, the more likely that person is to defend him and to intend to vote for him. By contrast, non-Christians tend to be overwhelmingly liberal–and they are overwhelmingly less likely to vote for him. From the very beginning of Mr. Trump’s abortive political career, which began with a shrill attempt to stoke racist fires with accusations against President Barack Obama’s citizenship, his entire message has from start to finish been aimed at fundagelicals. And they’ve heard him loud and clear.

2. Mr. Trump’s main message, that of racism and exclusion, is specifically aimed at right-wing Christians to arouse their greed, fear, and hatred.
It doesn’t take long to notice that every single platform that fundagelicals now consider “Christian values” are platforms that not only Donald Trump but Republicans as a whole are pushing hard. By contrast, Democrats–along with non-Christians, and the rest of the civilized world in general–largely stand against every one of those platforms. Donald Trump just isn’t saying anything that non-Christians support, and we’ve shown our lack of support by criticizing him roundly and turning our backs on his entire party.

3. Mr. Trump is not in fact saying a damned thing that nearly every single Republican politician hasn’t been saying for the last fifty years.
One of the most baffling parts of Donald Trump’s Presidential run, for saner Republicans, has been how someone as overtly racist, sexist, bigoted, and regressive can possibly end up in a serious bid for the White House. But look beneath his bluster, open pandering, and contempt-filled body language, and one will see that he’s not saying anything really different from what his party’s been saying since the 1960s. He’s just saying it more loudly, more insistently…

and more directly.

Out of the Shadows.

Republicans at this point are those white racists who, in the 1950s and 1960s, embraced the Republican Party–and their emotional and intellectual heirs.

They feel left behind. They feel hard-done-by. They felt mocked and maligned–all unfairly, of course. Initially buoyed by politicians who acted sympathetic about their petulance and anger, they began feeling betrayed by what they viewed as the softening of their chosen party’s message, the compromise of what they see as its core values. They are downright outraged at their party’s attempts to include and cater to the very people that these white racists had joined Republicanism to avoid and persecute.

When these cultural relics look at the 1950s, they feel nothing but the most bittersweet nostalgia imaginable for what they view as “the good ole days,” with an overwhelming majority of right-wing Christians wishing things could go back to the way they were then.

In the middle of that bitterness and anguish of loss, along comes the Great Orange Hope.

Donald Trump tells them that they’re right to feel afraid of and threatened by progress. He tells them that they’re right to feel distrustful and angry about social progress. And he says all the horrible things that they’ve always felt deep down but were too ashamed to say in public. He not only treads on those boundaries between good taste and transgression, he dances across them and then flips a stubby middle finger at anybody who might object.

He is, in short, the living, incarnated id of Republican voters.

In his coy, mincing “Just Asking Questions” way, Donald Trump plows ahead with all the things they wish they could say, just as he lives a life that a great many of them envy and wish they could have.

Give up his racism? My goodness! He’d sooner dip himself in molten gold. Certainly either course of action would result in the same fate.

He’s shrewd enough to know that his fanbase is there not because he’s a man of the people, but because he’s a man for their kind of people.

Familiarity Breeds Fondness.

There is some hope on the horizon.

One of the most profound bits of news to come out in the last few months about Donald Trump involves exactly who his supporters are. They’re not quite who we think they are.

As The Atlantic reveals, “The single best predictor of Trump support in the GOP primary is the absence of a college degree,” making a diploma the “new Republican fault line.”

The second?

Living in an area that is racially homogeneous.

(The Atlantic points out that Donald Trump’s biggest pockets of support match up with a heat map of Google searches for racist “jokes” and slurs, but you’ll notice very quickly that this map also matches something else–namely, the dominance of fundagelicalism in America.) Jonathan Rothwell discovered, working on a survey for Gallup, that people who live in areas that are really “racially isolated” agreed much more with Donald Trump’s ideas than those who live in diverse areas.

Mr. Rothwell thinks that people who live in a diverse neighborhood tend to be much friendlier toward those who belong to different races–and they tend not to support policies that would hurt those people that they’ve grown to befriend and care about. His idea matches other surveys that indicate the same truth: when we learn about others and rub elbows with them and see them all the time, we learn that they’re not demons–and that those comforting narratives of victimization and aggrieved, outraged privilege just don’t sound as compelling.

It’s harder to hate and fear someone that we know very well.

And that simple fact is going to spell the doom of both Christianity and Republicanism.

Demographics Just Aren’t On Republicans’ Side.

In every single direction, demographics are working against Republican aspirations.

Americans are moving around more than we ever have before–which means we’re living among increasingly diverse groups. We’re working around people who aren’t like us. We’re getting into friendships with people who aren’t like us. Hell, we’re even marrying people who aren’t like us in greater numbers than we ever have before. And that’s clearly scaring the pants off of the leaders of right-wing religious and political groups alike.

Not only is a lack of diversity in a voter’s life one of the biggest predictors of Republican support, it’s also a big predictor of anti-gay bigotry, racism generally, and sexism. No wonder Christian leaders have done their best to keep their adherents from mingling too much with whoever they demonize the most!

There’s a reason why such groups tend to stress isolationism: they know that the more familiarity the group’s members have with those they’ve decided are the outsiders and the more mindful they are about their own possible privilege, the more sympathy they’ll have for those who aren’t like themselves.

The world is only getting more connected–and every single connection forged is another problem for right-wing Christians.

Self-Destruction Imminent.

Avik Roy is certain that the party itself is going to self-destruct and fall apart in the next few years. I’m hopeful that he’s right. I don’t see how its leaders can resolve its systemic flaws without chasing away a significant number of their own supporters (and all in hopes of hopefully maybe attracting new supporters–who are unlikely to be swayed any time soon). And the religious movement that entwined itself around the political party is facing exactly the same challenge–and will likely see exactly the same fate. (Live by the sword, etc.)

It would almost be comical to see how badly the Southern Strategy has ultimately backfired for Republicans, if their party’s death throes weren’t causing so much trouble for us as a country. Maybe in 20 years or so another conservative political party will arise and try to salvage the GOP’s less vitriolic ideas without chaining itself to that raft of -isms and religious privilege that are now destroying the modern Republican Party.

But even if they tried, one wonders whether or not anybody but aggrieved white bigots-for-Jesus would ever enter that new tent in the first place. It seems like we’re simply moving past the ideas that go into a conservative worldview–and leaving those ideas, and those who stomp their feet and cling to those ideas, behind.

As Bill Maher said so well, “Win or lose, Donald Trump will probably be the last ’50s guy to run for president — and, frankly, that is something to be thankful for.”

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