The other day I ran across this fascinating piece about Donald Trump and it lit a lightbulb over my head like I was in a cartoon. It was about the difference between bullshit and lies, and it perfectly illustrates what’s so adrift about modern American evangelicalism.
Christians’ hypocritical about-face regarding the Republican nominee has illustrated a deep, disturbing rift in their self-image as the moral powerhouses of America–one that they are going to need to address if they have any hope at all of saving their end of the religion from complete irrelevance.
A Marriage of Pure Convenience.
I’ve written many times about the fusing of evangelical Christianity, right-wing nutjob (RWNJ) politics, fundamentalism, and hardline Catholicism into that particular noxious mixture I call “fundagelicalism.” The grotesque beast resulting from that unholy coupling has taken over an entire party of our government, dominating it despite drastically-dwindling numbers and influence in popular culture. There might have been a time when one couldn’t really say what a particular Christian thought about politics, but now–for good or ill–there’s no separating Republicans from fundagelicalism or (for that matter) fundagelicalism from Christianity itself.
Worse yet, the religion is completely unmoored from reality. There is literally no way to touch base with objective evidence, and no tallying behaviors and policies with results. The only thing that matters is power–and fundagelicals only recognize “all of it” as the goal. To distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack jockeying for power in the group, Christians can only outdo each other in terms of their extremism and inflamed rhetoric. There’s no way at all to push back against these attempts to stand out because there’s no point at which someone can say “Wait, this isn’t actually resulting in success in our stated goal.” Only methods and fervor matter; Jesus is supposed to take care of the rest. Cause and effect itself became unlinked somewhere along the way, eaten up in the howling hunger for greater and more sanctimonious displays of religiosity and stricter orthodoxy (“correct beliefs”).
So in the years since that calculated wedding of Christianity to politics, fundagelicals have only become more and more extremist. Don’t take my word for it–here’s one of the architects of that broken system describing exactly how he helped make it all happen and how dismayed he is at how successful those efforts were.
In the old days your predecessors [evangelicals] didn’t like me because I was faulting you all for not being part of the Religious Right! No kidding. I changed sides. Now you are the right wingers I wanted you to become and then some, and I’m a nasty liberal . . . Dad [Frank Schaeffer père] and I faulted Billy Graham for wanting to preach Jesus instead of taking a stand with us against abortion. We faulted Christianity Today for not being sufficiently political. To us the words “moderate” and “compromise” were dirty words. . . The neoconservatives have played the evangelicals like a violin.
The letter reads like the sad, wistful musings of a Christian leader who didn’t realize what was guaran-fucking-teed to happen when millions of his fellow Christians took what he was saying seriously. But there wasn’t just one violin playing that song. It was a duet between religious leaders and political ones, and fundagelicals have never tired of the ceaseless tune they offer.
The rest of the nation felt differently about the matter, however, and slowly began to break free of the fists of the religion. Despite their blustering, Christians could see that their influence was beginning to tank in the 1980s (hell, it was a message my pastor preached many times). They knew perfectly well that if they couldn’t force Americans to comply with their demands, if they didn’t have the ability to coerce the rest of us into doing what they thought everyone should do, they’d never again know the taste of power.
The marriage between politics and religion might have made sense to Christian leaders at one point, but it’s backfired in recent years by causing greater and greater numbers of their own members to become disillusioned and leave the religion entirely rather than get caught up in their leaders’ senseless culture wars and grabs for dominance.
Cracks in the Facade.
One of the main cracks in the facade of fundagelical power opened because of the tribe’s own extreme hypocrisy. That crack is fast becoming a chasm.
Not only are fundagelicals unable to maintain their own moral code in their own private lives, but they about-face and change that code whenever it seems expedient. A group of people who once proudly trumpeted an “objective moral code” given to them by a changeless god now affect complete ignorance of how much they’ve changed and how different that violin’s tune is now from when they first began hearing it decades ago–when not outright denying those facts, of course.
So the exact same Christians who howled the loudest for Bill Clinton’s blood back when he was President and got caught having affairs are the ones now who sanctimoniously pretend that Donald Trump’s perfectly okay as a candidate even though he has been caught bragging about sexual assault and accused by almost a dozen women of doing exactly what he bragged about. They proclaim frequently that “oh we’re not electing a Pastor-in-Chief, but a man to run the country!” as if that absolves them from having to engage with his repulsive deeds and nature, but this sentiment is a total 180 from what they said before Mr. Trump got caught–and an even further departure from how they felt about Mr. Clinton’s escapades. Every link I just gave you up there is actually quite critical of this bizarre and grotesque rationalization, but that’s not stopping vast swathes of fundagelical believers from parroting it! (I can only imagine that some pastor or apologist said or wrote this sentiment when I see how quickly and widely the idea has caught on with fundagelicals; they have this endearing little habit of hearing a catchphrase and running amuck.)
The same Christians who piously opined that their leaders had to be moral powerhouses are now perfectly willing to endure a candidate who is the epitome of everything they have always stood against–and demonstrably worse than the Democrat they demonized back in my day. They break out the pitchforks if it’s someone they don’t like, but are meek and conciliatory when it’s someone on their own side. More shamefully, the list of offenses they single Barack Obama and other Democrats out for committing that their own tribemates did too (and worse) without comment at all from these supposedly “moral” juggernauts continues to grow.
As more and more Americans notice the gulf between fundagelical platforms and how fundagelicals actually behave, and more glaringly, the gulf between what most of us think of as moral values and what fundagelicals actually do and want in the public sphere, they are rejecting fundagelicals’ overtures with greater and more vehement pushback. To outsiders, particularly, fundagelicals’ about-face starts to look really self-serving as well as shockingly hypocritical–like fundagelicals will endure any scandal and any moral failing in a leader as long as it’s committed by someone who promises to give them what they want and is willing to belligerently thump his chest along with them.None of it makes sense at all until you understand that what fundagelicals want is bullshit.
Bullshit vs. Lies.
In The Blues Brothers, there’s a very telling exchange between the eponymous brothers. While Jake was in prison, he dreamt of reviving their band once he got out. He’s just learned that his brother Elwood wasn’t completely honest with him about maintaining ties with their bandmates:
Elwood: Well, what was I gonna do? Take away your only hope? Take away the very thing that kept you going in there? I took the liberty of bullshitting you, okay?
Jake: You lied to me.
Elwood: It wasn’t a lie. It was just… bullshit.
Elwood is making a very important distinction here, one that I don’t think most people understood at the time–or understand now, for that matter. Even I thought for the longest time that Elwood was only trying to evade his moral culpability in lying to his brother.
It took Jeff Hancock to explain exactly why Elwood’s explanation works perfectly–and why Donald Trump’s appeals to fundagelicals were all but guaranteed to succeed.
Dr. Jeff Hancock is a professor in the Department of Communication at Stanford University. He specializes in deception. He gives talks about how people lie to and deceive each other (one of these was a popular TED Talk). And he sees a clear line between lying and bullshitting.
A lie is told to hide the truth, while bullshit is told to reinforce an emotional feeling that listeners perceive as the truth. A liar is deliberately obscuring something he or she knows is true; a bullshitter might not even know what the truth is–and isn’t interested either way. A lie can be debunked fairly easily by presenting facts, but bullshitters and their audiences don’t actually care about those facts. They care about that emotional feeling. They don’t want reality; they want that feeling validated. Both deceivers are presenting information that isn’t true, but one is speaking to an emotional need in his or her audience, reinforcing a message, or drilling down on a feeling.
Stephen Colbert famously called the results of bullshitting “truthiness,” further refining the idea with the new word “trumpiness.”
Eleven years ago I invented a word: “truthiness.” You see, truthiness is believing something that feels true even if it isn’t supported by fact. Truthiness comes from the gut, because brains are overrated. . . Truthiness has to feel true, but trumpiness doesn’t even have to do that. In fact, [quoting] “Many Trump supporters don’t believe his wildest promises–and they don’t care.” . . . If he doesn’t ever have to mean what he says, that means he can say anything. (The Late Show, 7/18/2016)*
Stephen Colbert is describing a political audience that doesn’t care about the truth, that values feelings and validation of those feelings over realistic plans or keepable promises, and that responds to emotional appeals rather than ones based around facts. He’s describing a sullen, angry, vindictive audience that gravitates to anybody who even vaguely offers a solution to their problems–even if they totally recognize that the solutions being offered aren’t, themselves, plausible or even possible. They don’t recognize those solutions as lies and aren’t offended at all by them.
Oh hey, do you know who else that description fits?
It’s not that they don’t value the truth; it’s that they value far more highly the feeling of being correct and justified in their various power grabs. If the truth supported either of those aims, then they would use it. When it doesn’t, then they find other ways to get what they want.
I noticed this tendency many years ago–and I’m not the only one. The entire concept of “lying for Jesus” is about bullshittery in Christianity. Fundagelicals respond very favorably to any statement or platform that serves their purposes and flatters them. That’s why they don’t care about fact-checking or double-checking the credentials of their leaders. It’s why they’ll gleefully parrot any ridiculous claim or story, any urban legend or myth, if it advances their self-perceptions and goals. It’s also why they punish anybody who corrects their lies or even asks for proof of their claims, circling the wagons whenever any of their tribemates gets outed as a liar. And it’s why they seem constitutionally incapable of graciously accepting correction, acting like they understand the correction and then rushing out to repeat their lie the very next chance they get.
Fundagelicals might claim that they are possessed by a god who cannot ever lie, but they’ve become increasingly known for their dishonesty, hypocrisy, and two-facedness.
And now the chickens have come home to roost.
Donald Trump’s ascendancy couldn’t have happened without several generations of Christians learning to care more about validation than about reality and about tribal supremacy over compassion. And his decline couldn’t be happening without a whole lot of people rejecting those ideas.
A Funeral Long Overdue.
Things sure do look a lot different now than they did in the 1980s, though, don’t they?
The last five years in particular have been a case study in how a major world religion dies. Christianity is notable now for how poorly and gracelessly its members are taking their long-overdue slapdown. It’s way too early to write the religion’s final epitaph, to be sure. But I see it shuddering to its bones as one after the next, fundagelicals start finding the courage to criticize and even leave their onetime tribe. I might be writing that epitaph after all before I pass away.
If so, then it’d only be a logical next step for me. Years ago, my own faith in Christianity’s truth claims collapsed when I realized the truth about my tribe’s anti-abortion stance–and recognized how many of the same tactics were shared by both my religious leaders and the leaders of the anti-abortion crusade. I didn’t quite realize it at the time, but what I was seeing was that both groups were creating bullshit to validate fundagelical ideals and then giving that bullshit to an audience hungry to feel correct and superior and victorious.
I see the same thing happening today all around me. I see Christians coming face-to-face with the stark reality of what those generations of teachings look like in reality. I see them slowly struggling to connect the dishonesty of their leaders with the abuses and scandals constantly breaking out in their ranks. I see them starting to recognize that their actions do not translate to successes in the real world and that their claims simply aren’t supported by observations of reality. I see them starting to ask the right questions and to seek answers even when their leaders would dearly wish them to just accept the party line. And more and more often, I see them caring so much about those answers that they follow them clean out of their religion–just like I did long ago.
Fundagelicalism marries two equally dishonest groups, right-wing politicians and hardline Christians, to produce a love-child that is a grotesque mockery of the very worst parts of both. But that wedding feast is finally ending. Now we see the beginning of its funeral. And we are starting to ask some very hard questions indeed of the people who fostered this union and now (in a reversal of the famous Hamlet line) are left with a funeral-banquet table furnished with the leftovers from a wedding feast that never should have happened.
I wish I could tell them that this is one table that definitely needs to be flipped.
I think we’re about overdue for a FULL KITTEN UPDATE, don’t you? See you next time!
* Amusingly, that CNN piece by Dr. Hancock notes that the word “bullshit” bears, as one of its oldest synonyms, the word “trumpery.”