Where White Evangelicals REALLY Lost Their Way

Where White Evangelicals REALLY Lost Their Way October 17, 2020

Hi and welcome back! I just saw this essay on Baptist News and had a good chuckle over it. See, Richard T. Hughes thinks he has finally nailed exactly what went wrong with white evangelicals. Yes! He knows exactly how they became the control-lusting tribe of racists and tyrants they are today. And you will be very, very happy to know that he’s also identified an easy solution to this problem! Today, let me show you the problem Richard T. Hughes has identified — and the solution he offers in turn, and why it won’t work.

a typical evangelical poster threatening non-believers yada yada
(Malcolm Lightbody.) Answer: the same place everyone will be.

What 50 Years Teaching Religion Teaches a Fellow.

This October 15 essay comes to us from Richard T. Hughes. He titles it:

Remembering Amos: Where white evangelicals lost their way

In his very first paragraph, Hughes informs us that he’s been teaching college-level “religion to mostly white evangelical students” for the past 50 years. (His biography elaborates a bit: he’s a distinguished professor emeritus.)

Despite these students hailing from (mostly) deeply religious homes, Hughes laments their “biblical illiteracy.” That means they don’t know much about the Bible — not the actual myths contained within it, nor its history, nor any of its contexts.

In particular, kids today know nothing these days about one book he especially treasures, the Book of Amos.

A Most Important Little Book.

The Book of Amos is a short, prophetic book in the Old Testament. Written around the 8th century BCE, it stresses divine judgment and social justice, among other similar ideas. Hughes writes early on in his post that he often asks his students what they know of this book — and nobody seems to know anything about it. This response distresses him, because, as he writes:

This tiny book has inspired virtually every Christian advocate for social and racial justice for centuries on end. It inspired Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass in the 19th century, Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer in the 20th century, and in our time John Lewis, William Barber III, and the scholar-activist Catherine Meeks, to name just a few.

Since his wide-eyed pupils know nothing about this one book, he assumes that their families and home-church pastors are similarly ignorant of it. His reasoning: if these adults had known anything about the Book of Amos at all, they’d also have known of the book’s importance. And thus, they would have made very sure to pass on that information.

Therefore, &etc, QED. Because shut up, that’s why. (No, he never actually reveals if he ever tested his suspicions of parental/pastoral Biblical illiteracy.)

So OBVIOUSLY, we have tons of white evangelicals who are totes ignorant of this little book that he happens to think is really important. And that ignorance, in a nutshell, is The Big Problem Here.

The Big Problem Here.

Speaking of context, the reason Hughes so treasures the Book of Amos is that he happens to be one of those white evangelicals who really wants to finally end his tribe’s racism. This ain’t new. Since the Civil Rights Era, various white evangelical leaders have tried — in vain — to move the tribe away from that vile mindset.

The white evangelicals who seek to end racism might have the very best of intentions — but since they can’t identify exactly why their tribe suffers from endemic, widespread, absolutely virulent racism, they don’t have much of a chance of ending it. That’s where Hughes lands. His reasoning appears to run like this:

  1. He himself is not a racist. (I’m not interested in examining this further; he, at least, thinks he isn’t racist.)
  2. But look here, all these other white evangelicals who believe much the same things he does are racist.
  3. What might the difference between them be?
  4. Hmm…
  5. Oh! He Jesus-es like this-and-such, while they Jesus like that-and-t’other.
  6. So if they Jesus like he does, that compliance will heal their racism.
  7. Hooray Team Jesus!

So his strategy becomes persuading racist white evangelicals to Jesus like he does. Because if they Jesus just like he does, then obviously they’ll become more like Hughes, and thus they won’t be racist anymore, because he’s not racist and that’s how he Jesus-es.

Easy peasy!

Corollary: Any Christians he disapproves of don’t Jesus like he does. Period. They’re Jesus-ing wrong, and that’s why they’re racists.

As the Night, the Day… NOT.

In fact, Hughes refers to his style of Jesus-ing as “guardrails” that keep Christians like himself “true to their own prophetic faith.” He lists three of his guardrails, which means there are probably more:

[A] serious engagement with the biblical text, a knowledge of Christian history, and critical thinking — all of which white evangelicals have, for the most part, abandoned.

Of those three, the most important by far is the biblical text, and especially the teachings of Jesus.

Nobody expects the.. oh, never mind.

I’ve encountered this declaration so many times in Christian scolds that it’s slowly slid over to my “no longer weird” category. But this time, the person issuing this lament-and-demand is someone who really ought to know better. Hughes is not only old enough to have lived through white evangelicals’ gleeful transformation into a regressive, belligerent, wilfully ignorant wingnut tribe of authoritarian nutjobs, but he’s aware enough of Christian history generally to have some inkling of exactly why and how Christianity came to dominance in the first place.

Indeed, there are enough hints in this essay to tell me that he’s skittered dangerously close to the truth more than a few times before fleeing from it.

Instead of engaging with reality, though, dude pops out this essay about the Book of Amos, of all the things ever, and offers the same idiotic non-solution that all his peers do.

Jesus-ing Harder Won’t Fix White Evangelicals.

Richard T. Hughes insists that if white evangelicals start super-studying the Bible really hard (again? like did they ever really?), then everything will fall into place and they’ll start being the wonderful ideal group he just knows they can be.

And that just isn’t so.

Whenever it becomes expedient to do so, evangelicals forget all that stuff they parrot about the Devil going to church every Sunday and knowing the Bible by heart.

White evangelicals can study the Bible all day long, but it’s not a magic book (Hughes’ first mistake, really). If they don’t already care about racial injustice, Bible study won’t make them care about it. If they’re not already good and honest people, reading about Jesus won’t change them any more than prayer will.

For all the white evangelicals inspired by the Book of Amos to fight racism, plenty more have found inspiration elsewhere in the Bible to stay racist.

In fact, the very white evangelicals that Hughes criticizes think they have tons and tons of Bible-based reasons to be the way they are. They would say that he’s the one in the wrong.

The Place Where White Evangelicals Went Wrong.

White evangelicals didn’t go wrong at the point where they decided not to study the Bible quite as much as Richard T. Hughes thinks they should.

They went wrong when they reached for temporal power to replace their declining cultural power. After World War II, their religious leaders climbed into bed with political leaders to make an unholy bargain for the power they craved. They invented and rallied around one culture war after another, one moral panic after another, all designed to return that lost cultural power to white evangelicals.

Just to make sure, at least one denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), underwent an honest-to-goodness ideological purge to systemically remake itself into a political force seeking theocracy and absolute power over all Americans. Since they’d originally splintered away from the larger body of Baptists over similar issues (they wanted to keep slaves, and Northern Baptists didn’t), the Conservative Resurgence wasn’t that big of a shock to me.

I state emphatically here: any Christian who participates in the culture wars in any way whatsoever is part of their religion’s decline. From start to finish, the culture wars are about regaining lost power and nothing more. Christians can dress their overreach in Jesus language all they want, but them’s the facts.

But even that isn’t where white evangelicals really went off the rails.

And I think Richard T. Hughes kinda senses that truth.

I mean, he even alludes to it in his post.

Surrendering Integrity.

In his post, Hughes sighs over how little white evangelicals know of Christian history:

If they knew their history, they would know that when Christians have welcomed secular rulers as defenders of their religion, they always have surrendered the integrity of the Christian faith.

He goes on to describe how 4th-century Christian leaders embraced Constantine the Great — and shackled Christianity to “imperial interests for well more than a thousand years.” In fact, he compares those Christians to today’s white evangelicals, who similarly worship and serve Donald Trump and support a whole host of Republican policies that run counter to Jesus’ direct orders.

And he’s not totally wrong in making that comparison, no, obviously not. It’s just that once Christian leaders went full-throttle authoritarian and “imperial,” there wasn’t a way to push the temporal-power genie back into that bottle. They did it to survive and conquer, and Hughes likely would be railing about hypocritical Sol worshipers here if they hadn’t. Once Christian leaders tasted power, they never again wanted to give it up.

Even that isn’t where Christianity itself went wrong, though.

Take it back one more step.

The Open Door.

As an ideology, as a religion, Christianity contains some glaring weaknesses. The biggest of these weaknesses forms its central dealbreaker:

Nothing about Christianity touches base with objective reality.

Instead, its believers cobble together their beliefs from personal revelation, feelings and intentions, and subjective interpretations of an ancient text from a culture that modern people simply don’t understand. So literally anybody can come up with literally any way to Jesus, and they can declare that it’s perfectly valid because Jesus himself told them so.

The only way Christians can refute competing viewpoints is to overwhelm their opponents with manipulation or to strong-arm them into acquiescence with greater personal power. Christians can’t rely on objective facts to carry their arguments because they don’t have any.

What they have is relative levels of power they can use to force others to do as they wish.

And once they lose that, why, then, nobody has any reason at all to care what they want.

Where Christians Generally Went Wrong.

Those weaknesses add up to an ideology that just doesn’t appeal to many people.

Its doctrinal statements are gibberish, while its central ideas range from nonsensical to impossibly-monstrous. The benefits Christian groups offer do not come close to balancing out the resource demands they make of members. Its own members demonstrate, daily and hourly, that they don’t take any of their beliefs seriously. And the more authoritarian the group, the more skeletons we unearth in its closets.

Reading the Bible more and studying Amos in particular will only bring more of Hughes’ students to that understanding.

Christianity didn’t do too well, numbers-wise, until its leaders gained that temporal power that Hughes decries. But once they got it, they used it to its fullest extent — and sought more and more and more.

Meanwhile, they stopped caring about making their religion appealing in its own right. They didn’t need to entice and delight prospective new members — people had no choice about belonging anyway until the past few decades. So they didn’t even try to do that.

The Broken System.

Now people do have a choice. Indeed, they are choosing — to leave, to reject Christian salespeople, to laugh at Christians’ demands, to slap their grabby hands away from other people’s rights and liberties.

Nothing Hughes recommends will change that reality. Its central core weaknesses allowed authoritarian abusers to creep into positions of great power, and from there to devise systems that would protect their power for centuries.

All the Bible reading in the world won’t change any of that. It’s so hilarious to see Christian leaders making this demand, and I’ve seen a lot of them do it lately. It amounts to telling the captain of the Titanic to hold the course.

If he gets his way, then his non-solution will just make more Christians deconvert. You know, exactly like I did.

So yes, Hughes needs to keep encouraging his students to do that. Yes please. Definitely. We need every Christian to read and study their Bibles very hard.

NEXT UP: Fantasy vs. Reality, Teen Zealot edition! See you then!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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