They have always been here. If you didn’t know that before, it’s because you couldn’t be trusted to know.

They have always been here. If you didn’t know that before, it’s because you couldn’t be trusted to know. March 15, 2016

Michelle Boorstein offers a strong entry in the burgeoning field of Donald-Trump-and-white-evangelicals reporting. There’s a lot to chew on here, with some sharp probing around the True Scotsman objections that real, true white evangelicals aren’t the ones rallying behind Trump.

The bit I want to highlight, though, doesn’t have to do with Donald Trump. It comes from right-wing culture-warrior Rick Scarborough. Boorstein writes:

Pastor Rick Scarborough has spent 20 years traveling the country to politically mobilize evangelical voters and knows better than most just how un-monolithic they are. In recent years, those differences have just gotten more pronounced, said Scarborough.

“In the past when we’d talk about abortion, 90 percent said: ‘You’re right.’”  Now half seem to have experienced it or know someone who has, he said.  And “when Falwell spoke against gay marriage there was unanimity. Now half the congregation has a niece or brother who is impacted.”

Scarborough’s recollection of recent history is garbled — Jerry Falwell didn’t quite live long enough for his anti-gay activism to take the form of speaking “against gay marriage.” But it’s true that Falwell’s anti-gay bloviations back in the day were met with what seemed like a unanimous chorus of “Amens” from white evangelical audiences.

Scarborough laments that such anti-gay preaching no longer has unanimous support because, “Now half the congregation has a niece or brother who is impacted.”

He doesn’t understand that this is nothing new. When Falwell was rallying white evangelicals behind Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade in the 1970s, more than half the congregation already had a niece or a brother or some other relative or friend who was directly harmed by that. Those nieces and brothers have always been there.

But back in the ’70s — or in the 1980s, when Falwell was praising AIDS as a righteous form of divine punishment — many of those white evangelical congregants shouting “Amen” didn’t realize that the hateful sermons they were praising applied to their nieces and brothers because they didn’t realize that they had friends and family members who were LGBT.

MelJerry
Mel White speaks on CNN in 2007 about the death of Jerry Falwell. White, who ghost-wrote two books for Falwell, came out in 1993.

Others, sadly and shamefully, did realize this. They knew about their closeted nieces or brothers, and they knew that what Falwell was saying about them wasn’t true or fair or good. But they were afraid to say anything. They didn’t yet realize that they weren’t the only ones in that congregation whose loved ones were being targeted by this culture war, and so they felt alone and powerless and intimidated, and they fearfully submitted, shouting “Amen” along with everyone else, enabling the illusion of unanimity.

That unanimity was always a crock. It was an enforced unanimity — a required, mandated unanimity. Folks like Falwell or Scarborough would spew their anti-gay message then ask for a show of hands to confirm that everyone present agreed, as required. And, lo and behold, everyone raised their hands, as required.

But we always knew this unanimity was an illusion because even back in Falwell’s prime, when 100-percent of the congregation was shouting “Amen,” we had polling data that contradicted this apparent unanimity. When speaking anonymously to a pollster — to someone who wouldn’t report back to the tribal elders and gatekeepers — a chunk of these white evangelicals felt safe enough to express their dissent.

Those tribal elders and gatekeepers dismissed such polls the same way they’re dismissing all the polls today showing white evangelical support for Donald Trump. These evangelicals dissenting or wavering from the anti-gay unanimity must not really, truly be real, true evangelicals. They probably don’t even go to church (or, if they go on Sundays, they don’t go Wednesday night). If those pollsters fixed their polls to screen out all the fake evangelicals, the tribal gatekeepers said, then this dissent would disappear and polls would confirm the required unanimity.

After all, the gatekeepers know these people. They go to church with them every Sunday (and Wednesday night) and they’ve never, ever heard anyone question the required anti-gay orthodoxy. They’ve never heard anyone challenge their anti-gay sermons or fail to say “Amen” when expected and required to do so.

That’s also how white evangelical gatekeepers have always responded to decades of polling that consistently shows that a solid third of white evangelicals are pro-choice.

That confounds them. They find it baffling — impossible, inconceivable. No white evangelical preacher has ever advocated such a thing. No white evangelical publication has ever permitted such thoughts to be printed. The Statements of Faith for every white evangelical institution require and receive the assurance that everyone associated with them unanimously opposes legal abortion. And in all their years working in and with all of these churches and publications and institutions, they’ve never heard anyone speak up to say anything different. So they’re certain the polls must be wrong — this pro-choice third of white evangelicals simply cannot exist.

But they do. And they always have. They’ve always been there — just like those LGBT nieces and brothers have always been there.

Rick Scarborough seems shocked that many white evangelical Christians have had abortions or know someone who has. He regards this as a sudden and very recent development. It’s not. These folks have always been there — in white evangelical churches and institutions.

About one in three American women will have an abortion in her lifetime. In white evangelical churches — real, true white evangelical churches with real, true, Wednesday-prayer-meeting, daily-quiet-time, devoted Christians — that figure is … about one in three.

And here’s the thing: There’s one and only one reason Scarborough did not already know this. There’s one and only one reason that any white evangelical does not already know this. If you’re a white evangelical pastor or publisher or parachurch administrator and you don’t know this, it’s because you are someone who could not be trusted to be told.

White evangelicalism is enormously, vindictively hostile to any public dissent from its official, mandatory opposition to legal abortion. In that context, such dissent had to be kept secret. Protecting that secret was even more necessary for the one-in-three white evangelical women who have had abortions, or who have accompanied their nieces or sisters or other loved ones through that process. And the men in charge — the culture-warriors like Scarborough or Falwell, and the local pastors who admire them — were manifestly incapable of being trusted to protect that secret. They have made it perfectly clear that if they learned that secret, they would respond with condemnation, punishment, banishment, or worse.

But something seems to be changing. The untrustworthy men in charge remain just as obviously untrustworthy, but they’re losing some of the power they have attained from forcing others to live and speak and pray in secret. Because now those secrets are being spoken aloud.

Pastor Rick Scarborough has spent 20 years traveling the country to politically mobilize evangelical voters and knows better than most just how un-monolithic they are. In recent years, those differences have just gotten more pronounced, said Scarborough.

“In the past when we’d talk about abortion, 90 percent said: ‘You’re right.’”  Now half seem to have experienced it or know someone who has, he said.  And “when Falwell spoke against gay marriage there was unanimity. Now half the congregation has a niece or brother who is impacted.”

Those are two of the most hopeful and hope-filling paragraphs I’ve read in a long time.


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