This month’s special series for Patheos writers is on the faith of public figures. Since I have written a few articles recently on the highly controversial Tucker Carlson, I figured I would give it a go. Personally, celebrities in general do not interest me, with the exception, perhaps, of boxers (because I love boxing). However, in a celebrity culture, a culture that lives and moves and has its being wrapped up in the life of those on television or in movies (or now on podcasts) I suppose this is an interesting topic of discussion. As such, I will take a brief look at the religious views of Tucker Carlson, and see if we can make some kind of analysis of what might be going on with him.
First, What is a Christian?
I think we can determine with some confidence that if Carlson has religious views, they are going to be related to Christianity. There is no evidence that Carlson is a Muslim, or a Buddhist or a Zoroastrian, for example. That said, he could be an agnostic or an atheist. This may shock some, especially those on the right side of the political spectrum, but what one expresses publicly often does not match up one-to-one with what one actually is. Thus, let’s first define a few types of “Christian.”
I have written elsewhere about what it means to be Christian in the sense of being a “born-again” Christian. A genuine “born-again” Christian is the only true kind of Christian. Born-again, when properly used, refers to an actual spiritual status, a metaphysical reality if you will. When Jesus speaks of being “born again” in John 3 to Nicodemus, He means that one must be born of the Spirit of God. Theologically speaking this means that only God converts the human heart of the individual, making him or her one of his own (John 10:1-18). Thus, there are those who are saved and those who are not saved. This is the only meaningful division among human persons. All other divisions: racial, gender, class, personal, stem from this one. Of course, one caveat to this is that only God knows who is saved and who is not. It is not within the realm of human knowledge to know who belongs to Christ and who is only pretending (Matt 13:24-30).
Moreover, there can be people who appear to be Christian in every other way. They are pastors or Christian “leaders” of some sort, but are not actually born-again. They can be fooling themselves, or they can be actual charlatans trying to fool others. The New Testament authors: Paul, John and Peter specifically, all comment in their letters about the reality of false or fake members of the Christian ecclesia (church). Jesus tells us explicitly that it will happen, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matt 7:15) From the beginning God has allowed, we do not know exactly why, “wolves” to come into the sheepfold of genuine believers.
The corollary to this is that there are others who, for all intent and purposes, look nothing like what a Christian is supposed to look like (at least not in the moment), yet who are actually saved (but just don’t know it yet). Thus, we must be carefully about making any statements concerning the spiritual estate of others. For right now it is the case, somewhere, that the most Christian-looking person is closer to the fires of hell than the woman just convicted of murder, the billionaire sex addict or the egoistical Wall Street lawyer who cavorts with prostitutes (and the prostitutes themselves). Jesus makes this spiritual fact clear as recorded in Matt 21:28-32.
In conclusion, we might say there are three categories of Christians: there are truly born-again Christians, who will be with Christ forever in the new creation. Then there are those who pretend to be Christian for ulterior, perhaps even malevolent, purposes. Finally, there are those who are “culturally Christian.” This latter group is often comprised of those who are not born-again in the spiritual sense, but in some intellectual sense see the social value of Christianity as a civilization building and sustaining worldview. These are men and women who “respect” Christianity, who defend religious freedom, and who go as far as to defend the Christian worldview and Christianity’s place in the public square. However, they are themselves not actual believers.
What Are Tucker Carlson’s Religious Views?
I will not speculate too much on the question of what Carlson truly believes in his heart. Again, that is not for me to know, but only for God. Also, given that Carlson is such a politically polarizing figure, I will not give much credence to those who are also popular social and political figures and who have written about him. Their opinions are likely skewed based on their political opposition to him, and that regardless of whether they call themselves “Christian” or not. In this sense, I echo the words of Pope Francis, “who am I to judge?” I will leave the judging to others, perhaps my commentators here below will want to weigh in (I am sure they will).
That said, we can look at what Carlson has said about himself. In a recent post, I discussed a speech Carlson gave at a Heritage Foundation dinner. In that speech, Carlson describes himself as an Episcopalian. At the same time, Carlson seemed to bemoan that fact, describing the Episcopalian denomination as “the most lowly and humble” theological tradition there is. Further, as an Episcopalian, he called himself a “Samaritan of our times” and when he called for prayer for our country at the end of the speech, he said “I am literally an Episcopalian, OK, and even I concluded it might be worth just taking 10 minutes out of your busy schedule to say a prayer for the future.”
What Carlson is referring to in these statements is the status of the most liberal Christian denomination in the country, the Episcopalian church. This is a church that has, by and large, abandoned its biblical moorings and, for some, even its belief in an externally real God. Perhaps the most famous Episcopalian theologian in recent years was the late John Shelby Spong, a man whose views were as progressive as they come. While there are more traditional Episcopalians, the general orientation of Episcopalianism in the country today, and during Carlson’s upbringing, is mirrored most accurately by the likes of Spong. To experience the radical nature of Spong’s untethered theology, this extended debate with James White says it all.
Briefly, if Carlson is a true Episcopalian, then he is a very liberal Christian, perhaps to the point of not even really believing in the truth claims of creedal Christianity: that Jesus is fully God and fully man, that salvation comes only through faith in Jesus Christ, etc. One should not confuse Carlson’s political conservatism with theological conservatism. He may be right on many moral issues of our times: abortion, LGBTQ+, the border, but this doesn’t mean he is an orthodox Christian. Yet, if we take into account the context of Carlson’s statements about himself, he clearly is decrying the present state of the Episcopalian church. Thus, it may be the case we have an instance of someone whose beliefs are in flux. Carlson, like many of us, may be growing in some kind of nascent Christian faith.
Carlson’s Text: A Revelation of Sorts
A recently revealed text message, one that quickly became fodder for Carlson’s malevolent and moralistic (David French!) political enemies, seems to suggest some kind of spiritual awakening in Carlson. Here is the text message in full, it is worth analyzing.
“A couple of weeks ago, I was watching video of people fighting on the street in Washington,” Carlson texted a producer. “A group of Trump guys surrounded an Antifa kid and started pounding the living s**t out of him. It was three against one, at least. Jumping a guy like that is dishonorable obviously. It’s not how white men fight. Yet suddenly I found myself rooting for the mob against the man, hoping they’d hit him harder, kill him. I really wanted them to hurt the kid. I could taste it.”
“Then somewhere deep in my brain, an alarm went off: this isn’t good for me. I’m becoming something I don’t want to be,” Carlson continued. “The Antifa creep is a human being. Much as I despise what he says and does, much as I’m sure I’d hate him personally if I knew him, I shouldn’t gloat over his suffering. I should be bothered by it. I should remember that somewhere somebody probably loves this kid, and would be crushed if he was killed. If I don’t care about those things, if I reduce people to their politics, how am I better than he is?”
Religious legalists and political opportunists like David French will hone in only on one line of this text message in the hopes of gaining social leverage over Carlson. That line is the one about “how white men fight.” Who knows what Carlson meant by this, supposedly we are meant to think it means Carlson is a straight-up KKK-style racist. Okay, perhaps, although commentators like Glenn Loury seem to disagree.
However, what Carlson’s detractors will conveniently not comment on is the second half of the text– the part where he comes to realize what he is doing, and seems to repent of his sinful disposition. The fact that hardly anyone, even David French, has commented on this part of Carlson’s text shows where their own interests are. They are not interested in what, at face value, looks like an actual moment of repentance, of turning around. However, isn’t this the kind of moral transformation we would expect to see in someone who is turning away from the world and moving closer to God? I would hope everyone reading this who is a saved Christian would give a hearty “amen!” to Carlson’s very candid admission here. This text message reveals more than just what the media would want us to see.
Theological Truth Doesn’t Have to Come From A Christian
In sum, it is impossible to know whether Carlson is a true Christian. Religiously, he calls himself an Episcopalian, a denomination that has for decades now strayed from its biblical and historic roots. But Carlson seems skeptical of that tradition, and for all the right reasons. Given his recent speech at Heritage and the text message quoted above, it seems that what we see in Carlson is someone who is going through a kind of transformation. It could be only a moral transformation, moving from a more callous to a more loving and ethical position, not unlike Kierkegaard’s “ethical” stage of psychological development. However, it could also be more than that: it could be a religious transformation.
That Carlson is socially conservative means he doesn’t have much of a beef with traditional Christian ethics, especially sexual ethics. However, whether or not he will, or has, laid down his life before the Lord of Glory, is something that is ultimately only between him and our God. His detractors should not be so adamant about criticizing him, at least his Christian detractors. They should instead encourage him where he is already speaking truth, for theological truth doesn’t come only from Christians. But, at the same time, they should pray that he would come to know, in a personal and salvific way, the source of that truth.
*For more on Carlson and his detractors, watch Doug Wilson’s commentary here.