Back before 9/11 indelibly linked Islam with terrorism, back before the top association to “Catholic priest” was “pedophile,” most Americans—even nonreligious Americans—thought of religion as benign. I’m not religious myself, people would say, but what’s the harm if it gives someone else a little comfort or pleasure.
Back then, people associated Christianity with kindness and said things like, “That’s not very Christian of him,” when a person acted stingy or mean; and nobody except Evangelical Christians knew the difference between Evangelicalism and more open, inquiring forms of Christianity.
Those days are over. Islam will be forever tainted by Islamist brutalities, by images of bombings, beheadings and burkas. The collar and cassock will forever evoke the image of bishops turning their backs while priests rub themselves on altar boys. And thanks to the fact that American Evangelical leaders sold their congregations to the Republican Party in exchange for political power, Evangelical Christianity is now distinctive—and widely despised.
Another way to put this is that the Evangelical “brand” has gone from being an asset to a liability, and it is helpful to understand the transition in precisely those terms.
How Brand Assets Get Depleted
In the business world, a corporation sometimes buys or licenses a premium brand in order to either upgrade their own brand desirability or to sell a lower quality product. Coca-Cola acquired Odwalla. Dean Foods acquired Silk soy milk. Target and Walmart license various designer labels for their made-in-China housewares and clothes. Donald Trump sells his name to real estate developers who use it to set an expectation of quality.
Once a premium brand or label is acquired, the parent company often uses the premium label to sell an inferior product. Alternately, if they acquired the whole company rather than just the name, they may gradually change the product, ratcheting down input costs (and quality) to the point that the premium brand becomes just another commodity. The profit advantage comes from the fact that it takes people a while to notice and change their brand perceptions. Also, being creatures of habit, a person may stick with a familiar brand even though the quality of the product itself has changed. In this way, a corporation can draw down the value of a brand the way that a person might draw down a bank account.
Republican Acquisition of the Evangelical “Brand”
A generation ago, the Republican Party realized that Evangelical Christianity could be a valuable acquisition. “Evangelical” had righteous, “family values” brand associations, the unassailable name of Jesus, the authority of the Bible, and the organizing infrastructure and social capital of Evangelical churches. Republican operatives courted Evangelical leaders and promised them power and money—the power to turn back the clock on equal rights for women and queers, and the glitter of government subsidies for church enterprises including religious education, real estate speculation, and marketing campaigns that pair social services with evangelism.
As in any story about selling your soul, Evangelical leaders largely got what they bargained for, but at a price that only the devil fully understood in advance. Internally, Evangelical communities can be wonderfully kind, generous and mutually supportive. But today, few people other than Evangelical Christians themselves associate the term “Evangelical” with words like generous and kind. In fact, a secular person is likely to see a kind, generous Evangelical neighbor as a decent person in spite of their Christian beliefs, not because of them.
The Evangelical brand is so depleted and tainted at this point that Russell Moore, a prominent leader of the Southern Baptist Convention recently said that he will no longer call himself an “Evangelical Christian,” thanks—he implied—to association between Evangelicals and Trump. Instead he is using the term “Gospel Christian”—at least till the 2016 election is over. While Trump has received endorsements from Evangelical icons including Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Pat Robertson, other Evangelical leaders (e.g. here, here) have joined Moore in lamenting the deep and wide Evangelical attraction to Trump, which they say is antithetical to their values.
But how much, really, is the Trump brand antithetical to the Evangelical brand? Humanist commentator James Croft argues that Trump is what Evangelicalism, in the hands of the Religious Right, has become:
“The religious right in America has always been a political philosophy based on bullying, pandering, projecting strength to hide fear and weakness, and proud, aggressive ignorance. That’s what it’s been about from the beginning. Trump has merely distilled those elements into a decoction so deadly that even some evangelicals are starting to recognize the venom they have injected into American culture.”
Croft says that Pastors like Joel Osteen and Rick Warren use Jesus as a fig leaf “to drape over social views that would otherwise be revealed as nakedly evil.”
As a former Evangelical, I have to side with Croft: the Evangelical brand problem is much bigger than Trump and his candidacy or the morally-bankrupt priorities and theocratic aspirations of fellow Republican candidates Cruz and Rubio. Evangelicals may use the name of Jesus for cover, but even Jesus is too small a fig leaf to hide the fact outsiders looking at Evangelical Christianity see more prick than heart.
Here is what the Evangelical brand looks like from the outside:
Evangelical means obsessed with sex. Evangelicals are so desperate to fend off their own complicated sexual desires and self-loathing that they would rather watch queer teens commit suicide than deal with their homophobia. They abhor youth sexuality and female sexual pleasure to the point that they have driven an epidemic of teen pregnancy, unintended pregnancy and abortion—all because accurate information and contraceptive access might let the wrong kind of people (young unmarried and female people) have sex for the wrong reasons (pleasure and intimacy) without suffering for it.
Evangelical means arrogant. Wheaton College put Evangelical arrogance on national display when administrators decided to suspend and then fire a professor who dared to suggest that Muslims, Jews and Christians all worship the same God.
Evangelical means fearful and bigoted. While more secular Europeans and Canadians offer aid to Syrian refugees, Evangelical Christians have instead sought to exclude Muslims. They have used their vast empire of telecommunications channels to inspire not charity but fear of imminent Sharia in the U.S. and of refugees more broadly. They have urged that Latin American refugees be sent home so that we can build a wall across the southern border before they come back.
Evangelical means indifferent to truth. Evangelicals refuse to acknowledge what is obvious to everyone else, including most other Christians—that the Bible is a human document woven through with moral and factual imperfections. Treating the Bible like the literally perfect word of God has forced Bible believers to make a high art out of self-deception, which they then apply to other inconvenient truths. They rewrite American History, embrace faux news, defend in court the right of “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” to lie, and force doctors to do the same. The end justifies the means.
Evangelical means gullible and greedy. From televangelists and Prosperity Gospel to adulation of Ronald Reagan and Ayn Rand, Evangelicalism faces the world as a religion of exploiters and exploited—both of which are hoping to make a quick buck.
Evangelical means ignorant. The only way to protect creationism is to keep people from understanding how science works and what scientists have discovered. As evidence accumulates related to evolutionary biology, insulating children requires a constant battle to keep accurate information out of textbooks. Insulating adults requires cultivating a deep suspicion of science and scholarship, an anti-intellectualism that diffuses out from this center and defines Evangelical culture at large.
Evangelical means predatory. Evangelical missionaries prey on the young and ignorant. They have fought all the way to the Supreme Court to ensure they can proselytize children in public grade schools. Having failed to block marriage equality in the States, they export Bible based gay-hate to Central Africa, where gays are more vulnerable. Since Americans lost interest in tent revivals, evangelists now cast out demons, heal the sick and raise the dead among uneducated low-information people in developing countries.
Evangelical means mean. Opposing anti-poverty programs, shaming and stigmatizing queers, making it harder for poor women to prevent pregnancy, blaming rape victims, diverting aid dollars into church coffers, threatening little kids with eternal torture, supporting war, denying the rights of other species, . . . need I go on?
Laid out like this—sex-obsessed, arrogant, bigoted, lying, greedy, ignorant, predatory and mean—one understands why a commentator like Croft might say that Trump is Evangelicalism. But reading closer, it becomes clear that Trump and Cruz and Rubio are not the problem.
The Evangelical brand is toxic because of the stagnant priorities and behaviors of Evangelicals themselves. Desperate to safeguard an archaic set of social and theological agreements, Evangelical leaders bet that if they could secure political power they could force a halt to moral and spiritual evolution. They themselves wouldn’t have to grow and change.
They also believed that they could get something for nothing, that they could sell their brand and keep it too. They couldn’t have been more wrong.