How Evangelicals' authoritarian rigidity -- and lack of empathy -- serves to uphold white supremacy

If there's one thing growing up evangelical taught me, it's to be suspicious of kindness from Christians. God may, theoretically, love us unconditionally. (Some restrictions apply). But Christian kindness, particularly from the most conversion-focused Christians, tends to come with goals, expectations and conditions that objectify those receiving the kindness. That is, conversion-focused Christians such as evangelicals treat other human beings as means to an end, rather than as morally autonomous equals. It's not always nearly so obvious as requiring that people listen to "the gospel" before receiving aid from a Christian foodbank or homeless shelter, but in some ways, the less obvious manipulation tactics may be all the more insidious.

In the interdenominational evangelical Christian school I graduated from, I learned about "friendship evangelism" — making friends with non-Christians with the goal of building up the kind of rapport that might allow you to convert them. That practice felt sleazy to me even then. But whether through friendship or other means, parents, pastors, chapel speakers at school and teachers all reinforced the belief that we Christians were all "called" to engage in "witnessing," that is, evangelizing, in order to "lead people to Christ." The pressure to witness caused me a good deal of stress as an empathic introvert, but I nonetheless did it on occasion, even handing out tracts in downtown Indianapolis with my senior Bible teacher and other students as a way of fulfilling one of the class's requirements. It took decades of processing before I could articulate that one of the things that most bothered me about proselytizing — besides the clearly abusive belief that God will torture those who don't "accept Jesus into their hearts" forever in Hell — is that this imperative to proselytize inevitably entails objectifying the people targeted for conversion.

The fact that some evangelicals explicitly teach that empathy is a "sin" generated some buzz recently. While I don't recall ever being taught that exactly, the evangelicalism I grew up in was explicitly anti-pluralist. We had the absolute capital-T "Truth," and anyone who deviated from that was "lost." Meanwhile, while we were taught that God loved us enough to die for us so that we could spend eternity worshiping him in Heaven, we also received the countervailing message that on our own we were inherently worthless and every bit as deserving of eternal conscious torment as "the unsaved." I later recognized these teachings as a kind of "negging," the manipulation technique used by abusive male "pickup artists" to make women dependent on them by undercutting their self-esteem. Indeed, I'm not the only person to point out that the kind of Christianity I grew up in is characterized by the dynamics of abusive relationships. It stands to reason that those who are capable of internalizing all this without facing constant, serious qualms will naturally have their capacity for empathy atrophy, if they ever had much capacity for empathy in the first place.

And this will bring me to the ongoing evangelical moral panic over exvangelicals, those who have left the conservative, mostly white evangelical Protestantism we grew up with for more humane religion or spirituality, or, as in my case, for no religion at all. As Blake Chastain, a podcaster and the creator of the popular #exvangelical hashtag, recently noted, anecdotal experience in online exvangelical communities strongly suggests that those who leave the faith are, more often than not, precisely those who took it the most seriously. In many cases, we tried to push for positive change from inside but eventually realized that was a dead end.

Evangelicals are, as a rule, unwilling to face those facts. Most evangelical responses to exvangelicals are petty and dismissive, invoking simplistic tropes that paint us as intellectually unserious, "angry," and motivated primarily by all that sweet, sweet "sexual sin." As Chastain points out, on a recent episode of Mike Cosper's "The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill" podcast, a Baylor University professor falsely claimed that exvangelicals point to marginal experiences rather than systemic issues. He also asserted that exvangelicals discussing our concerns in public "corrupts" our processing. Of course, that is precisely the sort of attitude that allows all kinds of abuse to proliferate in evangelical communities and institutions. Survivors coming forward and then finding and supporting each other is how rot gets exposed.

What I want to emphasize in this piece, however, is that even when evangelicals try to address their concerns about exvies in a kinder, more fair-minded way, they fail. Their failure is both one of empathy and one of theology, although which begat which in any given individual is a chicken and egg question. Really listening becomes impossible when one is already deeply emotionally invested in being correct about "the Truth," and that evangelicals are responding to exvangelicals at all is a sign that they feel threatened by our presence.

Believing that everyone else should believe exactly the same things you do about God is exhausting. It tends to result in hyper-vigilance, which is maintained by cultivating unhealthy habits of mind. "The heart is deceitful above all things," evangelicals tell themselves, quoting Jeremiah. And from the New Testament: "The wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight." "Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools." "Take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." These are the verses, memorized early and emphasized ad nauseam, that run through evangelicals' heads when they're confronted with the "temptation" to trust their doubts or open themselves up to the possibility that someone who rejects their beliefs might be worth listening to.

This internalized social disciplinary mechanism is in play when evangelicals consider exvangelicals, along with that objectifying imperative to attempt to convince anyone and everyone to become their sort of Christian. And so, when Pastor Ed Stetzer, a Wheaton College professor and until recently an editor for the prominent evangelical magazine Christianity Today, attempts to play "good cop" in the evangelical discussion of exvangelicals, he still falls short of understanding exvangelicals in something like our own terms, and his prose is rife with rhetoric that objectifies and renders exvangelicals as means to an end.

Stetzer's piece is centered around a discussion of Joshua Harris, a recently minted exvangelical who became an evangelical celebrity when he published what became the quintessential purity culture manifesto, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, in 1997. Stetzer expresses personal warm feelings for Harris as well as regret that he's left the faith, romanticizing Harris's days as "the evangelical boy wonder." And frankly, this is already tone-deaf. Most exvies were not evangelical celebrities, and most of us were harmed in one way or another by the purity culture that Harris has only repudiated within the last few years. To be sure, Stetzer notes that Harris canceled a planned $275 course on deconstructing one's faith after widespread criticism from the exvangelical community, but nowhere does Stetzer consider exvangelical criticisms of purity culture, nor does he discuss why Harris himself came to reject it.

When it comes to the specifics of why people leave evangelicalism, Stetzer prefers to focus on Bart Campolo, the humanist son of progressive evangelical Tony Campolo, because Bart "made it clear that he embraced a Christian community, but not the Christian faith." This hints at the common trope that exvangelicals "were never really saved in the first place," and it is a useful launching point for Stetzer to ask parents whether they are properly "discipling"—the word I would use is "indoctrinating"—their children. But as Chastain so powerfully noted in his commentary linked above, it's far more common for exvangelicals to have been very serious, deeply convinced believers than to have simply participated in church without really having internalized or accepted the beliefs. Stetzer apparently doesn't want to face that.

Bart Campolo's story is also useful to Stetzer in another way, one that clearly illustrates the dynamic of treating people as means to an end. According to Stetzer, "Ironically and importantly, Bart stresses that what led him to identify as a Christian was the love that he saw between the members of the youth group he attended." Stetzer then points out how "love" can be used to win converts. "Loving people is often the first step in seeing them understand and accept the gospel. It can't end there, but even Bart acknowledged that it started there."

I've noticed that sometimes even mainline pastors think this way. Take the case of Ryan Burge, who has the odd distinction of being both a Baptist pastor and a sociology professor, who really showed his cards this summer by arguing that churches should hold get-togethers with free food precisely in order to get people to come to, and stay in, church. "I am a big believer that people come to church for the wrong reasons but they stay for the right reasons, and churches should do a better job giving them a lot of wrong reasons to come, whether it be free food or fellowship or whatever it is," says Burge. The context of his statement indicates he is recommending this condescending, manipulative behavior for what he thinks is people's own good, since the pandemic has many of us desperate for connection "and churches already have that built in." But behind these "good intentions" are clear assumptions of Christian normativity and supremacy, and a paternalistic failure to view as morally autonomous agents those who might prefer to find connection outside of churches.

As for Stetzer, after asserting that he believes Harris "to be earnest," he calls for evangelical self-reflection, which he says "should lead us to be more like Christ and less like our worst instincts." Stetzer then wraps up his comments with what amounts to an endorsement of the objectifying practice of friendship evangelism. "Honestly, many will face that moment when a family member or friend leaves the faith. For me, I plan to stay in relationship, continue to be a friend or family member, stay close to Jesus in my own life, and (yes) share the good news if and when it is appropriate."

At the end of the day, evangelicalism is a type of Christian fundamentalism. And any fundamentalist faith is a type of totalizing ideology, and thus destructive of human empathy and dangerous for democracy. The expectation of total submission to the strictures of the faith makes empathy for outsiders — and especially for former insiders — a threatening thing, and anything that a fundamentalist community insists is "the will of God" is something on which its members will brook no compromise in the political arena.

Because this is the type of fear-based faith that evangelicals espouse, they simply cannot truly listen to exvangelicals, no matter how warm and civil they may try to be in discussing us. Letting us speak for ourselves puts their narrow understanding of reality at risk. It is this totalizing aspect of evangelicalism that, I suspect, most of us exvies object to above all, since, after all, it is the root of all kinds of authoritarian evils. In the North American context, this authoritarian rigidity serves to uphold white supremacist patriarchy. It is also, of course, precisely the one thing evangelicals can't give up while remaining evangelicals.

White evangelical support for Donald Trump wasn't about partisanship -- it was about animus toward minorities

In the wake of the Pew Research Center's findings that 84 percent of the white evangelical Protestant vote went to former President Donald Trump in 2020, it is more important than ever for the American public to face the uncomfortable truth about the authoritarian Christian right's deleterious impact on society, culture and politics.

Some of us have been pushing for this conversation for years, with various iterations of relevant data and scholarship helping to elucidate key points. During the 2016 primaries, a few political scientists drew attention to a link between authoritarian personality traits and support for Trump. For Religion Dispatches, I wrote at the time, "if 'a desire for order and a fear of outsiders' predicts Trump support, the question of why white evangelicals are backing a trash-talking billionaire can be easily answered."

Although the mainstream press has only haltingly begun to take such analysis seriously, my conclusion, which was intuitive to me as someone who grew up in white evangelical subculture and attended Christian schools, aged well over the next few years, as the rubric of "Christian nationalism" became an important part of the relevant discourse. No one should have been surprised by evangelical Trump support, and that the American public has done such a poor job of grappling with the issue is a sad commentary on the fundamental weakness of American civil society.

One of the key roots of that weakness is the tendency of TV news and the legacy press to present "both sides" of any issue that can be framed as partisan. The right has long since learned to exploit this tendency by using manufactured "controversies"—where there is no serious controversy among experts in the relevant fields—to shift the Overton window in, for example, areas such as climate change. While a strong argument that American polarization is "asymmetric," and driven primarily from the right, has been available, this understanding has done little to improve the situation.

Could the national discussion of right-wing, white Christians as a distinct authoritarian "faction" that transcends party help us to escape from the trap of bothsidesism? Lilliana Mason, associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, seemed to suggest as much in a recent Twitter thread exploring some of the implications of a new paper she and colleagues Julie Wronski and John V. Kane recently published in American Political Science Review.

The main finding of the paper, "Activating Animus: The Uniquely Social Roots of Trump Support," is that support for the former president was driven primarily by negative feelings toward discrete social groups primarily associated with the Democratic Party: African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, and gays and lesbians.

Using a 2011 baseline that could be checked against later voting preferences, the authors show that animosity toward marginalized groups increased Trump support regardless of party affiliation, with a particularly strong effect among independents (a 30-percentage-point shift in Trump's favor vs. a 15-percentage-point shift among both Republicans and Democrats). The effect does not hold for other Republican leaders or the Republican Party in general. The authors found no similar effect of animosity toward groups primarily associated with Republicans—whites and Christians—on support for the Democratic Party. Thus, as the authors put it:

The observed relationship between group animosity and Trump support is neither an artifact of his serving as a de facto party leader nor a phenomenon that manifests symmetrically across candidates in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Rather, it appears that Trump support is uniquely drawn from animosity toward social groups linked with the out-party, whereas most other elites' political support is unrelated to these kinds of sentiments.

It would therefore be incorrect to "explain Trump's appeal with partisanship alone." These conclusions seem to be the basis of Mason's Twitter thread, in which she contends, "More than 'polarization,' we need to worry about the very real threat posed by an anti-democratic group that has always existed in the electorate, and [that] has taken control of parties to cover for their explicitly anti-democratic aims."

It is certainly true that this white Christian faction identified by Mason and her colleagues exists throughout American history not only as a bastion of white supremacist patriarchy, but also as something distinct from the political parties with which it may be aligned at any given time. It is not clear to me, however, that simply pointing out that American racists used to be mostly Democrats, but are now mostly Republicans, can do much to change the public discourse. After all, appeals to seemingly moderate Republicans to show "spine" or "conscience" in recent years have yielded precious few results in this post-2010 gerrymandering environment that has allowed the Tea Party and the Christian right to control the GOP. To be sure, the concentration of authoritarians in one of two major parties in a two-party system is a serious problem, but there is no simple way to dislodge the authoritarians from their power over the current Republican Party, which is more white and male than ever.

That being said, I wholly agree with Mason's contention that we need to talk about white right-wing Christians as the core of anti-pluralist, anti-democratic America. I'm not sure, however, that trying to make the case that doing so is "non-partisan" will have much impact when, despite the findings of Mason and her colleagues, the faction in question currently defines the GOP. Whether this argument will convince media gatekeepers, there's also still the issue of Christian supremacy, and the concomitant de facto taboo on subjecting Christian demographics to social criticism, to overcome.

Despite the challenges, I think it makes sense for American liberals and leftists, and for all Americans who support democracy and human rights, to push both these narratives. And they are more likely to have an impact the more they can be associated with relatable human faces and stories. I have worked over the last few years to elevate the voices of "exvangelicals" and the nonreligious to argue that we should be considered stakeholders in discussions of evangelicalism and the Christian right—as should anyone directly affected by their politics. This approach has yielded some results, and I believe it has legs, inasmuch as stories have power. The stories of those who have left the Republican Party because of the authoritarian faction's control may also be mobilized to change the national conversation, which is indeed a crucial part of the long game in politics. Whether it will be enough to avoid a long period of minority authoritarian rule by our racist, anti-democratic faction, however, is far from certain.

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