How evangelicals gradually replaced Jesus Christ with right-wing ideology

As a pastor I was always uncomfortable using God's word to pressure people to give money to the church. It seemed like a dirty trick: Play on the fear of disappointing God by convincing people on fixed incomes to provide for my livelihood. So I never did, much to the chagrin of my board of trustees. For the past 70 years, however, evangelical leadership has used this fear of God to raise billions of dollars to fight those the evangelicals have deemed to be the enemies of God. This naturally requires a private jet, a television network, a super PAC and a con artist pastor and politician to lead the way.

This article was originally published at Salon

The first set of enemies were of course the feminists, the pro-choice advocates and the LGBTQ community. Jerry Falwell Sr. said in 1980, "We must stand against the Equal Rights Amendment, the feminist revolution and the homosexual revolution." From that point forward, the blueprint to effect political change for God — and to raise money for that cherished cause — was created. God's call was clear, or so the congregations were told, and the enemies were equally clear. The evangelical movement was born and money started flowing to numerous evangelical organizations. Politicians used evangelical language to win elections, and the God vote became more and more aligned with the Republican Party.

My problem is that the Christian faith was lost — as I have argued previously in Salon — during these massive fundraising campaigns. Donald Trump and the evangelical political machine raised millions of dollars, while completely removing anything that even remotely looked like the Christian faith. I believe a Christian reformation in American evangelical politics is desperately needed — not only to save my beloved faith, but to save the country.

True reform of the evangelical political machine will never happen, however, as long as the current evangelical leadership holds the reins. Understand that the leaders who have recently been fighting for control of the Southern Baptist Convention are no different than Jerry Falwell Sr. or Pat Robertson in the past, or Robert Jeffress and Franklin Graham today. These new evangelicals feel the need to be more discreet about their homophobia and anti-equality agenda. Perhaps they will even reject Trump now that he's no longer president, but do not expect them to show up at the next Pride rally or Black Lives Matter march. The problem here is that this relationship between the evangelical leadership and the Republican Party has become what Christians call a covenant.

Over the last 70 years, Christian theology has been steadily replaced, within the evangelical world, by Republican or "conservative" ideology. I noticed this in my time at an evangelical seminary and during my years in ministry, whenever political discussion would go beyond abortion and gay rights. When the conversation turned towards gun rights, immigration, taxing the wealthy, education or health care, the tenets of Christian theology disappeared behind Republican talking points.

The evangelical political message was that the Bible should be used in politics to attack certain people, but never to question oneself. That's how you get people to donate: Make the enemy clearly visible and easily definable. That's why the Bible is almost never used in politics as a justification for serving the poor, welcoming the foreigner, healing the sick or promoting equality. That agenda is not likely to motivate donations from wealthy white heterosexual men. Therefore, over time the evangelical message became that "American" and "Republican" were more important labels than "Christian" — or that they were effectively the same thing.

This shift is most obvious around the issues of gun rights and immigration. If you want to reject the foreigner, build a wall and own a private artillery, go right ahead. That is your right. But it is not your right if you sincerely want to follow the teachings of Jesus. We are not gun owners; we are pacifists. We are not provided with the gift of freedom and independence by God just to make sure no one else can have it.

The ugliest part of this agenda is that evangelicals have come to believe in rejecting the foreigner and keeping their guns because they are protecting what is "rightfully theirs." A true Christian should understand that nothing except condemnation is rightfully theirs. This country, their home, their freedom and their very lives belong to God. So how in God's name can a Christian support an agenda based on violence and racism?

I have never understood the appeal of gun culture, but I understand that Jesus was a man of peace. He certainly had a large enough following to fight back with force against the false sedition charges brought against him. With one speech, Jesus could have caused great political and religious difficulty in Jerusalem by doing what Trump did on Jan. 6. But that is not the Christian way.

When one of Christ's disciples did use a weapon to defend Jesus, his words were clear: "Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword." That should be enough for any follower of Jesus. We are not commanded to be violent people. If there is an enemy, we are to love that enemy and pray for that enemy, not murder that enemy.

This issue around immigration is quite clear in the Bible. Leviticus 19 tells us, "The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt." There is no greater call on a Christian than to embrace the foreigner. In fact, there is a theory that if a Christian does not accept the foreigner, then God may reject that Christian at those pearly gates of heaven.

Evangelical leaders have focused their agenda on protecting things they feel entitled to, while focusing the attention of their followers on what they define as the enemies of God. That fear of God's enemies has allowed billions of dollars of donations to flow into the hands of religious hypocrites. They have convinced millions of Christians that the enemies of God are people who live south of the border, who are coming for their guns, their jobs, their property, their health insurance, their taxes and even their families. Trump tapped masterfully into the fear planted by evangelical leaders in the hearts of their followers. In the end, millions of Christians have abandoned their faith for a narrow-minded political ideology.

True Christian theology commands quite the opposite. A person of faith is not driven by fear, but by love. Grace is extended to the foreigner, forgiveness is offered to the prisoner, health care is offered to the sick, food is offered to the hungry and equality is offered to all.

Evangelicals abandoned Christianity — and chose to be 'conservatives' instead

As a pastor I was always uncomfortable using God's word to pressure people to give money to the church. It seemed like a dirty trick: Play on the fear of disappointing God by convincing people on fixed incomes to provide for my livelihood. So I never did, much to the chagrin of my board of trustees. For the past 70 years, however, evangelical leadership has used this fear of God to raise billions of dollars to fight those the evangelicals have deemed to be the enemies of God. This naturally requires a private jet, a television network, a super PAC and a con artist pastor and politician to lead the way.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

The first set of enemies were of course the feminists, the pro-choice advocates and the LGBTQ community. Jerry Falwell Sr. said in 1980, "We must stand against the Equal Rights Amendment, the feminist revolution and the homosexual revolution." From that point forward, the blueprint to effect political change for God — and to raise money for that cherished cause — was created. God's call was clear, or so the congregations were told, and the enemies were equally clear. The evangelical movement was born and money started flowing to numerous evangelical organizations. Politicians used evangelical language to win elections, and the God vote became more and more aligned with the Republican Party.

My problem is that the Christian faith was lost — as I have argued previously in Salon — during these massive fundraising campaigns. Donald Trump and the evangelical political machine raised millions of dollars, while completely removing anything that even remotely looked like the Christian faith. I believe a Christian reformation in American evangelical politics is desperately needed — not only to save my beloved faith, but to save the country.

True reform of the evangelical political machine will never happen, however, as long as the current evangelical leadership holds the reins. Understand that the leaders who have recently been fighting for control of the Southern Baptist Convention are no different than Jerry Falwell Sr. or Pat Robertson in the past, or Robert Jeffress and Franklin Graham today. These new evangelicals feel the need to be more discreet about their homophobia and anti-equality agenda. Perhaps they will even reject Trump now that he's no longer president, but do not expect them to show up at the next Pride rally or Black Lives Matter march. The problem here is that this relationship between the evangelical leadership and the Republican Party has become what Christians call a covenant.

Over the last 70 years, Christian theology has been steadily replaced, within the evangelical world, by Republican or "conservative" ideology. I noticed this in my time at an evangelical seminary and during my years in ministry, whenever political discussion would go beyond abortion and gay rights. When the conversation turned towards gun rights, immigration, taxing the wealthy, education or health care, the tenets of Christian theology disappeared behind Republican talking points.

The evangelical political message was that the Bible should be used in politics to attack certain people, but never to question oneself. That's how you get people to donate: Make the enemy clearly visible and easily definable. That's why the Bible is almost never used in politics as a justification for serving the poor, welcoming the foreigner, healing the sick or promoting equality. That agenda is not likely to motivate donations from wealthy white heterosexual men. Therefore, over time the evangelical message became that "American" and "Republican" were more important labels than "Christian" — or that they were effectively the same thing.

This shift is most obvious around the issues of gun rights and immigration. If you want to reject the foreigner, build a wall and own a private artillery, go right ahead. That is your right. But it is not your right if you sincerely want to follow the teachings of Jesus. We are not gun owners; we are pacifists. We are not provided with the gift of freedom and independence by God just to make sure no one else can have it.

The ugliest part of this agenda is that evangelicals have come to believe in rejecting the foreigner and keeping their guns because they are protecting what is "rightfully theirs." A true Christian should understand that nothing except condemnation is rightfully theirs. This country, their home, their freedom and their very lives belong to God. So how in God's name can a Christian support an agenda based on violence and racism?

I have never understood the appeal of gun culture, but I understand that Jesus was a man of peace. He certainly had a large enough following to fight back with force against the false sedition charges brought against him. With one speech, Jesus could have caused great political and religious difficulty in Jerusalem by doing what Trump did on Jan. 6. But that is not the Christian way.

When one of Christ's disciples did use a weapon to defend Jesus, his words were clear: "Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword." That should be enough for any follower of Jesus. We are not commanded to be violent people. If there is an enemy, we are to love that enemy and pray for that enemy, not murder that enemy.

This issue around immigration is quite clear in the Bible. Leviticus 19 tells us, "The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt." There is no greater call on a Christian than to embrace the foreigner. In fact, there is a theory that if a Christian does not accept the foreigner, then God may reject that Christian at those pearly gates of heaven.

Evangelical leaders have focused their agenda on protecting things they feel entitled to, while focusing the attention of their followers on what they define as the enemies of God. That fear of God's enemies has allowed billions of dollars of donations to flow into the hands of religious hypocrites. They have convinced millions of Christians that the enemies of God are people who live south of the border, who are coming for their guns, their jobs, their property, their health insurance, their taxes and even their families. Trump tapped masterfully into the fear planted by evangelical leaders in the hearts of their followers. In the end, millions of Christians have abandoned their faith for a narrow-minded political ideology.

True Christian theology commands quite the opposite. A person of faith is not driven by fear, but by love. Grace is extended to the foreigner, forgiveness is offered to the prisoner, health care is offered to the sick, food is offered to the hungry and equality is offered to all.

Evangelicals are teaching false doctrine. Who says so? Jesus Christ

I was raised by a pair of wild hippies, so my heart has always been committed to liberal ideology. As a Bible-believing Christian, however, I was surrounded by evangelical theology throughout my youth, in various churches, Bible camps and so on. When I decided to enter the ministry to attempt to change that conservative theology, I attended an evangelical seminary. It was clear on my first day on campus that no reform was going to occur.

This article first appeared in Salon.

If I happened to mention voting for Al Gore, I was told by my classmates that God keeps a record of my voting history and that I had voted for a man who endorses baby-killing and tearing down the American family. Honestly, I was just hoping that President Gore might help save the planet and not make up a reason to go to war in Iraq. Anyway, in my 10 years in ministry I had even less luck making any changes, which is why I left the formal ministry a couple of years ago.

The truth then, and even more so now, is that we cannot separate Republicans, and now the Trumpists, from the evangelicals. I have seen my fellow "Christian left" types attempting to reform the God vote — in fact, I've done it myself — but I feel we have been too timid in our approach. Stronger language and a pure rejection of evangelical theology is needed. From a purely Christian point of view, the evangelical leadership are false teachers teaching a false doctrine. Trumpism cannot be defeated without first facing down evangelicalism. Jesus Christ, who these people claim as their savior, himself provided a warning against these religious hypocrites in Matthew 23:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

The only real threat to Christianity is Christianity itself. Leading evangelical pastors like Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffress made a passionate plea for Christian voters to ignore Trump's shortcomings as a man because he stands with the Christian church on all things that are right and true. Apparently, that means Christians must shut the door to all LGBTQ people, abortion providers, liberals, immigrants, Muslims and anyone who happens to mention taxing the wealthy.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

Many of the false American evangelical teachers demonize and look down upon the people in poorer countries. I have seen these "missionaries" in places like Haiti building their churches and making sure "proper doctrine" is followed. It is this type of modern-day colonialism that has provided foreign governments the religious authority to enact terrible anti-LGBTQ laws and restrictions on reproductive rights for women.

Woe to you, blind guides! You say, "If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath." You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred?

False teachers have always believed that their financial wealth means favor with God. I have seen many Christian leaders give praise to God for their big homes, nice cars and million-dollar sanctuaries. This belief that God has blessed them with great stuff prevents them from ever understanding the need to fund programs that provide equality in the education, health care, justice and economic systems.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

These false evangelical leaders may have stayed within the law, but they know nothing about being merciful. They could never understand the message to reach out to undocumented immigrants because of God's call to treat the foreigner as native born — because we were once foreigners ourselves. They only understand the language of rules and law without mercy and grace.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.

Many of these false evangelical leaders have spent a lot of time and money making sure their public image is clean. Ideal marriages, wonderful children, kind and loving people who are financially affluent and pay their taxes. Christ reminded his followers to be careful of such a well-crafted persona. Behind the curtain there are many filled with hypocrisy and wickedness.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, "If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets." So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!

Many of these current evangelical leaders love to quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his message of love and forgiveness. Many would like to forget that most conservative Christian leaders rejected Dr. King's message while he was alive, and some believed he was a communist. It is no mystery to me why there is no picture of the great Rev. Billy Graham marching with Dr. King. These false evangelical leaders expose themselves again as they reject the Rev. William J. Barber II's message about honoring and uplifting the poor, which is far more clearly based in Christian doctrine than anything they preach. These false evangelical Christian leaders never understood Dr. King's message to follow Jesus into those places in America where poor people struggle and suffer and too often die, and they never will.


Nathaniel Manderson

Nathaniel Manderson was educated at a conservative seminary, trained as a minister, ordained through the American Baptist Churches USA and guided by liberal ideals. Throughout his career he has been a pastor, a career counselor, an academic adviser, a high school teacher and an advocate for first-generation and low-income students, along with being a paper delivery man, a construction worker, a FedEx package handler and whatever else he could do to try to take care of his family.

Two reasons we can't ignore evangelicals — and two ways we can break their political power

It is difficult to carry a message like mine, one that doesn't have a real audience. As a Bible-believing liberal, I lose the liberals with the whole "Bible believing" thing, and I lose the Bible believers with the whole "liberal" thing. At times I feel like the only person in America with this perspective. I am not into converting anyone, either: Each individual's faith journey is their own. I am also not sure I can change the hearts of many of the followers of the evangelical movement, so that is also not my goal. I do believe, firmly, that for this country to progress it needs true liberal progressives in positions of power and influence for a long time. This will not happen if people overlook or underestimate the power of these Christian nationalists. Secondly, I see a clear way to stop this evangelical political nationalist movement.

Two reasons we can't simply ignore the evangelicals, post-Trump

The first reason is that they have lots and lots of resources: Think tanks in Washington, massive "nonprofit" ministries that bring in millions of dollars, Fox News, Newsmax, QAnon, talk radio, all their current politicians in office, plus one crazy ex-president.

I understand the temptation to just move ahead without facing down the evangelicals, but recent history suggests it is a mistake. Two recent presidential candidates who struggled to connect to the evangelicals were Hilary Clinton and John Kerry. Both had incredible résumés and were much more qualified than the people they were running against, but the evangelicals greatly favored George W. Bush and, more recently, Donald Trump.

During the Bush campaign Karl Rove put together a state-by-state push to get evangelical issues on state ballots to motivate the evangelical votes in various swing states. At the time Bush's approval ratings were terrible, the economy was a disaster, and the country was stuck in a war that many Americans disapproved of — yet the evangelicals bridged that gap and gave Bush four more years. The story around Clinton losing to Trump is well documented, and the fact that at least 80% of evangelicals voted for Trump is well known.

These political victories for lesser candidates were not accidents. The evangelical movement is well financed and has far-reaching influence. All the recent activity since Trump lost the 2020 election has only emboldened them further. The evangelical leadership, because of its vast network, is funding political campaigns, news networks and legal defense teams for Trump — through an organization called the American Center for Law and Justice — in a never-ending push to overturn Roe v. Wade and create some form of Christian theocracy. Ignore them at your political peril.

The second reason is that the evangelical message of returning America to traditional Christian values connects with millions of voters. Anytime people talk about the "good ol' days" and how evil the world is now, that connects. No one is better at that then these evangelicals. We're all guilty of this a bit, by the way. I am 44, and I hate how things are right now. It's a world where Bruce Springsteen is selling cars and Bob Dylan sells lingerie, and every actor, musician and athlete is a brand to themselves. The movies all look the same, the music all sounds the same and millennials drive me nuts. It's a tempting message, and they know how to communicate it.

Change does not come easy to anyone. I have seen this in my ministry and my educational career, and perhaps more so in my work in the trades. Anyone who has ever had a job for a while, only to see some new idea come out at their company or school has had this experience. People resist. I know I do. Furthermore, people tend to remember the way things were in a much better light than the way things are. Evangelicals tap into this tendency brilliantly, and make the same kind of connection in talking about America. Any information that threatens this false version of American history and the connection to God is seen as coming from an enemy.

Many of the messages I hear on evangelical radio talk about biblical societies that turned their backs on God, and felt God's wrath soon afterwards. There is a clear and obvious warning that America has done just that. They certainly do not mention that America's relationship with Christian values is complicated, to say the least The facts and the real history does not matter: The fantasy of the way things were is what works works. As I suggested earlier, this kind of message works on most people. People fantasize about how things were in past relationships, in old work situations, in almost everything. So the evangelical leadership and the politicians they support tap into this human desire to bring back the good times.

Two ways to stop the evangelicals and break their political power

First of all, we must call out their leaders — the evangelical leadership care only about wealth, power and proving their own righteousness. It needs to be shouted from the rooftops that they selected issues that raised money and kept them in positions of power and influence. They are the very religious hypocrites that Christ himself warned his followers about.

Calling these leaders out is easy, but convincing their followers that their leaders are conmen has proven to be difficult. I go biblical here, which is hard for my fellow liberals. Many of the liberals I know have put aside their faith for some solid reasons. For some it's about rejecting the experiences they had in church as kids, and for some it's simply a matter of choice to reject all this God stuff. I get that. Believing in God is no joke: An old guy in the sky with rules, heaven and hell, and a son on the cross dying for our sins. It is a big leap.

But this lack of faith means that evangelical leaders are easily able to dismiss liberals' arguments. That's why I go biblical on these evangelical hypocrites. The Bible is a problem for these guys in many ways. My best argument lies in two places in the book of Matthew, the first of those being the only time Jesus loses his cool. The religious leaders of Christ's time had turned God's house into a den of robbers and thieves, and this is the case again. I cannot get through five minutes of listening to some evangelical minister without them selling me their books or asking for a donation. Most followers notice this and question it in their hearts, so it's time to announce that these evangelicals are nothing short of the robbers and thieves that Christ confronted.

The other passage from Matthew is a sermon by Christ warning about religious hypocrites. The basic gist is about religious leaders obsessing over how they must appear to the public as holy and righteous. The outside of their cups are clean but inside they are full of all kinds of evil. Remind you of anyone? This is how we take away some of the political power of the evangelical leaders. They are a poison in the veins of this country, and their own savior condemned them more than 2,000 years ago.

The second thing we need to do is address the concerns of the evangelical followers. These people, in real life, don't care what happens with the LGBTQ population and, believe it or not, don't care much about abortion. They mostly care about their own families and their ability to take care of them. This is where the connection can come in.

I know it sounds wrong-headed to believe that the followers of these evangelicals are concerned about anything besides issues around Christian "liberty," abortion and gay rights, but I promise that in their heart of hearts they do not care about anything but taking care of their own family and finding a job that gives them value. It is hard to see through all the embarrassing behavior of the evangelical movement to find something worth addressing, but it's there.

I am not denying that much of the reason they follow Trump reveals some serious ignorance around race, women's rights and immigration. I am not saying that we all need to be friends. But it is important to understand the core of what many people from the blue collar working-class poor need, of all races and faiths. They want to be heard, valued and even loved. Reaching them is simply a matter of talking to them. That is all the evangelical leadership has ever done. They've never truly done anything for them truly and neither have the politicians they support, but they gave the blue-collar evangelicals love and a sense of value. That goes a long way.

Liberals can give them the same thing but actually offer them the real progress that can come from supporting leaders who will pursue policies that actually benefit the working class. Understand that to ignore this group sends this country down a path of bitter division. Just focus on the economic disparity that so clearly exists in this country. Finding common ground on core issues like that has been the basis of all progress in this country. Every great leader in the past 200 years has understood the need to find common ground and we should do likewise.

America's issues around religion, politics, power and oppression are not going away anytime soon. But perhaps for a little while the better angels of our nature can lead this nation away from the selfishness and greed that have driven it for so long. In this moment I choose to focus on one key article of faith: Theocracy is never a good idea.


Nathaniel Manderson

Nathaniel Manderson was educated at a conservative seminary, trained as a minister, ordained through the American Baptist Churches USA and guided by liberal ideals. Throughout his career he has been a pastor, a career counselor, an academic adviser, a high school teacher and an advocate for first-generation and low-income students, along with being a paper delivery man, a construction worker, a FedEx package handler and whatever else he could do to try to take care of his family.

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