To hear white evangelicals tell it, their faith is under attack. “It has been obvious for a while that Christians are under suppression, they are under scrutiny by everyone,” Adam Phillips, a drywall contractor from North Carolina told The New York Times. “All of the things the country was founded on are under attack; they are trying to get the name of God out of everything, especially the name of Jesus.”
In California, a Lodi church filed suit against the governor last spring for violating civil rights because of coronavirus restrictions. Tim Remington, pastor of an evangelical congregation in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, complained about what he called censorship against Donald Trump, “because he incites some kind of violence,” while “anybody that hates God, devil worshipers, Satan worshipers” have untrammeled access to the media.
Aside from Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley’s grandstanding, it’s this sense of beleaguerment that seemed to be fueling white evangelical support to overturn the results of the election in November. Author and Christian radio host Eric Metaxas, who has vaulted into the front ranks of evangelical demagogues, declared several weeks after the election that “Trump will be inaugurated.” The day following the Jan. 6 Trump insurrection at the Capitol, he insisted, “There is no doubt the election was fraudulent.” He provided no evidence.
Why would white evangelicals be marching alongside white supremacists? Some of the evangelicals gathered at the Capitol described the neo-fascist, white supremacist Proud Boys as “God’s warriors.”
The white evangelical embrace of a thrice-married, self-confessed sexual predator — Franklin Graham, who heralded Trump as “a president who protected our religious liberties” — has confounded just about anyone outside the increasingly insular bubble of white evangelicalism.
But what accounts for the siege mentality? Why would a contractor claim that “Christians are under suppression”? Why would Graham warn about a “dark winter” enveloping the nation “because of its sins”? White evangelicals, after all, have all but dominated American politics for the past four decades, electing the religious right’s favored candidate in six out of the last 11 presidential elections.
I think history can provide some clues. White evangelicals have shifted their rhetoric from majoritarianism to victimization. When the school prayer decisions of the early 1960s were handed down, evangelicals argued that prescribed prayers in public schools should be Christian prayers because the majority of Americans were Christians. As Edward Koons, a pastor in California, said at the time, “A great majority favors God.”
With the rise of the religious right in the 1970s, however, evangelicals began to reverse course. Rather than rely on the rhetoric of majoritarianism, they reverted to the language of victimization. “From the Senate chamber to the corner bakery,” the Family Research Council complained, “Christians with natural or biblical views of marriage and sexuality have a bullseye on their backs.”
Is there any truth to this? There’s no question that both popular opinion and American jurisprudence have moved in the direction of ensuring the rights of all Americans, even though we still have a long way to go.
The real question is why white evangelicals would find that troublesome? Why should they begrudge according equal rights to others? Why would they view marriage equality, for example, as a threat? No one, after all, is forcing them into same-sex marriages. Besides, it’s not as though we heterosexuals have brought glory to the institution of marriage.
The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that white evangelicals no longer have a hegemonic hold on society. Rather than accept that all Americans enjoy civil rights and protections under the Constitution, they seek desperately to cling to the majority status that white Protestants, especially evangelicals, enjoyed for most of American history.
It’s a position not unlike that of white supremacists, who perceive (correctly) that white hegemony is slipping away. Is it any wonder that white evangelicals were marching beside white supremacists in their assault on the Capitol? (Recall the “Jesus 2020” banner and others that invoked the deity.) Add to that the historical fact that the religious right itself was born in the 1970s in opposition to racial desegregation at evangelical institutions and you have a witches’ brew of displacement, resentment and victimization that led to violence.
As someone who grew up evangelical and as a historian of the movement, I want to yell: You’re better than this! and remind evangelicals of their noble history of concern for those on the margins of society, those Jesus called “the least of these.” I fear, however, that their trumped-up sense of beleaguerment, their embrace of far-right ideologues and demagogues and, yes, racists has produced a mutant form of the movement that can no longer be recognized as Christian.
Randall Balmer teaches at Dartmouth College. His forthcoming book is “Bad Religion: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right.”