Book review: ‘Immoral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power Over Christian Values’

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Ben Howe, who grew up in the world of conservative evangelism, is the author of the new bookImmoral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power Over Christian Values.”

Emma Green at The Atlantic has a review and interview with the author. Why Some Christians ‘Love the Meanest Parts’ of Trump:

Ben Howe is angry at evangelicals. As he describes it, he is angry that they didn’t just vote for Donald Trump in record numbers, but repeatedly provide moral cover for his outrageous failings. He is angry that leaders of the religious right, who long claimed to be the champions of American morality, appear to have gladly traded their values for power. He is angry that Christians claim they support the president because they want to end abortion or protect religious liberty, when supporting Trump suggests that what they really want is a champion who will mock and crush their perceived enemies.

To redeem themselves, Howe believes, evangelicals have to give up their take-no-prisoners culture war.

This is the story Howe, a writer and pundit, tells in his new book, The Immoral Majority—the title aptly riffs on the Moral Majority, the 1980s-era Christian political machine created by the influential pastor Jerry Falwell. Right-wing Christianity is Howe’s native territory: He grew up attending Falwell’s church in Virginia, Thomas Road Baptist Church, down the street from Liberty University, where Howe’s father, a Southern Baptist pastor, taught classes. In other years, Howe’s family attended First Baptist Church in Dallas, which is now pastored by one of Trump’s most vocal supporters, Robert Jeffress. After being raised in the bosom of the religious right, Howe went on to become a filmmaker, a Tea Party activist, and a blogger for the conservative website RedState, where he spent a not insignificant portion of his time trolling progressives. He was later fired from that website, along with other writers, because of his vocally anti-Trump views, he claims. (Rosie Gray wrote about the purge for The Atlantic in the spring of 2018.)

Howe’s book mirrors the frenzied intellectual mode of the Trump era. Over the course of some 200-plus pages, he spends a lot of time talking about Twitter and micro-events from the insane Trumpian news cycle. Very few “regular” people show up in his book—he relies on the work of reporters and the statements of a few prominent evangelical Trump supporters to make a broad case about rot in the American church. While Howe sometimes seems to write from within an echo chamber, his keyboard-warrior style also yields the most compelling sections of the book, in which he reflects on the toxic culture of right-wing media.

Conservatives who are so-called Never Trumpers are a rare breed to find in the wild, although you might not know it from the plush media gigs and small mountain of book deals this crowd has collected since Trump got elected. I wanted to talk with Howe because his rage is personal—it’s his church, his gospel, and his identity that he believes has been co-opted.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You can read the article for the author interview.

Ben Howe recently wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post that touched on the subject matter of his new book. Evangelicals have abandoned their mission in favor of Trump:

As the debate about how to handle applicants for refugee status at the U.S. southern border gained urgency in recent months, Pew Research Religion waded into the social-media fray on July 7 with a tweet about the results of a poll the organization conducted last year. Pew reported, and online commentators quickly noted, that white evangelical Protestants were the least likely group — amid results sorted by age, race, education and religion — to say that the United States “has a responsibility to accept refugees into the country.”

Sixty-eight percent of white evangelical Protestants said the country has no responsibility for refugees. No other demographic group came within 10 points of that result.

Difficult to believe, from a 2019 vantage, but some evangelical leaders had been taken aback when the Pew results were originally released in May 2018, and urged their flocks toward change. But back then, the main question about refugees concerned those fleeing the brutal civil war in Syria. “When faced with a potential conflict between prominent evangelicals’ biblical pro-refugee arguments and [President] Trump’s opposition,” Brian Newman of Pepperdine University noted in The Post, “the vast majority of white evangelicals choose Trump.”

A year later, with the focal point on refugees from Central America, in much greater numbers and more likely to be vilified by the president, evangelical leaders are largely as one with their congregations.

Consider the response in June when Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, ventured this observation on Twitter: “The reports of the conditions for migrant children at the border should shock all of our consciences. Those created in the image of God should be treated with dignity and compassion, especially those seeking refuge from violence back home. We can do better than this.”

Moore’s comments didn’t sit well with Jerry Falwell Jr., inheritor of his father’s Christian empire, president of Liberty University and a prominent evangelical figure.

“Who are you @drmoore?” Falwell tweeted. “Have you ever made a payroll? Have you ever built an organization of any type from scratch? What gives you the authority to speak on any issue? I’m being serious. You’re nothing but an employee — a bureaucrat.”

Some were dismayed by Falwell’s response, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone paying attention the past few years who was surprised by it.

Falwell is one of several leaders in the modern evangelical movement who have helped solidify Christian principles as synonymous with the Republican agenda, and specifically with the president’s agenda.

Trump, of course, welcomes this way of thinking. Speaking to an assembly of Christian leaders as a presidential candidate in June 2016, Trump said, “You can pray for your leaders, and I agree with that. Pray for everyone. But what you really have to do is you have to pray to get everybody out to vote for one specific person. We can’t be, again, politically correct and say we pray for all of our leaders, because all of your leaders are selling Christianity down the tubes, selling evangelicals down the tubes.”

Yet the idea that without Republicans, Christianity is lost, is not unique to the Trump era. The merging of evangelicalism and Republicanism has been underway for decades. It is simply more visible and pronounced under this president — primarily because evangelical support for Trump requires a much higher degree of cognitive dissonance. That is, fighting for conservative Christian values by unquestioningly supporting someone who not only doesn’t share them but has lived most of his life actively, and unapologetically, in opposition to them.

And evangelicals got what they wanted: a president who appoints conservative judges up and down the federal judiciary, including two Supreme Court justices so far. Stomaching Trump’s behavior and rhetoric — which could generously be described as not characteristic of a Christian — has been rewarded with much-improved prospects for stricter abortion laws and achieving other long-sought goals in what conservative Christians regard as a desperate and escalating culture war.

President Donald Trump and Sen. Mitch McConnell have branded themselves “Back-to-Back Supreme Court Champs” for a new joint fundraising campaign selling T-shirts at SupremeCourtChamps.com, featuring the faces of both Republican Party leaders along with names of their two biggest accomplishments (sic) since 2017: Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Money raised will be split evenly between the 2020 reelection campaigns for Trump and McConnell.

The evangelical embrace of Trump has been an electoral positive for the Republican Party, but for those who would evangelize, the new reality is tragic. It is hard to pitch faith as a function of voting.

Christians are instructed in the Bible to attract people to Christ, to convince them, to witness to them. We’re meant to speak the truth in a way that invites strangers in, welcomes them, makes them feel loved.

To care for the least of these is a Christian value. Expressing and demonstrating it is spreading the Word.

That’s called evangelizing. A movement that based itself on the term but now embraces its antithesis is becoming difficult to recognize.

Apropos conclusion shared by the Washington Post’s religion editor, Michael Gerson. Some white evangelicals are difficult to recognize as Christians at all (excerpt):

In a poll conducted last year by the Pew Research Center, only 25 percent of white evangelical Christians said the United States has a responsibility to accept refugees, while 65 percent of those not affiliated with a religion affirmed that duty. What could possibility explain this 40-percentage-point gap in inclusion and compassion? For a certain kind of secularist, this reveals cruelty, corruption and hypocrisy at the heart of the Christian faith. But traditionally, many of the institutions that do refugee resettlement have been Christian.

The problem does not lie in Christianity but in the moral formation of Christians. Are they getting their view of refugees from Christian sources? Or are they taking their view from Fox News, talk radio and Trump? I suspect the latter. And the worship of political idols is ultimately a spiritual problem — a different kind of blasphemy.

Matthew 7:15: Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravening wolves.

These challenges run deeper than politics. Many white evangelical Christians hold a faith that appeals to the comfortable rather than siding with the afflicted [The “prosperity gospel” is an insipid heresy whose popularity among American Christians has boomed in recent years, teaches that God blesses those God favors most with material wealth]. They have allied themselves with bigots and nativists, risking the reputation of the gospel itself. And, in some very public ways, they are difficult to recognize as Christians at all.

Republican consultant Rick Wilson in his “Never Trump” book caustically wrote Everything Trump Touches Dies. In this case, Trump has managed to corrupt the faith and destroy Christian values with his narcissistic personality cult of Donald Trump. White evangelical Christians have lost their way and need to have a “come to Jesus” moment to find redemption. They can start by turning away from the personality cult of Donald Trump and back to Christ.




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