“Make no mistake,” I wrote last February here in the virtual pages of Playboy.com. “This”—the America of authoritarian evangelicals and other right-wing Christians empowered under Trump to impose their theocratic norms—“is Billy Graham’s America.” There’s perhaps no greater indication that I was right than the recent social media onslaught of accusations that Vice President Mike Pence and the white evangelicals he represents are “fake Christians,” since they are directly responsible for the mistreatment of asylum-seekers, including children, in our U.S. concentration camps, and they refuse to do anything to stop this ostensibly “un-Christian” treatment of their neighbors.
The hashtag “FakeChristian” trended on Twitter after Pence toured the McAllen Border Patrol concentration camp, where men who are being denied access to showers and tooth brushes have been held in inhumanely overcrowded conditions and sweltering heat for well over a month. Much like former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, another evangelical who hails from the Bible Belt, Pence has mastered the art of what I like to call “lying for Jesus,” and he was quick to deny the reality of the inhumane treatment of detained asylum-seekers that all of us could see in the video of the event. Such abusive behavior is despicable. It is also a feature of fundamentalist religion, which is by its nature authoritarian. And therein lies the rub.
The right-wing Christian ideology that Pence represents allows him to see the world in terms of neat hierarchies, with powerful white Christian men like himself on top. And in the pursuit of a supposed “greater good” that aligns with “God’s will” (which in turn conveniently aligns with the hierarchy that empowers Pence), authoritarian Christians operate with an ends-justify-the-means ethos, writing off any human suffering that results with such banal pieties as “God is in control.” This is what most of Christian history has been like, if we’re being honest, at least since Christianity fused with the Roman Empire and its medieval successor states, subsequently becoming associated with European imperialism. One can argue that this Christianity of worldly power is not what Jesus wanted, but, even assuming that the Jesus represented in the four canonical gospels is something like the historical Jesus, the conclusion is not self-evident.
The same Jesus that is said to have said “Blessed are the peacemakers” is also said to have said “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Can we honestly be certain that, given enough time, a man who was capable of saying the latter may not have ended up as something of a first-century Jim Jones? After all, both of them seem to have started from a place of radical inclusivity.
If we internalized the truth that Christians are just as capable of evil as members of any other group, we would not be affording Christians the unquestioned trust that lets theocrats thrive.
Put simply, if the American public can’t imagine that “real” Christians are capable of evil, then we’re clearly living with a de facto Christian public sphere rather than a secular one. This is exactly what Billy Graham wanted. It is his legacy and that of the early Cold War moment, and this Christian public sphere provides anti-democratic, anti-pluralist Christians like Pence with the cover they need to commit and enable atrocities and to impose theocratic norms under the guise of pursuing “religious freedom.”
How does it do so? Think for a moment about what it really means when you call a Christian who is being evil a “fake Christian.” What you are saying is that “real” Christians are morally superior, which is precisely what Christians who oppose pluralism—and who for their part cast the “fake Christian” accusation at liberal believers and proponents of liberation theology—believe about themselves. Accepting authoritarian Christians’ own framing paves the way for fundamentalist Christians to receive undue deference from major news sources, whose normalization of this extremism helped forge their path to power. This unquestioned deference toward Christians and to their leaders, this assumption that they must be basically good, is also what has allowed abusers to go unchecked for so long in both Catholic and Protestant contexts. If, on the other hand, we had internalized the truth that Christians are just as capable of evil as members of any other group, we would not be affording Christians the unquestioned trust that lets theocrats and abusers thrive.
Progressive Americans have made important strides in recent years considering such sociological realities as white, male, straight, cis, and abled privilege. If we exclude Christian privilege from our analysis, however—particularly in its intersections with white male privilege—we are missing a crucial element. It is precisely this blind spot that has allowed the Christian Right to take so much power right under the noses of most of the American public. If you want to oppose that power, the next time you find yourself filled with righteous outrage over powerful Christians behaving badly, resist the impulse to shout “fake Christians!” and call it a day.
If you’re going to use a hashtag to protest, try #NotInMyName or perhaps #EmptyThePews, which I coined in August 2017 as a response to white evangelicals’ complicity in the white supremacist atrocities at Charlottesville. Remember, too, that white evangelicals aren’t afraid of accusations of hypocrisy. In fact, they’ll embrace them as evidence that they are “persecuted,” and abusers love nothing more than getting to paint themselves as the victims. The slogan “empty the pews,” by contrast, speaks to something that America’s authoritarian Christians are afraid of—declining numbers and the loss of the youth. We—those of us who represent liberal and progressive, diverse, inclusive, pluralist America—outnumber the theocrats. We can intimidate them by proclaiming that reality, and if we stop deferring to them by accepting the de facto Christian public sphere they’d prefer for us all to operate in, then we might just succeed in curtailing their power and saving American democracy.