Four reasons to worry about the Christian right’s influence on American politics
Donald Trump and the Christian right have forged an oddly strong alliance. Because one’s beliefs inevitably affect one’s politics, it behooves us to examine the worldviews of conservative Christians in America.
1. Ancient Morality
The religious right’s influence is perhaps most apparent today in social issues, such as same-sex marriage. If the Bible is considered the infallible word of God, as it is for millions of Americans, then using it as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong is completely understandable. Do humans know better than God? In the 19th century, abolitionists argued that slavery was contrary to the “spirit” of Christianity. But pro-slavery forces countered with explicit biblical statements such as “You may acquire male and female slaves” (Lev 25.44). If slavery were an immoral practice, they argued, then God would not have so plainly condoned it. The women’s suffrage movement also faced stiff resistance from Bible-quoting conservatives. Fortunately in these instances reason eventually prevailed, and biblical interpretation then adapted to the culture. We can witness this process in action today, as Christianity struggles with Bible verses about homosexuality.
2. Polishing brass on a sinking ship
Christians have a deep tradition of believing we’re in the end times. In 2010, Pew Research found that 58% of white evangelicals believed Jesus would definitely or probably return to earth within 40 years. Christian books such as The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series, which tell of this age coming to a cataclysmic end, rank amongst the best selling books of all time. If one believes that the Antichrist is soon to wreak havoc on the earth, and that Jesus will then return to end this evil age and establish a glorious new creation, then what hope does one have that humans can create a brighter future? The believer already knows how the story ends. Hope lies in the next world, not this one. How might such thinking influence one’s position on climate change, for example? Why dump all our time and energy into a future that doesn’t exist? How might this color one’s foreign policy? Is Jesus’ return not a welcomed event? After all, he will defeat the forces of evil and the believer will live in bliss for eternity. Of course publicly rooting for the end of the world is a tad distasteful, but the danger of perverse incentives is clear. As we seek policies that best enable a peaceful future, might the believer be drawn to policies that lead to events thought to presage the return of Jesus?
3. Good and Evil
If you’ve ever listened to Christian television and radio evangelists, chances are you’ve heard about all the mischief the devil is causing here on earth. The idea that there is a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil has been with Christianity from the beginning. This dualistic worldview can pose challenges to democracy. There are only two sides: those who side with God and those who do not. Needless to say, this kind of thinking is not conducive to compromise.
4. Alternative Facts
For most of Christianity’s history, its claims about the cosmos and human origins went unchecked. But the scientific revolution changed that. Galileo famously clashed with the Church over his (accurate) assertion that the sun does not revolve around an immovable earth; the earth moves around the sun. Christianity made peace with an orbiting earth, but more surprises lay ahead. Geologists began to overturn the commonly held biblical view that the earth is around 6,000 years old. Then came the theory of evolution, which caused many Christians to draw a line in the sand. The traditional Christian story holds that God created Adam and Eve, the first two humans, in the beginning of creation. Their disobedience in the Garden caused sin and death to enter the world, rendering humans estranged from God and in need of a savior. But science uncovered a world in which humans evolved from lower life forms through a long gradual process of survival of the fittest. Death is clearly not a result of human sin, and humans’ sinful nature does not result from Adam and Eve’s fall from grace; human nature is simply the result of natural processes. Nothing broke. This is how the world has always been.
As the scientific consensus around evolution continued to solidify, many liberalized their views, but many others stood resolute, committed to preserving their most deeply held convictions. Bypassing the “so-called experts" became a matter of survival. Creation science, the apotheosis of alternative facts, was born. In today’s political environment the disregard for what’s actually true and the willingness to inhabit an alternate reality feels new, but it’s not. Christian fundamentalism paved this space decades ago. What is new is that alternative facts have been welcomed into the mainstream.