Launched with a hashtag, a new movement seeks to raise awareness of how fundamentalist Christianity is polarizing the national discourse.
November 14, 2019
In thousands of evangelical elementary schools across the United States, children begin each day by reciting three pledges — one to the American flag, another to the Christian flag, and a third to the Bible. The latter two might come as a shock to people who are unfamiliar with white Christian fundamentalist subculture, but they are standard practice in these schools, approximately 2,000 of which are subsidized by taxpayer funds.
The version of the pledge to the Christian flag typically recited in fundamentalist and evangelical schools, which usually self-identify simply as Christian schools, ends with “one Savior, crucified, risen, and coming again with life and liberty for all who believe.” This is hardly a pluralistic sentiment. One wall in the elementary building of the K-12 Christian school I attended in the 1980s and ‘90s was emblazoned with part of Psalm 33:12, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.” We schoolchildren knew exactly what those words meant. We were raised to be the generation that would take back America for Christ, “saving” the country from the godless liberals who, we were told (explicitly and often), killed babies and were destroying the institution of the family, and whose preferred policies, we were told, would bring divine punishment on our nation.
Eighty percent of white, born-again Christians — that is, white evangelicals and fundamentalists — voted for Donald Trump in 2016. More than 90 percent of them object to his impeachment, and polls consistently show him at over 70 percent in their favorability rating. If you want an answer to the question of where President Trump’s white evangelical base was radicalized, it’s right here. And while this demographic is down to 16 percent of the population, it remained 25 percent of the electorate in the 2018 midterms and is advantaged by gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the Electoral College.
Ex-evangelicals (or “exvies”) like myself have been trying to draw attention to the problem of evangelical authoritarianism in recent years, bringing the insights that come with lived experience to the table. Using hashtag campaigns like #EmptyThePews, #ChurchToo, #ChristianAltFacts, and #ExposeChristianSchools to achieve collective visibility we have, in conjunction with the efforts of researchers who have been monitoring the Christian Right for decades, made some progress in changing the national conversation around evangelicalism. A change in the discourse is essential if we are to shift the Overton window back from the extremes to which the Right has taken it over the last few decades.
For too many pundits, commentators, and gatekeepers, the answer to “where were they radicalized” is found in taboo territory. Christianity as it is practiced by millions is not always a social good — indeed, it is sometimes downright harmful to both individuals and society. But the Americans who most need to have that conversation are often unable to engage with the idea that the Christianity they view as “authentic” is anything less than perfect. And so we continue to see hand wringing, pearl clutching, and an increasingly desperate barrage of unhelpful think pieces about the “crisis” of young people leaving the church and about evangelical hypocrisy.
Repeating that the “coastal elites’” reading of the Bible is “correct” and “heartland evangelicals’” reading of the Bible is wrong will not, despite the former’s best intentions, convince evangelicals to withdraw their allegiance from Trump. The vast majority of white evangelicals are not going to listen to mainline Protestant, liberal Catholic, moderate to liberal evangelical, or Jewish commentators who quote Bible verses exhorting readers to treat foreigners with kindness. And fellow conservative evangelicals like Michael Gerson, a George W. Bush administration alum who helped create the monster of which Trump is a symptom — but who now sees Trump as a liability — are not going to rein them in. And none of this does anything to reverse the normalization of Christian extremism that now dominates the American public sphere.
Hashtags like #EmptyThePews can harness the democratic potential of social media — which still exists, despite the anti-democratic forces that exploit it for nefarious purposes — to break through these barriers. Indeed, hashtags may prove critical in the fight for human rights and democracy, the greatest threat to which, in the United States, is undoubtedly represented by the Christian Right and the Christian nationalist ideology to which its members adhere.
In August 2017, I launched #EmptyThePews out of frustration with the response from conservative white evangelical leaders to the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, at which protestor Heather Heyer was killed. Prominent Christian Right voices either remained silent on Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” comments, or even went so far as to assert on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network that there was “not a racist bone” in Trump’s body. Opining on how, as authoritarians, white evangelicals typically refuse to listen to any criticism, I observed that the only things they’re really afraid of are declining church attendance numbers and losing the youth. We should, therefore, throw their alienation of young Americans and their loss of members in their faces.