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Opinion | Political Christianity Has Claws – The New York Times

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David French

Opinion Columnist
On Friday, Aug. 18, a man named Travis Ikeguchi shot and killed Laura Ann Carleton in Cedar Glen, Calif. On Monday, the San Bernardino County sheriff Shannon Dicus said, “Investigators determined that prior to the shooting the suspect tore down a Pride, or rainbow, flag that was hanging in front of the store and yelled many homophobic slurs toward Carleton.” Ikeguchi was subsequently killed in a standoff with the police.
The police highlighted elements of what appears to be Ikeguchi’s feed on X, the site formerly called Twitter, and noted that it included a picture of a burning Pride flag with the text “What to do with the LGBTQP flag?” (As of Thursday morning, a representative from the San Bernardino county sheriff’s office said the account, which has since been suspended, had not yet been confirmed as the shooter’s.) I went to the feed as well and found it chilling, and not simply because of the obvious hatred for L.G.B.T. Americans. It was chilling to me in part because it wasn’t substantially different from the sentiments I see and hear all the time from right-wing Christians in the age of Trump.
Mixed in with the account’s strident anti-L.G.B.T. rhetoric and conspiracy theories were posts endorsing Christianity, including some that would otherwise suggest a compassionate heart. The account reposted, for instance, a post that read: “When your heart is hurting and you have nothing left to pray, speak the name of Jesus. When the tears fall and no one else can see, whisper His name.” The account also reposted a meme that declared, in part, “God has chosen you to make you a blessing to many.”
Yet not far from that post was another, which took the words “Pride Month” and gradually blurred out the letters at either end, leaving only the word “demon” highlighted in the middle.
Again, these posts were so disturbing to me precisely because they weren’t that extreme compared to rhetoric common among the religious right. Matt Walsh, a prominent conservative Christian, declared his perceived leftist opponents “goblins” and their anger “satanic.” A prominent MAGA pastor, Mark Burns, told a cheering crowd that he’s declaring war on every “demonic, demon-possessed Democrat that comes from the gates of hell.” In a conversation with the T.P.U.S.A. founder Charlie Kirk, the prominent evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll labeled what he called “soft beta male woke Christianity” as “demonic,” a characterization Kirk called “perfect.” Kirk, another self-proclaimed Christian, posted this tidbit on his own feed just yesterday: “Whiteness is great. Be proud of who you are.”
And do not believe for a moment that such vitriol is limited to prominent pastors or pundits. I consistently encounter even small-town citizens and public officials who tell their own stories of encountering hatred after defying Christian political or legal demands. Crossing the Christian right increasingly means facing threats, intimidation and, in rare cases, even deadly violence.
Threats, intimidation and violence aren’t exclusive to the right, of course. But there is something particularly painful and puzzling when such expressions of hatred come from people who claim to follow Jesus, the prince of peace. What is happening?
Simply put, America is increasingly beset by a version of cultural and political Christianity that bears little resemblance to the faith as described in the Bible. It seems as if there’s an almost mathematical equation at work — when you combine theology and ideology but subtract virtue, you’ve created a formula for viciousness and strife. Raise the stakes to an existential or eternal level, remove the restraints of kindness and self-control, and watch the worst of humanity emerge.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Christian faith is the way Scripture treats both theology and virtue. The Bible is of course a complex theological book. But when it comes to identifying whether a person is in the grip of the “flesh” (i.e., worldly sinfulness) or exhibiting the influence of the Holy Spirit, it doesn’t emphasize theology but rather something much more simple: virtue and vice. In other words, even the most impeccable theological understandings are meaningless if they don’t result in Christian character.
The key verses come from the Apostle Paul, in the book of Galatians. He describes how “the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh.” What does “the flesh” desire? Here Paul condemns sexual immorality and idolatry, but also other sins, including “hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions” and “envy.”
And what of the spirit, what is the evidence that God is at work in your life? Paul’s list does not include a single statement of theological belief, but rather a series of simple virtues, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” In other words, when you encounter another person — regardless of what they say about their religious beliefs — you can discern their true character by such traits. Joy and gentleness should earn our attention and respect; hatred and jealousy are red flags, even in those who can quote every line of scripture.
This is a constant theme in the Bible. As Jesus said, “every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit.” The conclusion is simple — beware the hateful, the people drawn to strife; embrace those who are kind and peaceful. Of course none of us are perfect, but those who follow Jesus should be marked by those virtues.
Which leads me to ask discouraging questions: Do those virtues mark the most prominent political Christians today? Do those virtues characterize political Christianity in the age of Trump? The answers are self-evident.
At a time of extraordinary partisan polarization, a Christian message should demand that we love our enemies. (And what is love? Among other things, as we learn in Corinthians, “Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs.”) Moments of political conflict such as this one should cause the church to blaze forth with countercultural radiance — a soothing balm in a sea of strife. But the dominant tone of contemporary American political Christianity is close to the opposite. It’s angry. It’s punitive. In many ways it positively delights in strife.
The Christianity it embodies isn’t so much Christianity at all, but rather a religiously flavored authoritarianism that is proving to be red in tooth and claw, a political and cultural movement that embraces the “works of the flesh,” supposedly to accomplish the will of God.
Political Christianity embodies the logic of religious war. It sees threats to American faith primarily outside the church, creating a sense of siege. It casts kindness as weakness, creating incentives for aggression. And since it casts conflicts in the most existential of terms — its political opponents are not misguided fellow citizens, but literally demonic — it raises the temperature to the boiling point. As the popular Christian author Eric Metaxas told Donald Trump in November 2020, in the midst of the president’s efforts to overturn the election: “I’d be happy to die in this fight. This is a fight for everything. God is with us.”
This relentless hunt for enemies outside the church is a prime reason for the remarkable demonization of the L.G.B.T. community, a hatred that Laura Ann Carleton likely heard expressed by her killer in her final moments of life. A far lower percentage of L.G.B.T. Americans seem to identify as evangelical than the public at large. They are, in many ways, the perfect “them” against whom political Christians rally the “us.”
Indeed, I spoke not long ago at a small gathering of Christian pastors. When I asked for questions, I was struck by the fact that the first few were all about legal and cultural issues surrounding transgender Americans. I was happy to do my best to answer them, but I was struck by the immediate turn to that issue, beyond any other.
I asked whether any of the pastors present had one or more transgender members in their congregations. I didn’t see a single hand go up.
I next asked if any of them believed that a substantial number of men in their churches regularly consumed pornography. Every hand shot up immediately.
To be clear, many of these pastors understood that political Christianity was paying inordinate attention to the L.G.B.T. community; the questions they asked were on behalf of their congregants. But it was impossible to miss the fact that so many minds were preoccupied with challenges to traditional Christian teaching from outside the church that seemed more distant and theoretical; and so few were focused on responding to immediate, near-universal challenges within its walls.
When I was a younger Christian, I used to love theological debates and devour theological books. But now I’m much less interested in theology, and I’m far more interested in virtue. If theology minus virtue can equal violence, then perhaps theology plus virtue can enable justice.
Look again at the fruit of the spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are incompatible with oppression. And while exhibiting that fruit does not guarantee that others will love or respect you, it does help us obey one of our highest calls: to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
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David French is an Opinion columnist. He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and a former constitutional litigator. His most recent book is “Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.” @DavidAFrench
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