Editor’s Note: This essay is taken from Keeping the Faith: Reflections on Politics and Christianity in the Era of Trump and Beyond. Each week between now and Election Day 2020, we will be sharing new excerpts from this anthology of dissent.
81% of White Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump to Make America Great Again. But it was not Christianity that got him elected. White American Folk Religion (WAFR) did. This ideology, not Christianity, is the oxygen burned in the spiritual fire of the United States. That heretical flame is not the Holy Spirit. WAFR is a race, class, gender-based hierarchy that hijacks the Christian label to sanction abuse, greed, and violence, and then absolve leaders who live lives contrary to the teachings of Jesus and wield power in opposition to God’s plan for the world. This is not limited to the White House.
It was not faithful Jesus followers that rejoiced as Kavanaugh was belligerent and unrepentant during his confirmation hearings. The cheering was from those who believe Jesus to be a White, straight, American Protestant male of pure Anglo-Saxon descent. And it is not disciples of Christ that are rallying to defend Jerry Falwell Jr.’s shady real estate deals, toxic campus culture, and whatever happened in night clubs or with pool boys in Miami. The people lined up behind Falwell Jr. exchanged the Kingdom of God for America and are lined up to defend their prophets, their pockets and their positions.
And though the pundits and pollsters will say it was the cocktail of neglect and dismissal toward the “flyover” states, urban elitism, the toxicity of Hillary Clinton, and the grievances of those on the losing side of globalization that ushered in the result of the 2016 election, an honest look at history reveals a different, more potent force at work. This power will fight for Jerry Falwell Jr. to keep his million-dollar salary even after he resigns, for Kavanaugh to stay on the Supreme Court, and for Trump to get four more years. Those devoted to WAFR align themselves with and pledge allegiance to the protected class of white, well-connected, well-resourced, straight men, the heresy of Christian Empire, and America as the New Jerusalem. This unchristian faith heralded at the 2020 Republican National Convention by Vice President Mike Pence and Housing Secretary, Ben Carson, aligns itself with political power for profit and protection and then absolves its prophets and people of sexual abuse, violence, and exploitation of people and the planet. This is not new. In fact, it is older than the constitution, the first thirteen colonies, or Columbus getting lost at sea.
In the time after Jesus’ crucifixion, His followers experienced terrible persecution. This is especially true during the early life of Eusebius. He was a theologian and historian who chronicled much of this violence in a work called Church History. He seems faithful at first, but after Constantine’s conversion, Eusebius’ work took a turn away from taking up his cross to raising the cup of empire. Instead of continuing to write about the wonders of Christ and the martyrs of the church, he began to record the marvelousness of the emperor and his empire. His recordings stand in stark contrast to Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28 to “go and , baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20, NIV).
Also antithetical to the Great Commission was Peter’s cutting off the ear of Malchus, one of the men who came to arrest Jesus of Nazareth in John 18. Instead of mounting an insurrection, Jesus rebuked Peter, reminded him of His mission, and put the ear back on Malchus’ head. Additionally, in Acts 1:8, after Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to His disciples, the overwhelming question for the oppressed Jewish people that those gathered brought up immediately was, “is now the time that you have come to restore Israel?” (Acts 1:6, paraphrase).
If Jesus wanted to overthrow Rome and establish the seat of Christian Empire, He could have done so; but instead He acted upon his stated purpose and reality that His kingdom is not of this world. Lastly, before Jesus ascends to heaven, He doubles down on His call from Matthew 28 explaining that the Holy Spirit is coming, not a new empire to subvert the Romans (Acts 1, NIV).
Jesus’ words were the opposite of Pope Nicholas V’s in 1452 who authored what we know now as the Doctrine of Discovery. Jesus said, “go out and preach,” and the Pope said, “go out and plunder.” The theological foundation for White Supremacy and consequent imperialism birthed at that time dehumanized African and Indigenous people, stripped them of their land and humanity, and laid the foundation for genocide, land theft, environmental destruction, chattel slavery, and horrific sexual violence.
Catholics were not alone in their white-washing of Jesus; Protestants like John Winthrop also needed theological covering and a faith-based framework for the land theft, slavery, and genocide that ensued in his colonies in Massachusetts in 1630. He likened his band of believers to the Israelites and quoted Deuteronomy 30:18, but conveniently replaced “Jordan” with “vast sea,” firmly placing himself and his co-travelers in the Israelite narrative. Thus, those gathered in front of Winthrop, instead of looking out upon the lands and people with the Great Commission in mind; their eyes were set on expanding so-called Christendom.
The Doctrine of Discovery as expressed through Winthrop no doubt influenced Thomas Jefferson when he coined the term Manifest Destiny and claimed the land west of the Mississippi. His hypocrisy was mind-bending as he enslaved more than 600 human beings over his life, yet called to be liberated from slavery to the British. Jefferson did in practice what Pope Nicholas V and John Winthrop did in their preaching: he literally cut Jesus out of his personal Bible lest he come face to face with the original abolitionist who liberates the captives from physical and spiritual chains.
Sadly, WAFR is not just a problem that impacts those of faith. The town of Lynchburg would surely benefit from an institution that blessed its town instead of threatening it. The entire legal system of the United States would reap the benefits if there were another judge in its highest court who was cognizant of patriarchy and who abhorred sexual violence and alcoholism. And how amazing would it have been for the collective American consciousness if a president with compassion and empathy for communities of color had gone to Charlottesville in August 2017, Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, or El Paso after the mass shooting.
With WAFR as the lens and history in the rear view, what is happening in the present day is clear. Trump, Kavanaugh and Falwell Jr. look a lot like the greedy, exploitative, heretical men who came before them and not much like the Jesus they claim to know. They are no doubt religious; but their dedication is to greed, self-preservation, self-gratification and pride. Instead of practicing disciplines to grow in love and kindness, they are committed to behavior that demeans and abuses and arises out of their entitlement as White American men. Jesus’ two commandments are to love God and love your neighbor. These three men in accordance with WAFR are only committed to loving themselves and those they deem worthy. Followers of Jesus who desire to be faithful and obedient with our political power must vote against what is self-centered, narcissistic, and self-preserving at the expense of the planet, the poor and the marginalized. Because to vote for what is best for the immigrant, prisoner, hungry and sick is to vote with Christ on the throne of our hearts; not ourselves, or the latest version of Caesar.