I was raised in a fundamentalist, Baptist church during the 60s and 70s. While I no longer subscribe to much of the teachings, it troubles me that the “brand” is forever stained by association with the election and continued support of Donald Trump by many of its purported “leaders,” such as Franklin Graham, the Falwell kid and others proclaiming allegiance to the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Faith, compassion, empathy and love were the words I would most associate with the church of my youth. Sermons were largely focused on convincing the unrepentant to get right with God or face an impending doom where there is “weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth,” i.e.; H-E-double-toothpicks. Every service ended in what was termed an “altar call” where sinners would come forward and pray the “sinner’s prayer” and become “saved” … from H-E-double-toothpicks. They were genuinely concerned about everyone’s immortal soul.
In all of those years – twice on Sunday, Wednesday evening prayer service and Thursdays “witnessing” (we had a lot of special nomenclature) – I don’t recall one sermon on abortion or homosexuality. There were plenty on rock music (devil’s music), immodest dress (mini skirts) and social drinking (teetotalers were the norm).
But, mostly the sermons would be centered around some poor slob who became addicted to drugs, alcohol, money, sex or some other vice and reach bottom only to stumble one day into a Bible-believing© church, find Jesus and miraculously turn their lives around.
And then; the altar call.
It took a busload of faith to believe all of the things required: virgin birth, bodily resurrection, inerrant scriptures (miracles described in the Bible actually happened rather than serve as an allegorical teaching on morality) and the Second Coming of Christ.
This is not to say that the fundamentalists in our church were OK with homosexuality or abortion. It’s just that it wasn’t seen as a bigger deal than, say, gambling or smoking. Really.
Even immediately after Roe -v- Wade, abortion was not a central topic of sermons or general discussion. It was ALWAYS a private matter. I suspect that during the time we attended the church, there were at least two young women and one older one (a grandmother) who had abortions. They would suddenly disappear for a couple of weeks and then return with absolutely no explanation for the absence and no one mentioned anything about the incidents.
I can’t say that I ever heard the word “homosexual” spoken aloud either in a sermon or in discussion groups. Fundamentalists preferred the phraseology “unnatural desires” as a casual reference to homosexuality. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah was as far as anyone came to preaching a sermon about homosexuality – and no one ever pointed out to me the connection between the biblical city and the act. I had to figure that out on my own as my vocabulary grew in school. The pedagogy of the story was more about the consequences of ignoring commandments from God rather than a political posturing of liberal versus conservative ideologies.
My father and a few of the other men in the church volunteered to preach a short sermon, serve coffee and a hot meal at a storefront location near our inner-city church, and I would play Onward Christian Soldiers (the only song I knew) on an old, beat up and out of tune piano. There were winos, drug addicts and homeless folks in attendance at these sporadically held events (as far as I knew, it happened every Saturday, but I didn’t go all the time). It was a regular occurrence for someone to come stumbling to the front of the room during the altar call (I was playing Onward Christian Soldiers for about the fifth time in a row by then – but, softly now), throw his cigarettes and booze on the floor in the front, weep and “accept Jesus into his heart.” I never saw these people again. I often wondered what happened to them. I never asked.
This was it. It was a pretty simple mission: tell stories about Jesus in the Bible and convince people to convert or spend eternity in H-E-double-toothpicks.
Fast forward to the present.
Somewhere between Nixon and Ronald Reagan, fundamentalist Christianity became a subset of the Republican party.
I first noticed it in the early 80s when a buddy of mine in college got a job at a Christian radio station and aired segments of the Moral Majority Report from Jerry Falwell, senior pastor at the Thomas Road Baptist Church, a megachurch in Lynchburg, Virginia. These programs told horrific stories of bondage and sexual perversion within the Gay community and how they were proselytizing YOUR children; something they called the “Gay Agenda.” In addition to the radio segments, voluminous mailers were sent to nearly every Christian household in America with page after page of photos of outrageously dressed “drag queens” and blacked out photos of gay sex (although, with all of the black boxes, it was hard to tell exactly what the people were doing) with alarming descriptions of how the Gay Agenda was threatening our perceived Christian, cultural heritage and the very institute of monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Page after page in large print with lots of ALL CAPS TEXT. Vote Republican!
The same thing happened with the anti-abortion campaign. It was no longer talked about in hushed tones over dinner at Denny”s. Now, church groups were busing themselves to the front of Planned Parenthood hoisting 20 x 40 foot placards with photos of aborted fetuses shouting horrific things at the scared, young women in dark sunglasses trying to get to their doctor’s office for a regular checkup, contraceptives and in some cases; an actual abortion. Somehow, because women could now acquire safe, legal procedures in America, it was a threat to our “moral compass.” Vote Republican!
Not long after, an agnostic, college dropout, thrice-divorced radio talk-show host from California began creating a narrative of the oppressed, forgotten man: the white, male and heterosexual Christian. It was the political agenda of the radical, left wing intelligentsia represented by the biased, liberal media and the Democratic Party to undermine the institution of marriage by promoting homosexuality and the agenda of militant feminists (dubbed “femi-nazis”) who want abortion on demand in order to free themselves from the shackles of traditional gender roles.
The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 provided just the right impetus to propel Rush Limbaugh to AM stations across “the fruited plain,” and thus began the cultural wars that would merge conservative Republican values and political theology within the confines of evangelical Christianity.
I witnessed this evolution first hand at an evangelical church that when I first started attending was evenly and congenially mixed between liberal and conservative viewpoints. Over time, the divisions between those two groups sharpened with each camp retreating to the safety of their respective cable news islands. Conservatives found camaraderie among the culture warriors on talk radio pushing the notion that the very institutions of Christianity, marriage, family and all that is good and decent was under attack. Liberals pretended this was just a passing phase and focused on trying to make Christianity more embracing of the cultural mixture emerging all around them – sometimes to the point of absurdity.
And then came Trump.
Ushered in on the wave of the righteous indignation of the Tea Party movement and all the populism surrounding it, Donald J. Trump, a waning reality TV star who famously bankrupted multiple casinos, rode down the escalator of gaudy Trump Tower and right, smack in the middle of America’s culture wars.
Why did he choose the Republican party and evangelical Christianity to formulate his base? I have a theory, but that’s for another post. I’m more interested in discovering exactly why evangelical Christians in such large numbers are lining up behind a man who makes Bill Clinton look like a Boy Scout.
I think it has a lot to do with abortion and homosexuality. The decades of propaganda by the Moral Majority and cultural warriors have made those two issues, which are barely mentioned in the entirety of the Bible, of such importance that it is bringing us back to a point in historical Christianity that had been nearly erased throughout the modern era.
If you travel to Europe and visit some of the great Christian cathedrals, you will notice some basic themes fundamental to all ecclesiastical architecture. The front entrance almost always is divided into three distinct entrance points representing the Trinity. The center-most portal is usually larger than the other two, as it represents the risen Christ. If the cathedral was designed during the Middle Ages, the Christ figure is depicted as triumphantly condemning the damned into hell, with some truly frightening scenes below the arch. Art historians label this era as “the condemning Christ” period. If the cathedral was designed during the Renaissance and after, the Christ figure above the central doorway is portrayed with arms open wide ushering all people into the glory of Heaven, and is therefore dubbed the “welcoming Christ.”
As a child, I viewed the Jesus of the Bible as a super hero. He could walk on water, he could go through walls and he could disappear into thin air. He healed the sick and raised the dead. He wasn’t afraid of the poor and wretched among us, rather; he embraced them. It gave me goose flesh to read the stories of Jesus coming to the rescue of the outcasts in society. He famously told a group of religious bigots about to punish a woman accused of adultery that “he who is without sin should cast the first stone.” He condemned the pious Jews who passed by a Samaritan who was wounded and helpless along the side of the road, and praised the humble citizen who came to his aid despite historic animosities between these two groups. He railed at religious hypocrisy and overturned the money-changer tables at Temple. Super hero!
But when you read some of the letters of Paul, you see a different portrayal of Christ. He picks sides. He condemns lightweights. He sends those who don’t conform to a place where there is “weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.” In Paul’s interpretation, there are clear hierarchies within the Christian movement with women and slaves subsuming a lesser and submissive role. The institution of the Roman church formed in the first centuries after Jesus’ death solidified the preeminence of the condemning Christ until the Enlightenment began to chip away at this image flip-flopping it to the image of Christ I encountered in Sunday School as a child.
I think we are at the crossroads once again in the history of the Christian movement. We seem to be going back to the condemning version of Christ. Rather than a warm embrace, we favor the pointed finger of rebuke. We choose “sins” that are easy to condemn such as homosexuality and abortion because these are things that most folks within the Church will never experience or struggle with. These are things that only effect a small minority of people within the population, and make for an easy delineation between the righteous and the wicked.
Donald Trump appeals to this vision of Christianity. There is nothing he enjoys more than playing to an adoring crowd with a common enemy. And at every turn, he adds to the list of those we should condemn. Immigrants who cross our border illegally, people of color from “shit-hole countries,” non-Christian religious groups such as Muslims and Atheists who he has convinced his supporters want to eradicate Christianity from America. “Vote for Trump and you can say Merry Christmas again,” he chants.
I don’t know if the harm done to evangelical Christianity is beyond repair, but I think it will take another busload of faith to turn the tide. I haven’t been to church for quite some time now because it just doesn’t feel like home anymore. Gone is the super hero Jesus I grew up with, and I just can’t embrace the strong-man version embodied within this current Trump movement.