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What’s Wrong With Bible Thumpers Nowadays?

Photo by David Howard | CC BY 2.0

Our elections used to be good for at least one thing: comic relief.  In the Age of Trump, the absurdities are no longer amusing – just disheartening and scary.  Remember Christine (“I am not a witch”) O’Donnell?  Compare and contrast with Roy Moore.  QED.

Trump appeals to the dark side, and brings out the crazies.  Moore makes Trump look good – not because his crazies are more dangerous, but because they are sillier.

Bible thumpers nowadays are the worst.  What is that all about?  They used to seem so harmless.  But look at them now!

Evangelical movements have been around since colonial times.  Their fortunes have waxed and waned; and all sort of considerations — theological, geographic, sociological, economic, and so on – have been invoked to account for them.  There is plenty of merit in all these approaches; and there is nothing new that I could add.

I do have something to say, however – not about the evangelical movement in general or the character of the evangelical mind, but about why the politics so many evangelicals nowadays gravitate towards is so dreadful.

The reasons have to do with the irrationality and hypocrisy that is endemic in the evangelical community, and with the effects of the Trump presidency on the ambient political culture generally, and on evangelicals especially.

***

Rationality is a normative standard, an account of what ought to be, that applies both to actions and beliefs.

On the action side, evangelicals do all right; they are generally able to negotiate their ways through the world as well as anyone.  But their beliefs, especially the ones that have no immediate practical consequences, are as irrational as can be.

There are two ways in which this charge applies.

For one, rationality requires beliefs to be logically demonstrable or supported by compelling empirical evidence.  By that standard, evangelicals hold many beliefs that fail to pass muster.

This is why they are easy prey for village atheists.   How hard is it, after all, to trip them up by asking, for example, what the lions on Noah’s arc ate, or how Noah had room on that arc for hundreds of thousands of plant and animal species?

Consistency is an even more fundamental normative standard.  Unlike the former standard, it applies not to beliefs themselves, but to their relation to other beliefs.

Evangelicals’ efforts to prevent schools from teaching evolutionary theory – or to teach versions of it that amount to religious dogma in disguise – are a case in point.

Why are “evangelicals” who never complain about Galileo so hostile to Darwin?  Both men initiated world-transforming scientific revolutions; and both were seminal thinkers whose ideas appear to challenge some of Christianity’s fundamental tenets.  Yet Galileo is OK with them and Darwin is not.

One would expect true believers to find both Galilean cosmology and Darwinian evolutionary theory problematic – inasmuch as they both make it hard to see how human beings could occupy the special place in “creation” that Christians and other theists think they do.

Darwin showed that natural processes better explain the levels of complexity and apparent purposiveness that we observe in nature than do inferences to the existence of an “intelligent” creator-designer of the universe.

Evangelicals take exception to that – not just because it is at odds with Bible stories they take literally, but also because, in their theology, human beings, unlike all other creatures, are made in “the image of God.”   Taking that away threatens the very foundations of faith.

Galilean cosmology is even more deflationary.  As its core ideas took hold, it turned out that, from its purview, we – along with our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, and perhaps even our universe — are unimaginably small and insignificant in the cosmic scheme of things.

Theologians have ways of getting around inconvenient Bible stories.  If they are ingenious enough, they can square the circle; conceding that we evolved in the ways science tells us we did, but are nevertheless “special” in relevant respects.

And, as a matter of logic, “the earth and all that dwells therein” could be vastly less significant than a speck of dust, but still be a matter of concern to a God that is omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good.

From a psychological point of view, however, one can only wonder how a Being as great as the one theists believe in could possibly take an interest in beings as insignificant as we plainly are.

And so, if Darwin gets their goat, Galileo should too – more so by far.

However, if we leave reason aside and look at the situation through a different lens, the evangelicals’ position does make a kind of sense.   Even back in the Scopes Monkey Trial days, the “debate” was never exactly about modern science and its compatibility, or not, with theistic beliefs, much less specifically Christian ones.  It was about the importance of “the old time religion” to the good, down home people who identified with it.

Nobody was talking about identity politics back then, but this was a case of it.

No one identifies with old time (Aristotelian) cosmology in a similar way.  Galileo threatened Church doctrine, but only the Doctors of the Church and the higher clergy had any personal investment in theology.  What Galileo and those who came after him threatened was ideas, not identities.

And even that threat dissipated centuries ago.  The story of Galileo’s problems with Pope Urban VIII and the Inquisition has long been the stuff of legend, not political contestation.

The situation of evangelicals in America could hardly be more different; they have had problems with Darwinism since Day One, and that hasn’t changed to this day.  Inconsistencies don’t faze them.  They don’t mind being irrational; if anything, they could care less.

Inconsistency and hypocrisy are not quite the same.  A hypocrite is someone who says one thing and then does the opposite.  Hypocrites have been drawn to theistic religions with restrictive sexual codes from time immemorial.  Roy Moore is just the latest in a long line.

Although their views of women and their behaviors towards them are much alike, in this respect, Moore is not like Trump at all.  Trump has never been a hypocritical philanderer.   Quite to the contrary, he is, and long has been, a shameless braggart, just as one would expect someone so insecure to be.

However, in extreme cases, hypocrisy can shade over into something else for which there really is no good English word.  There is a perfectly serviceable Yiddish word, however, that has found its way into the American vernacular: chutzpah.

The example of the child who kills his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court on the grounds that he is an orphan has become a cliché.  Neocons who blather on about Russian meddling in the 2016 election offer a more current, but similarly apt, example.

No country on earth comes close to matching the United States when it comes to meddling in the political affairs of other nations, Russia and other former Soviet republics most of all.  But this doesn’t bother sanctimonious neocons; Cold War anti-Communism is in their genes; and, with Communism gone, Russophobia is the next best thing.  Neither does it faze the Democrats and other “progressives” whose hearts and minds the neocons have won over.

Even if there is nothing more to it than the cynical opportunism to which, like the Clintons themselves, Clintonite Democrats are prone, the chutzpah is so extreme that it looks, feels, and smells very much like garden-variety hypocrisy.

This is why, looked at squarely, the less odious of our two neoliberal war parties seems almost as flagrantly hypocritical as the theocratic wing of the GOP.

***

Before the eighties, white evangelicals were more likely to be politically quiescent than partisan, and as likely to vote for Democrats as Republicans.  In this, as in so much else, the South was the exception.  Once solidly Democratic, it became almost as reliably certain to vote Republican in national and statewide elections.   Evangelicals were on board with that; if they bothered to vote at all, they tended to vote the way their neighbors did.

Then, in the Reagan era, rightwing evangelical political organizations formed under the still broad Republican tent.  In time, they became one of the GOP’s most important constituent parts.  Their influence has increased many times over since Trump came on the scene.

The consequences for the ambient political culture have been far-reaching.  It is too soon to tell, of course, but some of the transformations that have taken place may even be irreversible.

Trump has exacerbated the craziness inherent in the evangelical mind, empowering others even worse than him; Roy Moore, for example, leaves Trump standing in the dust.

Moore’s evangelical supporters put even diehard Trump fans to shame.

What ungodly force possesses them?  At least Trump’s imbecility and recklessness comes to him for reasons other than a sincere belief in an imminent rapture.  And no one, as far as I know, has ever accused the Donald of child molestation or pedophilia.  Moore has him beat on both counts.

Hardcore Trump supporters crawled mainly out from under the rocks Trump keeps turning over.  So far, they seem determined to stand by their man.  It is hard to imagine anyone less deserving of such loyalty, but the emerging consensus explanation for this otherwise bizarre phenomenon seems right: that as long as they are able to think of him knocking “elites” down to size, they will stay on board.

Shame on them that they do stay on board for that reason; Trump is plainly not on their side.  He is in it for himself, his family, and his class.  End of story.

No doubt, to some extent, the kinds of evangelicals now backing Moore are just going along with the flow.  But the fact that they could go with Moore, even while less godly Trump supporters find him too much even for them, suggests that there is more going on in the evangelical mind than simple me-too-ism.  But what? And why?

I cannot say with confidence because I cannot find it within myself to engage fundamentalist thinking empathically.  I can no more do that than I can understand the thinking, say, of celebrated Biblical personages whose ways of worship included animal sacrifice.

I can therefore only marvel at the ways fundamentalists welcome strife and discord, considering it a harbinger of End Times at hand; and, in particular, at how they regard wars and threats of wars in the so-called Holy Land to be fulfillments of inerrant Biblical prophecies.

At some level, though, I can understand evangelicals’ fondness for sinners; without them there would be no one for God (or Jesus or the Holy Ghost) to save.  Back in the day when he was still fighting the good fight on the right side, Christopher Hitchens made a similar case against Mother Theresa.  She loved the poor, he argued, because they gave her opportunities to exercise charity.  For the same reason, she had little or no interest in ending poverty as such.

Even so, evangelical fervor for Trump and Moore is problematic.  The two of them deny their misdeeds, and show no contrition.  Trump even boasts of his sexual predations in a way in what his defenders call “locker room talk,” while Moore claims never ever to have done anything a God-fearing Christian could fault.  This is so transparently at odds with readily available evidence that it amounts to a kind of boast as well.

The conventional wisdom used to be that, for example, Nelson Rockefeller could never be elected president because he had been divorced.  Reagan exploded that idea, but until now, a semblance of the old norm remained: presidents didn’t need to be virtuous in the ways assumed by Puritans or hypocritical Victorians, but they had to maintain at least an appearance of virtue.  That norm barely survived Bill Clinton, but in the end it didn’t altogether disappear.

Not, that is, until the onset of the Age of Trump. Now anything goes – even Roy Moore, a certifiable Bible Thumper who erects monuments to the Ten Commandments, as he covets his neighbors’ daughters, and promotes every retrograde cause under the sun.

It would be hilarious, if it weren’t so pathetic, and if it weren’t so plainly symptomatic of an anomic civil order disintegrating, horrifyingly and perilously, into chaos.

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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