Pastor Note #100: Evangelical Fear and the Turn Toward “Coercive Christianism”: An Essay  Part 1 of 3


Evangelical Fear and the Turn Toward “Coercive Christianism”: An Essay  Part 1 of 3

Highland Park, Pittsburgh; photo by GAC

Can Christianity in America survive without a strongman-protector?  Is the plight of Christianity in American such that it can only be preserved by the guardianship of a strongman-protector in government, particularly one who is not encumbered by scruples stemming from such things as the Sermon on the Mount and the Fruit of the Spirit?

Some Evangelical leaders have come to the conclusion that such a protector is a necessity and that he must, in their view, be nasty, brutish, and powerful.  Only in that way can the Christian witness in America be protected and advanced against the encroachment of secularity and godlessness, they say.  In this three-part essay, I will explore the fear that lies behind this desire for a political protector, the changing religious demographics of American society that are stirring those fears, and the consequences of this turn toward a reliance on coercion on the nature of Christian witness in America.

One Evangelical leader, Dr. Brad Long, writes of Donald Trump, “I also saw in him a warrior who was tough enough, smart enough, and just downright vicious enough to effectively fight with and prevail over the demonic strongholds based in liberal progressivism within the political and cultural realm.”[1]  Another prominent Evangelical leader, Rev. Robert Jeffress, made this statement about his ideal political leader in the context of his support for Donald Trump, “I don’t care about that candidate’s tone or vocabulary, I want the meanest, toughest son of a you-know-what I can find, and I believe that’s biblical.”[2]

These statements coming from Christian leaders are, at the very least, jarring.  They give the impression of being tough talk by tough, confident men, but surely they are driven more by an underlying fear, a fear that some terrible danger threatens America Christianity, a danger that can only be overcome through coercive, political, governmental power.

This fear is driving the majority of American Evangelicals to abandon persuasion and witness as the primary mode of cultural engagement and to adopt an approach that relies almost exclusively on coercion through political, legal, and governmental action.  Of course, Christianity has never been especially squeamish about using coercive social and political power to bend American society to its preferences.  But Evangelicals have always insisted that the core goal was to persuade people to follow Jesus and not merely to coerce them into behaving well.

The embrace by Evangelicals of Donald Trump, a man who could hardly be a worse representative of the Christian value system or lifestyle, demonstrates a loss of patience with and an abandonment of persuasion.  Their fear is such that it leads them to view traits such as compassion, humility, and commitment to humane principles with impatience as being signs of weakness and, therefore, as being detrimental to their cause, which I believe they would tell you is the cause of Christ and his kingdom.  The notion that “viciousness” and “meanness” are more important to the cause of Christ than compassion, humility, and love of enemy is a notion that I and many others cannot reconcile to our own Christian faith.

Evangelical Anxieties
Fear is a tone, it seems to me, that God’s people ought never to exude.  And yet as historian John Fea notes, “Fear is the political language conservative Evangelicals know best.”[3]  Rob Schenck brings revealing first-hand reporting on the place of fear in the history of Evangelical political engagement.  Schenck was a long-time Religious Right warrior who left that movement without leaving his Evangelical faith.  In his powerful memoir of his decades of religious right political activism, he reflects on his experience,

Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira, NY; photo by GAC

Fear was a powerful motivator for evangelicals.  We carried a vestigial memory of being the little ramshackle clapboard church across the tracks whose congregation couldn’t pay its minister.  We collectively carried a chip on our shoulders for being marginalized.  Fear and revenge were far from the teachings of Christ, but we had practiced them so often in recent years.  How had gotten to this point?[4]

What are Evangelicals like those I’ve quoted above afraid of?  In a Washington Post essay[5], published in August 2019, Michael Gerson explores these Evangelical fears.  “Much white Evangelical support for President Trump is based on a bargain or transaction: political loyalty (and political cover for the president’s moral flaws) in return for protection from a hostile culture.”  Later in this essay, we will examine some data that confirms the shift in worldview that is taking place in America around issues of particular concern to Evangelicals.

Gerson acknowledges that there is some basis in fact behind many Evangelical fears.  There is, he notes, “a certain type of political progressive” that would like to severely restrict religious freedom to church, synagogue, and mosque, leaving ancillary institutions and religious individuals outside the protection of the First Amendment.

Christians and other religious traditionalists have encountered challenges to the free exercise of their religious convictions.  Christian business owners have found themselves taken to court for refusing to provide services that they find morally objectionable.  Christian educational institutions have run afoul of federal and state regulations that include sexual orientation and gender identity in anti-discrimination codes.  Catholic health care systems have encountered difficulty with federal funding sources because of their refusal to provide abortion and contraceptive services.  But Gerson goes on to assert that these legal and governmental challenges to the exercise of religious convictions are more a symptom than the root of the problem.

The Changing Religious Landscape
The proportion of the American population that claims to be Christian has been in marked decline in recent decades.  Surveys from a variety of reputable sources agree on that fact.  That statistical drop in the number of Americans claiming to be Christians may be worrying to Evangelical leaders, but it is not what really stirs up visceral fears.  The kind of deep, gnawing fear that drives Evangelical leaders to support a man like Donald Trump is stirred not so much by population statistics as by the undeniable loss of cultural influence.

A deeper look at the cultural attitudes of the American public shows that while fewer Americans claim to be Christians, even fewer, in some cases fewer than half, hold to the cultural and moral views advocated by Evangelical leaders.  This frightening loss of cultural and societal influence has, as I’ve said above, jarred many Evangelical leaders to give up on persuasion and witness and place their hope in some version of coercive power that they see represented by the presidency of Donald Trump.

The Full Moon Behind Venice Church’s Steeple, Cecil Township, PA; photo by GAC

The Rise of the “Nones”
For a couple of decades at least, demographers have been tracking the decline of religious commitment among Americans.  In their landmark Religious Landscape Study[6] (2014), the Pew Research Center found that only 70.6% of Americans identify themselves as “Christians.”  Another 5.9% of Americans identify themselves as adherents of non-Christian faiths.

But the statistic that has drawn the most interest is the segment of the American people reporting that they do not affiliate with any particular religious tradition, the so-called “nones” (those who check the box labeled “none” in answer to the question, “What is your religious affiliation?”).  Just under 23% of Americans report that they have no religious affiliation at all.

Understand, these are not people who claim to be Christians but who are not affiliated with any Christian denomination.  These are people who assert that they are not Christians (or Jews or Muslims or Buddhists, for that matter).  Almost 30% of Americans are, by their own assertion, not Christians.  And that fact is frightening to many Christian leaders.

To begin to understand the frightening significance of those numbers for Christian traditionalists, we need to have some sense of their comparison to the religious affiliation of Americans in earlier decades.  The 2014 Pew study cited above was a follow-up of what was essentially the same study done seven years earlier.

In the 2007 survey[7], 78.4% of Americans considered themselves to be Christians.  A mere seven years later, that percentage fell to 70.6% of the American people.  During the same period, those who identify as not affiliated with any religion increased from 16.1% in 2007 to 22.8% in 2014.

As we delve a bit deeper into these statistics, they become more unsettling for Christian traditionalists.  Almost three-quarters of the “nones” are younger than 50.  Thirty-five percent are younger than 30.  These facts suggest that the “nones” will increase as a segment of American society in the coming decades.

It is, I believe, a common stereotype that the loss of religious affiliation is more common among the “cultural elites,” those with higher income and higher educational levels.  But the demographic background information in the Pew study does not support that stereotype.  “Nones” are fairly evenly represented across income ranges, though the largest representation is among households with less than $30,000 of annual income.  Further, undermining the stereotype is the fact that more than two thirds of “nones” lack a college degree.  So, the typical “none” is less than 50 years old, has less than $50,000 of household income, and does not have a college degree.

The Rise of Unchurched, Undiscipled “Christians”
There is still more in these statistics that most pastors and religious leaders understand from direct experience.  Although 70% of Americans claim to be Christians, only about 35% attend worship weekly.  Most pastors in the Evangelical tradition, of which I am one, would agree that it is essentially impossible for a person to maintain a healthy Christian discipleship without a committed relationship with a local church.  That relationship is impossible apart from regular attendance at worship.

What most pastors and church leaders, especially those in the Evangelical tradition, know is that probably not much more than a third of all Americans are seriously committed disciples of Jesus Christ.  Couple that knowledge with the likelihood that in the next ten years that number of seriously committed disciples of Jesus Christ will be equaled or surpassed by Americans who claim to be non-Christians, and you will begin to get some sense of where the fears of many Evangelical leaders are coming from.

In a recent editorial essay, reflecting on the state of the Evangelical community in American, Anne Snyder captures much of what I’ve just been describing, “White believers in particular are expressing crisis-level concern that Christianity is threatened in the West, a fear that has driven them to make certain political choices and appear like an aggrieved minority hungry for lost power.”[8]  In the next two-part of this essay, I will explore what shape that hunger is taking and contrast it with the biblical concept praütes.

[1] Brad Long, “Why We Need to Pray for President Trump,” https://discernwith.us/why-we-need-to-pray-for-president-trump, posted 12/5/2017, accessed 10/26/2019

[2] “Dr. Robert Jeffress and Peter Wehner Join Mike for an Important Debate over Evangelical Christian Support of Trump,” The Mike Gallagher Show, July 12, 2016, https://www.mikeonline.com/dr-robertjeffress-peter_wehner-join-mike-for-an-important-debate-over-evangelical-christians-support-of-trump/?doing_wp_cron=1572122657.5412619113922119140625, accessed 10/26/2019

[3] John Fea, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) 2018, page 15.

[4] Rob Schenck, Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love (New York: HarperCollins) 2018, page 290.

[5] Michael Gerson, “Why White Evangelicals Should Panic,” The Washington Post, dated 8/29/2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/evangelical-leaders-are-tidying-the-kitchen-while-the-house-burns-down/2019/08/29/49d09a14-ca95-11e9-a4f3-c081a126de70_story.html?fbclid=IwAR2PpWeGO3xcLA1D9fhvFOo0VV3QVcOs3Zum3XbIwfRLClE_BmGXt_XrLVE accessed 10/26/2019.

[6] Religious Landscape Study 2014, The Pew Research Center, https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/ accessed 12/27/2019.

[7] “America’s Changing Religious Landscape”, The Pew Research Center, https://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/, posted May 12, 2015, accessed 12/27/2019.

[8] Anne Snyder, “Turning the Tide:  A New Page in Christian Influence,” Comment: Public Theology for the Common Good. 37:3 (Fall 2019), 5.

©2020 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.

See Part 2 of this essay:  Evangelical Fears and the Turn Toward Coercive “Christianism”: an Essay Part 2 of 3

See Part 3 of this essay: Evangelical Fears and the Turn Toward Coercive “Christianism”: an Essay  Part 3 of 3

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