I used to be one of them. A person just like the voters turning out for Trump in droves. This is how it happened for me. Inside the mind of a social conservative.
Many of us are asking how Trump could be such a hit among white Protestant voters. How can people who call themselves “Christians” justify supporting his hateful and divisive ideology when the most well-known tenet of their faith is to “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”? On the surface, it’s terribly confusing and alarming.
For me, it’s nothing but familiar. I was once one of them. In 2004, I was a Protestant Evangelical “Christian” who voted for Bush and was an active member of his campaign. I have experienced personally how Christ’s teachings can be subverted and used as a vehicle for Republican political gain. As history has shown us, Christianity can be used as an extremely effective tool to cultivate hate. It doesn’t have to be this way, and I believe that those who actually follow Christ’s teachings will contribute the votes we need to save our country from a Trump presidency. What follows is my experience as a part of the politically active, fundamentalist, evangelical, white right.
Every one of us is born wanting to feel that we are a “good” person and that we belong. This is an inherent human trait; we are vulnerable as individuals, but impressively strong when we come together. In my case, due to when and where I was born, the group that offered my parents a chance to belong and a simple recipe to be considered “good” was the local fundamentalist, evangelical mega-church.
My parents were not what you would call “highly educated” but they were savvy to how dangerous the world could be and were determined to raise their children in a safe environment with a respectable value system. Christianity offered a value system, and this mega-church offered a huge community of safety.
And so, from the age of seven to twenty-one, I was immersed in a very protected culture that spent an extraordinary amount of time together. Church service on Saturday night or Sunday morning with hundreds of people, volunteering as a family in one of the many childcare rooms during other services, bible study once a week, youth group once a week, summer camps, retreats; nearly all of our social activities and relationships revolved around the church.
And in all of the hours spent there, we learned what a Christian was and what we needed to do in order to be a good one. We were told a dynamic and compelling story that went like this: God created human beings to live our lives free from suffering and experience heaven on earth in the garden of Eden, but we threw away the opportunity because our true nature is unwise, greedy and evil. Even after observing our “bad” nature, God loved us and didn’t want us to suffer for all of eternity, so he threw us a lifeline in the form of his only son Jesus, who died a horrendously bloody, tortuous death to pay off the debt of our sins so that we could enjoy eternal life.
Accepting Jesus into our hearts was our pledge to God that we believed this story completely, knew that Jesus was the only way to attain eternal life and that we would do all we could to reject our sinful nature and live a life devoted to Him. I repeat: The only way in the entire universe that a person could achieve an eternal life that was free from suffering, was by pledging allegiance to this particular story and following the teachings of the church to lead a godly life. In short, there was one “right” way to live and we were following it.
And this is where the trouble starts. When you are taught that there is definitely one right way to live and you’re the one following it, what you’re really hearing is that you’re better than everybody else. We were living godly, righteous lives; it wasn’t easy, but we were doing it, therefore we were better than other people. No, we didn’t verbalize this, no, it wasn’t packaged this way in church, but our superiority complex was the defining hallmark of our lives. The world was suffering under the weight of sin, and it was our responsibility to use our knowledge and righteousness to save it.
And what did it mean to be “righteous”? Staying a virgin until marriage. Marrying someone of the opposite sex. Never getting a divorce. Never having an abortion. Tithing (contributing ten percent of your earnings to the church). Abstaining from drug use. Not using foul language. Following the ten commandments. Having a deep and personal (mostly exaggerated) relationship with the Lord that you could describe in an emotional and inspiring way. Being able to pray really well out loud (proving that you talked to Jesus so much that it came super naturally to you). Knowing how to praise Jesus’ work in your life earnestly and enthusiastically. Singing loudly, preferably with your hands raised above your head (the higher the better). Praying in public. Bringing the Bible out in public. To be a righteous woman, you must serve men so they have time to focus on becoming leaders that will help you reject your sordid and seductive nature. To be a righteous man, you must protect and provide for women and children and take responsibility for their spiritual growth.
You do all of these things, but nothing particularly transformative happens. You start to wonder if it’s working, if you’re doing it right, if you’re righteous enough, or if you’re actually a bad person condemned to eternal hell. This leads you to start looking for outside approval. You go out of your way to impress people in leadership positions at the church. This obsession with outside approval makes you the perfect pawn. You will trust the people above you and do what you’re told. Your reward is the assurance that you’re doing it right and you’ll be going to heaven. None of this is in true keeping to the words of Jesus Christ. What all of this best describes is an elitist, club mentality.
You’ll see that kindness, tolerance and love didn’t make the “righteousness” list. Yes, we were taught to treat people with respect, kindness and love, but these messages did little to counteract the deeper psychology at work. We were the righteous elite who knew what was best for everyone else. All of our country’s problems stemmed from people committing crimes against God’s commandments. The pain and suffering in this world were immense because people were not following God’s orders, so much so that he was getting impatient. He may decide to wipe us all out and only take the few of us who followed his word to heaven. We were the ones with the answers, so it was our responsibility to save humanity from damnation. This fear and self-importance compelled us to take action. We had the one right way and needed to lead people towards it.
So when the church started spiritualizing politics and telling us that it would please God to choose a leader that would outlaw these immoral acts and lead our country down a path of righteousness, we took notice and did our part to get that kind of person into authority. He would steer us straight and we could start turning the entire country into a population of “good” people who would follow our “good” rules and we would have no problems with violence, incarceration, poverty, racism, inequality or attacks on our homeland. People just didn’t understand that if they followed our one way, and became aware of their sins and denounced them, everything would get better for all of us. So we would have to make them understand by taking political power. We deserved to be in this position of authority due to all of the effort we invested into being righteous.
Oh and we deserved financial power too. Little did we know that this was a relatively recent development in our religious sect’s philosophy, and that up until the 1960’s, frugality was valued over affluence, which was attributed to one of the seven cardinal sins – lust. Nor were we taught that the idea that the American conservative right deserved to earn and accumulate wealth, as well as be in control of its spending for the public good, originated not from the Bible, but from a little political pamphlet called “The Conscience of a Conservative”, written by a Republican politician named Barry Goldwater in 1960.
We all know money and power go hand in hand. Fundamentalist Christianity’s new philosophy on retaining and accumulating wealth wasn’t just good news for the Republican party, it was great news for the churches themselves, who in promoting their members financial aspirations were also improving their bottom line in the form of higher tithes per capita. And hence, The Mega Church was born.
And with its birth, “love your neighbor as yourself” died. Almost none of what I have shared here is centered around the words of Jesus Christ himself who was a humble teacher of acceptance, pacifism and the true nature of love. Instead of learning acceptance, we were often told to “hate the sin, not the sinner”, but we weren’t taught a sophisticated way to do this. When you are taught that sins like sex before marriage, or abortion, or gay sexuality, or belief in another “right” path to eternal life lead straight to hell, and you truly believe hell exists, you develop an aversion to these actions and anyone who commits them. The aversion stews and under the right circumstances, it turns to hate.
We are currently experiencing these right circumstances. Fundamentalist Christians have been lied to. We have been used as instruments to further an agenda that is not in line with the teachings of our God. We have been told that we are right, that we should be successful, that we should be in political power, that the future depends on us. The fact is, this worldview has been a devastating distraction. While we are told from the pulpit and the podium that social issues like abortion and gay marriage are the kinds of policies that are leading to our downfall as a nation, and that the poor with their ungodly lifestyles that led them to poverty are to blame for our high tax rates, the Republican party is robbing us blind by systematically syphoning resources from the middle class. Our middle class. We let our religion be used to further the interests of a greedy few who don’t even follow Christ’s teachings. They saw our faith as a convenient instrument to gain power and we let them do it.
And so, if even one fundamentalist Christian is still reading, I implore you: Take back your beliefs from these crooks who peddle hate. You have the power to stop this perversion of your faith. I believe you can do it. I believe that by reading the red letters you will find the true description of the leader we deserve. I pray you’ll prove me right.