The Hijacked Christianity: A Conversation with Obery M. Hendricks Jr.




OBERY M. HENDRICKS JR. is angry at white evangelicals — not all of them, perhaps, but certainly the strong majority of those now associated with right-wing politics in the United States. It’s not just that these religious-political actors have disagreements with their more liberal brothers and sisters; it’s that they have abdicated the Christian tradition altogether, discarding the historic teachings of Christ while clinging desperately to the markers of contemporary culture war. This is a common complaint in the Trump era, and Hendricks is not the first to raise it. But perhaps no one else has made the case as pointedly and systematically as Hendricks has in his latest book.

Christians Against Christianity is a controlled burn, a self-possessed but furious indictment of right-wing evangelicalism. An accomplished scholar, writer, and professor at both Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary, Hendricks is well placed to lead the prosecution. I spoke to him about the book recently over Zoom.

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ERIC C. MILLER: Members of the Christian Right seem to believe they are defending a tradition that liberal Christians have betrayed. But you argue that, on issue after issue, the Christian Right has taken positions antithetical to those of Christ. So, in what sense can this modern movement claim to be true to that ancient tradition?

OBERY M. HENDRICKS JR.: I think part of the answer lies in this moment, but the modern innovations are founded on a legacy that goes way back, at least to the fourth century. When the Roman emperor Constantine declared himself the 13th apostle appointed by God, he transformed the faith that Jesus preached to the oppressed and institutionalized it as the official religion of the powerful empire that had executed Jesus. From that time, throughout history, mainstream Christianity has had a virtually uninterrupted alignment with the powers that be, with few exceptions. That continues to be the case with American Christianity in the 21st century. However, the right-wing evangelical movement has gone further, being openly and shamelessly animated by a will to dominate, control, and exclude. In that sense, it is true to the tradition of mainstream Christianity, but neither are true to the liberating Gospel of Jesus the Messiah, in that they are committed instead to accumulating and maintaining power, privilege, and the status quo.

American evangelicals like to trace their lineage back through the 19th-century abolitionists, but today they are leading the charge against critical race theory. What do you make of this?

It is true that many, perhaps most, of the major abolitionists were evangelicals, and in a number of respects the greater evangelical movement had a prominent egalitarian strain, with evangelical figures also supporting women’s rights, universal education, workers’ rights, and in the early 20th century opposing racial segregation and urban poverty of both domestic and immigrant populations. But I think that changed in an important way around the time of the New Deal. When FDR altered the philosophy of government in the United States, turning the force of government away from the interests of big business and wealthy elites — away from a laissez-faire toward a welfare state, if you will — and toward the interests of the struggling masses, certain members of the capitalist elite enlisted the help of evangelical preachers to push back on New Deal provisions that threatened their power and bottom lines. During these years, up to and including the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942, evangelical elites and capitalist elites found areas of common cause that would solidify and expand during the decades to come. Their efforts to defend and reclaim the old status quo necessarily reinforced the racial status quo, which was racist by any measure.

This movement coalesced in the late 1970s when the Carter administration sought to crack down on educational institutions that practiced racism as policy. Many of these were avowedly Christian institutions, and one of them, Bob Jones University, had the enthusiastic support of evangelical conservatives including Jerry Falwell, Paul Weyrich, and Timothy LaHaye. The fight over integration and tax exemption at Bob Jones motivated the founding of Christian Right institutions like the Moral Majority. By now it is well established that the Christian Right can trace its history to the rotten roots of racism, and not to abortion politics, as many continue to claim. So while it is true that white evangelicals have ancestry in abolitionism, their perspective is so drastically different that we should not be surprised that they are so stirred and angry at the prospect of a history curriculum that takes seriously the Black perspective. Things have changed. 

Let’s focus on that relationship between evangelical Christianity and American capitalism for a moment. Though Jesus had a lot to say about money and the dangers associated with greed, right-wing Christians have not lifted a prophetic voice where wealth and inequality are concerned. Why not?

The simplest way to answer all such questions may be to observe that right-wing Christianity is a form of what I call “ideological religion,” which is to say that its proponents always sacralize their own interests above the demands of the Gospel witness. So if certain kinds of political power serve their interests, then for them that expression of political power is Christian. If white supremacist policies or practices serve their interests, then for them white supremacy is Christian. If they are interested in wealth, then Christianity and wealth get conflated. And so on. When it comes to wealth, they have either ignored Jesus’s teaching on greed, or they have misinterpreted them in ways that justify exploitation and unjust accumulation.

Let’s apply that principle to immigration. Despite Christ’s call to welcome the foreigner and the stranger, the right-wing Christian response to refugees, asylum seekers, and border security has been harsh. How does opposition to such vulnerable people serve evangelical interests?

It comes down to racial politics, I’m afraid. All of those that they are railing against are Black or Brown people. It reflects the xenophobia on which Christian nationalism very commonly relies. It reflects ideological Christianity in that they ignore everything that the Gospels have to say about immigrants, either because of their racism or their xenophobia, neither of which Christian behavior should entertain or be predicated upon. So while one of the main commandments of the Bible is to welcome and support the immigrant stranger, the contemporary right-wing Christian chooses to ignore that. With the Christian influence thus removed from the equation, the right-wing Christian simply adopts the undistilled right-wing position and calls it Christian.

Keep in mind that, after years of demagoguery on immigration, Donald Trump said in 2018 that although he rejected Black and Brown immigrants from Mexico and Haiti, for instance, he would welcome more immigrants from Norway. Make of that what you will. It seems to be partly attributable to age-old American racism, as well as the attendant concern that white culture will be diluted or subsumed. This is only a Christian concern to the degree that whiteness has been sacralized.

Historically, many Christians have embraced pacificism and nonresistance as means to loving their enemies and turning the other cheek. Right-wing Christians, by and large, are gun enthusiasts supportive of the National Rifle Association and prepared to “stand their ground.” How does this violent posture serve their interest?

When they talk about owning guns and being prepared to do violence, there is always an Other that is either directly stated or implied. Their rhetoric is always oppositional. For years, the bugaboo was the Black criminal. When they talked about the threat of crime, it was a Black perpetrator they clearly had in mind. Now we have the figure of the Brown immigrant to hold up as a major threat to the safety of law-abiding, white Christian citizens. Gun ownership and defiance against the Other weaponize, quite literally, the fear and malice that these individuals feel toward people who are outwardly different from themselves. The NRA does not just represent or advocate for those who feel this way; it actively foments and encourages those feelings. The widespread fear of being violated, overrun, or disempowered is good for gun manufacturers and advocates because it spurs gun sales and lax gun ownership policies. Here again, Christ and his teachings about peace and love are not useful for such an effort — quite the opposite. So instead, right-wing Christians simply defer to the political and cultural influences that have reoriented their faith.

We can’t talk about right-wing evangelicalism at this moment in history without talking about Donald Trump, and indeed, he is ever-present throughout the book. What does right-wing Christian enthusiasm for Trump and support for his presidency mean to you? What does it say about this movement?

I looked on in horror as this faction of Christians weaponized the faith to support Donald Trump, an irreligious, lying, corrupt, walking manifestation of the seven deadly sins. It was unthinkable to me that people of faith would not only support this clearly sociopathic, pathological liar, but that they themselves would tell so many lies on his behalf. As a biblical scholar, I felt that I had to do something. I felt the need to confront their basic assumptions and respond directly to the claims on which their movement has been based. I wrote this book from a place of anger, certainly, but also out of profound sadness and no small amount of fear. This right-wing Christian movement is bent on claiming dominion over the country, which means that people like me and my children and my grandchildren are at grave risk as long as this small but determined faction continues to assert a disproportionate amount of influence in the United States. Let’s not mince words — it’s an evil movement. That’s not to say that each of its members is evil individually, but ideologically, it militates against the interests, well-being, health, and even lives of all sorts of people, simply for being born a certain way and living lives that are true to themselves. That’s evil in action.

Do you hold out any hope for reconciliation with those Christians who have embraced this movement?

I have to hope that some right-wing evangelicals are simply misguided. Yes, they are wrong, but I have to believe that many are sincere in their belief and have simply been misled. It’s hard to grapple with the apparent reality that so many people are unable to see through Donald Trump and his enablers, both inside and outside of Christian institutions. But I have to hope that they can be persuaded to see the error in all of this. The movement itself, I think, will go on. Trumpism is predicated on an evil, hateful, adversarial impulse, and it validates the worst of human suspicions toward those who are different from us. There will always be a receptive audience for that kind of sin. In 2014, I never could have imagined that this Pandora’s box would be opened or that the evil forces it released would prove so attractive to so many faithful Christian believers. But here we are. Am I hopeful? I’m not sure that’s the right word for it. But I am committed to confronting the evil, and this book is an expression of that commitment.

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Eric C. Miller is an associate professor of communication studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and a regular contributor at Religion & Politics.

 

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