And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.”
When I was a kid, we would watch A Charlie Brown Christmas every year. We also watched Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town and The Year Without a Santa Claus and probably others I can’t think of right now. There’s a weird comfort to the ritual, to experiencing this thing you do only once a year, but you do it every single year.
In the Peanuts special, Charlie Brown has a moment where he’s so frustrated with commercialism, social pressures, and the casual cruelty of other children that he loudly demands to know if anybody knows what Christmas is all about. Linus recites the passage from Luke at the top of this essay. It’s pretty much the only explicit Jesus-related content in any of the Christmas specials we routinely watched.
As evangelicals, of course, we ate it up. We treated it as a special shout-out just for us, a more elegant way of saying “Jesus is the Reason for the Season!” But I think that’s an overly narrow way to look at it. When Linus cuts through all the bickering and pettiness to recite part of the Christmas story, he’s not trying to say “Christmas is all about everybody believing exactly literally this,” he’s saying, “Christmas is all about telling this story.”
That’s why we watched the same dumb Christmas specials every year. Because Christmas is about telling the stories.
Stories — as Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett could tell you — are deep and meaningful and sacred and true, but they aren’t always made up of facts. Sometimes the facts aren’t known. Sometimes the facts aren’t the point.
Evangelicals, in my experience, are very literal-minded. They have a hard time dealing with the notion that something could be true but not factual. They fail to appreciate the difference between “this is probably true because there’s a lot of evidence for it and no evidence for a different explanation” and “this feels true because it stirs my emotions in such a profound way.”
I guess that approach works for people who remain or become evangelicals, but it doesn’t work for me. This is the other reason I left the church, the one that isn’t about politics. And I used to think they were two entirely different issues, but now I think the evangelical approach to faith is ultimately the cause of their drift into right wing politics.
Evangelicals — forgive me — don’t like thinking.
I suspect this is because thinking leads to questions, questions lead to doubt, doubt lead to uncertainty, uncertainty leads to the dark side. So what they like isn’t thinking, but rather, affirmation.
This hunger for affirmation is why evangelicals love little pop culture shout-outs, like Linus reciting that passage from Luke. It’s why they have worked so hard to create an alternative pop culture world to inhabit. It’s why they like to have things like the Ten Commandments in a public courthouse or prayer in a public school. And it’s why they are so easily led astray by con men and flattery.
When I was a kid, evangelicals already had this vague sense that America, Jesus, scripture, and the evangelical church were all on the same “side” and therefore more or less the same thing. It’s probably what led to some of the things that confused me so much back then, like “why are we sending missionaries to countries that are already majority Catholic?” The real answer, “because we don’t fully recognize non-evangelicals or non-Americans as Christians” was never spoken in so many words. Instead, it was communicated by implication, by affirmation. It was there in the mere fact of us sending missionaries. It was there in images that depicted Jesus and the American flag as if they had anything whatsoever to do with each other. It was there in that weird evangelical practice of having the “Christian flag” and the American flag both displayed at equal height at the front of the church.
This was all pretty ridiculous, but it seemed, at the time, mostly harmless. But then, during the 1980s, the Republican Party got added to that list of “things that are on our side” and therefore “things that are all more or less the same.”
The Republican Party became the same as the evangelical church.
The Republican Party became the same as America.
The Republican Party became the same as Jesus.
Then Fox News got added to the list. Fox News became the same thing as scripture.
Then… Donald Trump.
That’s the tortured logic by which Donald Trump becomes the same as Jesus, and gathers the vote of 81 percent of white evangelicals.
I’ll be honest: I left the church years ago, and I’m pretty cynical about the church, and that still shocked me a little. The moral depravity of Donald Trump seemed SO obvious, and evangelical support for him seemed SO delusional and bizarre. They didn’t merely vote for him, the way they did for Mitt Romney or John McCain, on the principle that Republican Party = evangelical church. They clearly adored him. They thanked Jesus for him. They worshiped at his feet. They idolized him. They claimed to believe he was a devout man, an honest man, a kind man, a fundamentally good man.
They relished his cruelty to their traditional enemies, all the people on the opposite “side” (and therefore more or less the same) — foreigners, non-Christian religions, secular culture, other Christian churches, Democrats, every news outlet other than Fox. They gloried in his put-downs of uppity women and LGBTQ people, because “patriarchy” was one of the things on their own side, a style of patriarchy that they called by the name “traditional family values and sexual morality” which was anything but moral.
But Donald Trump and his administration have been cruel to poor people and disabled people. When his administration makes it easier for nursing homes to get away with abusing their residents or does away with policies that guarantee the rights of students with disabilities, there’s simply no way to spin that as being according to the teachings of Jesus. There’s no way to spin that as “family values.” There’s no way to spin that as moral.
Over the last year, I’ve realized a few unpleasant things about my fellow Americans, my fellow evangelicals. One, is that the evangelical list of “things that are all on our side and therefore kinda the same” always included “white people,” and I didn’t know it.
How did I miss that? It’s because so much of this stuff was communicated obliquely. The evangelical habit of communicating largely through affirmations and dog whistles hides a lot of deeply un-Christian nastiness within. And yet, from the pulpit, in plain and clear language, I mostly got the actual gospel. This is how I came to know the actual gospel: I read it in a book.
My people told me that they followed this book exactly, that you could simply read the book and know everything about them, but even as a child I knew this was not true. Simply the fact that we met once a week at a designated “church” building wasn’t anything in the original text. We obviously had many practices and notions based on tradition. And there’s nothing inherently bad about tradition, but there is something bad in never questioning traditions and never being willing to change them.
The racism of my church sailed right over my head because it was largely the racism of absence. My family was white and lived in a white suburb and went to churches where almost everybody was white, and I just sort of took that for granted, the way white people often do. I didn’t realize any of this was by design. White evangelicals never called themselves “white nationalists.”
No. What they did was talk about how we lived in a “Christian nation.”
What they did was treat the Christianity of people who were not white as being “other,” different not in the sense of “other people approach God differently” but in the sense of “other people approach God incorrectly.”
What they did was not only vote for Donald Trump, but well-nigh worship him as the answer to all their prayers. Honestly, they seem to have taken him into their hearts as their personal savior.
It’s obvious when I look back: the same way they made no distinction between “America” and “Jesus,” they made no distinction between “white people” and “America.”
Now, I hope there are evangelicals out there waking up to the corruption within their own church, that there are white evangelicals who truly want to follow the real gospel, who realize there’s no way to reconcile the doctrine of Donald Trump with the doctrine of Jesus Christ, and will choose Jesus instead. But I don’t rest any hope on that.
No, my hope is a little more — well, it might seem vindictive, because what I hope is that the corrupt white nationalist patriarchal evangelical church loses all credibility and influence in the world. That nobody looks to this benighted “religious right” coalition for any spirituality or righteousness or morality or truth or goodness. That they are broadly recognized for what they have become: a political party, nothing more. Sure, they might be a political party that also meets in a church building, sings religious songs, reads the text of the Bible, but that just makes them more frighteningly cultish.
My hope is that the “religious right” version of the church dies of neglect and empty pews.
When I was a kid, I used to wonder how Nazis could consider themselves to be Christians. Didn’t they know that Jesus was Jewish? And that he never condemned his own people for anything other than failing to live up to their own principles? And that in most respects he characterized his own ministry as “making the truths of Judaism more universal”?
Now I know. It’s because they defined “being a Christian” as something different than what it should be, as something political, nationalistic, racist, hate-filled.
Something that had nothing to do with Jesus, actually.
Kind of like Donald Trump.
Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people: it’s okay to leave the corrupt white nationalist patriarchal evangelical church behind. America doesn’t belong to them. Scripture doesn’t belong to them. Jesus doesn’t belong to them.
Merry Christmas. Happy new year. Peace on earth.