Monday, March 6, 2017

With Help from Conservative Catholics, White Evangelicals Broke America: Religion, Authoritarianism, and Creation of Post-Truth Culture of Trump

An interesting conversation on Twitter today after Chris Stroop published his essay "Educated Evangelicals, Academic Achievement, and Trumpism: On the Tensions in Valuing Education in an Anti-Intellectual Subculture" at his blog site this morning. Drawing on his experiences growing up in the conservative subculture of white evangelical America — the people who, more than anyone else, inflicted Donald Trump on all the rest of us (with ample help from white Catholics and Mormons) — Chris has been doing yeoman's work to help unpack why white evangelicals could support a morally bankrupt authoritarian of the ilk of Trump.

One of the important connections Chris makes: right-wing white evangelicals have been doing post-truth, post-fact "news" before post-truth, post-fact news became cool. Chris sums this up here in a tweet from the end of February that is part of a larger Twitterstream well worth your reading:

The preceding tweet was a response Chris made to Christopher Douglas' article "The Religious Origins of Fake News and 'Alternative Facts'" at Religion Dispatches a number of days back. Christopher Douglas notes,

What is it about Republicans that seems to make them more credulous to fake news than Democrats? 
The answer to this question might have to do with the religious roots of today's Republican Party in the Christian Right. Beginning with the Moral Majority, founded in 1979 by Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye, and continuing through church organizations such as Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, conservative Christians have helped reshape the Republican Party and its policies. Its "family values" positions on abortion, the sexual revolution, gender roles, pornography, and homosexuality have been heavily influenced by its conservative Christian theology.

And then he adds,

This alternative educational and media ecosystem of knowledge was galvanized and mobilized when the Christian Right emerged in the late 1970s to influence the Republican Party. There were two long-term consequences for our fake news world. First, theologically and politically conservative Christians learned to distrust the proclamations of the supposedly neutral media establishment, just as they had grown to suspect the methods and conclusions of elite experts like scientists or historians. And second, they learned to seek the truth from alternative sources—whether a church sermon, Christian media (newspapers, books, radio or television shows), or a classroom in a Christian college.

In an essay at his blog site responding to Christopher Douglas' thesis, Chris Stroop makes the link between the post-truth, post-facts world created by right-wing white evangelicals, and their authoritarianism — by which someone of the ilk of Trump hooks them, and delights them with his attack on the media, reason, facts, learning, education, etc. Chris writes,

Fundamentalists — including the vast majority of white Evangelicals in the US — are inherently authoritarian. Authoritarianism, for its part, is a form of abuse on a social scale that depends on gaslighting, hence post-truth politics and "alternative facts." And as Douglas carefully documents, it is the Christian Right’s #AltFacts, post-truth ethos that has radicalized and overtaken the Republican Party. Having broken one of our two major parties, the Christian Right broke America.

And now to return to that conversation on Twitter this morning which I mentioned in the opening sentence of this posting — a conversation developing in response to the essay Chris Stroop published this morning (it's linked in the opening paragraph): Michael Boyle has reminded readers of his Twitter feed of his outstanding essay "In a Mirror, Dimly" in January at A Sound of Sheer Silence, in which he explores similar themes, noting,

As crazy as it seems on the surface, a belief in "absolute truth" as embodied in systems makes it more likely, not less, that you will ignore facts and embrace various forms of "fake news," to use the term of the day.  The antidote to fake news is not a more strenuous assertion of some vision of absolute truth, but a willingness to accept our own flawed and limited perspective.  To steal theologian James Alison's title, there is a joy in being wrong; but, perhaps more importantly, there is also a freedom in being wrong.  Accepting that you may be wrong frees you from the need to defend to the death your systems and doctrines from the realities of the outside world that might call those systems and doctrines into question.  The moment that you are not longer afraid of being wrong is the moment when you can relax into the world as it actually is.

Michael's essay in turn points to an essay by Morgan Guyton also referenced in Michael's tweets this morning: Morgan's essay, entitled "How Did Defenders of Absolute Truth Become Post-Truth Ideologues?," in which Morgan writes,

What eroded my conservative evangelicalism more than anything else over the past two decades was to see my fellow defenders of absolute truth turn into peddlers of fake news and post-truth ideologues. I think it started in the nineties with their vehement opposition to Bill Clinton. I remember in particular the Clinton Chronicles, a 1994 fake documentary funded by Jerry Falwell that was filled with outrageous, unsubstantiated charges against the Clintons. In the nineties, it became okay to spread lies about a morally sleazy politician, simply because his immorality justified it. There was no accountability or remorse when conspiracy theories were proven false; new ones were cooked up immediately to take their place. And there was always the assumption that even if 95% of the conspiracy theories are proven wrong, 5% of them must be right because there are so many. 
The right-wing outrage industry got its start as a reaction to Clinton, and it's become as lucrative and morally devastating as the porn industry.

This is valuable analysis, coming from several young scholars who have ditched the right-wing white evangelicalism in which they came of age (Stroop, Guyton), or the dogmatic, authoritarian Catholicism inculcated in the U.S. by the U.S. Catholic bishops for decades now in tandem with right-wing white evangelicals (Boyle). This is an important and growing body of commentary by young thinkers and religion scholars who are former right-wing white evangelicals and former Catholics frustrated by the inability of the U.S. church to find its way out of the dead end its bishops have created for it (lest Catholics turn their noses up and say that evangelicals elected Trump, it's important to remember that 60 percent of white Catholics voted for him and that even "liberal" Catholic scholars who sit on papal commissions assured us in leading Catholic journals after Trump's election that the transition to his presidency was going smoothly and Wall Street was happy).

If we complement this critique of the dead-end authoritarianism of dominant forms of white Christianity in the U.S. that revel in and assist in spreading lies circulated as "news" with the growing body of literature by African-American religion scholars who identify this white Christianity as heresy and the growing body of feminist religion scholarship that calls out the male-entitled, gendered basis of this heretical form of Christianity, we have quite a valuable signpost to something radically awry in white American Christianity today — which is at the very root of the Trump phenomenon.

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