The recent spate of gun violence has produced a gusher of troubling questions. Leading the pack is the extent to which the responsibility for mass shootings can be laid at the feet of Donald J. Trump.
It didn’t help that the El Paso shooter (who shall remain nameless) recently liked a post on Twitter that used assault weapons to spell out the president’s name.
And then there are all those incendiary comments about Mexicans and Muslims and “shithole countries” and his appalling endorsement of birtherism. I could elaborate endlessly, but you know the litany. We have a sitting president who has shown strong affinities for white nationalism. That much is obvious.
But is Trump the source of all this malice, or merely a symptom of the real disease?
Two things must be kept in mind in this regard. First, there is the influence of internet sites like 4chan and 8chan that exercise no control over content. Here we find a breeding ground for hate where diseased minds congregate without restraint, encouraging and exacerbating the worst kinds of hate and paranoia. Left to themselves, these disaffected young white males might never find the wherewithal to sacrifice themselves on an altar of nihilistic rage. But the real world consequence of this dark brotherhood is deadly.
Mass shootings are cowardly in the sense that the shooter holds the weapon while his victims are defenseless. But these kids know they will either die a violent death, suffer execution or spend the rest of their natural lives behind bars. And yet they find the twisted courage required to destroy themselves along with their victims.
In fact, self-immolation appears to be part of the appeal.
The El Paso shooter sees himself as part of an international brotherhood and there is a sense in which he is right.
Secondly, the virulent species of racist rage displayed on obscure online platforms is nourished by the weaker form of white nationalism that has largely taken control of the Republican party and vast swaths of white evangelicalism. The fellowship of hate that spawns mass shootings in places like Dayton and El Paso is inconceivable apart from the roiling ocean of intolerance that gave rise to Donald Trump and his sycophantic acolytes.
Conservative white evangelicals seemed safe enough back in the 1950s even though they had little formal influence in Republican or Democratic politics. That’s because a weak form of civil religion rooted in patriotism, capitalism, church attendance and media censorship controlled the public sector. It was only when conservative white evangelicals began to slowly surrender control of the larger culture that they quickly morphed into a political juggernaut.
And it started with the preachers, not the politicians.
If you want to comprehend the profound sense of loss that is the daily experience of these people, just drop by the local movie theater, flip on Saturday Night Live, check out the offerings on Netflix or listen to a monologue by Bill Maher or Stephen Colbert. Everywhere you look, tolerance is exalted as a virtue and intolerance has become a term of derision.
The legalization of gay marriage is simply the most dramatic development in popular culture in recent years, but it is part of a pattern. White conservative evangelicals may have elected a president, but everywhere else they are in disarray. No one understands better than they that the demographic drift of the nation will soon place them in a numerical minority.
The election of Barack Obama shocked conservative white America because it was, correctly, taken as a harbinger of things to come.
The rise of the NRA in recent decades was a precursor to the rise of Donald Trump. Trumpism and the worship of firearms spring from the same soil.
Donald Trump did not create white nationalism; he simply twisted it to his own purposes.
The president knows that conservative white evangelicals are so fearful, so desperate, that if he gives them everything they want they will never abandon him. Where else would they go? To the Democrats?
When I speak of conservative white evangelicals I’m not just talking about the folks who show up at the suburban megachurch every Sunday morning. There are millions of white people across this great land who rarely darken the door but would still tell you that they believe the Bible without reservation, that America is God’s chosen nation, and that there is far more discrimination against white people than against African Americans, Latinos or Muslims.
White evangelical support for Trump is so overwhelming that congressional Republicans dare not cross their leader even if it ultimately spells disaster. Politicians rarely plan beyond the next election cycle.
Am I saying that conservative white evangelicals and Neo-Nazi mass killers are motivated by the same impulse?
But there is enough vision overlap to give white evangelical preachers nightmares. Unfortunately, taking a stout stand against the tide of intolerance is perceived a career killer by most white evangelical opinion leaders. You might get some murmurs of resistance from Christianity Today, Wheaton College and Russell Moore, but the real leaders of white American evangelicalism appear daily on Christian television and Fox News. They love Donald Trump and they call the shots.
So, what’s the solution? I am completely in favor of common sense reform of our gun laws. I’ve lived in Canada and the United States and the difference between the two cultures is telling.
But lax gun laws are best understood as a function of white evangelical panic.
That being the case, we will not see meaningful progress (theologically or legislatively) until the influence of conservative white evangelicals takes an inevitable nose dive. When it is clear to all that conservative white evangelicals have lost their control of the Republican Party, a season of agonizing soul searching will set in. In some circles, the revolution has already begun.
This tipping point will yield surprisingly positive results because there’s a lot more to white evangelicalism than fear and intolerance. If, as in my native Canada, white American evangelicals would admit that they no longer control the levers of power, they can get back to proclaiming the gospel of grace that, in the prevailing environment of hate and fear, has largely been abandoned.
Will that spell the end of white nationalism and hate crimes. Not completely, but we will witness a dramatic drop in both. And, as an added bonus, will finally be in a position to pass meaningful gun legislation.
But let me be very clear. So long as conservative white evangelicals are picking presidents and controlling the shape of the Senate, the madness will rage on.