In the biblical book of Exodus, Moses is commanded to go down to Egypt land and tell old Pharoah to let my people go. The message was delivered, but Pharaoh refused to budge. He liked the present arrangement. Hebrew slaves were an economic necessity. Losing them would entail an immediate drop in living standards and unleash a world of trouble. The Bible says that Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart; but I suspect Pharaoh was a willing subject.
But we all know how the story ends. God slams the Egyptians with ten plagues, each one worse than the last. Eventually, Pharaoh caved. He had succumbed to a depression bordering on madness. But moments after his property left the palace, Pharaoh’s madness left him. He tried to back out of the deal by pursuing his Hebrew labor force. Ultimately, it took the miracle at the Red Sea to free Moses and the Hebrew children from Egyptian bondage.
White American evangelicals have cast their lot with Pharaoh. Having commandeered the Republican Party, evangelical zealots are working hard to end American democracy as we know it. Seventy years ago, when Billy Graham sought an audience with president Dwight D. Eisenhower, the kind of popular revolt we are witnessing in our day would have been inconceivable; to the preacher and the president.
What has brought us to this place. In a recent post, I argued that white American evangelicals have been driven to a depression bordering on madness. Okay, I didn’t say “bordering”; I said they have succumbed to madness. By way of explanation, I pointed out that the 21st century has been a time of mind-numbing change. Most of us see these changes as a mixed bag. But from an evangelical perspective, it’s all been bad. Catastrophic even. Here are the changes I noted:
- 9-11 and its paranoid backlash
- The election of America’s first Black president
- The legalization of gay marriage
- The Black Lives Matter movement and rapid demographic change.
- The rise of antiracism and a reappraisal of American racial history
- Public attention to non-binary sexual identity
- A steadily widening wealth gap and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression
- Two embarrassing, and incredibly expensive, wars
- Growing public alarm over the threat of climate change
- The most devastating pandemic in a hundred years
Obviously, over the seventy years since Graham-Eisenhower had their tete-a-tete, American white evangelicals (let’s call them AWE, for short) have worked hard to consolidate power and influence public policy. But the challenges and setbacks of the pasts two decades have added an almost apocalyptic aspect to this effort. Over the course of the next two weeks, I will be examining each of these Ten Plagues and asking why they have been so difficult for American white evangelicals to navigate.
9-11 and its aftermath
The sight of enormous passenger planes slamming into the glass and steel of the World Trade Center’s twin towers was an enormous shock for all Americans. We had never imagined such a thing. The symbolism of the assault on American economic power wasn’t subtle. The success of the operation exceeded the wildest hopes of the men who planned it.
But, for white evangelicals, 9-11 was singularly traumatic. America, in their view, was God’s chosen nation, a blessed people. After the fall of the Soviet Union, we had come to see ourselves as the world’s only superpower. America was called of God to fix a broken world by exporting the glories of Christianity and American-style democracy to a waiting world. We were Pharaoh. Our power was limitless. Our mandate clear. This was all God’s doing; evangelicals were sure of it.
But we couldn’t stop those planes. Or, from an evangelical point of view, Almighty God couldn’t stop the planes. An Islamic David had brought down the American Goliath. It was as unthinkable as it was undeniable.
But why? Had our God failed, or was there another explanation. Perhaps, God had allowed a catastrophe of this magnitude to fall on his own people?
In the world of AWE, the answer soon became clear: America had strayed from the statutes of her God and was being justly punished. A God who could unleash the armies of Babylon against a sinful Judah in the 6th century BC, was perfectly capable of punishing a wayward America today. This wasn’t just a possible explanation for the horrors of 9-11; in the world of AWE, it was the only explanation.
This doesn’t mean that they were driven to personal repentance. God wasn’t angry with AWE; got was angry with the godless, socialist, rebellious legions of the American left.
Unfortunately, the godless, socialist, rebellious legions of America weren’t in a mood for repentance. They didn’t see 9-11 as punishment from God, at all. In fact, some liberal crazies were suggesting that American imperial arrogance lay at the root of this tragedy. In AWE world, this was heretical and treacherous. There was clearly no reasoning with liberal America; God was calling his faithful remnant to holy war. The cause was holy, just, and unavoidable.
Tomorrow we will consider plague Number Two: the election of America’s first Black president.