Michael Flynn’s remark that “one nation under God” demands one unified religion, continues to roil the political waters. This shameless embrace of established religion, though rarely stated with such boldness, has become the consensus opinion within American white evangelicalism.
Not all white evangelicals agree, of course, but few dissenters give voice to their opinions. The strong form of established religion talk comes from the Dominionist wing of American Christianity, but the desire to see Christianity enshrined as official religion is commonly implied in mainstream venues.
Those wishing to make Christianity the official religion of America understand how difficult it will be to get from the diverse ideological smorgasbord currently on offer to where they want to be. It cannot be done politely. The transition must be violent. It must be cruel. There is no other way. Which is why the Tucker Carlson types are increasingly drawn to autocrats like Turkey strong man Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. They point the way forward.
It could be argued that Dominionist talk is just empty bluster. People like Flynn can’t be serious.
There is some merit in this cautiousapproach. But the empty-rhetoric-theory becomes less persuasive with each passing year. And this is because, in the twenty-first century, the political right and the religious right have essentially merged. The triumphal blather of yesterday has become the realpolitik of today.
If you are getting your Facebook posts from the progressive Christian algorithm, you can’t browse for ten minutes without encountering a Jesus-and-evangelical-Christianity-have-nothing-in-common meme. Jesus was all about love and forgiveness, even for enemies, the argument goes; while the evangelicals are all about hate and vengeance.
The disconnect is real, and of longstanding. Evangelical Christianity has always made room for the sort side of Jesus (love, kindness, forgiveness and the rest); but it has also worshipped a God with zero tolerance for heresy. Specifically, popular forms of evangelicalism focus on heaven and stipulate clear rules for getting there. It isn’t a matter of being good, or kind, or selfless; it is about “accepting Jesus Christ as personal Savior”.
It is presumed, of course, that those who have accepted Jesus Christ as Savior will, as a matter of course, gradually be transformed by the Spirit. But if that doesn’t happen (and the results are typically discouraging), there is a fallback position. Because we are saved by the grace of God, the reasoning goes, our failings, though regrettable, are all “under the blood”.
There is salvation (popularly understood as “going to heaven”), and there is sanctification (living the kingdom life).
Some branches of evangelicalism emphasize sanctification. But this process is usually limited to refraining from extramarital sex, lies, abortion, alcohol, murder (except in self-defense), and . . . well, that’s about it. Still, standard American evangelicalism is laser focused on the initial “decision for Christ.” If you accepted Jesus as personal Savior, by this logic, you are heaven-bound no matter what.
But what of those who don’t accept Jesus as personal Savior? Again, popular piety has an answer. They are going to the place of eternal conscious torment commonly known as hell.
It is exceptionally easy to become a Christian, in other words, but, if you don’t, you’re screwed. God wrote the rule book, and them’s the rules.
There is pushback to this simple formula, even in evangelical circles. Some add a bit of C.S. Lewis nuance to their eschatology. Others claim that eternal destiny lies in the hands of God. But this is 19 percenter stuff. The dominant view is reflected in the little song I was taught as a child: “One door, and only one, and yet it’s sides are two: Inside and outside, on which side are you?”
The go-to proof text for this strict dualism is John 14: 6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” This is interpreted to mean that, if you haven’t accepted Jesus as personal Savior, you are eternally screwed. No exceptions.
Successful evangelists have always been clear on this point. It was a sticky wicket for Billy Graham once he had become America’s unofficial pastor. In a 1978 interview published in the Canadian magazine McCall’s, Graham appeared to back away from the harsh implications of “one-way theology”. “I used to play God, but I can’t do that anymore,” he told James Michael Beam. “I used to believe that pagans in far-off countries were lost – were going to hell – if they did not have the gospel of Jesus Christ preached to them. I no longer believe that. I believe that there are other ways of recognizing the existence of God – through nature, for instance – and plenty of other opportunities, therefore, of saying ‘yes’ to God.”
This remark sparked a firestorm of controversy and Graham quickly recanted. “Contrary to what the article later suggests,” Graham explained in a press release, “I do believe that non-Christians are lost—whether they live in far-off countries, or in America. My statement that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation pertains to the whole human race.”
Graham’s uneasiness with the popular evangelical hell doctrine is understandable. But, for the movement as a whole, his attempt to soften the edges of the teaching was intolerable.
The doctrine of damnation continues to divide the evangelical community, but, at the popular level, it is a settled matter. Any attempt to expand the demographics of heaven is summarily rejected. Evangelical preachers who are uncomfortable with the consensus view must avoid the subject of hell altogether. This amounts to forfeiting the game to the “infernalists”.
Let’s look more carefully at the implications of the standard evangelical hell doctrine. If it is true, we must assume that all Jews are eternally damned. All Buddhists. All Muslims. All agnostics and atheists. And what of Christians who don’t emphasize the necessity of “accepting Jesus Christ as personal Savior”? They too are goners. Liberal Christians, in this view, are not really Christians at all. They are secular humanists.
In other words, if you don’t accept the consensus view of hell, you are going there.
Let me be fair. Most evangelical preachers don’t spell things out with such agonizing clarity. But put their feet to the fire and they will affirm what I have just said. The alternative is just as unacceptable today as it was for Billy Graham in 1978.
The logic of damnation goes further. If you really believe that non-believers are bound for hell, you will vote Republican. Although it’s true that voting Republican will save you, and although not all Republicans are born again Christians, this is still the only safe course of action. Democrats stand foursquare for the First Amendment. A third of them don’t believe in God. Most of them don’t attend church with any regularity. Many of them are Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or, even worse, Unitarians! This reasoning helps explain the familiar refrain that “no true Christian would vote for a Democrat.”
In short, most Republicans are heaven bound while the vast majority of Democrats are holding a one way ticket to perdition.
If you think I am being overly crude, you don’t understand the logic of popular evangelicalism.
Which brings us back to Mr. Flynn. He doesn’t care what non-Christian commentators think of him. The movement he represents believes that alternative opinions don’t count. “Real American” is on the side of the angels. Real Americans bear God’s official stamp of approval. They have been vindicated in the only court that matters.
The 19 percent of white evangelicals who refused to vote for Donald Trump in 2016 are waking up to this reality. Heaven-hell dualism isn’t what they signed up for. But, in these latter days, the logic of damnation has commandeered the wheel of Republican politics.
In a day when few evangelicals had personal contact with folks outside their tribe, the logic of damnation created little anxiety. But when the damned live next door, work in an adjacent cubicle or marry your children, the anxiety vice tightens considerably. The dogma of eternal damnation lies at the root of the religious “deconstruction” evident on social media. But that just encourages Flynn’s constituency to double down.
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