That tweet below, anyone sane would say, is evergreen. And it very much helps contextualize the latest NY Times guest essay by Peter Wehner, Will Christian America Withstand the Pull of QAnon? So far, alas... the answer would have to be not so much. Trumpism seems to have fractured our religion much the same way that it has managed to fracture our politics and our sense of national solidarity.
Wehner was a speech-writer for Reagan and both Bushes and currently writes about religion and serves as a vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank. A Never-Trumper, he wrote that Trump has "begun to lose his mind" and is "destabilizing and dangerous... The Trump presidency might have been the first act in a longer and even darker political drama, in which the Republican Party is becoming more radicalized." He seems to worry that that radicalized GOP will take American Christianity down the toilet with it. Earlier today, we saw how extreme right bishops manipulated the American Catholic Church into taking a stand opposing not just Biden by Pope Francis as well.
Wehner's essay yesterday, however, was about the Southern Baptists. "The scandals, jagged-edged judgmentalism and culture war mentality that have enveloped significant parts of American Christendom over the last several years," he wrote, "including the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, have conditioned many of us to expect the worst. Which is why the annual meeting of the convention this week was such a pleasant surprise. The convention’s newly elected president, the Rev. Ed Litton, barely defeated the Rev. Mike Stone, the choice of the denomination’s insurgent right. Mr. Litton, a soft-spoken pastor in Alabama who is very conservative theologically, has made racial reconciliation a hallmark of his ministry and has said that he will make institutional accountability and care for survivors of sexual abuse priorities during his two-year term."
The Southern Baptists are "a deeply fractured denomination" and Stone is an outspoken culture warrior who claims it has been sliding left. His faction is "zealous, inflamed, uncompromising and eager for a fight. They nearly succeeded this time. And they’re not going away anytime soon."
True to this moment, the issues dividing the convention are more political than theological. What preoccupies the denomination’s right wing right now is critical race theory, whose intellectual origins go back several decades, and which contends that racism is not simply a product of individual bigotry but embedded throughout American society. As The Times put it, “the concept argues that historical patterns of racism are ingrained in law and other modern institutions, and that the legacies of slavery, segregation and Jim Crow still create an uneven playing field for Black people and other people of color.”
... What is ripping through many Southern Baptist churches these days-- and it’s not confined to Southern Baptist churches-- is a topic that went unmentioned at the annual convention last week: QAnon conspiracy theories.
[Russell Moore, the former head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm], who was an influential figure in the Southern Baptist Convention until he split with the denomination just a few weeks ago, told Axios, “I’m talking literally every day to pastors, of virtually every denomination, who are exhausted by these theories blowing through their churches or communities.” He said that for many, QAnon is “taking on all the characteristics of a cult.”
Bill Haslam, the former two-term Republican governor of Tennessee, a Presbyterian and the author of “Faithful Presence: The Promise and the Peril of Faith in the Public Square,” put it this way in a recent interview with The Atlantic:
I have heard enough pastors who are saying they cannot believe the growth of the QAnon theory in their churches. Their churches had become battlegrounds over things that they never thought they would be. It’s not so much the pastors preaching that from pulpits-- although I’m certain there’s some of that-- but more people in the congregation who have become convinced that theories are reflective of their Christian faith.
According to a recent poll by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, nearly a third of white evangelical Christian Republicans-- 31 percent-- believe in the accuracy of the QAnon claim that “Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that include prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites.” White evangelicals are far more likely to embrace conspiracy theories than nonwhite evangelicals. Yet there have been no statements or resolutions by the Southern Baptist Convention calling QAnon “incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message,” which six S.B.C. seminary presidents said about critical race theory and “any version of critical theory” late last year. Too many Southern Baptist leaders, facing all sorts of internal problems and dangers, would rather divert attention and judgment to the world outside their walls. This is not quite what Jesus had in mind.
The drama playing out within the convention is representative of the wider struggle within American Christianity. None of us can fully escape the downsides and the dark sides of our communities and our culture. The question is whether those who profess to be followers of Jesus show more of a capacity than they have recently to rise above them, to be self-critical instead of simply critical of others, to shine light into our own dark corners, even to add touches of grace and empathy in harsh and angry times.
That happens now and then, here and there, and when it does, it can be an incandescent witness. But the painful truth is it doesn’t happen nearly enough, and in fact the Christian faith has far too often become a weapon in the arsenal of those who worship at the altar of politics.
Rather than standing up for the victims of sexual abuse, their reflex has been to defend the institutions that cover up the abuse. Countless people who profess to be Christians are having their moral sensibilities shaped more by Tucker Carlson’s nightly monologues than by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Perhaps without quite knowing it, many of those who most loudly proclaim the “pre-eminence of Christ” have turned him into a means to an end, a cruel, ugly and unforgiving end. And this, too, is not quite what Jesus had in mind.