The Way We Never Were: Calling Out Evangelicals For Hypocrisy Misses the Point

Much of the discussion of white evangelicals laments the loss of their moral standing, but such criticisms suffer under the misunderstanding that white evangelicalism in the United States has somehow devolved from a once salutary moral vision to brute political opportunism.

Evangelical power players Sealy Yates, Tony Perkins, and Kelly Shackelford, attend a press conference following a meeting with then-candidate Donald Trump. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

One mainstay of our current political discourse is the injudicious use of the term “hypocrisy” to call out one’s political opponents. Charges of hypocrisy are ubiquitous across the political spectrum, but they play a significant role in religious critiques of Trump and his evangelical supporters. 

Writing for the Guardian, Samuel G. Freedman, for instance, portrays Trump as a modern-day Cyrus, the ancient Persian ruler who, according to biblical traditions, allowed the Babylonian exiles from Judah to return to their homeland. Freedman suggests, “Under King Cyrus Trump, however, the religious right has laid bare its hypocrisy, and indeed its heresy.” He goes on to hope that perhaps one day “white evangelicals will recover some of their ethical and religious moorings.”

Jay Caruso expresses much the same sentiment. Writing for the Dallas Morning News, he notes that when it comes to evangelical support for Trump, “all of the lying, multiple marriages, multiple sexual assault and harassment allegations, ugly comments about immigrants, petty and vindictive insults thrown at people who dare to criticize him—none of it matters.” Evangelical leaders like Robert Jeffress—who just last week referred to evangelicals who don’t support Trump as “spineless morons”—proudly wear their “hypocrisy” on their sleeves. 

Such charges of hypocrisy against evangelical supporters is as old as Trump’s campaign, and by now has become a standard feature of the discourse. Unfortunately, such criticisms are, for the most part, painfully anemic. 

To begin with, such criticisms often assume that white evangelicalism in the United States has somehow devolved from a once salutary moral vision to brute political opportunism. Or, as Paul Robeson Ford recently argued, evangelicals have lost their “moral standing” with the broader culture. 

Such “moral standing,” however, has always been more of a political self-designation, designed to implement conservative, often racist and/or discriminatory, policies under the guise of religious convictions. Although abortion and, now, LGBTQ rights serve as its contemporary calling card, the religious right in the United States, as some have argued, has its origins in racial segregation, particularly the establishment of private Christian schools as a work-around to the desegregation policies that emerged out of Brown v Board of Education. Given this history, it’s not surprising that those on the religious right would continue to support a president that is, by most sane accounts, a racist himself.  

Moreover, if the religious right does consider itself to have some “moral standing,” it’s largely out of touch with majority opinion. Fifty-eight percent of Americans support abortion rights, and over 60% support gay marriage. Evangelicals don’t have much “moral standing” with most—and, in fact, they never did. Contemporary evangelicalism in the United States projects its “morality” onto culture at large, and the media often buy it with little hesitation. It’s difficult to assume that they are acting in good faith, though, and in this sense they mirror the president.

Writing for the Washington Post, Greg Sargent recently noted that Trump’s declaration of a national emergency is “a sham based on nothing but bad-faith motives and invented metrics.” While a solid majority of Americans aren’t buying it, evangelicals are: some two-thirds agree with Trump that there is a national emergency at the border that warrants Trump’s declaration. 

Calling out evangelicals for their hypocrisy, in this sense, misses the point. Specifically, it assumes that they are, at the end of the day, good-faith actors. Sure, it would be nice if evangelicals would acknowledge the apparent disconnect between their political activity and the various biblical mandates and themes that would contradict said activity. But the charge of hypocrisy more often than not falls on deaf ears, for the simple reason that they don’t consider themselves hypocrites. Evangelicals—like most Christians, I might add—have no problem garnering support for their positions from biblical texts, an exercise made possible by the fact that the Bible is a diverse, complicated, often contradictory collection of books.  

And this observation applies to those calling themselves the “Christian left” as well. Jesus, they say, is all about love, welcoming the other, caring for the poor, and welcoming migrants—without the need for costly, ineffective walls. For some, Jesus is also apparently a democratic socialist. 

But let’s also not forget that, in the Book of Revelation, out of [Jesus’] mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. ‘He will rule them with an iron scepter.’ He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.”

Let me make two suggestions by way of conclusion. First, we should drop all criticism of evangelicals as hypocritical, as somehow out of step with otherwise stated ideals. Such ideals remain too abstract for the sake of criticism and, if we cut past the lofty religious rhetoric, we’ll find that contemporary evangelicalism is simply what it is. There’s no depth behind their political activism and posturing, for these simply constitute evangelicalism in its contemporary form. It’s their religion. 

Second, those on the so-called Christian left would do well to acknowledge that evangelicalism is Christianity too. That may make many uncomfortable, but let’s face it: Christianity, in its 2000-year history, has driven empire, colonialism, racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, and the like—and whole swaths of peoples and territories have been and continue to be subject to this brutal regime. Maybe it’s time for liberal Christians to revisit Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin Americaas a start. 

Perhaps thinking along these lines—without the constant charge of hypocrisy—will help us move beyond the apparent stalemate we now found ourselves in.