Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. is Visiting Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary and Adjunct Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Columbia University. His new book, Christians Against Christianity: How Right-Wing Evangelicals Are Destroying Our Nation and Our Faith, charges conservative evangelicals with undermining the Christian tradition.
ECM: Members of the Christian Right seem to believe they are defending a tradition that liberal Christians have betrayed. But you argue that, on issue after issue, the Christian Right has taken positions antithetical to those of Christ. So in what sense can this modern movement claim to be true to that ancient tradition?
OMH: I think part of the answer lies in this moment, but the modern innovations are founded on a legacy that goes way back, at least to the fourth century. When the Roman Emperor Constantine declared himself the thirteenth apostle appointed by God, he transformed the faith that Jesus preached to the oppressed and institutionalized it as the official religion of the powerful empire that had executed Jesus. From that time, throughout history mainstream Christianity has had a virtually uninterrupted alignment with the powers that be, with few exceptions. That continues to be the case with American Christianity in the 21st century. However, the right-wing evangelical movement has gone further, being openly and shamelessly animated by a will to dominate, control, and exclude. In that sense it is true to the tradition of mainstream Christianity, but neither are true to the liberating Gospel of Jesus the Messiah, in that they are committed instead to accumulating and maintaining power, privilege, and the status quo.
ECM: American Evangelicals like to trace their lineage back through the 19th century abolitionists, but today they are leading the charge against critical race theory. What do you make of this?
OMH: It is true that many, perhaps most of the major abolitionists were evangelicals, and in a number of respects the greater evangelical movement had a prominent egalitarian strain, with evangelical figures also supporting women’s rights, universal education, workers’ rights, and in the early 20th century opposing racial segregation and urban poverty of both domestic and immigrant populations. But I think that changed in an important way around the time of the New Deal. When FDR altered the philosophy of government in America, turning the force of government away from the interests of big business and wealthy elites and toward the interests of the struggling masses—away from a laissez-faire toward a welfare state, if you will—certain members of the capitalist elite enlisted the help of evangelical preachers to push back on New Deal provisions that threatened their power and bottom lines. During these years, up to and including the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942, evangelical elites and capitalist elites found areas of common cause that would solidify and expand during the decades to come. Their efforts to defend and reclaim the old status quo necessarily reinforced the racial status quo, which was racist by any measure.
This movement coalesced in the late 1970s, when the Carter Administration sought to crack down on educational institutions that practiced racism as policy. Many of these were avowedly Christian institutions, and one of them, Bob Jones University, had the enthusiastic support of evangelical conservatives including Jerry Falwell, Paul Weyrich, and Timothy LaHaye. The fight over integration and tax exemption at Bob Jones motivated the founding of Christian Right institutions like the Moral Majority. By now it is well-established that the Christian Right can trace its history to the rotten roots of racism, and not to abortion politics, as many continue to claim. So while it is true that white evangelicals have ancestry in abolitionism, their perspective is so drastically different that we should not be surprised that they are so stirred and angry at the prospect of a history curriculum that takes seriously the Black perspective. Things have changed.
ECM: Let’s focus in on that relationship between evangelical Christianity and American capitalism for a moment. Though Jesus had a lot to say about money and the dangers associated with greed, right-wing Christians have not lifted a prophetic voice where wealth and inequality are concerned. Why not?
OMH: The simplest way to answer all such questions may be to observe that right-wing Christianity is a form of what I call ideological religion, which is to say that its proponents always sacralize their own interests above the demands of the Gospel witness. So if certain kinds of political power serve their interests, then for them that expression of political power is Christian. If white supremacist policies or practices serve their interests, then for them white supremacy is Christian. If they are interested in wealth, then Christianity and wealth get conflated. And so on. When it comes to wealth, they have either ignored Jesus’ teaching on greed, or they have misinterpreted them in ways that justify exploitation and unjust accumulation.
Reading the whole thing in the Los Angeles Review of Books.