The State of American Religion

by Randall S. Frederick

Above all things, it has become manifestly obvious that Evangelicalism is not a Christian religion. Indeed, Evangelicals have taken pride in their loose attachment to reality for decades, denouncing practicality and rationality for magical thinking. That they would finally detach from loose Christian origins is hardly surprising, when Jesus was so vividly earthly.

Many within Evangelicalism have begun to revisit their history to better understand the deceptive practices of the cult, concluding – along with scholars, social critics, and historians like Jemar Tisby, Frances Fitzgerald, Katelyn Beaty, and Kristin Kobes Du Mez – that its origins reside outside of the Bible entirely. The only ones who remain confused on this are Evangelicals, as Evangelicalism has spent the last decade selling out on every key “fundamental” or “eternal truth” they have held since the turn of the 20th Century. Evangelicalism, despite energetic efforts to export their brand of Christofacism, white supremacy, ignorance, and exploitation to other continents and blend with historical branches of Christianity, is a uniquely American religion, suffering the symptoms of Americanism described by Richard Hofstadter.

Americans seem to conceive of their history within a very shallow time span, in which one age is very much like another, in which the Founding Fathers become timeless oracles to be consulted for wisdom on perplexing current problems. There is something comfortable about this, but it is grossly deceptive. It encourages anachronism, the blurring of historical lines… Their thoughts tend not to run backward into an antiquity they do not know.

Richard Hofstadter, Progressive Historians (1968)

Is it any wonder then, that the rebels who would question the claims of Evangelicalism, their revisionist history and baptism of Fascist sympathies, would be left to wander the frontier of confusion back to rational thought and kindness? As John Frame writes in his History of Western Philosophy and Theology (2017), Evangelical thinking “evades both realism and nominalism” (29). Defined by what they are against, Evangelicals see themselves as exclusive and the sole inheritors of divine wisdom. 

In this light, Frame writes, both “Christians” (Evangelicals) “and non-Christians” (for Frame, non-Christians are non-Evangelicals) “charge each other with being rationalist and irrationalist. As a Christian (Evangelical), I believe that the non-Christians (non-Evangelicals) are guilty of this criticism [but] the Christians (Evangelicals) nonguilty” (32).

Frame says this division is not a modern creation or even one that took place after the death of Jesus as he became the Christ, thus creating a religious group who would be called Christian. Rather, as Hofstadter points out, Frame and other Evangelical thinkers rewrite history and must continue revising history in light of their expanding falsehoods even as they revise or “translate” sacred texts to prove the validity of their mental gymnastics. An example of this would be the specific strand of Evangelicalism which calls itself Messianic Judaism, a foreign religion to Jews as it neglects Judaism entirely and insists on specious readings of the Hebrew Scriptures. 

Indeed, Frame suggests that the division between Christians and non-Christians doesn’t even begin with Christ, but instead begins with the woman Eve, partner to the first human Adam in the Book of Genesis. Eve, Frame claims, “knew that she should obey God and reject the contrary words of [the Evil One] Satan, but she preferred to trust her own senses and judgments, to make her decision as though she were autonomous… [and] embarked on carrying out her own ethic: disobedience” (23). This decision divides the world into Christians (Evangelicals) and non-Christians (non-Evangelicals). Evangelicals, Frame claims, are superior mentally as well as metaphysically; further complicating the matter to show its simplicity, he concludes that “although the fall [of humanity] involved Eve’s thinking about metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, the fall itself was in one sense ethical and not metaphysical” (23). Frame compounds Eve’s sin exponentially here, transforming it from an act of curiosity to an overt rejection of God in every conceivable way possible – metaphysical, ethical, and epistemological. Yet Frame makes no mention of Adam in this revision of the Genesis narrative; the omission is significant as Paul makes so much of it in his theology and orientation to the Kingdom of God. Indeed, Frame’s revisionist reading of Genesis even omits the parentage of Adam and Eve, long a hallmark of religious discourse and ecumenical agreement. Evangelicals, in this way, reside outside of time and space, parentless and originless in ways that are mentioned by Hofstadter and other progressive historians as an attempt at mythologizing. Without a meaningful origin story (except that women are not to be trusted), Evangelicals have entirely “othered” themselves, attempting to spring fully formed from the mind of God like Athena. They are, by their own reasoning, not even human – but superhuman, the completion of Nietzche’s superman and feel no obligation to familial ties to those whose mother rejected God so blatantly and willfully. 

Frame’s ideas seem strange when brought into the light, when contrasted to the lived experience and contrasted with even the most superficial understanding of religion. His views are not only strange, but intentionally offensive, even provocative and hostile. And yet, Frame is hardly alone in these views. Misogyny and the blaming of women as inherently sinful has long been part of the Evangelical experience, as has a rejection of “the world”, anachronism and revisionist history, and embedded hostility in the name of religion to anyone who would question behavior that runs contrary to the very things Jesus, Buddha, even Muhammed taught about tolerance, humility, and care for others. Indeed, Evangelicals have always been against the teachings of Jesus, Buddha, and Muhammed. Hostility for Jesus’ weakness, to say nothing of the “false gods” of other religions, has been a defining quality of their cult. By the fruit of their hostility and division they have always been known.

Like many of you, it is difficult to locate where I have been or even who I am after the last half-decade years. So much has changed that, in a random moment between the stop and go of traffic, I wonder if I can really be considered the same person anymore. At parties, the question of who I am and what I do is broken into four chapters: childhood, All That Happened, grad school, and work; I was this and then that, so whoever and whatever that makes me is left to be determined.

The primary, and I would say, widest change has been that I no longer identify as Evangelical. This was a stable part of my identity until November 2016, when (for what I feel are obvious reasons) internal calving of the glacier took place somewhere between a carpet and a staircase. What followed, at least for another three and a half years, was the slow migration away from the glacier. I began to say things that had previously felt foreign, like “Evangelicalism is a cult” and “even demons in the New Testament said that so I don’t see how Evangelicals are that different from the very thing Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, and James all warned against.” I went back to studying Judaism and Jewish interpretations of the Bible. Some days, I even felt enthusiastic but for longer and most sustained stretches, I was only disinterested. My life began to reflect the poem by Nizar Qabbani, “Days will pass, and you’ll abandon things you were addicted to, and leave someone, and cancel a dream, and finally, accept a reality.” My passing days turned towards relationships, trying to understand the laws of America, and my students whose writing was rarely memorable and never inspiring. I began to accept disinterest, to talk and write less, unimpressed with the boredom of my own thoughts when they did not spiral towards the wild anger of someone who has survived a trauma. A pandemic eclipsed the world, together with a series of unrelated events which were also devastating. I found that not only had I changed but so had the world and now that we were coming to terms with our changes, we were unsympathetic, even disgusted with one another. A family member came out over Zoom. Another had a baby in real life. Black people were murdered on television, and then another, and then even more. My fiance was one degree of separation from the arrest of Omar Jimenez on live television as he reported in Minneapolis while a former whatever-we-were (was it even a relationship?) with two daughters was an accomplice in the kidnapping of a child. These were what passed for libacious stories as we entertained and I discovered after my wedding (a man who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord) that moving forward was not the cure for the past I had been promised by Evangelicalism. Real life demanded more than thoughts, prayers, and mental assent to timeless, eternal truths. Real life was too real to be attended to by churchgoing. Lizzie and I tried to produce something in pews stretching from New Orleans to New York akin to the enthusiasm we once felt by attending virtual services in Los Angeles and Berkley and Lewisville but something had changed. The glacier had calved. 

We declined baptisms. We declined christenings. We declined prayer groups and rallies and, it felt at times, that we held hands and tried not to cry as often as we held one another and cried. We watched the order of things cremated in real time. This was what passed for real life.

For a dozen reasons, I felt the loss more profoundly than Lizzie. She has a stronger support network. Her family members are comparatively less prone to court appearances. She has regular therapy sessions, regular doctor visits, and a better salary which may not buy happiness specifically but it does buy Prozac and Xanax, which are just as good. But for a large part of my life, faith in a distant god was the constant. Across the multiverse, I was a lover of the distant god. I attribute this to my mother, who had difficulty conceiving and, inspired by biblical mothers, cut a deal with the distant god that if I was born, she would give me back so long as I was born. Like the prophet Samuel, someone was always calling my name when I was a child and together with my mother’s prayers, my heart was cut, shaped, cast, and forged for the divine. Into adulthood, depending on who you asked, I was either strange, mysterious, mystical, or heretical and I found it tragically comic that the last church I worked for was evenly split between those who wanted to make me the lead pastor and those who thought I was predestined to damnation. 

While I continue to maintain that I love this distant god of mine, I also acknowledge the possibility that if God is, indeed, love, then surely Satan – the evil one – must hold affection for the Almighty as well. Divorces are human examples of how simpatico love and hatred are with one another, how mutually exclusive feelings reside, even sleep beside one another. 

When my wife and I met, I wanted to get something out of the way. On our first date, I asked, “are you religious at all?” She wasn’t, she hesitated, but then again both her mother and one of her siblings were ministers. “My sister-in-law too. She runs a prison ministry. My step-father is an elder and sits on the board of a church-run outreach center,” and then she reluctantly admitted, “I’m an elder too. Or I was. I guess I still am, technically.” It was amusing, I think. The simple answer would have been to say yes, that she was quite religious but that, like many of us, she went through phases – don’t we all? – and was going through one at that very moment. She could have stalled by asking what I meant by “religious” and then, having collected her thoughts, articulated and explained her ambivalence. Yet her reluctance to admit yes, she was religious but no, she didn’t pray every night, hadn’t prayed about our date, smirked and tilted her head to the side when I asked if she prayed over her food, was not about her at all. The slow process of explaining that her religious beliefs meant something to her wasn’t about her, wasn’t a coy shellgame of admitting who she was, really was, on a first date, but instead wanting to differentiate, even separate, from the migration of religion into public spaces.

Evangelicals make a big show of loving their god, even as they commit heinous crimes against themselves, their stated ethics, and anyone who doesn’t fit their expectations. No religion cannibalizes as frequently and gluttonously as Evangelicals. Chris Kratzer summed up the disenfranchisement of a generation recently, and rather than offer tasty clips, I prefer to recommend the entire post:

It’s hard to wrap my mind around it. Perhaps, like never before, we’re seeing the reality of it. Right before our eyes and without restraint. Hate-filled Christians are pursuing and doing unconscionable things in the name of Jesus.

The very same Jesus who insisted, “by their fruits you will know them.” It’s true, actions not only speak louder than words, they reveal the sole sum of one’s faith, heart, and spirituality. There are no hacks to get around it. The perfect mirror.

So, just imagine.

Imagine a faith so weak, a truth so fragile, a god so vulnerable, that you have to ban books to keep kids from seeing behind the curtain and to prevent the entirety of your faith from crashing down.

Imagine a faith so violent, a vision so discriminating, and a history so racist, that you have to rewrite it, erase it, and frantically keep it from being taught, learned, and acknowledged because you’re so nervous about people seeing it, and deep down you might just like to repeat it.

Imagine a faith so brutal, a truth so deniable, and an identity so brittle, that you have to demonize and criminalize transgender kids and their families in order to satisfy your addiction to power, refuel your hatred, and keep your deep-seated, heterosexual insecurities from being exposed. All, while you secretly pray for their suicides.

Imagine a faith so repulsive, a truth so rejectable, and a lifestyle so pungent, that you have to fabricate an eternity spent in a fiery hell and a diabolical god who would create it in order to scare people into your brand of believing and keep them in it. Otherwise, they would never sign up for your circus.

Just imagine.

Imagine a faith so desperate, a truth so untruthful, and a god so impotent that you have to sleep in the bed of politics, hypocrisy, lies, greed, and debauchery in order to prosper and protect your faith ideology.

Imagine a faith so weak, a truth so refutable, and a reputation so deplorable, that you have to nationalize your faith for it to have existence, influence, and adherents in society.

Imagine a faith so self-centered, a truth so childish, and a god so limited that you have to force your beliefs, your Bible, and your prayers into schools, government, and public settings in order to make sure your god is working, your faith is winning, and you’ll get your way in everything.

Imagine a faith so fragile, a truth so untrustworthy, and a god so human-imaged, that you have to insist that the Bible is inerrant and your interpretation of it as being exclusively authoritative, in order for people to believe you, follow you, submit to you, and do your bidding. Not to mention, convince yourself and all those around you, that anything you believe or teach is real, true, or worth living.

Just imagine.

Imagine a brand of believing so insecure, a masculinity so fragile, and a lifestyle so duplicit, that you have to marginalize and subdue women, and colonize their bodies in order to distract from your pro-death faith, preserve your patriarchy, and demand your sexist privilege within your faith system and all of society.

Imagine a faith so immoral, a truth so uncompelling, and a god so psychotic, that you to have to force your beliefs, rules, god, and values into the lives of people and into every area of life and living, because otherwise, they would never choose them, and worst of all, they might just find out that your entire faith is a fraud, because true love doesn’t insist on its own way.

See, apparently, where you believe that your Evangelical faith, god, truth, and religion are so indestructible that even the gates of hell cannot prevail against them, you forgot about books, truth, solidarity, women, love, grace, equality, diversity, compassion, generosity, and Jesus.

At times, it’s hard to understand how people who claim to have such great faith and divine wisdom can act so faithlessly and with such maliciousness. Yet, the fruits dangle all so clearly upon the tree.

I beg of you, help me understand, who is this god that you are serving? He may be in your Bible, but he’s certainly not in Jesus.

No more need to imagine. 

Chris Kratzer, “Imagine a Faith So Weak…” (May 18, 2022)

Evangelicals didn’t get to this point alone, however. Their rhetoric would make one think Evangelicalism is a monolithic – and thus “true” – reflection of Christianity. Rather, their ascendancy was supported by lies and corruption as much as it was by well-intentioned patience from other religions and cults, primarily Christians in the post-war era who sought appeasement. We see this in American politics today – Joe Biden was elected to the Presidency because he promised to unite, to “reach across the aisle” and pull from decades of working with Republicans who had become increasingly radicalized. Yet Biden’s fatal mistake has been that he would entertain pseudo-Fascists, repeat their lies in good faith, and ignore the disappointment and frustration of his party, his base. Despite multiple, repeated, and sustained criticism by fellow Democrats and progressives who are exiting the party to join Democratic Socialists, Biden continues to promise to work with corrupt Republicans like Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, universally despised Ted Cruz, right-wing Josh Hawley, and the ironic gun violence victim turned gun violence supporter Steve Scalise.

Evangelicals have profited from the support of Christians and other religions who didn’t want to fight them or meet Evangelicals on the field of discourse. Rather, they believed that ecumenical dialogue was possible when evangelicals clearly and thoroughly spent a century explaining they had no intention of dialogue, but rather actively sought the conversion of their interlocutors. Christians and other religions recognized the threat of extremism and still sought to “reach across the aisle” with Evangelicals who explicitly intended them harm. Failure in this regard only served to elevate Evangelicalism.

As Chris Hedges put it in 2013, 

What I’m willing to do, which the mainstream church is not, is to denounce the Christian right as Christian heretics. You don’t have to, as I did, spend three years at Harvard Divinity School to realize that Jesus didn’t come to make us rich, and he certainly didn’t come to make Pat Robertson and Joel Osteen rich. What they have done is acculturate the worst aspects of American imperialism, capitalism, chauvinism, and violence and bigotry into the Christian religion. And again let’s go back to Weimar and the rise of Nazism. We saw the same thing in the so-called German Christian Church, which fused the iconography and language of Christianity with Nazism. It’s not a new phenomenon… The Weimarization of the American working class, essentially pushing your working population into utter despair and hopelessness, coupled with a religious movement that fused national and religious symbols, was a recipe for fascism. And I think the great failure of the liberal tradition that I come out of is they were too frightened and too timid to stand up. I don’t know why they spent all the years in seminary if they didn’t realize that when they walked out the door they were going to have to fight for it. And they didn’t fight for it.

Chris Hedges, “The Myth of Human Progress and the Collapse of Complex Societies” lecture (13 October 2013)

It seems clear now that Evangelicals, a cultic corruption of Christianity and now entirely exposed as a nationalistic enterprise, as a capitalistic product of white supremacy that has been masquerading as religion, should no longer be trusted to speak for Christians in any capacity. Instead, they should be classified as something distinct and separate. The time has come to hand them over to Satan, as Paul put it in I Corinthians 5, if there is to be any hope for their salvation. Perhaps one day their faults may be recognized and they may seek restoration, but the tree has rotted and should be cut down. Christians should seek to reclaim theology for Christian purposes. This will be an arduous task, taking decades, even centuries to set right what Evangelicals have destroyed. Christians must now begin this work with two hands, one pulling the fruit from the weeds and the other casting the weeds aside. 

It is with this purpose that Theology & the City now takes a turn from reflection to more seminal work, collecting ideas from the past and making notes on why they are being kept, while also moving forward towards a progressive theology that reflects scripture instead of egregious error.

Further Reading

  • Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church (2022) by Katelyn Beaty
  • The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (2017) by Frances Fitzgerald
  • Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (2020) by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
  • The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (2019) by Jemar Tisby

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