December 6, 2018

Will Evangelicals Become Alt-Right?

Certain segments of the alt-right are targeting evangelical Christians, according to Religious Left scholars who spoke at a recent conference at Georgetown University. But they don’t target Christians for persecution, as evangelicals are quick to suppose. No, they believe they can convert evangelicals to their racist way of thinking.

While it’s difficult to pin down a one-size-fits-all definition of the “alt-right,” it usually refers to the groups that gathered at Charlottesville, and not to right-wing conservatives in general. The conference speakers generally followed this convention, and used the term for fringe groups seeking to turn America into a “whites-only” ethnically-“pure” nation-state. The alt-right’s various groups rarely agree on anything else, but communicate privately over the internet.

The conference speakers noted that many alt-right groups were strictly secular, disapproving of religion in any form. Other groups embraced pre-Christian paganism, such as worship of the Norse god, Odin. I was surprised to learn that these groups are rehashing the same arguments that Augustine refuted over 1600 years ago (that Christianity was weak because it came out of Judaism, and that it destroyed the virility of Western civilization). Both of these types of groups see Christianity as the enemy.

However, another brand of alt-right is more politically-savvy. They recognize their goals require majority approval and that the majority of Americans are, at least nominally, Christian. Therefore, they are willing to put aside their hatred of Christianity to achieve their policy goals. Several conference speakers agreed that the politically-savvy alt-right activists specifically targeted white evangelicals that voted for Trump as likely converts.

At first blush, this danger seems far-fetched and impotent. After all, as speakers noted, many evangelical leaders—particularly Southern Baptists, the largest evangelical group in America—have condemned the alt-right. Additionally, the racism of the alt-right does not square with evangelical teachings about the value of all human life, the equality of all people in the eyes of God, and the unity of all races in Christ.

However, there are a couple of warning signs. One dangerous trend noted at the conference is that politics has become “upstream” from religion for many Americans. This means we increasingly change our religious beliefs to match our politics, not the other way around. If alt-right actors form coalitions with evangelicals on some issues, they might convince evangelicals to embrace their alt-right beliefs on other issues.

Another concern the speakers highlighted is the blending of religious ideas—commonly called “syncretism.” Dr. Melanie McAlister, an expert on evangelicals, pointed out that most religious believers live out a contradictory mix of official dogma, common sense, and personal preference. The danger, then, is that alt-right ideas may be perceived as common sense or personal preference and adopted alongside their official evangelical beliefs. This would damage both the nation and the message of the Gospel.

Like many evangelicals, I am instinctively skeptical of leftist academics when they criticize Christianity. We tend to discount the ramblings of professors holding forth from their ivory tower, acting as if tenure gave them a license for sloppy reasoning and ignorance. Our ears tune out the tired slogan from last century that “anyone who votes for so-and-so is racist.” Sometimes that instinct is correct.

And while the Georgetown conference did feature left-leaning academics, I believe this time it is important that conservative evangelicals heed their warnings. Let me share several reasons. First, the panels featured multiple serious scholars engaged in serious, firsthand research that was aimed at figuring out the truth, not in scoring political points. In addition to Dr. McAlister, who I mentioned earlier, I was also impressed by Dr. Damon Berry, an expert on the alt-right, and Dr. George Hawley, an expert on the relationship between religious Americans and the alt-right. They reasoned with a level of nuance to which I cannot do justice in this short piece. Secondly, and related to the first reason, these scholars presented original conclusions, discovered through research by themselves or others—not like the partisan talking points you might hear on the 6 ‘o-clock news. Third, they respected complexity; they were able to identify diversity among both the alt-right and Christianity and recognize that patterns in one part were not necessarily true of the whole. Fourth, they demonstrated a genuine effort to understand the perspectives of others. Particularly Dr. McAlister, who herself is not an evangelical, displayed respect for evangelicals by her ability to accurately articulate evangelical arguments in terms they themselves would use.

It’s worth noting that, while the alt-right poses a danger to evangelicalism, its threat is only partial. Both evangelicalism and the alt-right are fragmented in both structure and objectives. However, it’s good to be conscious of the danger, and stay focused on Christ.

One Response to Will Evangelicals Become Alt-Right?

  1. William says:

    We know the outcome of the attempt to force Jesus into worldly politics. We must adhere to his model and continue seeking the Kingdom of God if we claim him as our Lord and Savior. That is our eternal hope.

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