How the Religious Right Lost Its Mind

Earlier this month, Charles Sykes, published his book “How the Right Lost Its Mind.” A long-time Republican, Sykes describes the gradual evolution of conservative ideas and politics from the likes of intelligent, fair-minded William F. Buckley to the narcissist, reckless, liar Donald J. Trump. His conclusion, on how things changed, almost exactly parallels how the Religious Right lost its mind as well, as “…a movement based on ideas had devolved into a new tribalism that valued neither principle nor truth.”

For clarification, it should be obvious that I’m not saying here that all individuals who consider themselves part of the Religious or Political Right have lost their minds. I have many evangelical family and friends who are kind, decent, and thoughtful people and some of them voted for Trump. I’m drawing attention to the religious and political movements (to which individuals belong) that often take on a mind of their own and then gradually lose that mind.

Proof of the Mindlessness

You don’t have to go to the Democrats to show the current mindless absurdity of the political Right. Thoughtful Republicans who have woken up will suffice. Sykes’ incisive book is a self examination of the political Right critiquing itself.

Besides Sykes, there’s Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, author of “Conscience of a Conservative” (another book highly critical of Trump and the Republican’s intransience). On the senate floor last week Flake said, “We must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal. They are not normal. Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused…” He went on to state how Trump’s behavior is “dangerous to a democracy,” citing Trump’s “personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons…”

Then there’s former Trump supporter, Tennessee Senator, Bob Corker. Apparently hesitant to call Trump an outright liar, he recently said, “”I don’t know why he lowers himself to such a low, low standard, and debases our country in a way that he does, but he does…. The President has great difficulty with the truth. On many issues…. I would hope the staff over there would figure out ways of controlling him when they know that everything he said today was absolutely untrue… I think world leaders are very aware that much of what he says is untrue… I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain him…” Corker stated Trump was treating his office like “a reality show,” with reckless threats toward other countries that could set the nation “on the path to World War III.”

Not to mention the others who have more consistently called out Trump, like Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham. McCain has been critical of Trump on policies such as, banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, his failed first mission in Yemen, and for suggesting that he might lift sanctions against Russia. But more importantly, on his demeanor: “When Mr. Trump attacks women and demeans the women in our nation and in our society, that is a point where I just have to party company,” he said at a U.S. Senate race debate.

After Trump lashed out on Lindsey Graham on Twitter following the Charlottesville, VA incident (accusing Graham of seeking publicity and spreading a “disgusting lie”), Graham, trying to be decent in praising Trump when he does something right, responded with the following: “Your tweet honoring Miss Heyer was very nice and appropriate [the woman killed when a car drove into protestors]. Well done. However, because of the manner in which you have handled the Charlottesville tragedy you are now receiving praise from some of the most racist and hate-filled individuals and groups in our country. For the sake of our Nation—as our President—please fix this. History is watching us all.” (see “I don’t want GOP to move back to the darkness”).

You won’t hear hardly a peep of this kind of nuanced critique of Trump from most of the voices of the Religious Right (with very few exceptions, and thank God for them).

The Way They Were (at least the moderates of the Religious Right)

When I was a sincere, committed young conservative evangelical in the 1980s and 90s, I saw us evangelicals in two camps. The ultra-conservatives like Jerry Falwell and televangelists, and the moderates, like Billy Graham, Tony Campolo, and emerging thinkers in the Vineyard movement (progressive charismatics).

In many ways at that time, the Religious Right had already lost its mind with its insistence on things like the inerrancy of the Bible, the exclusiveness of heaven, the belief in the doctrine of eternal hell, and their endless speculations on the end times. They had already thrown obvious, thoughtful, and historical objections to these beliefs behind the bushes at the back door of the church, and had shamefully used these erroneous theologies to control and put fear into their current and prospective followers. That did not make individuals within the movement mindless. We were hoodwinked by powerful institutional forces that did not encourage us to question traditional doctrines and made us fearful of “heresy.”

But at least there was a stream of kindness, decency, and thoughtfulness in much of the movement.

Billy Graham is a prime example. Despite his conservative Christian credentials, he was truly likeable. He truly loved his enemies. He hobnobbed with Hollywood celebrities and comedians and laughed at their jokes—whether sexually suggestive or religious. He voiced an inclusive theology, saying “people will be judged according to what they do in light of what they know,” when asked about the fate of unbelievers. He agreed with the sentiment on heaven, “…we’ll be surprised who’s there.” Without condoning his behavior, he still befriended Bill Clinton after the Lewinsky scandal, and played a supportive pastoral role for Hillary. He told her, “…forgiveness is the hardest thing that we’re called upon to do. And we all face it at some point in our lives and I’m just really proud of you for taking it on.” In 2007, he called the Clintons “…wonderful friends for many years” and even stated Bill should become an evangelist, because “he had all the gifts.” He added with a smile, “And he could [let] his wife run the country” (see “Billy Graham: Hillary’s Solace”).

How They Lost It

Billy’s son, Franklin, often embarrassed by his father’s more conciliatory tone (he claimed the line about Hillary potentially being President was only a joke) unfortunately never followed his father’s lead. His narrow version of Christianity became the standard for the movement and other more moderate voices got drowned out. Fast forward to 2016 when 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump despite his incessant mocking of “crooked Hillary” and calls to “Lock her up!”

I bring the Clintons example up, not because Hillary was a perfect candidate or Bill was pure as the driven snow, but because it highlights the stark contrast between the decency and conciliatory nature of at least some in the Religious Right years ago and their more black-and-white, hard-nosed positions today and in the Obama era. Evangelicals readily believed easily debunked theories: that Obama was a secret Muslim. That he was really born in Kenya. They entertained theological absurdities, e.g. that he was “…paving the way for the Antichrist.” This, despite, the obvious: That Obama was one of the most thoughtful Christians in modern politics.

Today, charismatics confidently assert that Donald Trump’s election was prophesied. That his presidency is actually an answer to prayer! Trump’s evangelical press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders (her father is Trump supporter Mike Huckabee, widely popular among evangelicals), regularly defends Trump to the point of calling the women accusing him of sexual harassment liars. Evangelicals have largely got on the bandwagon of calling everything critical of Trump “fake news.” Lou Dobbs, of evangelical-favorite Fox News, practically worshiped Trump in his interview with him last week where he heaped praise upon praise for his accomplishments.

All this, despite the assertions (and whole books) cited above about Trump… by conservative Republicans! Ones that actually work with him and don’t live in a bubble. And also, despite the easily-proven track record of Trump ignoring “Christian” decency, with little sign of change.

Demonizing decency, when it disagrees with Religious Right politics, and glorifying indecency, when it promises the party line, has become the order of the day for religious conservatives.

The reason the Religious Right movement lost its mind to a whole new level is because it put expediency over principles of decency.

And, this is not just a phenomenon to which the Right is susceptible. It can happen to any ideological and political position. Right or Left. Beware. In fact, it happens to the religious and political Left as well when they push ideological positions on detractors in disrespectful ways.

Whatever our political and religious views, principles or decency should rule.

Note: This post was revised on December 2, 2017.

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