Summary: Since the Civil War, white Christians in this country have swung wildly between advancing a social doctrine of equality and promoting outright racism, nationalism and hatred of the poor. Since the Eisenhower years, however, Christians of all stripes have decidedly split along similar fault lines to our politics. While secularists and the so-called religious left represent the majority of Americans, the fervent white Christian nationalist wing of the country seems to be fully in control of the national agenda. We invited Brad Onishi from the Straight White American Jesus podcast to help us unpack the divide between the religious right and left in the United States.
Editor’s Note: Today’s episode is in collaboration with the Straight White American Jesus podcast - SWAJ for short - an amazing show that launched in 2018 and is consistently smart and revealing. Today we’re joined by one half of the dynamic hosting duo, Brad Onishi from University of San Francisco. Prior to becoming a religious studies professor and launching SWAJ, Brad was a pastor at a California megachurch and attended Oxford University, Institut Catholique de Paris, and the University of Santa Barbara.
Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Would you permit me the privilege of uttering a little private prayer of my own? And I ask that you bow your heads.
“Almighty God, as we stand here at this moment my future associates in the executive branch of government join me in beseeching that thou will make full and complete our dedication to the service of the people in this throng and their fellow citizens everywhere.
“Give us, we pray, the power to discern clearly right from wrong, and allow all our words and actions to be governed thereby and by the laws of this land.
“Especially we pray that our concern shall be for all the people regardless of station, race or calling.
“May cooperation be permitted and be the mutual aim of those who, under the concepts of our Constitution, hold to differing political faiths so that all may work for the good of our beloved countries and thy glory.
It seems innocuous in this day and age that a U.S. President would offer a prayer at an inaugural address. But this transcript of President Dwight Eisenhower asking the nation to join him in prayer was a turning point in our nation’s history. Prior to this moment, leaders in The United States engaged in mostly real but sometimes performative separation of church and state. That is to say that the government of this country has always been identified with so-called Puritan values, derived from the moral authority of the Christian faith, but for the most part religious influence was decoupled from policy by design.
Mind you, congressional debates, particularly among the southern lawmakers, were often infused with biblical references, twisted to fit a conservative narrative to most notably uphold the institution of slavery. And Presidents often quoted scripture, but ecumenical influence ended at the White House doors.
For most of our existence, we were a nation of Christians, rather than a Christian nation. With the exception of John Adams, most early presidents refrained from talk of religion in the White House and they rarely invoked their faith when it came to policy. It wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln, who increasingly sought divine inspiration in his quest to keep the republic whole, that God took a prominent seat in the president’s cabinet.
From this point forward religion would at times take center stage in certain administrations as with Benjamin Harrison or Woodrow Wilson, and at times it was barely a factor with several Presidents holding their faith cards close to the vest. And while many invoked scripture in their national addresses, it was Eisenhower who would shape the modern presidency in terms of professed piety.
But it was also at a time when this infusion of religion could have taken a different shape.
Take LBJ, as an example, who was raised in the Southern Baptist tradition and aligned later in life with the Disciples of Christ Church. LBJ viewed his faith as a guiding principle in the creation of his Great Society. The same LBJ who befriended Billy Graham - in fact Graham eulogized the former president - believed service to the poor was his calling of faith and it manifested in his legislative priorities. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, would adopt a more modern view by promoting the virtue of individualism and consistently invoking religious themes in his speeches even while taking aim at the welfare state.
The practical and doctrinal interpretation of Christianity couldn’t be more different in these examples, separated by a mere dozen years. A dozen years.
So what the fuck happened between the late 1960s and the early 1980s to alter the course of our religious views in terms of how they manifested in public policy? How did we move so quickly and effortlessly from, “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God,” to eliminating welfare programs and offering tax breaks to the wealthy as a universal doctrine of faith?
Like most of our Unf*ckings, we’ll get there. But it’s gonna be a minute before we do. Buckle up motherfuckers ‘cause here…we…go…
Chapter One: Framing the Inquiry: Capitalism as Religion.
In 2021, Benjamin Friedman published a compelling book titled Religion and the Rise of Capitalism which argues, “that our ideas about economics and economic policy have long-standing roots in religious thinking.” Friedman builds a case dating back to David Hume and Adam Smith that demonstrates that while the thinkers themselves were fairly agnostic or minimally influenced by the more dogmatic aspects of religion, their entire environment was shaped by theology and is therefore inseparable from the outcomes in their economic theses.
The author ponders the question that vexes many of us on the left. “Why do so many Americans who have only the remotest prospect of ever making their way into the top income tax bracket nonetheless favor keeping the tax rate on top-bracket incomes low?”
Over the next 400 odd pages, Friedman paints a picture of religious life in western society that is inextricably linked to the worldviews of dominant theorists. He builds on the idea that if we’re to consider economics a science, then we should understand that in our formative years science and religion weren’t always at odds with one another. “Newton in particular,” he offers, “understood the physical sciences to be supportive, not subversive, of relation as they knew it. The physical laws and mechanisms that they uncovered were part of the beauty of God’s creation.”
Friedman follows the burgeoning science to the Americas where courses were established in higher education. “The first college in America to offer a course in political economy, starting in the 1820s, was Columbia. John McVickar, the instructor for this new discipline, was a professor of moral philosophy, just as Smith had been at Glasgow…For McVickar, approaching the subject as not just a religiously committed man but a member of the clergy, unintended but beneficial consequences of human actions occur because a benevolent God makes it so.”
Heirs to McVickar, such as Francis Wayland, a devout Baptist who was president of Brown University for three decades also, “saw political economy as an application of Newtonian science saying, ‘By Science, we mean a systematic arrangement of the law which God has established.’”
What Friedman is arguing is that every aspect of the post-Enlightenment science of economics was inexorable and deeply rooted in a very Christian understanding of the natural world. Everything discovered was simply a new understanding of how the world was organized to natural laws and order created by God. Mankind was endowed with gifts of innovation and industry and with these gifts were meant to build. The oceans weren’t just bodies of water but portals of trade that connected us. The earth wasn’t there for us to simply protect, its resources were gifted by the almighty for us to extract. Even labor was seen as divine. “Human agency, in the form of labor applied to these objects, therefore works hand in hand with divine creation in enabling these objects to serve human ends,” writes Friedman.
I think this framing is maybe the best way to understand the role of organized western religion in shaping our world as it is today. It’s not about separation of church and state or even whether religion is more or less explicitly involved at the level of policy making. It’s about who is selling it and which discipline is supporting which?
There may have been a time in the development of economics as a science and discipline - even if it became known as the so-called dismal science - that the science was revealed to support particular worldviews, rather than the other way around. Though it’s hard to argue that there has been a shift in roles. To a state where religion is supportive of the more fundamental aspect of our culture: Capitalism.
More on Friedman in a little bit but that’s the working thesis here. That our modern religion is indeed capitalism and we’ve somehow managed to retrofit the gospels to conveniently fit the accepted principles of this economic system.
So if our working thesis is that religion now exists to support Capitalism in the United States, the questions are how and where.
How did we get here? And where is the religious left? Let’s take the latter question first and offer some examples of what exactly the religious left looks like.
As my views are almost entirely secular and shaped by the works of modern progressive economic theorists and writers, I have embarrassingly little context for organized religion in this nation. And most of what I’ve seen of it either frightens me or puzzles me.
If I had to select a writer who most closely resembles my thoughts on religion it would have to be the late Christopher Hitchens. While I find his misogyny and later-in-life stances on Western interventions wholly distasteful, much of his early work still resonates with me. Partly because he was brilliant and partly because he was such an unapologetic fucking asshole. At any rate, I find myself more aligned with passages such as this from his book god Is Not Great where he writes:
“Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge. Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion.”
So understanding that I come from an acerbically agnostic place, I thought it best to rely on the expert. When I first threw out the topic to Brad at Straight White American Jesus my question was pretty basic. Where are the modern day Berrigan brothers?
And if you’re asking who the fuck the Berrigan brothers are, no worries. I first came across the Berrigan brothers when reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and was at once fascinated. Here’s a quick passage:
In 1972, “Philip Berrigan…was joined in a second action by his brother Daniel, a Jesuit priest who had visited North Vietnam and seen the effects of U.S. bombing. They and seven other people went into a draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland, removed records, and set them afire outside in the presence of reporters and onlookers. They were convicted and sentenced to prison, and became famous as the “Catonsville Nine.” Dan Berrigan wrote a “Meditation” at the time of the Catonsville incident:
“Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise…We say: killing is disorder, life and gentleness and community and unselfishness is the only order we recognize. For the sake of that order, we risk our liberty, our good name. The time is past when good men can remain silent, when obedience can segregate men from public risk, when the poor can die without defense.”
What I found so curious in learning about the Berrigans over the years is how they could stand on the right side of history yet be considered radical by their country and by their own church.
The history of the Black church in America was more obvious to me in terms of its role in the anti-war movement and fight for civil rights. I also had vague notions of Jewish liberalism and the so-called “Grand Alliance” in the civil rights era, which we’re going to explore more fully in a bit. But the Berrigans as agitators within the Catholic Church told a different story about the predominantly white Christian America. So I put the question to Brad to understand what progressivism looks like in monotheistic religions today to help frame our discussion.
BRAD: Thanks, Max. And a pleasure to speak to the UNFTR audience.
One of the unfortunate components of modern America is that far-right religious groups connected to fundamentalist Christianity have co-opted much of the airspace when it comes to religion. We now only seemingly hear about religion when it is related to some god-awful new policy proposal, SCOTUS decision, or candidate that represents a myopic and exclusionary vision of the country and its citizens.
However, up until the mid-1960s what we might consider progressive Christianity was the flagship form of religion in the American public square. Christians, including white Christians, fought throughout the 20th century for issues like women’s suffrage, sex education, reproductive rights, and of course civil rights for Black Americans and other minority racial and ethnic groups. This has changed of course, but the fight and the activism remain.
You mentioned the Civil Rights movement as fueled by religious faith. MLK Jr. was a Baptist minister. Many know that Senator Warnock is not only the first Black Senator from the Deep South since Reconstruction, but is also heir to MLK’s pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist church in Georgia.
However, there are other heirs in the Christian tradition to the religious progressivism of MLK Jr. In 1968 King started the Poor People’s Campaign to combat income inequality, especially as it affected Black people. Today Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis are co-chairs of the modern Poor People’s Campaign, whose mission is to confront the interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.
In the Jewish community, there are many fighting for reproductive rights, an end to American imperialism, justice for the incarcerated, and so on. One example is Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg who is a well known activist and writer. Notably, she has been an advocate for reclaiming the mantel of “pro-life” from the right in order to re-appropriate it for those who want to protect and nurture life in all forms. She is one of the many in the Jewish tradition who believe abortion is healthcare and a fundamental right. She is pro-choice, pro-contraception, anti-death penalty. She advocates for refugees while fighting gun violence.
There are so many more examples to which I could point, but these give a glimpse into the often uncovered world of religious progressives who are fighting to make this Republic more equitable, just, and humane.
After a bit more history of linkage between religion and American politics we’ll delve more into progressive religious movements on the left.
In thinking about the influence of religion in modern times, I think it’s helpful to examine where most Americans fall in terms of faith. Here are the broad strokes as recently published by the Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI.
“Seven in ten Americans (70%) identify as Christian, including more than four in ten who identify as white Christian and more than one-quarter who identify as Christians of color. Nearly one in four Americans (23%) are religiously unaffiliated, and 5% identify with non-Christian religions.”
Now if we dig into these numbers a bit, we begin to see ourselves a bit more clearly:
44% of Americans identify as white Christian which includes white evangelical Protestants, non-evangelical Protestants and white Catholics. A small percentage identify as Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness and Orthodox Christian.
Then there are what the report calls Christians of Color, which include Hispanic Catholics, Black Protestants, Hispanic Protestants and other Catholics of color, making up about 25% of the population.
Smaller affiliations at about 1% each are Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist. And a half of a percent identify as Hindu.
And about 23% of Americans are religiously unaffiliated. These are people who either don’t claim a particular religion or consider themselves atheist or agnostic.
Looking back at historical figures, every affiliation has declined precipitously over the past few decades but have leveled out in the past couple of years. What I find so curious is that according to the report, “Since 2006, white evangelical Protestants have experienced the most precipitous drop in affiliation, shrinking from 23% of Americans in 2006 to 14% in 2020.” Moreover, the average age of the white evangelical Protestant is 56, which makes this the oldest bloc among affiliated and unaffiliated Americans.
So why then has the influence of this segment of the population seemingly grown? Before we can comment on the decline, let’s take a look at the rise.
Chapter Two: Thou Shalt Not Feed the Poor.
Periods of social progress in the United States seem to provide the most fertile ground for evangelical thought. Early hints of radical evangelicalism in the U.S. came on the heels of the Civil War. During Reconstruction when Blacks in America had a fleeting glimpse of access to the system and the country experienced an economic boom, white Christian nationalists formed the Ku Klux Klan in response.
When social programs were introduced by liberal Protestant churches at the turn of the 20th Century to curtail growing inequality, counter-movements sprung up to declare the divine right of wealth accumulation.
When the Depression ushered in a wave of social programs, a fissure in Protestantism erupted, one that remains to this day.
In early days, thought leaders in economic science such as Henry Ward Beecher saw no tension between the increases in status and lifestyle afforded by capitalism and their faith. Beecher was a preacher with an affluent following and had been an outspoken abolitionist in the Civil War era. As Friedman writes:
“Beecher made clear that his newly developing wealth was good for both individuals and society. He was not a believer in poverty, he wrote; nor did he consider poverty any kind of condition of holiness. No doubt hearing in mind the munificent standard of living enjoyed by many of his parishioners - not to mention his own - explained that ‘A man can as well labor for and benefit the community in which he dwells when living in a royal mansion, as when living in a hovel. In order to live for others, it is not necessary to live in squalid misery.’”
This was the era of newfound wealth among certain titans in the country who were also disposed to give back to the community, in part because of their Christian faith. Figures like Andrew Carnegie believed in the accumulation of wealth so long as it was justly distributed by men of great conscience and quality. This paternalistic view fit neatly into the worldviews of Protestant leaders like Beecher, though, as Friedman notes, the claim by the super-rich was, “a justification for allowing individuals to amass wealth such as his.”
Despite rare success stories like Carnegie, the years prior to and just after the turn of the 20th Century were economically fraught. The post-Civil War boom ended after 20 years or so and the next several decades were marked by boom and bust cycles that left more than half of the nation in persistent poverty. It was during this time that the Protestant churches had an awakening of sorts with important figures like Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch preaching for equality and economic justice. Again, Friedman:
“Rauschenbusch was a prolific writer, and his books forcefully advanced the message of what was coming to be called the Social Gospel: Christianity and the Social Crisis; Prayers for the Social Awakening; Christianizing the Social Order; A Theology for the Social Gospel. In Christianity and the Social Crisis he took up Gladden’s argument that America’s current economic situation was untenable, and that unequal distribution of the nation’s growing wealth was the heart of the matter.”
The social awakening among Protestant faiths coalesced in the foundation of an organization called the Federal Council of Churches, or FCC, in 1908. The FCC adopted the liberal aspects of Protestantism with many spiritual leaders increasingly favoring government intervention into markets to assuage the financial suffering that stemmed from increasing inequality. The movement at the heart of it was referred to as “modernism,” patterned after a book by a scholar named Shailer Mathews called The Faith of Modernism. While the FCC quickly became a formidable voice in the push for economic liberalization, it would soon draw criticism from more conservative churches that gained momentum in the Roaring Twenties.
One of the inspirations for the countermovement was a man named Dwight Moody, a wealthy publisher and preacher who possessed a revivalist spirit. Here’s Friedman:
“Moody’s evangelical Protestantism resembled neither the Gospel of Wealth nor the Social Gospel, and when those two lines of thought came together in the Federal Council of Churches the differences from what Moody preached became all the more visible.”
Moody’s following and others of his ilk viewed the Bible in originalist terms and rejected the liberal interpretations of the FCC and now-widely accepted theories of evolution. A Los Angeles group with ties to Moody published a tome of essays in the early 1900s called The Fundamentals, which opposed evolution, social activism and any shift toward secularism embraced by the FCC. So when you hear the term “fundamentalist,” that’s what this refers to. Those within the Protestant faith that believe in the ideas expressed in The Fundamentals.
At the same time, as we covered in our Prosperity Doctrine episode, Christianity was about to get a makeover by an ad man named Bruce Barton, author of The Man Nobody Knows, published in 1925. Think The Secret. Or Gary Vee. Chicken Soup for the Soul. Any iteration of the self help universe that will deliver you riches if only you know how to ask for it. Except Barton’s protagonist was Jesus Christ.
The idea spawned by Barton wasn’t new, but the packaging was undeniably tantalizing as only a professional advertising executive could deliver. He was selling Christ as a capitalist. In doing so he inspired millions to pursue false piety through Christ. And in an instant Barton let every wealthy industrialist off the hook for their sins, basically telling them, ‘everything you’ve done to get to this point is okay’. In fact, it’s Christlike.
Essentially, it turned the gospels upside down and celebrated Earth as divine and any possessions accumulated in this life as evidence that your soul is already favored by Christ. Needless to say this narrative was especially appealing to the monied class in the 1920s who were being taken to task by the liberal wing of Protestantism and made to feel guilty about excess.
In his book, One Nation Under God, author Kevin Kruse points to the rise of a man named James Fifield in the 1930s as an inflection point in the evangelical movement. Fifield built one of the nation’s first mega churches in Los Angeles, turning a profit within just a few years of building a massive campus to serve the elite monied interests of the west coast. As Kruse says:
“Fifield’s important innovation was his insistence that Christianity and capitalism were political soul mates, first and foremost.”
“Time and time again,” continues Kruse, “he condemned a variety of ‘socialistic laws,’ such as ones supporting minimum wage, price controls, Social Security pensions for the elderly, unemployment insurance, veterans’ benefits, and the like, as well as a wide range of federal taxation that he deemed to be tyrannical in nature.”
While Fifield battled the Roosevelt administration from behind the scenes, attempting to chip away at the social safety nets and welfare programs that troubled his wealthy congregation, the larger positive sentiment toward FDR and psychological trauma of the Great Depression prevented him from making progress on the national front. But this didn’t stop him from building an extensive network of ministers around the country that were taken with Fifield’s ability to haul in massive sums of cash, all in the name of the heavenly father.
“It is time to exalt the dignity of individual man as a child of God, to exalt Jesus’ concept of man’s sacredness and to rebuild a moral fabric based on such irreducibles as the Ten Commandments,” urged Fifield to his growing legion of followers. As Kruse writes:
“Many ministers wrote the Los Angeles office to request copies of Friedrich Hayek’s libertarian treatise The Road to Serfdom.”
So already you can see the burgeoning alliance between the Chicago School and Mont Pelerin crew and the pastors who whispered in the ears of the wealthy week after week.
Because we covered this more extensively in our episode The Prosperity Doctrine: Christ as Capitalist, we’re going to move past this next era and meet back up with Eisenhower. The severity and totality of The Great Depression turned class warfare on its head and ushered in a wave of reform under FDR. Liberalism in all corners of society would thrive during the FDR years only to find itself under attack again coming out of the 1950s.
Chapter Three: White, Right and Organized as Fuck.
Two days after it was revealed that Russia had atomic capability, a dapper young preacher took the stage under an enormous tent in front of 5,000 people in Los Angeles. At the end of the eight-week stint, the revival had welcomed more than 350,000 people and Billy Graham was a fucking sensation.
Recall from our Prosperity Doctrine episode that this was also the period when a man named Abraham Vereide was quietly running influential prayer breakfasts in Washington and cozying up to U.S. leaders. It was Vereide who first had the vision of the prosperity doctrine. Vereide who coined the phrase, “New World Order.” Vereide who organized the very first prayer breakfast, the same breakfast that would be attended by every President from Eisenhower forward. As Jeff Sharlet wrote in his groundbreaking book, The Family:
“He wore double-breasted suits with lapels like wings, polka-dotted bow ties, and wide brimmed fedoras. He was often seen with his dark overcoat thrown over his shoulders like a cape. Other men considered him a spectacular dresser; those who knew him well considered his stylishness itself a minor miracle, since Abram was not wealthy. But God provided.”
Graham was the heir to Vereide’s following. The right man at the right place at the right time. Because Christians had found a new bogeyman in the godless communists from Europe who were infecting the minds of socialists in the United States, determined to redistribute the hard earned wealth of the monied class. The wealthy in the United States made it through the Great Depression and World War II. They had God on their side, Jesus in their hearts and Billy Graham behind the pulpit telling them they earned it, so they better fight to keep it. And they had the ear of the most powerful and beloved man in the world.
The opening line of Kruse’s One Nation Under God succinctly describes the importance of Dwight Eisenhower to the Christian right. “The inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower was much more than a political ceremony. It was, in many ways, a religious consecration.”
Eisenhower was a man of deep faith and conviction and had no compunction about invoking Christianity throughout his presidency. From his inauguration prayer and throughout his administration, religion factored prominently during Ike’s time in office.
Apart from his personal attachment to his faith and the coalescing forces of white Christian nationalists chomping at the bit to rid the country of FDR’s welfare programs - maddening to them that they were maintained and promoted further by Truman - Eisenhower had the specter of communism to power his years in office. As Friedman points out:
“The anticommunist crusade attracted vigorous support from America’s religious activists as well, especially among the recently reenergized Protestant evangelical community. Opposition to ‘godless communism’ had been a continual drumbeat since well before World War II.”
And just as Bruce Barton the adman was able to repackage Christ for the modern era, white evangelicals were learning to harness the power of media. Again, Friedman:
“The uniting of religious conservatism and economic conservatism that [William] Buckley and his colleagues at the National Review worked to bring about was likewise a dominant theme among the evangelical Protestant clergy.”
Even filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille got into the action by producing a torrent of Christian themed movies, none more bold or as influential as The Ten Commandments, a legitimate blockbuster.
DeMille was a close associate and friend of James Fifield and privately seethed at Roosevelt, socialism, communism, liberals, democrats and pretty much anyone that wasn’t a far right conservative Christian. A campaign called Religion in American Life, created by ad giant J. Walter Thompson ran across the country with slogans like “Democracy starts here. Find yourself through faith.”
The movement was real. It had money. Support. Ad budgets. A faithful president in office. And the ultimate pitchman who would be the one constant in the decades that followed.
Billy Graham would go on to be one of the most influential members of American society for a generation. Whispering in the ear of presidents and dignitaries the world over. In the Nixon White House, by far the most fervently religious White House in our nation’s history, Graham was called a “smoother Rasputin.” The National Prayer Breakfast became a massive affair, a must attend for every sitting President. Even Clinton appealed to the attendees of the breakfast to help absolve him of his sins and guide the nation through his travails.
Graham would find a willing partner in Ronald Reagan, though Reagan already had white Christians in his pocket. Despite his irregular attendance at church, Kruse writes:
“For Cal Thomas, spokesman for the Moral Majority…Reagan was committed to their cause, regardless of his lapse in church-going. Carter had faithfully attended worship services, he pointed out, but he appointed people who were pro-abortion.”
How timely and chilling given where we find ourselves today on the precipice of Roe v. Wade’s demise.
Obama was a regular at the prayer meetings though his affiliation with firebrand Reverend Jeremiah Wright in Chicago and constant circulation of a secret affiliation with Islam that surrounded him in conspiracy circles, meant Obama would be held at arms length. The evangelical strain of Protestantism simply rejected him outright, despite his regular attendance, professions of faith and devotion to his wife and family.
No, the Christian right is for whites only.
I want to head back over to Brad for a minute to pick up on a thread from the introduction. Brad, earlier we mentioned the 12 years between LBJ and Reagan. How LBJ interpreted Christianity to promote welfare reform in the Great Society. And yet only 12 years later, Reagan was the great new apostle of political and religious faith promoting a doctrine of individualism. What do you consider the defining moments in the evangelical faiths during this period that helped turn the country so quickly and completely?
BRAD: There are a couple of important factors here.
The desegregation of schools. In 1954 Brown v. Board was supposed to desegregate the public school system once and for all. However, by 1969 districts in states like Mississippi were still segregated. That’s 15 years - a decade and a half - after Brown that American kids were still going to Black and white schools. When the schools were finally set to be integrated, many white families pulled their kids from the public school system and placed them in private Christian day schools. They framed this as a matter of parental choice and family values, rather than a racist reaction to school integration. Sound familiar?
The Civil Rights Movement also spurred backlash. In 1965, as King and others were marching at Selma, Jerry Falwell - perhaps the most important religious figure in late 20th century evangelicalism other than Billy Graham - was preaching a sermon labeling those marching as anti-American communists who were not really Christians. In his mind, their fight for equality and justice was a sign of their hatred for America and God. Again, sound familiar?
Then there is the issue of war. In 1976 Jimmy Carter came out of nowhere to win the presidency. This should have been a fulfillment of every dream the GOP and far right Christians ever had: Carter was a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher from Georgia; a peanut farmer who never left the house without a Bible; a man who married his high school sweetheart and served with distinction in the U.S. armed forces.
However, Carter was, among other things, too much of a dove to pacify the war-mongering Christians who shared his faith, but not his proclivity for dialogue, diplomacy, and negotiation. Falwell and others tirelessly campaigned for Reagan in 1980 as the more Christian candidate in part because Reagan was seen to be more willing to protect America through violence and war than the evangelical veteran already sitting in the White House.
Chapter Four: Splintering Alliances.
So we know that white evangelical Christians represent about 14% of the nation’s population, yet they somehow wield tremendous influence over the levers of power in the country. They’ve stacked the courts. Control a significant portion of state legislatures. Have access to politicians through vast fundraising networks of dark money PACs designed to influence public policy. And they control the airwaves, despite the stubborn prevailing notion of a liberal media. That’s one we’ve unf*cked a few times on this show.
But there are other religious constituencies in the country that have traditionally aligned with progressive social causes. Racial justice. Economic equality. Civil rights. Equal protection under the law for marginalized groups. The largest bloc would be what the PRRI refers to as Christians of Color, which comprise about 25% of the population. Here the roots are extremely deep in terms of justice.
Then there are the marginal religious groups in terms of sheer numbers, such as Hinduism, Judaism and Islam. Together they represent about 3% of the population.
Two thirds of Muslims in America identify with the Democratic Party. 70% of Jews in the country identify with the Democratic Party. 61% of Hindus identify with the Democratic Party. 69% of Buddhists identify as Democrats. And while we’re at it, nearly 70% of atheists align with Democratic Party politics in the United States.
Taking the Christians of Color out of the equation for a moment, I posed this question to Brad.
Brad, by the numbers Judaism and Islam would be considered fringe religions compared to Protestant faiths, Catholicism and those who identify as secularists. Does the nature of the minority status in absolute figures allow them to pursue more leftist interpretations of faith or the opposite?
BRAD: I don’t think it’s necessarily a matter of pursuing more leftist interpretations of faith as much as not poisoning their religion, beliefs and practice with imperialism, xenophobia, and nationalism. These groups have often been on the receiving end of Christian nationalist hatred for outsiders, immigrants, and anyone who looks and prays differently than them. One of the stories of American Christianity over the last half century is the merging of far right politics into religious identity, so that the two now appear inseparable.
The statistics you cite here reveal how without the infiltration of an ideology that says white, Christian Americans are the only real Americans than other types of religious people more often than not land on the left side of the political spectrum when it comes to issues regarding abortion, racial justice, policing, and reproductive rights.
Building on this idea, one of the more fascinating topics to me is the so-called “Grand Alliance” between American Jews and Blacks in the U.S. And if you’re as fascinated by the history between these two groups as I am, boy are you in luck. There’s a lot of amazing research on the subject, but I have a solid book recommendation. It just came out this year and it’s titled Blacks and Jews in America: An Invitation to Dialogue by Terrence Johnson and Jacques Berlinerblau. I cannot imagine a better primer to the discussion than this book.
The book is an honest dialogue between two bright scholars and authors who deftly and honestly pose interrogatories to one another about the nature of the Grand Alliance and the many issues that have plagued the two parties over time. They begin with the cooperative spirit that resulted in the establishment of the NAACP, beloved artistic collaborations and united front in the anti-war movement and fight for civil rights with “Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm in arm with Dr. King in Selma.” Then they move honestly through the cracks that have emerged over time for myriad painful reasons. Always respectful and insightful, it’s a testament to authentic discourse.
There were slave owning Jews in the Antebellum South. The Nation of Islam often utters virulently anti-Semitic public remarks. Modern Black activist movements offer sympathy and solidarity with the Palestinian people and decry the apartheid tactics of Israel. Jews celebrate Passover to reflect on slavery in ancient Egypt, but could just as easily incorporate the enslavement of Blacks in the United States.
Berlinerblau remarks that the great James Baldwin wrote unapologetically that, “Negroes are anti-Semitic because They’re anti-white…The Jew is a white man. The most ironical thing about Negro anti-Semitism is that the Negro is really condemning the Jew for having become an American white man - for having become, in effect, a Christian.”
This strikes at the heart of the growing divide from the once aligned Jewish liberal diaspora in this country and the plight of Blacks. Jews, like most of their white-presenting European neighbors, were able to avail themselves of economic opportunity afforded to white people in America. Intellectuals like Baldwin rationalized everything purely through a lens of color and their inherent powers in America. More provocative figures such as Stokely Carmichael who changed his name to Kwame Ture, took issue with Zionism more ardently.
Just as Protestants during the Great Depression were pushing for social programs only to see a complete reversal within the 12 years between LBJ and Reagan, the crumbling alliance between Jews and Blacks in the United States was just as precipitous. As Cornel West said, “Marcus Garvey was a Zionist. Du Bois was a Zionist. King was a Zionist.” Even Booker T. Washington urged his people to “imitate the Jew,” notes Berlinerblau.
Whether the fracture between Blacks and Jews can ever heal is unclear. Though I think it’s fair to note that it happened along the same timeline that white Christian nationalists were coalescing. The same rough time period between LBJ and Reagan. The 12 damning years that altered the course of U.S. history.
What is clear is the political power of the Black church in America and the influence of Jews, assuming both constituencies wield numbers within certain districts and regions. But like so many examples on the left, these disparate religious identities are often incapable of putting differences aside to pursue common objectives. To wield strength in numbers. It’s a fascinating aspect of the left. In politics, religion and the intersection between them, moral causes that do not align prevent the left from coalescing in the same ways the right does around certain issues. I suppose the lesson here is that if your only God is the almighty dollar, it’s easy to forgive one’s differences and trespasses in the pursuit of it.
Chapter Five: Bring it home, Brad and Max. But mostly Brad.
I want to begin the last chapter by discussing one of the areas in which Brad and Dan have done some amazing analysis. And that’s the events of January 6th, 2021. I was anxious to get his take on the importance of this event in terms of the religious right in this nation and to understand if there’s anything to learn from that moment. Here’s Brad.
BRAD: If one accepts, as the data say we should, that Christian nationalism is the standard worldview for not only a large number of the January 6 (J6) rioters but white Americans as a whole, it becomes clear that what happened on January 6 was the inevitable outcome of an American cold civil war half a century in the making. When one puts together the history of political and culture wars, fought over the fault lines of race, gender, sexuality, family, immigration, and foreign policy, it becomes clear that the January 6 insurrection was simply the logical next step.
But the homegrown terrorist threat that culminated in the J6 insurrection went unheeded for decades. Why so many investigators, historians, and journalists missed it is a complex question. But it’s clear that one reason so few observers saw January 6 coming is because, for centuries, the assumption has been that white American Christians are the default demographic of the nation.
This is what the ex-evangelical author and scholar Chrissy Stroop calls Christian privilege, “Christian supremacy and privilege are every bit as real as white and male privilege, for example, and are part of the unjust social hierarchies that need to be dismantled in order for equity to be achieved in our society.”
Under the guise of (white) Christian privilege, J6 rioters and others are envisioned as the pesky but harmless moralists of a nation founded on religious principles. They’re seen as more Ned Flanders - the irritatingly pious neighbor from The Simpsons - than Mr. Burns, the power-hungry corporate authoritarian who cares little for democracy, fairness, or inclusion, much less loving his neighbor.
But in the wake of January 6, 2021, a new picture should come into focus for anyone paying attention. Many Christian nationalists are a clear and present danger to the United States of America. They are homegrown radicals who prioritize white Christian supremacy over multiracial democracy. They are not interested in pluralism. Their goal is not a model of governance based on dialogue and debate. The goal is to take back America by any means possible.
In a very real sense, January 6 was not the end of a movement - some last-gasp attempt of a weakened and aggrieved group supporting a politician who didn’t want to admit he’d lost an election. No. If we’re paying close attention to the extremist backstory of the people who stormed the Capitol that day, we will see that the insurrection was the logical next step for a certain diminishing white Christian population trying desperately to retake what they considered theirs. Acclimating or adjusting themselves to the inevitable waves of religious, racial, and other forms of diversity, for white Christian nationalists, is no option at all. This was not the last stand of a dying faction. It was the first violent battle in what they foresee as the coming civil war.
MAX: I clearly share this chilling concern and your optimism that there are lights in the darkness that potentially illuminate a path forward. But, specifically within a framework of faith, are there movements within the church - and I’m using that as a sweeping generalization - that provide you with a sense of optimism that progressive ideas can once again be associated with the core tenets of faith in a way that manifests in public policy?
BRAD: There are reasons to think that the United States might continue to reach its promise of equality, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness for all its people in the coming decades - and that religious people will be part of that realization. The night before J6, Stacey Abrams - the daughter of ministers and very active member of her church - worked with a host of other organizers helped to pull off one of the most stunning electoral victories in modern American electoral politics, when Jon Ossoff, a Jew, and Raphael Warnock, a Black minister, were elected to the Senate from Georgia. In 2020, Delaware’s Sarah McBride became the first transgender candidate elected to a state legislature in the country’s history. McBride grew up Presbyterian in a household that saw supporting one’s queer child as part and parcel of practicing one’s religious faith.
During the same election cycle, Elaine O’Neal became the first Black woman to win the mayor’s office in Durham, North Carolina, a city with a history of voter suppression aimed at preventing African Americans from voting. These aren’t isolated stories. All over the country Americans including Christian Americans, Jewish Americans and others are fighting for labor protections, voting rights, immigration reform, new gun laws, and climate policies for a sustainable future. There are bright lights illuminating the arc that bends toward justice, from Georgia to Delaware to Oregon and everywhere in between.
Well, here we are.
Hopefully you know what took us so long to get this out the door. I’m incredibly grateful for Brad’s wisdom and willingness to work through this together. The work he and Dan do over at Straight White American Jesus is really top notch and I’m so happy to have them in our universe.
Being an agnostic, liberal New Yorker means that I take huge swaths of this country for granted. Religion has barely touched my life and so it seems like a strange curiosity to me. Another world entirely. And I’m often dismissive of it, though I don’t want to be. That’s why it was important to me to really do this right and to collaborate with someone like Brad who has forgotten more about religion than I’ll ever possibly know.
I want to quickly quote from a New Republic article last year that was the first clip to make it into my notes because it helped frame the inquiry for me:
“Every so often, the ‘religious left’ breaks through as a topic of fervent interest, a story that draws attention from beyond the reporters dedicated to the religion beat. Usually this has something to do with the fortunes of the Democratic Party, most of all the performance of its presidential candidates. In celebration, the deft use of religion receives a fair share of the credit—proof that talking convincingly about God can help overcome the party’s reputation as a bastion of out-of-touch coastal elites.”
This is what set me on the path of Unf*cking the difference between the religious left and the religious right. How faiths based on the same fucking book could have such different political interpretations. And how the right leaning interpretations seem to be so tightly constructed yet antithetical to the words on the pages.
I see the work of Reverend Barber, carrying the torch for MLK Jr. and the Poor People’s Campaign. One of my favorite writers, Chris Hedges, went to seminary college and is a man of deep faith. My love for Dr. Cornel West is boundless. I’ve worked closely with Muslims and Jews in faith oriented projects over the years and witnessed moments of great collaboration and generosity between them. We have a pretty woke Pope. I’m surrounded by young, liberal Jews who understand that criticizing the far right government of Israel while believing in its right to exist aren’t mutually exclusive.
And yet, as a journalist and now political commentator who focuses mainly on socioeconomic issues in post-Industrial America, I’m constantly amazed at how often white Christian nationalist dogma is at the heart of insidious policies.
I’ve read the bible enough to know where to look for certain stories or passages and am aware of the inconsistencies contained within. But to so wholly pervert the doctrinal teachings of the Bible to fit a capitalist narrative that absolves the wealthy and shits on the poor is a phenomenon I’ll never quite understand. In the Dark Ages, prior to the Enlightenment, followers of Catholic church took what the priests said as gospel and fact. They were the learned ones who God chose to speak through. But a couple of funny things happened.
First, a quarter of Europe was wiped out by a plague and people were fucking pissed. And the priests had no comeback for that. Second, the good book started making the rounds as printing technology increased and more people learned to read. These vessels of the Lord who had been making shit up for like a really long time were found out. And so the Church had to pivot. And other faiths began to take hold. And secularism increased during the Enlightenment along with more limiting faiths like Deism.
This seismic oversimplification of the history of Christian religion since the Dark Ages was meant to suggest that I’m not sure many on the Christian right have actually read the Bible. It’s like they only listen to the charlatans that babble in tongues and convince them that donations to their mega churches are the way to salvation because the bible says so.
But here we are. Somewhere during that 12 year span we lost the battle to the babbling tongues. And why?
Because the civil rights movement scared the fuck out of white people.
Because welfare programs and workers movements scared the shit out of rich white people.
Because feminism scared the shit out of rich white men.
And so on.
When I kept coming across references to The Chicago School and Mont Pelerin Society in the research, I would just shake my head. They really thought of everything. This bizarre pairing of free market ideology and Christ as capitalist is so fundamentally fucked and illogical. There’s no other way to say it. But there’s no question that neoliberalism and fundamentalism found in one another the perfect companion. They are soulmates in the worst way imaginable and we’re all paying the price for it.
It will be interesting to see where the Christian right goes from here should the leaked text of the Supreme Court decision come to fruition. I shudder to think what’s next as that wing is further emboldened by the Court. Will it spark a wave of regressive reforms or spark a counterrevolution?
It’s hard to tell because I'm frustrated with the inability of the religious left to come together and fight back. They’re so much like the Democratic Party it’s nuts. But my big takeaway here is that I have to get out of my own bubble with respect to religion. Just because I’m a non-believer doesn’t give me license to dismiss faith altogether, as much as I would like.
The progressive left politicians in this country need the progressive religious left in this country to beat back the white Christian nationals. While to people like me it might seem like an unholy alliance, it’s necessary because we’re in a holy war. One that they started.
Perhaps someday we can get back to the place the founders intended. But for now, it’s game on. So bring your Bible, your Koran, your Torah - whatever book floats your boat - I’ll bring my voice and my pen and we’ll meet on the battlefield of love, hope and progress. Because we’ve got a planet to save.
Time to push back on the pendulum.
White Christian nationalists should try reading the Bible.
Here endeth the lesson.
Pew Research Center: Republicans account for a small but steady share of U.S. Muslims
Pew Research Center: U.S. Jews’ political views
Pew Research Center: Party affiliation among Hindus
Pew Research Center: Party affiliation among Buddhists
Pew Research Center: Party affiliation among atheists
The New Republic: Whither the Religious Left?
UNFTR Episode Resources
Terrence L. Johnson + Jacques Berlinerblau: Blacks and Jews in America: An Invitation to Dialogue
Benjamin M. Friedman: Religion and Capitalism
Howard Zinn: A People’s History of the United States
For the balance of May, use the code “subfuck” for a 10% discount on all purchases of Unf*cking Coffee at UNFTR.com/shop.
Thank you all for your continued support of the show!