Are American Christians Naive?
They seem determined to excuse all kinds of abuses against them. But reactionary traditionalism isn't the answer.
For the last six or seven years, I’ve followed a Facebook page called “Libertarian Christian.” During the first half of the decade, the emphasis was clearly on the “Libertarian” part. During the Trump era, however, libertarianism has taken a backseat to issues of faith and culture. Attacks on feminism, pornography, and woke capitalism now outnumber anti-communist memes and complaints about militarized policing.
In other words, the page’s administrators have gone from libertarianism to something more in the vein of reactionary paleoconservatism. Less French, more Ahmari. Less Ron Paul, more Tucker Carlson. I can relate. The reason I followed the page all those years ago, and still follow it today when many of its staunchest libertarian followers have jumped ship, is that my own thinking has evolved in roughly the same direction. And I’m not the only one. The formerly libertarian Christian who went from defending Ayn Rand at parties in 2012 to weighing the merits of Catholic integralism in 2019 has become a cliché in certain circles.
One example of Libertarian Christian’s shift in emphasis has been a series of posts on what the page administrators refer to as “Stockholm Syndrome” on the part of modern American Christians.
Here’s an example of their castigating Christians who naïvely enjoy the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale, quoted at length:
A religious Jewish friend recently invited me to have dinner with his family. After dinner, we all watched the most bizarre on-demand TV series I’ve ever seen. I think it was made in Eastern Europe.
The show appeared to portray a dystopian society controlled by evil, Orthodox-looking Jewish characters. All of the antagonists embodied the ugliest possible stereotypes of Jews. The bad guys were portrayed as manipulating and oppressing the gentile protagonists in the name of Judaism. At one point, one of the bad guys quoted the Talmud as he killed a gentile.
At this point, I was about to interject and ask why we were watching this weird anti-Semitic propaganda, but my friend finally spoke up. “I can’t believe you all talked me into watching this,” he said incredulously. “This isn’t a joke: the whole point of this show is obviously to foment hatred and violence against Jews. Do you all need a history lesson?”
My friend’s family thought about this for a moment. His son looked upset. Then my friend’s wife responded: “I don’t think it’s about Jews at all,” she said, shaking her head. “I see the show as warning about the potential abuses of Judaism. Really, I see the show as calling us to be more Jewish.” …
I’m just kidding, of course: no Jewish family is actually this dumb. American Christians are the only group of people in the entire world that are this naïve.
In other words, while an anti-Semitic show would generate genuine outrage (in contrast to the fictional family portrayed), The Handmaid’s Tale, which similarly stereotypes Christians, sees those same Christians twist themselves into contortions to avoid taking offense.
The analogy is apt, prophetic even. As the Trump administration works to expand the definition of anti-Jewish bigotry, the demonization of American Christians continues unabated. The Handmaid’s Tale is raking in Golden Globes and Emmys. Taylor Swift “punches down” at a caricature of gay-bashing fundamentalism in the music video for “You Need To Calm Down.” The rabidly atheistic His Dark Materials (which, by its author’s own admission, is “about killing God”) is all set to be HBO’s next big hit.
The answer, of course, is not to use state power to crush anti-Christian bigotry. I have no desire to see Margaret Atwood or Phillip Pullman arrested for blasphemy the next time they visit the United States. I’d certainly hate to be imprisoned for drawing Mohammad. As Christopher Hitchens rightly observed, “Religion makes very large claims for itself…but if it’s going to make such claims” it cannot expect to be “immune from criticism and…satire.” Since we cannot (and ought not try to) stifle anti-Christian sentiment, we must confront it with our eyes wide open. What worries me is when Christians tune into media that actively dehumanizes them only to remain secure in their belief that such smears apply only to “bad” Christians, not to their well-intentioned selves.
The enemies of Christianity are only too happy to allow this attitude to persist. Brian Sims, the Pennsylvania state rep who tried to doxx a group of teenage girls for praying outside a Philadelphia abortion clinic, labeled the targets of his ridicule “pseudo-Christian protestors.” By attaching the prefix “pseudo,” he implied that somewhere out there is an entirely unoffensive “true” Christianity that he would be happy to support.
Does such a form of Christianity exist? Of course. If we bake the cake, vote Democrat, hang rainbow flags from the bell towers, show up for the Women’s March, and abandon the March for Life, then I imagine the attacks will stop. At that point, though, it wouldn’t matter, because a Church that follows blindly wherever cultural progressivism leads is not long for this world. The mainline denominations, which have fully embraced the policy outlined above, are in a death spiral. The Episcopal Church, for example, saw Sunday attendance decline by a third between 2000 and 2015.
But if accomodationism is not a proper response to anti-Christian sentiment, neither is uncritical pan-Christian solidarity. The former is too flexible, the latter too rigid. Adopting the Libertarian Christian admin’s fears of a “First they came for the bad Christians, and I didn’t speak up because I was not a bad Christian” situation has some merits, but it also forces Christians into a perpetually defensive posture. While the accomodationists nod along with every denunciation of the faith, a pure reactionary finds himself defending Christianity’s every despicable abuse, running interference for the real-life counterparts of Taylor Swift’s hillbilly Bible-bangers. Like Thomas More’s overzealous son-in-law in A Man for All Seasons, this attitude sees behind every “attack on the Church” an “attack on God.”
So how can Christians respond to valid criticisms without sawing off the branch we’re sitting on? The solution lies in the prophetic tradition. As many commentators have observed, if violent condemnation of the state of Israel counts as anti-Semitism, then every Old Testament prophet was an anti-Semite. With the fixed point of a transcendent God and the confidence of a divine promise, the Judeo-Christian tradition has the unique capacity to be self-critical, even self-flagellating, without worrying about “letting the side down.” In fact, as missiologist Mark Sayers has suggested, the Western capacity for self-critique that drove the secular Enlightenment (and is now circling the drain of postmodernism) derives in large part from the same tradition that empowered Jesus to call the Pharisees “whitewashed sepulchers.” It is a great irony of our time that the same cultural forces that have spent centuries attacking Christianity for its oppressive, unquestioning dogmatism are now losing all capacity for self-reflection, renouncing their Enlightenment heritage and ossifying into a more rigid and intolerant dogmatism than that of their great enemy. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “They burned their own corn to set fire to the church.”
Homegrown critiques of Christianity may often harmonize with those of the Church’s enemies, but there is one crucial difference: the one seeks to prune; the other wants to rip the whole thing out by the roots. We should be constantly reminding our detractors that, though we might occasionally agree with them on particular issues, we are not on their side. The only churches I trust are the ones that scandalize both sides of the political and cultural divide. My church, for example, rejects gay marriage but also runs a ministry that provides legal aid to Central American asylum seekers. Pope Francis sets heads spinning by publishing Laudato Si one day and condemning transgenderism the next.
This is a difficult line to walk, but it’s our only hope. Otherwise our options are either to become the dying lapdogs of the progressive left or the monsters they think we are.
Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. at Georgetown University.