Wendell Griffen is pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas; a state court trial judge; and owner of a consulting firm concerning cultural competency, equity, and inclusion. He is author of The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope and three internet blogs. Griffen also contributes columns about social justice and public policy to Baptist News Global, Good Faith Media, and other outlets.
On January 11, 1964, Luther L. Terry, M.D., surgeon general of the U.S. Public Health Service, released the first report of the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health. Based on more than 7,000 articles relating to smoking and disease already available at that time in the biomedical literature, the advisory committee concluded that cigarette smoking is:
- a cause of lung cancer and laryngeal cancer in men;
- a probable cause of lung cancer in women;
- and the most important cause of chronic bronchitis.
The release of the report was the first in a series of steps, still being taken even now, to diminish the impact of tobacco use on the health of the American people.
Much as the 1964 committee raised awareness about the health dangers of smoking tobacco, it is time to declare evangelical Christianity in the United States an existential threat to democracy, liberty, justice, and peace.
The following observations demonstrate that threat:
- On November 6, 2016, 81% of the people who professed to be evangelical Christians voted to elect Donald Trump to be the 45th President of the United States, despite his notorious history of personal and commercial racism and white supremacy.
- On November 3, 2020, 75% of evangelical Christians voted to support Trump, despite knowing the corruption; vicious incompetence; racist, misogynist, sexist, and xenophobic bigotry; and inhumanity of his presidency.
- Evangelical Christians were among the people who engaged in the January 6, 2021 insurrection aimed at stopping Congress from confirming the Electoral College results of the 2020 presidential election.
- According to a recent study by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, three in five evangelical Christians believe that President Biden was not legitimately elected.
- 67% of white evangelical Protestants deny the existence of historical and existing structural injustices to Black achievement and the way African Americans are treated by the police, courts, workplaces, and other U.S. institutions.
- Two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants favor building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.
- 71% of white evangelical Protestants believe the killings of African American men by police are isolated incidents rather than part of a broad pattern of how police treat African Americans.
- In state legislatures across the United States, evangelical Christian politicians are working to restrict voting rights; enact laws to deny LGBTQ persons equal access to public accommodations, housing, and employment; sponsor and enact laws that prohibit medical care sought by parents of transgender youth; threaten physicians who render that care with criminal penalties; restrict reproductive choices for women; impose criminal penalties on physicians who provide abortion services; and mark people who engage in nonviolent civil disobedience to protest racial injustice for enhanced surveillance by law enforcement agencies.
- In November 2020, the presidents of each of the six seminaries affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) issued a joint statement expressing that critical race theory and intersectionality are incompatible with Baptist creed. Immediately afterward, several prominent Black pastors severed their affiliation with the SBC, the largest Protestant evangelical denomination. Since then, Beth Moore, the most widely published white woman associated with the Southern Baptist tradition, announced that she is no longer affiliated with the SBC because of its tolerance for racism and misogyny. It remains to be seen if other women and people of color will do likewise.
- As concern about climate change and global warming grows across the world, white evangelical Protestants are more likely than any other religious group to be climate change skeptics. Only 27% of white evangelical Protestants are climate change believers, while 29% are sympathizers and nearly four in 10 (39%) are skeptics according to a 2014 study done jointly by the American Academy of Religion and PRRI.
Thanks largely to evangelical Christians, Christianity, as a world religion, is often identified with—and considered complicit in—imperialism, colonialism, oppressive capitalism, white supremacy, racism, sexism (including homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny), militarism, environmental injustice, xenophobia, and a host of other oppressive forces that Rastafarians term “shitstems.” Donald Trump's presidency exposed the moral, ethical, social, and existential dangers presented by U.S. Christian evangelicalism to an extent previously unparalleled. Yet, Trump’s presidency was not a novelty. At every period of U.S. history, “shitstems” sacralized by evangelical Christianity have produced genocidal havoc on Indigenous people; sexist oppression on women, girls, and other persons who live beyond the heterosexual normative; Black, Brown, and Asian-Pacific Island people, workers, and immigrants.
Donald Trump's presidency exposed the moral, ethical, social, and existential dangers presented by U.S. Christian evangelicalism to an extent previously unparalleled.
Evangelical Christianity produced the domestic terrorism of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, resulting in a truck bombing of the Albert Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that massacred hundreds of adults and children. Evangelical Christianity produced Dylan Roof, who murdered Black worshipers at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The recent murders of Asian women in Atlanta by a gunman who grew up regularly attending a Southern Baptist church in Georgia takes on new meaning when one considers that a former youth minister at that church could not remember hearing one sermon dealing with racism during almost a decade.
Billy Graham is remembered as perhaps the most widely acclaimed evangelical preacher of the twentieth century. However, Graham never joined the fight against racial injustice, militarism, and the capitalist “shitstem” of greed. Jerry Falwell led evangelical Christians to provide overwhelming support for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 defeat of Jimmy Carter, a white evangelical Baptist, because Reagan’s positions on abortion, racial justice, welfare, and militarism fit Falwell’s faith-based notion of patriarchy, nationalism, imperialism, and white supremacy.
Based on the ways that evangelical Christianity sacralized “shitstems” and the clear and present danger of that oppression to democracy, more people are abandoning evangelical Christianity than at any previous time in U.S. history. However, this does not signal the decline or eventual demise of evangelical Christianity. If anything, Christian evangelicalism is becoming increasingly strident, violent, and ominous as evangelical Christians fight to maintain their undemocratic white supremacist and nationalist dominance over U.S. public policy, thanks to their influence in the Republican Party, even as population changes make white evangelicals a religious and cultural minority group.
Unless its undemocratic aspirations and actions are countered and defeated, Christian evangelicalism may become a substantial cause of death for democracy in the United States.
Unless its undemocratic aspirations and actions are countered and defeated, Christian evangelicalism may become a substantial cause of death for democracy in the United States, and a cancer that threatens the rest of the world. We should not invite that fate on ourselves.