Same Name, Different State: The Beginning of a Journey
In a time before smart phones and GPS, I unfolded a map on the table and traced the path from Chapel Hill down the North Carolina highways to where I would arrive in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina a few hours before I was to speak at a conference. I left with plenty of time and drove leisurely to the retreat center. The only problem? The conference was in Roanoke Rapids, Virginia, which was now about 200 miles away. It wasn’t as serious a screw-up as showing up in Arlington, Texas if you were trying to get to Arlington, Virginia or arriving in Gainesville, Florida if you needed to be in Gainesville, Virginia, but it was still a problem. I headed for one place, but I ended up in another place with the same name.
For many of us who grew up in the white evangelical subculture, we’ve had the same experience. We thought we were going one place, but we ended up somewhere else, somewhere we did not want to be. The name was the same, but it wasn’t where we wanted to go.
I signed up to be a Christian when I was seven years old in Vacation Bible School after what must have been one glorious flannel graph presentation. I was clueless about what being a Christian meant because I was, you know, seven years old. So later during a youth service at the wise old age of fourteen, I rose my hand to proclaim I was going all in. I’m loyal, so I kept my commitment to God through the years: Bible study small group in high school, large group coordinator of a campus ministry in college, volunteer staff during graduate school, Sunday School teacher, elder board chair, Christian book author, adjunct seminary professor, and Christian conference speaker. I was a good little Christian boy.
There’s no question I benefitted from this immersion in the Christian community. It’s where I met many of my friends, business associates, and my wife. It’s how I got my first book published, and what opened doors in my business that might have been harder to get through. Over time, though, I realized I had set out for one destination but had arrived somewhere else. I thought being a Christian meant living your life for others, fighting for the powerless and the fatherless and the hopeless, valuing humility and service and mercy, being meek and gentle. With kindness and compassion at its core, authentic Christian faith rejected worldly power grabs and earthly kingdom-building. I had signed up for a faith that loved others when they were unlovable, showed undeserved mercy, and required dying to self and living for others. I thought that’s what it was about.
Instead, I found myself as part of a subculture that appeared self-centered, angry, and unattractive, not only to those outside of it, but to plenty of those within it, including me. Instead of being humble, they were arrogant. Instead of being gentle, they were abrasive. Instead of being kind, they were harsh. Instead of valuing the small, they esteemed the big and grandiose. I headed toward one place, but I ended up somewhere hundreds of miles away in a place that shared a name, but little else.
It’s no surprise the fastest growing category for religious identity in the United States is the “Nones,” those who don’t affiliate with any religious group. Sociologist Dr. Ryan Burge wrote an entire book full of meaty research data about the who, when, and why of the Nones. Over a third of the Millennial Generation checked this box in national surveys. In an Op-Ed for the New York Times, Dr. Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne, founders of Red Letter Christians, wrote, “Nones, many of whom grew up within evangelicalism, often still affirm faith in God. They left the church because they gave up on evangelical leadership.”
That leadership has been busy over the past three decades. Since the 1980s, the evangelical branch of the church had been busy exerting its influence in local, state, and national elections. They had been amassing political power and championing conservative political positions. Evangelical church membership continued to rise. As a cultural force, evangelicals became a powerhouse, courted by presidential candidates, discussed on major news outlets. All the while, their divorce rate was atrocious1 and their moral behavior was no better than anyone else’s. For example, a survey of 63,000 “affair-seeking” individuals found the largest group based on self-identification was “evangelical” at 25% of the entire sample. (Agnostics and atheists were only 2% and 1.4%, respectively). The public perception of them was often that they were harsh, judgmental, and unkind. It was a mess.
In 2016, I expected the true turnaround moment for evangelicals would be when Trump became the Republican frontrunner. For many evangelicals, the mental progression had been “A Christian is a conservative is a Republican.” Since the 1980s, this had been reflexive and almost unquestioned. Now here was a man who, by any reasonable standard, was not a good man, nor was he a resolute conservative. This would be the moment of reckoning where evangelicals would stand opposed and reject the idea that being a good Christian meant being a loyal Republican.
I’m pathologically moderate in most things, including politics, with positions both liberal and conservative, having voted for Republicans and Democrats at all levels. Each election cycle, even when I was in favor of a candidate, I respected the opposition and regarded him or her as being well-intentioned and decent. Not so this time. There was no way I could regard Trump as a decent or principled man. I was certain a large percentage of my spiritual brothers and sisters felt likewise. So my heart sank when I learned that a full three-quarters were supporting him in the run-up to the election. Still, I imagined seeing Trump’s defeat would be the rebuke that brought us to our senses.
Of course, that wasn’t to be. Trump pulled off the biggest upset in the history of American politics with the help of 81% of voting evangelicals. Many Christian leaders saw this as an affirmation that they were in the right, that God was intervening to help Make America Great Again. In the days following the election, it became clear we had reached a point where most evangelicals were inextricably bound up in conservative politics.
The exit polls and interviews found that less than half of evangelicals thought Trump was “a good role model.” Most evangelicals knew he wasn’t even a good person, but they no longer cared. In 2011, only 30% of evangelicals said that an elected official could ethically fulfill their public duties even if they have committed immoral acts in their personal lives, but during Trump’s campaign, the number reversed and 72% of evangelicals said this could be true. It’s debatable whether moral behavior affects public service, but when a Democrat was in office, evangelicals considered immoral behavior disqualifying for public service. When Trump with his affairs, multiple marriages, casinos, crude comments, vindictive attacks, sexual assault allegations, thinly veiled racism, alternative facts, and dubious business practices was the Republican frontrunner, they reversed position. Now they didn’t seem to care so much about the moral practices of politicians. Jerry Falwell, Jr, who had been an unabashed Trump supporter during the primaries, said, “We’re not choosing a Pastor-in-Chief. We’re choosing a President of the United States.”
After stories that Trump had an affair with porn star Stormy Daniels, Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Dallas mega-church, went on FOX News to declare, “Evangelicals still believe in the commandment: Thou Shalt Not Have Sex with a Porn Star. However, whether or not this president violated that commandment is totally irrelevant to our support for him.”
When pressed by the host that this might make evangelicals hypocrites, he said this was “absolutely ludicrous,” because “evangelicals knew they weren’t voting for an altar boy when they voted for Donald Trump.”
Many Christians, including me, were not only heartbroken we had elected such a wounded, narcissistic man to the presidency, but dumbstruck by the enthusiastic support of conservative Christians. These were the same Christians who excoriated Bill Clinton for his moral failings, who railed against the “godless” Barack Obama, and who assailed Jimmy Carter. Now these same people called Trump the evangelical “dream president.” One prominent evangelical leader said, “I like everything about him.”
Without question, this about-face among the evangelical community was the most head-spinning cultural development in my lifetime. They not only elected a man who represented everything they said they stood for, but they did so with a passion we had not seen since the Reagan era. As comedian Bill Maher put it, “the world’s least godly man has been so fully embraced by our most religious people, the evangelicals.”
From the time of the election onward, these Christian brothers and sisters became more vocal and assertive. As the election of 2020 approached, about the same number of evangelicals said they would vote for him again (82% vs 81% then), seeing little reason to cease their support. The majority (52%) of evangelicals agreed with the statement “God wanted him to be president.”
The backlash within the church has been severe. In an opinion piece for USA Today, Billy Graham’s granddaughter, Jerushah Duford, wrote, “I have spent my entire life in the church, with every big decision guided by my faith,” then adds, “But now, I feel homeless. Like so many others, I feel disoriented as I watch the church I have always served turn their eyes away from everything it teaches.” As a therapist, I speak to young adults and every week I hear the same sentiment Jerushah expressed. Young people who grew up in the church, whose faith was central to their lives, but now feel “homeless.” But it’s not limited to young people. I also hear it from people my age. Their emotional reactions range from grief to anger to incredulity. Many of us have felt a great sense of loss related to their faith in recent years. Many other Christians, however, don’t understand this at all. For them, all is well. For them, the problem is godless liberals or weak-minded Christians worn down by anti-Christian messages or seduced by the world.
Passionate Christians can be liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. Most white evangelical Christians, though, have so co-mingled their faith with their conservative politics that they see these as synonymous. As one of my friends told me, “I’m sick of the message that being a good Christian means being a white, middle-class Republican.”
I have a unique vantage of point as a psychologist and as a Christ-follower who has been soaking in evangelicalism for over forty years. My training as a psychologist gives me the ability to synthesize social science research and clinical experience to help understand the psychology of modern white Christians. My experience as a white Christian who has taught, led, spoken, and written about the faith allows me to portray the state of the church accurately and without caricature. And since I don’t make my living or stake my professional identity on a Christian platform, I can step out more boldly than others.
This site--and the book to follow--is not for everyone. It’s not even for all Christians. It’s not for Christians who regard the white conservative Christian church as doing just fine. It’s also not for the Christians who say “our way of life” is under attack by godless liberals. If you’re in either group, I say this with sincerity: There are many other websites for you. This blog will only make you angry―or angrier. I have no interest in sticking my finger in your eye or provoking you. If you are a defender of the evangelical status quo or a culture warrior, nothing in here will change your mind, especially if you’ve dug into an intractable position. Please back out of the site and step away.
Christians committed to the current paradigm will say this is just more liberalism or a lack of biblical literacy or poor discipleship. What those responses assume is that the status quo is not only good and right, but the true issue is with those who critique and expose faults. If you criticize, you are a weaker form of Christian. You should read your Bible, pray, get back in line, and shut your mouth. There is little self-reflection from the majority. The default assumption is they are right and others who oppose or critique them are wrong. That mindset is the central part of the problem.
It is not my goal to change the minds of the 81% of evangelicals who voted for Trump. Those who see conservative politics and Christianity as unquestionably linked are unlikely to see the world through a different lens, no matter how well-reasoned or researched the counter-argument. I don't intend to change their minds, but to illuminate the psychology of most white Christians for others who want to understand, Christian or not.
I argue the worldview of white evangelicals is more bound up in their psychology than their theology. Each human sees the world through a unique lens, a lens shaped by both their biological makeup and their life experiences. It’s unavoidable. Evangelicals, despite their claims of having a perspective shaped by a biblical worldview are not immune to this. White evangelicals, like all humans, are products of their own psychology.
I began this journey with honest questions: How can a group called to be other-centered be so self-centered? How can people so committed to the truth be so drawn in by conspiracy theories and lies? How can white Christians express such warmth toward Black people yet hold the most racist attitudes? How can those charged with being strong and courageous be so delicate and anxious?
I wanted to know the answers to these and other questions. I’ve been perplexed. I needed to know what has happened—and continues to happen—to white Christians, particularly in the United States. That bewilderment set me on a years-long journey that resulted in this website and the forthcoming book.
I do not intend any of this to be a bomb-thrower. I don’t seek to poke my finger in anyone’s eye. The message here is not anti-Christian. Instead, it is an honest exploration of the psychology of white Christians. I'll try to be fair, but also not pull any punches.
I assume my conclusions will make some white Christians angry. Those types of hostile responses I’ve seen from Christians toward others who challenge or criticize the faith are a big part of the reason I felt compelled to start this site and write the book. How could people charged with being vessels of love and grace be accurately characterized as hostile and angry? What has happened to us?
While I may have driven to the wrong Roanoke Rapids many years ago and ended up in the wrong state, I’m more confident now about the road ahead. My charge is to provide an accurate, grounded, research-based psychological assessment of white evangelicals.
In graduate school, our joke was that psychology’s answer to everything was “It depends.” There was an aversion to giving easy, pithy answers to complicated questions. I wanted the answers here to be simple. Why do white Christians deny systemic racism? Here’s an uncomplicated answer. Why do evangelicals believe conspiracy theories? Here’s your straightforward sound-bite of an explanation. What I found, though, was significant complexity. That doesn’t mean the conclusions can’t be presented in plain-spoken and comprehensible ways, which is my goal. Hopefully, you’ll find clear but not easy answers here. Some of the posts will be straightforward interpretations of research. Other posts will be deeper analysis and synthesis. Still others may include opinion and commentary. In each case, I'll do my best to be honest and fair.
I'm glad you are here. Thanks for being on this journey with me.