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  • Writer's pictureDave Verhaagen

White Evangelicals Are Confusing

My book, “How White Evangelicals Think,” was borne out of my own genuine confusion about why this group of people thought and behaved in ways that seemed to be the opposite of everything they claimed to believe. My view of authentic Christian faith was that it was about championing the poor and oppressed, being generous and kind, and dying to self and living for others. What I was observing was the polar opposite: hostility and blaming of the poor and oppressed, mean-spiritedness and anger, and self-centeredness. This disconnect set me on a personal and professional journey. I decided to take questions about this group that were baffling me and answer them using good social science research.

My central question became “Why do white evangelicals, who are supposed to be characterized by kindness, grace, and mercy seem so angry, self-centered, and even mean?” These Christians seemed to be, in so many ways, the opposite of what they were supposed to be. It truly confused me.

My understanding of white evangelicals is that they are supposed to be “strong and courageous,” that they were supposed to “cast their anxiety” on God. In other words, they were supposed to be less fearful than others. Yet, they seemed to be so fearful. They seemed fearful of so much, especially fearful of those who were different, those who had divergent ways of seeing the world, and those who held disparate values. This opened up a series of questions like, “Are white evangelicals truly more fearful than others? If so, why?” and “Why are they afraid of some things like immigrants and government overreach and not other things like gun violence, climate change, or a worldwide pandemic?”

Early in my career, I worked in community mental health. The majority of my clients and my co-workers were African-American. As a white guy who grew up in predominantly white spaces—white neighborhoods, white schools, white community organizations—it compelled me to see the world differently. As the parent of children of three different races, the issues of race, racial identity, and racism became even more front-burner for me. In more recent years, I learned white evangelicals rate themselves as having the warmest attitudes toward black people. Yet, these same people scored the highest on a Racism Index. They thought they were the warmest, but they were the most racist. How is that possible? What explains this? My question became, “How can white evangelicals rate so highly on warmth toward persons of color while simultaneously rating so high on measures of racist attitudes?”

On the topic of race, I observed another pattern that baffled me. White evangelicals consistently denied the notion of systemic racism. This means racism isn’t just the attitude or actions of a few individuals but can be embedded into how larger systems operate, like the justice system, the housing market, healthcare, and education. On the face of it, this seems obvious. Beyond that, the research demonstrates these things to be true. However, white evangelicals are strongly committed to the notion that there is no such thing as systemic racism. Yes, they are willing to offer, we have had racist institutions and practices in the past, but no longer, at least not in any meaningful way. My question: “Why are white evangelicals so committed to the idea that systemic racism does not exist?”

When I was growing up in evangelical spaces, it wasn’t uncommon to have patriotic church services or Christian school history lessons that extolled the US as a country with a Christian heritage. These things made sense to me, so my early notion of Christian Nationalism was benign at worst, positive at best. If you had asked me then, I would have said I believed the country was founded on Christian principles and was uniquely created by God, which are definitely statements endorsed by Christian nationalists. In more recent years, I’ve come to see not only what Christian Nationalism really means, but the harm it does, not only to the country, but also the faith. My question became, “What is Christian Nationalism and is there a problem with it?”

Anyone who has been in white evangelical circles for any amount of time knows how obsessed they can be about sex and sexuality. As a therapist, rarely a week goes by when I don’t have a client talk about how they have felt harmed by this hyper focus on sex that characterized their formative years. They tend to feel very shameful about sex, remain extremely constricted and repressed, or have gotten highly promiscuous, one extreme or the other. They all agree that the messages they received in their evangelical upbringing were unhealthy and destructive. My question became, “Why are evangelicals so obsessed with sex?” I followed that up with, “And why are they so hostile toward sexual minorities?”

One of the most baffling of all questions was how white evangelicals became so vulnerable to conspiracy theories like QAnon. The research clearly supports the idea that evangelicals believe the basics of QAnon more than other groups, which is astounding because the beliefs are so outlandish. If you are unfamiliar, QAnon adherents believe a secret cabal of politicians, entertainment professionals, and others in positions of power and influence, nearly all Democrats, run a child sex trafficking ring. That’s just the start. The QAnon belief system is sprawling, nonsensical, and ridiculous. And yet, white evangelicals tend to soak it up fervently. These are the folks who were supposed to be committed to truth, who railed against “the death of truth” in our culture, and who emphasized the need to be grounded in solid truth. Now here they are believing a bundle of destructive lies—and fervently so. My question became, “Why do white evangelicals seem so susceptible to conspiracy theories?”

Finally, I became struck by how much white evangelicals felt aggrieved. They seemed to vacillate between warfare talk and victim talk. They just seemed so fragile, yet they bristled at the suggestion. I wondered why they seemed to have such low resilience in the face of challenge. I posed the question, “Why do white evangelicals seem to have such low resilience?”

I was committed to finding answers that were not just based on my assumptions and opinions but on solid research and expert interviews. I also conducted my own studies for the book to either reconfirm previous findings or explore a new question. By the end of this four-year project, I felt confident I had come up with some solid answers to these questions. Some of the answers are straightforward, while some of them are more complex. In either instance, though, I think I have been able to bring some clarity to understanding this significant group.

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