The Arbiter of Authentic Christianity

Noah Berlatsky reviews Obery M. Hendricks Jr.’s “Christians Against Christianity.”

By Noah BerlatskyFebruary 13, 2022

The Arbiter of Authentic Christianity

Christians Against Christianity: How Right-Wing Evangelicals Are Destroying Our Nation and Our Faith by Obery M. Hendricks Jr.. Beacon Press. 232 pages.

HOW CAN CHRISTIANS support the party of Donald Trump — a man who has boasted about sexually assaulting women, uses the Bible as an obvious prop as he tear-gasses protestors, and lies almost as often as he breathes? For many progressive Christians, the answer is obvious: white evangelical conservatives in the Trump era are desecrating the true faith.


That’s the argument of biblical scholar and Columbia University professor Obery M. Hendricks’s recent book, Christians Against Christianity: How Right-Wing Evangelicals Are Destroying Our Nation and Our Faith. Hendricks provides careful textual and historical evidence to show that the Christian conception of God is not aligned with Trump, the Republican Party, or conservative evangelicals.


His passion is powerful, and his scholarship is compelling. But for non-Christians, his repeated insistence that there is an “authentic Christianity” blameless for these misinterpretations can feel at times like wishful thinking. Worse, the rhetorical evocation of a pure Christianity plays into white evangelical Christian nationalism in ways that Hendricks never quite manages to grapple with.


Whatever caveats one may have, there’s no question that Hendricks’s version of Christianity, rooted in the Black church, is admirable and compelling. “[T]he core message of Jesus is love,” he writes. He argues that the central biblical passages for all Christians should be, “You shall love thy neighbor as yourself,” and, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”


Jesus unquestionably preached an ethics of social justice and care for the marginalized and oppressed. White evangelical Christians, in contrast, have come to embrace an ethic of supremacy, dominion, nationalism, and cruelty.


The religion of evangelical Christians was not always so crabbed and vindictive. Hendricks points to white evangelicals’ participation in antislavery and feminist movements in the late 1800s. But there was a turn in the late 1970s driven by desegregation. Evangelicals were mobilized when Jimmy Carter moved to deny tax-exempt status to segregated religious schools. Christian institutional self-interest merged with a racist agenda to lay the groundwork for today’s Republican Party powered by a rabid white evangelical faction.


Hendricks goes through the items on that agenda to demonstrate that they are not in line with Christ’s general principles nor with the specific word of doctrine. Some of Hendricks’s arguments are convincing. As he says, “Showing hospitality to immigrants is […] an iron-clad commandment” in both Old and New Testaments; in passage after passage, Christians are enjoined to welcome strangers. There is virtually no way to reconcile white evangelical Christian loathing of immigrants with the biblical text, which is presumably why, as Hendricks points out, evangelicals said that scripture had no impact on their immigration views in a 2015 poll.


Similarly, Hendricks shows that evangelical Christian obsession with abortion has little or no anchor in scripture. In fact, he points to one oft-ignored passage in the Old Testament (Numbers 5:11–31) in which the Bible actually instructs a husband to make an unfaithful wife abort. In the New Testament, abortion is barely mentioned, and Hendricks says, there is “certainly nothing like a consensus on the moment a zygote or fetus gains a soul.”


On other issues, though, it’s not quite so clear that the Bible is on Hendricks’s side. On LGBTQ issues, for example, Hendricks argues that in biblical times there was no real concept of sexual orientation. As a result, biblical proscriptions are against certain acts rather than against certain identities. Hendricks is correct — but nonetheless, whether the focus is acts or identities, it’s difficult to get around the Leviticus proscription, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman […] they shall be put to death.” Hendricks goes on to say that it’s possible to interpret scripture in various ways on homosexuality but argues that in light of Jesus’s central focus on love, the ambiguity should be resolved in favor of tolerance and acceptance.


I certainly agree with Hendricks here that Christians, and everyone, should support LGBTQ people. But since I’m not a Christian, Hendricks’s effort to make scripture align with common decency starts to feel forced and unnecessary. Maybe sometimes the Bible is just wrong.


Hendricks wants the Bible on his side in part because he’s trying to convince other Christians that bigotry and cruelty are the way of what he calls the Antichrist, and that as believers, they need to choose another path. He’s speaking in the long tradition of Black Christians like Frederick Douglass or Martin Luther King Jr. who issued prophetic reprimands to their racist white co-religionists in the name of a Christian God they supposedly shared. Christianity provides a common basis for discussion and perhaps for conversion. Some white evangelical Christians, Hendricks says, “are sincere about their faith but have been woefully misled in its application.”


Conservative evangelical Christians are easily the loudest voice of Christianity in the United States right now. More, this version of Christianity, as Hendricks acknowledges, resonates with tradition. Christian nationalism shaped the United States from its inception and even before that. Christian supremacism justified native genocide in the name of faith. It justified slavery.


Hendricks doesn’t shy away from that past. “It is true that throughout history much suffering, oppression, exploitation, and unspeakable horrors have been committed in the name of Jesus Christ,” he acknowledges. But he insists that all those horrors were perpetrated despite Christ, not because of him. “[N]o justification or sanction for such abominations can be found in the words or actions of Jesus in the four gospels.” Christians who do evil have turned against Christianity. Individuals go astray, but the word remains pure. Christianity cannot fail; it can only be failed.


If you’re a believing Christian, this almost goes without saying. For a Jewish atheist like me, though, it’s less persuasive. I don’t think the violent xenophobic Christianity of the Inquisition and the NRA is the one true Christianity. But as a nonbeliever, I don’t think there is one true Christianity.


Christianity (like Judaism or atheism) is a centuries-long tradition that includes millions of interpretations of its texts, and millions more actions by Christian governments and individuals. As ex-evangelical writer Chrissy Stroop says, “From an empirical, outside perspective –– one informed by such fields as history, anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, etc. –– we must accept that there are a wide variety of Christian communities with competing theological claims.” There’s no absolute court to appeal to in order to decide which of these communities and claims are gospel. So, Stroop concludes, “we must accept these varied groups as Christian, as representing varieties of Christianity.”


I am convinced that Hendricks’s Christianity of love and justice is one legitimate variety of Christian witness. But I am also persuaded by Yale sociologist Philip Gorski when he reports that white evangelicals love Trump not despite his crudity but precisely because his “racialized, apocalyptic, and blood-drenched rhetoric” spoke to their own understanding of their faith. The Christian nationalists and supremacists who love Trump love him because they recognize his xenophobia, hatred, and bigotry. Their faith is hate.


Hendricks argues that hateful faith is not real Christianity. But if real Christianity is in fact perfect in love and wisdom, then where does that leave those of us who are Jews or atheists or followers of any other religious or nonreligious tradition? Hendricks argues that evangelical conservatives have embraced iniquity by turning their backs on true Christianity. But my back is toward Christianity too — and Christians have in the past used that as an excuse to label people like me iniquitous with extremely unpleasant results.


Hendricks steps around many of the worst implications here as he discusses evangelical Islamophobia. He references John 10:16, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” Hendricks suggests that Jesus is saying that some who serve him are nonbelievers. The passage, he says, could refer to “anyone who would accept the ethical demands of his message and strive to live lovingly and justly, no matter their origin or religion.”


I appreciate that Hendricks wants to include Muslims (and me) in the fold, and perhaps that’s as far as a Christian witness can go and remain Christian. But people who have been persecuted by Christians aren’t necessarily going to want to see themselves as belonging to Jesus.


If Christianity is ever going to rid itself of the current disgrace of white evangelical conservatism, it may have to paradoxically admit that Donald Trump is, in fact, one ugly version of what Christianity is or can be. Hendricks calls for Christianity to triumph over small-hearted Christians, but from the perspective of a nonbeliever, the real battle is not between individuals and true religion. It is between a wide range of Christians and a wide range of “Christianities.” May Hendricks and his better faith win.


¤


Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941–1948, from Rutgers University Press.

LARB Contributor

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941–1948, from Rutgers University Press.

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