Believe it or not, you can blame it on the hippies. Once the inevitable happened and over-indulgence in drugs took its foregone toll on the “flower children” of the 60s, the hip and with-it scenes quickly dissolved into slums. San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district turned into a ghetto. Disillusioned, burned out and lost, the counterculture generation looked around for something new. And then, a miracle happened. Something old became exactly the something new they were looking for.
Enter the Jesus Freaks of the early 70s. Burn-outs were suddenly reinvigorated with a new mission and a new meaning. Hippies found God. The fusty old Bible was reimagined in a new translation called the Good News Translation, and given a new title: “Good News for Modern Man.” The movement grew and grew, until it became a youthful force to be reckoned with. I remember. I was there. I was one of them.
It all started so well and ended so badly. What happened along the way? You had to be there. But the youthful churches increased in strength and numbers and became mega-churches, and with huge attendance came huge amounts of money donated. As a theorem, “the love of money is the root of all evil” is laughably easy to disprove. But as a cautionary tale it definitely has merit. Very quickly the youthful church became filthy rich, and it did what the hippies kept warning us against. Its leaders turned 30. Then 40. Then 50. Somewhere in there the love of money became the love of political power. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Today the evangelicals still mouth the same platitudes and pretend to believe the same things we believed back then, in the early days. But it’s now all a lie. The lie didn’t happen overnight, to be sure. It happened slowly, in stages, manifest in little compromises and little hypocrisies that became larger and increasingly morally unsustainable with each passing year, each passing decade. Finally the church turned into the very thing it stood against a long time ago, back in the early days. What once was about inclusion in a unifying message of love for all, came to stand for exclusion, racism, greed (disguised as the “prosperity gospel”), hypocrisy, hatred, chaos and counterfeit outrage, and an unrealistic vision of an America of the past that never really existed. In short, the hippies went full circle: they finally “went establishment.”
The evangelical church has become, according to writer and lecturer Frank Schaefer, the “real political danger facing the United States right now.” Like me, Schaefer fled the hypocrisy of the church in the early 80s. But unlike me he was part of what Time Magazine called “evangelical royalty,” having founded with his father the anti-abortion movement. It was Frank Schaeffer’s father, Francis Schaeffer, who inspired a generation of evangelicals to enter politics as the righteous defenders of the unborn in the early 70s. It was they who, as the younger Schaffer puts it, worked to “make abortion the litmus test of acceptable policy for evangelicals.” Together they built a political framework that grew into the monster we see at work today.
Schaeffer contends that the evangelical movement is shrinking. Because of this it’s becoming more desperate and willing to use more and more draconian methods to cling onto power, including extreme violence and extreme anti-democratic means. Schaeffer contends that the evangelical movement is the greatest enemy of democracy, and I agree.
It’s certainly true that busloads of evangelical Christians were among the insurrectionists at the Capitol on January 6. Schaeffer explains this as Evangelicals who “want to achieve their goals by imposing theocracy, their biblical so-called beliefs on the rest of the country.” They weren’t just along for the ride on January 6. Evangelicals were the motivating force behind the insurrection. Without them, January 6 would not have happened.
How do evangelicals propose to impose theocracy on America? “By judicial fiat and by rigging the electoral system in undemocratic ways,” Schaefer says, “overtly suppressing votes, overtly gerrymandering …”
Evangelical Christianity is the one common bond between Republicans. They may differ in various ways, but they’re all without exception evangelical Christians, or, like Trump, at least they pretend to be when they have to. Even Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of the most hateful people most of us have ever seen, tweeted “He is risen” on Easter Sunday.
Schaeffer says the media doesn’t really understand this, they don’t understand what the evangelical movement is really up to. “The media looks in the wrong place,” he says. “They talk about race as if somehow all of this can be explained by racism. It can’t. They talk about economic decline as if somehow all this can be explained by working class Americans in the rust belt losing jobs. They’re looking in the wrong place. Look at religious fundamentalism instead.” Or in the words (falsely) attributed to Sinclair Lewis, “When fascism comes to America, it will be clothed in the flag and carrying a Bible.”
Schaeffer summarises this way: “Let’s just say it. Evangelical white Christians and the fundamentalist movement trying to cling to power through non democratic means, are the enemy of democracy [and] they are the enemy of the United States of America.” The danger is that “We have within us now a shrinking, desperate, angry minority, who are going to rig the system in their favor to push a moralistic agenda on the rest of us. And they will use any means possible.”
It is a dying movement that has become, in its death throes, deadly dangerous. We will never stop it until we understand it. This may very well be our last battle with the evangelicals. They will either fail and die out or they will destroy democracy and America with it. Our moral Armageddon may yet be ahead of us. And to think it all started with a bunch of hippies. The mind boggles. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.