By Michael Gerson
In many American places on a pleasant Sunday afternoon it is possible, as I recently did, to have coffee in the city at a bohemian cafe draped with rainbow banners, then to drive 30 or 45 minutes into the country to find small towns where Confederate and Trump flags are flown. The United States sometimes feels like two nations, divided by adornments defiantly affirming their political and cultural affinities.
Much of cosmopolitan America holds to a progressive framework of bodily autonomy, boundless tolerance and group rights — a largely post-religious morality applied with near-religious intensity. But as a religious person (on my better days), what concerns me are the perverse and dangerous liberties many believers have taken with their own faith. Much of what considers itself Christian America has assumed the symbols and identity of white authoritarian populism — an alliance that is a serious, unfolding threat to liberal democracy.
From one perspective, the Christian embrace of populist politics is understandable. The disorienting flux of American ethical norms and the condescension of progressive elites have incited a defensive reaction among many conservative religious people — a belief that they are outsiders in their own land. They feel reviled for opposing gender ideology that seems to have arrived just yesterday, or for stating views on marriage that Barack Obama once held. They fear their values are under assault by an inexorable modernity, in the form of government, big business, media and academia.
Leaders in the Republican Party have fed, justified and exploited conservative Christians’ defensiveness in service to an aggressive, reactionary politics. This has included deadly mask and vaccine resistance, the discrediting of fair elections, baseless accusations of gay “grooming” in schools, the silencing of teaching about the United States’ history of racism, and (for some) a patently false belief that Godless conspiracies have taken hold of political institutions.
Some religious leaders have fueled the urgency of this agenda with apocalyptic rhetoric, in which the Christian church is under Neronian persecution by elites displaying Caligulan values. But the credibility of religious conservatives is undermined by the friends they have chosen to keep. Their political alignment with MAGA activists has given exposure and greater legitimacy to once-fringe ideas, including Confederate nostalgia, white nationalism, antisemitism, replacement theory and QAnon accusations of satanic child sacrifice by liberal politicians.
Surveying the transgressive malevolence of the radical right, one is forced to conclude: If this is not moral ruin, then there are no moral rules.
The division between progressive and reactionary America does not fall neatly along the urban-rural divide. There are conservative megachurches in liberal strongholds, and Democratic-leaning minority groups in parts of rural America. But the electoral facts reveal a cultural conflict worsened by geographic sorting.
For decades, population density has been increasingly associated with partisan identification — the more dense, the more Democratic; the less dense, the more Republican. America might be united by its highways, but it is politically split along its beltways. Islands of urban, liberal blue dot a vast sea of rural, conservative red. And because the mechanisms that produce U.S. senators and electoral college electors skew in favor of geography over population, rural and small-town America starts with a distinct political advantage — the ability to transform fewer votes into better outcomes.
All this leaves portions of the nation boiling with righteous resentment. Many progressives feel cheated by a political system rigged by the Founders against them. Many religious conservatives feel despised by the broader culture and in need of political protection. In the United States, grievance is structural and is becoming supreme.
Anxious evangelicals have taken to voting for right-wing authoritarians who promise to fight their fights — not only Donald Trump, but increasingly, his many imitators. It has been said that when you choose your community, you choose your character. Strangely, evangelicals have broadly chosen the company of Trump supporters who deny any role for character in politics and define any useful villainy as virtue. In the place of integrity, the Trump movement has elevated a warped kind of authenticity — the authenticity of unfiltered abuse, imperious ignorance, untamed egotism and reflexive bigotry.
This is inconsistent with Christianity by any orthodox measure. Yet the discontent, prejudices and delusions of religious conservatives helped swell the populist wave that lapped up on the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. During that assault, Christian banners mixed with the iconography of white supremacy, in a manner that should have choked Christian participants with rage. But it didn’t.
Conservative Christians’ beliefs on the nature of politics, and the content of their cultural nightmares, are directly relevant to the future of our whole society, for a simple reason: The destinies of rural and urban America are inextricably connected. It matters greatly if evangelicals in the wide, scarlet spaces are desensitized to extremism, diminished in decency and badly distorting the meaning of Christianity itself — as I believe many are.
To grasp how, and why, it’s important to begin at the beginning.