Religion scholar on the "civil war" within Christianity — and the urgency of stopping Trump

David Gushee says his faith drives him to resist the "manifest surrender" of many Christians to Trump and fascism

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published January 9, 2024 6:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump | Supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump praying outside the U.S. Capitol on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | Supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump praying outside the U.S. Capitol on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

In this age of intense political and religious division, Christian nationalists have convinced themselves that they have a special claim on America. That simply is not true. The United States was not founded as a “Christian nation." The Constitution enshrines a clear separation of church and state, and no version of Christianity has ever been the official national religion.

Furthermore, white evangelicals and Christian nationalists are not the “silent majority,” nor indeed a majority of any kind. Public opinion research has consistently demonstrated the opposite: Across a range of issues the policies and politics supported by the Christian right are broadly unpopular among the American people.

Ultimately, the voices, beliefs and desires of those who embrace what some scholars and observers have called "White Christianity" are not entitled to any special privileges over people of other faiths or none at all.  

In reality, such believers in "White Christianity" are a diminishing minority in American society, even as they aspire to be the dominant force and to silence those they disagree with, by any means necessary. In a fateful attempt to win and hold power, the Christian right forged an alliance with Donald Trump and his neofascist MAGA movement. This has been a transactional relationship, given that Trump transparently violates almost every supposed tenet of Christian faith and doctrine. Through almost any religious lens, he can reasonably be described as an unrepentant sinner.

With the 2024 presidential election approaching, Trump is increasingly suggesting that he has been chosen, almost as a messianic figure or the Second Coming. In a brilliant work of propaganda, he recently debuted a campaign ad proclaiming that “God Made Trump" — which translates into Trump being a type of messianic figure.

If they consistently applied their purportedly deeply held beliefs, right-wing evangelical Christians should condemn such behavior by Donald Trump and his MAGA movement as blasphemy. Instead, they appear to have convinced themselves that Trump is in fact some type of divine messenger, sent to permit them to impose their reactionary-revolutionary project on the American people. The classic warning that when fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and waving the cross is proving correct.

I recently spoke about Trump and contemporary American Christianity with Dr. David P. Gushee, who is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University and chair of Christian social ethics at the Free University of Amsterdam. He is also a senior research fellow at the International Baptist Theological Study Centre and a past president of both the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Christian Ethics. Gushee is the author of several books including his most recent, “Defending Democracy From Its Christian Enemies.” He has published hundreds of opinion articles and been interviewed by many major outlets, including the Washington Post, CNN and USA Today.

In this conversation, Gushee explains his view that the Christian right is an implacable enemy of American democracy, and reflects on what it means to be a Christian and person of faith in a time of ascendant neofascism and global discord. He argues that believing Christians should actually oppose and resist authoritarianism, rather than supporting it in any form. Toward the end of this conversation, Gushee details the types of myth-making, conspiratorial thinking and other fantastical narratives that the Christian right has created to justify its campaign against multiracial pluralistic democracy — and even against reality itself.

This is the first of a two-part conversation, and has been edited for length and clarity.

Given all that is happening with the 2024 election, Trumpism and the reality that he and his MAGA movement are an existential danger to the country, how are you feeling? What are you preparing yourself for in 2024? 

I am feeling a sense of dread as I contemplate a Trump-dominated 2024. He is like one of those horror-movie villains who you think has been defeated or destroyed but keeps showing up to terrorize the neighborhood. While the polling results are mixed, there are plenty of polls that show him leading in most or all of the swing states. The fact that this person in 2024 might well create a constitutional crisis, and that he doesn’t care at all about that — and that his followers are fine with it — is appalling beyond words. The weakness of Joe Biden’s candidacy in this context only raises the sense of vulnerability.

I am preparing myself for 2024 like a person who is facing a grave spiritual, emotional and moral challenge, with a very limited sense of agency and no control over the outcome, but with responsibilities that I am trying to discharge faithfully.  

How did we arrive at such a moment of crisis or disaster in America?

Deep cultural polarization since the 1960s. The frozen two-party system. Money in politics. The marriage of the Christian right to the GOP. The uniquely malignant Donald Trump, who has facilitated the rise of what I am calling authoritarian reactionary Christianity.  

For you, what does it mean to be a person of faith, a Christian, in a time of such challenges?

It means that I am called to act faithfully — that is, to try to follow Jesus’ way and teachings and to fulfill my calling as a Christian, pastor, ethicist and public intellectual with fidelity to God. It does not mean that I am assured of any particular outcome, as I believe that humans determine what happens in human history, or at least that we must act as if we are entirely responsible for our own actions and their results. In light of the manifest surrender of so many Christians to Trump and to authoritarian reactionary Christianity, being a Christian means resistance to this surrender, participation in this internal struggle for the soul of Christianity in the United States. 

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What does it mean to be an evangelical Christian in the Age of Trump? 

For me, evangelicalism as a “movement” in the U.S. needs to be abandoned because it has lost its religious and moral credibility and is a source of more harm than good. I abandoned it in the 2015-2018 period. I write about that in my memoir "Still Christian" and my book "After Evangelicalism." I fear that what “evangelical” has come to mean is an authoritarian, reactionary white conservative population whose religion has become indistinguishable from radical right-wing politics. Those who remain “evangelical” by self-definition and do not want their movement to mean what I just called it have the responsibility to wrestle it back in a different direction.  

What is the role of Christianity in a time of democracy crisis and ascendant neofascism, both here and around the world? 

"In light of the manifest surrender of so many Christians to Trump and to authoritarian reactionary Christianity, being a Christian means resistance to this surrender, participation in this internal struggle for the soul of Christianity."

Christianity should be a source of resistance to neofascism, illiberalism and authoritarianism. That is what I take it to be and the path I outline in my new book. Christianity is, instead, often a source of neofascism and illiberalism because of how its religious and moral demands and implications are so badly misunderstood. This means there is an internal civil war within U.S. Christianity that must be understood as a big part of the current situation we face here.  

Language matters. The mainstream news media and the country’s political leaders use terms such as “evangelical” and “Christian” without defining them. “Christian nationalist” is another example. What do these words actually mean in practice?

All significant definitions are contested. The contours and boundaries of any and all religious communities are also contested.  

For me, the term “Christian” should mean a person devoted to following Jesus Christ, his way of life and teachings. In practice it means many other things, including a person with a vaguely religious identity associated with Christianity rather than some other world religion and whose way of life could be fundamentally driven by any number of factors other than their purported religious identity. Thus, a white xenophobic tribalist American filled with hatred for “the other” could self-identify as a “Christian” because they are not, for example, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist.  

"The religious-political movement we're talking about is a white people’s thing. It reflects distortions in Christianity that were introduced during the earliest days on this continent and can be traced more broadly to European colonialism."

“Evangelical” should mean a Protestant Christian who demonstrates very high degrees of commitment in their relationship with Christ, respect for the Bible, involvement in church life and determination to share their faith with others and to live it out with integrity. It has come to mean many other things in practice, including a right-wing white person who supports Donald Trump somehow, in part motivated by a vague connection to his and their purported religious identity. It is up to evangelicals to police their own boundaries and identity so as to prevent such a dramatic and disastrous identity and definitional slippage.  

The color line goes through all things in America and around the world. How does race, and specifically the Black prophetic and liberation tradition, complicate and push back against those definitions and boundaries?

You make an important intervention. The religious-political movement or problem we have been talking about so far is a white people’s thing. It reflects distortions in Christianity that were introduced during the earliest days here on this continent and can be traced more broadly to European colonialism. This is Christianity as inflected or infected by whiteness (e.g., a worldview of white supremacism), conquest, colonialism, genocide of the Indigenous populations and enslavement of Africans. "White" equals American equals Christian equals nationalism equals goodness only in this frame.  

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The Black prophetic, liberationist, abolitionist Christian tradition is the single most significant resistance movement ever to develop in the U.S. Enslaved people in the 18th and 19th centuries largely embraced the faith of their enslavers, but then many profoundly reworked it — drawing on biblical resources like the Exodus and a different reading of the meaning of Jesus — to be a religion of liberation. That’s why I devote a chapter to this tradition in my new book. I think it is a hugely important resource for resisting white authoritarian reactionary Christianity now, as it has been for 400 years.  

In my writing about the Christian right, especially as that movement is working the levers of power in the Trump era, I have sometimes described them as “Christofascists” or “White Christian supremacists.” Is that language accurate or excessive? Offer a corrective, if you would.  

"Christofascism" is certainly a provocative term. I deal with fascism in my book and try to define it very carefully. While it is not the term that I choose to describe the main problem as I see it, there are especially awful parts of authoritarian reactionary Christianity and its political expression that might well merit the term. As one who wrote his dissertation and first book about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, I don’t use these terms lightly.

But I also know that the deployment, manipulation and fusion of Christianity with racism, authoritarianism and violence was not just a possibility in one country at one given time. It is a possibility in any country that has a large but shrinking Christian population that feels threatened by unwanted cultural changes in a liberalizing direction — including immigration, racial and ethnic pluralism, loosening of sexual morality, feminism, etc. — is attracted to authoritarianism and disdainful of democracy, and finds leaders who can take them right over the edge into the future of which they had perhaps only begun to dream.  

Politics is about emotions and stories. What narrative and mythology have those on the Christian right created about the United States and their relationship to it?

"What [Christian nationalists] really mean is that America was founded by white Protestant Christian men as a quasi-democracy (with slavery and then segregation) who properly set the values and parameters of the society. Those were the good old days."

The story is that America was a great nation, founded by Christians as a Christian constitutional republic, which lost its way and needs to be made great again. What they really mean is that America was founded by white Protestant Christian men as a white-dominated quasi-democracy (with slavery and then segregation, which to them was perhaps unfortunate but doesn’t change the fundamental narrative) who properly set the values and parameters of the society. Those were the good old days, ruined in the last X number of years by, fill in the blank, socialism, atheism, globalism, communism, political correctness, critical race theory, liberalism, wokeness, feminism, immoralism, Democrats, etc. Now we are in a cosmic fight to the finish between the rightful leaders and vision of the society and those who have hijacked it.  

One of the great challenges in this moment of political and social crisis is that the Christian right, like “conservatives” more broadly, do not believe in facts, evidence, consensus reality and verifiable truth claims. They engage in magical thinking, driven by ideology and raw power, in a reactionary project to remake American society. You can’t argue facts, data and evidence with those who are possessed by religious politics. That is a source of great frustration for many self-described liberals and centrists who have deluded themselves into believing that the truth and good policy will win out in the end.

The susceptibility to QAnon-type conspiracy theories on the right reflects the geographic ghettos and echo chamber in which many of these folks live. I lived in small-town west Tennessee for 11 years and it helps me understand this phenomenon. There are huge numbers of pious white Christians who live and move exclusively in 99% white Christian enclaves — home school or church school, fundamentalist or evangelical churches, school curricula, publishing houses, magazines, friendship circles, entertainment outlets, social media subcultures, Fox News and OANN, etc. The subculture extends onward to colleges and seminaries and professional schools in the conservative Christian world.

Utterly alienated from mainstream culture and mainstream higher education and scholarship, which is often viewed with suspicion, these people live in an information bubble in which their version of reality is constantly repeated and reinforced. I view House Speaker Mike Johnson as a garden-variety Louisiana outgrowth of this subculture. People with his views are a dime a dozen all over the South.  

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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