By Brian Kaylor
Christians Against Christianity: How Right-Wing Evangelicals Are Destroying Our Nation and Our Faith by Obery M. Hendricks Jr., Beacon Press, 232 pp.
In the book The Future of Faith in American Politics, Mercer University ethicist David Gushee highlighted Obery Hendricks as a key example, along with Jesse Jackson, of “the Black evangelical left.” Hendricks doesn’t like the “e-word” label because, as he writes in his new book Christians Against Christianity: How Right-Wing Evangelicals Are Destroying Our Nation and Our Faith, so few self-identified evangelicals “take seriously the Bible’s call to love our neighbors as ourselves and to ‘let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’” And that critique sets the foundation for his important new tome.
At first glance, the eye-catching title could be read two ways. Is Hendricks calling for Christians to be against what too often passes as Christianity in the U.S. today, or is he claiming that too many who call themselves Christians are actually working against the core teachings of the faith? Both fit. For while Hendricks may reject the term “evangelical” as too toxic from decades of partisan distortions – as does now even Gushee in his latest book, After Evangelicalism – Hendricks offers both a blistering critique of “right-wing evangelicals” and a defense of historic evangelical principles and teachings.
Regardless of whether Hendricks calls himself an evangelical or an “exvangelical” (like Gushee and me) or neither, he writes like the prophets of old as one watching his own people and his own faith transformed into something unrecognizable. Well, not quite unrecognizable. It is, as he explains, an obvious “spirit of antichrist.” A biblical scholar demonstrating a rich grasp of contemporary political figures and relevant historical turns, Hendricks diagnoses not only what’s wrong with the dominant strand of American Christianity but how the cancer developed.
Some might belittle the book as a screed against right-wing evangelicals, though that ignores the depth of the analysis and the evidence marshaled in support. But more significantly, such a critique misses the point of the book. It is a love letter about the sacred teachings of the Bible. Hendricks doesn’t want evangelicals to be less religious; rather, he wants them to actually read and live out the biblical teachings he devotes his life to studying and explaining.
From the beginning, Hendricks articulates his driving framework for thinking about Christianity today and the political implications of the Bible. His “hierarchy of values” is built on two key biblical passages (though the book is full of many other texts as the biblical scholar unpacks their meaning and application): the teaching of Jesus to “love your neighbor” and the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, in which people serve Jesus unaware by helping “the least of these.” As Hendricks argues, “Christians must strive to focus and refract every public policy and every deed in the public square through the prism of the values these passages impart.”
Some might quibble at elevating two texts over others, but if we were to pick just two to guide how Christians lived out their faith in the public square, then we couldn’t develop a better ethic than from those two passages. Unfortunately, as Hendricks details with copious examples, many prominent Christian leaders and politicians fail both tests.
This focus on the social and political impact of one’s faith resonates throughout the book because Hendricks refuses to let his readers miss “the politically radical dimension” of the ministry of Jesus or the teachings of the Bible. He rejects efforts by conservative evangelicals to divorce their personal faith from the impact on their neighbors. And he decries their “obsession” with “the person of Jesus as a spiritual savior rather than with the principles for justly living in the world that he taught and died for.” The result of such a religious-political ethic is not pretty.
Hendricks explores several key issues to make his case. As he does, he merges together contemporary examples of unchristian politics from conservative evangelicals, exposition of biblical passages that teach a different ethic and historic moments that led to this disconnect. From homosexuality to abortion, treatment of immigrants to demonization of Muslims, embracing racism to preaching hyper-capitalistic greed, Hendricks exposes the partisan nakedness of what often passes as Christian politics.
While Hendricks highlights former President Donald Trump as the climax (so far) in the profaneness of the conservative evangelical movement, he makes it clear that Trump emerged as a symptom and intensifier of the problem, not the cause. But the “full possession by a spirit of antichrist,” Hendricks argued, “occurred when their leaders made a devil’s bargain with Trump to defend his avalanche of lies, hate mongering, blatant moral indecency and outright attacks on the democratic rule of law.”
Reading the movement through the prism of Trump brings a damning critique of not only evangelical politics but also evangelical religiosity. As Hendricks notes, “The rot of the unholy fruit of Trump’s evangelical supporters and apologists” led to a “vile and blasphemous harvest.” This harvest is not an accident but a byproduct of decades of partisan distortions. The result of such politics, Hendricks concludes, is that “evangelicals purposely misinterpret the Bible” to match “their white supremacist biases and Christian nationalistic aspirations.”
Hendricks admits this isn’t the book he planned to write. But it was the book he needed to write. And it’s a book we need to read. Simply moving on without a full assessment of the right-wing evangelical embrace of Trump could lead to a failure to learn the moral and ethical lapses of this moment. It could also mean that those of us who embrace the love of neighbor and helping the least of these might find ourselves once again blindsided by an unholy but politically savvy movement.
If Jan. 6 taught us anything, it’s that the deadly mix of white supremacy, Christian nationalism and Trumpian politics hasn’t conceded. Thankfully, we have a biblical scholar like Hendricks serving as an evangelist for a better political vision.
The Rev. Dr. Brian Kaylor is president of Word&Way and author of Sacramental Politics: Religious Worship as Political Action.