In my last post, I wrote about the dangers of preaching persecution in the United States. Since writing that post, I finished Candida Moss’ The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martydom and read Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. Each of these books have helped, in different ways, me with thinking about the harm that the rhetoric of persecution has on the body politic as a whole. So, today, I want to continue that discussion by looking at some of the things I have been thinking about over the past few days, specifically the ways that much of the tactics and rhetoric resemble fascism.
A few weeks ago, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) released a detailed 300-page report detailing sexual abuse in the SBC over the past few decades. As Audrey Clare Farley puts it, “Based on an eight-month probe solicited by the SBC, it reveals that the organization’s top leaders maintained a secret database of more than 700 abusers, all while telling rank-and-file members of the Southern Baptist flock that such an endeavor was unreasonable and impossible.” The report, conducted by an outside firm, Guidepost Solutions, details numerous incidents of sexual abuse from pastors and leaders in the SBC.
Since the report dropped, various individuals, notably in the Conservative Baptist Network (CBN), a part of the SBC looking to “Change the Direction” of the convention, have double downed on their rhetoric and tried to shift the conversation away from the reported abuse. They have positioned themselves, as they have over the past few years, as the protectors of the faith against persecution from liberals, feminists, the woke mob, and more. They have deployed the rhetoric of persecution, turning themselves into victims and warriors while failing to fully acknowledge the true victims of the years of sexual abuse within their ranks.
Tom Ascol, who has served as pastor of Grace Baptist Church since 1986 and started Founders Ministry in 1982, is the CBN’s candidate for SBC president this year. Ascol condemns the ordaining of female pastors and continually rails against the encroachment of wokism into the SBC. What Ascol and others are doing, under the guise of biblical inerrancy, is maintaining patriarchy by calling for a return to the past. Stanley notes that fascist politics, through its calls to a mythic past and national traditions centered around gendered family roles, calls upon individuals to arm themselves for its “protection from liberalism.”
Beth Moore, who left the SBC last year, tweeted, “Lemme tell you how this works: all you have to do to thwart change in conservative Christian ranks is to frame it as a progressive takeover. ‘The liberals are coming! The liberals are coming! Woke alert!’ When our fear of liberalism exceeds our fear of the Lord, our god is power.” Moore points out that the use of “liberals” and other rhetorical buzz words serves as nothing more than a positioning of victimhood against supposed persecution. Again, this is a way to deflect blame from themselves.
In his chapter on “Victimhood” in fascist politics, Stanley expands upon the ways that fascism works to maintain patriarchal systems by invoking a non-existent past where men were men and women were women where LGBTQ individuals somehow didn’t exist, and ultimately where everyone knew their place. Men could become anything they wanted, if they worked hard and applied themselves. If they didn’t do that, then they were lazy. “Promulgating a mythical hierarchical past,” Stanley notes, “works to create unreasonable expectations. When those expectations are not met, it feels like victimhood.”
In many ways the CBN functions under “expectations,” namely around church attendance. According to Lifeway, “Average weekly in-person worship attendance declined from 4,439,797 in 2020 to 3,607,530 in 2021 — an 18.75% decline. And the average attendance of in-person Sunday School, Bible study and small groups declined from 2,879,130 to 2,241,514 — a 22.15% decrease.” This decline creates, especially in large churches, the feeling that supposed expectations are not being met, so the rhetoric pivots to focus on finding an “enemy” to blame for the decline, not on finding a solution. As Stanley puts it, “Those who employ fascist political tactics deliberately take advantage of this emotion, manufacturing a sense of aggrieved victimization among the majority population, directing it at a group that is not responsible for it and promising to alleviate the feeling of victimization by punishing that group.” One prime example of this is the ways that the CBN has addressed abortion over the past few weeks: here, here, and here.
The SBC holds its annual convention in a couple of weeks, and the CBN hopes that Ascol and others on their ticket get elected to leadership positions. On their webpage, they call about people to attend the convention and tell them how they can “help save the SBC.” They say that messengers (as attendees are called), can “vote for conservative candidates” in order to keep the SBC on the “right path.” If they don’t do this, then the SBC may go “the way of other mainline denominations in relaxing a high view of Scripture and allowing liberalism to creep in.” The uses of “conservative” and “liberalism” here is important, because, as Moore highlights, it serves as buzz words to trigger an emotional response based on fear and a feeling that one must prepare for battle. They double down on this warrior mentality at the end by claiming that “the SBC is one of the few remaining roadblocks keeping liberalism from overtaking the United States.”
What we see at work here is white evangelical males seeking to maintain and coalesce power, using the language of victimhood to achieve that goal. “At the core of fascism loyalty to tribe, ethnic identity, religion, tradition, or, in a word, nation,” Stanley writes, “But in stark contrast to a version of nationalism with equality as its goal, fascist nationalism is a repudiation of the liberal democratic ideal; it is nationalism in the service of domination, with the goal of preserving, maintaining, or gaining a position at the top of a hierarchy of power and status.” Instead of working towards equality and a democratic ideal, the CBN and other evangelical Christians want an adherence to their ideals as they squash and limit the rights of others through their rhetoric. One need only look at their response following the murder of George Floyd for an example of this.
Ultimately, what the rhetoric of persecution serves to do is to legitimate the speaker’s religious connection to God in the battle of good and evil. As Moss puts in when talking about the myth of persecution and politics, “The culture power that drives these claims, the oil in the machine, so to speak, is the idea that Christians have always been persecuted. In Christian terms, if you’re being persecuted, you must be doing something right. It’s a rather easy trick: if anyone can claim to stand in continuity with the martyrs and be victims of persecution, and if being persecuted authenticates one’s religious message, then anyone can claim to be right.”
Moss points out a few things here worth thinking about. First, the myth or persecution “authenticates one’s religious message,” positioning them as close to God. We see this within the CBN with the continual fallback on the inerrancy of scripture and the claims that they know the “true” message from on high. Second, Moss’s last phrase points to the ways that this framing shuts down any legitimate conversation on a topic. By claiming victimhood, one becomes defensive, pushing back on anything that may move issues forward, because one presents themselves as oppressed, as under the heel of some opposing force, even when that person is at the top of the hierarchical ladder. Along with this, by claiming that one is so close to God and the religious message, then any deviation from that supposed “truth” becomes an opposition, thus shutting down any legitimate conversation before it gets started. This occurs with the rhetoric of “it’s a heart/sin problem not a systemic problem.”
“When politically secure Christians,” Moss writes, “claim to be persecuted, they polarize the world around them.” We see this all around us with the CBN and evangelical Christians who position themselves as victims even though they are politically, socially, and culturally secure. No one is working to take anything away from them. People are working to provide equity and equality for all, not just a select few.
I’ve never really thought about using the term Christian fascism when referring to any of this; instead, I’ve preferred the term Christian nationalism. However, the more I read and think about the confluence of all of these issues, I think we can say that we see Christian fascism within a lot of this rhetoric, a rhetoric that plays upon fear, nationalism, and victimhood to maintain a mythological patriarchal past that squashes any hint of liberal democracy.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.