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Following Liz Cheney’s ouster from the GOP House leadership, there have been murmurings among some Republicans about starting a break-away party committed to upholding traditional conservative policies rather than defending Donald Trump’s false assertion that he, not Joe Biden, is in fact the duly elected President of the United States. There has also been some talk in evangelical quarters that QAnon is a pernicious and crazy cult that needs to be rejected by good Christians. At the same time, recent polling has suggested that white evangelical Protestants are more likely than other Americans to believe in irrational conspiracy theories, such as the QAnon claim that the U.S. government is run by a secret cabal of Satanic pedophiles, just as they are more inclined than other Republicans to believe former President Trump’s lies about the election having been stolen from him.
Is there really any possibility that white evangelicals might be willing to support a new, fact-based conservative movement?
One can always hope – but a recent visit to the Creation Museum in Kentucky shows how deeply rooted distrust in science is now embedded in the culture of white evangelicals and fundamentalists.
Located in Boone County, Kentucky, the Creation Museum is a “75,000-square-foot facility [that] allows families to experience earth history as God has revealed it in the Bible,” where families can discover “why God´s infallible Word, rather than man´s faulty assumptions, is the place to begin if we want to make sense of our world.” At the Creation Museum, one can learn about how God created the universe and all of its creatures in six days, how Eve’s original sin is responsible for the pain of child labor, and how dinosaurs and dragons roamed the Earth alongside men.
Throughout the museum’s exhibits, there is the implicit contention that Christians and, by extension, the American people have been harmed by secular humanism, led astray by modernity, and lied to by science.
Nowhere is this message made more clear than in the exhibits dedicated to debunking the science of evolution, geological development, and climate change. Here, the museum-goer learns that they are a victim of a vast conspiracy, intended to undermine God’s Kingdom on Earth.
Here, the museum-goer is presented with scientific data attesting to the science of carbon dating only to have it immediately refuted by Biblical history. Here, the museum-goer is presented with facts and told they are not facts. Here, the museum-goer learns that God has left a hidden record of His actions in sediment left after the flood. Here, the museum-goer is empowered to rewrite the historical narrative so that it comports with their biblical worldview.
The exhibits at the Creation Museum and their emphasis on refuting scientific claims help explain the ease with which conservative Christians have incorporated QAnon into their belief system, their collective willingness to embrace male and white supremacists ideologies premised on an ideology of victimhood, their rejection of the threat of COVID-19 in the name of “religious freedom” and resistance to being vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, and their refusal to accept the validated outcome of the 2020 presidential election. n the other hand, conservative Christians have been steeped in a culture that is characterized by magical thinking, scientific denialism, self-identification as victims, and hostility toward the state and its representatives—as such, they should be understood as a group that is susceptible to absorbing and adopting rhetorics of conspiracism and of white, male, and Christian grievance.
When merged, these two core attributes of the movement manifest in a politics of patriarchal, white, Christian supremacism that is anti-democratic and illiberal. Sometimes termed “Christian nationalism,” this set of attitudes and beliefs is by no means a fringe ideology. Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead have aptly demonstrated how Christian nationalism has become a widespread and pervasive belief system that informs how conservative Christians understand their dominant place in American history, society, and politics.
Predicated on a rejection of elites, data, and science, Christian nationalism has been linked to vaccine hesitancy as well as the Capitol insurrection. The Christian nationalist worldview does not stop at deconstruction; rather, it aims to dismantle our pluralistic and secular political institutions and replace them with Christian governing structures. It also reflects a convergence between Machiavellian political strategizing, as adherents seek to acquire power and achieve supremacy by any means necessary, and magical thinking, as adherents reject information that conflicts with their beliefs and look to decode hidden messages left both in the substrate and in “Q drops” on Reddit.
To understand the place of the contemporary Christian Right in relation to the Republican party, and to think constructively about where conservative Christians may be heading, we need to understand how the movement is simultaneously strategic and conspiratorial, detached from reality and capable of reshaping the political landscape. By viewing these two facets of the movement together, we can better anticipate what the future of Christian Right political organizing holds in store for the development of United States politics.
Over the span of four decades, the Christian Right has developed, progressed, and matured as a movement. It has learned that “moral” men do not guarantee the passage of “moral” laws. More to the point, it has learned that moral men are more often than not bound by ideological commitments and inclined to abide by the rules of our democratic institutions.
For evangelicals, the best political candidate, therefore, may not be the best man, the most ardent conservative, or the truest believer. Rather, the perceived failures of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, taught the Christian Right to distrust candidates with apparently rock-solid religious and political commitments and view more favorably a candidate whose craven and instrumental approach to politics, disregard for political norms, and rejection of established conservative ideology would make him willing to dispose of the nation’s liberal and democratic traditions and institutions that conflict with conservative Christian aims.
In other words, the Christian Right has discovered the virtues of another King Cyrus—a non-believing outsider used by God to enact His will. Viewed in this way, Trump was the smart, strategic, and shrewd choice for a movement that seeks to make America Christian again.
That is why I predict that Liz Cheney will remain relatively isolated, estranged as she now is from the intoxicant of supremacist power that Christian nationalism proffers. Looking forward, it is difficult to see how the Christian Right could be brought back into the fold of an old-guard GOP that seeks to re-establish the tenets of mid-20th century conservativism and affirm a commitment to liberal democratic institutions. Should an anti-Trump Republican movement form, we should anticipate that it will not receive the support of the Christian Right – and absent that support, a conservative movement can not prevail at the polls.
It is far more likely that, with or without Trump, we will see the Christian Right continue to forge a coalition with the white supremacist and male supremacist factions of the nationalist right.
After all, God can always anoint another King Cyrus.
Chelsea Ebin is Assistant Professor at Centre College and co-founder of the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism.