Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Why Christian nationalists fear freedom

For years now a lot of us have been trying to understand why white evangelical voters remain so loyal to Donald Trump. I believe that the answer to that question is complex, but Fareed Zakaria recently added something very important to the discussion. 

Modern societies protect your life and liberty so that you may individually pursue happiness and fulfillment, defining it as you please so long as you do not impinge on anyone else’s ability to do the same.

But constructing one’s own meaning of life is not easy; it is much simpler to consult the Bible or the Quran.

Zakaria goes on to describe the current rise in populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism.

They offer people what the German American scholar Erich Fromm called an “escape from freedom.” A distinguished psychologist who studied the rise of fascism, Fromm argued that once human beings live through the chaos of freedom, they get scared. “The frightened individual seeks for somebody or something to tie his self to; he cannot bear to be his own individual self any longer, and he tries frantically to get rid of it and to feel security again by the elimination of this burden: the self,” he wrote.

As someone who laboriously worked their way out of white fundamentalist Christian authoritarianism, that rings very true. As I came face-to-face with my own individual self, I experienced a moment of pure unadulterated panic. That's because I could no longer lean on the rules handed to me via authoritarians, I had to depend on myself to figure things out. David Whyte captured that moment with his poem titled "Revelation Must Be Terrible." Here's how it starts:

Revelation must be
terrible with no time left
to say goodbye.

Imagine that moment
staring at the still waters
with only the brief tremor

of your body to say
you are leaving everything
and everyone you know behind.

Being far from home is hard, but you know,
at least we are exiled together.
When you open your eyes to the world

you are on your own for
the first time. No one is
even interested in saving you now
Sara Robinson wrote a powerful series of essays about people leaving authoritarian systems. She captured why that kind of revelation can be so terrifying.
We must never, ever underestimate what it costs these people to let go of the beliefs that have sustained them. Leaving the safety of the authoritarian belief system is a three-to-five year process. Externally, it always means the loss of your community; and often the loss of jobs, homes, marriages, and blood relatives as well. Internally, it requires sifting through every assumption you've ever made about how the world works, and your place within it; and demands that you finally take the very emotional and intellectual risks that the entire edifice was designed to protect you from. You have to learn, maybe for the first time, to face down fear and live with ambiguity.

Over the last couple of decades, as we have opened our arms to create a place of belonging for those who have been marginalized, the old systems based on racism/sexism/homophobia have been challenged. All of that posed a threat to the security of a culture/tradition based on those systems. Rather than engage in the difficult task of grappling with those changes, too many white evangelical Christians simply doubled down on authoritarianism because the freedom to chose for themselves was too terrifying. 

 Those fears have been manipulated by politicians like Sen. Josh Hawley, who once said the following:

For decades now our politics and culture have been dominated by a particular philosophy of freedom. It is a philosophy of liberation from family and tradition; of escape from God and community; a philosophy of self-creation and unrestricted, unfettered free choice. 

Just to be clear, for Hawley, that's a bad thing.

The idea that freedom is bad has been fully embraced by the right wingers who are referred to as National Conservatives, the new right, or post-liberals - guys like Hawley, Sen. J.D. Vance, Tucker Carlson, Sohrab Ahmari, and Peter Thiel.

The post-liberals say that freedom has become a destructive end-in-itself. Economic freedom has brought about a global system of trade and finance that has outsourced jobs, shifted resources to the metropolitan coasts, and obscured its self-seeking under the veneer of social justice. Personal freedom has ended up in the mainstreaming of pornography, alcohol, drug, and gambling addiction, abortion, single-parent families, and the repression of orthodox religious practice and conscience.

It is important to wrestle with what that means. For most of us, this democratic republic was founded on the idea of economic and personal freedom. But for these folks, the idea of freedom is terrifying. That's why Katherine Stewart nailed it when she wrote this:

This isn’t the religious right we thought we knew. The Christian nationalist movement today is authoritarian, paranoid and patriarchal at its core. They aren’t fighting a culture war. They’re making a direct attack on democracy itself.

Before closing this one out I'd like to say that, over the last couple of months, I've been immersing myself in music as a way to cope. On this topic of the freedom to find our self, this one by Jacob Collier spoke to me profoundly.  

1 comment:

  1. Thank you once again, Ms. Letourneau.
    I also experienced a disconcerting realignment when I left the evangelical church of my teen years. I found it both frightening (no guide! no rudder!), and invigorating (oh! *I* have the rudder! plus, look at all that open water!). But then, when I left, it was just the Church, and not Jesus (let "him" go some years later, after I'd found my footing). It's a journey, and I still think about the comfort of having a seemingly reliable lane to stay in.
    But then I found that lane didn't quite match reality, and started searching for a different path. It's difficult, however, to communicate how wonderful that path has been to those who still lean heavily, and with a fair amount of fear, on authoritarian religions and political figures.


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