Ted Grimsrud—January 23, 2021
Many Americans have been disturbed since the November election at how gullible so many in our nation seem to be about former President Trump’s claims that the election was stolen. A shocking number of people believe that Biden stole the election—including, it appears, quite a large number of professing Christians. That so many Christians believe such an outrageous thing seemingly simply because Trump has told them to has made me think. Is there a connection between Christian theologies and ways of thinking and being misled by people in power.
As I have thought about this question of a special Christian susceptibility to such gullibility, it occurred to me that this is not an issue only in relation to conservative Christians. Take the mostly unquestioned acceptance over the past 75 years of American warism and the nuclear weapons regime. There have occasionally been moments of opposition to these suicidal societal commitments (I’m thinking especially of the anti-Vietnam War movement of the late-1960s and early 1970s and the nuclear Freeze movement of the 1980s —both of which petered out in spite of little success), but the generally positive attitude about the politics of death has spanned the theological spectrum from right to left. And what is this positive attitude other than gullibility in relation to people in power?
The big question
Is there something inherent in Christianity that makes Christians especially susceptible to such manipulation? I’m not ready to claim that Christians are more easily misled than other people, but I do suspect that there might be dynamics within Christianity that do enhance the possibilities of this.
Part of my motivation is my own sense of disappointment. Back in the mid-1970s I became very interested in what we called “radical Christianity.” I became a pacifist and affirmed many other countercultural causes such as environmentalism, feminism, racial justice, and anti-capitalism. I believed that it was because of the Bible and Christian convictions that I took such stands. I believed that Christianity made that kind of difference. I still have most of the same convictions—both politically and theologically—but am much less sanguine about the significance of Christianity for making a big difference in the world. My suspicion now is that being a Christian in this country makes a person more likely to be pro-war, white supremacist, sexist, and pro-capitalism. Behind that likelihood, perhaps, is a willingness among Christians to accept uncritically what powerful people say.
This is the thesis I want to consider: Christianity can be epistemologically crippling because its theological system and the practices that follow have often stemmed from beliefs that are not based on evidence, at times not even based on rationality. I wonder if the willingness to ground Christianity on non-evidential, non-rational, even at times magical thinking and mystification, has also led Christians to accept claims from political leaders that are non-evidential, non-rational, and even magical thinking.
If this thesis has some truth to it, I’d further suggest that these dynamics go way back in the history of Christianity. One important moment from the early years was the decision by Christian leaders to center official Christianity around formal creeds whose acceptance was much more linked with church and political authority than evidence and rationality. If you were a Christian, in effect, you believed the core doctrines because you were told to by the people in power—not because you understood them, not because they showed themselves to be life-giving in practice, and not as a consequence of on-going discernment and conversation.
The “house of authority”
Ever since the formulation of those initial authoritative creeds, much of Christianity has devoted great energy to formulating and enforcing the creeds, confessions, and other doctrinal statements. In general, these “rules of engagement” have served as static boundary markers that have to be policed and that determine who is in and who is out. They have not been proposals to be adapted and applied as a consequence of ever-evolving communal discernment. They have not been the occasions for growth in critical thinking, discernment into how to apply the story of Jesus in new circumstances, or exercises in how to hold people in power accountable to what is truly life-giving and reflective of the spirit of Jesus.
We may call the dynamics that have characterized much of Christianity since the emergence of the creeds and hierarchical church structures in general the dynamics of a “house of authority.” The house of authority has involved the centrality of authoritative sources for thought and life. You have some sort of divine revelation, be it an authoritative Bible or the authoritative interpretation of the Bible. And you have some sort of hierarchical human authority structure that applies and enforces the authoritative teaching. All of this is tied with a view of authority where the few people in power determine the rules for the community and determine how the rules will be applied.
What you don’t have within the house of authority is the dynamic practice of discernment, shared power, accountability for the people in power, and the cultivation of a critical sensibility that keeps fresh and applicable original core convictions from Torah and the ministry of Jesus such as care for the vulnerable, the centrality of compassion, and the critique of injustice. That is, when we think of our current crisis of gullibility, we don’t have the practice within Christianity of training people to be suspicious of people in power and to be demanding that the practices of people in power be accountable to evidence and rationality.
So, I am wondering if the uncritical (for many Christians) acceptance of certain received authorized doctrines that do not seem (to some of us) to be well grounded in the stuff of life might be part of the reason that Christians have been gullible concerning the political assertions of people in power.
For example, maybe most basically, many Christians rather uncritically profess belief in a separate, autonomous, all-powerful, all-knowing, controlling God—no matter what human experience might indicate about the existence of such a God. And in actual life, most of these Christians do not live as if they truly believe that such a God is actually in control of everything and is watching out for their wellbeing. For one thing, just look at the extraordinary investment American Christians make, both societally and personally, in violent weaponry in the name of “security” and “defense.” What could say “I don’t actually trust much in an all-powerful God” more than a nuclear arsenal that can destroy all life on earth many times over? But we have creeds, confessions, and other doctrines that name belief in this kind of God as the very starting point for Christian faith. It appears that we are simply to accept these beliefs without question.
The key elements in the construction of authoritative theology—the inspired and even inerrant Bible and the formal creeds and confessions—are in some sense separated from their human origins and given an unquestioned status as truthful revelation from God. The more we do look at these documents as originating among fallible human beings, the more we will likely see them as inconsistent, fallible, and worthy of scrutiny and critical evaluation. Of course, some Christians do engage in critical evaluation of the central pieces of authority, but many do not. Many, in fact, are punished when they do. Could it be that the habit of accepting doctrines and practices on the basis of the authority of church leadership is training for accepting the dictates of political leaders without scrutinizing their validity?
The willingness to accept Trump’s unwarranted claims that he lost the election only because of cheating by his opponents is only the latest example. The strong consensus in favor of almost limitless military spending that flies in the face of the actual failures of the US military in most of its interventions over the past 75 years would be another example. Denial of the climate crisis and the human role in creating it and denial of the COVID-19 pandemic also seem to be due in part to this gullibility.
What to do about Christian gullibility?
I believe that the answer to this problem is not simply to turn over authority for our understanding of reality from political and religious leaders to scientific leaders and other experts. The answer to gullibility is not simply pure rationalism. Somehow, we need to learn to engage reality with an open mind that includes taking evidence seriously but also recognizes the roles of faith, intuition, and moral convictions.
Ironically, given the role the Bible plays in the house of authority as the “revealed word of God” understood as inerrant and the source of absolute truth, I think we have a lot to learn about critical engagement with politics and the rest of the world from the Bible. First, we have to recognize that it actually presents itself in a very non-authoritarian way. It is a collection of stories written by and about human beings that presents an on-going conversation about faith and practice. It is messy and reflects many different points of view and often leaves important issues unresolved. It is a resource for critical thinking, not a source for unquestioned certainty.
Perhaps most importantly for thinking about people in power, the Bible from beginning to end models questioning and doubting political and religious leaders. Genesis can be understood as a statement against the veneration of human kings and an assertion of the supremacy of the God of Israel as a reality that undermines human authoritarians. The exodus story tells of overthrowing the Egyptian empire and of a political blueprint in Torah that is best understood as a counter-vision to the ways of Empire. Then, once the Hebrew people establish their own hierarchical territorial kingdom, we read of a constant stream of prophets who, speaking for God, challenge Israelite human authority and confront those who have allowed themselves to be misled by people in power.
The story of Jesus reinforces those Old Testament dynamics. He stands squarely in the line of Torah’s anti-Empire social vision and of the prophets’ critiques of people in power in the name of the God of the vulnerable. Jesus offers a nutshell summary of a disposition that counters the Christian tendency to defer to people in power and the authority of institutions when he asserts that the tyrants of the nations lord it over people—and that it must not be that way among his followers (Mark 10:42-45).