Updated: Aug 30
While promoting his new book, Losing Our Religion, Russell Moore has been sharing a story that illustrates the growing gap between American evangelicalism and Jesus. In an NPR interview, Moore said pastors are being confronted by church members after preaching things like "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemies." They will ask, "Where did you get those liberal talking points?"
“What was alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, ‘I’m literally quoting Jesus Christ,’ the response would not be, ‘I apologize.’ The response would be, ‘Yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak,’” Moore said. “When we get to the point where the teachings of Jesus himself are seen as subversive to us, then we’re in a crisis.”
I agree with Russell Moore. The American evangelical movement is in a crisis—but this isn’t the first time.
I've been re-reading a book by historian Mark Noll called, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, which validates the observation (often attributed to Mark Twain) that, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” As in most conflicts, each side in the American Civil War was convinced that God favored their cause, but the Confederacy held this assumption with unwavering certainty. In fact, the South had constructed elaborate—and utterly erroneous—theological arguments to justify slavery and white supremacy. Holding firmly to their Bibles, southern whites often accused northern abolitionists of being atheists, and even framed their rebellion against the Union as necessary to preserve biblical Christianity.
Therefore, when the South lost the war it triggered a theological crisis. The possibility that they had misinterpreted the Bible, or that God did not endorse their racist values, was utterly inconceivable. In their own minds, their honor and godliness were unimpeachable. Therefore, rather than accept defeat as an opportunity to reconsider their assumptions or reexamine their bigoted theology, many in the defeated Confederacy searched for another explanation—and they found one.
Following the war, Southern evangelical preachers started to embrace a new doctrine that had recently been imported from England called Dispensationalism. Developed by John Darby, it said the enemies of Christ were ascendant, the world was deteriorating into chaos and evil, and that faithful Christians would soon face a time of testing and persecution before Jesus' return. (For a deeper dive, be sure to check out Phil Vischer's interviews with Daniel Hummel, author of The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism, on Holy Post episodes 563 and 564).
With Dispensationalism in hand, many white southerners came to interpret the Confederacy's defeat as a sign of the apocalypse rather than as a sign of God’s judgment of slavery. The enemies of God (anti-slavery progressives controlling the federal government) were taking control for a period of tribulation before the return of Christ, and the true Christians (southern white supremacists) had to endure a time of testing. Dispensationalism provided a brilliant, if wicked, solution to the South’s theological crisis:
It explained why God allowed the South to lose the war—to usher in the return of Jesus.
It vilified abolitionists and the federal government as the enemies of God.
It did not challenge the false theology of white supremacy. In fact, any reexamination of southern evangelical theology was condemned as a failure to remain faithful during the tribulation.
Most importantly, the Dispensational interpretation of the Civil War preserved the South's honor.
This convenient set of beliefs became the theological foundation for "The Lost Cause" mindset in the South that eventually derailed Reconstruction, instituted Jim Crow, terrorized African-Americans, and set back the cause of racial equality for generations.
Here’s the important part—the same desire for a self-justifying theology that happened after the Civil War is happening again, and the fallout for white evangelicals—and the rest of the country—may be equally devastating.
Consider that in today's Culture War, white evangelicals still widely view progressives and the federal government as God's enemies. Any reexamination of one's cultural or political beliefs is still condemned as a betrayal of "true" Christianity. Like the Civil War generation, apocalyptic rhetoric is again being leveraged to spread conspiracy theories and fear of minorities. And evangelicals are again being attracted to a bogus theological system that validates and preserves their prejudices—this time its Christian Nationalism rather than Dispensationalism.
It's important to recognize the common motives in both eras. Neither southern evangelicals during the Civil War nor white evangelicals in the current Culture War start with a grounded and orthodox theology from Scripture. Instead, both begin with a profound sense of white cultural identity and an unyielding desire to preserve their honor amid defeat. This core of white identity and fragile honor then goes searching for a theology to satisfy it. This helps explain the rapid rise of Christian Nationalism. It’s not fueled by serious theological inquiry, but an emotional need for validation.
Founder of Fox News, Roger Ailes, famously said, "People don't want to be informed; they want to feel informed." Likewise, today's culture warring evangelicals don't want to be righteous; they want to feel righteous. And they will abundantly reward any politician, cable news personality, pastor, or pundit who supplies this feeling. Christian Nationalism, and its growing flock of political pigeons, fills this need perfectly.
Of course, for those who dare to challenge the new "Lost Cause" the opposite is also true—they will be swiftly condemned. A Republican politician who says the 2020 election was not stolen will be silenced by a crowd of boos. A theologian who challenges Christian Nationalism on Twitter will be branded as "woke." A pastor who quotes Jesus in a sermon will be confronted by his parishioners for repeating "liberal talking points." And like 150 years ago, those who engage in these culture war crusades are convinced that they are true Christians acting in defense of the faith.
Despite what voices on the left might say, the solution to this problem is not political. Remember, "The North won the Civil War," as Bryan Stevenson often says, "but the South won the narrative war." A political defeat in 2024 won't cast out the Lost Cause demon from among white evangelicals, just as it didn't in 2020 or 2022. In fact, another lost election may do the opposite by strengthening their sense of victimhood and apocalyptic tribulation.
As Jesus told his disciples, some demons only come out by "prayer and fasting." Commitment to God (prayer), and self-denial (fasting), are desperately needed right now. If white evangelicalism is to be saved, leaders from within its ranks must abandon their professional and institutional securities, fear God more than their sheep, and speak the truth to their flocks. Russell Moore is one such voice within evangelicalism, but his rejection by the Southern Baptist Convention is a sign that it's already too late.
I fear Dr. Moore’s fate within the SBC will have a chilling effect. It may teach evangelical leaders who recognize the evils of Christian Nationalism and conspiracy theories to protect themselves by remaining silent. Some may even give tacit approval to evangelicalism’s new Lost Cause hoping to pacify their people. But they should remember the last time white evangelicals in the U.S. rejected the words of Christ to embrace self-righteous delusions. It nearly destroyed the country and perpetuated racial terrorism for more than a century. I don’t believe history is repeating itself, but it’s sure beginning to rhyme.
Skye Jethani is an award-winning author, former pastor and speaker. He is the co-host of The Holy Post podcast and has written numerous books including the What if Jesus Was Serious? series. Skye has served more than a decade in numerous editorial and executive roles at Christianity Today.