I’ve been looking for a theory of everything that explains the madness around us.
I’m a big fan of Kristin Kobes DuMez. I was in a meeting with her in October, 2016, when she described her next book: a religious biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Kristin, like many people, assumed Clinton was going to be elected president. A few short weeks after our meeting, though, Donald Trump, not Hillary, was elected. Hillary Clinton’s religious biography was put on ice, and before long Kristin decided to write a book that explained why 81 percent of white evangelical Christians embraced a presidential candidate who boasted about his immorality. The book she wrote, Jesus and John Wayne, has become a bestseller.
I gobbled up Jesus and John Wayne and saw much of my personal history in it. I have subscribed to Kristin’s new blog and suggest you do the same. Kristin is right about evangelicalism’s toxic militant masculinity being a sad and twisted distortion of Christianity. She is right that Trump is not an aberration but the logical outcome of forces that had been coalescing for decades.
But that doesn’t explain why so many Christians are anti-vaxxers. Something else is going on.
I am a big fan of Robert P. Jones and his book White Too Long. Jones carefully demonstrates how not just white evangelicals but all white Christians have built and support racist systems. He’s right—white supremacy plagues our culture, and, as he argues, the church is not just complicit, the church is responsible.
But that doesn’t explain why denomination after denomination has fractured over LGBTQ inclusion.
I’ve been looking for a theory of everything, that explains not just Trump, sexism, and anti-wokeism, but also explains things as different as climate change denial, bad behavior on airplanes, Brexit, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, church splits, anti-vaxxers, threats of violence outside the homes of Supreme Court justices, and our tolerance of mass shootings. I know that’s asking a lot, but I think I may have come up with something.
Before I share it, let me put forth a disclaimer. In no way is this intended to lessen the egregiousness of racism and misogyny and in no way am I intending to sweep those malevolent behaviors under the rug and draw our attention elsewhere.
But I can’t help but be struck by how we are living through a complete loss of confidence in institutional authority. We have a pandemic of mistrust. It is my contention that mistrust is undoing us.
Mistrust is the water we all swim in, both those on the left and right.
How has this happened? I suppose one could blame technology. Start with the Vietnam War, and the fact that presidents from both parties lied to the American people about what was happening. On the one hand there was the narrative coming out of Washington, on the other hand was what the evening news was showing us from places like My Lai. There were a lot of “My Country, Right or Wrong” bumper stickers in those days, and with the perspective offered by history, we know our country was wrong. What’s that done to our collective confidence level government?
And there’s the Civil Rights Movement and the indelible images—from places like Selma—of American citizens being attacked by police officers. There’s the 1968 Democratic Convention and the television networks showing us more police officers, this time the Chicago police force, beating everyone in sight. There’s the sight of dead students lying on the campus of Kent State University, shot by the National Guard. There’s Watergate and “I am not a crook.” We’d had corrupt presidents before, just not one that acted it out on television.
There’s an administration that seemed hapless when Americans were taken hostage in Iran, and another administration deep in the muck of Iran-Contra. And then we had yet another beleaguered president famously claiming, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” There’s the assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and the subsequent annihilation of a sovereign nation by the United States of America.
What about the church? Well, there’s the long history of covering up pedophile priests, there’s Jim and Tammy Faye on television most every night, and more recently Willow Creek and Mark Driscoll and Hillsong and many more.
Who can be trusted to tell the truth?
All of this has unfolded over the past few decades. Today, media has become “democratized” with the invention of social media. When Rodney King was beaten, a plumber in Los Angeles trained his new video camera on the spectacle. Now, when police—or anyone, especially someone prominent—misbehaves, multiple people capture it on their phones and post it immediately.
Our bad behavior is as old as time—Judges 21:25 captured it: everyone does what is right in their own eyes. What’s different now is that while everyone does what is right in their own eyes, everyone else records it, posts it, comments on it, and passes judgement on it.
One result of the breakdown of institutions and the flattening of everything is the rise of strongmen. Trump’s brand of bullying misogyny and racist fearmongering was made for such a time as this. Through the archaic electoral college system, he was able to ride a wave of populist fear and frustration into office. His presidency was absolutely exhausting, which should have come as no surprise. Chaos is exhausting. There was no plan because Trump and his minions (like the rest of us), expected Clinton to win. President Trump was unprepared and unqualified, and as chief executive undermined his own government at every turn. It would have been a Marx Brothers movie, except the farce became a tragedy when the pandemic arose.
It’s hard to govern coherently when you’re predisposed to undermining the government.
And it’s hard to develop a coherent pandemic strategy when you are predisposed not to trust your medical experts.
After one million deaths, it seems we have learned nothing. The spirit of distrust and animus that propelled Trump into the presidency is stronger than ever. It plays itself out when parents invoke the boogeyman of CRT and declare war on school boards and teachers who try to honestly teach American history. It plays itself out when people walk away from their church families after a pastor says something about racial justice or when the church’s leadership asks people to wear masks. It plays itself out when congregations leave their denominational homes because another church in that denomination—maybe 2000 miles away—has ordained someone this congregation wouldn’t ordain. It plays itself out when those newly free congregations can’t decide who to align themselves with.
And it plays itself out when anti-vaxxers stick their heads in the sand ignoring not just overwhelming scientific evidence but the plain truth all around them.
I saw a friend the other day who is in his 90s. He had COVID a couple of weeks ago, a disconcerting development to be sure, but, thankfully, he is doing fine now. He’s a retired physician, which probably makes him untrustworthy in some people’s eyes, and he told me he is alive today because he was vaccinated. I believe that too. But in the last couple of years, because so much fear of vaccines has been created, large numbers of parents are keeping their children from receiving routine childhood vaccines. It won’t be long until we see the resurgence of diseases we thought we had conquered.
As a people, we are becoming collectively dumber. All the while, social media has created platforms for everyone to assert their own idiocy. In this world, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are modern versions of Prometheus, answerable to no one, creators and exploiters of humanity’s best and worst.
Social media is also where reporters turn after every mass killing, to find out the killer’s motive. It’s always a variation on the same theme, from Timothy McVeigh to the Unabomber to the gunmen recently in Buffalo and Laguna Woods. We’re told they’ve become unmoored and slipped from reality and fixated on an enemy—the government or a people group—and have taken their anger and frustration out on them. It’s the same story, and when I hear it I wonder how much distance there is from mistrust to unmoored.
Although we get worked up over bombings, we tolerate mass shootings, because gun ownership is the ultimate expression of hyper-autonomy. We tolerate mass shootings because the solution—taking away our guns—is intolerable. We need guns because we have no faith our institutions can protect us. More than that, we need guns to protect us from those institutions. Don’t believe me? Watch a Rambo movie or dive deep into the plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor.
We look across the world and see the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Shouldn’t there be an international institution that checks such aggression? Oh, there’s the United Nations, with Russia a permanent member of its security council. I don’t think anyone really had much faith in the United Nations to begin with, but the invasion of Ukraine underscores its limitations.
The institution most threatened in the present moment is Democracy. One-third of Americans do not believe Joe Biden was legitimately elected president. That sort of opinion would have been on the radical fringe not too long ago. Now it’s mainstream. Who can say what the 2024 presidential election will bring? The United States of America, once the world leader in just about everything, is now the world leader in political dysfunction.
Thirty years ago, when Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush, the mantra inside his campaign was “It’s the economy, stupid.” I fully expected the Republican focus as we head into the 2022 midterms and 2024 presidential election to focus on the economy. The Democrats are vulnerable, because most people hold Biden responsible for inflation and especially high gas prices. But that’s not the Republican strategy. The campaign slogan of one of the Republicans running for governor in Michigan is revealing: “Pro-Voter ID, Pro-Law Enforcement, Pro-Second Amendment, Pro-Parental Involvement in Education.” He might as well just say, “Pro-Culture War.” Or maybe just “Pro-Everyone does what is right in their own eyes.” (Slight digression here, but if the Republicans continue to double down on the culture war, their presidential candidate in 2024 is going to be . . . Mike Pence. You read it here first.)
Every part of that campaign slogan is built on mistrust of authority. “Pro-Voter ID” says, “I don’t trust our elections are fair.” (It’s also thinly veiled racism.) “Pro-Law Enforcement” says, “I do trust the police, but know the other side doesn’t. The other side wants to defund the police.” “Pro-Second Amendment says, “I don’t trust anyone, but I trust my gun.” And “Pro-Parental Involvement in Education” says, “I don’t trust teachers, principals, or boards of education to protect kids from Critical Race Theory.”
I’m a Christian. I have hope. But biblical hope is not the same thing as optimism. I love this line from Richard Rohr, “Remember, hope is not some vague belief that ‘all will work out well,’ but biblical hope is the certainty that things finally have a victorious meaning no matter how they turn out.” That quote creates space between biblical hope and optimism. Optimism is the belief that things will work out well. Biblical hope is more than optimism, it’s the belief that ultimately God will work God’s purposes out. Biblical hope is centered on the New Creation. Biblical hope is the belief that there is always more happening than meets the eye.
I try to be an upbeat, positive-mental-attitude person, but it’s hard these days. I cannot say I’m optimistic about the future of the church, the United States, or the world. The planet is burning and we’re stuck in an intractable culture war. Meanwhile, Innocent people go shopping or to church and are murdered and you and I both know not a damn thing will be done about it. If you’re looking for outrage, talk to people about gas prices, not those murders. (By the way, it would be good news for our planet if gas cost $20 a gallon. Behavior would change then. But I digress.) I want to be an optimist, but these days I cannot. As someone whose hope is in ultimate things, I close my eyes every night saying, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”