This is going to be a bit long, so bear with me, but I’ve been thinking recently about how my 80-something evangelical mother views the world and how it provides some much-needed context for a lot of the nonsensical arguments tossed around by Republicans today.
As a bit of background, she doesn’t self-identify as MAGA and she dislikes Trump as a person, but will hold her nose to vote for him anyway. She’s a kind-hearted person who’s always willing to help out when asked. I’ve never heard her say a bad word about anyone due to the color of their skin or attempt to demonize a people group en masse. She is quite close with her trans cousin who transitioned decades ago, and has been mostly supportive of my trans daughter when she came out, too. In short, she’s not on the front lines pushing for the punishment of “the other”...but neither will she draw a line in the sand against those in her party who do.
This comes down to her view of the world that says, in effect, that morality is only about making a Godly choice when specifically confronted with a test of character in her own life. She does not believe that she can or should try to change the world or to fix broken systems—anything larger than what she can personally control is God’s domain. She wouldn’t use this analogy, but she acts more or less a first-person video-game character for whom all of life is a series of tests created by the Game Designer for her to personally pass or fail.
Somehow when I was growing up I never absorbed this particular mentality. Back when I was still part of the church, my conclusions about the responsibilities of a person of faith was different. I read the story of the Good Samaritan and felt the way that Jimmy Carter did: “My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”
But when she reads that story, she sees it like this: God will place moral tests in your pathway, and those are the only moral actions you need to worry about. The Good Samaritan in the story, after all, didn’t start lobbying for improved security along the road, or convene a panel to combat distrust between ethnic groups, or delve into any of the systemic issues that caused the robbery. He dealt only with the singular situation in front of him and moved on.
What’s more, she has a deep distrust of anyone who is trying to fix systemic issues because that is God’s domain. She believes it’s too complicated for mere humans to figure out the complexities of a billion moving parts that make up society—so God must be in control of all that. He will move people’s hearts or harden people’s hearts to make happen what he wants to happen in life.
Although she won’t personally attack people in a racist manner, if you bring up a topic like the history of redlining and the problems of accumulating generational wealth in Black communities, she literally can’t believe that it’s a problem that can be fixed. An individual moral test was placed in front of the loan officer, and he or she failed that test. That’s their problem to deal with before God. The harm which is caused to the applicant is a personal hardship test of their own, which they can pass not by getting angry but by asking God for strength and peace.
Essentially, in her mind, there is no belief in cause and effect. When a person goes on a shooting spree, there is one individual who has been given a test of whether or not to pull the trigger with intent to kill, and God then using that event to deliver tests to individuals and families to deal with the aftermath in a way can build their moral character and reliance on the Almighty. Do bullets hit people randomly? No, there is no such thing in life as chaos and chance. God controls every atom in the universe and directs everything according to purpose.
She will rely on the story of Joseph being sold into slavery, intended as an evil act by his brothers, but which God used to save his people. She loves to quote Paul assuring the Roman church that “all things work together for the good of those who love God.” She often will bring up King David being described as a man after God’s own heart—a man who lusted after Bathsheba and purposefully had her husband killed so he could marry her—having his actions ‘redeemed’ by her becoming the mother of the royal lineage that would lead, in time, to the Messiah.
This is how she is able to consistently vote for a moral dumpster fire like Trump: because no matter what awful things he does and how often he’s failed his moral tests, God nevertheless used him for “good”: to appoint the judges to strike down Roe v. Wade. God allowed him to win the presidency when no one in the world gave him a shot at winning. And God, who controls all of life and death, knew Ruth Bader Ginsburg would die when she did: it must have all been orchestrated on a cosmic level to reward those who faithfully prayed for the law to be overturned. For fifty years she was asked to make a moral choice every November and she passed the test by voting for the most pro-life candidate, because that’s her only political issue.
(You can hear this same thought process reflected in how Kelly Johnson talks about how God specifically installed her husband as the new Speaker of the House. It almost makes sense from her point of view because absolutely no one had Mike Johnson in their Bingo card of potential speakers for the first few weeks of the stalemate. There was no way that he personally could have pulled the strings to make it happen, and yet it did happen: proof that God has a purpose.)
If you extrapolate this kind of mentality outward and apply it across the board, you discover some plausible explanations for some of the more perplexing Republican ideas out there:
First, their lack of empathy for anyone but themselves or their inner circle. Hardship and pain exist to prompt you to get closer to God and rely on him, so there’s no point in trying to alleviate it on a mass scale. Is is disturbing that LGBTQ youth committing suicide or experiencing homelessness at a higher rate than other teens? Well, God’s trying to get their attention. The only reason to help at all is when you, specifically, encounter such a person and can demonstrate the love of God toward them in a way that will help them also find God.
Second, their deification of the founding fathers and the insistence that this is a Christian nation. Since they believe that mere humans cannot control systems that affect outcomes for hundreds of millions, the writers of the Constitution must have been inspired by God even if they didn’t explicitly claim to be. Otherwise the laws they wrote would have resulted in mere chaos. It’s like their belief in intelligent design: the fact that the human body is so complicated means that it could only have been divinely designed. Anything sufficiently intricate is of God.
Third, their freakout over Critical Race Theory, and their condemnations of “being woke,” particularly in the sense of being aware of systemic injustices in the country. To return to the idea of life being a first-person video game, being woke is like trying to dig into the code and rewrite its parameters to make gameplay better for everyone. That’s an affront to the Game Creator, who made it this way for a reason. God deliberately coordinates all of existence so that each of the many billions of us will encounter exactly what we need to encounter, good or bad.
Fourth, their resistance to statistics and research. Get out of here with your charts showing how mass shooters are much more common and much more deadly since the expiration of the assault weapons ban in 2004. Don’t bring me facts about how other countries also have violent video games and people with mental health problems but no to few mass shootings. We can’t socially engineer your way out of our problems because it is God who controls life and death. Human-created restrictions won’t solve the problem of the individual making a bad moral choice.
Fifth, their apprehension toward the Covid vaccine. To her credit, my mother did get her vaccine, but it did require a bit of talking her into it. The pushback was about “when it’s your time then it’s your time, God controls life and death”—but since she’s in her eighties she does take advantage of plenty of other preventive procedures, we were able to get her to see it as similar to those. Essentially, if a medicine or procedure has been around for a while, then its origin is vague enough she can imagine it as something that God brought about. With Covid, seeing individual scientists on TV explaining how they created it, it smacked more of human hubris.
Sixth, how they can be OK with no abortion exceptions for rape or incest. The rapist, they would say, was confronted with a decision to rape or not rape, and their choice is a stain on their soul they will have to work out with God. Completely independent of that (somehow), you as a victim have had a choice put in front of you now. You cannot escape culpability for your decision by viewing it as an erasure of the consequences for another person’s actions—as reversing that trauma. Rather, every moral choice, they believe, is compartmentalized within the individual.
Seventh, the stories and successes that they celebrate, i.e., what constitutes a feel-good story for them. It’s almost a cliche at this point, but the news will often run a story about a child who opened a lemonade stand to pay off the lunch debt for his class, or teachers who donated their sick days to a colleague who was undergoing cancer treatment so he didn’t get fired—and the reaction from those of us on the left is to ask how it can possibly be uplifting when it clearly lays bare the societal injustices in the country. But they can keep running those stories because this is of the highest good to those like my mother’s: the best we can do as a species, apparently, is for each person to simply respond with kindness and generosity to only those immediately around them and to be content with that—because the big stuff isn’t our domain.
Now, I wish I could end this diary with the answer to how we on the left might dislodge this kind of thinking from people’s minds, but I’ve had no such luck myself. I wrote it mostly because the kinds of things that Republicans are saying in the media often feel utterly alien to those of us who rely on reason, logic, empathy, and solidarity to view the world and make our choices. I felt like pulling back the curtain on their ‘whys’ might make the world feel less hopelessly unable to be understood. Perhaps someone smarter than me can imagine ways of deprogramming such ideas.