On Wednesday, House Republicans formally voted to strip Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney of her leadership position. The outcome was never in doubt since Cheney had aroused intense anger from Donald Trump and his supporters over her refusal to countenance his numerous lies about losing the 2020 presidential election and his incitement of the violent coup at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Her resistance provoked massive outcry from the GOP voter base and after resisting an earlier attempt to remove her, California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the GOP minority leader, called for her dismissal.
Cheney’s removal from leadership has been rightfully interpreted by many political observers as a signal that fealty to Trump matters more in today’s Republican Party than a commitment to rolling back federal spending and other traditional GOP policy goals. Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent has also correctly noted that the GOP outcry to punish Cheney is a dangerous indicator that Republicans will refuse to acknowledge future elections won by Democrats—and that their voters will support such authoritarianism since they strongly back current GOP efforts to make voting harder and to hand over election certification powers to partisan state legislators.
On the eve of the Capitol insurrection, the New York Times characterized this tactic as a “last ditch” effort by Trump. Now however, Republican controlled states like Arizona are attempting to make it their plan for the future.
That Republicans would move to subvert democracy so soon after being attacked by violent seditionists set upon them by Trump himself is the product of GOP elites’ fears of their own voters who have become increasingly extremist as they’ve been subjected to noxious news and infotainment for decades. But while right-wing media has been the means by which American conservatives have become reactionaries, the long-term epistemic collapse of Christian fundamentalism that has been in motion for decades is the reason that it happened, and why the mass violence of Jan. 6 is more likely to be a harbinger than a singularity.
As a political philosophy, conservatism is not inherently religious (indeed, many of its luminaries like Hobbes, Hume, and Montesquieu were secular), but the idea-set that spread widely in the United States following the Second World War was decidedly Christian, the progeny of fundamentalists disturbed by the new science of Charles Darwin and the rise of atheistic socialism. The tradition began with William F. Buckley denouncing professors for their unbelief in his 1951 book God and Man at Yale and continues to the present in which many prominent conservatives are fond of defying Jesus’s admonition to keep religious declarations private by posting their favorite Bible verses in social media profiles.
Seventy years after Buckley penned God and Man at Yale, the conservative project of “standing athwart history yelling stop” has been a dismal failure. Despite millions of dollars spent on “creation science” museums and “intelligent design” propaganda, 97 percent of scientists interviewed by the Pew Research Center say humans evolved from animals. Likewise, contrary to the predictions of fundamentalists, scholars of the ancient world keep finding evidence that the Hebrews were never in Egypt, that Yahweh was a member of the Canaanite pantheon along with his wife Asherah, and that the global flood portrayed in the Noah story was actually lifted from an earlier Mesopotamian myth.
Most conservative activists have never heard of such scholarly developments, however, because the American right essentially closed its intellectual canon decades ago, content with the belief that anything worth knowing about religion, history, and government could be learned from the Bible—with a little assistance from the “Founding Fathers,” who supposedly made a covenant with God to make the future United States become a nation for Christians. The dual fundamentalisms of politics and faith had a beguiling symmetry, one that only circular reasoning can engender.
But even as American conservatism had hermetically sealed itself from acquiring new knowledge, the rest of the world was not content to stand still intellectually and morally.
While far-right Christians are not aware of the particular scientific and philosophical reasons for these shifts, they know generally that their Biblical literalism is unpopular and poorly regarded by intellectuals. This inarticulable realization is the core of a deep-seated tragic sense that has been present since the very beginning of American conservatism which grows larger daily.
Despite decades of fundamentalist Christian warning about the evils of homosexuality, new research is showing that as heteronormative stigmas fade, increasing numbers of women are comfortable admitting to bisexual attractions. Even more worrisome to the fundamentalist establishment, the vast majority of Americans, including most Republicans, now support same-sex marriage. Younger Republicans are more likely to believe in anthropogenic climate change than their elders.
Similarly, younger people of all parties are less likely to believe fundamentalist claims about human evolution or that morality requires religion. Despite the enormous amounts of money and time far-right Christians have expended in immanentizing the eschaton, the great religious revival promised by their self-appointed prophets becomes ever less likely.
Instead of discarding the relatively recent invention of Biblical literalism as it continues to collapse intellectually and socially, Christian conservatives have instead created a culture that prefers preaching to the choir through their own media rather than casting pearls before pointy-headed intellectuals and satanic atheists.
Since Buckley’s salvo against secular professors, conservative pundits have produced numerous books and films offering rudimentary takes on Biblical history and evolution while rarely having the courage to engage with critics or active scholars. Former Trump attorney Jenna Ellis perfectly exemplified the ethos by naming her new web commentary show “Just the Truth,” a mere weeks after ending her paid promotion of lies and delusions about the 2020 election.
Ellis is far from the only Christian trying to help fellow fundamentalists make sense of a world that manifestly disagrees with their beliefs. The explosion of internet video and television syndication has produced a profusion of self-styled “prophets” offering half-baked takes on news events intermingled with scripture quotes. The online Christian punditry scene expanded drastically beginning in 2017 as scores of mawkish ministers rushed to copy the handful of their rivals who had claimed that God revealed to them that Trump would win in 2016.
As Right Wing Watch has exhaustively documented, many far-right ministers confidently proclaimed that Trump would be re-elected.
Despite the ministers’ allegedly divine prognostications, however, Joe Biden won the 2020 election. The newly minted election experts proved just as adept at election forecasting as they were at science and history. Their failed predictions continue to resonate with a paralyzing claxon throughout the entire Christianist movement.
After his loss, Trump and his circle of sycophants moved forward to begin amplifying claims they had been making for months beforehand that the election had somehow been “stolen” from him. It was an easy extension of Trump’s own long record of whining about election outcomes he disliked and conservative elites’ cynical campaign to delude their voters into believing that Democrats routinely engage in massive voter fraud.
More crucially, Trump’s unfounded lies about losing tapped into a new fundamentalist strain of thought which had been propagating the idea for years that nothing can truly be known about the world.
Charles Kesler, editor of the conservative Claremont Review of Books, perfectly encapsulated the mentality in an essay for his own publication in which he continued to support Trump’s fact-free claims: “claims are ‘baseless’ only until such time as a base of evidence appears for them,” he wrote.
It was an echo of earlier remarks from Trump political adviser Kellyanne Conway in which she referred to “alternative facts” and the former president’s attorney Rudy Giuliani claiming that “truth isn’t truth.”
Though somewhat new to the political realm, such disingenuous asseverations have become increasingly common among the few beleaguered academics stuck with the impossible task of defending literalist claims about scripture. Leaning heavily on secular deconstructionist writers, fundamentalists of every stripe have begun taking refuge in the idea that the reason their books’ factual claims rarely pan out is that true history is the real myth and that the ancient past is so shrouded in the mists of time that it is essentially inscrutable.
(This self-serving and deeply problematic Biblical interpretation has also been popular among fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, and Jews in a much simpler form as an ersatz argument against evolution. Since you weren’t there when humans emerged through speciation, how can you really know that it happened? Never mind that the exact same thing could be said about events portrayed in their faiths’ scriptural texts.)
Fundamentalist Catholic and Protestant intellectuals have been drifting increasingly in this direction as the fields of archaeology, biology, and linguistics keep unwittingly slaughtering their sacred cows. They have been preceded in their journey by literalist adherents of the Latter-day Saint movement who have spent the last several decades successively attenuating their faith’s claims about the Americas having once been populated by ancient Hebrews known as Nephites. Whereas the movement’s founder, Joseph Smith, claimed that the tribe ranged across the entire New World, Mormonism’s largest sect (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) has devolved into believing that the people’s settlements were so small that they will never be found.
In a 2015 debate about Book of Mormon historicity, William Hamblin, the late professor of history at Brigham Young University and a prominent LDS apologist, tried to justify this major doctrinal retreat as an act of intellectual honesty. He even went so far as to claim that Mormons had no need whatsoever to provide evidence for their truth claims because history ultimately is unknowable and just a matter of opinion:
Whenever anyone demands “objective evidence” for historical questions you know your [sic] dealing with a hermeneutical and epistemological misunderstanding or naiveté. History—in the sense of the actual human past—does not exist. It cannot be directly observed. You cannot experiment upon it by giving Napoleon an extra division of infantry to see if he could win the battle of Waterloo. History is a non-empirical discipline. And anything that is non-empirical cannot be objective. There is, of course, in the study of the philosophy of science, a significant debate as to the degree to which even empirical and experimental disciplines can be “objective” but that is a different question. Be that as it may, history, clearly, is not empirical. Thus, the demand for “objective evidence” represents a fundamental misunderstanding of both the nature of the human past, and our ability today to understand it.
Boyd K. Packer, the late Mormon leader, put the concept a different way in a 1981 address to religious educators, warning them that the mantle of authority is “far, far greater than the intellect” and that they must avoid informing students of historical truths that might cause them to be critical of LDS leaders.
“There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not,” he cautioned. “Some things that are true are not very useful.”
The antinomian heuristic advocated by Christian fundamentalism is an intellectual dead-end in an academic setting, but in the hands of an aspiring dictator like Donald Trump, it is wonderfully useful.
A world in which nothing can ever truly be known for certain is also one in which “alternative facts” must be weighted equally alongside actual facts. Though he’s likely never heard the phrase, the disgraced former president has accepted Mao Zedong’s dictum that political power grows from the barrel of a gun and added his own corollary: Truth is not that which you can prove, but that which you can compel others to accept.
Trump made clear what he was offering in exchange for evangelical votes during a 2016 speech to a predominantly Christian right audience: “We have to strengthen. Because we are getting — if you look, it’s death by a million cuts — we are getting less and less and less powerful in terms of a religion, and in terms of a force. […] If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power. You don’t need anybody else.”
The undying loyalty that Trump has continuously commanded from Republicans since he became the party’s 2016 presidential nominee is thus not just unexpected, it is inevitable. Since far-right Christians cannot defend their beliefs with actual facts and Republicans cannot be forthright about their unpopular anti-government agenda, it was a certitude that a politician who lies constantly while frequently attacking the contemporary historians of journalism would become their leader.
As press critic Jay Rosen wrote last year: “A counter-majoritarian party cannot present itself as such and win elections outside its dwindling strongholds. So it has to be counterfactual, too. It has to fight with fictions.”
If Jesus was the Word of God made flesh, Trump is the incarnation of fundamentalists’ will to power, the avatar of alternative facts, and the great exemplar that bluster and deceit can overwhelm conventional rationality. So complete is the fusion that Trump’s successes are theirs, and his losses strike to the very core of their identity. Since Biblical literalism cannot prevail in the academy, it must be mandated by the state.
But as powerful as facile fictions are, they are also incredibly brittle. If Trump actually lost in 2020, it means that God’s servants were wrong to “prophesize” of his victory. Which means God himself got it wrong. And that cannot be the case.
But the Big Lie is, unfortunately for Trumpists, incredibly weak because of its obvious falsehood. Though Trump is not literally worshipped by far-right Christians, he is seen as God’s personal instrument to force unbelievers to kneel before the Lord, just as the pagan king Cyrus the Great is portrayed in the Biblical myth of Esther. To publicly doubt Trump’s falsehoods is an act of blasphemy because it undermines his divine aegis.
Liz Cheney’s “crime” was not that she believed the truth that Joe Biden is the legitimately elected president of the United States. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, has repeatedly said the same thing, while also working feverishly behind closed doors to limit Trump’s influence on the party.
Cheney’s real infraction was that she has been unabashedly public in condemning Trump and his lies. Despite their constant caterwauling about “cancel culture,” conservatives absolutely love silencing people who disagree with them. Republicans don’t demand that supporters believe the stream of falsehoods Trump spews constantly, only that they refrain from attracting attention for debunking him. McConnell working behind the scenes with big donors and consultants to counter Trump is much greater practical threat to him than Cheney’s public denunciations, but fellow Republicans are more tolerant of the Senate leader’s machinations because they are out of public view.
Matt Vespa, a former colleague of mine who currently writes pugilistic columns for the fundamentalist Christian website Townhall, summed up the conservative perspective in a May 6 essay: “Liz Cheney simply cannot get out of her own way and the hour is getting quite late for this sort of hysterics. It’s not hard, lady. Just keep your mouth shut. And if you can’t, you must go.”
In the aftermath of her ouster from GOP House leadership, Cheney has been utterly unrepentant. “I will do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office,” Cheney told reporters moments later. “We have seen the danger that he continues to provoke with his language. We have seen his lack of commitment and dedication to the Constitution.”
She’s right, of course, but unless many more elite Republicans and their corporate enablers rise up and take action against the epistemic collapse that is devouring the right, the vortex that is currently consuming the GOP will become a black hole for the republic. As the possibility of forcing their doctrines on others becomes less so, many far-right Christians’ tragic impulse is transforming into thanatos.
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