An acquaintance of mine on Facebook recently posted something different than her usual scripture verses. She shared a petition asking Florida to stop mandatory shelter-in-place orders.
“It’s not that I don’t want people healthy, it’s that I don’t want my freedom taken from me,” she wrote.
When I pressed her — stating that in a time of a global, viral pandemic, these two values might come up at odds against each other and we might be forced to choose — several of her friends chimed in.
“Freedom is more important than your life. Or my life,” said one.
“Freedom trumps safety,” said another.
Just a few days later my newsfeeds were awash in pictures of people protesting in various states against similar policies. People in Washington, Michigan, Texas, and California, among other states held signs saying things like, “give me liberty or give me death” and “social distancing = communism.” The protesters who gave me the most pause were those from Christian backgrounds, protesting the right to assemble in religious gatherings among other reasons.
I was raised in a culture steeped in conspiracy theories and a distrust of the government, but even this went too far for me. Had American Christians completely lost the ability to recognize the need for solidarity in the face of a global pandemic? Through decades of advocating for their own personal rights and liberties, had they become incapable of working toward the common good — prioritizing the well-being of the entire community instead of just themselves?
My life experience is quickly becoming a common one. Born and raised an evangelical Christian, in recent years I have had to reckon with the political, economic, and social fallout of seeing my religious culture become an influential voting bloc. Like so many, I have experienced feelings of disillusionment, betrayal, and shock. After all, weren’t we raised to be pro-life? To value human dignity and sanctity? To believe God was in control no matter who was president?
And yet time after time, young evangelicals like myself saw our leaders throwing away much of their supposed moral values in order to prop up a presidency that would accomplish some of their political goals — a conservative supreme court judge, for example, or politicians who would champion Christian religious liberty. As the months and years have gone on, it has become clear that white American evangelicals have been a part of a targeted and sophisticated political strategy — one that has forced them to make the choice between the values of their religion and the values of their political party.
The inherent contradictions of the evangelical political mind is baked into the U.S. Constitution itself: Americans are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness so long as you are a white, land-owning male. The unchecked pursuit of affluence and autonomy in privileged communities has led to extreme inequality in our country. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the rates of inequality in the U.S. were reminiscent of a second gilded age. When you prioritize only what is best for you and your family, you normalize school segregation, gentrification, and inhumane immigration reform.
In 2000, sociologists Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith wrote the book Divided by Faith, where they found that white evangelicals were a group of people uniquely unprepared to believe or engage in the concept of systematic inequalities. This is not altogether surprising, given their theological focus on individualism: A person can accept Jesus into their heart and avoid hell — their entire eternal future is determined by a personal choice. With that mindset, racism, sexism, and economic inequality can also be seen as the result of individual sinful choices, not a system designed to further inequality.
Evangelical belief in imminent end times further reinforces this dogged individualism. I was raised to believe that Jesus would be returning soon, and that the world would continue to get worse until he did. Evangelical Christians like myself were convinced that only a small contingent of faithful Christians would be spared the wrath of God at the end of the world. This theology, coupled with a narrative insisting Christians in the U.S. are a persecuted minority, led to a distrust of institutions and powers, including the government. The world will continue to get worse, you should do what you can to protect yourself and your people, and you shouldn’t trust the government. In fact, the more of an outsider a politician is, and the more they promise to protect you in the short term, the more likely that person would be to get your vote.
The problem is, as I and many others who strive to take Jesus seriously have found, this doesn’t seem like a Christian approach to the world or to politics. The writers of what Christians call the Old Testament were well aware of the cultural and human impulses toward self-preservation for a few at the expense of the many. This is why, indigenous Christian theologian Randy Woodley writes, the Hebrew scriptures were full of injunctions to prioritize the well-being of the “triad of the vulnerable”: the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner. When these three groups of marginalized people were flourishing, Woodley says, then the people of God would know they were being obedient in taking care of their neighbors. When those farthest from the seat of power were doing well, they would know they were following God.
Currently, many people are agonizing over their daily purchasing habits. Is it wrong to order from Amazon? How do you safely support local businesses? Perhaps we can start to channel such questions into rhythms and routines for our lives ahead: How does every little decision we make have ripple effects for others? How can we see ourselves connected to a global world, and become ever more present to how our choices impact others? It might cost more, and it might hurt to confront our complicity with unjust systems, but it will center prioritizing the common good in our lives.
White American evangelicals have lost their vision for the flourishing of an entire community. We see it in their desperate bids for power, in their refusal to engage in public safety measures, in their belief that faith looks like standing up for their individual rights over the physical safety of the most marginalized in our society. This is, sadly, a story found often enough in the Bible and in my own history. But the opposite is true as well. Amid cultures designed to profit off of exploited labor, cultures which dehumanize people and elevate capital, cultures where the powerful oppress the weak in the name of expanding their economic system, we still see a faith rooted in the person of Jesus, whose self-sacrificial model of love continues to turn my world upside down.
I come from a community that taught me to elevate the scriptures and to try and follow Jesus. This same community now regularly makes headlines for acting in ways that do not benefit the most vulnerable, or ways that call on us to love our neighbors as ourselves. We have a choice, just as we always have. Will we choose our liberty, or will we choose to sacrifice our own rights so that our neighbors will survive?