My Twitter followers will know I’ve recently done a few tweets tweaking mainstream media for their inattention to detail in their stories covering religion in the age of covid.  Of course lack of detail in journalism about religion is nothing new.  For now, though, I want to focus on one recent piece that appeared in a major venue, the Washington Post.

In it, Gary Abernathy asks “What is behind Republicans wanting a swift reopening?”  His answer is “Evangelicals.”  He begins by noting what he calls the “age old” reluctance to discuss religion “…beyond its basic political impact…” and suggest moving beyond that to a more focused view.  He first identifies the Trump coalition as a broad concatenation of conservatives, libertarians, and Evangelical Protestants.  He then focuses on the Evangelical tranche in more detail.  So far, so good.  I agree that our public treatment of the religion in the Trump phenomenon has been to narrow and simplistic and there has been a reluctance on the part of journalists and political observers to try to understand it on its own terms.

Abernathy’s approach is to focus specifically on what constitutes an “Evangelical” in the first place.  He turns to the four principles of Evangelicalism outlined by the National Association of Evangelicals.  The fourth of these is the belief in salvation and the afterlife.  Abernathy’s argument then becomes one of tracing how, among the Trump supporters, there exists a group who are so focused on the afterlife that something like a this-worldly fear of death would not stand in the way of their boldly embracing re-opening in the face of scientific and medical advice to the contrary.

He concludes, “…when ruminating over why there are millions of people who don’t seem to panic over a global pandemic or other life-threatening event, critics should remember that, right or wrong, it often involves a belief in something even bigger than people named Trump, Hannity or Limbaugh.”

Fair enough.  We should of course not assume that Evangelicals are more likely than anyone else to be the hapless dupes of influencers and instead should try to understand them in more depth and detail.  But Abernathy’s focus on confidence in salvation as the reason Evangelical voters might support risky behaviors seems to me misplaced in two ways.  First, if such belief is so definitive, would Evangelicals not eschew gun ownership for personal protection, preferring to leave things to God?

No, there is something more going on here, and I think I must attribute it to politics.  You don’t need to deny something basic and authentic about the Evangelical community to say that as a modern movement, born in the 20th Century, it bears the markers of secular modernity and modernity’s enforced sorting of “the religious.”

To search for essentialist explanations for the social practice of faith denies much of the reality of modern life. There are few faith communities for which you can argue that their lives are completely inscribed by their spirituality.  The Amish come to mind, and certain monastic groups. But not modern Evangelicals.

We need to remember that Evangelicalism as we know it today was borne out of a set of social and political gestures.  When Jerry Falwell led Fundamentalism out of the shadows of the Scopes legacy of quietude and marginality and into a full-throated presence in the public sphere—something that the mainstream culture saw as the emergence of “neo-Evangelicalism”—the shift carried with it an implicit understanding.  That understanding was that these new Evangelical Americans were giving up their quietude to enter social and cultural politics and that would involve a certain amount of risk, strategy and compromise. Further, it would involve a new “situational ethics” of Evangelical politics where not every move or every strategy could or would be directly inscribed with faith and spirituality.

No, Evangelicals would need to do things and say things and embrace things that might not bear explicit markings of their faith because they sought the “greater good” of making this world more to their liking.

So Evangelicals who go along with Trump’s calls for reopening in spite of the risks do so not because of their confidence in the afterlife.  An appeal to faith embraces their actions, of course, and something like a profession of faith in salvation serves as a valuable ex post facto rationalization.  But it’s not an explanation, or even the most important explanation.

I fear that Abernathy’s piece inadvertently makes his point about the tone-deaf-ness of the “mainstream media” to religion.  That the editors of the Post saw his contribution as perhaps definitive when it is actually rather narrow and misdirected, indirectly confirms his overall argument.