Post-Truth and the Politics of Evangelicals: Complete Q&A Transcript with Christopher Stroop, Ph.D.

QUESTION: What’s it like growing up in an evangelical enclave?

CHRISTOPHER: In my case, this was mostly a middle to upper-middle class, white evangelical milieu, but when I say I lived in an enclave, I mean that my social world consisted of practically, entirely, people from church and Christian school. The churches we went to…we changed churches a few times through my childhood. Some were Baptists, Wesleyan, nondenominational, but supported by the Missionary Church, Independent Christian Church. The Christian school, too, was an interdenominational school, pretty much protestant one, though with a lot of Baptists and a lot of Baptist trappings. We basically lived in that parallel world. A lot of the things that we consumed came from those parallel Christian structures and institutions, like contemporary Christian music, Christian bookstores, literature. I did have some windows into the outside world because it’s not like we had no secular books and things of that nature, magazines in the house. But I didn’t know any Jews, for example, until I went to college, except for those who had converted to Christianity. I knew a handful.

QUESTION: What were some of the ground rules you dealt with growing up?

CHRISTOPHER: My parents…they trusted me a lot and they weren’t too strict. We were forbidden from watching certain TV shows. Together the family would watch a lot of things, “Nick at Nite,” but we couldn’t watch “Bewitched” because it had to do with witchcraft and my mom, especially, did not want to glorify witchcraft. There were certain rules. We weren’t allowed to say cuss words. We weren’t supposed to say “butt,” let alone ass. So there were some strictures there, but once I was able to drive, my parents did trust me. I was a trustworthy kid. Often if I was going to be out a little bit later than what my curfew was, I could just call them and they would be fine with that. Some people were subjected to far stricter monitoring of their behavior than I was.

QUESTION: How did you outgrow the evangelical dogma that you were raised with?

CHRISTOPHER: It was a very long-term and painful process for me. I tried very hard to hold onto my faith. It just ended up seeming too cruel, I think. Also, the standards for proof didn’t seem to be there. I sometimes say that the two prongs of my Christian school education were critical thinking and biblical literalism, which for me created a lot of cognitive dissonance. We were taught how to craft arguments, how to identify logical fallacies, but you weren’t supposed to turn that back around on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. From about the time I was 16 or so, when I read through the entire Bible for the first time, I struggled to hold onto that doctrine, but I had severe doubts from that time. I was subjected to spiritual abuse regarding that, which partly, I think, kept me in longer. But mostly you’re socialized to feel like a traitor to your family, if you give this up and there’s a huge social cost to rejecting these things. It’s not something that a lot of people do lightly. Some people shake this kind of religious socialization off in their childhood easily, but many people struggle with it for decades or can never talk to their families about it. For me to speak out publicly about what was wrong with it also took a long time. It took a long time to get over being afraid of hell even after I stopped believing in it. I went and talked to a pastor who was a Bible teacher at our school, in high school, about certain doubts that I had as I was reading through the Bible. He listened, being understanding at first and he gave me an apologetics book. I don’t remember which one. It wasn’t Lee Strobel or Josh McDowell, though I read them too. It was one of those kind of setup as question and answer and is supposed to address a number of these topics that I had raised and I just didn’t really find it convincing. So I went back and said that I still had doubts. Then the problem was with me. All of a sudden, I’m quote “harboring sin in my life.” I’m probably subject to demonic influences. He’s really one of these people who sees demons behind every bush and tree. I did things like smashed an Our Lady Peace CD to try to remove demonic influences from my life.

QUESTION: How do you define spiritual abuse?

CHRISTOPHER: I have a blog post about that. I define it, basically, as a form of manipulation or emotional abuse that occurs in a religious context that involves the invocation of religious authority or divine authority. It usually involves a religious leader, but it doesn’t have to. Evangelicalism has a pretty strict patriarchal hierarchy. So many people believe that a husband is supposed to be a spiritual leader to the wife or a father is supposed to be the spiritual leader of the family. So it certainly doesn’t have to be a pastor. It can really be anyone invoking spiritual authority to manipulate you. In that sense, it’s quite pervasive in evangelical subculture.

QUESTION: There’s a lot of discussion on how to reach Trump voters and conservative evangelicals that want to dominate public policy. Do you think it’s possible to change these group’s political world-views?

CHRISTOPHER: There are certain people that I regard as essentially unreachable and I don’t think that engaging them is particularly useful, at least in the public space. Fundamentalists, I think in a healthy society, we would go to a place where they are politically marginalized, but that’s not the same as the sort of early vision of John Rawls, which would involve banishing all religious reasoning from the public sphere. I do argue that “nones” and nonbelievers should be involved in interfaith dialogue with the kinds of religious believers that do operate in good faith to work toward the common good. The ones who are engaged in bad ecumenism, with the goal of domination, I don’t think by and large, that they are reachable, not by social initiative. Occasionally, through family relationships, friendships, over years – everybody navigates that for themselves. But I actually don’t really support the common view that we see in the media today of, “Well, if we would just kind of reach out nicely to Trump voters, maybe we could win them over.” I don’t think we can, not his hardcore supporters. You can’t win over hardcore fundamentalists either. Something in their life, and it can be a personal relationship where they can see, for example, how homophobia really hurts somebody that they actually know and care about. That can change people, but they have to come to a place where they have questions and doubts for themselves and are actually willing to entertain those questions and doubts. There are a lot of disciplinary mechanisms built into that kind of faith, which try to prevent you, punish you emotionally or socially for entertaining questions past a certain point. If they’re not willing to do it for themselves, they’re not going to be reached by rational arguments.

QUESTION: Why do you think conservative Christians and evangelicals backed Trump, arguably the least Christian president in American history?

CHRISTOPHER: It is striking how many evangelicals went for Trump, even in the primary before they had to. Cruz was more favored by them, but then they overwhelmingly came on board for Trump. Pence helped him out with this sort of thing, putting together that group of evangelical advisors and promising them what they want, above all Supreme Court Justices who would be willing to overturn Roe vs. Wade. Some evangelicals have argued that Trump can be a sort of modern day Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who let the Jews return from exile, that he’s going to protect evangelicals, he’s going to advance their interests even if he doesn’t share all their views, even he’s not one of them, he’s not going to dismiss them as absurd. Despite what might be in his heart, he can be a vessel of God’s will. He can be used by God. Of course there are also the people who see him as a so called “baby Christian.” James Dobson walked that back a little bit, but he’s really made a strong effort to show his support for them, as ham-handedly as he does that. It doesn’t take much because he is first pursuing their interests and he’s got all kinds of traditionalists, Catholics and Protestants in his administration and he seems to be perfectly willing to pursue, essentially, a theocratic agenda.

QUESTION: It’s fascinating that prominent Christian figures have set aside their moral measuring stick for Trump compared to how they’ve wielded in the past.

CHRISTOPHER: It is strikingly hypocritical and it is really remarkable. Fundamentalism, I think, is a misdirected response to trauma. In order to hold on to your fundamentalist views and, really, the fundamentalist psychology, you believe that you are beleaguered, persecuted, you have to withdraw, create your own structures in order to protect these sacrosanct truths in order to avoid being corrupted by new information. It ends up fostering extreme expressions of certain kinds of psychological defense mechanisms in people, like projection and defensive fetishes. Evangelicals who want to be respectable can say, “Well, I don’t like the racist things he says, but I can’t vote for Hilary because she’s for abortion.” That’s a huge one for them. It functions in that way of a “get out of thinking free-card.” They can always come back to that “but, abortion” argument. As for the other side, Hilary of course is a churchgoing Methodist, but using those kinds of facts just isn’t going to work with fundamentalists who have been doing fake news and alternative facts since before it was cool, as I like to say. It’s actually commitment to a sacrosanct “the truth,” which is impervious to new information. Inherently, it leads to a post-truth situation. So they can deal with this sort of thing. They live in an alt-facts world already. So for them, if you already decided what policies are God’s will, you’re not going to believe someone that Hilary Clinton’s a Methodist. I actually had this conversation with an evangelical family member who said that she couldn’t vote for someone as un-Christian as Hilary and I said, “But she’s a Methodist,” and she just said, “I don’t believe it.” They won’t believe facts that contradict what they need to believe so they don’t necessarily see the double standard that everyone can see is just extremely blatant.

QUESTION: A recent poll, published in The Atlantic has 57 percent of white evangelicals believing they’re more discriminated against than Muslims even though their chosen political party is in power. Why do you think that is?

CHRISTOPHER: Fundamentalism is a species of authoritarianism. Part of the mentality of a fundamentalist, particularly one who’s operating within this kind of structure where you believe that your truth should be realized in the world if possible, always ends up feeling sort of both beleaguered or, to use Donald Trump’s phrase, being treated very unfairly and a sense of being the real moral majority, the real voice of the people at the same time. They think they deserve to have the power that they have now, that society should conform to their desires because those desires are derived from values that come from absolute truth and divine authority. But they’re not going to give up that sense of feeling persecuted overnight. So what happens in an authoritarian regime is you always have a need to generate enemies to mobilize the regime against. Even when you’re in power, you don’t give up that sense of being under attack.

QUESTION: What is it about evangelicalism that tends to encourage racism and sexism?

CHRISTOPHER: Absolutely, I would say it does. Here you have to look at the specific history of white supremacy in the United States and where the roots of today’s conservative white evangelicals are. Those roots are not so much in the evangelicals who were opposed to slavery, but rather in those southern evangelicals, mostly, who used the Bible to justify slavery or later to justify Jim Crow and things like that. The Bible, certainly, is a complex text or a pastiche of texts from different time periods by different people and it’s absolutely possible to read it in an illliberal way. So they come out of that illliberal tradition, which is heavily invested in defending privilege and a higher position in the social hierarchy for white people. Many of the Christian schools that were founded, starting in the ’50s, but really picking up more in the ’60s, were a response to civil rights, desegregation. There’s a mixture of motivating factors there. Some from the ’60s and ’70s were also founded in response to school prayer. Jerry Falwell, himself, used to preach against the civil rights movement and it was very easy to link it to communism at that time. So that was done a lot during the cold war, but now, of course, Jerry Falwell’s organization, the church, the university, they don’t celebrate the fact that he used to preach against civil rights legislation. They’ve quietly disappeared that part of their legacy to the extent possible, but they still hold on to school prayer and abortion, which became a big issue from the 1970s. It really wasn’t before. It was a Catholic thing. Many evangelicals regarded it as such before Roe, but it became a rallying point. Now it’s probably the central rallying point. These days, the middle class, upper class evangelicals, they don’t want to be associated with overtly racist views. They also don’t want to do any work to unpack systemic racism, mostly. So they’ll end up siding with white supremacists, but trying to say that they don’t agree with it. They certainly have a hierarchical mindset, I think, often not entirely conscious, unrecognized biases or biases that they don’t admit. Sexism, they actually try to defend openly in terms of complementarian theology. For a lot of them, Christian feminism is a non-starter, but for others, they try to redefine feminism into something that can accommodate very conservative views. There’s a lot of different things going on there, but the upshot is that it does tend to preserve racial and gender hierarchies.

QUESTION: How has evangelicalism come to dovetail with Russian Orthodoxy when Russia used to be the enemy and evangelicals were staunchly anti-communism?

CHRISTOPHER: Yes, they definitely were, but they were for the people who would smuggle Bibles behind the Iron Curtain. They were looking at Russia as a possible major mission field. There were covert activities happening to the extent that they could and I think that there was more of that in Warsaw Pact countries than in Russia itself, but as soon as everything came down, there was a rush of missionary activity to Russia and Ukraine. Evangelicals helped to build up certain initiatives like anti-abortion programs and centers, translated a lot of literature, provided a lot of money. So they kind of built up a culture wars infrastructure in post-Soviet Russia, which actually is a pretty conservative country. In the ’90s, it was more open than today. It was kind of anything goes. When communism fell, the Russian population was pretty cynical and most social institutions, for good reason, were not very trusted. The most trusted institutions included the church and the army. The church quickly [came to be a source of moral authority], even though most Russians, 70 to 80 percent, today identify as orthodox and they have icons in their homes and they baptize their children, many of them otherwise might not do much, might not know a lot of theology or church teachings. But they identify as Orthodox Christians and they trust the church as a source of moral authority. That allowed the Russian state to work more and more with the church, which was somewhat rocky at first, in developing a kind of new ideology or really new-old ideology, right? It’s a kind of return to a Russian imperial version of the idea, of Russian moral superiority to replace communism. Putin really embraced that even before his third term, but his third term, he really ramped it up. You could also trace it to 2007, the founding of the Russkiy Mir Foundation, Putin’s Munich speech, his invocation of multi-polarity, which dovetailed with this kind of new traditionalism that we see supported by people like the neo-eurasianist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin. A Russian orthodox oligarch founded a new TV channel. It used to just be on the internet. Now it’s available on some cable services and it’s called Tsargrad TV. Tsargrad is the old term for Constantinople because it means the city of the tsar, the imperial city. It presents the news from what it calls a conservative and orthodox point of view. Dugin is a regular feature on those broadcasts and he’s actually had Alex Jones on, talked to him. So there’s all these connections. There’s a whole back story there where, I think…I’ll tell you what happened with that. At various times American evangelicals, the religious right and the orthodox church have worked more closely with each other and been more at odds with each other, but American evangelicals initially helped build up a lot of this sort of infrastructure to fight abortion and gay rights and that sort of thing. Scott Lively has been over in Russia and Eastern Europe a lot. Now that’s been kind of nationalized and theorized using Russian tradition, Russian religious philosophy and so forth. As for the relationships, Russian and Americans and conservative Europeans work closely together in institutions like the World Congress of Families. Today, there’s again a kind of tension, at least between some, American protestants and the Russian Orthodox Church after these new so called anti-terrorism measures went into effect in the summer 2016, the Yarovaya Laws, which has basically outlawed proselytizing and protestants have been arrested and fined for this. So there’s been some kind of a cooling in the relations between, like, Franklin Graham and the Russian Orthodox Church. Nevertheless, they have a lot of these same goals that I define as bad ecumenism and I think that on the global level, they’ll keep working together to some extent. Definitely, American Catholics are heavily involved with Russia, traditionalist Catholics, some of them, Brian Brown very prominently. He was just in Russia in January and he’s taking over the World Congress of Families from Allan Carlson. They’re currently building a new, more aggressive advocacy organization around it called the International Organization for the Family. So, yeah, the specific relationships kind of ebb. Since the ’90s, though, the World Congress of Families has been and continues to be an important point of meeting. It was a Russian-American project from the very beginning. I wrote in my essay, “Bad Ecumenism,” about the CoMission Project that went on from 1992 to 1997 leading to a kind of falling out between evangelicals and orthodox Christians at that time. But there continues to be a mutual interest and in recent years, we’ve seen a lot of people on the European and American right, religious right, so called alt-right, ethno-nationalists, white supremacists really cozying up to Russia. It’s part of Russia’s geopolitical strategy as well, to destabilize western institutions, undermine western faith in democracy, weaken NATO and the EU. Russia’s actively courting extremist groups outside of Russia. The Russian state currently seeks out these relationships.

QUESTION: What are your feelings on how the Trump administration is going to play out in the coming months and years?

CHRISTOPHER: I’m encouraged sometimes that our institutions prove a little bit more robust than maybe I initially thought they might, with the courts, for example, standing up, certain people in the bureaucracy standing up to oppose Trump’s attempts to just roll over the rule of law, which he would love to do and he’ll keep trying. I think you can do a lot of damage in four years, if it takes that long. How likely impeachment is, it’s very difficult to say because it depends on enough Republicans feeling like it’s less a re-election risk to impeach their own guy than it is to just kind of muddle through. Certainly, I don’t think we’re going to see a real investigation of the Trump team’s Russia ties in the House Intelligence Committee. Devin Nunes is going to do everything he can to undermine it. He should recuse himself because of his role in the Trump transition, but he won’t because this is an incredibly corrupt party and regime. However, in the Senate Intelligence Committee, I think we have a better chance of seeing a serious investigation carried through. That might determine whether impeachment happens. Midterm elections could also make a difference there, but, of course, gerrymandering is a huge problem. I don’t know. Trump’s very unpopular, actually, but it’s hard to make these sort of predictions. If they do impeach him and even move toward removing him from office, it’s likely to take a long time. Meanwhile, one of the things that worries me the most is, if you saw that article in The Atlantic by Julie Ioffe about the State Department, people at Foggy Bottom don’t know what to do. They’re not getting new instructions. Rex Tillerson is pretty much totally hands off. They can’t really go directly to him. There’s apparently three people who sort of report directly to Trump, just sort of nobodies who are in charge of the State Department. They’re deliberately not filling these senior roles. They’re also not telling our diplomats abroad how to be at this moment. They’re not receiving instructions. That’s a huge gift to Vladimir Putin. He would love to see us with a State Department that continues to be muzzled and neutered effectively. That’s a problem. Domestically, yeah, so far the courts are doing a pretty good job of fighting back. Some people in the bureaucracy are, but we’re seeing more plans unfold to undermine the federal bureaucracy. Trump’s trying to accumulate more power in the executive. It’s really hard to say where things go from here.

QUESTION: What’s your PhD in?

CHRISTOPHER: Modern Russian History and Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities. At Stanford, at that time, they had a program where you could take five extra seminars in the humanities and then give a paper at a symposium and have an outside reader on your dissertation committee and you’d get that joint PhD. So my outside reader was Grisha Freidin of Stanford’s Slavic Department. My other two readers were in the history department, my home department, Bob Crews, my advisor, and Nancy Coleman. So I wrote a dissertation, actually, about Russian religious philosophers and their interpretation of World War I. [It] sounds pretty esoteric and maybe kind of divorced from these other things that I’ve been writing policy research about and doing, but it comes full circle. What I’ve been finding is that they actually have a direct influence on conservative religious ideology today. They’ve had some influence on liberal theologians too. They were complicated people, these people that I worked on in my dissertation, but some of them ended up in this Russian immigration, that big first wave of anti-Bolshevik émigrés and exiles. Some of them were expelled. Some of the intellectuals that I work on were expelled by the nascent Soviet Union in 1922. Western political and social actors, humanitarians, intellectuals sought these people out to ask them what was going on in the Soviet Union and what’s Russian communism all about. They had a major impact on western anti-communism and an understanding of Russian history and western religious thought. It’s kind of glossed over and forgotten.

QUESTION: How much time did you spend in Russia and are you fluent in the language?

CHRISTOPHER: Yes. I even taught classes in Russian while I was there. Some of my teaching I did in English, some I did in Russian. Most recently I was there employed in the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, in Moscow, from 2012 to 2015. But I, of course, spent long periods of time there before, varying periods of time. I often taught English in Russia after college, between college and grad school. That would be 2003-2004 academic year and during grad school had multiple trips to Russia, staying over multiple weeks, various times to do things.

QUESTION: So about five years total in Russia?

CHRISTOPHER: I’d say, because I’d come back for holidays and come back for part of the summers, so it probably adds up to, close to three and a half, four total time.

QUESTION: And you’re teaching now –

CHRISTOPHER: At The University of South Florida, which is in Tampa.

QUESTION: Is there anything that I didn’t bring up that you’d like to talk about?

CHRISTOPHER: For more context here, I could point you to certain other writings and blog posts, I don’t know if you’ve seen. If you want to unpack further my thoughts on spiritual abuse or what the Yarovaya Laws might mean for protestant-orthodox relations, I’ve written some things about those. It’s at christstroop.com. My thing about the Yaravaya Laws is on a blog post at Fordham University that’s called the Public Orthodoxy Blog.

One thought on “Post-Truth and the Politics of Evangelicals: Complete Q&A Transcript with Christopher Stroop, Ph.D.

  1. Tamara says:

    “Even when you’re in power, you don’t give up that sense of being under attack.” Clear and convincing insights on a complex group of people and beliefs. Thank you.

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