Post-Truth and the Politics of Evangelicals: A Discussion with Christopher Stroop, Ph.D., an Ex-Evangelical Christian and Modern Russian Historian

March 24, 2017

Tumultuous, as a description for the first two months of Donald Trump’s Administration, falls short. Terms like missteps, chaos and, as of late, collusion are now ubiquitous in the mainstream press, but they’ve become small explosions drowned out by the roaring inferno that’s engulfed American politics.

Despite numerous racist and sexist comments that would’ve sunk any other candidate in the presidential campaign, Trump, according to the Pew Research Center, still received 81 percent of the white evangelical Christian vote.

Postelection, shell-shocked onlookers in the midst of collective dismay continue to wonder why evangelicals, a demographic that consistently claims the moral high ground, would vote for a candidate like Trump.

Christopher Stroop is an ex-evangelical Christian with a Stanford Ph.D. in Modern Russian History and Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities. The 36-year-old writer and academic has built a sizable and burgeoning Twitter following by raising awareness about, in his words, “…the historical and social significance of religious ideas and ideology…” and “…what traditionalist religious thinking does in the world.”

Stroop, who’s Twitter handle is @C_Stroop, spoke with me from his home in Tampa. This is an edited and condensed version of our discussion.

In one of your essays, you talk about growing up in an evangelical enclave. Will you unpack that for the uninitiated?

My social world consisted of, practically, entirely people from church and Christian school. We changed churches a few times through my childhood. Some were Baptists, Wesleyan, nondenominational, but supported by the Missionary Church, Independent Christian Church. 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.

How did you outgrow the evangelical dogma you were raised with?

It was a very long-term and painful process for me, which I tried very hard to hold onto. I sometimes say that the two prongs of my Christian school education were critical thinking and biblical literalism. We were taught how to craft arguments, how to identify logical fallacies, but you weren’t supposed to turn that back around on [biblical] doctrine. I was subjected to spiritual abuse regarding that, which, I think, kept me in longer. It took a long time to get over being afraid of hell even after I stopped believing in it.

What’s your definition of spiritual abuse?

I have a blog post about it. 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.

Moving to religion and politics, there’s a lot of discussion about 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 world-views?

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 are actually willing to entertain those questions and doubts. If they’re not willing to do it for themselves, they’re not going to be reached by rational arguments.

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

It is striking how many evangelicals went for Trump, even in the primary before they had to. Pence helped him out with this. [Trump] put together that group of evangelical advisors and promised 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, that he’s not going to dismiss them as absurd. He’s really made a strong effort to show his support for them, as ham-handedly as he does that. He’s got all kinds of traditionalists, Catholics and Protestants in his administration and he seems perfectly willing to pursue, essentially, a theocratic agenda.

A poll, published in The Atlantic has 57 percent of white evangelicals believing they face more discrimination than Muslims. Why do you think that is?

Fundamentalism is a species of authoritarianism. So what happens in an authoritarian regime is you always have 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.

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

I’m encouraged sometimes that our institutions prove a little bit more robust than maybe I initially thought they might. How likely impeachment is, 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. Meanwhile, what 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 also not telling our diplomats abroad how to be at this moment. 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. That’s a problem.

For our more in depth conversation, including Christopher’s insights into the connection between the Russian Orthodox Church and evangelicalism, click here

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