Forsaking Christian Ideology

It was a hot summer night in Texas when my family, including my grandmother, went to hear the evangelist, James Robinson.  He was holding a city-wide revival on the high school football field and had spoken in an all school assembly earlier in the week. The country had just passed through the most turbulent and traumatic year of the 20th century, with the Vietnam War heating up (with the Battle of Khe Sanh and Johnson’s increase of U.S. troop levels to half a million), with the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and with the eruption of violent protests across the country. The underlying antagonisms within the culture were erupting, and though it was partly beyond my conscious awareness and seemed to be a world apart from this little town in Texas, our move from Phoenix to Dalhart had set our family into the midst of this rift. Culturally and ideologically this revival marked my point of separation from my brothers, who had not made the move to Texas. I believe the political/cultural split of 2020, is the culmination of the divide that was opening up in the country, in our family, and within myself, in 1968.  

Personally, and for the culture as a whole, the full-blown ideology of today would come gradually throughout the ensuing decades. The fusion of right-wing politics with Christianity was still a work in progress for the culture and for me personally, as I was only thirteen years old and I would remain mostly unchurched and unindoctrinated for several years. The journey of James Robinson points to the fact that the ideological trajectory we have reached was not a foregone conclusion. At age 25 in 1968, his was a powerful and ecumenical message of redemption. In the 1970’s, like many others nationally but especially in Texas, he began to focus on homosexuality (for which he was forced off his television station). By 1980 he declared he was “sick and tired of hearing about all of the radicals, and the perverts, and the liberals, and the leftists, and the communists coming out of the closet,” and called for “God’s people” to fight back. But then in the mid-1980’s he withdrew from this sort of rhetoric, only to be drawn back into right wing politics with the rise of Barack Obama. When I went forward at his revival, religious nationalism, the John Birch Society with its anti-communism, the anti-Civil Rights racism, were there as background but these were the days before Jerry Falwell (to say nothing of Junior) and the Moral Majority, before Ronald Reagan and the rise of the religious right. The religion I imbibed in the 1960’s was far from uncorrupted but in my naïveté, I remained innocent for several years of the ideology that was overtaking evangelicalism. I say this, as I presume that mine was an eventual recovery of a faith that was gradually and only partially corrupted by ideology (which I admit, may be too presumptuous).

This ideology is like every other in its basic shape, and the point of Christianity is to name this idol, not to worship it. The problem is that the very nature of ideology blinds us to the fact that we are believers and practitioners of ideology. My education in bible college and seminary had largely numbed me to any distinction between Christianity and nationalism. It was only as a missionary in Japan that I became fully aware that my religious faith had been subverted. I began to recognize that the basic elements of Christianity, the doctrines which many would claim are at the core of the faith (e.g. inerrancy, America as a Christian nation, conversion, personal faith) had been hijacked.  

This became clearest to me in my encounter with Japanese nationalism, in which I began to recognize my own religious nationalism. The religion of Japan, inclusive of Shintoism and Buddhism, was a support of Japanese nationalism and the resurgence of the Japanese economy after the War. In an oversimplified but true illustration of this, in the case of a shoe manufacturer in Tokyo, the company got its start by working young country girls, sometimes literally to death, under the guise of serving the nation. The propaganda was something like, “All good Japanese people want to better their country and it is their patriotic duty to work for low wages, seven days a week, without benefit of health insurance or benefits, so that together we might make Japan great again.” This is a simplified version of this trickle-down economy deployed throughout Japan in the postwar period. Enriching the owners of the company was equated with enriching Japan and this was part of one’s patriotic duty as a good Japanese citizen. I was familiar with this nationalistic call to work for God and country and this trickle down economy. (On my return to the States, I was surprised to see the same propaganda put out in “right to work initiatives” in Missouri. In short, the bill threatened unions and was supported by corporations in a cynical move to limit collective bargaining.) These crude ideologies point to the same basic structure.    

The simplest way to understand ideology is to take note of all of its elements as it first appears in the biblical story in Genesis 3. (The point here is illustrative, so that as we come to the ideologies which have a grip on evangelicalism, we can begin to identify the same elements.) The serpent inspired ideology in Genesis, “You will know good and evil and you will be like gods” seems to be saying something positive and grand, but of course it is a lie, and as with any lie, this one covers over what is absent in the lie. It is this negation or absence that stands at the center of ideology, and this is key. What does not appear or what is directly denied and displaced is death. Good and evil and being like God are known primarily on the basis of this absent center. So too, the “right to work” is a positive way of saying no union. It is primarily identified through what it is not.  In Stalinist Russia, the will of “the Party,” is on the order of the way “Freedom” is deployed in America, or the way “Jesus” is deployed by the National Prayer Breakfast (the “Family” – see here). A word, concept, or master signifier can be imagined to have a profound significance while it is an empty center which provides the object around which people can unite and to which they can provide their allegiance. The resulting group might be considered political or religious, but the sure sign that it is an ideology is that the signifier is so malleable as to be empty.

For example, prayer, in the National Prayer Breakfast, takes that most pious act and detaches it from any particular notion of God, Jesus, or petition, so that an all-inclusive group of believers, non believers, atheists, and concerned citizens (i.e. those seeking political influence) can be joined together under the master signifier of prayer. To whom prayer is directed or the purpose the prayer might immediately have, is secondary to the fact that this master signifier unifies. The ideological and empty core is covered by a master signifier (which might be called “I,” “freedom,” “Moloch,” or “Jesus”) which seems to promise something positive but is empty. Key elements of evangelicalism have been made to play the role of a master signifier where the faith functions ideologically. Biblical inerrancy, which displaces “mere” inspiration, is a negative statement (no errors) which signifies nothing. Accepting Jesus into your heart, devoid of ethics and church, is made into an amorphous inward event signifying nothing at all. The biblical significance is displaced with a sign unattached to its original signified (significance).[1]

The classic biblical and secular example is the signifier “I,” which might seem to be the most concrete thing in existence. In the Cartesian phrase, “I think, therefore I am,” the thinking thing, as pointed out by Kant, is an inaccessible placeholder which is only known through what it is not – thought itself. Adam is the discoverer of this absent “I” in that with the Fall, he can only identify himself through what he does: “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid” (Gen. 3:10). What this signifier “I” signifies has been lost, and the repetition tied to a verb seems to be the attempt to obtain what has gone missing. Yet, this absence is given the sign “I,” which does not appear in the Bible prior to Adams first fallen sentence. Adam is a bundle of conflict, much like Paul will describe his “I” (in Rom. 7). This antagonism or conflict is not a secondary part of ideology, the antagonism is at the core of ideology.

The knowledge of good and evil names nothing other than the fact that one thing is defined over and against the other. It is not that the original pair discover truth in their knew knowledge but just the opposite; they have relinquished access to truth (God, or the fact that life is in and from God) for a lie. Where their original relationship to God was a relationship to ontological truth, their new truth is a circulating system of differential signs. Good is known through its Other, evil, and evil is known over and against its Other, the good. The mistake would be to assume that the trauma they experience (shame, alienation, antagonism, internal dividedness) is an exposure of the emptiness of this lie. Rather, the lie, with all of its antagonism and trauma now functions as truth. Fear and insecurity, the “I” against the Other or the “we” against God, now constitutes their system of identity; so too every ideology.

The great Other for American evangelicals was communism, which posed a threat so vast that it became the primary defining element against which Christianity came to be defined. Communists are tricky, as they may pass themselves off as trade unionists, black people in favor of civil rights, liberal academics, or as women libers. The war on “cultural Marxism” (a term not coined until the new millenium) had begun in the 1950’s and 60’s with the presumption that liberalism, socialism, the civil rights movement and atheism were all part of a unified communist front opposing the Christian Nation.

A key example (but one of many) of this anti-communist form of the faith is William F. Buckley, a conservative Catholic and eventually the best-known public intellectual of his day. He accused liberal historians of a “conspiracy” and he outlined how academic freedom was a shield for left-wingers, and thus an open door for the communists. He opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and had written in 1957 the “advanced” white race in the South was justified in taking “such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally,” in areas where “it does not predominate numerically.” Like nearly every conservative politician of the day, Buckley defended Joseph McCarthy for recognizing that “coercive measures” were necessary to enforce a new anticommunist “conformity.” His publication, National Review, suggested the civil rights movement was communist inspired, riddled by communists and composed of communist front organizations.[2]

A few highlights of the ensuing decades makes the point which is now glaring. In 1961, the American Medical Association produced an LP by Ronald Reagan, warning that the domino effect (one country after another going communist) could also play out in the realm of ideas. Any fragment of the socialist program, such as the passage of Medicare, would lead to adopting the whole socialist program.[3] Evangelicals like Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, and Francis Schaeffer (perhaps driven right by his politically conscious son), codified this religion, defined by its antagonism. The fusion of the Republican party with evangelical religion under Ronald Reagan (coinciding with the rise of the Christian Coalition and with Pat Robertson designating Ralph Reed as its leader), was finalized by George W. Bush who, three days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, assured the nation that America’s duty was clear – not only to “answer these attacks” but also to “rid the world of evil.” What he meant, as indicated in his rhetoric, was the Christian Nation was now involved in a religious crusade – a literal war (as I describe it here). This is a story that could be told in multiple volumes with countless examples (e.g. the John Birch society, Anita Bryant, Robert Bork, Cecil Todd), with the characters and causes changed only slightly. The point is evangelicalism devolved into an ideology defined by its antagonisms.  

In addition to a master signifier (freedom, prayer, democracy) and the inherent antagonism between opposed poles (good/evil, communists/Americans), the real power of ideology is the force which it seems to ward off but which it unleashes. Shame and death were taken up and contained as part of the original ideology, but this is not simply the first of many kinds of ideology, this is the heart of every ideology. Death denied, negation negated, makes of an absence a seeming positive presence. The problem becomes the solution under a different name, but the inherent antagonism and the empty center cannot endure. The “I” of Adam is an empty identity; a name that refers to nothing. As Paul explains, this body of death shows itself in the struggle and the suffering. The slave, in every master/slave relationship, will struggle against normalizing this identity. The Civil Rights Protestors, the draft age youth, the veterans of the Vietnam War, erupted in the 1960’s. The failure of the ideology was made apparent and is always made apparent in its eruptions.

The problem is that even when it erupts, even when practitioners of ideology know what they are doing, they continue to do it. Cain is a naive murderer who does not seem to understand the import of what he is doing. God exposes the murder of Cain, along with a mark to protect him from revenge. Lamech takes this promised revenge, displaces God, and enacts the divine promise. He bragged of his enactment of his own justice and his killing power, celebrating it in verse, and this led to the sociopathic killers of Noah’s generation. Those seeking revenge replace and become the new sociopaths. The slaves may revolt only to become the new masters. The Marxist exposure of capitalism as the exploitation of the working class gives rise to a new form of the ruling class, the Party elites. By the same token, the anti-communism of the Cold War culminates in the weaponizing of the world and the possibility of mutually assured destruction. The anti-brand of Christianity needs its evil enemy – the communists, the Muslims, the liberals, the homosexuals, so as to define itself, but it unleashes the antagonism which defines it, and even the awareness of this false consciousness does not bring it to a halt. A good therapist can expose the antagonism, which is preferable to the continued reinforcement of the normalizing lie, but the psychoanalytic cure is simply a manipulation of the same structure (the master signifier, the antagonism, and the reality (the real) of death).

The promise of Christ is that the blood of Abel, which cries out through the generations in the voice of all oppressed peoples, will be heard. His promise fulfilled is when the cry of those on the underside of ideology, or those who are lied about and suppressed by the antagonism, are relieved of their suffering. This is the core factor which separates Christian ideology from an authentic form of the faith. Does the form of belief challenge or support the cultural status quo? Does it side with the oppressed or the oppressors? Does it support putting people on crosses or does it identify with the crucified? Anti Communist Christianity and right-wing political Christianity have as their underside the cry of black suppression, the open oppression of immigrants, and the destruction of budding democracies and popular movements throughout the world.

Fifty-two years from the time I became a Christian, after the most turbulent year in the 20th century, the turbulence of the inherent antagonism of a false faith is decisively boiling over. Donald Trump is, in many ways, the ultimate embodiment of this long-standing antagonism and emptiness. The false center of an ideological faith will no longer serve to suppress some and comfort others. For those who can read the signs, it is time to relinquish the ideological form of the faith for the religion of the Crucified One.


[1] David Fitch demonstrates in The End of Evangelicalism? how key elements of the evangelical faith have been reduced to ideology.

[2] https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/july-august-2018/how-the-right-wing-convinces-itself-that-liberals-are-evil/

[3] Ibid.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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