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Opinion: A new documentary exposes the truth about the religious right

It’s a political movement willing to align with anyone to win.

Matthew Avery Sutton.

Perspective by Matthew Avery Sutton, author of multiple books on religion and politics. He is the chair of the history department and the Berry Distinguished professor of liberal arts at Washington State University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of WSU.

White evangelicals have developed the dubious reputation of championing morally compromised political candidates — ones who seem to run afoul of their professed values. They overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, and on Election Day this year almost nine out of 10 White evangelicals in Georgia voted for the supposedly antiabortion rights Herschel Walker — who allegedly paid for two abortions and once put a gun to the head of his ex-wife while threatening to kill her — over Baptist minister Raphael G. Warnock.

A new documentary on Hulu focusing on former Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., the first major evangelical leader to endorse Trump in 2016, also reveals that some of the religious right’s most influential leaders are as morally questionable as the politicians they support. But for many evangelicals, the ends always justify the means.

“God Forbid” chronicles how Falwell, at the same time he was playing presidential kingmaker, engaged in business ventures with Giancarlo Granda, a former pool attendant who allegedly had a seven-year sexual relationship with Falwell’s wife, Becki — one Granda charges Falwell encouraged.

While on the surface this looks like the same old tired story of religious hypocrisy, it is much more than that.

When one digs beneath the tawdry bedroom shenanigans, the story exposes how leadership sometimes functions in the religious right, and how Christian activists’ obsession over political power has transformed American culture.

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Washington Post

Wayside Pulpits, Leicester Inquiry, Women in Qatar

A look at the ethical and religious issues of the week with William Crawley.

WC: The Democrats have held onto the U.S. Senate, after a tight but pivotal race in Nevada. Candidates endorsed by Donald Trump have performed much worse than expected in this year’s mid-term elections, yet Donald Trump is expected to announce another bid for the presidency.

His win in 2016 was due in no small part to the support of American evangelicals. But after this week’s elections, how will Republicans of faith respond?

Matthew Avery Sutton.

Matthew Sutton is professor of the history of American religion at Washington State University — I asked him if the evangelical tide seems to be turning now against Donald Trump. 

MS: Many evangelicals still voted in really high numbers for Trump’s hand-picked candidates, people like Mehmet Oz and Hershel Walker. So it may just be that the rest of America is sort of tired of evangelicals having as much power and as much influence as they’ve been having over the American politics.

WC: What about the increasing influence of the more fringe evangelical figures that have gained a much stronger foothold in politics  since Donald Trump was president? Is there evidence that that is waning?

MS: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right on that. One of the interesting things about Trump’s leadership and his presidency was he had to elevate a lot of folks who were kind of on the more religious extremes, who would claim to be able to prophesy accurately the future. And because Trump had so much trouble early on getting the respect of mainstream Republicans, which included mainstream evangelical leaders, he had to turn to these outside figures.

And I think, in a lot of ways, like some of Trump’s hand-picked political candidates, his hand-picked religious allies also were a bit of an embarrassment. And so, for a lot of Americans looking at that, I think they’ve kind of recognized that that may not be the kind of people they want to support or the kind of people they want in the White House.

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BBC – Listen online beginning at the 30:30 mark


In existential midterm races, Christian prophets become GOP surrogates

All over the country this year, figures hailing from the right wing of prophetic and charismatic Christianity have been appearing with candidates as part of a growing U.S. religious phenomenon that emphasizes faith healing, the idea that divine signs and wonders are everywhere, and spiritual warfare.

Longtime watchers of religion in the United States say this rise of prophetic figures is the result of multiple forces. Among them are a collapse of trust in institutional sources of information, the growth of charismatic Christianity and its accompanying media ecosystems, and a Trump presidency that brought in from the fringe spiritual figures long rejected by the political and evangelical establishments.
Matthew Avery Sutton.

“For two millennia of church history, people have been claiming to be prophets,” said Matthew Sutton, a Washington State University historian of American religion who has focused on apocalyptic and charismatic Christians. “But it’s a new tactic in the United States for it to be part of waging culture war.”

What it’s meant to be a “prophet” has changed many times, but the term has typically been used as an adjective, not a noun, Sutton said; anyone might say something “prophetic” against sin or injustice. Most Christians in the United States, he said, have emphasized other spiritual roles mentioned in the Bible, such as “teacher” or “elder” — not “prophet” or “apostle,” which they believed ended with the biblical text. But in recent decades, some Americans have been resurrecting the title of prophet and giving it new meaning.

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Washington Post

WSU adds equity and justice designation to general education curriculum

The Washington State University Faculty Senate approved a new course designation on Oct. 6 called “Inquiry into Equity and Justice (EQJS)” that will expand the University Common Requirements (UCORE) general education curriculum for the first time in a decade.

The new UCORE designation, which will not impact UCORE credits necessary for graduation, goes into effect in fall 2023. Courses in EQJS will equip students with intellectual tools and social contexts necessary to critically examine power dynamics, and to recognize, question, and understand structural inequities and privileges, according to the UCORE website.

A set of EQJS courses will be determined over the coming months and, will also provide students vital intellectual foundations, tools, and literacies to assess and evaluate ideologies and narratives to ethically pursue inclusive and just societies.

Clif Stratton.

“This is the first major change to UCORE requirements since they were put in place ten years ago, and the committee feels it represents a much-needed engagement with issues of utmost importance in today’s society,” said Clif Stratton, UCORE director and professor of history.

“It is critical to note that the addition of the EQJS designation to the inquiry set is credit neutral, meaning it adds no additional UCORE credit requirements to graduate,” said Stratton. Some colleges, however, such as the College of Veterinary Medicine and the College of Arts and Sciences, are planning to implement a college-level requirement that students complete courses in all UCORE inquiry designations. UCORE course requirements to graduate, then, could be determined on a college-by-college basis, as necessary.

“The UCORE committee thanks those colleges for their ongoing commitment to a broad educational experience at WSU,” he said.

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WSU Insider

Why Growing Parts of the Christian Right Are Convinced It’s the Apocalypse

Even after Dobbs, the end times are dominating bestseller lists.

There’s no denying that the apocalypse is currently having a moment, culturally and politically. It could be driven partly by the pandemic and fears of climate change. Those are actual, frightening apocalyptic scourges. Russia’s war has also set off alarm bells for certain evangelicals, as there was a Cold War tradition of identifying the country, variably, with Gog or Magog.

But it seems an odd time for doomsday fervor, given the ascendancy of the religious right in American politics and the current makeup of the Supreme Court. Why, at this moment, when the Christian right should be feeling more empowered, would the end of the world be so trendy?

Matthew Avery Sutton.

Matthew Avery Sutton, a history professor at Washington State University and author of American Apocalypse, noted that Donald Trump, knowingly or not, tapped into a century of end-times beliefs by quarreling with NATO and criticizing the FBI and the “deep state.” In the Left Behind book series, which was published in the ’90s and early 2000s and which has had an enormous impact on how many Christians conceptualize the apocalypse, the Antichrist turns out to be a politically savvy secretary-general of the United Nations, which is then converted into a single world government. Trump didn’t frame his isolationist America First policies or his anti-FBI rants as a fight against the Antichrist, but his distrust of European governments and of his own intelligence and security agencies maps onto these cultural tropes and other long-held evangelical suspicions about the threat of satanic forces. “It’s all about fighting one world government and the coming dominance of the Antichrist so we can stand against evil,” Sutton said.

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