In the conservative Australian state of Queensland it was recently decided to remove any reference to a person’s height or gender on their driver’s licence. That’s actually no big deal to those of us from other states where height and gender hasn’t been included on our licences. But among the ultra-conservative evangelicals in that state it was cause for moral outrage.
One local morals crusader called it all a “cruel lie” and posted this anxiety-inducing click baity news headline:
She wrote: “Truth no longer matters in Qld. Only YOUR truth. Which may or may not actually be truth. But everyone is expected to nod politely and go along with it.”
The ensuing comments were really something to behold.
“The reality-denying madness of the sexual revolutionaries is now at fever-pitch.”
“Shocking to behold…”
“… godless lunacy.”
“… the whole world has gone completely mad.”
Did you get that? The whole world has gone completely mad because the only state in Australia to include height and gender on driver’s licences has decided to remove them.
Other comments were Islamophobic: “So what do they put as ID for a muslim woman wearing a burqa?”
And homophobic: “What is so hypocritical, is the push by the new state religion of ‘gayism’, to remove the relevance of a persons sex/gender in regards to marriage and parenting…”
And anti-science: “So evolution can be taught in Schools because it’s a scientific theory but the biological fact of your sex is not allowed to be defined?”
And outright irrational: “My dogs are both desexed therefore gender negative. I guess they don’t exist. Pleased I didn’t waste time and money having them registered with council.”
Some called for political dissent. Others called for prayer and fasting. And one dear soul typed, “Come Lord Jesus, come”. I presume that meant, Come and put an end to this intolerable godlessness facing the church.
All because references to gender were being removed from driver’s licences.
Can you believe it?
It confirms much of what author Skye Jethani calls “fear-vangelicalism”. The way he defines it, “A fear-vangelical is someone who is primarily animated by fear rather than faith in the evangel (gospel) which is what historically has marked an evangelical.”
He bemoans the shift in certain ore of the evangelical tradition toward high anxiety and suggests that within that tradition there are “fear-vangelicals” who take one of two roads when confronted with social or cultural change: fight or flight. The fight impulse takes them down the political path, while the flight impulse leads to the pious path. He illustrates it with this diagram:
As you can see, the fight impulse leads you to attack your “enemies”, to dehumanize them and humiliate them. This is pretty standard on social media and perfectly describes the response to the driver’s licence issue mentioned above. Simply demonise the Queensland government, the LGBTQI+ community, Muslims, the Left, etc etc.
Then you “weaponize” the Bible. That means you spit out Bible verses, irrespective of context, to reinforce your position and discredit your opponents.
As Skye Jethani points out, it’s all about trying to assert control over a world that for some people feels out of control. For these people, even a simple thing like removing references to gender from your driver’s licence is enough to tip you over the edge. But as Jethani also points out, control is the opposite of faith. It is fear in action.
I saw another example of this fight impulse among evangelicals recently when a friend shared a clip of Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jnr boasting about carrying his gun into the chapel service of the school and urging his students to get a conceal carry permit so “we can go out there and end those Muslims before they walk in and kill…”
That’s fear in action.
A Muslim friend had sent the Falwell link to my friend, asking him to explain it. He couldn’t. All he could say was “This is not Jesus – preachers of hate come in all kinds of religions.”
Hate is one way to describe it. Some of the comments on that thread about the Queensland driver’s licence sound hateful as well. But I’m inclined to agree with Jethani. It smells more like fear. And maybe grief about a world in which Christians no longer dominate the moral landscape.
As you can see on Skye Jethani’s diagram, while the flight impulse is less frightening, it is no less motivated by fear. Those evangelicals taking this route seek to withdraw from society, to hunker down and wait out the current cultural storm, whether it’s the seemingly short-lived Benedict Option espoused by Rod Dreher, or the more popular megachurch version.
But doesn’t the Bible tell us that perfect love drives out all fear? What happened to the evangelical tradition, a movement that was noted for its robust engagement in the world, to turn a significant section of it into such a fearful bunch?
In his Atlantic piece on evangelicalism, Michael Gerson asked, “How did evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory?” He interrogates that question around the support for Donald Trump by some prominent evangelicals, but overall it is an interesting piece on the unravelling of the whole evangelical brand.
Gerson quotes Tim Keller as saying, ”‘Evangelical’ used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite’.”
But before you caricature Jethani’s approach as progressive or liberal or some such, he is a self-confessed conservative. He has voted Republican, is pro-life, holds to the traditional Christian teaching on marriage, supports immigration reform, the careful vetting of refugee immigrants, and border security, and doesn’t believe Jesus Christ and Allah are the same deity. He writes,
“Merely holding conservative views does not make someone a fear-vangelical. If that were the case, I’d have to be counted among them… The question is, how do you primarily view the “other”…as a threat to your safety or as a person worthy of your love?”
I think evangelicals need to look within and ask themselves that question very seriously. Do you see the “other” as a threat? Do you find yourself fearing that Democrats, the Left, the LGBTQI+ community, the government, immigrants, refugees, Muslims, etc etc, are taking over, destroying the world as you know it?
When we fall into this pattern, it’s not love that guides us, it’s fear. And soon the shadow of that fear within is projected outward onto the world, increasing our anxiety that the threat is everywhere.