The entire edifice on which white evangelical Christianity is built is the theological assumption of original sin. Of course, the blame for all of that is laid at the feet of Eve, who couldn’t resist the temptation to take a bite of the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and then tempted Adam into joining her. Since then, all humans have been born into total depravity and saved only by the grace of God via acceptance of Jesus Christ as their savior.
In my own journey out of the authoritarian mindset represented by those views, shedding the idea that, because of my depravity, I couldn’t trust myself was the most difficult task of the whole ordeal. As a child, I had experienced what is referred to as a “conversion experience,” which meant that the Holy Spirit lived in me to guide my thoughts and actions. And yet, that depravity was still nestled inside as something to be overcome at every turn.
I experienced the duality of all of that on a daily basis as I tried to discern whether my inclinations were emanating from my sinful nature or the Holy Spirit attempting to guide me. Perhaps you can understand how all of that was a bit crazy-making. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the term “gaslighting,” but in a way, I was constantly gaslighting myself.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity.
The only way out was to adhere to the teachings of the Bible, as interpreted by the authority figures in my life. They were the ones who could point me in the direction of what God, through the Holy Spirit, wanted me to do. That is how authoritarianism becomes deeply embedded in children from a very early age. It requires a denial of self and any form of independent thinking. Perhaps now it makes sense why the forbidden fruit came from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We weren’t mean to have that knowledge—but are forced to rely on others to make that determination.
I say all of this because I think that, for those who didn’t grow up in this kind of authoritarianism, it can be difficult to understand the behavior of white evangelical Christians—particularly their loyalty in the political arena to the Republican Party as it is currently defined by Donald Trump.
One simple way of understanding that phenomenon is to recognize that people who constantly gaslight themselves are going to be vulnerable to gaslighting from the president. To cut through the massive amount of propaganda and lies being dished out by this administration and its media enablers, as well as court evangelicals, churches, family, and friends, takes a strong sense of trust in oneself. That is difficult, if not impossible, for someone who has been taught from a very early age to see that self as steeped in depravity.
To suggest that Donald Trump is responsible for the fact that his base is made up almost exclusively of white evangelical Christians is to give him credit where it is not due. The alignment of this group of voters with the Republican Party began decades ago, as was documented by Randall Balmer. The real story is that all of the party’s other constituencies are starting to question their alliance with the GOP. The ones who are left behind are those who have learned to obey and not ask any difficult questions.