I’m not sure exactly when my family got the idea that we were at war with larger American culture. But I know that at some point our lessons about God’s love became peppered with the idea that we were engaged in spiritual warfare, inhabiting a world where dark forces were constantly attempting to sever us from the will of God. The devil was real, and he was at work through “gay” Teletubbies and pagan Smurfs, through Dungeons & Dragons, through the horrors of MTV. At one point, my parents forbade TV altogether, and disconnected the stereo system in my car. We still loved Uncle Robert, but believed that the AIDS he’d contracted was a plague sent by God, just as we believed that abortion was our national sin, for which the country would likewise be held accountable. We awaited the Rapture, when Christians would be spirited away and Jesus would return to deal (violently) with the mess humans had made of things. Over time, and even before the introduction of Fox News, whatever nuance we might have seen in the culture evaporated into a stark polarity.
Zooming out, that cleaving was by design: It created a powerful us-versus-them mentality that mobilized the Christian base fiscally and politically. We were Christian soldiers, and the weapons we had were our votes and our tithes. “The persecution trope is a hell of a fundraising pitch,” says Charles Marsh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. “For evangelical activists and leaders, many of whom run nonprofits or rely on charitable contributions, that is the most direct and successful way to captivate conservative Christians.”
The wedge issues created during the culture wars of the Eighties and Nineties were thus not matters of equality and social justice or anything that might evoke the liberalism of the Social Gospel (though Jesus spoke on such matters abundantly). Rather they were divisive, pushing the Republican Party further to the right and exacerbating Christians’ sense of being a people apart.
By the time Trump came along, the gulf was so wide that criticizing Trump’s behavior seemed beside the point. There was now a scorched-earth policy, and any leader who tackled the wedge issues with Trumpian ferocity was on the side of righteousness. Which also happened to be where the money was. “I had a huge donor that was the puppet master behind the whole Trump campaign,” says Thornbury, who was also president of the King’s College, a small Christian school, from 2013 until 2017. “Rebekah Mercer was funding Breitbart. Who is an evangelical college president going to talk to, to raise $10 million a year? Right-wing crazy people.”