In Defending Democracy from Its Christian Enemies (Eerdmans, Oct.), Mercer University professor of Christian ethics David P. Gushee, an ordained Baptist minister, argues that democracies across the world are under threat from an antidemocratic movement among some Christians. PW spoke with Gushee about this growing trend toward authoritarianism and why it resonates with some Christians.
Why was it important for you to write this book now?
The world of Christian ethics and Christian academic theology is attempting to process what’s been called Christian nationalism. This book is really driven by a moral urgency to help protect American democracy—and democracy around the world—from Christians who have turned in an authoritarian and reactionary direction.
Why do you say “authoritarian reactionary Christianity” is a more precise term for this than “Christian nationalism”?
I think the term “reactionary” is especially important because it names a posture of panic, and ferocious resistance to liberalizing cultural changes. The Christian reactionary spirit goes back several hundred years to the earliest stages of modernity. “Authoritarianism” is often present in Christianity. I define religious authoritarianism in the book as a tendency to centralize power in a person, a group of leaders, or a sacred text, but that text has to be interpreted by authoritative leaders, that then is understood to direct the behavior of believers. Combine it with reactionary politics and then a built-in resistance to democracy, and you have a recipe for antidemocratic movements.
Isn’t a certain amount of authoritarianism inherent in any religion where there’s a belief in a divine authority?
I’ll talk about Christianity because that’s the one I can speak about most authoritatively. From the beginning of Christianity, there have been counter-authoritarian tendencies as well. So, I would not agree that religion or Christianity is by nature authoritarian. But I think that the kind of people who are attracted to authoritarian Christian politics today tend to be attracted to authoritarian leadership in church life as well.
In writing this book, what did you learn that you had not expected?
I was a bit surprised to learn of the explicit and organizational connections among the activists in the authoritarian reactionary Christian world and by the extent to which Trumpist candidates who ran in 2022 represented explicitly antidemocratic politics. So, it isn’t just a failed insurrection on January 6 that we have to worry about. It’s the increasing mainstreaming of antidemocratic politics and ideology in the right wing of the Christian community in the U.S. This has spread further than I knew.