November 17, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Democracy is a faith, too.

What many liberals get wrong about religion.

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On Monday, the Times ran an article as significant as it was generally overlooked. It was a short interview with Matthew Sheffield, a key architect of the right-wing media apparatus that not only spreads “alternative facts” but maintains an “alternative reality” that millions of Americans inhabit. “I basically built the infrastructure for a lot of conservative online people and personally taught a lot of them what they know.” Sheffield is now something of an apostate. He appears to be reckoning with what he hath wrought. In an interview I encourage you to read in full, he gives a Reader’s Digest version of about 1,000 editions of the Editorial Board. It’s an impressive feat of brevity.

“Almost all right-wing support in the United States comes from a view that Christians are under attack by secular liberals. This point is so important and so little understood. Logic doesn’t matter. Fact-checking doesn’t matter. What matters is if I can use this information to show that liberals are evil. Many of them are not interested in reporting the world as it is, but rather to shape the world like they want it to be” (my italics).

Just as you can’t answer power with facts and reason, you can’t answer religion with squishy amorality.

Where to begin? First, perhaps, is the central role of nihilism. Everything is as good or bad as everything else, and nothing matters—unless it can be used against the enemy. Reasonable people engaging in the democratic process in good faith will always be at a disadvantage when facing people who care about nothing but power. Deferring to the authority of facts and reason is itself democracy in practice. Denying the authority of facts and reason, however, is itself something else in practice. It’s authoritarianism.

Second, the conundrum of liberalism. Why are white evangelical Protestants (WEPs) and white conservative Catholics (WCCs) hostile to the LGBTQ community? Why do they believe equal accommodation laws violate their religious freedom? Liberals often tell themselves the reason for such hostility is fear—specifically that they fear what they do not understand. The solution, therefore, is education. Once WEPs and WCCs understand that a lesbian, say, isn’t a monster, they will accept her as a political equal.

Here’s the tip jar! Put something nice in it!

What liberals do not understand is the more they communicate factually and logically, the more these people feel persecuted; the more persecuted they feel, the more they go to war. (Put another way, the more good faith goes in, the more bad faith comes out.) Liberals fail to understand that WEPs and WCCs understand everything they need to know, which is everyone who is not a WEP or a WCC is the enemy. When it comes to the enemy, nothing matters, except the cold-blooded prosecution of power. When liberals answer power with facts, they lose. They must answer it with more power.

Third, political equality is a perversion of God’s law. Liberal appeals to political equality, therefore, fall in deaf ears—if you’re lucky. Mostly, they arouse enmity, because asking WEPs and WCCs to accept as true the equality between men and women is asking them to profane God. The old orders of power (God over Man, men over women, white over black, etc.) are God’s law, and they are defended in His name. Asking WEPs and WCCs to recognize the equality of a transgender woman, say, is a double perversion since any deviation from man-wife norms is a literal abomination.

Fourth, the appeal of Donald Trump. Forget about religion for a minute to remind yourself who the president is. He doesn’t care about anything but himself. WEPs and WCCs think anyone who isn’t a WEP or a WCC is the enemy. Put these together, and you have have what is, for all intents and purposes, a cult-like movement comprising millions of Americans who already felt the slow muddle of modernity was Christian genocide not otherwise specified. These people do not want a freely elected president. They desire a king to rule them in this world just as they desire a king (Jesus Christ, King of Kings) to rule them in the next. Individual liberty isn’t important. Morality isn’t either. What’s important is obedience to the group, which is to say, to the collective.

Perhaps the biggest mistake liberals make, when faced with authoritarian religious movements, is pushing all religion away from public discourse. But secularism isn’t the absence of religion. It is the creation of a democratic space for them to compete so that none dominates. Put another way, liberals have long thought religion is the problem. It’s probably the solution. WEPs and WCCs will never recognize anything other than The One True Faith. But just as you can’t answer power with facts, you can’t answer religion with squishy amorality. Democracy, after all, is a faith, too.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. hw on July 30, 2021 at 11:24 pm

    And yet, millions chose an amoral monster in Trump over a devout white Christian in Biden. The 21st century held such promise and we have instead descended into medieval times. The more I struggle to understand this country, the less I feel any certainty about any assumptions I once held.

  2. Ed Kako on July 30, 2021 at 11:24 pm

    Great piece. In a related vein, I’ve come to believe that Biden may be better at helping Americans understand the profound — even radical — nature of the Constitution than Obama ever was, despite Obama’s being an actual Constitutional scholar. The single most profound thing Biden has said, throughout his campaign, is this: “That’s what the Presidency is. The duty to care.” That’s as close to a religious statement *about politics* as most Democrats (especially White Democrats) ever come. If Biden can help people understand the true — original! — purpose of the Presidency, with its obligation to “take care that the laws of the United States be faithfully executed,” he will connect with many (though not all) religious Americans and help people appreciate that a healthy democracy, with a healthy Presidency, can be spiritually potent.

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 11:24 pm

      Ed, this point is so brilliant I’ll have to steal it if you don’t first give me permission to use it with all due credit.

      • Ed Kako on July 30, 2021 at 11:24 pm

        It’s yours! A slight nod in my direction would be lovely.

  3. LIBA on July 30, 2021 at 11:24 pm

    I like this article, but I gotta say I think the emphasis on “White” conservative Christians is too narrow, thereby ignoring the very real threat that conservative Christians of all races (not to mention social conservatives of all faiths as well, especially Muslims) pose to America as a liberal representative democracy. Guess what? Demographics are not destiny and the WEPs and WCCs are going to be supplemented by a growing number of conservative Hispanics (and others) in the future. Little discussed in the pundit world is the growing number of Hispanics who are leaving traditional– yet passive– Catholicism behind, and embracing a more aggressive evangelical (or Pentecostal) religion that seeks to impose its reactionary views on society. It’s not just white conservative Christians any more– they’re getting reinforcements as we speak.

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 11:24 pm

      Point well taken. Thank you.

    • Aliza Worthington on July 30, 2021 at 11:24 pm

      I disagree. It’s not too narrow. The real threat is and always has been the protection of white supremacy and patriarchy, which is at the heart of what’s wrong with the GOP, Conservatives, and much of religion. We don’t get to blame minorities in this country for buying into the white supremacist ideology we have been pushing for centuries until we have done the job of cleaning it up ourselves, in our own communities of white people first.

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