August 15, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
For White Evangelicals, It’s Not About Fear
Attributing fear to sadism gives sadists too much credit.
I understand why it’s hard for normal people to believe that white evangelical Christians are sadists. Normal people have never been, as I was a long time ago, on the inside of that shadowy religious world. But the sooner they understand this, the sooner normal people will see that white evangelical Christian support for Donald Trump isn’t rooted in hypocrisy, contradiction or merely straying from the straight and narrow. The reason they support a fascist president is simple: They’re sadists.
The word “sadist” is off-putting. I get that. But if you’re thinking of sex, you’re thinking in the wrong way. If you’re thinking of “pleasure,” as in sexual pleasure, you’re thinking the wrong way. The pleasure white evangelical Christians derive from the suffering of human beings deemed less human than they are is not about sex. It’s about the pain, humiliation or even violence out-groups deserve by dint of being out-groups. Gay men, for instance, deserve their punishment because they are gay. Punishment for being gay is “divine justice.” From such “justice” comes pleasure—which is sadism.
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I didn’t come up with the term. Richard Rorty did. I’m only pushing it as far to the fore as I can, because I don’t think normal people understand what they are facing, and if they don’t understand, they will keep treating sadists as if they have a legitimate place in a liberal democracy. Cruelty is the point, as Adam Serwer powerfully and famously put it in The Atlantic. But normal people must understand the animating force behind that cruelty. Sadists are sadistic not because they are cruel. It’s much simpler than that. They are cruel because being cruel to people deserving cruelty feels good.
Rorty was expansive in his use of “sadism.” In Achieving Our Country, one of his final books, he characterized slavery, Southern apartheid, racism, misogyny and other ancient hatreds as “socially accepted sadism.” In this, he included not only efforts to harm people—humiliating, cheating, raping and murdering them—but also efforts to rationalize the harm. (For instance: not only is it OK to cheat women out of equal pay for equal work because they are women; women actually want to be cheated.) Though renowned as a philosopher and literary critic, Rorty was a life-long liberal. His goals were many, but key was making “socially accepted sadism” less socially acceptable.
He didn’t live to see the Supreme Court legalize gay marriage. (He died in 2007.) But I believe that he’d have seen that ruling as a capstone to a long 20th-century political war to make anti-gay sadism less socially acceptable. Indeed, the United States seems to have surpassed that standard. Within a decade, trans rights have become widely recognized as legitimate and just. Moreover, anti-gay sadism are now a social taboo mighty enough to alienate the world’s richest and most powerful corporations.
Most Americans, though they may not know it, have manifested the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
You’ll notice I said “anti-gay sadism,” not “homophobia” or the fear of homosexuals and homosexuality. This is what normal people are in the habit of thinking. For instance: homophobes are homophobic because they don’t understand. Because they don’t understand, they’re afraid. Being afraid drives them to act sadistically. This seems reasonable, and while it may be true in many cases, it’s false in some. I have come to believe attributing fear to sadism gives the sadists far too much credit.
Think about it. To ease a person’s fear of homosexuals and homosexuality, you have to persuade that person that gay people are human beings. They are not demons. They are not monsters. They are people. They are the flesh-and-blood sons and daughters of mothers and fathers—just like you. Gay people have no more control over how they were born than you do. Treat them as you wish to be treated, and you’ll see there’s nothing to fear. Most Americans, I think, have gone through that process. Most, though they may not know it, have manifested the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
You’d think white evangelical Christians would have gone through the same process given their profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But they can’t. They can’t because they won’t. And they won’t because, to them, homosexuality is an abomination before God. You cannot expect a person to reason his way out of fear when doing so would bring him, in his view, to the edge of a Lake of Fire. You cannot expect him to recognize your political legitimacy when he looks at you and doesn’t see a human being with endowed and inalienable rights. Instead, he sees an unholy perversion.
Normal people can’t know any of this, because they have never been on the inside of the shadowy world of white evangelical Christianity. (That is, to me, what makes them more or less “normal.”) Even if normal people had some inkling, it never feels right to presume the worst in people. But trust me when I say white evangelical Christians are presuming the worst in normal people—in you. Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? No? You are therefore not one among God’s Chosen.
This is their moral compass, which is not a moral compass at all, and as such, Trump-voting white evangelical Christians do not have the ability to reason their way out of fear. And because they don’t, they will choose sadism. Why? Sadism feels good.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.