Evangelical theology, the poison of white male supremacy and the Georgia spa killings

No one who understands evangelical theology can be surprised if sexual "sins" are seen as punishable by death

Published March 22, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Cross at the Evangelical Church (Getty Images)
Cross at the Evangelical Church (Getty Images)

In the evangelical parachurch organization I was involved with in college, there was a running joke that would come up often when the men in the group were discussing marriage ideals: "Murder? Maybe. Divorce? Never." None of us were genuinely cavalier about murder; and, to my knowledge, although some of us from this group have had marriages end in divorce, none have committed murder. Still. The idea that "sins" in the realm of sexual ethics might be on a par with murder, or might (like murder) merit a death penalty is, in my experience, far from unusual in conservative evangelical communities. 

A beloved and influential minister I knew took the deeply biblical idea that God and the laws of God are good to the apparently "logical" conclusion that an ideal state would be governed by all of the moral laws documented in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. His views are not unusual; they are part and parcel of a strand of evangelical thought known under the label "theonomy." It is part of the view that the death penalty for certain sexual "sins" — most notably, sexual relations between members of the same sex — is appropriate. I don't know anybody, not even this minister, who would say that it makes sense for U.S. lawmakers actually to impose the death penalty for such acts. Still. The idea that death is not a grossly inappropriate punishment for sexual sin is uncomfortably close to mainstream.

There was another running joke in my college parachurch organization that surfaced in the context of a summer missions project I was involved with. We were in a beach town with the mission of randomly "sharing the gospel" with the presumptively unchurched party-goers who flocked in droves to the town for vacation. Young women in revealing attire were all around us, posing no end of agonizing "temptation" to the youthful libidos of the men in our group. As a way of humorously addressing this, a few in our group took to announcing in the direction of some of these women (but thankfully in ways that nobody outside the group would actually hear) "You are flesh; we are spirit! Rebuke that!"   

I can't imagine that anyone in our group was sophisticated enough to recognize the ways in which those words resonated with the long history in the Western philosophical canon of associating men with spirit, reason, rationality and virtue and associating women with temptation, sin, embodiment and wanton, uncontrollable bodily urges. The most important ancient Greek philosophers taught us that a virtuous person is one who is ruled by reason (and a virtuous state is one ruled by its reasoning parts); and these and nearby ideas have been tremendously influential on the history of Christian theological thinking about morality. And I'm sure that none of our group recognized the way in which these ideas directly support an ideology of male supremacy — the sex-analogue of white supremacy — which is the heart and soul of the "complementarian" conception of sex and gender roles taught in so many evangelical circles.

I also can't imagine that anyone in our group of summer missionaries was aware of the way in which this running joke echoed and reinforced the ideological core of the long and stable tradition of victim-blaming commentary on Old Testament tales of sexual assault — documented, for example, in Joy Schroeder's important work, "Dinah's Lament." Still. The idea that women are to be blamed — and to be "rebuked" in some way — for the sexual temptations and sins of men has long been one of the most common and persistent tropes in the sexual ethics taught not just in conservative evangelical communities but in a great many other religious communities and traditions as well. 

Of course they are to be blamed and rebuked. They are flesh; we are spirit. All the more so if they are the "uncivilized" (read: nonwhite) racial Other, the less-than-human. Flesh is associated with sin and temptation; the less-than-human belongs to this world, not the next. The virtuous person is the person of reason, who transcends this world; the flesh clouds reason and draws us away from it. Rebuke that. Kill it if you have to. Just look at the Old Testament. Just look at the New. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Murder maybe; divorce never.

I am no psychologist; I cannot presume to understand exactly how the mind of a deeply religious young man like Robert Long might ultimately come to the conclusion that murder is a genuine solution to his struggle with sexual temptation. But I am someone who specializes in drawing conceptual connections — a philosopher by trade and training — and, at the level of conceptual connections that I've seen forged and reinforced in the kinds of evangelical communities in which I grew up, his actions have a tragic and chilling logic to them. They have a tragic and chilling logic just in light of the few anecdotes I have already shared; and I haven't even begun to talk about racism and love for guns (and the gut-level comfort with killing people — under the right circumstances, of course — that such love entails).

Conservative American evangelicalism is steeped in the male-supremacist ideology of complementarianism — a worldview that, among other things, asserts male privilege, valorizes male aggression and identifies males as the ones most fit for leadership and authoritative teaching. That this represents a corruption of Christian ideals — and that many of its recent excesses are a faithful reflection of what one might call the evangelical "cult of masculinity" — has been amply documented in Kristin Kobes DuMez's recent and bestselling "Jesus and John Wayne," and receives further treatment in Beth Allison Barr's forthcoming "The Making of Biblical Womanhood." Some of the ways in which these same ideals of masculinity, the ones that prop up contemporary male supremacist ideologies, are deeply intertwined with white supremacist ideology are documented, among other places, in Gail Bederman's "Manliness and Civilization." 

Traditional Christianity neither preaches nor condones acts like those perpetrated by the Robert Longs of this world; nor, for that matter, does conservative American evangelicalism. But — speaking as a Christian myself, and as one who loves the Bible as God's Word and still often comfortably occupies evangelical spaces — it is both historically and philosophically naïve to ignore the conceptual links between the white male supremacist ideologies that have long permeated the evangelical tradition and a wide range of atrocities committed against women and people of color. Semper reformanda, as they say — the church must always be reforming — and here would be a good place to start.

By Michael Rea

Michael Rea is the Rev. John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy and co-director of the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame, and a former president of the Society of Christian Philosophers.

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