A Dangerous Moment for Christianity

During the Reagan years, when I was about 30, I remember reading an article about William F. Buckley, Jr.’s profound influence on Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement. I remember being shocked by a quote from Buckley included in the article. I cut it out and put it in a file folder for later use, but eventually lost the folder, even though I remembered its basic content.

Recently, through a google search, I found the quote again, and it seems especially fitting this week.

In 1960, Russian leader Nikita Kruschev visited the United States, and in response to his visit, Buckley gave an address called, “In the End, We Will Bury Him” (September 17, 1960). He said,

Khrushchev cannot take permanent advantage of our temporary disadvantage, for it is the West he is fighting…. Khrushchev is not aware that the gates of hell shall not prevail against us…. In the end, we will bury him.

Politically, it’s disturbing enough in light of Buckley’s words to watch Trump’s GOP show such deep affection for Putin and other autocrats.

But theologically, I’m even more unsettled. For Buckley, a Catholic, “the West” was made equivalent to “the church” in Jesus’ promise (Mt. 16:18), “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

I suppose such an equivalence makes sense if one sees Constantine’s conversion of Christianity in 312 CE as a good, even God-ordained thing.

But it’s tragic, ridiculous, even blasphemous, if one considers the actual content of Matthew 16, where Jesus makes clear that his triumph will occur, not through Jesus “burying” his foes, but rather through his willingness to be arrested, be humiliated, be tortured, be killed, and himself be buried. Jesus victory will transcend the whole meta-narrative of redemptive violence – transcend it and in so doing, discredit it.

Peter objects to Jesus’ words, and Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan!” – as if to say that to side with violence is to be possessed with evil, even if you or your words have just been called the rock on which the church will be built. It would have been interesting to discuss this matter of biblical interpretation with Buckley himself.

All that came to mind last week when I read two news stories you probably read or heard too.

First, Greg Gianforte won a special election to Congress as a Montana Republican, even after assaulting a reporter and lying about what happened. His victory has been praised by Trump, while his violence and lying have been, predictably, ignored and thus minimized. Gianforte and his family attend an Evangelical Bible Church in Bozeman. He is a young-earth creationist and biblical literalist.

Second, Dave Daubenmire, an Evangelical Christian with a popular web-cast, said, “The only thing that is going to save Western civilization is a more aggressive, a more violent Christianity.” Obviously, the equating or yoking of Christianity with Western civilization has haunting resonance with Buckley’s 1960 speech. He intensified his call to violence by praising Donald Trump for rudely muscling his way to the front of a photo opportunity with European leaders, saying,

“They’re all little puppies, ain’t nobody barking at him … He’s walking in authority. He walked to the front and center and they all know it, too, man. He just spanked them all…. The Lord is showing us a picture of the authority we should be walking in.”

Daubenmire not only echoed Buckley, but praised Gianforte:

“People are sick and tired of it…. They’re saying, ‘Yes, a fighter! Go, dude, go!’ … Who won? The dude that took the other dude to the ground.”

Like Buckley, he even twisted some Scripture (Mt. 11:12) to bolster his point:

“That should be the heart cry of Christian men…. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of God has suffered violence and violent men take it by force.”

Daubenmire’s glorification of the word “violence,” as any responsible commentary will make clear, reverses the meaning of Matthew 11:12, and it marks one of the most flagrant, blatant calls to violent Christian extremism by a public figure.

Christians are constantly asking Muslims to reject “violent Islamic extremism.” It now remains to be seen how many Christians will speak out against this call to violent Christian extremism.

I am happy to put my name first on the list. As a committed Christian, I flatly reject, denounce, and abhor the pathetic violent behavior of Gianforte, the ignorant violent rhetoric of Daubenmire, and the misguided equating of Christian faith with Western Civilization by Buckley. I hope others will join me.

Note: If you’re interested in being part of a vital alternative to this violent white “Christian” nationalism, check out the Convergence Leadership Project.