The Immoral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power over Christian Values (Broadside Books) by Ben Howe

Michael Brown had just been executed by a cop, the city of Ferguson was crackling with rage, and the conservative Christian blogger Ben Howe thought it would be a good idea to fire off some tweets. “Give me a gun,” he wrote in a since-deleted 2014 post. “Put me in Darren Wilson’s shoes. I’d have shot Mike Brown right in his face.” The response was swift and merciless, a torrent of contempt. Still, Howe attempted to justify his bloodlust. The point, supposedly, was to inflame liberal opinion, to suggest that if he – or anyone else – had been in the same position as Wilson, the killer cop, he would have done the same.

Howe includes this anecdote and this rationalisation in his book The Immoral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political over Christian Values as a cautionary tale, emblematic of how the American Christian conservative movement has descended into squalor, rage, selfishness, and hypocrisy. I’ve been there, I know what they’re like, Howe implies. Now, I’ve seen the light, been through the torment of self-reflection and emerged ever wiser. But even in having lost his reason and found his faith, Howe neither apologises for imagining himself a murderer, nor understands quite why he was so loathed for admitting it. “My tweet,” he writes in penance, “did not help anyone get closer to a mutual understanding of the issues.” Which is certainly one way of putting it.

The Immoral Majority is, broadly, a polemic against the eighty percent of self-described evangelicals who voted for and support Donald Trump. Where once the disparate faithful could be assembled into a righteously insurgent movement under the banner of Jerry Falwell – the Moral Majority of the Reagan era – the constituency has since debased themselves in electing a faithless serial adulterer, alleged rapist and compulsive liar. Every virtue once held dear by Christian America, Howe argues, has been betrayed. In a few short chapters littered with Biblical metaphor, pious pleading, and confessional memoir, Howe begs for his brethren to take a good hard look at themselves and repent. He detests the idea of conservatives becoming ‘populists’ and deplores the turn to “scorn and malice, allowing and participating in whatever lies or deceit were necessary” to achieve supremacy. He yearns for a “new conventional wisdom for Christians living in modern political America.”

Howe is credentialed to the hilt in these matters and well-qualified to judge. His father was a Southern Baptist preacher, his mother a receptionist at Falwell’s Liberty University. He was on the frontlines of the Tea Party war and worked on Ted Cruz’s 2016 primary campaign. Howe also boosted for Mick Mulvaney, a Catholic austerity hawk and, under the Trump administration, one-time head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in which he cut and slashed firewalls designed to protect citizens from predatory lending. New wisdom, indeed.

Unlike a few others of his ilk who sunk their differences with Trump in the end, Howe has remained a fervent convert to the Never Trump camp, among the likes of David “Mushroom Cloud” Frum, the theologian Russell D Moore, columnists Max Boot and Jennifer Rubin, and ex-neocon doyen Bill Kristol. What marks the movement is an objection to Trump on aesthetic grounds, not political ones. In this, they share an uneasy alliance with mainline Democrats who find themselves insulted by the puncturing of their illusory myths about the nation’s ‘norms’ and institutions. The philandering, the bullying, the general stink of Trump is more objectionable than the profligate corruption, the wanton cruelty – and above all, the maintenance of white minority rule in America.

Howe is quite explicit about this. Reflecting on the president’s first term, he states: “A Donald Trump presidency would far better serve my short-term policy wishes…and this has proven to be true.” Thus, we can quite easily imagine an ever-so-slightly rosier alternative past in which The Immoral Majority never had to be written because Ted Cruz was elected – and rammed through the exact same programme of plunder and exploitation. Never Trumpism, then, is a distinction without a difference.

One does feel, however, in trudging through The Immoral Majority, a slight sense of pity for Howe. His naiveté and credulousness are not feigned or faked. For him, the Falwell years truly were an apogee, and Bush the Younger’s ‘compassionate conservatism’ (not so compassionate to Iraqis, as it turned out) ought to be a model for Republicans. He musters every theological, moral and political argument possible, and yet there is a looming sense of futility here. The Immoral Majority was written to and for evangelicals, an attempt to turn them back from a dark path – which they clearly have no interest in doing. The evangelicals will go down with the ship (if the ship does indeed go down). There is no swaying their devotion to their god-emperor. Why quit when you’re winning?