In this Episode
This month we are joined by one of the foremost Christian ethicists in the world, Dr. David Gushee, Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, and Chair of Christian Social Ethics at Vrije Universiteit (“Free University”) Amsterdam, and Senior Research Fellow, International Baptist Theological Study Centre and he is the author of several books, most recently, Defending Democracy from its Christian Enemies.
Dr. Gushee was invited to speak with us because, well—we need his wisdom and expertise right now. Not only is the Christian church a consistent foe of democracy in an age when democracy is at risk around the world and here at home—but also to hear his thoughts on the Israel-Hamas conflict.
We’d love to hear your thoughts. Thread or Insta Lisa @lisasharper or to Freedom Road @freedomroad.us. We’re also on Substack! So be sure to subscribe to freedomroad.substack.com. And, keep sharing the podcast with your friends and networks and letting us know what you think!
Lisa Sharon Harper: [00:00:00] Coming to you from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection. I’m Lisa Sharon Harper, president of Freedom Road, a consulting group dedicated to shrinking the narrative gap. Welcome to the Freedom Road podcast. Each month we speak with national faith leaders, advocates, activists, and theologians to have the kinds of conversations we normally have on the front lines.
It’s just that this time we’ve got microphones in our faces and you are listening in. And this month we are joined by one of the foremost Christian ethicists on the planet. And I really am not, I’m actually not exaggerating. Dr. David Gushie is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University and the Chair of Christian Social Ethics at the Free University in [00:01:00] Amsterdam, and a Senior Research Fellow in the International Baptist Theological Study Center.
And also just recently completed his tenure, um, as the head of the chair of the American Academy of Religion. It’ a big deal. So we are so, so excited because Dr. Gushy has a new book out and he’s written many, but this next one is so important for where we are right now. It’s called Defending Democracy from its Christian Enemies, y’all.
Yes. And so I, you know, it doesn’t take a whole lot for you to know why I invited Dr. Gushie to come talk to us today. Um, but it’s because I want him to talk to us because we need his wisdom. We need some expertise right now about this. this democracy thing and about how Christianity is actually not helping across the globe and how we can counter that [00:02:00] within the church.
And it’s also having impacts on an international scale. We will, we will also, um, ask him for his thoughts on the Israel/Hamas conflict that’s happening right now in Gaza. So we would love to hear your thoughts. We want you to tweet us or insta me or thread me or freedom road. Um, insta me at LisaSHarper or freedom road at freedomroadus and keep sharing the podcast with your friends and networks.
We really do have this really amazing, beautiful, growing community that is listening to our work, listening to our conversations and responding. So we would love to hear what you think. So please do let me know what… You know, how you’re processing our conversations. Okay, David, can we dive in?
David Gushee: Absolutely. Thank you for having me on your podcast. So much respect over so many years. And so I’m thrilled. Good to be with you.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Thank you so much, brother. The feeling is absolutely mutual. Um, [00:03:00] and and in the interest actually of transparency, I should say, and actually brag that in my upcoming PhD program at the Free University in Amsterdam, uh, David is going to be my supervisor.
Yes. So I want to say, I’m so excited to work with you and I’m also excited for this conversation. Because, um, you know, you know, my work and I know, I know your work and, um, and I know that you really are a critical, probably one of the, one of the most critical voices for the church in this moment.
So David, um, for my audience, what I normally do is I, we start with our faith journeys. What brought you to Jesus or what brought you to Christian faith? Because I want people to know who it is we’re talking to.
David Gushee: Sure. I appreciate always being asked that question. I was raised a Catholic. Post-Vatican two Catholic [00:04:00] in northern Virginia.
I didn’t really give it much of a chance. I was rebellious. I didn’t do much for me. Um, but then I met a girl…
Lisa Sharon Harper: Always, always!
David Gushee: …and then the story takes a turn. I met a Southern Baptist girl. She was actually a renegade the way that I was a renegade in my family. Um, so, but anyway, she went to the Southern Baptist Church and, uh, I wandered into that church one time when she wasn’t there on a Friday afternoon, looking for God, looking for something, I didn’t know how to name.
And the youth minister was there and they were having a lot of cool activities that weekend. And four days later, I had a born again, conversion experience.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Four days, four days later, four days. Where exactly was this in the world?
David Gushee: Vienna, Virginia, near near D. C.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Okay. [00:05:00] Okay. Wow.
David Gushee: Okay. Yeah, so I… you might say I dove into the Southern Baptist by full immersion in every way as a high schooler and there were a lot of limits to that church, but they did some things well, including.
Taking a pretty raw 16 year old kid and teaching him the Bible and basics of discipleship. And so my call to ministry happened shortly after, I mean, six months after my conversion, I knew I was supposed to be a pastor and I’ve been pursuing that ever since. And, uh, now, of course, as, as you well know, I’m long past my Southern Baptist days by now.
That’s where I got launched. By the time I went to Union Seminary in New York for my PhD, I was already pretty disillusioned.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Can I just ask you to kind of, cause that’s a huge, that’s a huge leap from the Southern Baptist to Union Theological Seminary. So can you bridge [00:06:00] that for us just for a minute?
Like how’d that happen?
David Gushee: Well, Glen Stassen… Glen Stassen the ethics, the main ethics professor at Southern Seminary and my mentor. After I finished or as I was finishing my MDiv, uh, it was clear I needed to do a PhD. It became really clear. I wanted it to be in ethics. He said, it’s time for you to broaden.
It’s time for you to get outside this. little subculture. He knew Union. He had friends at Union. He had done some studying at Union. I applied to five different schools. The one criteria was nothing below the Mason Dixon line and nothing related to the Baptists. But the one I ended up with was Union and I mean, I got to study with James Cone and Beverly Harrison, with Larry Rasmussen with Cornell West, I didn’t have a chance to have a class with him, but he was there at that time. And so it was a mind blowing experience. It [00:07:00] was way ahead of what I was ready to process at that time, but it left its traces, I would say.
Lisa Sharon Harper: That’s really helpful.
David Gushee: Yeah. Yeah.
Lisa Sharon Harper: So you’re a Christian ethicist. You know, what is Christian ethics?
And how did you stumble into that path?
David Gushee: Christian ethics, as I understand it, is the work of helping the church discern what it looks like to follow Jesus faithfully. And, um, and I usually say in three main sectors, you might say personal life, in the church, and in the world and Christian social ethics, which is the name of the chair at the VU.
For University Amsterdam is really especially focused on public, uh, social, um, you know, political, but, you know, human community kind of issues, right? So that was the version of Christian ethics that I was taught by Glenn Sasson, by Larry Rasmussen, by, you know, James Cone, [00:08:00] Christian engagement for, for justice and righteousness, for mercy and love, for the reign of God in a broken world.
And so one way to think about it kind of autobiographically is that I grew up in a family where we, my dad worked for the government and we talked about policy issues like a lot. I would joke about how we’d be sitting around the table reading the Washington Post and talking about environmental policy when I was like 10, you know, because that’s what my dad did, energy and environment.
And so, you know, We were a family that talked about policy, that cared a lot about government, that cared about the world. But then my conversion I learned to care about Jesus and to be a follower of Jesus, ethics brought you might say those two pieces together.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yeah. Yeah, totally So now it’s interesting because you’ve written a lot and I mean you [00:09:00] actually wrote a pretty critical book about the image of God and Um, and about what it means to be human and to be one of value made in the image of God several years ago.
And, um, now you’re writing about democracy. Like that’s also not a leap in terms of ethics at all, but one gets down to the core of why we care. about ethics and social ethics in particular. And the other is really specific. It’s honing in on this particular political way of engaging the world through democracy.
And your title defending democracy from its Christian enemies is provocative and also descriptive. And so I’m wondering, like, first of all, why did you choose to focus on democracy now? Because I actually, I have to tell you, maybe a couple of weeks ago, maybe about a month ago, I literally had the thought, [00:10:00] you know, maybe my next book should be on democracy.
And I saw that you have a book coming out on democracy. I was like, Oh my gosh, like this is really like, it’s the moment right now. That’s yeah. So, tell me, why is it the moment?
David Gushee: Well, the book that you mentioned earlier, it was called the sacredness of human life, a big old academic tome trying to unpack why human life matters, why every human life matters.
And what the theological grounds for that are. One way to care about human life is to care about the structures of government within which human beings live their lives. And some structures of government in their tyranny, in their injustice, in their oppressiveness, [00:11:00] harm human beings made in the image of God by definition.
And I would say that democracy, the rule of the people under the rule of law, which is how I thumbnail democracy, is the least bad political system that human beings have ever developed, and with the greatest potential to protect the image of God in all people. Even if they don’t know, even if the, you might say, even if the democratic system is not explicitly religious, its structures have greater potential to protect the dignity and to advance justice for all people than in other systems.
Why now? Well, one way I like to tell the story is, all through my training, it was clear that Christians and Christian ethics were supposed to engage in democratic politics. You know, like [00:12:00] we, you know, a lot of times what ethicists will do is make proposals for what laws should look like in like, racial justice or environment or, you know, economics or whatever.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Right.
David Gushee: But the presupposition of that kind of advocacy is a functioning political system where our voice matters. I’m fairly along in my career, and I can say that this is the first time since Trump came on the scene, this is the first time that the democratic system itself in the United States has been directly threatened. And so now we’re not just talking about like, what should environmental policy be, or what should the law be on something it’s, what political system are we going to operate under? Yeah. Are we going to be a democracy? Are we going to be an autocracy like, or a dictatorship or a [00:13:00] rule by a family?
The Trump family dynasty. Right? Is that what we’re going to do? Is that, you know, and democracy, while it’s a great human achievement in our democracy. Despite its many flaws, has had a lot of longevity. Democracy has proven to be fragile. It can be unraveled no matter how old it is. I think we’re at risk of the unraveling of our own democracy right now.
And that becomes a national emergency, in my opinion. And it puts that issue to the top of the agenda for Christian social ethics.
Lisa Sharon Harper: These are our stories. You’re listening to the Freedom Road podcast, where we bring you stories from the front lines of the struggle for justice.
Now you spend a good deal of time at the [00:14:00] top of your book, defining some core terms. Um, and the first term that you re you break down is this question of democracy. So it’s funny that you have a thumbnail, and you gave us the thumbnail in our last segment, but you actually spend a good whole chapter and it’s not a small chapter on what is democracy, you know, in your book.
And so I wondered if you could actually break down democracy for us in a little bit more than that thumbnail sketch.
David Gushee: Sure. Starting off by saying that a democracy happens or exists when the people govern themselves. It’s the idea that the source of power and, and legitimacy in the system comes from the people themselves.
The people create their form of government. They write a constitution either, [00:15:00] either through direct democracy or through representatives that they elect. They make laws, those laws, because they are made by the people or the representatives have legitimacy. They are passed by majority vote.
You don’t have a consensus in a… there’s not a consensus in democratic politics, but you hope for a majority. In fact, you have to have a majority, supposed to have a majority, which is a problem in our system right now, which we could talk about. So democracy is a system in which the people rule themselves.
They create a constitutional order and laws that are in accordance with it. And they have processes that are ironclad for every dimension of running for election, holding elections, legitimizing the results of elections, creating [00:16:00] political parties, having a shot at contesting for power, um, the peaceful transfer of power after elections so you have a range of political rights in a democracy and also a range of, civil liberties, such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and other kinds of human rights, protections.
So rule of the people under the rule of law. You can have rule of law without rule of the people. That’s like rule by decree. Putin says, here’s what the law is. That’s what the law is going to be. You can have, you can have rule of the people without rule of law. That’s just. mobs of people saying, here’s the way it’s going to be.
And, and you’re going to relent, you’re going to submit to that. Right?
Lisa Sharon Harper: Well, I have to say that that reminds me of Jim Crow South, right? So the lynch mobs and [00:17:00] for nearly a century, black people experienced not democracy, but rather the rule of the mob.
David Gushee: That’s right. The rule of the mob. And… So, and this is an important theme, I mean, it’s a good, might as well just say it now.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yeah. Yeah.
David Gushee: American democracy has been flawed from the beginning by systemic racism. Yes.
Lisa Sharon Harper: And gender oppression.
David Gushee: That’s true too. Right. Right. Yeah. So, so I think part of what we’re seeing in this moment is that is a struggle over whether we’re going to advance towards a towards a healthier democracy that corrects or continues to attempt to correct the systemic injustices of the past to have a more just, more rule of law, more human rights, more dignity for all, more equality kind of system or whether we’re going to [00:18:00] regress back to essentially white ethnocracy, right?
Lisa Sharon Harper:Yes!
David Gushee: And so I think that what we have witnessed in the last, um, year since Trump descended the escalator at Trump tower, um, is, is a movement more or less explicitly committed to reversing every gain for equality since about 1954. And, um, being willing to sacrifice democracy to do it.
Lisa Sharon Harper: You know, that reminds me of Dr. King’s book, which is really like right over my shoulder. Um, or it usually is. It’s not there right now. It’s funny. But it’s, it’s the book, Where do we go from here? Right. Right. Where he actually says in that book, he says that, and he of course calls it the segregationists because that’s what they were called in his time, but the segregationists would rather have an American form [00:19:00] of fascism than democracy if democracy required equality.
David Gushee: I think we’re in exactly that moment 60 years later. Yeah. Um, because backlash against, um, movement towards equality is, well, it’s part of what I call in the book, reactionary authoritarianism. Right? Anyway. So you asked about democracy. Well, here’s one thing I would say, we’ve gotten kind of fuzzy about what democracy is because we took it for granted.
Yeah. I mean, a couple of years you go to the polls and then two years after that, there’s a presidential election and then the loser concedes and the winner takes office. And then. They try to govern for a few years. And in other words, we had systems in place that seemed pretty stable.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yeah.
David Gushee: And now they don’t seem very stable.
Lisa Sharon Harper: That’s intriguing because there’s a new book out by Rachel Maddow that, um, that actually has a theory about the cyclical nature [00:20:00] of the resurgence is of Fascism and authoritarianism or pushes for fascism and authoritarianism in the American political cycle.
And so where I hear you saying that, you know, at one point, even just a few years ago, maybe traced back 10 years ago and, and all the time before, we kind of assumed that the mechanisms that the structure of our democracy was sound. And so we didn’t really question what kind of government we were going to have.
We were just trying to have the government we want, right? As in like Democratic or Republican or whatever. But what her thesis is that actually we have been here before that Trump is not new, that this rise of fascism in America is not new. She traces it back to or doesn’t trace it back. But one of the things that she brings forward is during world war two, [00:21:00] there was an actual Nazi movement that was trying to rise and actually had huge amounts of power inside the United States government.
But it’s something that it’s part of the narrative that’s been covered over. And so I just, I wonder, You know, do you have any thoughts on that since that is a new book that’s out? And, um, you know, interacting with your book on democracy. I just thought that would be an interesting conversation.
David Gushee: What I would say is that radical right wing ideas.
Including fascism did surge all over the Western world during the 1930s and in 1940s, there was a Nazi movement in the U. S. It was, I have to see what she says, but it was, I thought, relatively fringe. In Great Britain, for example, there was a, you know, there was a party led by Oswald Mosley that was pro fascist.
And if, if Hitler had conquered [00:22:00] Great Britain, that is who would have been appointed, you know, the puppet prime minister, there were pro fascist parties all over Europe. Some of them collaborated with Nazism. Um, so, so these all, and I talk about fascism in the book a little bit. These all have characteristics of hard right-wing nationalism, usually militarism, racism, xenophobia, uh, often, you know, antisemitism, misogyny.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Patriarchy too, right?
David Gushee: Yeah, misogyny, patriarchy, usually under the guise of traditional values. It’s, you know, anti LGBTQ, um, and, uh, anti democratic, uh, authoritarian. We need a strong authoritarian leader to set things in order again and all of that. So, yes, that cluster of ideas is not new.
But what I think, what I think is at [00:23:00] least striking. Is the mainstreaming of a lot of that right now. It has a hold on a significant chunk of one of our two major political parties.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yes. I mean, it’s actually, isn’t it arguable that it’s literally taken over one of it’s not even just that it’s like a significant chunk anymore when you have pretty much the entire party voting for.
A Christian nationalist for the speaker of the house just recently. That’s indication that it’s, it’s, hasn’t it just taken over? That’s my dog. Leave it.
David Gushee: There are dissenters, but in general, they’re being driven out, right? Yeah. People like Mitt Romney, for example. Yeah, so the, Republican party is in crisis and has, has moved.
Uh, [00:24:00] very far, at least in this direction. And of course, my book is about the, the way in which so many Christians are attracted to this now.
Lisa Sharon Harper: You know, I want to jump into that and you actually say, and you talk about in your book, you actually break down political authoritarianism.
Is there a significant difference between political authoritarianism and the fascism that you just described? Um, what’s the difference between that? And then my next question is, why do Christians tend to support authoritarianism?
David Gushee: Let’s, well, let’s talk about, um, let’s talk about religious authoritarianism for just a second.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Okay.
And now this takes us back to fundamentalism and evangelicalism in the world out of which both of us came to.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
David Gushee: Religious authoritarianism is a vision in which [00:25:00] the understanding of truth and God and morality and reality is believed to be authoritatively captured. By the, the religious authorities within the community.
Um, so the pastor will tell us what is true, right, and good. And what the Bible says as the word of God, authoritatively interpreted by the pastor. Or the bishop will tell us, or the pope will tell us, or the patriarch will tell us, or the father in the family will tell us, or the principal at school, at the Christian school will tell us, or who, you know, your, whoever your authoritative… James Dobson will tell us, right, will tell us God’s word about everything.
So there’s Christianity is an old religion and there are, I argue in the book, there are a lot of vestiges of authoritarianism in large sections of the Christian community. But [00:26:00] that did not mean, I think, until relatively recently, a large audience for anti-democratic politics.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yeah. And honestly, that for me is what feels like the rub because it’s not like this is new, like authoritarianism within Christianity is new.
So why is all of the sudden it’s like a wind has come on a bonfire and now the whole forest is on fire, right? Like what happened?
David Gushee: Well, I think there’s a couple ways to talk about it. One is that is that Christians who… and Christian communities that on the whole had learned to embrace democracy. You think about in the U.S. all these nice Christians going to vote every couple of years and participating in the political process, considering that part of their responsibility. And that’s just everyday life, right?
But [00:27:00] some of them have grown so radically alienated and disillusioned from the direction of American culture and from what happens when Democrats win.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow.
David Gushee: That, that they are susceptible to the idea that the democracy itself is broken and maybe needs to be replaced with something different. Um, I call this, um, a dynamic of, well, it’s a reactionary dynamic. Um, picture people who are. In their gut heart and soul negative about pretty much everything that has happened in our culture since 1960,
Lisa Sharon Harper: Basically since the civil rights era.
David Gushee: Right. Picture everything. There are people, millions of people who, if you went through a list of social changes in our society since 1960. would say that was bad, that was bad, that was wrong, that was bad, that was unfortunate. [00:28:00] So, sexual revolution, feminist movement, abortion, civil rights movement, they might be a little hesitant to say it that directly, but they may.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Right, right.
David Gushee: Depending on who they’re talking to, right? Uh, immigration, um, the prayer, the Supreme Court decisions on strengthening the separation of church and state, Roe v. Wade, etc. And… And what a, what a certain percentage, let’s say it’s as much as 20 or 25 percent of the American population, they look at the results of the democratic process as well as the changes in our culture since the sixties.
And they say, this is evil.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow.
David Gushee: And we need to oppose it. Now here’s part two. I think that you can see this stirring as early as the social changes of the sixties and You and I may remember, I remember when there was a strong evangelistic and world [00:29:00] mission kind of, uh, gig going in the evangelical world, right?
Lisa Sharon Harper: Oh yeah, in the 80s. Right. Major. Major.
David Gushee: Major, yes. Okay, so how are we going to make things right in the world again? We’re going to tell everybody about Jesus and teach them how to follow Jesus. That’s right. Right? Oh my gosh. What if that’s what you were teaching people and you conclude that you’ve lost, you failed, and it’s never going to be enough.
And then what if you say, okay, here’s what we’ll do. We will join the moral majority and Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, and we’ll get Republicans elected. So you had a political strategy, but it was a political strategy within the democratic process.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Right. That’s right.
David Gushee: Get Ronald Reagan elected and, and, you know, by, by fair means, right.
And get George W. Bush elected and all that. Right. Right. And that’s going to set things right. So when, especially white fundamentalists and evangelicals and some conservative Catholics and so on said, okay, our salvation is in politics. But it was democratic [00:30:00] politics. But what if democratic politics does not give you the results that you want either?
What if there’s still abortion? There’s still changes in sexual mores. There’s still LGBTQ people asking or demanding or receiving equality, right? Then maybe, what if Barack Obama gets elected president?
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yeah, Barack Hussein Obama.
David Gushee: No, I, okay. You said it. I didn’t say it, right?
Lisa Sharon Harper: Oh no, but it’s, I mean, this is what they pointed at, right? He’s a foreigner.
David Gushee: He’s a foreigner. Okay. And then you say, oh, things have become far more radically broken than we thought. And here comes Donald Trump. He says, I will fix it.
And when the election of November, 2020 doesn’t turn out the way that they want it to. You just say fraud, and then you have [00:31:00] January 6th and, and you also have smart intellectuals, some of whom I quote in the book, who are making reasoned arguments against our older, our old form of democracy.
They don’t want democracy like that anymore because they don’t like the results.
Lisa Sharon Harper: They don’t want democracy as in, you’re talking about people who are who are siding with authoritarianism and Donald Trump, because he is the, he’s going to be the strong man they’re saying, we don’t want democracy. We want the strong man.
We want authoritarianism because democracy is giving us a result we don’t want, like they’re being conscious about that. Is that what you’re saying?
David Gushee: That’s what I’m saying. Right.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow.
David Gushee:And no, you might say, and there’s different ways of couching it. Like I talk a little bit in the book about some saying, well, what we want is a republic, which is not the same thing as a democracy.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Oh my gosh.
David Gushee: …that, right?
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yes. Wait, can I just say, I’ve actually heard that I went to Cedarville once and spoke at a conference. And, and I talked about how we’re in a democracy and someone actually, I [00:32:00] believe, if I recall correctly, they yelled from the audience, we live in a Republic, or maybe it was somebody who, who like, you know, had some kind of a question at, at the, you know, on the Q and a time they were like, we are in a, in a Republic, not a democracy.
And I had never heard that before. Yeah. And this was back in 2000. It’s like around 2012. So that’s, that’s a decade ago. That’s more than a decade ago. And now it feels like, again, that’s been mainstreamed.
David Gushee: Right. And then if you add, we ought to live in a Christian Republic.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yeah. What’s the logic behind that?
David Gushee: Would be something like, um, uh, A country in which Christianity is officially recognized as the official religion, um, perhaps the only people who could be representatives would be people who affirm Christianity, at least the version of Christianity that is established, right? Um, so, so it’s, it’s really essentially a kind of a pure, maybe it could be a Puritan paradigm, or it might [00:33:00] be an old Catholic Christendom paradigm from the medieval period.
Or, or in other words, there’s the, see, the thing is there’s lots of models from the past of how to do Christian Republic or Christian authoritarian state. Democracy was the innovation. So if you want, if you want to have a Christian monarch. Yeah. I mean, where do we, where do you start? Just go back to Great Britain, you know, for centuries, right?
Or if you want officially Catholic state, that was what France had. It’s what, you know, Ireland had, it’s what Spain had. So our separation of church and state disestablishment paradigm is being directly challenged.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow.
David Gushee: And here’s something else that I noticed. This has been happening for a while.
Did you did you catch the part in the book where I talked about the Christian school curriculum that my daughter brought home one day and and we discovered that she was being [00:34:00] taught that laws derive their legitimacy from their conformity with the Bible?
Lisa Sharon Harper: Whoa, I haven’t gotten that far. I made it to chapter three last night.
David Gushee: So part of what’s happening is explicit training up of a generation of people in homeschool and Christian school that are being taught something other than our version of American democracy.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Right. And we actually, you know, I think we really can’t understate that or overstate that rather. We can understate it.
But we now have what about two or three generations that have been brought up on Christian school and homeschool. The Christian school movement began as a response to desegregation of schools in the South. And so they really began to take hold in the seventies and eighties. And then the homeschool movement really kind of started to take hold, take hold in the eighties and nineties.[00:35:00]
And you have like, I would say it’s the norm now. I mean, it’s literally the norm within white, especially evangelical circles, but you could probably rope in a bunch of Catholics and some mainliners as well, that the Christian homeschool movement is now the norm within evangelical world. So if that is the curriculum and this is the norm. Wow.
Like we’re so, so now it’s like not a question why Christians support authoritarianism. They’re actually being indoctrinated to support authoritarianism.
David Gushee: Right. And at least in some of these homeschool and Christian school curriculums and it’s different versions. It’s not like Nazism or something.
It’s, um, right. Like it’s a Puritan idea of a Christian commonwealth, you know, um, in, in which the church authorities and the state authorities, maybe they’re officially separate, but they have the same goal [00:36:00] of advancing a Christian Republic or a Christian commonwealth. But of course, there’s a lot that goes with that Christian thing.
It’s not just everybody bowing before Jesus. It’s also a whole set of values and policies. And sadly, almost always, I mean, it’s, you know, it’s anti LGBTQ and it’s patriarchal and it’s indifferent at least to racial justice. Um, and, um, so, so there’s…
Lisa Sharon Harper: I’m actually, I’m sorry, David, but, um, like Michael Emerson and his most recent study.
And I think that most people, Robbie Jones in his, um, in his work in White Too Long and also his most recent work, I think what they found is it’s not indifferent. It’s actually. Quite violently opposed. Um, well, I should say violently for the supremacy of whiteness. [00:37:00] What do you think of that?
David Gushee: I think, I think it’s, it’s a mix. I just say I’ve been around long enough to see, um, a transition from white conservative, politically conservative Christians attempting to differentiate between equal rights for people of color versus like support for abortion or for you know, LGBT inclusion. Like they would be, Oh, we’re pro, we’re pro, you know, the civil rights movement, but we’re against the other stuff.
And I’m sure that that is still to some extent out there, but I do think a racial backlash is also characteristic of this period. And it’s part of the cluster of problems that we are facing on this authoritarian reactionary side, for sure.
Lisa Sharon Harper: So, so then, David, [00:38:00] what is the impact? You know, what’s, what is the result of Christian support for authoritarianism in the U.S. and then globally?
David Gushee: Um, well,
Lisa Sharon Harper: Why should we care?
David Gushee: Well, because it could cost us our democracy. Okay. Um, it promises to marginalize and wound everybody who’s not on board with the program, everybody outside of this authoritarian reactionary Christian community. I mean, it could look like rolling back advances for women’s rights, rolling back LGBTQ you know, dignity and inclusion and justice.
Rolling back as far as possible gains for racial equality, rolling back, um, religious liberty and freedom of conscience, or [00:39:00] subjugating the non-traditionalist Christian community as a second class part of the population. Yeah, I mean, it’s both the loss of democracy because democracy is seen as not as important as advancing these values, but in any authoritarian environment, basic human rights of individuals, dissenting groups, and those deemed other are always threatened.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Whoo. And I think it’s just worth sitting on for a moment that what you’re talking about is not just policy rollbacks, right? But you’re talking about a sea change, really like a demolition of our current political structure that makes the protection of the image of [00:40:00] God possible in the minority.
David Gushee: Right.
Lisa Sharon Harper: And so therefore, if that is no longer there. It becomes impossible or at least near impossible. To protect people who have minority status.
David Gushee: Right. And okay. So at one level, laws could be rolled back, right? At another level, uh, high level government people routinely using their platforms to demonize and slander groups of people makes them objects at risk.
Subjects of attack and assault and violence and persecution, right? Remember, you know, when Trump was president, he was saying all kinds of nasty things about Muslims or about immigrants.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yeah.
David Gushee: All you got to have is a visible leader like that doing that. And people’s lives are at risk, right?
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yes.
David Gushee: Also, [00:41:00] there are, there are more subtle ways to, um, uh, to create an authoritarian state, like if you compromise the independence of the judiciary. Then you might still have civil rights laws, but if they’re not enforced because the judges are no longer, um, are no longer enforcing them, then it doesn’t, doesn’t matter that you have the laws.
Lisa Sharon Harper: And that’s really literally what Trump, that was his strategy was to overturn our judiciary.
David Gushee: And also you appoint certain kinds of judges, you get rid of other kinds of judges and you create an atmosphere of intimidation. Um, part of what characterizes a healthy democracy is. Um, is that there is not the routine threat of force, I mean, in politics.
Yeah. Yeah. The way that Trump has learned how to name people on his [00:42:00] social media posts, name the clerk to judge Engron or, or name the attorney general of the state of New York for constant derision. Um, and we’ve seen that all of these attacks end up risking the health and lives of those who are named.
So, what is at stake is liberty. It’s safety. It’s democracy itself.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Walking Freedom Road from coast to coast and around the globe. This is the freedom road podcast.
So, David, you know, a lot, many times in your book you reference [00:43:00] people of Jewish descent as people who have experienced on one side. The oppression of fascism, the oppression of autocracy, the oppression of authoritarianism and. I cannot help but place myself, even as I’m reading your words, which are absolutely true.
Just last night I actually began to rewatch a film on Netflix, a documentary on Netflix called the last days. I don’t know if you’ve seen that. It’s amazing. And it traces the last days of World War II when Hitler goes into Hungary and, um, and All hell broke, breaks loose. It’s just, you know, it’s, it comes in parallel with the final solution, right?
So his final solution, which is the death camps.
David Gushee: Hungary was the [00:44:00] last major Jewish community to be assaulted in 1944. It happened earlier.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yeah. Right. Right. Exactly. And so it’s called the last days for that reason. And so I was watching that and so it was very fresh for me as I was reading slash listening to your book as you, you were bringing up these examples and now we’re sitting in the context of the Israel Hamas conflict, which is raging in Gaza.
I mean, I’m wondering if you are having any, you know, as you’re talking about democracy and there’s all, there’s often conversation about Israel being the only democracy in the Middle East and yet, I mean, if you’ve been to the Middle East, if you, not the Middle East, if you’ve been to Israel and Palestine, you know that The treatment of Palestinians is not democratic.
In fact, it is very, very, uh, much reflective of the Jim Crow South. Um, and apartheid as people have been saying, and I know people have been censured [00:45:00] for that in the Congress and others have been blacklisted for saying it, I mean, even when, when Jimmy Carter went and he mentioned those words, he got huge backlash, but even the U. N. has said this is apartheid. So how do you, how do you, how are you thinking about what’s happening right now with Netanyahu? Whose people were just marching against him because of his attempt to create an authoritarian government in Israel and what is happening in Gaza? Do you have any thoughts there?
David Gushee: I do. Um, and in fact, I just posted a piece today on Baptist News Global that has a lot, a lot of my thoughts on it, but let me, let’s do, let’s do big picture for a sec. The, you might say, the history of the Jewish people until 1948 from, from the fall of Jerusalem in 70.
Lisa Sharon Harper: That’s right.
David Gushee: To 1948 was a history of, uh, [00:46:00] diaspora and, uh, mainly second class status in Christian Europe.
Um, and. My dissertation was on the Holocaust, which was the ultimate culmination of that second class status and destroyed a European Jewish civilization that had 9.5 million people in 1933, and by the end, it was well under, you know, 500,000, 6 million murdered and others dispersed. Um, and the birth of the modern state of Israel was in 1948 in part was the product of.
A long, slow effort on the part of some in the Jewish community to move to the ancient homeland and to build again there had always been some Jews there, but to build, and it was also. The world community’s ratification of the idea that the Jewish people needed a homeland because otherwise, [00:47:00] Holocaust.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Right.
David GusheeI’ve studied a lot and talked with a lot and of folks in the Jewish community about, about the traumatizing effect of centuries of persecution. Mm-Hmm. and, and also. The sudden transition from powerlessness to power.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yeah, yeah, and can I just say not just power, but like in many ways, what we are seeing right now is like major power because of the backing of the United States, right? Like, because of this symbiotic relationship with the most powerful military force in the world, um, and largest economy in the world. I mean, Israel has.
It may not have that on its own, but it has that with our backing, with our United, our U. S. backing.
David Gushee: The other piece is that, um, and there were wars between Israel and its neighbors in 1948, 1967, and [00:48:00] 1973. And in 67, after being attacked by the neighboring countries, Israel prevailed, but actually ended up with three chunks of land that had been designated for the Palestinians.
And those were the West Bank, the Golan Heights and, the Sinai, Oh, there’s Gaza too. So a peace agreement returned Sinai, but Israel made the very, very unfortunate decision to build settlements in the West Bank, and to essentially to create a de facto condition of annexation that was never recognized by the international community.
And I say in my book in Chapter four that the kinds of folks who went into the West Bank to settle it had a different kind of mentality. They were, [00:49:00] well, Michael Walzer, a Jewish political philosopher says. They were, I think he says thuggish.
Yeah. You know,
Lisa Sharon Harper: Literally from Brooklyn.
David Gushee: They didn’t respect the rights of the… Often, they didn’t respect the rights of the Palestinians that were there. And the project was a project of, um, of gradually absorbing and dominating a land so that it would. May be impossible for it to ever be returned to the Palestinian people. The peace agreements, um, that were struck, never ended up yielding, uh, uh, an independent Palestinian state.
And so Israel does is in a situation of occupation and I’ve visited the West Bank and I’ve seen the tensions there. It’s interesting that the war that is being fought right now is in Gaza. Gaza, Israel had some small settlements in Gaza as well, but in [00:50:00] 2005 the prime minister then said, let’s pull out the settlements were forcibly uprooted and Gaza was left to the Palestinian people.
But unfortunately, Hamas ended up in charge in Gaza and Hamas is not a good, not a good player. And what they did on October 7th was horrific, a horrific attack on a civilian population.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yeah.
David Gushee: And so one of the things I say in my article that I just posted is. The nature of the attack on October 7th, I think triggered and re-traumatized, you might say, the Jewish and Israeli psyche in a way that can only be understood if you’ve taken the Holocaust seriously.
Yeah. And so the, the pounding, the relentless pounding of Gaza, um, strikes me at least as much as a, as a, a howl of outrage, trauma, um, [00:51:00] and not an especially coherent military strategy.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yeah, not at all. Wait, can I just say very quickly, um, two things, one, this trauma thing is that was literally what I came away after watching The Last Days I actually turned on Born in Gaza, which is another Netflix documentary.
And I watched that next. And all I could think was. trauma. Like that’s what we’re watching here. We are watching cycles of trauma. And I think you really are onto something because the pounding that’s really true, the relentless pounding of Gaza and the not letting up… You know what it feels like to me, it feels like a young person who’s been beat up and bullied so much. And like, they’ve had the last straw and they just lose it. Like, you know, like their arms are flailing and they’ll just hit anybody in their path and it’s just, and they won’t stop and they can’t stop because it’s really not [00:52:00] about the moment. It’s about all the moments.
David Gushee: I think that’s exactly right, Lisa. And that, that may be an overly psychologized interpretation of a military strategy, but that’s how it that’s how it feels. And it certainly must be how it feels when you’re on the receiving end of all those bombs and stuff in Gaza, right? And I should also say that the fateful decision in the sixties, in the seventies, in eighties and nineties and so on to let settlements grow, to create a dominative political presence, to allow the settlers more and more freedom to do whatever they kind of want to their Palestinian neighbors.
It has been poisoning Israeli democracy and Netanyahu, who’s been the longest serving prime minister, I think, in the history of Israel. I read his autobiography this year and, one of the things I came away with was [00:53:00] a total orientation to the security of Israel that is deeply shaped by the Holocaust memory, and also a complete lack of sympathy for the experience of Palestinians.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yes.
David Gushee: I didn’t see in a 700 page memoir. I didn’t see one reference of sympathy for the experience of Palestinians. Wow. And, um, and he’s holding on for dear life because he’s lost a lot of legitimacy in his own country. And the security failure is such on October 7th that what would often happen would be somebody would tumble from power in a parliamentary system because it was such atrocious failure, right?
So his legitimacy as a leader, uh, has been weakened by all of this. And I think that also is put somebody in a very bad position to make good decisions in wartime.
Lisa Sharon Harper: That’s true. And his leadership, I mean, he’s based, they can’t really question him as the leader, as long as there’s a war going on.
David Gushee: Yeah.
Lisa Sharon Harper: So like his position [00:54:00] is dependent on the presence of a war.
David Gushee: In fact, I’ve, I’ve read some Israeli press that says as soon as the war is over, he’s done. And boy, what is, what kind of incentive structure does that create, right? Right. You know.
Lisa Sharon Harper: And then he announces yesterday, sorry, we’re totally dating this time, but anybody who’s listening to this, you know, in a couple of weeks, you’ll know the day we’re talking about when he announced that he is going to, they’re going to be staying, right?
So there needs to be military presence in Gaza after, um, the quote war. And so he’s basically setting himself up to stay.
David Gushee: Maybe, um, by the way, when I read his memoir, he, When he discussed the pullout from Gaza, he said that it was a mistake.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow.
David Gushee: So that Gaza is too close to Israel to allow, um, to allow not having a Israeli military presence there.
Right. So, yeah. So I’m not surprised, actually. Um, I’m not [00:55:00] surprised. I think as long as he’s in charge, I’d be very surprised if Gaza. was returned to Palestinian authority of any type.
Lisa Sharon Harper: So can we go back to your book in terms of democracy, right? So there’s a couple of things to talk about here and how they, how they intersect with, with this question of Israel, Gaza, Israel, Hamas.
When we look at, um, our U.S. engagement right now, first question is how do Christians play into what’s happening? In Israel and Gaza right now in Palestine.
David Gushee: Yeah. Well, Christians should be for the infinite worth of human life, every human life,
Lisa Sharon Harper: Every human life.
David Gushee: With special attention to those who are most vulnerable.
Christians should be about peacemaking. Creative peacemaking strategies. Christians should be about justice and mercy and love. [00:56:00] Many American Christians are about a kind of a mythologized picture of the modern state of Israel based on their dispensational theology and their end time stuff.
And, and, you know, um, and that’s been in place really since the founding of the modern state of Israel. So what I say, basically. What we need Christians to do is, is engage in real time, the real situation in the real world, and many of the Christians around us are engaging in end time speculations about, you know, Jesus is going to come back if this happens, if that happens, and an unequivocal support for whatever the Israeli government does.
That’s just terribly unhelpful, right? I call Christians back to the real world, not end time speculations. Right.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Because Jesus himself said, I don’t know. I don’t know when I’m coming back. He literally said, don’t even think about it. Cause I don’t [00:57:00] even know.
David Gushee: Meanwhile, love your neighbor.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Right. Right.
David Gushee: Meanwhile, love all of your neighbors. So Christians are all over this. And I also say in my article that Christians helped to create the conditions for all of this, because it was Christian Europe that persecuted the Jews. It was, it was Christian Europe that enabled or allowed the Holocaust and that trauma.
And in other words, if you do the deep backstory, Christianity’s fingerprints are all over this.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Jesus. So can I ask you, how do we then weigh the balance between protecting democracy, right? in the 2024 election. And not casting a vote for the crushing of the image of God through genocide through our complicity with genocide because Biden has refused to draw a red line. This is a real live question right now inside of me.
And I know it’s with a lot of other people too. And recently, you know, polls have shown that Biden [00:58:00] has lost support. I’m of the mind that the re… you know, I see pundits talking about why ell, it’s because of the economy, it’s because of this or that. No, it’s because I think he hasn’t drawn a red line on genocide.
So of course you’re going to lose people of color when you don’t draw a line on genocide, because if he can do that to them, well, what’s going to stop him from doing that to us at some other point? Or if he does that, if he mows over the rule of law on the international stage, how can he then support the rule of law, which is the very, and only thing that protects people of color and minorities in the U S and in democracies.
So I see. This international global, foreign affairs engagement, in Israel, Palestine right now is actually eroding the protections that we as people of color, women, LGBTQ people, disabled people, anybody who stands [00:59:00] outside of the normative white male body, we have by the protection of the law.
So how do you balance, you know, protecting democracy by voting for the least, you know, like, the not Trump guy who is actually vowing to tear apart democracy, and casting a vote for someone who by his actions, even though his words say he wants to protect democracy, his actions are actually putting democracy at risk by not drawing a lot of red line on, on genocide.
How do you weigh that?
David Gushee: I well, I would, I want to make a couple of observations. One is that it is true that Biden’s posture in this situation is hurting him with a significant chunk of his progressive base, right. With, you know, with all the people that you mentioned. [01:00:00] I have not used the word genocide to describe what is happening in Gaza.
I think, I think, um, we are at risk of… there is a mentality. If genocide, genocide is the attempt to systematically annihilate an entire population.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yeah.
David Gushee: And then the implementation of that, I think that that
Lisa Sharon Harper: In whole or in part.
David Gushee: Okay, so I think we could debate whether that’s the right word. I certainly it’s a, it is wholesale lethal devastation at this point with thousands upon thousands of, of civilian fatalities, including lots and lots of Children.
Um, you cannot give a blank check to that. Um, I think that Biden himself, um, and I have not said this publicly, but I think he is not the best candidate for the Democratic, uh, presidential nomination in 2024. I think he needs to step aside. They need to pick somebody else. [01:01:00] The radical threat to democracy that Trump explicitly promises is still, to me, the number one voting issue.
Now, some people will vote third party. Some people will choose not to vote. Some people will look very closely to see what the Democrats are offering in November and see if they can, in good conscience, support such a person. But we have never seen this kind of direct, explicit threat to democracy. And so that’s going to still be my bottom line at this point, but of course it’s a long time between now and November, 2024.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yeah. And you know, I have to say after this conversation, I do, I understand that more because, and it’s not like I didn’t understand it before, but I understand the gravity of it now in a new way that if you lose democracy, you don’t get it back.
David Gushee: Very hard to get it back. [01:02:00] Very hard to get it back once it erodes.
Now, like in the book, I talk about how like Hungary under Viktor Orban. Has essentially lost its democracy. Poland just voted for a renewal of democracy and it looks like they’re going to be able to claw back what was lost though. It’s going to be hard. Brazil voted out Bolsonaro and so you can have threats to democracy and you can recover. But, for us to go eyes wide open and pick our own autocrat for a second time after everything, I don’t, there’s no way to describe the stupidity of that choice.
We have… we got a second chance.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yeah.
David Gushee: We got a second chance after 2020. Um, but you know. So I say to our, our Christian sisters and brothers, is this really what you want for our future? I [01:03:00] mean, do you really want autocracy of the Trumpian type? Is that how little you think of our democratic system?
So I think that’s bottom-line for me, and also I’m calling Christians to get their, get their bearings again in the political arena. And democracy, supporting democracy and protecting its norms is bottom line there.
Lisa Sharon Harper: The conversations leaders have on the road to justice. This is the Freedom Road Podcast. Thank you for joining us today. The Freedom Road Podcast is recorded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and wherever our guests are laying their head that night. This episode was engineered and edited and produced by Corey Nathan of scan media.
Freedom Road Podcast is executive produced by Freedom Road, LLC. [01:04:00] We consult, coach, train, and design experiences that bring common understanding, common commitment, and lead to common action. You can find out more about our work at our website, freedomroad.us. Stay in the know by signing up for updates, and we promise we will not flood your inbox.
And we invite you to listen again, join the conversation on Freedom Road. And for those of you who are our patrons, our Patreons, and also our paid subscribers on Substack, you are going to get a special little treat because we’re going to talk a little bit further. And I’m going to ask David to talk about the resources that he has shared in his book that can help us to begin to push back authoritarianism within Christian spaces.
So, stay tuned, go over to Patreon or go over to Substack in order to listen to this special segment and we’ll see you over there.[01:05:00]