Ben Howe is angry at evangelicals. As he describes it, he is angry that they didn’t just vote for Donald Trump in record numbers, but repeatedly provide moral cover for his outrageous failings. He is angry that leaders of the religious right, who long claimed to be the champions of American morality, appear to have gladly traded their values for power. He is angry that Christians claim they support the president because they want to end abortion or protect religious liberty, when supporting Trump suggests that what they really want is a champion who will mock and crush their perceived enemies.
To redeem themselves, Howe believes, evangelicals have to give up their take-no-prisoners culture war.
This is the story Howe, a writer and pundit, tells in his new book, The Immoral Majority—the title aptly riffs on the Moral Majority, the 1980s-era Christian political machine created by the influential pastor Jerry Falwell. Right-wing Christianity is Howe’s native territory: He grew up attending Falwell’s church in Virginia, Thomas Road Baptist Church, down the street from Liberty University, where Howe’s father, a Southern Baptist pastor, taught classes. In other years, Howe’s family attended First Baptist Church in Dallas, which is now pastored by one of Trump’s most vocal supporters, Robert Jeffress. After being raised in the bosom of the religious right, Howe went on to become a filmmaker, a Tea Party activist, and a blogger for the conservative website RedState, where he spent a not insignificant portion of his time trolling progressives. He was later fired from that website, along with other writers, because of his vocally anti-Trump views, he claims. (Rosie Gray wrote about the purge for The Atlantic in the spring of 2018.)
Howe’s book mirrors the frenzied intellectual mode of the Trump era. Over the course of some 200-plus pages, he spends a lot of time talking about Twitter and micro-events from the insane Trumpian news cycle. Very few “regular” people show up in his book—he relies on the work of reporters and the statements of a few prominent evangelical Trump supporters to make a broad case about rot in the American church. While Howe sometimes seems to write from within an echo chamber, his keyboard-warrior style also yields the most compelling sections of the book, in which he reflects on the toxic culture of right-wing media.
Conservatives who are so-called Never Trumpers are a rare breed to find in the wild, although you might not know it from the plush media gigs and small mountain of book deals this crowd has collected since Trump got elected. I wanted to talk with Howe because his rage is personal—it’s his church, his gospel, and his identity that he believes have been co-opted.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Emma Green: What bothers you so much about the wholesale evangelical support for Donald Trump?
Ben Howe: There is not necessarily anything inherently wrong with a transactional relationship with a president. But Trump brings a few problems. The first is the kind of support he demands, which is a loyalty even when he does something wrong. If you want to stay on his good side, you have to support what he did and even laud him for it.
The late ’70s, with Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority—the whole idea was that they were bringing something to Washington: expectations of morality and character. Now it seems like evangelicals are there to put faith around basic Republican politics.
Green: So it’s the hypocrisy that bothers you?
Howe: Hypocrisy irritates me, but it’s not the objective of the book to have people go, “Those guys are hypocrites.” People know they’re hypocrites. But I think people are misidentifying why they’re hypocrites, and that’s what I wanted to address.
Green: You grew up in this world, right?
Green: Does that add to your irritation?
Howe: It is important for people to understand that I’m coming from within this movement. I’m not outside of it, looking in. I know what I’m talking about because this has been my life.
Green: You talk a lot about the bitterness that motivates evangelicals in the realm of politics. Where does that come from?
Howe: It comes from a reasonably understandable place. If people feel that their motives are impugned, if they feel they’re not bad people but are being told they are—being told they’re racist or misogynist—it can foster a mentality of victimhood.
In the minds of a lot of conservatives, the left exists to impugn their motives, and the Republican Party regularly lied to them and said they would defend them and then didn’t. And that was the establishment. Trump became their hero, because he hated the establishment, and he beat up on the media, and he was fighting back against all these forces. The more he fights, the more they feel justified, like, He’s our hero because we needed someone to do this for us.
Trump’s appeal is not judges. It’s not policies. It’s that he’s a shit-talker and a fighter and tells it like it is. That’s what they like. They love the meanest parts of him.
Green: Do you think that that sense of embattlement is grounded in reality?
Howe: A lot of it is. But I think they’re wrong when they say they have it worse than others. Evangelicals have done plenty of unfair things to others with no reflection, other than to complain that the culture was moving away from them.
Green: Like what?
Howe: Take gay marriage, abortion, any evangelical issues that have come up over the last 20 years. I was not happy at all with how we approached most of those issues.
Green: “We” being evangelicals?
Howe: Yes. I thought they were fighting fights in a way that showed a total lack of understanding, empathy, or love for fellow people, all in the name of preventing the culture from getting away from us. It’s very selfish and self-centered.
Green: In your book, you talk a lot about the “but abortion” argument that many pro-life Christians make. For example: Let’s say I’m an evangelical mom involved in the pro-life movement, and I genuinely believe that abortion is the greatest human-rights crisis of our time. And although I don’t like the way that Trump talks about immigrants, I don’t like babies in cages, I don’t like family separation, etc., I think there is a genuine possibility that a Republican will nominate and confirm Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade and lower the number of abortions in the U.S.
Do you disagree with that as a rationale for supporting Trump?
Howe: When you make a short-term decision that can have long-term detrimental consequences, as I think Trump will, you are harming your cause. Trump will affect the way the culture views abortion and views conservatism. As a Trump-supporting pro-lifer, can I convince anyone that abortion is wrong? He makes it more difficult.
Green: The most interesting part of your book, in my opinion, is when you’re talking about the culture of trolling and shit-posting in the conservative-media world. You suggest that you’ve repented of all that. Have you?
Howe: I would not say that I have. I would say that I’ve gotten way better.
Green: You’re still a shit-poster?
Howe: I don’t know if I was ever a shit-poster. A shit-poster wants to piss you off because they think it is funny to piss you off.
Green: Don’t some conservatives do that?
Howe: Tons of conservatives do that. What I would say is I had a penchant for arguing and snarking, but I believed there was something I was fighting for, not just getting you upset.
Green: Okay. So why have you not fully repented of your shit-posting past, or whatever you’d call it—your something-close-to-shit-posting past?
Howe: People say, “I see you’re still fighting with people on Twitter.” Well, yeah. I’m a shithead. What I would like is for everybody to be aware of their ability to be a shithead. I think everybody has the ability to be garbage. A big step is to accept that about yourself and then fight that part of yourself.
I don’t feel like a lot of people on the right do that. They’re very certain of their righteousness. That’s probably the thing I dislike the most.
Green: What is the culpability of right-wing media for creating this toxic moment in politics? Fox News, RedState, Breitbart—outlets that create this lather of rage against political correctness, socialists, libs, etc.
Howe: This is when I become one of those evil both-siders. I think we have a divisive political structure that encourages bad-faith arguments, and makes people view their fellow Americans as the enemy. That’s what creates a feeling of justice when you do something in the best interest of your “team.”
Right-wing media thrives on headlines that upset people, to get the base ginned up and angry and ready to go. I tried to make clear in the book that I don’t think the left is innocent either, but I’m just not as interested in dealing with that, because it’s not where I’m coming from.
Green: So how are you going to fix the grifterism and total cynicism of right-wing media?
Howe: How am I going to fix it?
Green: You’ve anointed yourself, haven’t you?
Howe: The idea of a culture war has to die. There’s cultural forces that oppose each other, I won’t deny that. But when this dynamic is described as a war, it invites a battlefield mentality, that a separate set of morals apply when you’re facing your enemy. So, this culture-war mentality has to become ridiculous.
Green: Toward the end of the book, you partly blame this political moment on the excesses of political correctness and the hypocritical liberals who claim that racism motivates everything. “It takes two to Trumpo,” you write. Do you think that’s false equivalence?
Howe: I’m talking to the individual who, by the end of the book, feels pretty certain they were right to be critical of evangelicals. And what I wanted was some kind of reminder that it is going to take unity to fix this.
Green: You’re really willing to throw evangelicals under the bus but less willing to focus on movement conservatism. Have you rethought Republican policies around policing, or mass incarceration, or racism, or poverty?
Howe: I’ve rethought the likelihood that no matter how ideal we may believe our perfectly magnificent free-market ideas are, they exist in a perfect world that we don’t live in. So I’ve changed on that.
On the questions of racial issues—God, I’m going to get in so much trouble for saying this. When you start getting attacked by the alt-right and seeing how they operate, and then seeing people saying “Those are terrible people” but also doing nothing about it—you start to just think, How much difference is there between the guy Photoshopping me in a gas chamber and the guy who does nothing to prevent him from having a voice in the [Republican] Party? A lot of people, especially minorities, don’t trust Republicans. And I don’t think they give them many reasons to trust them.
Green: Have you rethought the right’s hatred of Barack Obama, particularly given your argument that character is the most important quality in a leader?
Howe: Between Trump and Obama, there is just no question that Obama exhibited more Christian behavior. I rethought what was scary, I guess. There was stuff I thought was scary back then that’s funny to me now.
Green: You didn’t know how good you had it in the Obama years?
Howe: I don’t think that phenomenon is exclusive to me. George W. Bush’s polling has gone way up since Trump. And I think it’s the same effect. I’ve heard people say that, looking back on Bush, they disagree with so much that he did, but they realize at least he thought he was doing the right thing. Which is a hell of a lot better than being happy to do the wrong thing. I have to say it: Trump has made me like Obama.
Green: Something I noticed throughout our conversation is that you’ve struggled a lot with pronouns: we and they.
Howe: Oh, ugh. I switch back and forth because I feel like I’m a separated wife, but I’m not divorced yet.
Green: Are you an evangelical?
Howe: I am.
Green: So why they?
Howe: Because when I’m saying they, I’m talking about people who support Trump in the way I’m criticizing.
Green: Are you a conservative?
Howe: I still am, yeah, but I guess that’s why I’m saying my language sounds fluid. At some point I’ve got to accept that what I think “conservative” is is not what others think it is. I’m a little more protective of the word evangelical because I think evangelize is a good and important word and I don’t want it to be taken away. But conservatism was called other things in the past, “classical liberalism” and things like that. So sometimes I call myself a libertarian, sometimes I call myself a conservatarian, and then eventually I go, “Oh, who needs labels.”
Green: It sounds a little bit like you’re a man without a we.
Howe: Oh, I feel like I am. All I’m hoping for is that there are a lot of people who feel like me, who will start to rise up, so I can eventually call myself a we again. I think there are lots of people who think like me. I just don’t think we’re all talking.