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Opinion | Tucker Carlson’s Dark and Malign Influence Over the Christian Right

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On April 25, the far-right network Newsmax hosted a fascinating and revealing conversation about Tucker Carlson with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, one of America’s leading Christian conservative advocacy organizations. Perkins scorned Fox News’s decision to fire Carlson, and — incredibly — also attacked Fox’s decision to fire Bill O’Reilly. These terminations (along with the departures of Glenn Beck and Megyn Kelly) were deemed evidence that Fox was turning its back on its conservative viewers, including its Christian conservative viewers.

What was missing from the conversation? Any mention of the profound moral failings that cost O’Reilly his job, including at least six settlements — five for sexual harassment and one for verbal abuse — totaling approximately $45 million. Or any mention of Carlson’s own serious problems, including his serial dishonesty, his vile racism and his gross personal insult directed against a senior Fox executive. It’s a curious position for a Christian to take.

Similarly curious is the belief of other Christians, such as the popular evangelical “prophet” Lance Wallnau, that Carlson was a “casualty of war” with the left, and that his firing was a serious setback for Christian Republicans. To Wallnau, an author and a self-described “futurist,” Carlson was a “secular prophet,” somebody “used by God, more powerful than a lot of preachers.”

Other prominent Christian members of the American right applauded Carlson’s “courage” or declared — after The Times reported that Carlson condemned a group of Trump supporters for not fighting like “white men” after “jumping” an Antifa member — that Carlson did “nothing wrong.” Rod Dreher, editor-at-large at The American Conservative, said, “I hope Tucker Carlson runs for president,” and a “Tucker-DeSantis ticket would be the Generation X Saves The World team.”

I’m going to pause now and confess that I was once naïve. I was especially naïve about human nature. As a much younger Christian, I’d read stories of unholy violence and hatred unleashed in Jesus’ name in religious conflicts of even the recent past and think, “Thank God that’s over.” I felt comfortable in my Christian conservatism. My conservatism reflected my best effort to discern the policies that would contribute to justice and human flourishing, while my Christianity hovered over everything, hopefully (though not always, I must confess) infusing my public engagement with humility and kindness.

After all, isn’t “love your enemies” a core Christian command? The fruit of the spirit (the markers of God’s presence in our lives) are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” not Republicanism, conservatism and capitalism.

But the temptations — including the will to power and the quest for vengeance — that plagued the Christians of the past still plague the Christians of today. These temptations can plague people of any faith. If you infuse an issue or set of issues with religious intensity but drain a movement of religious virtue, then profound religious conflict — including violent conflict — is the inevitable result. Indeed, we saw religious violence on full display when a mob stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and it is no coincidence that one of Carlson’s most mendacious projects was his effort to recast the Jan. 6 insurrection and its aftermath as a “patriot purge.”

Within conservative circles it has always been surprisingly difficult to tie a decline in Christian political virtue to the rise of Donald Trump. What seems obvious from a distance (wait a minute, didn’t Christians used to place a premium on the importance of character in politicians, especially during Bill Clinton’s scandals?) was less obvious up close. In countless personal conversations with Christians who are staunch Republicans, I heard some variation on the same plaintive question, “What do you want us to do? Hand an election to Hillary Clinton? Or to Joe Biden?”

For Democratic readers, that’s an easy choice. There’s no sacrifice in voting for Clinton or for Biden. But let’s turn the question around — under what circumstances would you actually vote for your polar political opposite? How corrupt would a Democratic politician have to be to keep you home, make you vote third party or perhaps even cast a vote for a Republican who wants to ban most abortions and nominate Federalist Society lawyers to judgeships? Honestly exploring that question can perhaps help you sympathize with Republican Trump voters. When character conflicts with policy, voting choices can be hard.

But the Carlson question is different, and in some ways his loyal Christian support is even more troubling. What are the “lesser of two evils” or the “binary choice” arguments for sitting down and devoting an hour of your life, each night, to a cruel, dishonest man, much less hailing him as a “secular prophet?” The more the Christian right latches on to cruel men, the more difficult it becomes to argue that the cruelty is a bug, not a feature.

The great tragedy is that a moment of dangerous national polarization is exactly when a truly Christian message that combines the pursuit of justice with kindness and humility would be a balm to the national soul. A time of extraordinary social isolation, where people report less companionship, less time with friends, and less time with family, is exactly the time when a healthy church community can be a beacon of inclusion and hope.

But not when the right-wing pursuit of its version of justice overwhelms its commitment to kindness, much less any shred of humility. This is how the religious right becomes post-Christian. Its “secular prophets” become even more influential than its Christian leaders, and it actively discards clear biblical commands for what it perceives to be the greater good.

That’s not Christianity. It’s a primitive form of consequentialism, the idea that the morality of an action is to be judged solely by its consequences. Many Christians fear that kindness doesn’t “work,” so they discard it. This is how even decency itself becomes a “secondary value.” Aggression, not virtue, becomes the touchstone of political engagement, and anything other than aggression is seen as a sign of weakness.

I’ll end with a point of agreement with Lance Wallnau. I do agree that Carlson was more powerful in Christian politics than “a lot of preachers.” I’ll go even further. He was more powerful in Christian politics than virtually any preacher alive. Is there a single public figure not named Donald Trump who had more real-world influence over evangelical political engagement than Carlson?

But that influence was dark and malign. For the sake of contestable political issues, he abandoned necessary moral virtues, and he taught his followers to do the same. His daily example demonstrated that honesty and grace — indispensable qualities in every sphere of life — have no place in the politics of the new religious right, and the new religious right thus repeats ancient sins. Christian political engagement must include Christian moral virtue, or it will tear this nation apart.

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