“I only get an hour a week; Tucker gets five.” I’ve heard a sentiment along these lines countless times from evangelical pastors—although they sometimes replaced “Tucker” with “Laura” or “Sean” or another Fox News cable host.
After his firing by the network, Tucker Carlson no longer has five hours a week. But his legacy ought to tell us just how much the church has secularized. Nowhere is this clearer than in the kind of replacement theory embraced by so many Christians.
Originating on the white nationalist fringes, the “great replacement theory” holds that “globalist” elites are seeking to replace white Americans with Black and brown immigrants from around the world. At the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, for instance, the alt-right crowd chanted, “You will not replace us; Jews will not replace us.”
This view was made mainstream by Carlson, perhaps more so than by any other figure, because he promoted extreme voices few others would. When others would hint in the direction of the great replacement theory, Carlson would explicitly articulate it, even arguing that immigrants were making the country “dirtier.”
Many Christians have never heard of the great replacement theory and never watch Carlson or any other cable news commentator. Yet they can find themselves changed by the great replacement theory’s vibe, if not its explicit content. That’s because the most significant carrier of conspiracy theories such as this one is not cognitive but limbic. What’s needed is a general stance of fear about an existential threat—like the threat of being replaced.
Two years ago, commentator David Frum argued that there actually is a great replacement happening, but not the one popularized by Carlson and others. Frum said, “The most politically important ‘great replacement’ underway in the United States is the ‘replacement’ of conservative Christians by their own liberal and secular children and grandchildren.”
Frum’s argument should come with lots of caveats and qualifications. Like for those who say that demographic change with increased minority populations would lead to a permanent progressive majority in the United States, some naively assume that secularization trends will mean the end of religion—especially of conservative Christianity.
For all sorts of reasons, this is not the case. But Frum is correct that one of the most seismic generational changes over the past 20 years is the rise of the “nones,” referring to those with no religious affiliation. And the younger we go on the generational chart, the sharper the decline of religious self-identification, worship attendance, and other metrics.
One reason American Christians are in a state of denial about these realities is that so many are sorting themselves into the wrong “us.” Every blood-and-soil form of fear-based identity politics thrives on defining us in terms of visceral categories like race, tribe, or nationality. This assumes a blatantly social Darwinian view of what human communities are or can be.
The problem for Christians is that the gospel contradicts this ideology at its very root.
If “Christianity” for you is white and American, then it is not only out of step with the Bible; it is also precisely the kind of religion that almost every chapter of the New Testament explicitly repudiates as carnal and pagan.
The gospel situates us in a whole new story—one based on the promise God made to Abraham (Rom. 4; Gal. 3:1–9). If the church is just another way for humans to protect their gene pools, then Jesus was a fraud from his first sermon onward (Luke 4:25–27). If the blood-and-soil nationalists are correct about what defines success, then the crowds were right to call out for a leader like Barabbas instead of Jesus (John 18:40).
But Jesus and his apostles gave us an entirely different vision of how we and us are ultimately defined. The apostle Paul is in sync with the rest of the New Testament canon when he reveals that “here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11).
Once we lose that biblical sense of “we-ness” overall, any threat to the places where we do catch rare glimpses of it is considered an ultimate threat—capable of destroying “us” completely. If we have misplaced hopes, we will have misplaced fears. When we seek the wrong kingdom, we will fear the wrong apocalypse.
That sense of paralyzing fear can also fuel the loss of the next generation. If the only choices we offer are secularization and paganization, we shouldn’t be surprised that they choose one or the other. Moreover, our children will find it very hard to connect a scared and anxious church with a Jesus who perspired not a drop before the leaders of the Roman Empire but sweat blood before the face of God (Luke 22:44).
The implicit but faulty logic is that if we teach a generation to fear many things, they will at least fear the things they ought to. But it doesn’t work that way. When my generation was taught that rock music included hidden “backward masked” satanic messages, this did not lead us to become more discerning about cultural narratives. And when we found out this wasn’t true, it only taught us to wonder what other of our elders’ fears were imagined or fabricated.
But if Jesus is right that our ultimate belonging comes not by our flesh but through the Spirit (John 3:3–8), then none of us can consider our present or potentially future siblings in Christ scary or “unclean.” If we really believe in the unstoppable advance of God’s kingdom, then we will be known by our joy and peace—not by our fear and loathing.
Cable television hosts come and go, but there will always be people who try to make us find our identity in the wrong places and our enemies in the wrong people. They want us to be afraid so we will look for someone or something to fight for us. The great replacement theory is bad for democracy, but it is even more poisonous to the church.
The church will go on into the future, even in America. And it will probably be led then by the very people we are told to fear now.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.