The Hot-Taking of Evangelicalism
A genealogy of Matt Walsh, the conservative douche-blogger who conquered the internet.
Matt Walsh is a conservative blogger who recently moved to The Blaze after his personal blog, shared constantly by thousands of conservative Christians, became a viral phenomenon. Matt Walsh is a moron and a bad writer. He is proudly reactionary, sexist, anti-gay, and everything else you can imagine. He is the Platonic ideal of a douchebag as defined recently by Michael Mark Cohen.
But all of this is obvious if you’ve read even one of his long, digressive rants that have a paragraph break after every sentence. To try to demonstrate that Matt Walsh is a douchebag would be pointless, as well as an insult to anyone who sacrifices their sanity and financial well-being to master difficult knowledge, like how to write. The more interesting questions to ask about Matt Walsh are: Why him? Why now? The answer is naturally not very flattering to Matt Walsh, but neither is it flattering to the entire cultural moment — both inside and outside conservative Christianity — that created him.
* * * *
Conservative evangelicalism has been rhetorically on the defensive for a good few years. There was the big 2008 brouhaha about “young evangelicals” voting for Obama, and their supposed dissatisfaction with the old religious right. The social-justice-oriented strain of evangelicalism got new attention, and rejecting religious right’s alliance with the party of wealth and war became trendy. But outside the most committedly liberal, post-2008 evangelicalism was extremely confused about its political orientation: caring for the environment and rejecting the GOP’s plutocracy platform was easy enough, but social issues were tougher. Gay marriage was increasingly looking like a losing battle, but institutional resistance within evangelicalism was still overwhelming. The tension between economic and social issues produced the “beyond the culture wars” moment, where the goal became to all costs stop talking about culture war issues that hadn’t or couldn’t be easily resolved. As I hypothesized before, this umbrella position was useful both for those who had quietly changed their politics and those who hadn’t but didn’t want to defend their increasingly stigmatized views, particularly about gay rights.
One of the casualties of the “beyond the culture wars” moment was substantive debate about those particular issues, and possibly in general. Many people who found themselves in transition in that period, especially on the social issues, were in that position because of personal experience, not only or primarily because abstract arguments had changed their mind. In other words, their minds were changing, but they were still too uncertain, and didn’t yet have the ammunition, to engage traditionalists in a serious theological or intellectual debate. (There is also an argument to be made that little serious debate is even allowed in conservative Christian forums.) So given the transitional nature of the moment, the emphasis shifted from the old debate about doctrines and the Bible to a marked resistance to debate period, an insistence that debate itself was the destructive force preventing evangelicals from listening to, understanding, or empathizing with, say, LGBTQ people or women considering abortion. This was all understandable, especially considering that at one point, changing your position on a litmus-test issue could bring a swift end to your welcome in evangelical circles (ministry, publishing, journalism, etc).
This moment produced a particular style, one that spread like wildfire across the evangelical blogosphere and even penetrated some more mainstream forums: emotive discourse that foregrounded individual experiences and downplayed argument even though its ideological thrust was clear. At its best, this approach allowed those who had been systematically excluded to speak for themselves. At its worst, it was deeply enamored with its own imagined profundity and rhetorical force. Writing like this continues to produce an outpouring of similarly emotive response on social media that is often able to catapult its authors to book deals and general recognition. It is often impossible to formally disagree with since it advances few, if any, actual arguments; it is perhaps best described as an explosion of id, an attempt at a primal connection with readers who will respond in kind.
It so happens that people all over the internet were also figuring out the power of emotional moralism: social-justice activists and mainstream media outlets alike realized that resounding clarion calls and invocations of tribal solidarity produced a hell of a lot of Facebook shares. Substantive debate did not disappear from the internet, of course, but it quickly became drowned out by social media hectoring and the rise of “hot takes” — in Thomas Rios’ definition, “a form of dehumanizing, black-and-white moralism.” These take a different form than the new evangelical moralism; while the evangelical post-culture-warriors wanted a softer tone to back away from the controversial substance, the hot-takers take a controversial tone to distract from their soft substance. Hot takes are deliberately polarizing: when I see a one starting to explode on a social media feed, especially one from the “other side,” I usually either hide it or unfriend the person who posted it. There are certain circumstance where I might try to have a civil debate about an article I disagreed with, but in these cases you know it’ll just be an orgy of hysterical agreement. Hot takes and calls to arms not only deny that there is anything to debate, they actively obstruct debate.
Recently, most of this ethic has (not unfairly) been blamed on left-wingers, even though I think it is surely equaled and was perhaps even pioneered by the grievance-manufacturing right-wing media. In the evangelical world, the abandonment of argument for argument by other means—“getting past left and right,” “storytelling,” free-associating — certainly came from those trying to question the conservative orthodoxy. Traditionalists in the evangelical culture wars debates are used to certain kinds of theological and political arguments, and likely felt blindsided by these newcomers who refused to play by any of the old rules. There was no longer any barrier to entry, and, buoyed by the emerging online culture of moral hectoring, “progressive” evangelicals seemed to be in tune with the moment of surging emotional morality, leaving traditionalists young and old to seethe at the viral blog posts from their startup websites.
Until Matt Walsh.
* * * *
Like an increasing number of employees of the professional media, Matt Walsh is a master of the hot take, defined as a hasty, thoughtless, but boldly moralistic analysis of a “news event” that is always internet-driven and usually trivial. If Beyoncé included the word “Feminist” in her VMA performance, or people are saying bad things about spanking because a football player beat his child, Walsh will be ready with his take. In fact, part of his appeal is that he rounds up the liberal media’s hot takes and serves them in a provocative package to his conservative audience. Scare-quoting the liberal media is a time-honored tactic of the right-wing media, but Walsh expands the purview far beyond its traditional focus on politics and law. He is a connoisseur of viral culture, simultaneously critiquing and exemplifying it; he uses the empty pontificating that multiplies around viral news events as a foil for his own style of groundless punditry.
Matt Walsh is a shameless voice in an ashamed time. Things have obviously progressed past the “beyond the culture wars” moment: gay marriage as a political battle is basically over, and evangelical inclusion of LGBTQ people no longer seems like a distant impossibility. Many evangelical leaders have, to their credit, acknowledged the damage done to their message by the harsh culture wars rhetoric, and while they aren’t changing their position, they are making small steps toward listening to the people they have excluded. Whatever else we might say about online activism, it has, at least on the level of discourse, certainly increased the stigma of racism, sexism, and homophobia. As many an unfortunate fringe GOP candidate has learned, if you don’t watch what you say, you’ll quickly be branded a bigot far beyond your intended audience. As a result, evangelical political discourse is a lot more, shall we say, polite than it probably used to be. That’s why everybody loves Matt Walsh so much: he doesn’t mind calling feminism “poison,” denying the existence of transgender people, interrupting the tragic death of a troubled actor to remind us suicide is a choice, and consistently attacking low-wage workers as lazy and entitled. Sure, some people get enraged about everything he says, but he heroically refuses to be cowed by the liberal onslaught. “I truly believe that we are the most whiney, sensitive, thin-skinned, easily offended society in the history of the world,” our world historian declares.
What Walsh shares with mainstream hot-takers and evangelical emotibloggers alike is that he writes largely without the intention of trying to stake a position, reject or argue with any position, or persuade any reader. His position is presumed from the start, and he adds nothing beyond scare-quoting and free-association. This feminism post, for example, seems to be an extended attempt to arrive at the most exalted metaphorical epithet to bestow upon that obviously Satanic movement. The whole “analysis,” which takes off from a viral video of little girls saying the F-word, depends on you already thinking it is an indication of deep moral corruption that a society could produce, much less laugh at, a video of little girls saying the F-word. (We all know kids saying the F-word, with our without political intent, is hilarious.) Even when he’s not trying to stay on top of the news cycle, Walsh’s topics hit the sweet spots of evangelical conservatism: dramatic defense of the fetus, romanticization of domestic life and early-and-often childbearing, etc. And in the process, he echoes the more general prejudices of douchebag politics, namely the natural prerogative of the white, male, straight, and rich to define what’s right and good. The value he brings to a media outlet like The Blaze is his ability to strike primal, tribal chords in his readers — something more or less incompatible with careful and charitable argument informed by valuable knowledge and expertise.
* * * *
Matt Walsh isn’t the only conservative to adapt to the latest trends in the partisan balkanization and trivialization of the media. National Review’s blog The Corner was a gurgling font of reactionary babble when the internet was still in its infancy. More recently, The Daily Caller and the Washington Free Beacon have arisen to champion manufactured scandals, made-up gaffes, and other faux-outrages. The newcomer The Federalist is the Foxconn of hot-take factories, destined to undercut the industry with its extraordinarily cheap punditry. But Walsh is perhaps the first writer in the conservative Christian internet subculture to fully embrace the hot take — a development made possible by the movement of evangelical discourse toward its own version of the emotionalism and moralism overtaking the broader internet. The deeply desired conservative reaction to the post-culture-war moment was able to take an even more advanced form.
Walsh’s ignorance and douchebaggery may be in a class by themselves, but his prominence is the product of forces that implicate the entire internet, the entire media, and our entire political discourse. What does it mean for the possibility of reasonable and informed debate when people like this have the ideal formula for winning the game we all, like it or not, are playing?
A follow-up Q&A post on this essay is here.