Tag Archives: Evangelicals

Don’t Just Take It From Me

Several readers have shared a recent, stunning post from Pastor John Pavlovitz. I’ve been a fan of Pastor Pavlovitz, although not a regular reader–Facebook friends pretty regularly share his online “sermons.”  After reading them, I usually think how nice it would be if all self-identified Christians were like him–you know, really Christian. ( I revisited that thought after reading the revelations about sexual abuse in Evangelical churches…)

At any rate, I’m ceding my space today to his message, because–like those who sent it to me–I think it is important to hear it from someone with first-hand knowledge and an “insider’s” perspective.

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I’ve been a pastor in the church for over two decades, much of that in predominantly white churches in the American South.

I’ve spent countless hours in church staff meetings and men’s Bible studies and youth pastor conferences.

I’ve stayed connected on social media with thousands of people still there in those churches. I read what they share and post and amplify and I know how they think and what they believe.

I need you to understand something and I say it without any hyperbole: white Evangelicals need to be stopped, now.

If the 2022 midterms elections allow Republicans to gain control of Congress, Conservative Christians will decimate this nation, and LGBTQ people, Muslims, women, people of color, and non-Christians will never have equality under the law again. We will all be at their mercy—and they will no longer have use for mercy.

This is not alarmist, sky-is-falling histrionics, it is the clear and sober forecast from someone who knows these people better than anyone. Over the last decade and a half, as my theology shifted and my beliefs grew more and more progressive, I’ve been a kind of undercover Liberal in an increasingly extremist movement, that while once relegated to minor fringe noisemakers is now at the precipice of Roman Empire-level power. They are less than two years away from having a dominance that they will wield violently and not relinquish.

I watched it all unfold from the inside:

I was at a North Carolina megachurch when Obama was elected and I saw the shift take place firsthand. I saw the fear slowly being ratcheted up and the agenda become solidified and the prejudices leveraged.

I was speaking regularly at the Billy Graham headquarters when Fox News reporters and Republicans like Sarah Palin started walking the halls with frequency.

I saw the messages at pastor’s conferences grow more incendiary and urgent, and heard the supremacist dog whistles become louder and more frequent.

While many decent people around this nation celebrated the progress of a black president and the many civil and human rights victories and gradually let down their guard—the white Conservative church set off the alarms and prepared for a holy war.

Yet, they were still a largely powerless, dying dinosaur until 2016, when Donald Trump acquired the presidency and gave the Evangelicals the perfect amoral partner to serve as the biggest bully pulpit they’ve ever had. Combine that with a fragmented Left, a general fatigue by the larger population, a ceremonial victory in Congress (thanks to Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema), and Republican attacks on voters’ rights— and we are now a hair’s breadth from the subjugation of diverse humanity here.

These are not followers of Jesus despite the trappings and window dressing. They are Jesus-less extremists: blind zealots for nothing but power. They have been conditioned by decades of polluted theology and FoxNews alternative facts to see diversity as a threat, to see progress as attacks on America, and to interpret more people being treated with dignity as oppression of white people.

Trust me when I tell you that we won’t recover from the theocracy Evangelicals are constructing once it is established. If we fail in 2022, they will have a political power that will render every election null and void, and we will never have a voice again in our lifetimes.

Women will lose autonomy over their own bodies.
LGBTQ people will have the rights to marry and adopt taken away.
People of color will be fully squeezed out of the electoral process.
Immigrants will be denied access to opportunity and refuge here.

These are not creative projections. They are precisely what Evangelicals have repeatedly stated as their intentions, and they’re closer than they’ve ever been to having a rubber stamp.

We can still stop it, though.
We just need a unity and coordination that transcends theirs.
We need a sustained, passionate, dedicated defense of humanity that rivals their relentless assaults on it.

I hear many people say they’re terrified, but being terrified alone doesn’t do anything but help these people.
Be terrified and get angry.
Be terrified and get busy.
Be terrified and go to work.
Be terrified and fight like hell.

I wish more decent people in America remembered they are among the vast majority instead of acting as if they are helpless victims of Republican Christians. We could defeat them, and we need to. We just need to stop lamenting how much damage they are doing and start doing something to oppose them.

We’ve seen this play out throughout history and we know how it ends. We know what the unchecked religious extremist is capable of and we know the cost of the silence and inaction of good people. We also know what people are capable of when they refuse to accept fascism and white supremacy cloaked in the Bible and wrapped in the flag, when they fight for something inherently good together.

As someone who knows just how much these Christians have lost the plot of their faith tradition, believe me when I tell you that they cannot be allowed to steer this nation. It will not end well for the disparate people who call it home or who one day wish to.

Love and equity and diversity are in the balance.

It’s time we made a choice.

It may be the last one we get.”

 

 

The Story Of Today’s America

Discussions on this blog tend to be conducted in relatively abstract terms. It can be easy to forget the power of particularity–the power of stories–to bring them home.

A lengthy report in last Sunday’s New York Times reminded me of that power–rather forcefully.

The article described one of the numerous fights over mask requirements, this particular one in Enid, Oklahoma. It began by focusing on a public meeting, and the discomfort of an Air Force sergeant, Jonathan Waddell, who had moved to Enid with his family seven years before, when he’d retired. He’d thrown himself into the community, and won a seat on the City Council. He supported the mask mandate–unlike the throng of people dressed in red who filled the chamber that night.

He had noticed something was different when he drove up in his truck. The parking lot was full, and people wearing red were getting out of their cars greeting one another, looking a bit like players on a sports team. As the meeting began, he realized that they opposed the mandate. It was almost everybody in the room.

The meeting was unlike any he had ever attended. One woman cried and said wearing a mask made her feel like she did when she was raped at 17. Another read the Lord’s Prayer and said the word “agenda” at the top of the meeting schedule seemed suspicious. A man quoted Patrick Henry and handed out copies of the Constitution.

“The line is being drawn, folks,” said a man in jeans and a red T-shirt. He said the people in the audience “had been shouted down for the last 20 years, and they’re finally here to draw a line, and I think they’re saying, ‘We’ve had enough.’”

 People were talking about masks, but Waddell said “it felt like something else.”

That “something else” became depressingly clear as the Times described the woman who had organized the red-shirted attendees. It’s one thing to speculate about the fears and resentments motivating QAnon and “Big Lie” believers and anti-vaccine cultists…but the Times story put a face on those resentments.

Melissa Crabtree is “a home-schooling mother who owns a business selling essential oils and cleaning products.

She said she came to the conclusion that the government was misleading Americans. For whose benefit she could not tell. Maybe drug companies. Maybe politicians. Whatever the case, it made her feel like the people in charge saw her — and the whole country of people like her — as easy to take advantage of.

“I don’t like to be played the fool,” said Ms. Crabtree, who also works as an assistant to a Christian author and speaker. “And I felt like they were counting on us — us being the general population — on being the fool.”

She felt contempt radiating from the other side, a sense that those who disagreed with her felt superior and wanted to humiliate her.

The article went into considerable detail about Crabtree’s unquestioning Evangelical religiosity, including her decision to homeschool her children to protect them from a culture she deplores–from its sexual “perversions” and the left’s “preoccupation with race” and its telling of history.

“Why all of a sudden are we teaching our 5-year-olds to be divided by color?” she said. “They don’t care what color your skin is until you tell them that that 5-year-old’s grandpa was mean 200 years ago.”

Crabtree’s organizing was successful; the mask mandate died. But the schism in Enid hardened.

Mr. Waddell voted for the mask mandate, and the reaction was immediate. The following Sunday, people he had prayed with for years avoided him at church. The greeters, an older couple he knew well, looked the other way when he walked by. Several people left the church altogether because of his association with it, he said.

It wasn’t just Waddell. Ben Ezzell, the city commissioner who introduced the mask mandate got veiled warnings  — mostly via email and Facebook. Someone dumped trash on his lawn. At one City Council meeting, “a man shouted that he knew where Mr. Ezzell lived. Another meeting got so tense that police officers insisted on escorting him to his car.”

In February, the Red Shirts swept the local elections, winning three seats on the City Council — including Mr. Waddell’s and Mr. Ezzell’s.  During the year, through a series of elections, appointments and City Council votes, they’ve placed four candidates on the school board and another four on the library board.

The article is lengthy, but I strongly encourage you to click through and read it in its entirety. It is eye-opening.

As the reporter noted, what we are seeing–nationally, and not just in Enid– is a deeply disturbing argument about what it means to be an American, and whose version of the country will prevail.

 

The Politics Of Religion

What happens when politics–or racism–masquerades as religion?  Because that’s where America finds itself.

A guest essay in the New York Times put it, “Evangelical now means ‘Republican.'”The article noted that what is drawing people to embrace the evangelical label on surveys is its identification with the Republican Party rather than theological affinity for Jesus Christ.

Interestingly, in 2019, fifty percent of the self-identified Evangelicals who never attended church said they were politically conservative. 

A recent column by the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin amplified those findings, casting doubt on the conventional wisdom that abortion and gay rights motivated “devout” Evangelical voters.

Conservative commentator and evangelical Christian David A. French acknowledges in a piece for the Dispatch: “We know that opposition to abortion rights motivates white Evangelicals far less than their leaders’ rhetoric would suggest. Eastern Illinois University’s Ryan Burge, one of the nation’s leading statisticians of American religion, has noted, for example, that immigration drove Evangelical support for [Donald] Trump more than abortion.

”As for gay rights, the Public Religion Research Institute’s annual values survey shows a majority of White evangelical Christians still oppose gay marriage, but that “substantial majorities in every major religious group favor nondiscrimination laws that protect LGBTQ people, ranging from 59% among white evangelical Protestants to 92% among religiously unaffiliated Americans.” Moreover, even opposition to gay marriage is declining because of a massive generational divide on the issue between older evangelicals and more tolerant millennials and Generation Xers.

Rubin’s reading of the relevant research leads her to conclude that what Evangelicals want is not a government that produces legislative fixes to real-world problems but a government willing to engage their enemies on behalf of White Christianity.

Longtime devout Evangelicals have reached similar conclusions. Peter Wehner recently shared his pain in an article for The Atlantic, in which he described the Evangelical Church as “breaking up,” and argued for reclaiming Jesus from his church.

Influential figures such as the theologian Russell Moore and the Bible teacher Beth Moore felt compelled to leave the Southern Baptist Convention; both were targeted by right-wing elements within the SBC. The Christian Post, an online evangelical newspaper, published an op-ed by one of its contributors criticizing religious conservatives like Platt, Russell Moore, Beth Moore, and Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, as “progressive Christian figures” who “commonly champion leftist ideology.” In a matter of months, four pastors resigned from Bethlehem Baptist Church, a flagship church in Minneapolis. One of those pastors, Bryan Pickering, cited mistreatment by elders, domineering leadership, bullying, and “spiritual abuse and a toxic culture.” Political conflicts are hardly the whole reason for the turmoil, but according to news accounts, they played a significant role, particularly on matters having to do with race.

In an effort to understand what was happening, Wehner reached out to dozens of pastors, theologians, academics, and historians, as well as a seminary president and people involved in campus ministry. What he found clearly pained him.

The root of the discord lies in the fact that many Christians have embraced the worst aspects of our culture and our politics. When the Christian faith is politicized, churches become repositories not of grace but of grievances, places where tribal identities are reinforced, where fears are nurtured, and where aggression and nastiness are sacralized. The result is not only wounding the nation; it’s having a devastating impact on the Christian faith.

How is it that evangelical Christianity has become, for too many of its adherents, a political religion? The historian George Marsden told me that political loyalties can sometimes be so strong that they create a religious like faith that overrides or even transforms a more traditional religious faith. The United States has largely avoided the most virulent expressions of such political religions. None has succeeded for very long—at least, until now.

Wehner quoted one scholar who noted that Evangelicals “are quick to label their values ‘biblical. But how they interpret the scriptures, which parts they decide to emphasize and which parts they decide to ignore, all this is informed by their historical and cultural circumstances.”

More than most other Christians, however, conservative evangelicals insist that they are rejecting cultural influences,” she said, “when in fact their faith is profoundly shaped by cultural and political values, by their racial identity and their Christian nationalism.”

The lengthy Wehner article is wrenching; it testifies to the pain of truly religious Christians in the face of the politicization of their faith. 

The rest of us are faced with a different pain: the threat to America posed by a racist politics that its practitioners think is religion.

 

Good News

In Christianity, the gospel is sometimes called the “Good News.” The phrase evidently heralds the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God. If you have landed on this page in hopes of a post exploring that concept, you’ve come to the wrong place. I don’t even recognize “Christianity” these days. (Granted, I’m not a Christian.)

In fact, when it comes to contemporary news, I’ve become used to seeing headlines like this one, on articles documenting the ways in which Evangelical “Christians” have become more and more indistinguishable from GOP cultists. 

A group that says its mission is “to halt and push back the forces of darkness” is holding a tactical event in southwest Missouri this weekend to train Christians in “hand-to-hand combat” and “fighting from your vehicle.”

I’m not Christian, but I really don’t think Jesus would approve…

Peter Wehner, a lifelong evangelical, recently wrote an article for the Atlantic about the internal conflicts being caused by the politicization of Christianity. I recommend it.

My “good news” is very different– an explicit rejection of that perversion of belief . There are evidently evangelical pastors who are genuinely religious–that is, concerned with concepts like brotherly love, ethical behavior and the golden rule. 

The Washington Post recently had the story.

Emotions ran high at the gathering of about 100 pastors at a church, about five miles from the University of Notre Dame. Many hugged. Some shed tears. One confessed she could not pray anymore.
 
Some had lost funding and others had been fired from their churches for adopting more liberal beliefs. All had left the evangelical tradition and had come to discuss their next steps as “post-evangelicals.”

Those  who planned the meeting–which took place in South Bend, Indiana–had expected 25 pastors. Word-of-mouth expanded it to over 100.  The appeal appears to be part of what the report calls a” larger reckoning” that has been triggered in individuals and congregations that are “grappling with their faith identity in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency and calls for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd.”

Many of the (formerly) evangelical leaders in attendance at the meeting had been deeply concerned when they learned that approximately 8 out of 10 White evangelicals had voted for Trump in both of his presidential runs–evidence, as they see it, that the evangelical movement has been co-opted by Republican politics.

As the pastors traded stories, they quickly found shared experiences. They lamented their conservative evangelical parents who watch Fox News, as well as their peers who had re-examined their beliefs so much that they lost their faith entirely. They skewed younger, many in their 30s with tattoos covering their arms.

Most of the leaders held some belief in Jesus and the idea that people gathering in churches is still a good idea. Many want their churches to be affirming, meaning that they would perform gay weddings and include LGBTQ people in leadership and membership. They preferred curiosity over certainty, inclusion over exclusion.

According to the article, all of the attendees agreed on two things: they opposed Trump and they opposed racism. (Some of us would suggest that Trumpism is racism, so maybe they only agreed on one thing…) 

One of the most positive signs of change came in a quote from Amy Mikal, who was once a pastor at the Chicago-based megachurch Willow Creek.

“The hardest part is that we were taught to take the Bible literally,” Mikal said. “We want to be a place that asks more questions than provides answers.”

I have previously shared my youngest son’s distinction between a good religion and a bad one: a good religion helps you wrestle with morally-fraught questions about life’s meaning and challenges; a bad religion gives you predetermined “correct” answers and demands that you live in unquestioning accordance with them. Mikal obviously reached a similar conclusion.

The article quoted a different participant, Brit Barron (who had worked for a megachurch in California before she began re-examining her beliefs) for a similar sentiment. Barron opined that “Our job is to create the conversation. If someone opens up and says, ‘I don’t know if any of this is real,’ then we’re doing our job.”

The participants in this meeting understood that the “job” of a pastor is to provide a safe space for questions and debates about morality and faith. That sets them apart from the mega-churches and celebrity pastors who increasingly seem to believe that their job is to program troops for the GOP while raking in lots of money.

The refusal of a growing number of pastors to participate in the con games of the Falwells and Grahams really is “good news.” 

 

 

The Data Keeps Coming…

Emerging data goes a long way toward explaining the increasing visibility–and acting out–of America’s White Christian Nationalists.

 As commenters to this blog frequently point out, the racial animosity so vividly on display these days is itself not a new phenomenon–far from it. But the visibility–the shamelessness– is new. The willingness to “come out”–to publicly flaunt beliefs and attitudes that had previously been soft-pedaled or hidden–and the virtually complete capture of a major American political party by people who believe that they are the only “real” Americans is a recent (and unwelcome) phenomenon.

Fear often makes people discard the veneer of civility, of course, and these folks are currently terrified. 

It’s bad enough when fear is “ginned up” by propagandists warning of immigrant caravans or computer chips hidden in vaccines, but it turns out that the White Christian Evangelical fear of being “replaced”–of becoming just another thread in a colorful American tapestry–is actually well-founded. 

I’ve recently read several media reports about a study conducted by PRRI , the Public Religion Research Institute. One, by Michelle Goldberg for the New York Times, characterizes PRRI’s findings as “startling.” Goldberg began her column by noting the major role played by the Christian Right in the election and administration of George W. Bush, and she notes that many of the leaders of that movement assumed they were on the cusp of even greater control.

The PRRI results–and others–suggest otherwise.

The evangelicals who thought they were about to take over America were destined for disappointment. On Thursday, P.R.R.I. released startling new polling data showing just how much ground the religious right has lost. P.R.R.I.’s 2020 Census of American Religion, based on a survey of nearly half a million people, shows a precipitous decline in the share of the population identifying as white evangelical, from 23 percent in 2006 to 14.5 percent last year. (As a category, “white evangelicals” isn’t a perfect proxy for the religious right, but the overlap is substantial.) In 2020, as in every year since 2013, the largest religious group in the United States was the religiously unaffiliated.

It isn’t just the shrinking numbers. White evangelicals were also the oldest religious group in the country, with a median age of 56.

“It’s not just that they are dying off, but it is that they’re losing younger members,” Jones told me. As the group has become older and smaller, Jones said, “a real visceral sense of loss of cultural dominance” has set in.

White evangelicals once saw themselves “as the owners of mainstream American culture and morality and values,” said Jones. Now they are just another subculture.

In the Washington Post, Aaron Blake also reported on the “striking”  PRRI findings.

The Public Religion Research Institute released a detailed study Thursday on Americans’ religious affiliations. Perhaps the most striking finding is on White evangelical Christians.

While this group made up 23 percent of the population in 2006 — shortly after “values voters” were analyzed to have delivered George W. Bush his reelection — that number is now down to 14.5 percent, according to the data.

Blake also notes the age disparity and the lack of youth replentishment. While 22 percent of Americans 65 and over are White evangelicals, the number is just 7 percent for those between 18 and 29 years of age.

Goldberg quotes Robert Jones, the Director of PRRI, who connects some bizarre dots.

From this fact derives much of our country’s cultural conflict. It helps explain not just the rise of Donald Trump, but also the growth of QAnon and even the escalating conflagration over critical race theory. “It’s hard to overstate the strength of this feeling, among white evangelicals in particular, of America being a white Christian country,” said Jones. “This sense of ownership of America just runs so deep in white evangelical circles.” The feeling that it’s slipping away has created an atmosphere of rage, resentment and paranoia.

QAnon is essentially a millenarian movement, with Trump taking the place of Jesus. Adherents dream of the coming of what they call the storm, when the enemies of the MAGA movement will be rounded up and executed, and Trump restored to his rightful place of leadership.

These QAnon people are unwell. If I were Christian, I’d consider Trump taking the place of Jesus an unbelievable blasphemy…

Bottom line: the PRRI study, and several others with similar findings, is both good news and bad. The diminished power of a religious sect that has been dubbed (with some accuracy) the American Taliban is clearly very good news. The accompanying rage, resentment and paranoia–and the unrest those passions encourage– is not. 

But as I indicated earlier, it explains a lot.