I felt Pastor Kevin Thompson's pain yesterday when I read the NY Times piece by Ruth Graham about a seismic shift in the evangelical/Trumpist/QAnon church. Sociologist Michael Emerson, is the one who came up with the “seismic shift” description which he says is defines "white evangelical churches divided into two broad camps: those embracing Trump-style messaging and politics, including references to conspiracy theories, and those seeking to navigate a different way." Emerson didn't use the word "racist," but it's hard to accurately describe the Church of Trump without that word. And violent; these people see themselves as one step away from being a Christian-- anti-Jesus Christian-- militia. Let's hope they all die in the next COVID wave.
And then, this morning, The Atlantic published an essay by Tim Alberta, How Politics Poisoned The Evangelical Church-- 40 years at war with secular America and now at war with itself. He began by recounting a sermon by Pastor Bill Bolin at a white evangelic church, Floodgate in Brighton, Michigan. "Bolin," he wrote, "does not mention the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, or the life everlasting. Instead, he spouts misinformation and conspiratorial nonsense, much of it related to the 'radically dangerous' COVID-19 vaccines. 'A local nurse who attends FloodGate, who is anonymous at this time-- she reported to my wife the other day that at her hospital, they have two COVID patients that are hospitalized. Two.' Bolin pauses dramatically. 'They have 103 vaccine-complication patients.' The crowd gasps. 'How about this one?' Bolin says. He tells of a doctor who claims to know that 'between 100 and 200 United States Congress members, plus many of their staffers and family members with COVID, were treated by a colleague of his over the past 15 months … with …' Bolin stops and puts a hand to his ear. A chorus of people responds: 'Ivermectin.' Bolin pretends not to hear. 'What was that?' he says, leaning over the lectern. This time, they shout: 'Ivermectin!' Bolin nods."
Alberta, who grew up down the street from this Trumpist-Satanic church wrote that he spent his life "watching evangelicalism morph from a spiritual disposition into a political identity. It’s heartbreaking. So many people who love the Lord, who give their time and money to the poor and the mourning and the persecuted, have been reduced to a caricature. But I understand why. Evangelicals-- including my own father-- became compulsively political, allowing specific ethical arguments to snowball into full-blown partisan advocacy, often in ways that distracted from their mission of evangelizing for Christ. To his credit, even when my dad would lean hard into a political debate, he was careful to remind his church of the appropriate Christian perspective. 'God doesn’t bite his fingernails over any of this,' he would say around election time. 'Neither should you.'" Bolin, on the other hand, might as well call himself a QAnon chieftain rather than a pastor; it would be a far more accurate description.
Ken Brown is another conservative pastor to a nearby evangelical church. "The crisis for the Church is a crisis of discernment," he told Alberta. "Discernment-- one’s basic ability to separate truth from untruth-- "is a core biblical discipline. And many Christians are not practicing it." Alberta sensed Brown' worry was not just for his own congregation of 300, "but for the millions of American evangelicals who had come to value power over integrity, the ephemeral over the eternal, moral relativism over bright lines of right and wrong."
[I]n leading their predominantly white, Republican congregations, Brown and Bolin have come to agree on one important thing: Both pastors believe there is a war for the soul of the American Church-- and both have decided they cannot stand on the sidelines. They aren’t alone. To many evangelicals today, the enemy is no longer secular America, but their fellow Christians, people who hold the same faith but different beliefs.
How did this happen? For generations, white evangelicals have cultivated a narrative pitting courageous, God-fearing Christians against a wicked society that wants to expunge the Almighty from public life. Having convinced so many evangelicals that the next election could trigger the nation’s demise, Christian leaders effectively turned thousands of churches into unwitting cells in a loosely organized, hazily defined, existentially urgent movement-- the types of places where paranoia and falsehoods flourish and people turn on one another.
“Hands down, the biggest challenge facing the Church right now is the misinformation and disinformation coming in from the outside,” Brown said.
Because of this, the pastor told me, he can no longer justify a passive approach from the pulpit. The Church is becoming radicalized-- and pastors who don’t address this fact head-on are only contributing to the problem. He understands their reluctance. They would rather keep the peace than risk alienating anyone. The irony, Brown said, is that by pretending that a clash of Christian worldviews isn’t happening, these pastors risk losing credibility with members who can see it unfolding inside their own church.
There is one person Pastor Brown doesn’t have to convince of this: Pastor Bolin.
“The battle lines have been drawn,” Bolin [who once got so high on an acid trip-- that he apparently never came down from-- that he claims he jumped onstage at a Tom Petty concert and grabbed a guitar, most likely another of his lies]-- told me, sitting in the back of his darkened sanctuary. “If you’re not taking a side, you’re on the wrong side.”
If this is a tale of two churches, it is also the tale of churches everywhere. It’s the story of millions of American Christians who, after a lifetime spent considering their political affiliations in the context of their faith, are now considering their faith affiliations in the context of their politics.
...When Trump was elected thanks to a historic showing among white evangelicals-- 81 percent voted for him over Hillary Clinton-- the victory was rightly viewed as the apex of the movement’s power. But this was, in many ways, also the beginning of its unraveling. The “battle lines” Bolin described as having emerged over the past five years-- cultural reckonings over racism and sexual misconduct; a lethal pandemic and fierce disputes over vaccines and government mandates; allegations of election theft that led to a siege of the U.S. Capitol; and, underlying all of this, the presidency, prosecution, and martyring of Trump himself-- have carved up every institution of American society. The evangelical Church is no exception.
...Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Christians, like Americans from every walk of life, are self-selecting into cliques of shared habits and thinking. But what’s notable about the realignment inside the white evangelical Church is its asymmetry. Pastors report losing an occasional liberal member because of their refusal to speak on Sunday mornings about bigotry or poverty or social injustice. But these same pastors report having lost-- in the past few years alone-- a significant portion of their congregation because of complaints that they and their staff did not advance right-wing political doctrines... Substantial numbers of evangelicals are fleeing their churches, and most of them are moving to ones further to the right.
Christianity has traditionally been seen as a stabilizing, even moderating, influence on American life. In 1975, more than two-thirds of Americans expressed “a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the church,” according to Gallup, and as of 1985, “organized religion was the most revered institution” in American life. Today, Gallup reports, just 37 percent of Americans have confidence in the Church. This downward spiral owes principally to two phenomena: the constant stench of scandal, with megachurches and prominent leaders imploding on what seems like a weekly basis; and the growing perception that Christians are embracing extremist views. One rarely needs to read to the bottom of a poll to learn that the religious group most opposed to vaccines, most convinced that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, most inclined to subscribe to QAnon conspiracy theories is white evangelicals.
Many right-wing pastors have formed alliances-- with campaign consultants, education activists, grassroots groups, even MAGA-in-miniature road shows promoting claims of an assault on American sovereignty-- that bring a steady flow of fresh faces into their buildings. From there, the fusion of new Republican orthodoxy with old conservative theology is seamless. This explains why, even during a period of slumping church attendance, the number of white evangelicals has grown: The Pew Research Center reports that more and more white Trump supporters began self-identifying as evangelicals during his presidency, whether or not they attended church.
Meanwhile, other pastors feel trapped. One stray remark could split their congregation, or even cost them their job. Yet a strictly apolitical approach can be counterproductive; their unwillingness to engage only invites more scrutiny. The whisper campaigns brand conservative pastors as moderate, and moderate pastors as Marxists. In this environment, a church leader’s stance on biblical inerrancy is less important than whether he is considered “woke.” His command of scripture is less relevant than suspicions about how he voted in the last election.
...“Honestly, I’m more concerned than I was a year ago-- and that’s saying something,” [former Southern Baptist president Russell] Moore said. “It may sound like Chicken Little. But I’m telling you, there is a serious effort to turn this ‘two countries’ talk into something real. There are Christians taking all the populist passions and adding a transcendent authority to it.”
Moore is not exaggerating. More than a few times, I’ve heard casual talk of civil war inside places that purport to worship the Prince of Peace. And, far from feeling misplaced, these conversations draw legitimacy from a sense of divine justice.
The Church is not a victim of America’s civic strife. Instead, it is one of the principal catalysts.
...Nestled in a woods stretch of exurban Wilson County, Tennessee, the campus of Greg Locke’s Global Vision Bible Church feels more like a compound... Most evangelicals don’t think of themselves as Locke’s target demographic. The pastor has suggested that autistic children are oppressed by demons. He organized a book-burning event to destroy occult-promoting Harry Potter novels and other books and games. He has called President Biden a “sex-trafficking, demon-possessed mongrel.”
...Let’s be clear: Locke belongs to a category of his own. He recently accused multiple women at his church of being witches (his source: a demon he encountered during an exorcism). That makes it easy for evangelicals to dismiss Global Vision as an outlier, the same way they did Westboro Baptist. It’s much harder to scrutinize the extremism that has infiltrated their own church and ponder its logical end point. Ten years ago, Global Vision would have been dismissed as a blip on Christianity’s radar. These days, Locke preaches to 2.2 million Facebook followers and has posed for photos with Franklin Graham at the White House.