by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. And his sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has just been published by Wipf and Stock (Cascades).
For those of you in the Dayton area, Kennedy will be discussing The Immaculate Mistake at Temple Israel (130 Riverside Drive) at noon on Monday, November 01. Taking from his book, he will be focusing on anti-Semitism and its threat to American democracy. All are welcome to attend what should be a fascinating and provocative presentation.
According to Reuters, “U.S. Pastors, advocacy groups mobilize against COVID-19 vaccine mandates”.
Whether the misleading headline or the absurd stance of a Mississippi pastor offends more is a toss-up.
Let’s start with this. Only one pastor is mentioned as “mobilized” against mandates: Shane Vaughn, pastor of First Harvest Ministries in Waveland, Mississippi. His strategy is to post form letters for workers seeking religious exemptions.
Waveland, Mississippi is not the center of world Christianity. It’s not the Vatican where the Pope speaks for Catholics. It’s not Nashville, the beating heart of the Southern Baptist Convention. This one Pentecostal preacher is not the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, is not the president of the SBC, is not the president of the council of bishops in the United Methodist Church. This article focuses on just this one young man from Waveland, Mississippi who is taking a stand against mandates.
Luther doesn’t exactly spring to mind. Nor John Wesley or John Calvin.
Of course preachers often engage in satire-rich behavior and rhetoric. But what is at least as disturbing is that the Reuters reporter (Tom Hals) has universalized this story as if the one little preacher from Waveland has started, yes, a wave of protests by pastors from sea to shining sea. Sometimes members of the media display a level of religious illiteracy that would be mind-numbing if more people had even the most rudimentary understanding of the more than 2,000-year-old history of Christianity. It is hard not to suspect a callous motivation on the part of the reporter who feels the necessity of sending a subliminal message: Preachers are simply crazy.
I confess that I am impatient with news articles that glorify and amplify and exaggerate absurd and nonsensical actions of preachers. It seems a most curious delusion to believe that people would be persuaded by the example of one Waveland, Mississippi preacher to believe that an entire armada of pastors are out there fighting “tooth and nail” against COVID mandates.
As Brian Beutler puts it, “The press is not a pro-democracy trade, it is a pro-media trade …. It doesn’t act as a guardian of civic norms” (The New Republic, September 13, 2016). Some reporters chase what they “deem” a good story like a hound dog chasing a biscuit, even if the truth has to be stretched, fabricated, or disregarded. That is to say, the media has a tendency to universalize single examples, and this kind of exaggeration spreads misinformation, and a significant portion of the public gullibly swallows it whole.
Television and the internet use a destructive rhetorical trope called ad populum – “appeal to the crowd” – in making a single example a universal experience. But the single example would never stand up in a debate, in court of law, or in a article by a historian. The Jewish law insisted that “every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Matthew 18:16). A media whose only value is “profit” will not be bothered with the common good or the spread of dangerous ideas. As Cornel West argues, “While an essential mission of the news organizations …. should be to expose the lies and manipulations of our …. leaders …. Too much of what passes for news today is really a form of entertainment” (Democracy Matters, 36). He then adds, “Our mass media are dominated by the ambulance chasers and the blatantly partisan hacks” (West, 37).
Just as disturbing is that a preacher picked a fight with mandates designed to reduce the COVID infection rate. Why would a preacher who follows Jesus, the Great Physician, not wholeheartedly support every method, practice, and preventive treatment that will lead to the defeat of COVID? The call not to be vaccinated seems as silly as asking the police not to wear bullet-proof vests in a shootout with drug dealers. And this is a Pentecostal preacher – a Christian movement centered in healing practices and belief in the healing power of the Holy Spirit? There is no “balm in Gilead” when preachers fight against good health practices.
If we made a list of the 100 most crucial issues facing people in our nation, fighting a mask mandate wouldn’t even make the list. Yet here is a modern-day Don Quixote, flailing at windmills he thinks are giants, and taking up his Bible to defend the helpless. Why wouldn’t this preacher take on the rising tides of secularism and the increasing worship of Mammon in a greed-infected nation? Why wouldn’t this preacher mobilize against the “new racism,” which is the old racism with a denial amendment attached?
Casey Ryan Kelly, in his book, Apocalypse Man: The Death Drive and the Rhetoric of White Masculine Victimhood argues that white men feel wounded but proud and they lash out at what seems to be attacks on their freedom and masculine pride. Kelly says that white men, cast as virtuous and long-suffering, engage in a melodramatic portrayal of themselves not as weaklings or simpletons, but as unjustly persecuted and unsung heroes of the modern world. This investment, Kelly suggests, animates a melancholia where men grieve the loss of their status and “wholeness.”
In this worldview, the anti-mandate preacher thinks he is defending the righteous, the people persecuted by the government. But if people follow his admonitions, the result will be an increase in the death rate from COVID. Like a Confederate general attempting to urge his men into the center of the battle with no defenses, this preacher yells, “Be a man. Don’t wear a mask. Defy the mandate. Forward! Onward Christian soldiers!” The Pentecostal preacher from Waveland insists on battling COVID without putting on the whole armor of medical science and God. Such an apocalyptic vision sees no future beyond violence toward the Other and its own self-destruction. The anti-mandate preacher is not a freedom warrior; he has a death wish for all of us.
Maybe this preacher lost all hope of mobilizing against the old cardinal sins of pride, greed, lust, sloth, anger, envy, and gluttony. These old sins are mopping the floor of American culture, and they are aided and abetted by an array of even more dangerous sins, like racism, homophobia, nativism, militarism, hatred, division, and violence. Sending out form letters against COVID mandates seems innocent enough, easy enough, and it garners publicity for a Pentecostal preacher in Waveland, Mississippi.
Misleading headlines and mobilizing against good health procedures are both absurd. But we live in absurd times when a lie passes for truth and opinions for facts. Look, I understand that a headline that reads, “Pastor From Waveland, Mississippi Speaks Out against COVID Mandates” has no sizzle. But that’s no excuse for an educated reporter who knows better.