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).
From the early campaigns to overturn the science of evolution, to the contemporary insistence on a literal six-day creation, fundamentalists have desperately attempted to “control the handles of nature.” But what I detect among contemporary fundamentalists is a growing dissatisfaction with their profound inability, in fact, to control nature. In response, fundamentalists have made the turn from attempting to control nature with what they consider the absolute Truth, to attempting to control nature with an onslaught of conspiracy and denial theories.
Very helpful in understanding this bizarre shift is Rupert Read’s penetrating article, “What Is New in Our time, The Truth in ‘Post-Truth'” “What Is New in our Time, The Truth in ‘Post-Truth.’” As Read puts it so clearly:
The most crucial of all attractions of climate-denial is that it involves the denier in a kind of fantasied power over reality itself: namely, over the nature of our planetary system, and thus of life itself. Climate-denial pretends to give the denier a power greater than that of nature, including in nature’s “rebellion” against humanity, what James Lovelock calls Gaia’s incipient and coming “fever” (i.e. global over-heat). Climate-denial seems to give the denier freedom from truth itself, in the case of the most consequential truth at present bearing down upon humanity …. They reject the reality of human-triggered climate-change, in the end, because they are unwilling to be “bound” by anything, not even truth itself.
Note that Read puts his finger on the attempt “to give the denier a power greater than that of nature.” In short, evangelicals have unconsciously abandoned the “absolute truth” for the ultimate freedom of not being bound by anything. And they have no one to blame but themselves. With the advent of evangelical televangelism and the prosperity gospel, along with the rise of the megachurch, evangelicals have spent the last fifty years embracing an attitude of individualism or consumerism concerning truth itself. I think that our current fights over climate-change and COVID can be traced back to the evangelical commitment to an individual and consumer ethos. The truth has been replaced by “feeling good and feeling free.”
There’s a cultural avatar that visualizes this evangelical zeal: Pepe the Frog. Pepe is a human-bodied frog character created by the cartoonist Matt Furie in 2005. Pepe is a sort of sad-clown figure who finds himself in embarrassing situations, like being caught urinating with his trousers around his ankles. Unflappable when confronted, he waves off all embarrassment with a stoner smile and his breezy catchphrase, “Feels good, man.” The evangelical emotion machine churns out “feeling good, acting free.” No group, religious or political puts more stock in the demand for individual freedom than evangelical preachers. Some of these preachers have gone to jail by refusing to stop holding live worship services during the pandemic. Others have bellowed, “How dare you interfere with my right to worship God as I please/ how dare you interfere with my right to warn people of the lies of climate-change/how dare you interfere with our corporations rights to profits and pollution?
These pronouncements of freedom coupled with laments about persecution by the government are being expressed most vehemently by evangelical leaders. Robert Jeffress, Dallas megachurch pastor, has warned his congregation of increased persecution during Biden’s term. Citing the gospel of Matthew’s apocalyptic passages Jeffress warns “savage times will come as people cast off all moral restraint and society begins to disintegrate. Doesn’t that describe the time we’re living in right now when people have cast off the restraints that God has put into place?” He then adds, “You see that all around you – whether it’s regarding gender fluidity, same-sex marriage, unrestricted abortion. All of these things are the result of a society that has thrown off God’s restraints,” he added. He lamented “unspeakable things” being “celebrated” by a secular society and he claims, “If you’ve got the culture celebrating while the Church is condemning, you know what that produces? It produces friction,” he explained. “There is going to be pressure whenever the Church condemns what society is celebrating. And I believe that’s what we’re going to see happen very, very quickly over these next four years.” Jeffress represents a segment of the evangelical community who are boringly hyper-individualistic, attached to a fixed set of beliefs impervious to rational discussion. Truth is thus sacrificed on the altar of freedom.
Above all, evangelicals are still determined to exercise control over nature; to borrow from Read, they “can’t stand to be told that they don’t have as much epistemic right as anyone else on any topic that they like to think they understand or have some ‘rights’ in relation to: ‘Who are you to tell me that I have to defer to some scientist?’” This reaches the heart of the issue, and explains the tragic spectacle of evangelicals becoming COVID conspiratorialists and climate change deniers. There’s a straight line from fundamentalist denial of evolution to evangelical denial of climate change.
Truth has clashed with individual liberty and it is crowding out the value of truth. As Read says, “They end up believing simply what they WANT to believe.” Just as they don’t want to accept the solid science that lies behind evolution, they don’t want to accept the truths of ecology, environmental well-being, climate science, and pandemic science. As a result, they deny them. Hidden in this denial is the old evangelical desire to be in charge, to control even nature herself.
Many evangelicals have embraced climate denial as surely as they have swallowed Trump’s “big lie” about the election. It seems to give them freedom from truth even though climate change has the devastating potential of being an even greater apocalypse than the one evangelicals dream of in their weird interpretations of Revelation. Having to go along with the truth of experts they have long despised feels like too much for them to endure.
With all the evangelical preaching about the end of the world, it is at least somewhat ironic that they are now willing pawns in the coming destruction of our planet, not by God or armies of angels, or nuclear destruction, but by rising tides and severe weather outbreaks and the overheating of the planet that threatens to turn it to a secular version of hell. How evangelicals find this attractive is worthy of future investigation, worthy of a Religious Studies Ph.D. dissertation. That study should start with Read’s original hypothesis and final conclusion: “Climate denial involves the denier in a kind of fantasized power over reality itself in the form of the ultimate reality: the nature of our planetary system, and thus of life itself.”
My personal contribution to this unfolding tragedy is to add my voice in opposition to those who now hold a rank contempt for truth. Instead, I insist that truth doesn’t reside in the narrow enclave of small-minded evangelicals, but in the wide, gloriously equipped universe that now requires our help to be restored to her previous splendor when God, gazing at creation, couldn’t stop saying, “It is good. It is good. It is very good.”