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“Let’s take the hill!”: Moving Past Confession and Repentance, The Main Dudes at Willow Creek Rehabilitate Bill Hybels

by Susan Trollinger

Willow Creek Community Church senior pastor Dave Dummitt (left) fist-bumps Willow Creek South Barrington campus pastor Shawn Williams as the two discuss the legacy of former senior pastor Bill Hybels. (Video screen grab) Image via The Roys Report.

If you follow media reporting on evangelicalism, you’re undoubtedly aware that the last few years have been really tough for Willow Creek Church (or, for those in the know, “Willow”).  Most people became aware of Willow’s troubles when the Chicago Tribune (March 2018) and later The New York Times (August 2018) published investigative articles in which victims told their remarkable stories of how Bill Hybels (founder and senior pastor of Willow for more than 4 decades) sexually harassed and/or abused them. The victims recounted encounters in which Hybels said inappropriate things to them, propositioned them, insisted on hugs that lasted way too long, commented on their appearance, invited them into his hotel room, fondled their breasts, and so forth. 

Simply stated, these and other stories revealed that Bill Hybels was a longtime sexual predator.

Just a couple of weeks ago (on May 26), the new senior pastor (David Dummitt—he has Hybel’s former job and is in charge of all eight Willow campuses in the Chicago area) and Shawn Williams (the newly hired pastor of the South Barrington campus) hosted a Q&A for about 200 “core members” of the church. That Q&A was recorded and about eight notable minutes of it are available on YouTube

I came upon this video by way of an excellent article that was published last week in the Roys Report and written by Laura Barringer (a longtime member of Willow and co-author of A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing). Barringer responded critically and powerfully to the video (more about that shortly). To understand Barringer’s response and to situate my own, it’s helpful to have a brief chronology of what unfolded at Willow over the last eight years or so. 

  • Sometime in 2013-2014: Allegations surface that for decades Bill Hybels had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct including sexual harassment, inappropriate touching, and sexually suggestive comments. Hybels denies all of the allegations at a churchwide meeting and receives a standing ovation. Church leaders call the allegations “lies.” (Pashman, Goodstein
  • 2014: Church elders conduct an investigation and pronounce Hybels innocent. (Pashman)
  • 2015: Attendance across the eight Willow campuses reaches 25,000 per weekend.
  • 2017: The Church hires a law firm to conduct another investigation and, again, Hybels is found innocent. (Pashman)
  • March 2018: The Chicago Tribune publishes an article based on their own investigation that includes Vonda Dyer’s story (she was the former director of the vocal ministry at Willow). Dyer talked about deeply troubling interactions with Hybels, including an evening in 1998 (they often traveled together for Willow work) when Hybels called her to his hotel room “unexpectedly kissed her and suggested they could lead Willow Creek together.” Similar stories from other women appear in the article. (Pashman)
  • April 2018: Hybels resigns six months ahead of his planned retirement. (Miller Aug 8 2018)
  • August 2018: Pat Baranowski (Hybel’s former executive assistant) goes public in an article published by The New York Times about the years of sexual harassment and abuse she had endured. (Goodstein)
  • August 2018: The lead pastor, teaching pastor, and the entire elder board resign largely in response to the new allegations that appear in The New York Times article. (Miller Aug 8 2018)
  • February 2019: The Willow Creek Independent Advisory Group (consisting of Christian leaders from around the Chicago area) release their 17-page report in which they conclude that the allegations made against Hybels are credible and, indeed, credible enough for the Church “to initiate disciplinary action.” Of course, the Church didn’t. (Miller)
  • July 2019: A new elder board issues a statement saying that they believe the women who had alleged abuse, that those who verbally attacked these women should apologize to them, and that this will be their final public statement on the matter. (Jones)
  • 2020: Attendance across Willow’s eight campuses drops to below 18,000—something like a 30% decline from attendance levels in 2015. (Smith)
  • January 2020: A woman who was a longtime member of Willow shared on Facebook that Gilbert Bilezikian (one of the founding fathers of Willow and mentor to Hybels) sexually abused her from 1984-1988. Initially, it appeared that the leadership had turned a corner when Steve Gillen (then the acting pastor) alerted the Church to the accusation and said he believed the accuser. Soon after, however, it was revealed that other credible accusations had been levelled against Bilezikian to the leadership a decade earlier and were kept quiet. (Smith, Darnell)
  • February 2020: Keri Ladouceur (former senior leader at Willow who also alleged abuse by Hybels) tells the story of a meeting she was called to in 2018 by a member of the elder board and a lawyer in which she was told that “either she was lying or misremembering” what Hybels had done and that “they could make it look like she was pursuing him.” (Roys 2 28 20
  • April 2020: David Dummitt is hired by Willow Creek to serve as Willow’s senior pastor (the position Bill Hybels occupied). (RNS)
  • July 2020: Shawn Williams is hired to serve as the pastor for the South Barrington campus.
  • In early October 2020, and in response to falling revenues (down 20% churchwide), Dummitt eliminates 92 positions across the eight Willow campuses in the Chicagoland area. At the North Shore Campus (Glenview) the staff serving about 2600 people went from 32 to 5. This dramatic and sudden change shocked members such that some threatened to stop tithing until they got answers. (Darnell, Roys)
  • Less than a month before these cost-cutting changes, the very popular lead pastor of the North Shore Campus (Amy Mikal) resigned in response to having been told by the new leadership that in their new vision for Willow she would have a different role, one that would involve less preaching and teaching. She was replaced by Ed Ollie Jr. (Roys 10-31-20, Darnell)

In response to all of this Hybels has consistently denied all wrongdoing, claiming that, for reasons he can’t explain, members and former friends had “colluded” against him. (Pashman)

Like I said, this has been a really rough number of years for Willow. And Laura Barringer knows a lot about it. In her article, Barringer talks about the shock that she and her husband experienced when they read the Chicago Tribune article. Barringer had been baptized by Hybels and was a member for twenty years. She met her husband there. Willow was their church home. How could this be? 

The pain that she and her husband experienced at the news of Hybel’s abuse was intense. Never mind the pain of the women who endured his abuse. 

But the point of her article is to say that what these two Willow pastors did in their May 26 video was “wrong.” Amidst fist bumping and jokes and laughter from the audience, Dummitt and Williams respond to the question (purportedly raised by someone in the audience via an online chat or something)—”Why is Bill Hybel’s name rarely mentioned?” Barringer compellingly argues that Williams’ response – in which he talks about having encountered various “perspectives” on what transpired at Willow, shares the “profound impact” that Hybels had on his life, and refers to Hybels as “a once-in-a-generation leader” – is deeply troubling. Barringer also highlights a crucial moment in Williams’ response in which he draws on a metaphor that Rick Warren used when he gave his first sermon following his son’s suicide (caused by depression): “In the garden of God’s grace, broken trees bear a lot of fruit.” 

(I leave it to the reader to speculate how Williams thought it was appropriate to mine Rick Warren’s response to his son’s suicide in behalf of Bill Hybels the sexual predator.)

In response to all this, Barringer writes: 

Should Bill Hybels’ name be mentioned? This is what I think: Yes. Yes, it should be mentioned. But it should not be celebrated, as Williams and Dummitt directly stated and indirectly did with continuous praises and accolades . . . Willow Creek should tell the truth about itself, confess its complicities and sins, and receive God’s forgiveness and healing. But confession means to admit, to name, to describe, and to own what happened. It means to affirm the truth teller(s), name the abuser and his wrongdoings, and confess all complicity. It means to publicly acknowledge the harm done and express a sincere desire to change.

Finding Barringer’s analysis compelling, I decided to watch the video myself and conduct my own analysis. I went at it a bit differently than Barringer. I conducted a rhetorical/content analysis. Having watched the video a number of times, I noticed five different categories of statements that these two pastors made. And I recorded the amount of time and the percentage of time (within the video)  that these two pastors spent talking within each category.

  1. New guy statements: As Williams opens his response to the question he talks at some length about how he is “the new guy” and so is ignorant of much of the dynamics that preceded his tenure. He jokes that while you can’t play the “new guy card” too long, he hopes that he’s still “in the window” of the new guy. He “asks” those gathered to give him “an umbrella of grace” so that he can be “candid.” He admits that he is likely to step on various “landmines” as he is being candid. And, again, he asks for that umbrella of grace.
    • 147 seconds, 30% of the time
  2. Praise: Both pastors praise Hybels: “he was a once-in-a-generation leader” who did beautiful things, they “stand on the shoulders of 46 years of incredible things God has done here” through Hybels, they were drawn to Willow by Hybels’ work and writing, and so forth.
    • 74 seconds, 15% of the time
  3. Blame: Williams acknowledges that there was a “shadow to Bill’s leadership.” 
    • 19 seconds, 4% of the time
  4. Excuse structure: Williams introduces the metaphor of “broken trees bearing good fruit” and Dummitt picks up on it, talking about how beautiful it is. I call this an “excuse structure” because it provides the audience with an excuse for forgetting what Hybels did to his victims (“he was just a broken tree, after all [aren’t we all broken?], and he bore great fruit!”), so they can focus instead on what a great leader he was for Willow and all the amazing things that he did.
    • 113 seconds, 23% of the time
  5. Development of excuse structure into preparation for church-wide recoding of Hybels’ sexual abuse: After Dummitt tells Williams that the “broken tree” metaphor is “beautiful,” they have a fist bump and the audience applauds. Dummitt then encourages Williams to preach this word of Hybels as a “broken tree” “some weekend.” (Side note: Any chance they talked about this metaphor and the idea of Williams preaching this before the Q&A? Willow doesn’t leave much up to chance, and planning is everything so as to keep the audience engaged.) Dummitt goes on to talk about the importance of talking about “the history.” He says “we need to celebrate the history.” Williams talks about not being “bashful” about the great things that Willow (thanks to Hybels) has done. Dummitt instructs those gathered that “wounds got to scar over at some point. And we gotta move. Let’s go. Let’s take the hill.” 
    • 145 seconds, 29% of the time

A quick rundown:

  • 4% of the time on blame (with no mention of the victims)
  • 15% of the time on explicit praise
  • 30% of the time on “the new guy” request for an “umbrella of grace” so that he can “be candid”
  • And, if you put the excuse structure (broken trees) together with preparation vis-à-vis the excuse structure to recode Hybels (and the Willow brand) as having “bore great fruit”—52% of the time

Barringer is, of course, right that what Dummitt and Williams did was wrong. And there is more. This is a rhetoric of preparation. The inner circle is being prepared for a shift in the very recently repentant rhetoric of Willow. Years of coverup. Years of attacking victims who were telling the truth. Years of enabling Hybel’s abuse. And then a little window in which a new elder board said, yes, it’s true. And we’re sorry.

But enough of that! The new leaders have a vision! Enough of shame and lament and pain and confession and repentance. It’s time to get the Willow brand on the move again! All that confession and repentance is not uplifting. It does not fill the seats or the coffers. Instead: it’s time to “take the hill!” 

Lord have mercy.

Jesus and 20 Billion Others Died to Save (a Few of) Us

by William Trollinger

Image from The Bible Panorama, or The Holy Scripture in Picture and Story (1891). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

“Off the rails” doesn’t begin to describe the state of fundamentalist apologetics.

Take, for example, young Earth creationism. Its entire “scientific” apparatus rests on the notion that a global flood four millennia ago created the geological formations that we see today. With this as the starting point, the apologetics enterprise consists of providing answers to a myriad of obvious questions, including:

It probably goes without saying that only a person completely ensconced in the fundamentalist bubble could find answers like these persuasive or reasonable or intelligible: 

  • Noah may have employed cranes? (Why not computers?) 
  • Elephants rode logs thousands of miles across the ocean? 
  • The Earth’s population grew from 2 in 4004 BCE to 20 billion in 2348 BCE? 
  • The pre-Flood population was 12.5 billion higher than the Earth’s population today? 
  • Upwards of 20 billion dead, and no human remains?

Of course, all of this raises theological questions, including: What sort of God drowns upwards of twenty billion people (including children and infants and – not included in the 20 billion – the unborn)?

Of course, the folks at Answers in Genesis (AiG) have answers for this question. At Ark Encounter there is a placard entitled, “Was It Just for God to Judge the Whole World?”:

  • “Since He is the one who gave life, He has the right to take life. Second, God is perfectly just and must judge sin. Third, all have sinned and deserve judgment!”

This is not, well, the most theologically robust answer to the question as to the justice of divine genocide. But an AiG contributor named Mark Etter has stepped into the breach. In his May 29 AiG article, “An Act of Grace”, Etter asserts that those who “picture the flood as a vindictive action . . . fail to see the mercy that God showed humanity.”  He then elaborates: 

  • In the time of Noah all human beings – presumably including children, infants, and the unborn – were thoroughly wicked, except for Noah and his little family.
  • Noah and his family were helpless to hold back the forces of wickedness.
  • If/when Noah and his family were killed by the evil forces, there would be no human beings available to bear the Messiah, as (apparently wickedness is a genetic trait) the wicked people would only produce more wicked people who would only produce more wicked people. 
  • In a divine act of grace, a grieving God stepped in at the last moment to drown everyone on the entire planet – except Noah and his family – to ensure that someday in the future Jesus could be born.
  • “It is a comfort to know” that God will repeat this act of grace in the future, preserving the faithful remnant while sending the wicked – including those who tolerate or practice “abortion,” “unbiblical sexual behavior,” and/or “living together” (as an unmarried couple?) – to hell.  

This theological “argument” is a head-scratcher. Much could be said, but I will limit myself to this: Is wickedness an overpowering genetic trait, so that wicked people only produce more wicked people who produce more wicked people, and thus none of these wicked people could bear the Messiah? This is biblical? And are there genetically wicked and genetically righteous people?

Once again, AiG loves the binary!

I have no idea who Mr. Etter is, or his qualifications – as is often the case with AiG contributors, there is no information provided about him. But I do have one suggestion for Mr. Etter: find some adult outside of the fundamentalist bubble, preferably someone with at least a high school education and some familiarity with Christianity. Read this article to them, and ask them if they find it persuasive or reasonable or intelligible. Ask them if this article convinces them that the drowning of upwards of twenty billion people was an act of mercy.

Off the rails, indeed.

Tony Perkins Vult: The Conflation of Pilgrimage and Crusade in the Modern Evangelical Imagination

by Matthew Merringer

Matthew Merringer is an M.A. Student at the University of Dayton in the Department of Religious Studies. He studies the history and politics of American Protestantism. His interests include radicals such as Dorothy Day, Jerry Falwell, and nativist preachers in the 19th Century. He finds the unique political imaginations crafted by these leaders help provide rubrics for understanding the daily practices of their followers. 

Photoshopped Images of Tony Perkins, courtesy of the author.

The subject of evangelicals and their interest in the political state of Israel is well documented. Scholars such as Matthew Avery Sutton have shown how, since the time of D.L. Moody, a significant number of American Protestants have made apocalyptic premillennialism a key feature of their faith and central to their political commitments. This prophetic vein of American religion continues to conflate American foreign policy in the Middle East with their Hal Lindsey/Tim LaHayeinspired perceptions of the end times.

You can hear support for the state of Israel in sermons from folks such as John Hagee (at the extreme end of the spectrum) but also in fellowship halls and Bible studies across the US. In fact, Hagee’s Christians United for Israel claims membership of over 10 million Americans as a “voice in defense of Israel.”  This particular act of political imagination (amongst other things) has often dictated how American Evangelicals have voted.

Politicians playing to religious conservatives’ ideas about the state of Israel is not new. In fact, politicians claiming to act according to the will of God on foreign policy positions is not new. You may remember that in 2003, George W. Bush was reported to have told the Palestinian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister that God told him to invade both Afghanistan and Iraq.  

What is new is the increasingly explicit connection between Evangelical rhetoric and the support for violent action. This was blindingly obvious in the January 06 insurrection, as Ken Camp in the Baptist Standard documented in his article, ”Christian nationalism clearly evident in Capitol riot.” 

One of the voices normalizing violence in the name of God is Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council(FRC). The FRC is a D.C.- based lobbying group which describes itself as a “research and educational organization dedicated to articulating and advancing a family-centered philosophy of public life.” Born out of Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, the FRC champions causes such as prolife, traditional “complementary” marriage, and health care “free of political and social agendas.”

And, Holy Land pilgrimages.

In just 2019, Americans accounted for 966,000 tourist entries into Israel. Many of these visitors are evangelicals who are part of tour groups that take them to places such as the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, Mount of Olives, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and, of course, the Valley of Megiddo (claimed as the physical location of Jesus’s earthly return). 

While many of the tours are advertised with language smacking of American consumerism — all-expenses paid, luxury tour buses, and beautiful hotels — one must realize that these are not simply vacations for Evangelicals. 

These are religious pilgrimages. 

For millennia, Christians have been taking pilgrimages to the Holy Land to walk in the steps of Jesus. Many have partaken in the Christian Sacrament of Baptism (some for a second time) in the Jordan River, as Christ did. It is an incredibly powerful experience, and it has inspired many in the past to undertake pilgrimage. Including the medieval Crusaders. 

And for Evangelicals, who believe in the literal truth of Scripture, the Holy Land is a manifestation of the divine text, a tangible and empirical verification of the inerrancy of the Bible.

The FRC is now advertising its own all-expense paid pilgrimage. While the tour will hit all the usual religious spots, a prime selling point – made explicit in their own advertising – is that there will be much attention paid to Israeli military operations. As Perkins notes In his personal letter to prospective Holy Land pilgrims:

“Not only will it be an incredible time as your faith deepens, but you will gain a better understanding of Israel’s important role in current geopolitical affairs as you hear from several of Israel’s key leaders. Joining us on the trip will be Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Jerry Boykin, FRC’s Executive Vice President, former Commander of the U.S. Army’s Delta Force and former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. Key Israeli leaders will provide expert analysis of religious, political, and national security issues impacting their nation and the Middle East.”

One would assume for a religious pilgrimage you would see pastors, scholars, and archeologists as keynote speakers. 

But that is not the case with the Tony Perkins tour. 

Of the ten special guests, only two are pastors. Three are former/current US or Israeli military officials, two are former ambassadors (including Trump’s former bankruptcy lawyer, who parleyed those connections into an ambassadorship), and two are journalists (one a senior columnist for Breitbart). The final special guest is one Tony Perkins. 

For a trip meant to deepen faith, there is a disturbing number of non-religious speakers. Even more telling is the military presence, which includes Ari Sacher, who manages one of Israel’s missile defense projects, the Iron Dome. 

Conflation of military operations and religious pilgrimage is nothing new in Christianity. Famously, Pope Urban II – anxious about Muslim Turks and the recent split of the Church – sparked the Crusades with his 1095 CE speech at the Council of Clermont (as recorded by Fulcher of Chartres):

I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ’s heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to . . . destroy that vile race from lands of our friends. I say this to those who are present, it is meant also for those you are absent. Moreover, Christ commands it. All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested. 

Urban II allegedly so roused the crowd that they chanted “Deus Vult”  (God Wills It) after his speech. 

Tony Perkins is one among many Christian nationalists who have recognized the increasing difficulty to maintain their privileged position of power in the pluralist American milieu. In the face of this challenge, they have adopted increasingly more apocalyptic and militaristic language to rally their followers. 

Now the FRC has ritualized military experiences into pilgrimage. And they are not alone.  Christians United for Israel’s trip includes meetings with Israeli soldiers, touring the Fence along the Gaza Strip with a retired Israeli Colonel, and touring the Golan Heights with Israeli military leaders. Salem Radio Network – which hosts shows by Hugh Hewitt, Dennis Prager, and Mike Gallagher for Christian formatted radio stations – offers an annual Stand With Israel tour, which allows travelers to participate in the right-wing talk shows that are being broadcast from the pilgrimage itself. The 2022 tour will feature convicted campaign finance felon Dinesh D’Souza.

In the real world, authentic dialogue about Israeli-Palestinian politics, and the ability to call out atrocities committed against Palestinian children in the name of Israeli national defense, is needed. But for Perkins and his followers, any criticism of Israel’s military is not only an attack on a key player in apocalyptic premillennial prophecy scenarios, but it has also come to be understood as an attack on Evangelical sacramental rituals. 

The fusion of military force and the unmediated divine reality of pilgrimage was used to devastating effect a millennium ago. Then it inspired thousands to take up arms against a perceived threat to a church’s political power under the guise of holy pilgrimage. 

Will “Tony Perkins vult!” become “Deus Vult”? Is this where we are with American evangelicalism?

“Social Justice is Anti-Biblical”: Ken Ham as Promoter of Biblical Illiteracy

by William Trollinger

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Image via abc7Chicago.com.

Every time I think that things can’t get worse at Answers in Genesis (AiG), they do.

The ever-intrepid Dan Phelps has noticed that on March 05, 2021 AiG replaced their original hyper-fundamentalist statement of faith (SOF) with an even more harsh and more hyper-fundamentalist statement of faith. This SOF may take the record for length, with 46(!) separate provisions, including this defense of the sacred sexual binary:

The only legitimate marriage, based on the creation ordinance in Genesis 1 and 2, sanctioned by God is the joining of one naturally born man and one naturally born woman in a single, exclusive union as delineated in Scripture . . . Any form of sexual immorality, such as adultery, fornication, prostitution, homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexual conduct, bestiality, incest, pornography, abuse, or any attempt to change one’s gender, or disagreement with one’s gender, is sinful and offensive to God.

(Note “naturally born” in the first sentence. And “disagreement with one’s gender”?)

AiG’s SOF explicitly states that “all persons employed by the AiG ministry in any capacity” must “agree to our Statement of Faith.” Interestingly, AiG’s Ark Encounter discriminates in hiring while at the same time it, as Dan Phelps observes, “continues to receive $1.825 million dollars every year in tax incentives from the state [of Kentucky] and will continue to do so until 2026.” 

But that’s not the only governmental assistance that Ark Encounter has received.  Last year I reported (again) that in 2013 the nearby town of Williamstown

Issued $62m in junk bonds and then loaned the proceeds to help get the Ark Encounter project underway, and . . . this sweet deal was made even sweeter by the provision that 75% of what Ark Encounter would have paid in property taxes over the next three decades will actually be used to pay off the loan. [Sad to say, while] Ark Encounter used the vision of great economic benefits to persuade Williamstown, . . . it turns out that the town has seen virtually no economic benefits from this deal. 

All this government aid for a hyper-fundamentalist ministry that forces job applicants to sign on to a 46 point faith statement. So much for the separation of church and state!

Here is proposition #29 in the AiG SOF:

The concepts of “social justice,” “intersectionality,” and “critical race theory” are anti-biblical and destructive to human flourishing (Ezekiel 18:1-20; James 2:8-9).

(For now I will refrain from saying anything about intersectionality and critical race theory.) 

Social justice is anti-biblical? So the leaders of the Civil Rights movement had it wrong in their profound conviction that to work for social justice is a biblical imperative? Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Howard Thurman – and so, so many others – are spinning in their graves.

But in good fundamentalist fashion, AiG has appended Bible verses (with links) to support their assertion. And in good academic fashion I looked up these passages. And I read them, closely, slowly. And for the life of me I could not find anything in these verses that indicates that social justice is anti-biblical. Not. A. Thing. 

But I am not a biblical scholar – neither is Ken Ham, fyi – so I turned to Abingdon’s New Interpreters Bible Commentary, volumes VI and XII. Maybe esteemed scholars Katheryn Pfisterer Darr (Boston University) and Luke Timothy Johnson (Candler School of Theology) could enlighten me as to how Ezekiel 18: 1-20 (VI: 1255-1262) and James 2: 8-9 (XII: 193-195) bolster AiG’s argument that social justice is anti-biblical. 

Once again, nothing. Not. A. Thing. This does not even rise to the level of prooftexting. 

More than this, just five verses after the James text referenced by AiG comes this passage:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (2:14-17)

As Johnson comments on this passage, a pertinent question for churches is to ask about whether they would

as James does, make the community’s response to the poor a touchstone for testing the authenticity of its faith. Insofar as contemporary Christianity has aligned itself unthinkingly with the individualistic and competitive ethos of capitalism, or allowed itself to be seduced into equating financial success with God’s blessing, it has, by James’s standards, become a friend of the world and not a friend of God. (200)

Unthinkingly or not, Ham and AiG and the Christian Right have certainly aligned themselves with unfettered capitalism.

Not only do Ham and AiG provide no evidence that social justice is anti-biblical, they have also chosen to ignore the host of biblical texts that make quite clear that to work for social justice IS a biblical imperative, texts that have prompted Christians over the centuries (including those spearheading the civil rights movement) to give their lives to working for more just social structures. 

Take, for example, these words from the Hebrew prophets:

  • “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (Amos 6:22-24)
  • “Cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1: 16b-17)
  • “Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, the widow, or shed innocent blood.” (Jeremiah 22: 2-3)

Then there is the one place in the Gospels where Jesus speaks about the Last Judgment:

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

They will also answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or naked or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25: 34-45)

Could this be any clearer? 

And why did I put that one passage in bold?

As we noted in Righting America (45-46), for the first decade of its existence Jesus scarcely made an appearance at the Creation Museum, save for a white statue confined to an obscure corner (pulled out for the Christmas season, and then sent back to the corner). 

But a decade after the museum’s grand opening in 2007, the folks at AiG created a three-room exhibit devoted to Jesus as vindictive superhero. And this exhibit features a “Teachings of Jesus” placard. And on that placard is included a version of the verse from Matthew 25 that I have put in bold. 

And that one verse is all they quote from Matthew 25. There’s not a word about the verses before and after, not a word about the fact that how one fares in the Last Judgment is dependent on how well one cared for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill, the imprisoned, the least of these.

Just a few days ago Ken Ham posted on Facebook a lament that “biblical illiteracy is rampant in the church and culture in the US.” 

He knows whereof he speaks, given that he and AiG are major contributors to this rampant biblical illiteracy. 

More than this, it seems obvious that their erasure of the Bible is intentional.

Anything to serve the politics of the Christian Right.

Beware the Man in the Blue Suit and the Lady in the Red Dress

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. He is also making final edits on his sixth book – Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy – forthcoming from Wipf and Stock (Cascades).

Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene at their “America First” Tour in Florida. Image via CNN.

Sound like a country song? Well, it’s an entire country of trouble. Representative Matt Gaetz is rolling out his “I Didn’t Have Sex with a Minor Tour,” starting with an appearance in The Villages, the large and overwhelmingly Republican retirement community in central Florida. 

Following the Trump Defense Playbook, Gaetz denies, denies, and denies. Then he attacks, attacks, attacks. As Gaetz boasts, “they never come for the meek, always for the fighters.”

Having “branded the Republican Party,” Donald Trump has unleashed a particular kind of “macho” male image deeply rooted in our patriarchal past, vividly described by Thomas Connelly in Will Campbell and the Soul of the South:

Dixie has a cult of the physical, is a passionate land which for generations has idolized force and power. In effect, violence takes many forms. It is in the football popularity of a Paul “Bear” Bryant or the adoration showered upon NASCAR race-car drivers on the Southern circuit. It becomes the tan-legged [Golden Girls from LSU’s Tigerland] or the adoration for a local football coach in a Southern hamlet. Violence can be the proverbial Good Ole Boy with his gentle disdain for the law. It is assertive male talk at a roadside tavern, beauty contestants trained since puberty like thoroughbred horses, or the admiration for gusto in political oratory. It is an idolatry of bigness, strength, force, extremism, and a mild disrespect for authority.

This is Matt Gaetz. While he is from Florida, and thus not a Southerner, he acts like the stereotypical Good Ole Boy. 

And yet, one chink in his armor is that he does not seem at all confident that he can pull off this macho, hit-em-in-the mouth act. So he has a wing-woman on his tour: Marjorie Taylor Greene, Georgia GOP representative and promoter of the Jewish space laser conspiracy theory.  They make a cute couple: the spoiled frat boy in his blue suit and the hard-core Trump lady in her red dress. I think Matt must have been singing to Marjorie: 

Lady with the red dress on
I love to be your man
(I wanna be your man)
And take you into my world, ski dum dum
Hey, I'll show you lots of surprise
And make you hypnotized
And then you will be my girl!

They intend to take Florida by storm, but it is a risky move. Trump pulled it off. Jerry Falwell, Jr. tried and failed. Maybe Gaetz will fail, and thus further damage the macho, blustery, bragging, disgusting male superiority complex that disguises deep insecurity and fear. Maybe Matt will have to go home to his mama.

There’s an even more insidious man loose, and he’s also wearing a blue suit. 

Some mornings, 1963 feels like yesterday. Prior to the Voting Rights Act, “Southern states maintained elaborate voter registration procedures deliberately designed to deny the vote to nonwhites,” according to the Civil Rights Movement Archive.

Those literacy tests — some of which were literal, some were more general — were specifically designed to discriminate against Black Americans, the CRMA’s Bruce Hartford writes. The literal tests were intentionally complicated, confusing if not nearly impossible to pass. Whites were rarely required to take the tests, and if they were, they were “passed” by poll administrators. To make matters worse, the literacy tests often consisted of more than 30 questions and had to be taken in 10 minutes. You were not allowed to answer any question incorrectly. The result was that an overwhelming number of African Americans were denied the vote.

One sweat-soaked, foggy night a group of Good Old Boys robbed a grave in a Louisiana cemetery, exhuming the body of old Jim Crow. They dressed him a blue suit and red tie and, like King Saul slinking to the cave of the witch of Endor, they conjured Crow back to life again, pronouncing that he had been in good health at the time of his demise and that he should have never been killed. 

The practical result of this grave robbing has been to clear the way for the restoration of voter suppression that had marked Jim’s previous reign of violence. But this time, the Southern strategy has gone national, in keeping with Rodney Clapp’s observation (in Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction) that the whole nation now speaks Southern.

As Alan Jackson sang back in 1994, 

He's gone country, look at them boots
He's gone country, back to his roots
He's gone country, a new kind of suit
He's gone country, here he comes. 
The whole world gone country. 

The new Jim Crow not only dresses better than the old Jim Crow, but he is smarter. He now presents himself as a patriot of the highest order, bestowing upon himself the title of “The Man Who Will Make America Great Again.” 

And he has learned a metaphorical language – “free elections,” “stopping fraud,” “standing up for American values.” Every word of these metaphorical extravaganzas speaks a lie, but it is being swallowed whole in Florida, Georgia, Texas, and across the nation. Republicans have decided that since they can’t win a majority of the votes, they will use political power to “rig” the election in their favor.

Make no mistake. Jim Crow is back with a date on his arm – the lady in the red dress. These two are not a joke. Beware the blue suit and red dress. They mask a virulent patriarchal past attempting to make a comeback of anger, resentment, and, as always, violence.

Facing the Apocalypse: The REAP lawsuit and Moderate Evangelical Universities

by William Trollinger

Baylor’s Gay Prom. Image via Baylor University Gamma Alpha Upsilon.

As reported in an earlier post, 33 former and current college and seminary students – under the auspices of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP) – have filed a class action lawsuit seeking “to put an end to the U.S. Department of Education’s complicity in the abuses and unsafe conditions thousands of LGBTQ+ students endure at hundreds of taxpayer-funded, religious colleges and universities.”

For hardline fundamentalist schools the strategy seems to be pretty clear, and straight (pun intended) from the Christian Right playbook: double down on anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination while simultaneously claiming that this lawsuit is further evidence that they and other true Christians are victims of atheistic persecution and an intolerant “woke culture.” 

But as I noted in the earlier post, the REAP lawsuit is a much more difficult moment for moderate evangelical colleges and universities. For years administrators at these schools have been playing to two starkly different audiences at once. Internally, they reassure faculty and LGBTQ+ students that they are very sympathetic, and that change is coming soon, once the older generation of evangelicals has passed. But externally, they repeatedly reassure their conservative constituency (donors and parents) that they are holding and will hold to a firm “biblical line” when it comes to matters pertaining to sexual orientation.

Responding to my post, a faculty member at a moderate evangelical school submitted (anonymously) this comment:

You are spot on with the “two audiences strategy,” which a moderate can moderate in moderate times and even feel that s/he is offering a mediating service and “holding the center.” But when the choice becomes stark, and the center is not on offer by either constituent group, then the true colors must be flown. Well, we are here now . . . and in the context of massive enrollment crises at these moderate institutions (their two audiences are parting ways, and heading to other institutions of higher education). What will the Apocalypse reveal on this one about the true nature of moderate protestant Christian colleges/universities?

Great question. And toward answering that question, we have reports from three schools – all three of which have current and former students who are plaintiffs in the REAP lawsuit — that give hints as to the “true nature” of moderate evangelical schools.  

Seattle Pacific University

As reported on the Roys Report, 72% of the faculty at Seattle Pacific University (SPU) voted to approve a motion declaring no confidence in the Board of Trustees  after the trustees refused to revise its policy that forbids the hiring of LGBTQ+ individuals while also declining to modify its statement on human sexuality (which establishes that the only allowable expression of sexuality is “in the context of the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.”) 

And it’s not just the faculty. As noted in the Roys Report article, Leah Duff – a senior at Seattle Pacific who understands herself to be queer – has announced that “the students and alumni are planning a campaign to discourage donations to the school, cut its ties to community organizations, and work to decrease enrollment at the school.” 

That’s a remarkable response, and absolutely not one that the SPU administration wants to hear. Of course, while (a good portion of) the faculty and students make up one audience, there is that other fundamentalist audience that SPU has been attending to for years and years. To get a feel for that audience, just scroll down to the comments in response to this story. Here are a few lowlights:

  • “I am sorry to hear this once Biblical school has hired so many woke Professors.”
  • “God hates all things LGBTQ.”
  • “I am a Christian and lifelong resident of the Seattle area. I say good for the SPU Board but sad they have so many faculty with debased minds.”

Baylor University

From the Pacific Northwest to the heart of Texas we go. Baylor University has two students – one (Veronica Penales) who defines as queer and the other (Jake Picker) as bisexual — who have joined the REAP lawsuit, arguing that the university treats their “existence like there is something inherently wrong with us” while doing nothing in response to complaints of hate speech directed at LGBTQ+ students. More than this, the university has repeatedly refused to recognize the unofficial LGBTQ+ Gamma Alpha Upsilon club as an official student organization.

Interestingly, earlier this year both the Baylor Faculty and Student Senate passed resolutions supporting the chartering of Gamma Alpha Upsilon. In response, the Board of Regents chair and vice-chairs met with the student body president, the Faculty Senate chair, and the president of Gamma Alpha Upsilon to discuss the faculty and student resolutions, a discussion that the chair of the Faculty Senate described as “unprecedented” and “remarkable.” But as of yet, no action has been taken.

And just last weekend Gamma Alpha Epsilon – with the support of a donor – held its first gay prom at a local park, which attracted approximately 150 people, one of whom “said that this was the first time he ever felt affirmed while at Baylor.” 

But as Picker noted, the Gay Prom doesn’t change the fact that LGBTQ+ students still feel as if they are not truly welcome at Baylor: “I shouldn’t have to choose my religion over my sexuality. We [LGBTQ+ students] want to grow in our Christian faith too.”

Messiah University

And now we go to south-central Pennsylvania, and Messiah University (MU). On the evening of April 08 the College Democrats hosted an hour-long Zoom conversation with MU senior and plaintiff Rachel Held about REAP’s lawsuit v. the U.S. Department of Education. Held was charming and self-deprecatory, and the young woman who chaired the session (I did not catch her name) was remarkably poised and supportive. One of the attendees made reference to what a “huge event” this was on campus, with a large group in virtual attendance. The whole session is worth watching, but here are a few highlights:

  • (start 3:21) Held was asked to explain what started on the road toward getting involved in this lawsuit: “I was an R.A., and as one of the steps to becoming an R.A. you have to go through something called Carousel Night, where they split you into groups. It’s basically a group interview. One of the rooms at Carousel Night [at least when I went through] is the Values Continuum, where they have a chalkboard in the room, where they go from agree to disagree. They’ll ask you questions, and then you have to place yourself where you fall on that spectrum, and they will ask you why. One of the questions we were asked in this room is whether or not we think that LGBTQ students should be allowed to hold leadership positions. Just the fact that that was something that was up for debate wasn’t something I had ever thought about or anticipated happening at a place that felt so welcoming, like Messiah. And that’s something that stuck with me.”
  • (start 19:09): Held was asked what changes she would like to see: “At Messiah, I would really love to see their specific policy changed . . . Currently, any student experiencing same-sex attraction is expected to refrain from acting on that while they’re a student. I think that kind of double standard of people in straight relationships can, you know, make out in the middle of campus, and sure, we might get uncomfortable watching that, but it would be allowed, whereas a couple in a same-sex relationship can’t do the same thing. I feel like I would like to see that policy changed, or removed completely would be even better in my opinion.”
  • (start 44:02): Session chair: “I’ve had conversations with plenty of faculty here on campus and even some of the administration who are completely affirming of the LGBTQ+ community. But they are also in a bit of a bind just because of the policies . . . they are a little bit hamstrung. So it’s a difficult place to be . . . That’s why it’s interesting and it’s great that – not great – that this lawsuit is happening because . . . the change is not going to come from within Messiah. It’s almost going to have to come from outside forces putting pressure on them.”

At one moderate evangelical university, a faculty vote of no confidence in the Board because of their anti-LGBTQ+ policies and statements. At a second, faculty/student resolutions for an LGBTQ+ organization to be given official standing. At a third, a student organization pressing the point that  LGBTQ+ students have been rendered second-class by institutional policies and practices.

All of this makes clear that different moderate evangelical universities are responding differently. Seattle Pacific and Messiah do not (at least at the moment) seem to be heading down the same path. 

And yet, as our anonymous contributor noted, and as the events at all three schools would suggest, the institutional approach of playing to two different audiences at once is not going to hold. The cultural and generational shift when it comes to the acceptance of LGBTQ+-identified individuals, the REAP lawsuit, and serious enrollment challenges: all of this renders the two audience strategy increasingly untenable. 

For moderate evangelical universities, riding out the apocalypse does not seem to be an option.

Pat Robertson on Police Brutality, or, Onward Christian Police Marching as to War

by Matthew Merringer

Matthew Merringer is a Master Student at the University of Dayton in the Department of Religious Studies. He studies the history and politics of American Protestantism. His interests include radicals such as Dorothy Day, Jerry Falwell, and nativist preachers in the 19th Century. He finds the unique political imaginations crafted by these leaders help provide rubrics for understanding the daily practices of their followers. 

Pat Robertson comparing a handgun to a taser on his April 15, 2021 episode of The 700 Club. Image via politizoom.com.

As many watched and listened live via social media, television, radio, and in person outside the Minneapolis courthouse, Judge Peter Cahill read aloud the jury’s verdict in the murder trial of George Floyd. Guilty…Guilty…Guilty. Found guilty on all three charges, Derek Chauvin was led away in handcuffs. 

But as Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison poignantly remarked, “I would not call today’s verdict justice, however, because justice implies true restoration. But it is accountability, which is the first step towards justice.” Looking at the country, at least on the surface, one might argue that there is a growing consensus for the need of justice for people of color, not only at the hands of police but perhaps across the entire criminal justice system.

Many were shocked that, just a week before the verdict, Pat Robertson sat behind the desk on his legendary 700 Club broadcast and called attention to the inexcusable killing of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center (just outside Minneapolis). He went on to say of police that “if they don’t stop this onslaught, they cannot do this [sic].” As regards the officer who killed George Floyd, Robertson said that “they ought to put him under the jail.”

The next day,  Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough and his guest Jon Meacham gushed over the fact that this cultural and religious icon had called out policing, with the latter comparing him to the Prodigal Son who should be welcomed when he does something correctly. Meacham goes on to say that Robertson is using “God-given intelligence” to see with his eyes that something is wrong. The implication of all this is that there seems to be an emerging common ground between the conservative religious right and progressives when it comes to police reform, perhaps even regarding the justice that Ellison alludes to. 

However, this ignores the very essence of the movement which Robertson embodies, as a careful examination of his rhetoric reveals (start at 9:01): 

  1. The voiceover from the introduction frames the issue in a particular way. “More violence overnight in Minnesota”, “over the death of Daunte Wright”, “demonstrators tried to get over the fence added… to protect the [police] department” (italics added for emphasis). Words have power and one does not need to go far to conclude that the voiceover was instructing viewers that a correct reading of the story would be that “violent demonstrators attacked the police over something that happens every day, death.” Contrast that reading with an alternative introduction: “Americans protested in the street against fortified police positions over another police killing of a member of the community they are sworn to protect.” 
  2. Pat then sets the stage of authority. The next 1:26 of the show is dedicated to Pat and his cohost Terry playing with a fake gun and a taser to make a point that anyone in their right mind should not have confused a bright yellow taser and a heavy black gun. This is important for two reasons. First, it establishes that authority is based in common sense empirical observation. Pat and Terry know something is wrong because they (upper-class white evangelicals) can see and touch it. Wrongdoing must be plain and observable to all. Second, it positions them as equal authorities on the matter of police violence as minorities who have experienced it firsthand. In the simple process of playing with a toy gun, Robertson has established a basis of evidence of police wrongdoing and has elevated himself to an authority on the subject. (Those familiar with the Fundamentalist movement will quickly recognize this as their same approach to the authority of the Bible)
  3. The George Floyd murder trial was in its second week at the time of the taping, and Pat crafted the story of his death into the killing of Daunte Wright to provide a larger narrative.:“Derek Chauvin, they ought to put him under the jail, he has caused so much trouble by kneeling of the death [sic] of George Floyd… on his neck. It’s just terrible what is happening.” Obviously to Robertson, this is pattern that needs attention. Then Robertson went on to ask “why don’t they [police] open their eyes to what the public relations are?” Suddenly the trouble Chauvin has caused comes into light. The murder of George Floyd is not troublesome for the fact that ANOTHER black man has died at the hands of the police, but because it has brought dishonor to and questions about police. 
  4. His co-host Terry offers the comment that perhaps the police need better more consistent training. This is quickly dismissed by the “very pro-police” Robertson. His solution? “We’ve got to pay them more. We don’t have the finest in the police department.” “It is not a question of training; it is hiring a more superior workforce.” 

In the 2 minutes and 26 seconds dedicated to the story, not once is race or ethnicity mentioned. What we have then is not an acknowledgement that Black Lives Matter, not surprisingly as Pat has called the movement a “lesbian, anti-family, anti-capitalist, Marxist revolution.” Or even that policing in America is in need of reform, as Joe Scarborough would like to think. 

Instead, we have business as usual for Pat and his conservative followers. The religious right establishes the threshold of evidence, as they are the only ones with access to propositional truth. In this privileged position, they are the only ones who understand the difference between true good and evil, and they are the only ones who can determine when a wrong has been committed. And in this case, the ultimate “wrong” in America’s policing is being done to the police! They are not getting paid enough, and so the good people are not becoming and staying police officers. 

In Pat’s world, there is no space for the oppressed to speak. There is no reason to practice listening. The solution is already known. Justice is not something we are moving toward in America. It is something we have lost and fallen from in some past glory day of the Republic. If America will simply return to Christ and live in the Christian morality of capitalism, America’s (presumably Christian) finest will return to the police department .They will be able to fix this public relations issue and return America to its status quo. Then, according to Pat, we will have justice for George Floyd.

In the slightly modified words of that favorite old fundamentalist hymn, 

Onward Christian police marching as to war…

White Nationalism and Faith: An Interview with Camille Kaminski Lewis

by William Trollinger

Camille Kaminski Lewis is, as of this fall, an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. She holds a Ph.D. from Indiana University in Rhetorical Studies with a minor in American Studies. Her book, Romancing the Difference: Kenneth Burke, Bob Jones University, and the Rhetoric of Religious Fundamentalism, was a scholarly attempt to stretch the boundaries of both Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical theory on tragedy and comedy as well as stretch conservative evangelical’s separatist frames. The story of that publication is available at The KB Journal.  And she is currently working on a manuscript titled Klandamentalism: America’s Most Dysfunctional Romance.

Cover for White Nationalism and Faith: Statements and Counter-Statements on American Identity, edited by Camille Kaminski Lewis. Peter Lang, 2020.

And she has just published an edited volume, White Nationalism and Faith: Statements and Counter-Statements on American Identity (Peter Lang, 2020). This anthology makes for both appalling and inspiring reading, and we here at rightingamerica are delighted that Camille was willing to be interviewed about White Nationalism and Faith.

  1. Could you give a brief overview of what this volume contains, and how you imagine it being used in the classroom?
    • I include American texts since the Civil War that both featured white nationalist arguments in religious rhetoric as well as those texts that countered those same arguments. For instance, after James Forman read his “Black Manifesto” at Rockefeller’s Riverside Church in Manhattan, Carl McIntire came back with his own “Christian Manifesto.” McIntire (poorly) imitates Forman’s organization and arguments – an imitation that my students perceived was very similar to current #AllLivesMatter appeals. Thus, each set of artifacts in the book is a conversation that might give us solutions in countering white nationalism and faith.
    • Since I just finished using the volume in my classroom this semester, I have a very clear picture on its use. I coupled my volume with Patricia Roberts-Miller’s Demagoguery and Democracy. The students read the secondary source every Monday and these primary sources every Wednesday. And then on Friday they were tasked with facilitating the class discussion. The selections worked both to inform the students about the persistence of demagogic white nationalism in our public conversations as well as to help them imagine democratic solutions to them. 
  2. In introducing this collection of documents you make – drawing from Kenneth Burke – this powerful (and on point) assertion: “Ignoring the rhetoric with the strain of One-Hundred Percenters – or what current conversations dub ‘white nationalists’ – will vandalize our civic sphere. Knocking off a few adverse memes will only gratify ourselves. Our job, then, is to find all the available ways of making the white nationalist distortions of religion apparent, in order that politicians of this kind will be ineffective in performing their swindle.” Can you say more about what constitutes civic vandalism, and what it is that we need to do? 
    • I have regularly confessed to my students over the last five years that I feel very gratified when I post a meme about our former “Cheeto-in-Chief.” That is what Burke is talking about in his “Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle.” Calling Hitler in Burke’s time or Trump in our time “a clown” does not take him seriously enough but only makes us feel pious. That self-righteous political piety is how Burke described what we today call “purity politics.” Voltaire is referencing the same thing with his aphorism, “il meglio è l’inimico del bene” or “the best is the enemy of the good.” Piously clinging to the purest of motives or piously spitting on the evilest of actors ruins the political sphere. It’s a kind of vandalism. I remember when I tried to grow a tea rose in this Southern climate. I was constantly pruning and powdering and spraying and plucking, and the plant grew to take over the entire bed. And I never got a bloom. The dumb plant was ruining the looks of that flower bed and grating on my last nerve, and for what? That’s what “knocking off a few adverse attitudizings” does for our public sphere. We need to resist that and get to work solving the rhetorical problems before us.
  3. In your estimation what is the most appalling document you have included here? (I will nominate Billy James Hargis’ “The Cross and the Sickle.”) What is the most inspiring?
    • I didn’t get permission for one text that I wanted to include: Bob Jones, Sr.’s Easter Sunday morning sermon, “Is Segregation Scriptural?” So I would nominate that one especially since its counter-statement is also my most inspiring. At a Springfield, Missouri town hall Pastor Phil Snider took Bob Jones’ text and changed “racial segregation” to “gay rights”  to show how similar the arguments against marriage equality were to the arguments against racial integration. Snider’s speech makes me sweat every time I hear it, and my students get enraptured with his creativity. 
    • But yes, Billy James Hargis is perfectly terrible, isn’t he? It might be that he’s preaching in such a familiar, anti-logical, midwestern, mid-century way. 
  4. In your acknowledgments you make this arresting statement: “I am also grateful to those rhetors who took umbrage at the mere suggestion that I include them in a volume on white nationalism and faith.” Could you elaborate on this?
    • Well, three people objected to my even asking for reprint permission. Instead of just saying, “no,” or not responding at all, they took this opportunity to preen and strut. And after several cordial phone conversations with Franklin Graham’s press agent, I received the following boiler-plate refusal: “Franklin has publicly denounced all forms of racism and bigotry. As president of Samaritan’s Purse, he has dedicated his life to serving people of all races and backgrounds. His ministry is currently providing spiritual and physical aid to victims of war, natural disasters, disease, famine, poverty, and persecution in more than 100 countries. Franklin has already made his position on this issue clear, so permission will not be granted to reprint his sermon in this publication.”
    • Fair enough. Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch List includes John Weaver, who objected to my using his “The Truth about the Confederate Flag” and stated, “I have learned not to trust people who want to ‘use my materials’ and then take everything out of context or present it in a liberal, leftist, humanistic light.” 
    • But Bob Jones University’s Chief of Staff, Randy Page, was the most insulting and, frankly, revealing. He stated to my assistant: “We have no interest in providing information for an academically farcical publication.” I wanted to include Page’s statement especially since I was acting as that “Modern Woman” Bob Jones railed against in the now-public-domain sermon I could include. But the editors suggested I be more euphemistic in my mention. 
  5. What is your current scholarly project?
    • I am about 75% done with my next project called Klandamentalism: America’s Most Dysfunctional Romance. I have named the rhetoric that supported and perpetuated this intersection of conservative politics, revivalism, and white male supremacy, “Klandamentalism.” Contrary to the academic assumption that the Ku Klux Klan exploited naïve and pious evangelicals for its own gain, a close reading of twentieth-century revival sermons and their media coverage shows that the Klansman and the fundamentalist spokesman were promoting the same ideology, from the same pulpits, and with the same rhetoric. My neologism features this fusion. Through rhetorical analysis, I will map the trajectory of Klandamentalism from the Civil War through the twenty-first century. 
    • Bob Jones melded an orthodoxish vocabulary with a violent white male supremacy that sets up one strain of the American citizenry to be comfortable with a tyrant. Klandamentalism starts with a forceful, egocentric singular personality and a small but secret cadre of young, white males who alone act upon their neighbors, employees, families, and nation to “bring them to God” in order to earn their own entry into Heaven. Their actions are imprecise and bland. Their antagonists—usually gendered feminine—flamboyantly lure the white male believers’ attention away from their heavenly destination. 
    • Throughout the twentieth-century, Jones laid his Klandamentalist cards out on the table for us to examine. His hand has been passed to four generations now, and the latest one has picked it up to win the presidency for its own demagogue all with white evangelical support—with Klandamentalist support. This twentieth-century “Klandamentalism” persists past Bob Jones’ prolific public life and continues to goad a particular American subculture into the twenty-first century. The current civic conversation in the United States is caught in a trap of religious arguments masking white supremacy. We as a nation are struggling with how to identify, address, and counter an ideology that can be alternatively too religious to be public or too racist to be admitted. But we have encountered this same rhetorical strategy before. Our great-grandparents addressed white supremacist religious arguments in their civic conversations, and unraveling how they countered those white supremacist strategies will help us solve inequality today.

Thank you Camille!

The REAP lawsuit: An Apocalyptic Moment for Evangelical Colleges

by William Trollinger

“Meet the Plaintiffs” image courtesy of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), 2021.

In the wake of the 2015 Supreme Court ruling (Obergefell v. Hodges) legalizing same-sex marriage, a good friend of mine predicted this day was coming. This past weekend he sent me a one-sentence email: “And now the other shoe has finally dropped.”

33 current and former college and seminary students have filed a class action lawsuit seeking – to quote from the suit filed by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP) – “to put an end to the U. S. Department of Education’s complicity in the abuses and unsafe conditions thousands of LGBTQ+ students endure at hundreds of taxpayer-funded, religious colleges and universities.” 

The schools that the plaintiffs attend or attended constitute a veritable Who’s Who of evangelical and fundamentalist educational institutions (plus a Mormon and a Seventh-day Adventist school, for good measure) that are not customarily grouped together (just note the first four schools on this list):

  • Azusa Pacific University (CA)
  • Baylor University (TX)
  • Bob Jones University (SC) 
  • Brigham Young University (UT)
  • Cedarville University (OH)
    • Note: As discussed here, a group of Cedarville students have created an anonymous online magazine in which they critique the repression and hypocrisy that is Cedarville. Coincidentally (or not), their most recent article – which appeared two days before the lawsuit was filed – deals with the experiences of LGBTQ students at Cedarville. 
  • Clarks Summit University (PA)
  • Colorado Christian College (CO)
  • Dordt University (IA)
  • Eastern University (PA)
  • Fuller Theological Seminary (CA)
  • George Fox University (OR)
  • Grace University (NE)
    • Note: Grace shut its doors in 2018. If you are interested in reading about how this Mennonite school became “fundamentalized,” see here.
  • Indiana Wesleyan University (IN)
  • La Sierra University (CA)
  • Liberty University (VA)
  • Lipscomb University (TN)
  • Messiah University (PA)
  • Moody Bible Institute (IL)
  • Nyack College (NY)
  • Oklahoma Baptist University (OK)
  • Seattle Pacific University (WA)
  • Toccoa Falls College (GA)
  • Union University (TN)
  • Westmont College (CA)
  • York College (NE)

According to the lawsuit, the Department of Education’s 

inaction leaves students unprotected from the harms of conversion therapy, expulsion, denial of housing and healthcare, sexual and physical abuse and harassment, as well as the less visible, but no less damaging, consequences of institutionalized shame, fear, anxiety, and loneliness . . . The status quo, where the Department leaves such students on their own in this perilous limbo, results in concrete, verifiable, and widespread harms. Each Plaintiff has their own story of oppression to tell, and each Plaintiff represents thousands more whose stories deserve to be heard.

One of the plaintiffs is Lucas Wilson, who attended Liberty University from 2008 to 2012. As Wilson recounts in an NBC News article, “Liberty University is a ‘thoroughly homophobic institution’” that not only administers “conversion therapy in the form of a student club” – then called “Band of Brothers,” but now called “Armor Bearers” – but also devotes many classes to “’the evils of the homosexual lifestyle.’” 

In explaining the lawsuit REAP Director Paul Southwick argues that the government is unconstitutionally allowing the “religious exemption to Title IX” to be used by evangelical colleges to target “people based on sex, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity, for inferior treatment.” In this lawsuit REAP is making use of Bob Jones University v. United States (1983), in which the Supreme Court ruled that BJU “did not get to maintain its tax-exempt status due to an interracial dating ban – a policy the university claimed was based in its sincerely held religious beliefs.” According to the Court, the government’s interest in proscribing racial discrimination overrode the religious exemption clause. 

Not surprisingly, Christian Right leaders are apoplectic over the REAP lawsuit. This past Saturday Ken Ham posted this on his Facebook page:

As we at Answers in Genesis have warned, gay “marriage” was the door that opened the LGBTQ agenda. It ramps up more each day. And for those who profess Christianity who support such an agenda, “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law [God’s Word], even his prayer is an abomination” (Proverbs 28:9).

This lawsuit, combined with the outrage from Ham and others in the Christian Right, puts evangelical and fundamentalist schools in a very difficult position. I assume that many of these institutions will (implicitly or explicitly) concede that the religious exemption clause should not apply to racial discrimination, but that it should apply as regards sexual orientation and gender identity. 

But on what basis? In the 1980s Bob Jones University was simply repeating what millions of white evangelicals said about slavery and what millions of white evangelicals said about racial segregation, that is, slavery and segregation were in keeping with a literal reading of the Bible. If racial discrimination is not allowable – despite the raft of biblical arguments made in its behalf – at institutions benefitting from tax monies, then why is discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation acceptable at such institutions? 

What is the argument, Ken? And were the prayers of the millions of white evangelicals who supported slavery and segregation – as well as the prayers of the untold numbers of contemporary Christian white supremacists and Christian neo-Confederates – also an abomination before the Lord?

What makes this lawsuit a very difficult moment for more moderate evangelical schools – and I taught at one of them for eight years, so I know whereof I speak — is that they have been playing to two different audiences at once. Internally, they reassure faculty that they just need to wait until the older generation of evangelicals has passed, and then there will be a blessed tolerance when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity. But externally, they reassure their conservative constituency that they are holding to a firm biblical line when it comes to issues of sexuality — they are “safe schools” (thanks Adam Laats for this descriptor) that are not bowing to the decadent liberal culture.

But now the issue is being forced. The “two audience” strategy is going to be much more difficult (if impossible) to maintain. No matter how this particular lawsuit turns out, this matter is not going away. The apocalyptic moment is here.

How will evangelical colleges respond? 

The Seven Biggest “Devils” in Evangelicalism: Names Given

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. He is also making final edits on his sixth book – Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy – forthcoming from Wipf and Stock (Cascades).

For at least one hundred years, evangelical/fundamentalist preachers have demeaned moderate-to-liberal preachers as children of the devil, as the spawns of hell, as a raving pack of socialists, communists, and atheists. They have fearlessly, loudly, and repeatedly attacked us as the enemies of God who do not believe in the Bible, in God, or in America.                        

J. Frank Norris. Image via Norris: thejfranknorrishistoricalsociety.blogspot.com

Perhaps the great granddaddy of attack rhetoric was J. Frank Norris, the fire-breathing Texas fundamentalist who has been dubbed “God’s rascal” by historian Barry Hankins. In a sermon series against municipal corruption, Norris preached on “The Ten Biggest Devils in Fort Worth—Names Given.” Most of the men Norris named in the sermon were in attendance on that Sunday night. Enraged community leaders tried to run him out of town, and his life was threatened. A later generation, led by Jerry Falwell, Sr. and Pat Robertson, perfected the art of blasting every person, institution, and entity with accusations like a southern farmer firing his twelve-gauge shotgun at teenage watermelon thieves. Accusations are the evangelical brand.

Turning the tables, I am arguing here that evangelical preachers are a species of “devil.” I am using the word “devil” in the sense of the Hebrew word for “Satan,” the accuser. This name defines the rhetoric of evangelical leaders. Their words imply a form of violence, usually a white hyper-male violence of control, dominance, abuse, and degradation. Their words consummate a series of lies that are cloaked in the language of Christian piety.             

To suggest that some evangelical leaders are “devils” will strike many as absurd and harsh, but this is a war of metaphors and meanings. This is the march of the rhetorical tropes. Call it the “war of hyperboles.” While I am not exactly saying that evangelical leaders are devils, I’m just saying they are devils in the Hebrew sense of the word “Satan” – accusers. In other words, I “see” your paralipsis and I raise you a paralipsis. This is a serious condemnation, with evidence and warrants, for a group of people who are telling lies while knowing they are lying. In that spirit, here are the “Seven Biggest Devils in Evangelicalism – Names Given.” 

1. Robert Jeffress 
 

Robert Jeffress. Image via Dallas News

Chief among the evangelical devils is Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. Jeffress has been called “Trump’s Apostle,” and has been labeled as one of the leading “court evangelicals” (John Fea, Believe Me). Embracing all the false, unbiblical, untrue, and dangerous theology of dispensationalists, Christian nationalists, and young earth creationists is trouble enough. 

But Jeffress goes further, calling Democrats “false religious leaders who are wolves in sheep’s clothing.” He says that “when they talk about God, they are not talking about the real God — the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who revealed Himself in the Bible.” Instead, “these liberal Democrats are talking about an imaginary God they have created in their own minds: a god who loves abortion and hates Israel.” In short, Democrats are atheists: “The democrat party has become a godless party and so that’s why you find such animosity against conservative Christians and against the Bible. They hate God and I think the President knows that.”  (https://harbingersdaily.com/dr-robert-jeffress-the-radical-democrat-party-has-become-the-godless-party/). “It is no coincidence, that 70 percent of atheists identify as democrats and only 15 percent as Republicans.”

Jeffress routinely mixes fearmongering with his distortions: “And if the left ever gains control of this country again, I predict it’s going to be like the French Revolution. It’s going to be ‘bring out the guillotines,’ [as they] execute every thought they object to, and every person who holds every thought that they object to.” https://friendlyatheist.patheos.com/2020/06/13/robert-jeffress-if-democrats-ever-win-they-will-bring-out-the-guillotines/. By his own words, Jeffress is a devil.

2. David Barton 

David Barton. Image via bereanresearch.org

One of major propagators of evangelical falsehoods is the “hobby” historian David Barton. Jeffress and Barton are two Texas peas in a devil’s pod. Barton, a Republican operative, has spent his career debunking the First Amendment and insisting that America was founded as a Christian nation. He has claimed that taking prayer from public schools caused a precipitous drop in ACT scores. He is the pseudo-scholar of the entire Christian nationalist movement. Barton fills his books and videos with inaccurate facts to fuel his imagined “Christian America.” His teachings have been debunked by nearly every American historian, including those who teach at evangelical schools. Barton referred to Trump as “God’s guy,” and has pushed his nativism to the maximum. Barton wrote a book, Jefferson’s Lies, that is so filled with distortions and misstatements and “made-up” quotes that Nelson Publishers, a conservative evangelical publishing house, removed the book from publication. It turns out the only lies in the book were “Barton lies.” As Andre Chouraqui puts it in “The Psalms,” the Devil is the Accuser, so styled by his name in Hebrew, Satan: “His every word consummates a lie.” Lies are the primary tool of a devil, and writing a book full of lies means Barton joins the devil tribe. 

3. Tim LaHaye 

Tim LaHaye. Image via mbcpathway.org

The most influential teacher of end-time prophecy was the late Tim LaHaye. Followed by more than 100 million believers, his creative, speculative, and literalistic approach to the symbolic language of apocalyptic passages in the Bible read current events into Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation. He attacked those who disagree with him: “These are usually liberal theologians that don’t believe the Bible literally.” Respected evangelical and New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says that LaHaye’s “Left Behind” vision is a “pseudo-theological version of Home Alone” (The Anointed, 18). 

Glen Scherer, in “The Godly Must Be Crazy,” argues that a delusional mix of ideology and theology, centered in the rapture, has moved from the wacko fringe of American life to the center of political power. At least half the members of Congress are rapture believers, which endangers environmental policy, and which has dangerous implications for foreign policy. LaHaye’s teachings are untrue, unbiblical, and dangerous. The devil, here, is in the details of how God will allegedly be the supreme perpetrator of genocide. The rapture ideology is the devil’s playground. 

4. Ken Ham 

Ken Ham. Image via brucegerencser.net

The Creation Museum may look like any other tourist-trap theme park, but the dark themes of this ministry, promoted by Ken Ham, tells a different story. The danger here is not so much the naïve assumption that God created the world in six literal days, but in the anti-science movement that Ham and company have enabled across the nation. The anti-science movement, claiming to be about “real science,” has fueled anti-Vaxxers and climate denial. “Climate denial is certainly the most ‘epic’ form of fake-news our culture has ever known,’ according to philosopher Rupert Read. Climate-denial pretends to give the deniers power of nature itself and freedom from truth. While insisting that he is the “answer man,” Ham and his followers are unwilling to be bound by anything, even truth itself. 

Ham talks a lot about how much he believes in science and how many young earth creationists scientists are intellectually respectable, but in the words of biologist, Kenneth R. Miller, “there’s no there there.” Ham has claimed that evolution is false, unbiblical, untrue, and dangerous. He has blamed evolution for every known disaster on the planet. The reality is that Ham’s message is false, unbiblical, untrue, and dangerous. His Answers in Genesis ministry is a powerful shaper of popular opinion with simple, comfortable, easy answers. The Creation Museum is a seductive experience, a veritable devil’s den of misstatement, false claims, and dangerous ideology. 

5. Franklin Graham

Franklin Graham. Image via ussanews.com

Franklin Graham has a very long track record of anti-Islam bigotry. A month after the 9/11 terror attacks, Graham, speaking at the dedication of a new chapel, told an audience that Islam “is a very evil and wicked religion.” Pressed to clarify his comments by NBC, Graham said, “It wasn’t Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasn’t Lutherans. It was an attack on this country by people of the Islamic faith.” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/franklin-graham-islamophobia-trump-inauguration_n_587e3ea5e4b0aaa369429373. He has also accused Islam of being a “religion of war.” In 2014, Graham attacked the National Cathedral for allowing a Muslim prayer in its worship. He said, “It’s sad to see a church open its doors to the worship of anything other than the One True God of the Bible who sent His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to earth to save us from our sins.” Notice how seamlessly he promotes his Islamophobia with Jesus. 

Following the example of Donald Trump, Graham doubled down to imply that Obama was a Muslim. “We’re going to see persecution, I believe, in this country because our president is very sympathetic to Islam and the reason I say that … is because his father was a Muslim, gave him a Muslim name, Barack Hussein Obama.”  Graham paints a picture of a holy war, and he promotes an ideology that is xenophobic, patriarchal, idolatrous, bloodthirsty, and elitist. These are the clear earmarks of a Satan, the accuser. 

6. Paula White

Paula White. Image via deadstate.org

Perhaps no one has been more of an acolyte of Trump than prosperity gospel preacher, Paula White. This charismatic preacher claims she led Trump to Christ. Serving as Trump’s spiritual advisor, she was a paid employee on Trump’s staff. After the 2020 election, she held a prayer service, which was streamed on Facebook live. During the service White called on “angelic reinforcement” from the continents of Africa and South America. “I hear a sound of victory, the Lord says it is done,” she said. “For angels have even been dispatched from Africa right now… In the name of Jesus from South America, they’re coming here.” White praying for angels to bring Trump the victory has been passed off as harmless prosperity gospel hyperbole, but it is dangerous and heretical.  https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/11/05/paula-white-trumps-spiritual-adviser-african-south-american-angels/6173576002/

White told her television audience, “Anyone who tells you to deny yourself is from Satan.” (Shayne Lee and Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks, 111, 113, 124, 125). White has asked her followers to donate their entire January paycheck to her ministry during the pandemic. She once told her audience to sow the seed of faith in the form of a $1,144 donation to her ministry. White claimed that God specifically instructed her to ask for this $1,144 because it corresponded to her sermon text, John 11:44. The prosperity gospel is the work of the devil. 

7. Jerry Falwell, Jr.

Jerry Falwell, Jr. Image via thenewcivilrightsmovement.com

Jerry Falwell, Jr. lost his ranking as a top Trump apostle when he was photographed in a compromising picture with a young woman. He still makes the list because he qualifies as a fallen angel. Falwell claimed that seeking to impeach Trump would be the Democrats’ Pearl Harbor, and the 2020 election their Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Defending the right to bear arms, Falwell reached for extra hyperbole: “I’m pretty sure I’m going to call for civil disobedience if the Democrats go through with this. You don’t mess with people’s guns in this part of the state,” Falwell said. He said the Democratic party and its supporters were “no longer liberals — they’ve become fascists, they’re Brownshirts. You believe like them or you’re out.”

https://friendlyatheist.patheos.com/2018/10/12/jerry-falwell-jr-donald-trumps-a-moral-person-and-democrats-are-fascists/

Falwell attacked Christianity Today. “With the magazine’s insidious condemnation of the greatest president in American history for people of faith, Christianity Today showed that it stands with the radical progressive left that wants to deny basic Judeo-Christian beliefs throughout our culture and society. A large majority of Americans and the Christian world stands with President Trump and against the radical left because he’s the only thing that stands between us and the escalating attacks on our faith and liberty.” https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/jerry-falwell-jr-christianity-today-is-wrong-about-trump-he-is-a-champion-for-people-of-faith. Unfortunately, Falwell learned there were limits to how much “devilment” the Liberty University board would tolerate, and he was dismissed for falling for the more ordinary, garden-variety temptations of the Evil One.             

Conclusion 

I have claimed there are devils on the loose speaking in the name of Jesus. You know they are devils because they are speaking lies. They preach that America was founded by right-wing Christians who espoused the same theology as they do. They preach that God created the world in six literal days and that all the answers are in Genesis. They promote an illusory Rapture where Jesus is supposed to show up and snatch all the good people into the clouds before he commits universal genocide. They teach that God hates foreigners, especially Muslims. They know the story of Ruth and Jonah, but still they are deeply prejudiced against foreigners. They know Jesus condemned his own people for being religious elitists, and yet they insist on demeaning persons of other faiths. They make God an agent in making money to support expensive lifestyles. They demean science and create mistrust in climate scientists and pandemic research. They produce false prophets who lead people to destruction. 

Accepting the judgment that those who judge will be held to the same standard, I still say, “Call these preachers what they are: devils.”

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