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Advent, Apocalyptic, and the Blind Teachers of the Blind

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). 

“The Rapture” by Jan Luyken (1795). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

“For it is God who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements; the beginning and end and middle of times.”
(Wisdom of Solomon 7:17 – 18)

Self-delusion creates a form of blindness. Tennessee Williams puts the consequences of self-delusion on the lips of Tom Wingfield, narrator in “The Glass Menagerie”: 

That quaint period, the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy. (Quoted by Robert McElvaine in The Great Depression). 

The issue of failing eyes, blind eyes, or not seeing what is in front of the face was part of the curriculum of Jesus. “Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14). 

In our day, there are blind preachers/teachers “guiding” the blind. These preachers/teachers, engrossed in how the world began and how the world will end, have confused beginnings with endings. For example, Ken Ham has built a Creation Museum and an Ark in Kentucky, two metaphorical monstrosities dedicated to “pressing fingers down on the fiery Braille alphabet” of a false apocalyptic vision. 

Tim LaHaye claims that Jesus is coming soon to rapture the believers and destroy the earth. Beginning and ending. 

David Barton and Robert Jeffress insist that America was born as a Christian nation. This is another of the “in the beginning” stories that is not based on actual history. 

A soprano from the choir burst out, “What does Advent have to do with Apocalypse? Why do you have to frighten us with these awful texts in this season of joy?” She’s a fantastic singer, but she had been impacted by people who read their Bibles wrongly and mixed beginnings and endings. She had never read the Left Behind fictional books. She had never taken a course in the rapture. But the teaching was in the air of American religion, and she had breathed in some of its noxious particles. I tried to help her: “Apocalyptic readings are used in Advent because they are about the beginning not the ending. Advent is the beginning, not the ending. Advent is about the new that’s always just around the bend.” 

The most dangerous readings are those that insist that Jesus teaches that he is coming back to end the world. Passages that use complex symbolic, metaphorical language are twisted into literal meanings that distort the truth and make Jesus look bad. For example, William V. Trollinger, Jr. points out

Well, when it comes to Matthew 25: 31-46, they say that Jesus’ words do not apply to us today. Instead, these words apply to the seven-year Tribulation at the end of history. Instead of a text that holds nations accountable for how they treat fellow human beings, the words are twisted to saying that we are to care for the people who have converted after the Rapture. Those who turn away the refugees will be cast into everlasting judgment.

The blind preachers who insist on a apocalyptic trope of demolition and destruction do a disservice to the reality of God’s gentle, persuading work. Far removed from this fearful raging, the Wisdom of Solomon offers us a different vision of God’s creating power through wisdom: 

There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits
that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle. (7:22 – 23). 

N. T. Wright says that the New Testament has a vision that the creator God, the God who makes all things new, will remake heaven and earth entirely, affirming the goodness of the old Creation but overcoming its mortality and corruptibility. 

In the 13th century Thomas Aquinas said that creation should not be conceived as an event with a before and after, but, rather, creation is ongoing (Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, 36). In keeping with Aquinas, Rowan Williams offers what he deems “the real Christian doctrine of creation that is going on in this moment.” This vision of creation goes far beyond the first three chapters of Genesis and offers us splendid views that far surpass the dull literalism of Ken Ham’s account. These visions are most prominent in the “Wisdom Books” of the Bible: Job, Proverbs, Psalms, the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach. In the seventh chapter of the Wisdom of Solomon, God’s wisdom is a gentle, peaceful, intelligent, persuading presence, always permeating the universe and looking for co-creators in human beings. This is the beginning that Advent envisions with the use of apocalyptic symbols. 

The vision of Advent is a here and now vision unsettling the status quo and putting the political system on notice for its death-dealing ways.  Mary, eyes wide open to God’s coming kingdom, centered Advent in human need and human reality: 

God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. The Lord has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud (that’s a big crowd) in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. That’s economics. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.  

No political leader can sleep easy at night knowing that “Jesus will bring down the powerful from their thrones.” No rich person can be at peace having heard that God sends the rich away empty. Mary’s vision in Luke 1 is the same vision that Jesus offers in Luke 21: “the son of man coming on the clouds.” Rapture lovers protest here by quoting Paul: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God.  The dead in Christ will rise first; then we, who are left alive, will be snatched up with them on clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord” (1Thessalonians 4:16-17). But as N. T. Wright says, 

Paul’s mixed metaphors of trumpets blowing, and the living being snatched into heaven to meet the Lord are not to be understood as literal truth, as the Left Behind series suggests, but as a vivid and biblically allusive description of the great transformation of the present world of which he speaks elsewhere.

The clearest eyes that ever existed, the eyes of Jesus, give us a view that counteracts the blind preachers/teachers confused about beginnings and endings. The view of Jesus is found in his first sermon, his vision in Luke 4. I have always been partial to Dr. Otis Moss III’s interpretation of this sermon: 

“Good news to the poor.” I believe that’s economics. “Release to the captives”– that must be political. “To recover the sight of the blind” – that’s educational. “To let the oppressed go free” – that’s liberation theology. 

So at the top of the text is theology. In between is economics, politics, and education. In between it’s all about social public policy. And then at the bottom, it’s theology – Jubilee. All that human need frames the here and now season of Advent. 

Matthew 25, read in the context of Advent, holds the nations accountable for how they treat the “least of these.” “All the nations will be gathered before him.” Jesus brings the vision of the Hebrew prophets to the table and preaches that nations will be responsible for how the poor are treated, how the hungry are fed, how the thirsty are given drink, how the prisoners are treated, how the homeless and naked are treated, how the sick were treated. 

In Democracy Matters Cornel West claims, “The Jewish invention of the prophetic commitment to justice for all peoples” is written large in all of Jesus’ teachings. This prophetic message “is one of the great moral moments in human history.” Then West adds, 

Prophetic witness consists of human acts of justice and kindness that attend to the unjust sources of human hurt and misery. Prophetic witness calls attention to the causes of unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery. The prophetic message calls out to us to take part in transforming communities into flourishing places of well-being. It speaks to all peoples and nations to be just and righteous. (16-17)

Advent and its apocalyptic rhetoric walk hand in hand to announce the beginning of the “birth pangs” rather than the end. This is here and now, not some illusory apocalyptic future, but the hard work of creating a new earth. Advent and apocalyptic are one and the same. 

Respectful Discussion

by Terry Defoe

The Ptolemaic and Copernican Models of orbit in Earth's solar system.
Ptolemaic and Copernican Models of orbit. Image via tofspot.blogspot.com.

Pastor Terry Defoe is an emeritus member of the clergy who served congregations in Western Canada from 1982 to 2016, and who ministered to students on the campuses of the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University. He is the author of Evolving Certainties: Resolving Conflict at the Intersection of Faith and Science, a book which, among other things, chronicles his transition from Young Earth Creationism to evolutionary creation. Evolving Certainties is endorsed by scientists in biology, geology and physics, with a foreword written by Darrel Falk, former president of BioLogos, an organization that has as its goal the facilitating of respectful discussion of science / faith issues. Defoe has been educated at: Simon Fraser University (BA Soc); Lutheran Theological Seminary, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (M.Div.); and, Open Learning University, Burnaby, British Columbia (BA Psyc).

Disturbing the Peace

In the sixteenth century, the Christian church experienced serious conflict over issues of Biblical interpretation. Martin Luther rejected a system of doctrine that, in his opinion, allowed unscriptural teachings to contradict and obscure the gospel. Luther’s desire was that these issues be discussed without fear of retribution. 

That did not happen. Since then, contentious issues have multiplied. This post deals with scientific discoveries that continue to challenge traditional interpretations of the Bible’s creation accounts. 

A little historical context may be helpful. Around 1514, a Catholic priest by the name of Nicolaus Copernicus proposed the radically counter-intuitive idea that the earth orbits the sun, not vice versa. After considering an idea which seemed to contradict the plain reading of scripture, which said that the earth does not move (in keeping with the sun’s passage across the sky each day), the Church came to acknowledge this cosmological reality. 

For the last 150 years, the theory of evolution has been an even greater challenge to orthodoxy. The findings of evolutionary biology do not align well with a traditional interpretation of the Genesis creation accounts. To many, scientific concordism, the argument that the Bible’s statements about the natural realm are always accurate, fails as a defense against those who argue that the “science” in the Bible is, in fact, that of Iron Age Semites, and bears little resemblance to a modern understanding of the natural realm.

A growing number of evangelicals seek re-engagement with mainstream science, convinced that Christians can take mainstream science seriously while upholding historic Christian doctrines such as the incarnation, the substitutionary death of Christ, and his resurrection from the dead. These individuals assert, for example, that mainstream science can make a positive contribution to the Church’s understanding of scripture’s creation accounts. A great deal was at stake 500 years ago as the church grappled with heliocentrism. Issues related to the biological sciences and the theory of evolution, with even more serious implications for evangelicalism, are generating a great deal of less-than-respectful discussion today. 

The Power of the Paradigm 

All of us have mental filters – paradigms – that organize and interpret the constant stream of data that comes our way. To a surprising extent, these mental filters determine what we can or cannot perceive. In his influential book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn defines a paradigm as 

universally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions for a community of practitioners. Paradigms define or suggest problems to investigate; they rule out others, they light the way, simultaneously restricting and enhancing the view.

A paradigm shift can be compared to installing a new operating system on a computer. An individual’s understanding shifts from “It can’t be so,” to “That’s the way it is!” Physicist Tom McLeish compares the process to a light being switched on. Things suddenly makes sense. A paradigm shift is often preceded by what Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger called cognitive dissonance — mental discomfort caused by holding two or more contradictory beliefs simultaneously, or encountering new information that conflicts with existing beliefs. In order to reduce that dissonance, individuals seek mental consistency, which may lead them to reject valid information. 

Many evangelicals are surprised to discover that, for the majority of Christians worldwide, including mainline Protestants as well as the Roman Catholic Church, mainstream science and faith are compatible. Ambrose of Milan (337-397 A.D.) once said that all truth, regardless of its source, comes from the Holy Spirit. Benjamin Warfield, evangelical champion of biblical inerrancy, once said: 

We must not, then, as Christians, assume an attitude of antagonism toward the truths of reason, or the truths of philosophy, or the truths of science, or the truths of history, or the truths of criticism. As children of light, we must be careful to keep ourselves open to every ray of light. Let us then cultivate an attitude of courage over against the investigations of the day. None should be more zealous in them then we. None should be more quick to discern the truth in every field, or hospitable to receive it, or loyal to follow it, whithersoever it leads. (In Fugle, Laying Down Arms to Heal the Creation-Evolution Divide, 62),

CRISIS MANAGEMENT

Theologian John Schneider claims that evangelical Protestantism is on “the brink of crisis” with regard to evolutionary theory. What Schneider portrays as a serious problem, paradoxically, could also be seen as an opportunity. Evangelicals are called upon to clarify which aspects of their faith are non-negotiable and which may be appropriately updated. When seen in the context of the broad sweep of church history, the theological enterprise has always been a work in progress. As Nathan Hale observes:

I’m not attempting to cast doubt on the authority of scripture; it is simply a plea to better understand the complexity and richness of the text. The Bible is a complex library of history, law, poetry, wisdom, Gospels, epistles, and apocalyptic literature. But it was written in a time, place, culture, and language that is not ours.

A key evangelical doctrine is inerrancy, the view that the Bible, in its original manuscripts, is without error of any kind. That foundational doctrine is being revisited. Christian biologist Gary Fugle says in Laying Down Arms to Heal the Creation-Evolution Divide

For most evangelicals, the concept of inerrancy is supported by a modern scientific understanding of the world applied to the scriptures. But in light of modern science, some assertions in the scriptures are inaccurate (233).

David Dockery offers these preliminary thoughts as to the kinds of concerns being raised — 

The Bible, properly interpreted in the light of the culture and communication developed by the time of its composition, will be shown to be completely true… in all that it affirms, to the degree of precision intended by the author, in all matters pertaining to God and his creation. (As quoted in Walton and Sandy, The Lost World of Scripture, 275).

Just before paradigms are abandoned, new facts no longer fit old frameworks. Pesky anomalies accumulate and refuse to be dismissed. A major paradigm shift has been compared to rebuilding a ship while it is still floating on the water. The notion of a paradigm shift is at the heart of the scientific enterprise. It is what scientists win Nobel prizes for. Major paradigm shifts have occurred with regularity since the sixteenth century advent of the scientific revolution — Copernicus and heliocentrism, Darwin and evolution, Wegener and plate tectonics, Einstein and relativity. 

A requirement to modify one’s views when presented with better data is one of the hallmarks of the scientific method. Scientific methodology has a built-in accountability system that strongly discourages scientists from clinging to a discredited theory. A paradigm shift has been compared to snow melting on a metal roof. All of a sudden, without warning, the snow slides off and hits the ground with a thud.  

Splendid Isolation

In self-referential cultures, everything makes sense as long as individuals remain within their cultural boundaries. Out-of-the-box thinking makes group members nervous. Psychologist John Jost of New York University describes partisans (religious or political), those whose primary motivation is defending the status quo, as system justifiers. In the scientific world, challenges to a conventional view are to be expected, but in evangelicalism, challenges to theological norms are typically viewed with suspicion. Many evangelical denominations practice what is known as confessional subscription, a public affirmation of confessional statements typically formulated during the Reformation in the sixteenth century. 

In practice, confessional subscription means that denominational leaders, educational facilities, and clergy affirm and teach a fixed body of doctrines and articles of faith. Those confessions were designed to protect a theological heritage, an admirable goal. Paradoxically, the same confessional safeguards which guarded evangelical faith in years past may hinder the enrichment of that same faith today. John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy put it this way in The Lost World of Scripture: “… the foundations of our fortresses are nearly immovable. But we need to make our best efforts to reconsider the evidence and the possibilities.” 

It’s not surprising that administrators and board members of evangelical denominations, as well as educators in evangelical colleges and seminaries, are suspicious of change; it is, as it were, in their theological DNA. They look askance at what they perceive as unnecessary changes to long-standing doctrines and teachings. It’s not difficult to understand why Christian leaders would resist changes that, in their opinion, would adversely affect basic doctrines and, in addition, cause confusion among the people in the pews.

Confessional subscription may lead church administrators and educators to believe there is no need for any revisiting – let alone revision – of their creation-related doctrines. Scientists, on the other hand, are trained to follow the truth wherever it leads. When the evidence piles up and becomes overwhelming, they know that they must adjust (or replace!) their old model and move on. 

In this regard evangelicals need safe places where contentious issues can be discussed respectfully. They too often lack an open and collegial atmosphere where dialogue replaces debate. Without these things, genuine rapprochement is unlikely. Groups of all kinds are vulnerable to a psychological phenomenon called groupthink, where the desire for group harmony overrides good decision-making. Groupthink encourages individuals to suppress their own views on the subject at hand so as to support each other and minimize conflict. An artificial consensus is achieved. Alternative viewpoints are not critically evaluated. An all-too-human failing is to allow ourselves to be lulled to sleep under the comfortable quilt of group conformity rather than courageously facing uncomfortable truths. 

I distinctly remember the metal ring-puzzles I used to play with as a child. It didn’t take long to realize there was only one way to correctly align the rings. But experience also taught, as I experimented a little, that I could cheat. I could force the rings to fit. But my conscience stepped in to remind me that I hadn’t found the correct solution should I do that. Christians who steadfastly refuse to allow mainstream science to speak to their faith find themselves forcing scripture’s statements about the natural realm to fit with its spiritual truths. In so doing, they are missing an important opportunity to improve the accuracy of their Bible interpretation. 

So what does mainstream science want? A rethinking of the early chapters of Genesis would be helpful – a willingness to view the text figuratively rather than literalistically. That’s it. 

Christians who avoid mainstream science, or unfairly criticize it, are missing a great opportunity to build a bridge of understanding to the wider secular society, especially its younger cohort. The majority of Christians who have adopted an evolutionary viewpoint indicate that the change resulted in a significant enrichment of their faith. Protecting and defending the authority of scripture need not be accomplished by rejecting mainstream science. 

One Sunday, on the advice of friends, a geology student attended worship in a church he had never visited before. The pastor’s sermon strongly criticized the theory of evolution, not on the basis of the scientific evidence, but under the presupposition that should science and faith disagree, science must be in the wrong. 

An opportunity for dialogue was missed that day. Nothing really changed. And nothing will, unless respectful conversations are encouraged and individuals are willing to let down their guard and enter an ongoing process of dialogue. Christian leaders are duty-bound to speak the truth and to do that in love (Ephesians 4:15). They are required to deal with others with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). Respectful conversation is a critically important factor in resolving conflict at the intersection of faith and science. 

Debunking the Original Birther Story

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). 

Robert Jeffress portrayed as a saint holding a small framed icon of Donald Trump's face.
“Robert Jeffress,” by Marc Burckhardt in the Texas Monthly (2019)

The “original birther conspiracy” is fueled by Christians intent on writing the history of America being born as a Christian nation. This original birtherism involves a recasting of the founding of America in an evangelical straitjacket of misinformation and lies. Here is the naked defense of colonization, nationalism, and nativism by a people who should know better. A pure America, an America chosen and founded by God, an America that has earned all her blessings, an America that is a “city on a hill,” a (white) American people who have inherited the Promised Land and have created a new Eden: this fantasy dominates the evangelical landscape.  

The stifling innocence and naivete of evangelicals can be stunning to observe. As Rowan Williams has observed, here is a clinging to this mythological America “that shows itself in the longing to be utterly sure of our rightness.” A cursory look at the “original birther conspiracy” demonstrates the depth and width of this evangelical attempt to rewrite the history of our nation. 

The Beginnings of the Birther Story 

Steven Keith Green outlines the early beginnings of the “original birther conspiracy” in Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding. In an email, I asked Green if there was one founding father of the birther conspiracy. He responded: 

The best that I could tell from my research is that there was no one, leading nineteenth-century proponent for the idea of America’s Christian nationhood.  Rather, there were a bunch of ministers, commentators, and jurists who all built on each other.  

To give but one example, Lyman Beecher made a host of Christian America claims in sermons and pamphlets. As he proclaimed in A Plea for the West (1835)

There is not a nation upon earth which, in fifty years, can by all possible reformation place itself in circumstances so favorable as our own for the free, unembarrassed applications of physical effort and pecuniary and moral power to evangelize the world. 

The African American prophetic tradition tells a very different story. As Jeremiah Wright satirically preached in his 2003 sermon, “God and Governments”: 

Let me tell you something; we believe in this country, and we teach our children that God sent us to this Promised Land. He sent us to take this country from the Arrowak, the Susquehanna, the Apache, the Comanche, the Cherokee, the Seminole, the Choctaw, the Hopi and the Arapaho. We confuse Government and God. We believe God sanctioned the rape and robbery of an entire continent. We believe God ordained African slavery. We believe God makes Europeans superior to Africans and superior to everybody else too.

Then Wright brings down the hammer on evangelical birtherism: “God does not change! God was against slavery yesterday, and God who does not change is still against slavery today.”

The 1970’s: Peter Marshall and D. James Kennedy 

Peter Marshall and David Manuel are the authors of The Light and the Glory, a book that sold almost a million copies, and that became the primary source for evangelical homeschooling history curriculum. Among the more blatant fictions in this book: 

  • America is in a covenant with God. 
  • Columbus was directed by God. 
  • God made the Massachusetts Bay Colony a “city on a hill.” 
  • God led George Washington’s army to victory over the British in the American Revolution. 

In writing this work of historical fiction Marshall ignored mountains of historical evidence, and yet he had the temerity to accuse “liberal” historians of not doing any research. According to Marshall, he prayed about writing this book, and God told him to proceed. Marshall would go on to claim that Obama’s 2008 victory was a disaster that would bring God’s wrath upon America. 

Then there was James Kennedy, Coral Ridge Presbyterian pastor and early television preacher who was determined to reclaim America for God. As Kennedy saw it, the hand of God was everywhere in American history. Evangelical willingness to jump to false cause arguments may be one of their most misleading rhetorical tropes. Kennedy’s defense of the “birther conspiracy” appears most prominently in his book, What If America Were a Christian Nation Again? 

2000 – Present: Robert Jeffress and David Barton 

Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, stands as the primary contemporary promoter of the fantasy that America was born as a Christian nation. All the previous attempts at the original birther theory are brought to full bloom in the hyperbole and misinformation and distorted facts of Robert Jeffress. 

A primary artifact of the “birther” movement is Jeffress’ Fourth of July sermon, “America Is a Christian Nation.” Most of the material in this sermon comes from David Barton, as the two Texans morph into a single creature. 

The dominant rhetorical trope in the sermon is “American exceptionalism.” In Demagogue for President Jennifer Mercieca identifies “American exceptionalism” as a major trope in the political speeches of conservatives. As Mercieca says, “Appeals to American exceptionalism rely on American’s pride and their desire to believe that their nation is the best among others, that it is chosen by God (News to the Jews?), and that it has a heroic destiny to spread democracy and enlightenment around the world.” 

With blustering certainty and overweening confidence Jeffress promotes the idea that America really is God’s nation, and (mostly white) evangelicals really are God’s new chosen people. This is a sermon wrapped in red, white, and blue. The danger in the sermon is that its patriotism is, to borrow from Barbara Biesecker’s “The Rhetorical Production of the Melancholic Citizen-Subject in the War on Terror,” a species of melancholy. It allows evangelicals to ignore the nation’s violent, racist past. Rather than working through melancholia as a step toward “inventing a society that remembers, rather than unconsciously repeats, a murderous and authoritarian past,” evangelicals wave the flag, recite the creed, and give God’s blessing to the feast of idolatry. It may go without saying that a flag-waving, Bible-thumping tribe pouring out feelings from the evangelical-emotion machine is a menace to democracy. 

Jeffress the patriarchal patriot dangles a dramatic vision of a godly and patriotic nation before his congregation’s adoring eyes. For Jeffress, the American way of life is under siege – its memories, origins, common territory, deep beliefs, ways of life, even God. While this epideictic celebration of American exceptionalism does not have the ring of truth, belief and obedience are almost automatic for Jeffress’ congregation. As Ann Willner put it in The Spellbinders

Followers accept and believe that the past was as the leader portrays it [America was founded as a Christian nation], the present is as he depicts it [America is a Christian nation], and the future will be as he predicts it [Jesus will rapture the holy people of America]. And they follow without hesitation his prescriptions for action. 

Cue the fireworks (in the sanctuary no less!) 

Jeffress’ sermon comes from the low-hanging poisonous fruit that has fallen from David Barton’s “tree of lies and fabrications.” Jeffress uses David Barton’s material and Barton uses James Kennedy’s material, but they are all attempting to drink from “cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13). 

Two stories about America have collided. The originating story of America has a true story depicting the violence, the deception, the wickedness, the naked abuse of power against Others. The evangelical story tells a sanitized, innocent, misleading, and ultimately false story of American righteousness. In an age where democracy seems endangered by lies so huge that millions feel they must believe them, the Thanksgiving season seems a good time to face the truth. While giving thanks, we can also repent of our violent past. 

Put another way, truth may yet lay waste to the antidemocratic historical fantasies and unscrupulous political machinations of evangelicals.

Mirror Images: The Jefferson Bible and The Fundamentalist Bible

Mirror Images: The Jefferson Bible and The Fundamentalist Bible

by William Trollinger

"Teachings of Jesus" placard on display at the Creation Museum.
Teachings of Jesus placard on display at the Creation Museum. Photo by Susan L. Trollinger (2021).

I taught for eight years at Messiah University (PA), which is – as the name might indicate – an evangelical school. 

(Side note: At my campus interview I suggested – in what I thought was a brilliant moment of levity – that the athletic teams should have as their nickname “Messiah Complex.” Except for me, no one laughed.)

While Messiah is a moderate evangelical school (e.g., biblical inerrancy is not part of the faith statement), it attracted (and, I presume, attracts) a good number of fundamentalist students, many of whom had been homeschooled or had attended fundamentalist high schools. 

One day in my U.S. history survey class, when I was talking about the American Revolution, I said in passing that the author of the Declaration of Independence was something akin to a deist. After class three distressed young women confronted me, letting me know that I was completely wrong about Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs, as they had learned in high school that he was an evangelical.

I happened to know that the library had a copy of the The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (more commonly known as The Jefferson Bible). Jefferson created this work by literally taking a razor to a KJV Bible, cutting out certain Gospel passages and gluing them together as a summary of Jesus’ teachings, in the process removing all supernatural references (including the Resurrection and other miracles). 

So I suggested to these students that they go to the library and take a look at what Jefferson had produced. And so they did. And at the next class the same three young women approached me. And again they were quite agitated, but not for the same reason; as one of them blurted: “I was lied to: Jefferson was no evangelical – I don’t think he was even a Christian!”

But then, there’s the Fundamentalist Bible. And one way to think of the Fundamentalist Bible is to understand it as the mirror image of The Jefferson Bible. The supernatural is all there, but many or most or all biblical references to social justice have been cut out by way of a virtual razor.

Take, for example, what one finds in the Jesus exhibit at the Creation Museum. As we noted in Righting America (48), when the Museum opened in 2007 there was almost no Jesus in the place. Not only was there just one Jesus statue tucked away in a corner (which was moved to the main foyer for the holidays), and almost no quotes from Jesus on the ubiquitous placards. 

Then, ten years later, the museum opened a three-room Jesus exhibit. The Jesus here is, to quote Susan Trollinger, a “powerful, authoritative, God-approved, superhero Jesus” who performed miracles, rose from the dead, and will be returning to Earth soon to annihilate his enemies. 

The Creation Museum’s vindictive-superhero Jesus is definitely not the Jesus of The Jefferson Bible. This becomes even clearer when one realizes that there is only half of one placard devoted to Jesus’ “Instructions” (the other half of the placard is devoted to “Rebukes,” which is telling in itself.) Not only is there so little on Jesus’ teachings, but what is included on this placard has been so severely edited that museum visitors will not come away from the exhibit with any notion that Jesus had anything to say about social justice. 

Take, for example, the snippet from Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters.” What exactly does that mean? Well, here is the full verse:

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

This is not a subtle editing job. Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis (AiG) have taken the razor blade to Matthew 6:24, and the result is that Creation Museum visitors do not have to wonder if there’s anything about capitalism and the accumulation of riches that might be at odds with the Gospel.

But then look at “Rebukes” on the right side of the placard. One of these rebukes comes from Matthew 25:41: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

There is no question that this verse is supposed to be an example of, as noted at the top of the placard, “the consequences of rejecting Him.” Conveniently enough, the folks at AiG have failed to include the following five verses:

“For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and 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.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or naked or sick 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 to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Talk about an unsubtle editing job! In truth, “editing job” is quite the euphemism for what the folks at the Creation Museum have done to the Bible. A few judicious slashes with the virtual razor blade, and voila, we have a superhero Jesus who is poised to condemn sinners and neglect those who, like him, suffer. 

But what about fundamentalist study Bibles, where editors cannot – unlike Jefferson and unlike AiG – simply excise passages that they do not like? 

Well, when it comes to Matthew 25: 31-46, these Bibles have done the next best thing. That is, they say that Jesus’ words do not apply to us today. Instead, as one learns from The King James Study Bible: Reference Edition (p. 1036), The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 24-28 (pp. 122, 124-125), and The Henry Morris Study Bible (p. 1445), these words apply to the seven-year Tribulation at the end of history. The test will be whether or not one helps the refugees – apparently those who convert after Jesus has taken up the “true Christians” in the Rapture – fleeing the forces of the Antichrist. According to Morris, those who turn “the refugees away, and perhaps even reporting them to the authorities, will be sent away into everlasting judgment.”

In other words, what these study Bibles proffer is an interpretive razor blade, an extraordinarily esoteric explanation of a passage whose meaning is (unlike so many passages in the Bible that are a challenge to interpret) pretty plain and obvious. What’s not to get? If you want to call yourself a Christian, Jesus says, then get busy about easing the suffering of the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned. This reading, by contrast, is not rooted at all in the biblical text. Instead, it successfully excises unwelcome suggestions that Jesus and the Bible have anything to say to us today about working for social justice.

The Jefferson Bible and the Fundamentalist Bible. Mirror images.

More Fun in Fundamentalism: Halloween is now National Evangelism Day!

by William Trollinger

Large words "Halloween, Paganism, and the Bible" printed in black above silhouetted trick-or-treaters dressed in costumes and carrying plastic pumpkins.
A screenshot from the Answers in Genesis Online Store featuring a National Evangelism Day resource by AiG’s Bodie Hodge.

This semester here at the University of Dayton I am teaching my Ph.D. seminar on American Evangelicalism, with a particular focus on the late 19th and 20th/21st centuries. The greatest challenge I have faced in this seminar is not the students – this is a smart group, with some of them planning to write dissertations on some aspect of fundamentalism – but, instead, choosing which books to assign. The past decade, in particular, has seen a surfeit of good monographs on evangelicalism and fundamentalism  . . . and more keep appearing, to the point that it is hard to keep up. Here is the course reading list; please know that there are another fifty (or more) books I could have assigned (some of which I have required in earlier iterations of this course).

One of the books I assigned this year was the 2014 edition of Randall Balmer’s wonderful Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America. One of the nineteen stops in Balmer’s evangelical travelogue was a October 1990 visit to the Multnomah School of the Bible (keeping up with the university-craze in higher education, it is now Multnomah University) in Portland, Oregon. 

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory is a gentle and generous book, but notwithstanding Balmer’s graciousness, his description of Multnomah suggests an extraordinarily dreary place. (Maybe things have livened up now that it is a university!) He ends his “Bible School” chapter by narrating the story of wandering the campus on a Saturday night, the goal being to see what Multnomah students do for fun, given the “strict injunctions against drinking, gambling, R-rated movies, dancing, and kissing.” (143)

While the Solid Rock Café in the Student Commons was empty, Balmer managed to find two individuals in a nearby meeting room who were busy carving pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns. When he asked, “What do Multnomah students do for fun on Saturday night?,” he was told that 

“We play Rook in the café,” he said. I started to protest that I had just come from the empty café, but not wanting to be contrary, I pulled up short. The man read my mind, however. “That usually doesn’t get started until ten o’clock,” he said. . . A lot of students go to malls or to parks, he added, or to the local nickel arcade to play video games. On Friday nights one of the professors opens his home to students, who “drop by to discuss life and how it relates to the Bible.” The woman nodded vigorously in agreement. “I don’t know if you’d call this fun,” the man said, “but a lot of students go and witness downtown on Friday and Saturday nights – talk to drunkards and stuff. . . . [And we] play board games!” the man said suddenly, looking hopefully in my direction. . . . I elected to pass on the Rook game. I couldn’t bear the thought of more excitement and levity that evening. I jumped into my rental car and headed back to an empty hotel room. (144-145)  

All of this came back to me as I read that Ray Comfort – yes, that Ray Comfort, of the infamous banana video — and his Living Waters organization have designated October 31 as National Evangelism Day. Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis (AiG) have jumped on board, offering to sell eager fundamentalists “the resources you need to share the gospel message with trick-or-treaters and their families.”

Here are some of the Halloween resources available at the Answers in Genesis online store:

  • The “Halloween Learn & Share Kit,” which includes 1 “Halloween, Paganism, and the Bible” DVD, 5 “Biblical & Historical Look at Halloween” booklets, 100 “Dino-Bucks Gospel Tracts,” and 100 “Noah’s Ark Gospel Tracts.”
  • The “Halloween Outreach Pack,” which includes 1 “Halloween, Paganism, and the Bible” DVD, 50
    Biblical & Historical Look at Halloween” booklets, the “Fall of Satan” book, and the “Satan & the Serpent Pocket Guide.”
  • The “Ten Commandments Scroll Pen”
  • The “Noah’s Ark Gospel” tract
  • The “Atheist Test” tract 
  • The “7 Reasons WHY we should NOT accept MILLIONS of years” booklet
  • and much, much, much more!

I am trying to wrap my head around your average nine-year-old trick-or-treater getting back home and pulling out of her bag candies of various sorts – we are going for glow-in-the-dark KitKats this year – along with, say, the “Biblical & Historical Look at Halloween” booklet and the “Atheist Test” tract. Really? She is not immediately throwing them into the trash? This is an evangelism plan? 

The fun in fundamentalism just never ends.

Media Hypes Anti-Vaxx Pastor from Waveland, Mississippi

by Rodney Kennedy

A photo of Shane Vaughn in front of a bookshelf speaking into a microphone.
Shane Vaughn, pastor at First Harvest Ministries in Waveland, MS. Photo via Newsweek.com

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. And his sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has just been published by Wipf and Stock (Cascades). 

For those of you in the Dayton area, Kennedy will be discussing The Immaculate Mistake at Temple Israel (130 Riverside Drive) at noon on Monday, November 01. Taking from his book, he will be focusing on anti-Semitism and its threat to American democracy. All are welcome to attend what should be a fascinating and provocative presentation.

According to Reuters, “U.S. Pastors, advocacy groups mobilize against COVID-19 vaccine mandates”

Whether the misleading headline or the absurd stance of a Mississippi pastor offends more is a toss-up. 

Let’s start with this. Only one pastor is mentioned as “mobilized” against mandates: Shane Vaughn, pastor of First Harvest Ministries in Waveland, Mississippi. His strategy is to post form letters for workers seeking religious exemptions. 

Waveland, Mississippi is not the center of world Christianity. It’s not the Vatican where the Pope speaks for Catholics. It’s not Nashville, the beating heart of the Southern Baptist Convention. This one Pentecostal preacher is not the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, is not the president of the SBC, is not the president of the council of bishops in the United Methodist Church. This article focuses on just this one young man from Waveland, Mississippi who is taking a stand against mandates. 

Luther doesn’t exactly spring to mind. Nor John Wesley or John Calvin. 

Of course preachers often engage in satire-rich behavior and rhetoric. But what is at least as disturbing is that the Reuters reporter (Tom Hals) has universalized this story as if the one little preacher from Waveland has started, yes, a wave of protests by pastors from sea to shining sea. Sometimes members of the media display a level of religious illiteracy that would be mind-numbing if more people had even the most rudimentary understanding of the more than 2,000-year-old history of Christianity. It is hard not to suspect a callous motivation on the part of the reporter who feels the necessity of sending a subliminal message: Preachers are simply crazy. 

I confess that I am impatient with news articles that glorify and amplify and exaggerate absurd and nonsensical actions of preachers. It seems a most curious delusion to believe that people would be persuaded by the example of one Waveland, Mississippi preacher to believe that an entire armada of pastors are out there fighting “tooth and nail” against COVID mandates.

As Brian Beutler puts it, “The press is not a pro-democracy trade, it is a pro-media trade …. It doesn’t act as a guardian of civic norms” (The New Republic, September 13, 2016). Some reporters chase what they “deem” a good story like a hound dog chasing a biscuit, even if the truth has to be stretched, fabricated, or disregarded. That is to say, the media has a tendency to universalize single examples, and this kind of exaggeration spreads misinformation, and a significant portion of the public gullibly swallows it whole. 

Television and the internet use a destructive rhetorical trope called ad populum – “appeal to the crowd” – in making a single example a universal experience. But the single example would never stand up in a debate, in court of law, or in a article by a historian. The Jewish law insisted that “every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Matthew 18:16). A media whose only value is “profit” will not be bothered with the common good or the spread of dangerous ideas. As Cornel West argues, “While an essential mission of the news organizations …. should be to expose the lies and manipulations of our …. leaders …. Too much of what passes for news today is really a form of entertainment” (Democracy Matters, 36). He then adds, “Our mass media are dominated by the ambulance chasers and the blatantly partisan hacks” (West, 37). 

Just as disturbing is that a preacher picked a fight with mandates designed to reduce the COVID infection rate. Why would a preacher who follows Jesus, the Great Physician, not wholeheartedly support every method, practice, and preventive treatment that will lead to the defeat of COVID? The call not to be vaccinated seems as silly as asking the police not to wear bullet-proof vests in a shootout with drug dealers. And this is a Pentecostal preacher – a Christian movement centered in healing practices and belief in the healing power of the Holy Spirit? There is no “balm in Gilead” when preachers fight against good health practices. 

If we made a list of the 100 most crucial issues facing people in our nation, fighting a mask mandate wouldn’t even make the list. Yet here is a modern-day Don Quixote, flailing at windmills he thinks are giants, and taking up his Bible to defend the helpless. Why wouldn’t this preacher take on the rising tides of secularism and the increasing worship of Mammon in a greed-infected nation? Why wouldn’t this preacher mobilize against the “new racism,” which is the old racism with a denial amendment attached? 

Casey Ryan Kelly, in his book, Apocalypse Man: The Death Drive and the Rhetoric of White Masculine Victimhood argues that white men feel wounded but proud and they lash out at what seems to be attacks on their freedom and masculine pride. Kelly says that white men, cast as virtuous and long-suffering, engage in a melodramatic portrayal of themselves not as weaklings or simpletons, but as unjustly persecuted and unsung heroes of the modern world. This investment, Kelly suggests, animates a melancholia where men grieve the loss of their status and “wholeness.” 

In this worldview, the anti-mandate preacher thinks he is defending the righteous, the people persecuted by the government. But if people follow his admonitions, the result will be an increase in the death rate from COVID. Like a Confederate general attempting to urge his men into the center of the battle with no defenses, this preacher yells, “Be a man. Don’t wear a mask. Defy the mandate. Forward! Onward Christian soldiers!” The Pentecostal preacher from Waveland insists on battling COVID without putting on the whole armor of medical science and God. Such an apocalyptic vision sees no future beyond violence toward the Other and its own self-destruction. The anti-mandate preacher is not a freedom warrior; he has a death wish for all of us. 

Maybe this preacher lost all hope of mobilizing against the old cardinal sins of pride, greed, lust, sloth, anger, envy, and gluttony. These old sins are mopping the floor of American culture, and they are aided and abetted by an array of even more dangerous sins, like racism, homophobia, nativism, militarism, hatred, division, and violence. Sending out form letters against COVID mandates seems innocent enough, easy enough, and it garners publicity for a Pentecostal preacher in Waveland, Mississippi. 

Misleading headlines and mobilizing against good health procedures are both absurd. But we live in absurd times when a lie passes for truth and opinions for facts. Look, I understand that a headline that reads, “Pastor From Waveland, Mississippi Speaks Out against COVID Mandates” has no sizzle. But that’s no excuse for an educated reporter who knows better.

What Pandemic? The Amish and Amish Country Tourists Dispense with Masks

by William Trollinger

Four separate images: a ventriloquist holding a doll; a man in a camouflaged shirt and denim overalls smiling; two men with straw hats fake Amish beards pointing to the camera and smiling; a man in denim overalls and a straw hat holding a toilet plunger above his head.
Promotional photo for the Amish Country Theater (2021)

Every other year my wife Sue teaches a course here at the University of Dayton (UD) entitled “The Arguments and Visual Rhetoric of Two Religious Traditions.” Not surprisingly, the two traditions she focuses on are the Amish (about which she wrote Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia) and fundamentalism (about which she co-wrote Righting America at the Creation Museum). 

As part of this course Sue takes her students to the Creation Museum (Petersburg KY), and then to Holmes County, Ohio, which is home to the largest Amish settlement in the world. To prepare for next spring’s trip – in particular, to check out how things have changed since our last visit two years ago – she and I used our UD fall break to visit Holmes County. 

As regards changes in Amish Country tourism, well, let’s just say that it is more evangelical and more kitschy than ever. Take, for example, the Amish Country Theater, which is located on Highway 39 in Berlin, and which is advertised by garishly hokey billboards, one of which almost led me to plow our car into the truck in front of us. 

Visitors to the theater’s website learn that the theater features “side-splittin’ hilarious family variety shows,” including “Donkey Doodle Dandy” and “One Way or an Udder.” These shows feature “the famous Amish comedy trio ‘The Beachy’s [sic]’ and Fannie Mae, whose parody songs and jokes about farm living will keep you laughing the whole way home.” And as quoted on the Amish Country Theater Promotional Video – where one can view “the famous Amish comedy trio” and much, much more – one enthusiastic visitor excitedly exclaimed that the Amish Country Theater is “Better than Branson and Gatlinburg. The talent is amazing! Our church group will be back!”

In short, Amish Country is more evangelical and more kitschy than ever, which was no surprise to the author of Selling the Amish

But what was a surprise was the lack of mask-wearing. The absolute, total lack of mask-wearing.

We visited nine different establishments – bookstores, restaurants, grocery stores, furniture galleries, and more – in the towns of Berlin, Millersburg, Mount Hope, Sugar Creek, and Walnut Creek. Not one of these enterprises had a sign informing visitors that they needed to be masked. More than this, in these establishments – where we were around hundreds of people – we did not see ONE person wearing a mask. Not one tourist. Not one Amish individual. Not one. We were the masked oddities.

So it was a relief to leave Amish Country and head to Columbus for lunch at a popular Mexican restaurant. Where, it turns out, all of the servers and virtually all of the patrons were masked. And as we ate our rice and bean bowls, we talked about what we had just experienced: two days in a popular tourist venue where – despite the fact that (as of October 09, 2021) 712,695 Americans have died of COVID-19 – we saw not one person evincing any concern about contracting or spreading this disease.

It did not take us long to conclude that it seems probable that there was a connection between the lack of mask-wearing and the evangelicalization of Amish Country. Take, for example, Answers in Genesis (AiG), the folks who run the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter (which, by the way, are popular tourist destinations not only for evangelicals, but also for the Amish, who take tour buses from Holmes County to Kentucky to visit these sites). 

The message put out by AiG, again and again, is that 

Of course, once one rejects the scientific evidence for an old Earth and evolutionary science, it is not a huge leap to reject vaccines and masks. Janet Kellogg Ray – author of Baby Dinosaurs on the Ark?: The Bible and Modern Science and the Trouble of Making It All Fit – puts it like this:

The evangelical Christian fear of masking and vaccines is a mystery until you take that Venn diagram and see the overlap between evolution deniers and people taking Ivermectin and thinking the vaccine threatens lives or that masking is the government forcing them to do things against their will.

Right. Reject the pandemic hoax, ignore the state-sanctioned nonsense about masks and vaccines, and head out for some side-splittin’ hilarious fun. 

So it is for a good part of American evangelicalism in 2021.

Owen Strachan: Rip Van Winkle and Prophet of the “Unwoke”

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). 

A bronze statue of a old man with a long beard sitting on the ground, in front of a park landscape with orange-colored leaves on the ground.
Life size bronze of Rip Van Winkle sculpted by Richard Masloski, copyright 2000. Located between the Town Hall and the Main Street School. Photo by Daryl Samuel via Wikimedia Commons.

In Catskill, New York stands a statue of Rip Van Winkle, the patron saint of the “unwoke.” 

In the 38th chapter of Ezekiel, a large valley of dry bones is depicted – a white-blanched metaphor of the “unwoke.” In Revelation 3, one of the seven churches, Sardis, is the congregation of the “unwoke.” 1

Reading Owen Strachan’s Christianity and Wokeness, I felt I had met the prophet of the “unwoke.” I wanted there to be something to his effort to warn people of the danger of wokeness. 

My hope for there to be something of value never came to fruition. Strachan’s vineyard is one that brings forth only sour grapes (Isaiah 5). Only the alternate universe of evangelicalism – the place where the people of a like-minded literalism gather to reassure one another that what they believe really is true – finds merit here. 

Puzzled by Strachan’s attack on the voluminous scholarship on race, I wondered why he insists on returning to the scene of the crime. Strachan drags his tribe back through the “bloody heirloom” of slavery and segregation. He inadvertently calls attention once again that evangelicalism as a political force in the 1970s, as Randall Balmer reminds us, was not founded on opposition to abortion, but in defense of segregation. Still, here’s Strachan willing to be damned by the evidence while offering arguments against wokeness. Strachan’s analysis smiles back at us like those Christian folk gathered for a lynching in the 1920s, with the choir singing in the background, “Shall we gather at the river?” 

Strachan’s defense of the “unwoke” leaves him as defeated as William Jennings Bryan leaving the courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee to join the ranks of the dead. For evangelicals life is déjá vu every day. 

Actually, Owen Strachan has written an attack on the social gospel and liberal Christianity by disguising it as an assault on wokeness. Like Ken Ham trying to correct the “mistakes” of Williams Jennings Bryan, Strachan calls his people to stop being losers, rise, and defeat liberalism. The mood is that of, to borrow from Barbara Biesecker, a melancholia that fills the evangelical world, a deep-seated woundedness that parallels their feelings that white people are now the oppressed. 

Strachan is the apostle of the “unwoke” – the living dead of American Christianity. Taking his cue from J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism (1923), Strachan has given us Christianity and Wokeness. As this book makes clear, evangelicals are still having nightmares that the social gospel will overtake their churches. The illusion that, if only liberals would give up evolution and justice, all would once again be right with the world is absurd. It is absurd that people treat matters of fact as if they were matters of opinion …. and yet they do, more than they used to. It’s absurd that we are walking into the mass suicide of an anti-science movement that has preachers railing against mask mandates and debunking the science of climate change, yet, largely, we are. And now along comes Owen Strachan railing against “wokeness” and swearing on a stack of inerrant Bibles that he and his white tribe are not racists. 

Strachan attempts to be heard above the voices rising from the graveyard of the oppressed – a cemetery that goes back into the primordial mists of human history. Those millions cry out now at this pitiful attempt to offer a defense for white people, along with a list of platitudes as reparation for all the demeaning, destroying, exterminating done in the name of the evangelical God.3 Strachan speaks into the deafening roar of the oppressed, a roar the tradents of Exodus label “groaning,” but his whimpering barely registers. Defending white Christians as if they are now the oppressed is absurd. 

Strachan builds a beautiful house in a gated community against wokeness. The beauty of his house masks the questionable nature of his foundation – what rhetorical scholars call the argumentative framework. I will orient his attack on the wokeness movement in the framework of rhetorical theory and demonstrate that he is a wild-eyed populist every much as the calamity howlers of the Kansas plains. I argue that Strachan attempts to rebuild the house of fundamentalism from its ruined estate. He fails to see that this is a house built on sand, a house unable to withstand the winds and the floods of a culture that Is more “woke” than he can admit.

The Foundation: Evangelical Populism

Strachan’s argumentative foundation is evangelical populism. His statements are little more than stock phrases, rhetorical topoi with little meaning or consequence. Strachan produces the evangelical version of a crowd of angry, resentful, white people denying they are racists.4 Strachan, like the proud lion of an earlier evangelical populist movement, William Jennings Bryan, represents this aggrieved tribe as champion. He even sounds the charge to battle in his introduction: “To the ramparts; to the law and the testimonies.” Armed only with an inerrant Bible and a smattering of scholarship about wokeness, his efforts are as bumbling as those of Bryan attempting to ward off the attack of Clarence Darrow. 

Michael J. Lee, in “The Populist Chameleon,” suggests that populism depends upon four primary tropes that make up the populist argumentative frame: The people, the enemy, the system, and the apocalyptic.5 Utilizing Lee’s argumentative framework, we see that Strachan’s work stands on these four pillars of populism. 

The People 

The first trope of populism is the constitution of the people as the heroic defenders of “traditional” values. Strachan makes clear that he considers himself and his clan a virtuous people. He insists on repeating the charge that liberalism isn’t even Christian. He says that wokeness “saves it strongest firepower not for extraordinary offenders, but for ordinary men and women who live quiet, normal American lives” (11). The “people” are rendered as ordinary, simple, honest, hard-working, God-fearing, and patriotic Americans. Hence, populism is a “language of inheritance” that “grows from a sense of aggrieved ‘peoplehood.'”

The fallacy in Strachan’s “people” trope is that the very construction of “the people” smacks of racism. “The people” that he constructs are “good, white Americans.” They are epitomized by the fictional white housewife who Strachan attempts to use to ward off all the charges of racism. Strachan speaks with awe of this woman: “The well-meaning ‘white’ housewife in my current state of Missouri who goes about her daily business, tries to be a good neighbor, and lives a quiet existence is not fundamentally considered a decent citizen by virtue of God’s common grace.” Instead, he claims, the wokeness movement smears her as a racist. Strachan ignores that the very epistemic ground upon which the House of Evangelical Denial of Racism is built has been structured by a kind of racism that is about collective commitments to the maintenance of white supremacy and the perpetuation of what Chela Sandoval calls the “apartheid of theoretical domains.” The first pillar falls and the house teeters on collapse. 

The Enemy

The enemy is wokeness, but Strachan can’t resist throwing in Critical Race Theory, the social gospel, liberalism, socialism, and Marxism. Evangelicals see more enemies in our midst than first-century religious folk finding demons in every bush, tree, river, and unusual person. Here an enemy, there an enemy, everywhere an enemy, and if no enemy is to be found, evangelicals have their own enemy-producing factories. This is pure populism boosted by “Strachan’s” theological steroids. 

Strachan’s opening gambit in Christianity and Wokeness names a business consultant, Ashleigh Shackleford, as the primary enemy, and accuses her of producing the entire weight of “wokeness” in a seminar at Coca Cola. She says, among other things, that all white people are racists. Strachan produces this outrageous story, blows it all out of proportion, and makes it the universal example of all people embracing wokeness. Ms. Shackleford is not a theologian, philosopher, historian, or scholar of race. Her online persona presents her as “a Black fat cultural producer, multidisciplinary artist, nonbinary shapeshifter, and data futurist based in Atlanta, Georgia.” 

Yet in Strachan’s view Shackleford “laid out the core program of the system [he calls] ‘wokeness.’” Strachan denounces “wokeness” in vivid terms: “Wokeness is a major threat to the Christian faith.” “Wokeness is not Christianity at all.” Ms. Shackleford ain’t the devil, she’s a black woman trying to make a living off white folk’s guilt. If this were the World Wrestling Federation, we would have the wide-eyed innocent white housewife from Missouri facing the wild-eyed, fanatical black consultant from Atlanta in a battle to the death. 

Nothing is more irritating than Strachan’s use of this annoying evangelical habit. They search endlessly, as if they were seeking the pearl of great value, for outrageous stories. They then fake an out-sized outrage at the outrageous story and spread it around the evangelical universe with amazing speed. A single example undergoes baptism to become the universal experience. In Strachan’s words, “This video went viral.” Millions of evangelicals hear television preachers breathlessly repeat the outrageous story. Soon, these millions and millions of followers are convinced that the end is near, that the enemy is at the gates, and the people must be protected. There can be no doubt of the side Strachan has chosen. His construction of the enemy is racist. Pillar number two falls and the house of Strachan barely stands. 

The System 

The third populist trope can be identified as the “system.” As defined by evangelicals, the “system” is an amalgamation that once represented the original conception of pure, biblical Christianity. The system contains the 14 fundamentals of the Christian faith. Strachan’s description of the system is an important transition stage in his narrative. Here he reveals what he believes wokeness and Critical Race Theory really threaten: the fundamental doctrines. In the foreword to Christianity and Wokeness, John MacArthur sounds the alarm: “Gospel doctrines like original sin, atonement, justification, and the glory of Christ are being eclipsed by lectures about social inequities and ethnic injustices that can never be atoned for.” 

The system is Christian fundamentalism. In Strachan’s telling, the system has been contaminated by biblical criticism, a socialist reading of the Bible, liberal scholars, moral decay, and theological chicanery. Because the system has degenerated, other, more radical means are necessary to prevent the enemy’s impending victory. Protect the doctrines; forget the oppressed.  

Strachan’s indictments of “wokeness” rely upon the recitation of an array of biblical texts that are open to a variety of meanings, but Strachan confidently places them into the straitjacket of biblical literalism – the system’s holy book. Even while claiming to only be holding a Bible in his hand, Strachan and his tribe also hold whips, chains, instruments of torture, and ropes. Strange company for the Bible, don’t you think? When the system falls as the product of systemic racism, the house of Strachan is doomed. 

The Apocalyptic 

The final trope of populism is the apocalyptic. Despite his denial of being apocalyptic, Strachan’s apocalyptic tropes are ever-present features of his work. He bemoans the victory of liberalism and insists that current evangelicals must be more confrontational and diligent in defeating the “powers and the principalities.” Here is the scorched earth explosion of the fearful apocalyptic trope. Strachan exemplifies the type of white man so eloquently exposed in Casey Ryan Kelly’s Apocalypse Man: The Death Drive and the Rhetoric of White Masculine Victimhood. Strachan, Strachan views the resolution to wokeness as only possible through the destruction of a liberal Christianity and a feminized society. Strachan exhibits melancholia for better days when “fundamentalist Christians” allegedly but never actually ruled the Christian world. Strachan tries to put the world right again by disinterring the bones of the mostly discredited theology of fundamentalism. Strachan’s work is, at the end, a melancholic grieving for a lost world that never existed. 

For example, Strachan’s attack on wokeness comes right out of the Ken Ham playbook of attacking evolution as the primordial enemy. Ham, of course, is prominently mentioned in Christianity and Wokeness. This is the Creation Museum salesman who thinks “evolution” is the cause of every disaster in history. Ham even claims that evolution caused racism; Strachan incredulously agrees. Some of the parallel expressions deserve attention. Evolution is a godless concept; so is wokeness. Evolution is just a theory; wokeness is a theory and it is rooted in socialism. 

The apocalyptic trope reveals the primary weakness of Strachan’s argument. It’s too fearful, too dualistic, and too exaggerated. His work sounds like a five-alarm fire. The words “danger” (18 times), “threats” (14 times), and “afraid”/“fear” (18 times) pepper the book. According to Strachan and his endorsing pastors, we can forget climate change, nuclear war, poverty, and starvation, because wokeness is the greatest danger in history. 

Like Strachan, evangelicals critiquing wokeness are logrollers attempting to stay upright on a log free-floating in a body of water. They slip, they slide, they elide, and they fall into the muddy water. The house built on sand falls. 

Concluding Rhetorical Observations 

Strachan has a simplistic explanation of how he himself is not a racist. He argues he is not racist because he has “friends of different skin colors and different backgrounds,” and “loves different cultural products from other communities.” Then there’s the ordinary, knee-jerk white response: “I’m not a racist; I have black friends.” And his claims to like “soul” food and the agility of black basketball players would be laughable if he wasn’t so serious. 

Strachan dances around the racial pole but he is awkward, condescending, and would never survive the first cut on “Dancing with the Stars”. While he bends every effort to absolve his tribe of the “evangelical’s rac(e/ist) problem, he fails. For example, he attacks the high fees Coates receives for speaking engagements. This has nothing to do with the arguments of Coates. In fact, Christianity and Wokeness can be read as one long ad homimen argument. 

Most damaging, Strachan attempts to appear non-racist by embracing ideas that belong to wokeness while claiming that these ideas really belong to traditional Christianity: “I’m not saying I am woke, I’m just saying that there’s some good stuff the wokeness movement has stolen from Christian teaching.” Strachan uses paralipsis to say two things at once – denying while at the same time affirming. Strachan confesses that he wants “societal harmony across backgrounds and skin colors and peace in ethnic tension.” He admits that there have been “massive failings in American and Western history, namely long and sustained patterns of racist thought and practice. He is “troubled by Christians’ complicity with racism in the past.” Strachan even enjoys global culture! 

In all of this, Strachan sounds like a man whose racist rehab program went all wrong.  

Only a literalist could conclude that a metaphor like wokeness is the greatest threat to human existence. Absurd may be the only word worth repeating. I am left with words from Matthew’s Gospel: “And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”

1  “I see right through your work. You have a reputation for vigor and zest, but you’re dead, stone-dead.” (The Message).

2 Barbara Biesecker, “No time for mourning: The rhetorical production of the melancholic citizen-subject in the war on terror.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 40, no. 1 (2007): 147-169.

3 There have been more people killed by oppression than the number of people Ken Ham claims died in the flood. 

4 Donovan Schaefer puts it clearly: “Bodies that once felt like the unchallenged masters of their space—white bodies, male bodies, cis bodies, straight bodies, rich bodies, citizen bodies—are being confronted, more and more, with a demand to respond to the violence trailing in the wake of the comforts and pleasures they enjoy.”

5 Michael J. Lee, “The Populist Chameleon: The People’s Party, Huey Long, George Wallace, and the Populist Argumentative Frame”. Quarterly Journal of Speech Volume 92, 2006: Pages 355-378.

6 Harry Boyte, “The Making of a Democratic Populist: A Profile,” in The New Populism: The Politics of Empowerment, ed. H. Boyte and F. Riessman. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986, 8. 

Ken Ham the Huckster

by William Trollinger

A religious temple with a gold-plated façade, four immensely tall Corinthian columns, and a grand staircase leading to its entrance.
Screenshot from Ken Ham’s Facebook page requesting donations for Ark Encounter and Creation Museum Building projects.

Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis (AiG) are busy promoting the idea that the “Ark Encounter and Creation Museum Are Groaning” under the weight of “record crowds” flooding into these tourist sites, sites that are devoted to making the case that the universe was created in six 24-hour days 6000 years ago and to celebrating the watery slaughter of up to (according to AiG) twenty billion human beings.

Record crowds? As is often the case with Ham, the facts just don’t add up.

Regarding Ark Encounter, every month the intrepid Dan Phelps (president and founder of the Kentucky Paleontological Society) requests the “safety assessment form” – the total amount raised that month from the 50 cent “safety fee” added to each Ark Encounter ticket —  from the city of Williamstown. What this means is that we don’t have to rely on the unreliable Ken Ham. We can check Ham’s claim of record crowds at the Ark against actual numbers. 

And here’s what we see when it comes to Ark attendance (and note that we don’t have the numbers for 2016, which is the year the Ark opened): 

  • Summer 2017  248,787           (note: these numbers are for July/August)
  • Summer 2018  347,929
  • Summer 2019  388,704
  • Summer 2020  144,628           (note: COVID impact)
  • Summer 2021 328,465
  • AG 2017           106,161
  • AG 2018           98,106
  • AG 2019           104,350
  • AG 2020          46,452             (note: COVID impact)
  • AG 2021           83,826

One does not have to look very hard to see that, whatever the AiG fog machine might be spewing, Ark Encounter is not experiencing record crowds. In fact, this past August saw the lowest attendance in the Ark’s history (save for the COVID year).

But I can assure you that these numbers – these facts – will not stop Ken Ham from telling untruths. This is what he does. For example, in a successful effort to convince Williamstown to issue $62m of junk bonds to get the Ark project started – a nice deal made even nicer by stipulating that 75% of what the Ark would have paid in property taxes would instead go to paying off the loan – Ham and company promised attendance numbers that Ark Encounter has never, ever come close to reaching. 

With each passing year the projected numbers become even more ludicrous, given that the AiG promoters assured the town leaders that the Ark would enjoy a 7% annual attendance increase for the first decade of the big boat’s existence. 

Ham and AiG apparently do not mind in the least that they have not come anywhere near the attendance they promised Williamstown. They certainly have never lamented this shortcoming. But why would they? They had their $62m worth of bonds, and they have and will have their very substantial tax forgiveness. That is, they have their money.

So they have moved on. With their stories of “record crowds” bursting the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum, they are now seeking – as the attached image indicates – to secure $17 million in donations to expand both sites.

Ken Ham. Ever the huckster.

Decoding the Digital Church: Evangelical Storytelling and the Election of Donald J. Trump: An interview with Stephanie A. Martin

by Patrick Thomas

Sam (Stephanie A. Martin) is a scholar of public address and political communication, with a particular interest in the public discourses of conservative social movements, especially evangelical voters. She has written or edited three books, most prominently Decoding the Digital Church: Evangelical Storytelling and the Election of Donald J. Trump (University of Alabama Press, 2021). Her research has also been published in top journals including the Quarterly Journal of SpeechRhetoric and Public Affairs, and Visual Communication Quarterly. Martin frequently appears as an expert commentator and consultant for news stories, and has appeared in USA Today, NPR, NBC, the Boston Globe, the Texas Tribune, and The Dallas Morning News, among others.

We are thrilled to feature Sam’s work and to welcome another new voice to the RightingAmerica blog!

  • Your book examines storytelling as it relates to evangelicals’ political support for Donald Trump. This support is well-documented, so can you say a bit about where your study comes from and what insights you’re contributing to the study of contemporary American evangelicalism? 

My study reaches back a decade, to the end of the Bush Administration. In part, the questions I ask percolated in response to Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? Frank’s book wondered why so many highly religious but not wealthy voters from his home state of Kansas had become such strong supporters of the Republican Party and their platform of low taxes and business deregulation, and had abandoned the Democrats who agitate on behalf of the middle-class, marginalized, and working poor. As Frank might have written had he wished to put it so plainly: Why is a party that seems to be against poor people supported by so many, well, poor people? And, again, why don’t those poor people care about others like themselves? Isn’t that supposed to be the Christian way? 

As an answer, Frank reasoned that evangelical believers privilege social issues at election time, and so subordinate other political priorities in order to escalate values questions in the public sphere. They vote for GOP candidates who spend campaign seasons promising to pass abortion restrictions, crack down on the encroachment of Hollywood values into middle America, and defend the traditional family structure, and they cast these votes at any cost, to any constituency. The problem with this strategy, Frank wrote, is that it ultimately fails. When Republican candidates become Republican officeholders, they forget all about those values issues their evangelical base holds dear, preferring to use their actual governing time passing tax cuts, deregulating business, and eliminating the social safety net. All in all, it is a classic bait and switch.

Frank’s answer is compelling but, to me, it always felt incomplete. For one thing, I had spent time in evangelical churches and had evangelical friends, and I knew they did care about the people and the issues Frank claimed they spurned. I found his answer reductive or, at least, incomplete. My evangelical friends do care about poor people, and they care about themselves, too. But they also have other political priorities. Votes and elections are very blunt instruments—people can only vote for one side or the other. Political motivations are complicated. So, my research is trying to understand the nuance between the votes that get cast, and the stories and thinking that sits behind them.

  • Your research uncovers conservative White evangelicals’ epistemic commitments through a study of rhetorical strategies employed in evangelical sermons from American megachurches. In your introduction, you mention that many of these commitments are based on a “founder’s rhetoric.” What features characterize founder’s rhetoric, and how does it play out in the sermons you study? 

Founder’s rhetoric is fascinating, and is related to the idea of Christian Nationalism that scholars like John Fea and Samuel Perry, among others, write about. It refers to language that evangelicals use when they frame their American citizenship. Founder’s rhetoric positions evangelicals as the rightful heirs and so natural defenders of the values of the truest Americans: The men who founded the country and knew best what they intended for the future. This rhetoric and storytelling style—which is very popular among pastors— situates a conservative Protestant narrative and conservative Protestant truth at the center of the American story, from the beginning. This narrative claims that those men who led the Revolution and wrote the founding documents were not only Christians, but conservative evangelicals, who intended for the United States to be a nation with God at the center of the public sphere. Moreover, these are the people who decided, once and for all, the character of the nation, forever. Because of this, many evangelicals hold a worldview of the United States as a particular kind of nation, whose citizens have particular kinds of (traditional) values. Reaching back to Thomas Frank’s argument about why these believers might not vote with economics or vulnerable constituencies in mind, I argue that founder’s rhetoric offers part of the answer. For many evangelical voters, the constituent of foremost concern is always the nation itself. Defending the country and maintaining its presumed status as the most “exceptional” land always comes before any person or group, no matter how marginalized or at-risk. Thus, believers might well be worried about “poor people,” but their foremost political concern is restoring the country to the founder’s intentions, and keeping God at the center of the public sphere.

  • Part of what is so compelling about your book is the digital rhetorical ethnographic methodology you develop to examine American megachurches across their local cultures. What are the features of this methodological approach, and how might other rhetorical scholars benefit from such an approach?

Digital rhetorical ethnography is a hybrid methodology that allowed me to go both wide and deep into American evangelicalism, as it exists on the Internet. Ethnography, as it is traditionally practiced, allows a researcher to join a single community and participate as much as possible as a member—to learn the rhythms of a people, including their language, their customs, their habits, and more. It is a way to “deeply hang out”—to use Clifford Geertz’s famous phrase—in a place, to study a culture systematically and respectfully. But I wanted to do more than this. I wanted to ascertain whether the rhetoric—by which I mean the stories pastors told— in California sounded much like the ones pastors told in Florida. I also wanted to know if the stories in California and Florida resembled those being told in Minnesota. To find out, I had to find a way to attend church in a lot of places, at once. Enter, the digital church. Megachurches across the country have created vibrant online spaces where individuals can find virtual community and join believers in the act of worship. By going to church online, I was able to both shift and freeze time, to attend church all across the nation, at the same “hour” (even though I might really be attending days or weeks after a pastor preached a message), and on the same “day.” So where other ethnographers of evangelicalism have had to re-order their lives to join a church or a movement, I was able to “join” the digital church across the evangelical internet while also remaining in my own home. To write Decoding the Digital Church, I compiled a collection of sermons that spanned years, and included hundreds of messages from 37 different states. This allowed me to understand how evangelicals tell a political narrative about the United States that is incredibly uniform and powerful, and that is much more nuanced than popular media tropes tend to suggest.

As far as how other researchers might use this methodology, my hope is they would. Many other such digital communities exist online for discovery, though they may not be immediately obvious. While not every experience can be replicated via digitization, the fact of digital space makes it possible to move into the quiet of one’s own home or office and then go around the loudest voices in the public sphere, to enter some of the most important sites of public engagement. This act, in turn, opens possibilities for creating new conversations or suggesting new stories across constituencies. Doing the work to discover these narratives is long and painstaking (it took me nearly ten years!), but it reaches beyond easy understanding—and misunderstanding, as well. I think it may well represent some of the most important work waiting for us to move beyond the polarization and division now happening in the public sphere. 

  • Your analysis focuses primarily on evangelical rhetorics surrounding the 2008 Great Recession and the 2016 presidential campaign. What narrative tropes have evangelical pastors maintained over the last 13 or so years? What aspects of these narratives have changed? 

Probably the most important narrative pattern that I discovered is what I call the “rhetoric of active-passivism.” This rhetoric was especially popular during the 2016 campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, each of whom had historically poor approval ratings and were also perceived as lacking in character. So, the pastors who I listened to during my research faced the task of talking about the election, but also acknowledging how debased the whole thing seemed. To negotiate this tension, pastors framed the main characters in the election—Clinton and Trump—as unlikeable, but to the side of what was most important when it came to thinking about politics. While it was true the public sphere had become depraved, pastors still wanted their audiences to participate and to vote. Casting a ballot was their basic duty as citizens and believers. Doing so honored the American constitutional legacy, along with those soldiers who had died to protect freedom and democracy, including the voting franchise. Voting represents the “active” part of “active-passivism.”

But for those who were worried about not having a good choice in either Clinton or Trump, pastors wanted their audiences and congregations to take heart. They reminded their hearers to remember God’s providence. God is always in control, they said, even during campaign seasons, and even when the presidential candidates were dreadful. Pastors further encouraged evangelical believers to embrace the idea that they were dual citizens—residents of heaven first, and the United States second. This meant that no matter what happened in the election, true Christians were always already protected and safe as denizens of the Kingdom of God. So once a believer had voted—and this was the crucial rhetorical step—that same believer could divest their interest in the election’s ultimate outcome. Whatever the result of a vote, God had ordained that result and so God would make of it whatever He chose. Because God could be trusted, true Christians should trust Him, full stop. In any event, good or bad, the Bible-believing evangelical could be sure God maintained divine control and would protect His subject in love. By rhetorically emphasizing trust—and this is key—pastors exempted believers from any bad effects their votes might cause, either to the nation or to marginalized, at-risk constituencies. Perceived “good” outcomes, like reduced access to abortion, lower taxes, or laws defending traditional marriage were because Christians came together to vote for these things. Perceived “bad” outcomes, as were seen with children separated at the border, white supremacists finding support in the White House, or women being disparaged by the President of the United States were not for evangelicals to understand, but for God to work out. In effect, active-passivism allows those who speak it to offload their democratic responsibility and agency onto God, and so refuse responsibility for harms that could be traced back to the very votes they cast.

The rhetoric of active-passivism also marks a discursive shift in the rhetoric of non-elite American evangelicals. My research suggests that the pastors of the nation’s largest churches have begun to leave out of their political narratives those hot-button issues—the values rhetoric—that outsiders imagine takes up so much of the conversation inside of these institutions, and that is often used by elite conservative evangelicals when they talk about politics. This is surprising because popular media framing of Bible-believing Christians typically situates them as foremost concerned over the rhetoric of the so-called culture wars, as they are framed as opposition to a set of conservative values issues. However, that the discourse inside churches may less heavily emphasize opposition to abortion or gay marriage, among other issues, does not necessarily mean they have lost salience or that these voters are open to persuasion or changing their minds. Instead, I argue this conversation is now submerged under active-passivism. Thus, evangelical voters have created a storytelling logic that lets them have it both ways. They can both vote and be interested in politics and say politics don’t matter, at all. Via the rhetoric of active-passivism, pastors and other evangelical believers can both claim to be on God’s side when it comes to what happens to the American democracy and the American democratic system, and to say God isn’t worried about it, at all. 

  • Related to the question above, how do you think the social movements (#MeToo and #BLM) and political activities (the Mueller investigation, the Kavanaugh nomination, anti-immigration Executive Orders) that characterized Trump’s presidency have impacted evangelicals’ storytelling since 2016? 

Conservative evangelicals are trying to talk about these issues, and there is no one approach that characterizes everyone. When it comes to Black Lives Matter (BLM), many pastors and believers acknowledge the problem of racism, but emphasize how unity and reconciliation among citizens are more important—or more workable solutions—than engaging in systemic change or acknowledging systemic injustice. By emphasizing reconciliation between people of different races, evangelicals frame the problem of racism as being solvable through creating understanding and building relationships. If white people and black people would only come together as friends to acknowledge and forgive the past, the nation could heal. Crucially, this reconciliation is framed as two-sided. It is about restoration and imagines a past based in equality, rather than one rife with injustice of that included disparity of access to opportunity. It also privileges conversations—talking and understanding—over taking direct action. At most, white citizens are called to repentance; never to reparation.

In terms of #MeToo and the follow-on hashtag #ChurchToo, the story is complicated. Many evangelicals and evangelical women embrace complementarian theology and resist feminism and feminist ideology. However, there is a sizeable and growing constituency of born-again women who are actively challenging the inherent patriarchy within evangelicalism. I have written a lot about Beth Moore, the popular speaker and Bible study writer, who has been especially vocal in asking evangelical leaders, particularly evangelical men, to consider how the emphasis on female submission has curated a sexist culture that is rife with abuse. For example, some might remember when, just before the 2016 election, the Washington Post leaked audio tapes of Donald Trump seeming to brag about treating women badly, maybe even criminally so. Evangelical leaders including James Dobson, Ralph Reed, Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. said they were disappointed, but refused to withdraw their support. In response, Moore tweeted, “Are we sickened? Yes. Surprised? NO.” Since then, Moore has continued to gain and lose followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, as she has pushed back against calls for women to remain silent and subordinated to men within the church. In March 2021, she announced she no longer identified as a Southern Baptist or with the Southern Baptist Convention—as she had her whole life, and she distanced herself from complementarian theology. While she did not say why she had left the Southern Baptist Convention, many speculated it was because the Convention had become too sexist, while refusing to wholly repudiate its racist past (and present). The best example she could set for other women was to leave.

  • Of course, you’re celebrating the recent release of your book (as you should!), but can you say a bit more about your upcoming work or your next book project? 

Getting Decoding the Digital Church across the finish line was a big project. It has been nice to take a deep breath. I am now beginning research on a new project, which is writing a history of the case that went to the Supreme Court in 2017, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. This is a very different project than Decoding the Digital Church, because it involves telling a story and getting it right—and doing so in a way that is honest and fair to both sides—but is less interpretive than the work I’ve done before. But I’ll still be hanging out with conservative evangelicals, a community that I both love and shake my head at. I’m also enjoying extra time with my husband and twin seven-year-old boys. They are growing up too fast and it has been a joy to spend time with them over the past several months.

Many thanks to Sam for her interview! Decoding the Digital Church is now available from the University of Alabama Press! Use code DChurch30 for 30% off at checkout!

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