Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
The Righting America Blog | Righting America

What Does It Mean To Be “Pro-Life?”

by Jennifer Jones Hamilton

Jennifer Jones Hamilton is an Instructional Assistant and Substitute Teacher with Carroll County Public Schools in Eldersburg, Maryland, as well as an application reviewer for Teach for America.  She has a bachelor’s degree in History and is a 1994 graduate of Messiah College.  She is an avid reader of all varieties of books, a lover of music, a runner, and a person with deep curiosity about the world we live in.  She continues to work on figuring out what she wants to do when she grows up, and while doing so enjoys life with her husband, Bill, and their three teenage children.  

As the election looms nearer, recent events have brought the battle over a woman’s right to choose to the forefront.  Starting with the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the nomination of pro-life advocate Amy Coney Barrett, to the insensitive and horrific response of “pro-life” individuals to the premature death of Chrissy Teigen and John Legend’s third baby (see here) to this well-written, thoughtful response written by Jeannie Gaffigan to Catholics who say she’s not a “real Catholic” unless she votes for Trump (see here), once again it is clear that this particular issue is a huge reason why many people of faith are continuing to choose to vote for Trump in spite of the fact that literally none of what he does jives with the message of Jesus.  As I have argued with these people in my head (because I’m terrible at confrontation and lose the ability to form coherent thoughts when faced with a debate) I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I would say if I had the opportunity (and were brave enough to do so).  

There are so many ways that simply voting for the conservative, “pro-life” candidate is an oversimplification of a much bigger issue.  

First of all, most conservatives advocate for an abstinence-only sex education for students, in spite of the fact that the evidence shows that if teens and young adults have access to quality information, they are less likely to be sexually active in the first place, and thus less likely to end up with an unwanted pregnancy.  In the Netherlands, children are provided with very frank and honest information about sex from a young age (4) and the result is low teen pregnancy rates, lower instances of sexual abuse or coercion, and greater equality and satisfaction for both partners when they are ready.  The idea of shamefulness or “sin” is absent from the equation, which results in healthier, happier, more knowledgeable children, teens, and eventually, adults. There are many books and articles which discuss this, find one of them here.  

Meanwhile, American teens continue to be provided with misinformation, limited access to contraception, and a silence around sex that implies that this is something bad, something forbidden.  The effects show, as evidenced in this article.

Touching on the contraception issue; conservatives don’t typically support low-cost contraception, the morning-after pill, or organizations like Planned Parenthood, which aside from abortion, also provides low-cost health care for girls and women.  They also do not support universally affordable healthcare or insurance.  So we don’t get accurate information about sex, and we don’t get quality, accessible healthcare for all, but are expected to have any and all babies that result from intimacy with a partner.  It sounds like Christians just don’t want people to be having sex at all, a bar that they prove unable to achieve themselves.

The pro-life issue also falters when it comes to actually “born” lives.  The conservative response to immigrants and refugees, particularly the family separation situation, and the corralling of families in what basically amounts to a prison while they await deportation, is particularly shameful.  I guess these “lives” aren’t important.  

The response by conservatives to the Black Lives Matter movement also shows their particular callousness towards brown and black lives…there is a disdain and refusal to acknowledge how years of racism have led us to this point, which results in tragedy that we see playing out before our eyes.  Time and time again many conservatives fail to live up to their favorite saying that “All Lives Matter.”  Saying this may make themselves feel better, but it is a lie.

We can even look at the dreadful response to Coronavirus from the top of the government on down to the local churches.  This illness is deemed a “hoax,” masks and restrictions on large group meetings are seen as violations of freedom, and the response to the deaths of over 200,000 Americans is callously brushed off with an “it is what it is,” or even worse, the sentiment that many of these deaths were “old or sick people” who were just going to “die anyway.”  Such a pro-life point of view!  

The economic realities tied to abortion are utterly ignored by so many Christians and conservatives.  In their “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps” mindset, people who are poor and struggling must be in that situation because of their own doing.  A family I know from my children’s school recently lost their 19 year-old son who was born with a profound genetic disorder that resulted in him being in diapers, a wheelchair, and needing constant care for his whole life.  They point to the fact that he wasn’t supposed to live so long as a reason for their determined pro-life stance.  It is beautiful for them that they had a son that they loved and got to spend 19 years with.  But the reality is that they were financially well-off and could afford for his mom to stay home with him, to have 2 additional children, and take care of all of his health care needs.  They had a strong community support system to help as well.  They were undoubtedly very blessed in all of this.  However, not all families are in this same situation.  When less fortunate couples receive such a diagnosis during pregnancy, if they realize are not going to be able to take care of this very ill child, they find themselves in an impossible, perhaps heartbreaking, position.

This leads in to the often haphazardly tossed off-references to adoption as a simple solution to abolishing abortion.  But are people lining up to adopt very ill children?  Drug addicted children?  The reality is that parents typically want to adopt want a healthy, white, infant, as is evidenced by the more than 400,000 children (many of whom are children of color) currently in foster care in the United States.  Adoption can be wonderful, but it is naïve to present that as the ultimate solution to solving the issue of abortion. 

The bottom line is that voting pro-life is an easy way for many people to feel good about themselves, to feel they are pleasing God, without actually having to do the hard work of what it truly means to be pro-life.  They can mark off their ballot for conservative candidates without a second thought, and go on their merry, self-righteous way.  This election in particular magnifies the very real issues that many Americans are facing related to jobs, health care access, COVID-19 response, racism, mental health issues, and on and on.  

I was encouraged to read this opinion piece in the Washington Post from a pro-life evangelical.  It is time for people who claim to be “pro-life” to truly own that moniker and start acting accordingly.

We Believe in Dinosaurs: A Must-See Documentary on Ark Encounter

by Susan Trollinger and William Trollinger

Image for “We Believe in Dinosaurs” documentary.

If we were filmmakers, We Believe in Dinosaurs (directed by Monica Long Ross and Clayton Brown) is the film we would have wanted to make about the making of Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter. Smart and generous, filled with fair and acute observations, this film brilliantly highlights much of what is wrong with the Ark and the Answers in Genesis (AiG) project in general. 

One of the reasons this film works is that it eschews a hostile, “culture wars” tone. Viewers get to see and hear from the earnest and talented designers and artists who created exhibits at Ark Encounter and at the Ark’s sister attraction, the Creation Museum. Regarding the latter, there is, for example, much attention on the construction of the Ebenezer the Allosaurus exhibit (the film does not mention that the skeleton was gifted to the museum by a rabid neo-Confederate). In the film, the lead designer proudly notes that the signage accompanying this exhibit will explain how the dinosaur died in Noah’s Flood. It turns out, however, and as we argue in Righting America (92-93), the explanation provided by the placards at this exhibit is simply a rehash of Genesis 7:21-23; there is no evidence from the skeleton itself that this Allosaurus died in a global Flood (a point that speaks volumes about the state of “creation science”).

The stars of We Believe in Dinosaurs are David MacMillan, a former young Earth creationist, and Dan Phelps, Kentucky Paleontology Society president. Given his creationist pedigree, MacMillan is a particularly compelling figure in the documentary: he nicely (and painfully) describes how he had been indoctrinated to believe that, if you give up young Earth creationism, you are on your way to undermining the Gospel. Next thing you know, you will be a feminist, communist, atheist. 

It turns out that MacMillan, who has accepted evolution, remains a Christian . . . but he has – quite predictably – been repeatedly labeled as an atheist. (So have we.)

Then there’s Phelps, who we see in the film collecting rock specimens on a steep slope next to a highway in Kentucky. While Phelps is quite clear that he sees the entire Ham young-Earth-creationist enterprise as a “flim-flam” operation, he is also quite winsome and humble, determined that viewers understand that in science it is okay not to have all the answers, and to change your mind (both of which are absolutely verboten in young Earth creationism). 

Side note: last spring we were planning to take two of our classes to the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter (a plan that was foiled when the pandemic forced the shutdown of the university and the AiG sites). Many of our students had watched We Believe in Dinosaurs, and they were desperate for us to see if we could set up a lunch meeting with Phelps, whom they just loved in the film.

Entering Ark Encounter at its opening, beginning to take it all in, Phelps observed that “this might be some people’s definition of Hell,” and “I’ve never smoked marijuana, but if somebody offered me a hit of acid, I’d probably take it.” MacMillan’s response is more nuanced and more painful: this Creation Museum charter member repeatedly observes that the Ark is gigantic and so impressive (and the camera shots do a good job of revealing how massive this structure is), and he notes that he is both excited to be there and that he wishes he weren’t. 

For us, the most chilling moment of the film comes when we see Ken Ham condescendingly quizzing an auditorium packed full of children, who shout out their answers to each of his questions:

  • “The next time someone says ‘millions of years ago,’ what do you say to them?”
    • “Were you there?”
  • “Were dinosaurs on the Ark?”
    • “Yes!”
  • “What day of creation were dinosaurs made?”
    • “Sixth!”
  • “If there really was a global Flood, what would you expect to find?”
    • “Billions of dead things buried in rock layers laid down by water all over the Earth.”
  • “Next time someone says millions of years, what do you ask?”
    • “Were you there?”
  • “How old must your fossils be?”
    • “Four and a half thousand years.”
  • “What do I call dinosaurs?”
    • “Missionary lizards!”
  • “And what happens when somebody says millions of years?”
    • “Were you there?”
  • “Well, I think we’ve thoroughly taught you.”

“Taught” is not the word. Indoctrinated is the word. And this moment in the film is not simply chilling. It is also sad, in that one realizes that thousands of fundamentalist children across the nation are being trained to believe that they can refute mainstream biology and geology with a nonsensical and anti-intellectual “were you there?” response.

A similar level of thought can be found in the “one star reviews” on the Amazon page featuring We Believe in Dinosaurs, where it is clear that actually watching the film was not necessarily a prerequisite for commenting, and where it is also clear that “hit piece” is currently a favorite phrase among fundamentalists:

  • “As you watch the film it becomes clear that this was a bias [sic] hit piece on Answers in Genesis and Creationism as a whole.”
  • “This is just another smear ‘documentary’ against Christians. I do not recommend unless you truly believe you evolved from a monkey lolololol.”
  • “If you’re looking for a video about the Ark Encounter, this ain’t it. It’s just a hit-piece on those of us who believe that God created man, animals, plants, etc., out of nothing.”
  • “Nothing new. Just the same old knee-jerk reactionaryism.”
  • “Clearly intended as a hit piece on creationists, Ken Ham, and Answers in Genesis. Liberal trash.”
  • “Atheist[s] with 2much time on their hands.”
  • “Shockingly biased script and directing in this Fairy Tale movie. A sad case of blind atheism leading other blind atheists with a shallow pretense of being an unbiased documentary.”
  • “This is a hit piece against the Bible, the Creation narrative, and anyone who adheres to the belief system of God, the spirit realm, and is completely one-sided. You could say just like the ‘fake news’ of the media, this is a ‘fake documentary.’ It follows two disgruntled Kentucky native’s [sic] around . . . One [a] no name archeologist/atheist who opposed the building of the Ark project from the onset . . . The second main character is a former supporter of the Creation belief who is now presumably an atheist, and evolutionist.”

Then there’s AiG CEO Ken Ham, who last February 19 wrote an op-ed for the Cincinnati Enquirer, entitled “Ark documentary another hatchet job,” in which he blasted “these deceitful producers” for “creat[ing] a biased film designed to sway viewers to a specific conclusion, [and] which does not rise to the level of a real documentary, presenting many misrepresentations and errors.” 

In keeping with the ad hominem attacks so much in vogue with fundamentalists and folks in the Christian Right, Ham neglects to say much at all about specific “misrepresentations and errors.” 

The exception is his claim that the film “portray[s] the false idea that the Ark has had no significant economic impact” on nearby Williamstown, a weird claim given that – in the very next sentence – he scores the film’s producers for “fail[ing] to report that [the] town’s central business area is on the opposite side of the interstate from the Ark Encounter . . . and currently has no major hotels or restaurants.” So We Believe in Dinosaurs is actually correct that the Ark has had no economic impact on Williamstown, and the problem is that the town has not picked up and moved across the interstate?

Ham has also attacked us at rightingamerica for pointing out that Williamstown has not benefitted economically, and for making the point that Ham and AiG used the prospect of great economic gains to convince this little town to issue $62m in junk bonds and then loaned the proceeds to help get the Ark project underway – a deal made particularly sweet by the provision that 75% of what Ark Encounter would have paid in property taxes will instead be used to pay off the loan. Ham has repeatedly failed to own up to this sweet deal, instead claiming again and again that the Ark has received no significant governmental assistance.

David MacMillan has it right: Ham fleeced a town that gave him his Ark Encounter.

Whatever Ken Ham and his fundamentalist acolytes have to say, We Believe in Dinosaurs is a terrific documentary that is very much worth watching. This evening we have the privilege of joining Clayton Brown, Dan Phelps, and others on a virtual panel at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology – heady company for a historian and a rhetorical scholar! – where we will watch and discuss the film. Can’t wait! 

The Rise of Secularism

by William Trollinger

Poster for the October 5, 2020 Hesburgh Lecture, “The Rise of Secularism in America.”

Over the past few years I have been involved in a project of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at University of Southern California focused on the growing number of Americans who no longer affiliate with a religious tradition. It has been a terribly enjoyable project, and not only or even primarily because I got to spend time on the gorgeous USC campus and enjoy outdoor dinners near the ocean. What has made this project so gratifying is that I have had the chance to get to know and learn from top-notch scholars in gerontology, history, philosophy, political science, psychology, sociology, and theology, all of us working to understand what is producing religious non-affiliation, as well as what the “rise of the nones” means for individuals, as well as the impact of religious non-affiliation on civic and religious institutions in the United States.

The book that grows out of this project, Empty Churches: Non-Affiliation in America (edited by Jan Stets and James Heft), comes out from Oxford next February. But before then is “The Rise of Secularism in America,” which takes place at 7 pm this Monday. This virtual session is hosted by the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King’s College (PA), and features three of us involved in the Empty Churches project. 

Presenting “The Rise of Secularism” is David Campbell, Packey J. Dee Professor of American Democracy and chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Notre Dame. Campbell’s books include American Grace: How Religion Unites Us and Divides Us, co-written with sociologist Robert Putnam, and the forthcoming Secular Surge: A New Fault Line in American Politics.

I am the respondent to Campbell’s paper. Serving as moderator is Bernard Prusak, Director of the McGowan Center as well as Professor of Philsophy at King’s. Prusak is a frequent contributor to Commonweal and America, and his books include Parental Obligations and Bioethics: The Duties of a Creator and Catholic Moral Philosophy in Practice and Theory: An Introduction.

You are welcome to join us for what promises to be a very interesting paper and conversation. If you are interested, here is registration information. Hope to “see” you there!

The Evangelical Mind: Going, Going, Gone

by William Trollinger

Screenshot from Trey Smith’s The Coming Storm: A Donald J. Trump Documentary. Image via Youtube

“Many, many soldiers . . . died for the freedom of many people of other shades and colors, some of whom were sold out by their own kinsmen and brought here on boats, as if God brought them here so they could have and taste freedom that they didn’t have back in lands like Africa, brought them here where others would lay down their lives and pay the highest sacrifice to buy freedom for them.” 

Trey Smith, “The Coming Storm: A Donald J. Trump Documentary”

In his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll famously begins by stating, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Noll spoke truth in 1994. But now, 26 years later, with white evangelical worship of Donald Trump, with the varieties of evangelical pandemic and climate change denial, and with the support of many evangelicals for the QAnon conspiracy theory, it is much much worse today. 

Just take Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis (AiG) (and I should note that Noll devotes much of a chapter to “The Damage Done by Creation Science to the Evangelical Mind.”) From AiG, which created two of the greatest monuments to 21st-century evangelical anti-intellectualism (the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter), we learn that

And now comes right-wing conspiracy theorist Trey Smith. Through his God in a Nutshell project Smith has produced videos such as George Washington: Prophecy of America, The Day of Reckoning the Q, BLM: the Truth, and Joe Biden’s NEW Occult Prophecy Candles

Of course, it makes perfect sense that Smith filmed “The Coming Storm: A Donald J. Trump Documentary” at Ark Encounter (in which he lavishly praises Ken Ham and his big boat, repeatedly referring to “300 cubits”). The production values of this little film are, well, less than professional, and Smith’s askew hair and his determination to bring his face close to the camera make this one weird viewing experience. 

(It is made even weirder and more frightening by the fact that, as Smith maneuvers through the Ark, viewers can see that virtually no visitors are wearing masks. There is absolutely no question that the “COVID pandemic is a hoax” has taken deep roots in American evangelicalism.)

It is no accident that the first half of the video’s title is virtually identical to QAnon’s frequently used motto,  “The Storm is Coming,” which refers to Donald Trump’s supposed project of cleaning the swamp of America-hating Democrats, liberals, and tools of the Deep State. But for a film that claims to be a “Donald J. Trump Documentary,” there is virtually nothing specific here on Donald Trump. Instead, what one gets are a lot of rather incoherent prophetic claims:

  • The spirit of the Antichrist has been with us throughout history, as evinced by the Hollywood groups and their “witchy people” lurking in the background. 
  • Two Supreme Court justices will soon step down, in response to soon-to-be-revealed embarrassing and scandalous revelations.
  • The Lord will take a simple stone (Roger Stone?), and people will laugh at him, and then we will hear the sounds of great victory with Trump’s triumph.
  • God has commanded that Donald Trump will have two terms.

Regarding this latter point, which is being made again and again by QAnon social media and conservative evangelicals, there is a very clear corollary, which comes from the Great Leader himself – that if Trump does not win the election, it will have been stolen from him. One can only imagine how this plays out.

Perhaps Smith’s most coherent rant has to do with slavery (see the quote at the beginning). This piece of historical nonsense is the ultimate white evangelical fantasy: not only were white people not responsible for black slavery (if there is any blame, it is to be placed on the Africans’ “kinsmen”), but God used slavery to bring black people to a land of freedom that was so much better than the “land” of Africa, and then white soldiers paid “the highest sacrifice to buy freedom for them.” 

No horrific slave ships with a 25% death rate. No white torture, rape, and murder of black slaves. No 250 years of slavery. No biblical literalist slaveholders using God’s Word to justify this inhumane institution. No black soldiers fighting for the North, and – as regards white soldiers making the “highest sacrifice” – no reference that it was white Southerners fighting to maintain slavery who killed them. And no reference to what comes a few years after the war, when those Bible-believing Southerners imposed a Jim Crow system on African Americans that returned them to a status as close to slavery as possible. 

While Smith engages in the worst sort of historical revisionism, it makes sense he shares his wisdom while walking about Ark Encounter. What Smith says is very much in keeping with Ken Ham’s fantasy about racism, in which he blames it all on Darwin (despite the fact that Origin of Species appeared one year before the start of the Civil War), and in which he claims that if we would just take Genesis literally we would know that we are “one race, one blood” . . . ignoring the millions of biblical literalists who used the Bible to defend slavery and then segregation. 

History, gone. Science, gone. Expertise, gone. 

In re-reading The Scandal of the Evangelical World I confess that I had forgotten that, while Noll again and again points to ways in which an evangelical mind might emerge, there is a certain pessimism that permeates the book. As he notes at the end of the penultimate chapter:

The scandal of the evangelical mind seems to be that no mind arises from evangelicalism. Evangelicals who believe that God desires to be worshiped with thought as well as activity may very well remain evangelicals, but they will find intellectual depth . . . in ideas developed by confessional or mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, or perhaps even the Eastern Orthodox. That conclusion may be the only responsible one to reach after considering the history sketched in this book. Even if it leaves evangelical intellectuals trapped in personal dissonance and the evangelical tradition doomed to intellectual superficiality (or worse), the recent past seems to point in no other direction. (239)

Right. And in 2020, it seems that the project of rehabilitating the evangelical mind, which has always been a longshot, is a bust.

Anti-Vaxxers and Answers in Genesis

by William Trollinger (with Susan Trollinger)

“They are concerned about a virus that doesn’t kill very many people at all.” – Georgia Purdom, Answers in Genesis (AiG)

“They are trying to manipulate me into getting a vaccine that I don’t believe in and don’t see any need for.” – Heidi St. John, The Busy Mom

Kentucky State Representative Savannah Maddox with Ken Ham at the Ark Encounter Ribbon Cutting Ceremony. Image via Twitter.

AiG’s token female, Georgia Purdom, recently joined Heidi St. John (a big AiG fan) on the latter’s fundamentalist podcast to discuss the “Christian Statement on Science for Pandemic Times,” a statement put out by the evangelical science organization, BioLogos (whose founder, Francis Collins, received in May the Templeton Prize for Science “for his commitment to challenging the idea that science and religion are at odds”). In their statement BioLogos – which in good evangelical fashion uses biblical passages to reinforce their argument —  argues that Christians, as Christians, should respond to COVID by wearing a mask, getting vaccinated when a safe vaccine is developed, and working for social justice.

In contrast to the reasoned and empathetic document put out by BioLogos, the level of vitriol from Purdom and St. John is really quite astonishing. They bombard listeners with a series of ad hominem attacks (which, of course, is the Christian Right’s favorite tactic, notwithstanding that it is a logical fallacy). To give a few examples: 

  • The folks at BioLogos are emotionally and spiritually manipulative.
  • The folks at BioLogos are hypocrites of this highest order.
  • The folks at BioLogos are deceptive, very sly, and “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

St. John refers to the BioLogos statement as “Christian drivel” and “sloppy agape” (she apparently is quite fond of the latter rhyme, as she uses it repeatedly). She asserts that, in using biblical passages to reinforce the argument that Christians should wear masks and get vaccines, BioLogos is engaging in a gross misuse, a “twisting,” of Scriptures. In fact, their use of the Bible is “heretical.” And people fall for it because they don’t know their Bible, which has absolutely nothing to say about wearing masks or getting vaccines.

(This is an argument? Really? “Love your neighbor” is confined to specific practices mentioned in the Bible? And how is that the biblical authors could have possibly come up with masks and vaccines?) 

According to St. John, people fall for this “drivel” – i.e., getting a vaccine to protect yourself and others is in keeping with Jesus’ admonition to love one another — because they are being swayed by the propaganda put out by Fauci and the National Institutes of Health (propaganda that is apparently driven by the desire to make big bucks on vaccines). BioLogos is part of this propaganda machine, engaging in emotional and spiritual manipulation in an effort “to manipulate me [and others] into getting a vaccine that I don’t believe in and don’t see any need for.”

One of the subtexts of this podcast is that the BioLogos statement is prima facie evidence that Christianity in America is in serious decline. For both St. John and Purdom, it is appalling that so many professors from Christian colleges and seminaries signed this statement. While St. John suggests that they did not know what they were signing, Purdom argues that these are evolutionist academics who reject biblical inerrancy and authority, and who knew exactly what they were signing.

Purdom goes on to attack BioLogos for telling people that “Christians should listen to scientists and doctors . . . That’s a logical fallacy, that’s an appeal to authority.”

Three comments here:

  1. Really? The message is that Christians should not listen to scientists and doctors? 
  2. Purdom does not seem to understand logical fallacies. (Perhaps if she did, she would not so readily launch into ad hominem attacks). The argument from authority is quite common and quite reasonable. For as long as human beings have been deliberating about things, they have constructed arguments that say something like this: I believe this is so or this is good or this is what we should to; but don’t just take my word for it; consider the wisdom of so-and-so who has expertise in the matter (whether through experience or educational training). In other words, the person making the argument is borrowing the credibility or authority of the source to support their argument. As one would learn in any college-level course on argumentation, this is not a logical fallacy.
  3. But there is something particularly hilarious here. Just a few minutes before she makes this statement, Purdom attacks evangelical academics for rejecting biblical authority! This is an appeal to authority, and, in fact, the vast majority of arguments put forth by AiG involve appeals to authority. (In fact, appeals to authority are all they have.) Now, what Purdom and Ham and others would say is that they have the right authority and non-fundamentalists have the wrong authority . . . ok, but they are still appealing to authority, which Purdom claims is a logical fallacy.

Purdom also attacks BioLogos for engaging in a stealth campaign, using the pandemic to get their evolutionary ideas into Christian churches and Christian schools and Christian homeschooling organizations. They “are very, very sly,” they “are sheep in wolves’ clothing.”

More than this, the folks at BioLogos are hypocrites: “they are concerned about a virus that doesn’t kill very many people at all,” but they say nothing about abortion.

A comment and a question:

  1. I have suspected that AiG is rife with folks who see the notion of a COVID pandemic as a hoax, and Purdom’s comment that it “doesn’t kill many people at all” tells me that I am right. 
  2. And here’s my question. AiG has constructed a tourist attraction that commemorates (celebrates?) the drowning of up to 20 billion human beings in Noah’s Flood. And it is estimated that at any point in time 2% of the female population on Earth is pregnant. So if there were 10 billion women on the planet at the time of Noah’s Flood, then 200,000,000 women were pregnant. 200,000,000 unborn killed in just a few days. So divine genocidal abortion is ok? That is to say, how does the biblical story they tell fit with their professed concern for the killing of unborn innocents?

In Kentucky, two state representatives have proposed a bill that would make it illegal for any state agency or entity to require immunizations. One of these representatives, Savannah Maddox, is from Grant County, where Ark Encounter is located. And she is quite the Ken Ham supporter, as seen in one of these photos. (Note that in the photo below, Maddox is with a racist supporter flashing the “white power” gesture).

Kentucky State Representative Savannah Maddox poses with a woman using white supremacist gesture during a May, 2020 rally against COVID-19 restrictions in her state. Image courtesy of Courier-Journal.

No surprise. Anti-vaccination, anti-mask regulations, climate change denial – so it is at Answers in Genesis.

And all this fits with the frightening reality that many evangelicals are caught up in the QAnon conspiracy.

And here is a link to the Purdom/St. John podcast.

An Evangelical Purge, an Evangelical Rebellion and then, Signs of Hope (Really?)

by William Trollinger

Harold Heie. Photo via Respectful Conversations

It is absolutely true that, as John Fea likes to point out, not all evangelical colleges are the same. Not all evangelical schools have signed on to Ken Ham’s uninspiring list of Creation Colleges. Not all evangelical colleges have a president who unzipped for the camera. Not all evangelical colleges are so thoroughly messed up as Cedarville.

(For those of you who want to catch up on Cedarville’s ongoing and ever-expanding set of scandals, see: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

That said, most evangelical colleges and universities require faculty to sign – sometimes annually – faith and lifestyle statements that are quite conservative. Related, and as I wrote in an article, evangelical 

schools engage in a good amount of “boundary maintenance.” While fundamentalist schools are much more concerned with strict, impermeable boundaries, and while a good number of faculty members at evangelical schools would not be allowed to teach at a fundamentalist school, the fact is that evangelical colleges can also be quite restrictive, and, on occasion, engage in a purge.

I knew whereof I spoke.

I wrote this article while teaching at Messiah College (now University), a Brethren in Christ school in south-central Pennsylvania (where, by coincidence, Fea now serves as Distinguished Professor of American History). And while I did not share this with my readers, I wrote the first draft of this article while enduring and resisting a brief but very painful crackdown at the college. 

Knowing a good deal about evangelical higher education, I was hesitant to apply for the position at Messiah when it came open in 1988. But my concerns were allayed by the fact that the faith statement did not include a requirement to affirm biblical inerrancy, and by faculty members who assured me that the school was much more Anabaptist than it was evangelical.

Regarding the latter, I discovered that this was a most problematic assertion. It did not take me long to realize that the school was drawing many or most of its students from fundamentalist and evangelical homes. Quoting from the aforementioned article,

This was brought home to me [in my second year] when I taught a course . . . on fundamentalism and televangelism. During one of the class discussions a couple of students alluded to the fact that the only other school they had applied to was Liberty University. Stunned, I asked for a show of hands of all those who had applied to Liberty or Bob Jones; approximately half of the students in that class of 35 answered in the affirmative. 

I loved these students, but I was discomfited about what this said about how the school was promoting itself. More alarming was Messiah’s president. Early in my time there he stood up to angrily rebut a faculty member who had referred to the school as Anabaptist: “No! We are first and foremost an evangelical college!” 

This said, I took great solace in the Vice President for Academic Affairs (VPAA).

Harold Heie was hired the same year I was. Before that he taught math at the King’s College and at Gordon College, and then served as VPAA at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa (where he now resides). And while I had a reflexive distrust of administrators (which has faded a bit over the years), it did not take me long to become a fan of his leadership style. 

For one thing, he was all about trusting Messiah faculty to follow their pedagogical instincts. Those of you who have never taught at an evangelical college have no idea how significant this is. Harold was willing to allow faculty to take chances, to do things that might discomfit the conservative evangelical constituency (e.g., a theater production of Jesus Christ Superstar). He trusted us.

More than this, he was all about pushing faculty to embark on ambitious projects that might have seemed beyond what Messiah faculty members could pull off. If it weren’t for Harold’s gentle encouragement, the Reforming the Center project would never have gotten off the ground. I co-directed this project, which was funded by a major grant from the Lilly Foundation, and which resulted in three major conferences (1994, 1995, and 1996), five articles, and a book. 

But it turns out that, and all these years later it still breaks my heart to say this, Harold was not around for any of the Reforming the Center conferences. 

In the summer of 1993 Messiah faculty received a brief note in our mailboxes informing us that the president had relieved Harold Heie of his services. Today Harold explains that “the reason for my being fired was that my collaborative leadership was diametrically opposed to the command-and-control style of the President and Board.” And of course this is true in as far as it goes. But beneath this was the desire of the President and Board to rein in the faculty, to force them to toe the conservative line in order to placate those in the constituency who assumed that Messiah should look like Liberty. 

What happened next is remarkable in the annals of evangelical higher education. Furious about the firing of this remarkably collegial dean, the faculty responded by organizing a chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). And I agreed to be the chapter president, knowing that it would place a bullseye on my back for the rest of my time at Messiah (which it did).

I confess that it was exhilarating to join with my colleagues in resisting the high-handed actions of the President and Board. One of the best moments was early in the fall of 1993, when AAUP sent to Messiah a representative to meet with the faculty. I met with him for lunch before the big meeting. I spent most of that lunch explaining to this left-leaning organizer how radical it was for an evangelical school to call on AAUP, while at the same time delineating what he could not say in the public meeting (any hint that AAUP was a union would be a disaster). He was great, the room was packed (including some administrators who were there to monitor the rabble-rousers), and I left the meeting thinking we had a chance to bring back Harold Heie, and we had a chance to move the school toward a progressive evangelicalism.

How naïve of me. The Board brought in a Mennonite “mediator” who had no interest in mediating the conflict – there was no conflict to mediate, as the President and Board had spoken. The “mediator” never talked with Harold Heie, and he never talked with faculty leaders who were resisting Harold’s firing (including me as AAUP president). Instead, it was clear that he was hired to get faculty members to shut up and accept the wisdom of the Board.

The faculty member who put on Jesus Christ Superstar was forced out, the faculty member who showed the film Last Temptation of Christ jumped before he was fired, and so on. As I saw it, the only thing that ended the purge was that the president retired at the end of the year. And the final act of resistance occurred at graduation in the spring of 1994, when a vast swath of faculty refused to stand and applaud for the outgoing president. Not much consolation, given the administrative and faculty friends (devout Christians all) who were forced out of the school.

While I escaped the purge, and while it pained me to leave smart and good friends, it was a great relief to leave Messiah in 1996. 

But what of Harold Heie? Well, after his firing he moved on to a role as Founding Director of the Center for Christian Studies at Gordon College. And since his “retirement” in 2003, Harold has been busy in the project of “Respectful Conversations,” in which he has sought – working against the Christian Right takeover of white evangelicalism – real conversations among evangelicals on political discourse, human sexuality, and the like. And in the past year he has published Reforming American Politics: A Christian Perspective on Moving Past Conflict to Conversation.

The ever-hopeful Harold Heie forces me to ask the question: Is it possible that there is a chance – however slim – that white evangelicalism in America could actually escape the death clutches of Trump and his “Christian” enablers?

Locking It Down at Cedarville

by William Trollinger

Cedarville University President Thomas White. Photo courtesy of MinistryWatch.com

A few days ago an incoming senior at Cedarville University wrote a letter to the local Xenia Gazette, explaining why she “disenrolled from Cedarville”:

I received an email from Cedarville University’s board of trustees in late June. It was addressed to Cedarville students, announcing that the board would allow Dr. Thomas White to remain [as] president of the university after they discovered he’d hired an alleged sex offender.

I cried when I read that email.

This young woman goes on to point out that not only did White knowingly hire a sex offender, not only did he neglect to inform faculty and staff that he was hiring someone who on multiple occasions secretly videotaped a younger male colleague in the shower, but the president also allowed this individual to serve as “a recruiter, basketball coach, field trip chaperone, and professor of theology at Cedarville.”

As she eloquently concluded her letter to the editor:

In allowing White to remain, the [Board of Trustees] failed to treat sexual abuse with the same gravity that Scripture does. If they had sought Scripture, they would have fired White for his poor judgment. They would have communicated that White’s actions were inexcusable and that they were committed to protecting victims.

I don’t pretend to be a perfect Christian. I fail daily. But I know Scripture demands I protect those who cannot protect themselves. That’s why I left Cedarville: I cannot support a Christian institution whose president and board are ignoring the Scriptures they profess to obey.

She is not alone in her dismay. In response to the decision to retain White as president, two trustees resigned in protest, and a prominent supporter of the school issued a public letter in which he observed that “even our declining culture takes such abusive leadership and the mishandling of sexual offenses more seriously than the Trustees of Cedarville University.” And in a survey of nearly 550 Cedarville stakeholders, 87% affirmed that the “trustees should reconsider their decision to reinstate White.” 

That is not happening. This is Cedarville. The school has gone the other direction, shutting down all dissent within the school, to the point – so I am told – of firing a long-time nursing professor for criticizing the president. Moreover, the gaslighting continues, with the Vice President of Academics sending out a memo that – despite all the evidence to the contrary – Cedarville University and its Counseling Center have not done anything wrong in its treatment of those who have been sexually harassed and abused.   

The school’s accrediting agency, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), is apparently missing in action. I have to ask: What is the point of universities going through all the work that accreditation requires, if all that is going on at Cedarville is deemed to be ok? Or maybe the question is better put this way: If Cedarville can be accredited, then what would it take for a school not to be accredited? 

Perhaps it is the case that, in the Age of Trump, what keeps Cedarville from being held accountable by the HLC is the university administration’s support for right-wing politics. As reported by the intrepid Todd Wilhelm, not only did White disband the Democratic student organization, but – along with a Republican student organization – the university has officially sanctioned a Cedarville University chapter of Turning Point USA.

Turning Point – which is funded by wealthy conservatives – proclaims that its mission is “to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government.” But as reported by Media Matters, the organization “has a long history of involvement in racist [and anti-Semitic] incidents.” 

It appears that the Cedarville version of Turning Point is very much in keeping with the national organization. Not only has the chapter vice president called on his fellow students to “heed not the sweet lies of Black Lives Matter nor the ‘social justice’ that preceded them,” but, in the wake of the recent Kenosha protests in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake, he posted on Instagram the following:

In 2020, American patriot Kyle Rittenhouse was asked what it felt like to take human life, “I wouldn’t know, I’ve only killed communists.”

Turning Point USA – fine at Cedarville. College Democrats – not fine at Cedarville. Also not fine: “Students Against Sexual Abuse,” a proposed organization that was rejected because – as also reported by Wilhelm – it was deemed that “sexual abuse is an extremely hard topic that must be handled with extreme care.” 

To be sure, efforts to lock down Cedarville are well underway. And yet there are those who, holding onto the teachings of Jesus, find themselves crying about what Cedarville has become and feeling obliged to take their leave as students and even as board members. 

In other words, while the lockdown may shore up White’s position and power along with the power and position of other upper administrators and board members, there are those who have loved Cedarville enough to take notice and to take a stand (quite eloquently) that, while the institution claims obedience to Scripture, it falls far short of Jesus’ command that “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these you did not do for me” (MT 25: 45). 

BioLogos, Answers in Genesis, and Two Wildly Different Evangelical Responses to the Pandemic

by William Trollinger

In the Age of Trump it is very easy to imagine that white evangelicalism is a monolith. But when it comes to science, in general, and the pandemic, in particular, it turns out that it is not.

In 2007 Francis Collins – who then was director of the Human Genome Project – founded BioLogos, which sees its mission as encouraging “the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith as we present an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation.” It is, as we note in Righting America, the “quintessentially evangelical organization” (220), with its statement of faith (which begins in good evangelical fashion with an assertion that the Bible is “inspired and authoritative”), with its scientists from evangelical colleges, and with its headquarters at Calvin University.  

On August 17 BioLogos released its “Christian Statement on Science for Pandemic Times.” This warmly empathetic statement — replete with biblical citations, and (without using this language) attentive to the common good – proclaims that, “because of our faith in Jesus Christ,” the signatories will

  1. Wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines, as “mask rules are not experts taking away our freedom, but an opportunity to follow Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 6:31).”
  2. Get vaccinated when that is possible, as “vaccination is a provision from God that will prevent disease not only for ourselves but for the most vulnerable among us (Matthew 25: 31-36).”
  3. “Correct misinformation and conspiracy theories when we encounter them in our social media and communities.”
  4. Work for justice among “the disadvantaged and vulnerable” who have suffered the most from COVID-19.
  5. Pray for healing, comfort, and “wisdom to decision-makers.”

As of August 31 6,587 individuals had signed this statement. While not all the signatories are evangelicals – one finds a few Catholic clergy, for example – it is striking how many evangelical luminaries and institutions have signed on, including:

  • N.T. Wright, Rich Mouw, Ed Larson, Scot McKnight
  • The president and editor of Christianity Today, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, the Vice-President of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary
  • Folks from Dallas Theological Seminary, Denver Theological Seminary, Hope College, Gordon College, Messiah College (including my old friend Ted Davis), Point Loma Nazarene University, Southeastern Baptist Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Westmont College, Wheaton College 

But no Answers in Genesis (AiG), and no Ken Ham. In fact, Ham’s AiG has taken a very different approach to the pandemic.

As of August 30, 182,149 Americans had died from the coronavirus. Worldwide, the number was approximately 851,000. But Ham – very much in keeping with Donald Trump – has had almost nothing to say about these deaths, almost nothing to say about the pain and suffering brought about by COVID-19. Ham’s lack of empathy is striking . . . although it must be said that, as the creator of a tourist site designed to commemorate (celebrate?) the drowning of up to 20 billion individuals in Noah’s Flood, a show of concern for those who have suffered in the pandemic would be strikingly out of character for Ham.

Instead, for Ham, what is salient about the pandemic is that it gives government and other hostile forces an excuse to accelerate their campaign of persecuting Christians:

Even though it seems we hear nothing but coronavirus stories and statistics in the news, we need to be reminded of the spiritual war raging around us and the enormous threat to Christian freedom in the West. One of the things the coronavirus situation has shown me is how easy it is for one person (like a state governor, for instance) to close down church buildings overnight! And we’ve seen blatant discrimination by certain leaders in the community to stop Christians from worshipping.

(Note: In this article Ham goes on to give other examples of “Christian freedoms” that are being lost. One of his examples is that “for the first time in a major US city, the historic Ramadan call to prayer is now echoing from loudspeakers on the roof of a Minneapolis, MN, mosque.” Christian church bells ok, Muslim call to prayer not? It is hard to imagine a better example of the fact that Ken Ham and others in the Christian Right do not seek religious freedom, but, instead, a legally enforced Christian America.)

Screenshot of Ken Ham’s Facebook post, August 31, 2020. Image via Facebook.

But while “the COVID-19 situation has been weaponized in many places to use against Christians” (but, apparently, not against Muslims or Jews), there are heroic figures who are “courageously standing” against the forces of anti-Christian persecution. One of these individuals is John MacArthur — founder of the Master’s Seminary and long-time pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California – who has been engaged in an ongoing battle with the state of California to hold worship services indoors. 

Interestingly (and thanks to Camille Lewis for passing this along), MacArthur holds to a conspiracy theory – also promoted by QAnon supporters – that:

In truth, 6% of the deaths that have occurred can be directly attributable to COVID, [but] 94% cannot. Of the 160,000 that have died, 9,210 actually died from COVID. There is no pandemic.

I have no idea whether Ken Ham shares MacArthur’s notion that there is no pandemic – but I would not be surprised if he did. For one thing, Ham and AiG have not – in contrast with BioLogos – taken a firm and public stand in behalf of wearing masks and social distancing, nor have they had anything to say about the “COVID hoax” theories that are rampant in conservative evangelicalism. More than this, there is a good deal of evidence that those who – like Ken Ham and AiG – deny global warming also deny the reality of the coronavirus pandemic

Of course, what is great about labeling the pandemic as a hoax is that there is no need for even the pretense of empathy.

Was Jerry Falwell, Jr. the Last Great Fundamentalist Emperor?

by William Trollinger

William Bell Riley. Photo courtesy of Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

I will get to Jerry Falwell, Jr. in a moment. But first, a look at the first great fundamentalist emperor.

I fell in love with the “new social history” at the University of Wisconsin, with its emphasis on the fact that everyone has a history – not just presidents and generals, not just white elite males, but everyone. Workers, farmers, African Americans, women, more: everyone has a history.

It was intoxicating. That said, I was also struck by the fact that most of the social history I was reading did not attend to grass-roots movements on the Right. Now, my immediate family was the quintessential evangelical Republican family – anti-civil rights, anti-women’s movement, pro-Vietnam War, pro-Richard Nixon – and as an adolescent I assumed I was trapped in the most conservative family on the planet. But then I got to know folks in my extended family who made my immediate family look like raging Marxists. These folks were extreme religious fundamentalists whose politics were equally extreme. It was not surprising that they detested me and my politics. But from being around them, I knew that there were fundamentalist churches and fundamentalist parachurch organizations and the like that were not just surviving, but thriving.

So at Wisconsin I decided that I would see if I could write on fundamentalism as a right-wing social movement. At the time (oh, how the scholarly world has changed!) there was very little substantive work on Protestant fundamentalism, the consensus being that – in the wake of the 1925 Scopes Trial – it had been relegated to the outer reaches of Appalachia and the Ozarks, soon to disappear from America altogether. But there were two exceptions: Ernest Sandeen’s wonderful The Roots of Fundamentalism (1970), and then a book that appeared as I was in the early years of my Ph.D. work, George Marsden’s magisterial Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980).

While Sandeen and Marsden did not write social history, reading their books told me that examining fundamentalism as a social movement had real promise. I was encouraged in this task by my dissertation director (Carl Kaestle) as well as committee members Paul Boyer and Ron Numbers. And the long story short is that my dissertation focused on William Bell Riley, who was instrumental in the creation of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association (1919) – the first fundamentalist organization – and who spearheaded the 1920s crusade against liberal theology in the major Protestant denominations and the teaching of evolution in the public schools.

But as a social historian, I was less interested in Riley on the national stage and more intrigued by the ways in which Riley successfully created a grass-roots fundamentalist movement centered around his Northwestern Bible School (Minnesota). As I discovered in my repeated trips from Madison to Minneapolis, Northwestern served as the hub in what I came to call “Riley’s empire,” the ever-growing number of fundamentalist churches in the upper Midwest in the first half of the twentieth century that were tightly tethered to Riley and his Bible School. 

Actually, Riley’s empire was the model for what was to come in American fundamentalism. As I wrote in the book that grew out of my dissertation,

In the years since Riley, numerous conservative Protestant leaders have constructed local or regional (or, on occasion, national) religious empires around themselves. Because it is the prototypical fundamentalist fiefdom, Riley’s empire provides valuable insights into this phenomenon. As his midwestern network makes clear, personality-based religious empires have certain organizational advantages. For instance, a charismatic leader is able to arouse intense loyalty in his or her followers. Riley inspired such devotion that decades after his death many Northwesterners still rhapsodized about his virtues and talked proudly about having followed him into battles against the modernist enemy . . . Moreover, like all autocratic social structures, personality-based empires have the potential to be remarkably efficient. For example, when a fundamentalist church in the upper Midwest needed a minister or an evangelist or a Vacation Bible School worker, all it had to do was place a call or write a letter to Riley, and the need would be filled. (156-157)

In a recent blog post, “The last fundamentalist empire died yesterday in Lynchburg, Virginia,” the indefatigable John Fea (do you sleep, John?) writes about the resignation of Jerry Falwell, Jr. as president of Liberty University. And he makes the very smart argument that – in contrast with Riley and Bob Jones and John R. Rice and his own father – Falwell could not live up to what is required of the successful fundamentalist emperor. In particular, he was not that interested in “defend[ing] doctrinal orthodoxy” [he was much more interested in making money, and in stepping down from Liberty he made 10.5m more] nor did he “cultivate a culture of personal holiness bordering on legalism” [unzipping his pants for the camera is but one example]. 

At the end of his post Fea suggests that “perhaps Jerry Falwell Jr. was the last fundamentalist emperor.” And he could be right, if one thinks of fundamentalism as essentially a religious movement. 

But another way to read this is that Jerry Falwell, Jr. is a prime example of the ways in which fundamentalism has simply shed or de-emphasized its moral and doctrinal convictions in behalf of commitments that were always near and dear to the movement, particularly right-wing politics, patriarchy, and white nationalism. The first great fundamentalist emperor, William Bell Riley, made clear these commitments with his full-throated anti-Semitism, his unabashed racism, his over-the-top attacks on the New Deal, and so forth.

Of course, it is indeed the case that Riley was also devoted to defending a very detailed list of theological doctrines as well as enforcing a legalistic moral code on those residing in his empire.

Maybe the question is this: Is fundamentalism in thrall to Donald Trump still fundamentalism?

More Blood than Bunk: Carl Sandburg for 2020

by Camille Lewis

Camille Kaminski Lewis is currently a Visiting Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. She holds a Ph.D. from Indiana University in Rhetorical Studies with a minor in American Studies. Her book, Romancing the Difference: Kenneth Burke, Bob Jones University, and the Rhetoric of Religious Fundamentalism, was a scholarly attempt to stretch the boundaries of both Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical theory on tragedy and comedy as well as stretch conservative evangelical’s separatist frames. The story of that publication is available at The KB Journal.  She is currently working on a manuscript tentatively titled Klandamentalism: Dysfunction and Violence in America’s Most Romantic Religious Movements, while also compiling and editing an anthology – White Nationalism and Faith: Statements and Counter-Statements on American Identity – as part of Peter Lang’s Speaking of Religion book series.

Rev. Billy Sunday (posed as if preaching) c. 1918. Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

You, Billy Sunday, put a smut on every human blossom
that comes within reach of your rotten breath,
belching about hell-fire and hiccupping about
this man who lived a clean life in Galilee.

When are you going to quit making the carpenters
build emergency hospitals for women and girls
driven crazy with wrecked nerves
from your goddam gibberish about Jesus –
I put it to you again:

What the hell do you know about Jesus?

Carl Sandburg, “To Billy Sunday” 

A hundred years ago, Carl Sandburg was the working man’s poet, the man who named Chicago the “hog butcher for the world.” In the latter part of his life, this “poet of the people” settled a few miles north of me here in the Blue Ridge Mountains. His home is a national park, and we visit often. “Let’s go to the goats,” we’ll say, and we’ll jump in the truck with our Labrador-shepherd mix to pet (and bark at) Mrs. Sandburg’s goats. We climb their stone walls and wander around their chestnut trees. We take turns sitting in Mr. Sandburg’s chair out in the sun where he liked to write. To us, the Sandburgs are like family.  

Billy Sunday started his public life in Chicago too, debuting as an outfielder with the Chicago White Sox in 1883. Once a pretty little Presbyterian turned his head, Sunday found religion and began his evangelistic career in the Midwest. By 1917, Sunday’s urban evangelism had made him an unmitigated tycoon, collecting close to $10,000 a week in his crusades—which would be worth almost $200,000 in today’s currency. Even with that midwestern twang, Sunday feels local since I spent half my undergraduate career living in a dormitory named after that pretty little Presbyterian. For me, the Sundays are like relatives too, even if I’d rather not admit it.

Sandburg’s century-old poem confronting Billy Sunday sounds like it could be written for 2020. Sandburg the poet saw through the “bunk” Sunday the tycoon and his descendants are still peddling. 

In the middle of a global pandemic which only our great-greats would recognize, with civil unrest that looks like 1965 Selma and on the brink of the Great Depression 2.0 while the nation conscientiously counts down the days to the next election, we white evangelicals breezily commute from home to our white-collar jobs, sipping our iced tea, flaunting social-distancing guidelines all the while casting conspiratorial aspersions on any conclusions from scientists we don’t understand.

We’re no different from Billy Sunday. 

We’re in the throes of the same destructive binary that Sandburg confronted and dismantled. We ignore material bodies—living organisms which can get ravaged by viruses, which need protection from armed so-called keepers-of-the-peace, bodies which need fuel and nurture—all in deference to the immaterial ideals of rugged individualism and bootstrap meritocracy.

And Jesus has nothing to do with it.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I had to read Sandburg’s 1915 poem out loud again. Sandburg saw that for Sunday, Jesus was merely an object of a preposition—something to “look at” and then “be all right.” Jesus was a static thing, even a totem. 

In contrast, Sandburg puts Jesus as the subject of the sentence. Jesus acts. He acts for others and for free. 

Jesus had a way of talking softly and everybody except a few bankers and higher-ups among the con men of Jerusalem liked to have this Jesus around because he never made any fake passes and everything he said went and he helped the sick and gave people hope. 

Carl Sandburg, “To Billy Sunday” 

Jesus was a living and breathing actor in Sandburg’s poem, an opposite to Sunday who skipped past hardscrabble reality and constricted Jesus within a prepositional phrase. For Sunday, the promise of the next world could distract his listeners into giving him their cash, telling “poor people they don’t need any more money on pay day…all they gotta do is take Jesus” how Billy says. Billy promises that if you ignore current and ugly reality, you’re guaranteed future bounty in the sweet by-and-by. 

But Sandburg cuts through Sunday’s humbug: “I ask you to come through and show me where you’re pouring out the blood of your life.” In other words, get real, Preacher. Get your boots dirty. Work with your own two hands rather than warble about future rewards (while piling up hard cash for yourself). 

And Sunday’s descendants are still hawking the same bunk. 

Early in the pandemic, Dallas-trained seminarian Costi Hinn offered one variation on the Sunday theme. “Grace” is what’s needed in these perilous times. He purrs in the end, “choose love.”

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want some love right now? Who doesn’t need a little social grease for the machinations of life in the middle of civil unrest? 

Putting on Sandburg’s spectacles, however, clarifies what this century-old narrative blurs. Look who is chiefly doing the action in Hinn’s text. He’s talking with “the team” which is, let’s be honest, the white male pastoral staff. These good guys get thwarted by the devil and those with “opinions” which “dominate” and “spiral downward.” Good guys vs. the devil, ministers with grace vs. people with opinions, looking up vs. spinning down—this old Southern duel persists in conservative evangelical narratives, and this one is no different.

To his fellow ministers, this preacher asks his public to “agree to disagree” on science and rise above those trouble-makers who will only “divide our ranks.” Different conclusions in the midst of a pandemic are merely “convictions”—fundamentalist code for pietistic preferences. Do you drink alcohol socially or abstain? Do you worship with a drum set or a pipe organ? Do you watch PG-13 movies or only G-rated family films? These are the kinds of endless conflicts that Hinn groups with the public health realities in a turbulent time. Do you see wearing a mask as “soft” or do you see refusing a mask as “reckless”? Do you participate in congregational singing or do you believe these “super spreader” events must wait for a later date? Do you fly the Blue Lives Matter flag or protest police violence? These conflicts are all the same kinds of “convictions,” and Hinn and his grace-filled white male team stand outside the debate entirely. They won’t get involved. Their indifference to the nitty-gritty is, Hinn claims, “choosing love.”

Like Sunday, they have no skin in the game. Their hands are clean. Their lungs, they presume, are virus-free.

Sure, Hinn admits that he just wants to preserve relationships since “people matter over opinion.” But notice the people who are missing from his story in order to see which relationships matter. There are no scientists, no public health officials, no elderly, no women, no immune-compromised, and no children. There’s one staff member who is on “paternity leave,” cluing us in to the good guy persona we’re supposed to admire. 

Hinn doesn’t even mention Jesus. 

And now in the middle of the pandemic, octogenarian fundamentalist John MacArthur sounds even more defiant than Hinn. He does start with Jesus, but notice the framing: 

Christ is Lord of all. He is the one true head of the church. He is also King of kings—sovereign over every earthly authority. Grace Community Church has always stood immovably on those biblical principles. As His people, we are subject to His will and commands as revealed in Scripture. Therefore, we cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings. Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.

Just like Billy Sunday, MacArthur does not make Jesus an actor. Jesus is not doing anything. He simply is—like a totem. And by the third paragraph, Jesus is back to that comfy object-of-the-preposition placement [emphasis mine]:

A father’s authority is limited to his own family. Church leaders’ authority (which is delegated to them by Christ) is limited to church matters. And government is specifically tasked with the oversight and protection of civic peace and well-being within the boundaries of a nation or community. 

The whole drama is centered around the white male authority in the family and the church which has been ordained by Christ which acts against government. MacArthur, like Hinn, ignores the vulnerable, the elderly (other 80-somethings like himself), and the scientists. 

Consistently in these evangelical narratives, the white male church leaders are the heroes of their own story, the solitary actors. All the others with their convictions are either ugly adversaries or mere scenery, wallpaper on the set of the white ministerial drama, seconds in the duel between preachers and the devil of government. 

Sitting here in a Red State which never closed with too-high positivity rates as the country struggles to mourn now nearly 200,000 deaths, all these white male evangelicals seem to be telling those of us with bodies one thing: “shut up.”

In the first version of his Billy Sunday poem, Sandburg ended with “I want blood instead of bunk in my religion.” So gentle neighbors, in the words of that poet of the people sitting from his chair in the Blue Ridge, I ask you: when are you going to quit making us build emergency hospitals for people driven to death’s door from your rhetoric about Jesus—I put it to you again: What the hell do you know about Jesus?

Righting America Blog Categories

Subscribe via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Righting America blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.