by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. He is also making final edits on his sixth book – Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy – forthcoming from Wipf and Stock (Cascades).
For at least one hundred years, evangelical/fundamentalist preachers have demeaned moderate-to-liberal preachers as children of the devil, as the spawns of hell, as a raving pack of socialists, communists, and atheists. They have fearlessly, loudly, and repeatedly attacked us as the enemies of God who do not believe in the Bible, in God, or in America.
Perhaps the great granddaddy of attack rhetoric was J. Frank Norris, the fire-breathing Texas fundamentalist who has been dubbed “God’s rascal” by historian Barry Hankins. In a sermon series against municipal corruption, Norris preached on “The Ten Biggest Devils in Fort Worth—Names Given.” Most of the men Norris named in the sermon were in attendance on that Sunday night. Enraged community leaders tried to run him out of town, and his life was threatened. A later generation, led by Jerry Falwell, Sr. and Pat Robertson, perfected the art of blasting every person, institution, and entity with accusations like a southern farmer firing his twelve-gauge shotgun at teenage watermelon thieves. Accusations are the evangelical brand.
Turning the tables, I am arguing here that evangelical preachers are a species of “devil.” I am using the word “devil” in the sense of the Hebrew word for “Satan,” the accuser. This name defines the rhetoric of evangelical leaders. Their words imply a form of violence, usually a white hyper-male violence of control, dominance, abuse, and degradation. Their words consummate a series of lies that are cloaked in the language of Christian piety.
To suggest that some evangelical leaders are “devils” will strike many as absurd and harsh, but this is a war of metaphors and meanings. This is the march of the rhetorical tropes. Call it the “war of hyperboles.” While I am not exactly saying that evangelical leaders are devils, I’m just saying they are devils in the Hebrew sense of the word “Satan” – accusers. In other words, I “see” your paralipsis and I raise you a paralipsis. This is a serious condemnation, with evidence and warrants, for a group of people who are telling lies while knowing they are lying. In that spirit, here are the “Seven Biggest Devils in Evangelicalism – Names Given.”
1. Robert Jeffress
Chief among the evangelical devils is Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. Jeffress has been called “Trump’s Apostle,” and has been labeled as one of the leading “court evangelicals” (John Fea, Believe Me). Embracing all the false, unbiblical, untrue, and dangerous theology of dispensationalists, Christian nationalists, and young earth creationists is trouble enough.
But Jeffress goes further, calling Democrats “false religious leaders who are wolves in sheep’s clothing.” He says that “when they talk about God, they are not talking about the real God — the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who revealed Himself in the Bible.” Instead, “these liberal Democrats are talking about an imaginary God they have created in their own minds: a god who loves abortion and hates Israel.” In short, Democrats are atheists: “The democrat party has become a godless party and so that’s why you find such animosity against conservative Christians and against the Bible. They hate God and I think the President knows that.” (https://harbingersdaily.com/dr-robert-jeffress-the-radical-democrat-party-has-become-the-godless-party/). “It is no coincidence, that 70 percent of atheists identify as democrats and only 15 percent as Republicans.”
Jeffress routinely mixes fearmongering with his distortions: “And if the left ever gains control of this country again, I predict it’s going to be like the French Revolution. It’s going to be ‘bring out the guillotines,’ [as they] execute every thought they object to, and every person who holds every thought that they object to.” https://friendlyatheist.patheos.com/2020/06/13/robert-jeffress-if-democrats-ever-win-they-will-bring-out-the-guillotines/. By his own words, Jeffress is a devil.
2. David Barton
One of major propagators of evangelical falsehoods is the “hobby” historian David Barton. Jeffress and Barton are two Texas peas in a devil’s pod. Barton, a Republican operative, has spent his career debunking the First Amendment and insisting that America was founded as a Christian nation. He has claimed that taking prayer from public schools caused a precipitous drop in ACT scores. He is the pseudo-scholar of the entire Christian nationalist movement. Barton fills his books and videos with inaccurate facts to fuel his imagined “Christian America.” His teachings have been debunked by nearly every American historian, including those who teach at evangelical schools. Barton referred to Trump as “God’s guy,” and has pushed his nativism to the maximum. Barton wrote a book, Jefferson’s Lies, that is so filled with distortions and misstatements and “made-up” quotes that Nelson Publishers, a conservative evangelical publishing house, removed the book from publication. It turns out the only lies in the book were “Barton lies.” As Andre Chouraqui puts it in “The Psalms,” the Devil is the Accuser, so styled by his name in Hebrew, Satan: “His every word consummates a lie.” Lies are the primary tool of a devil, and writing a book full of lies means Barton joins the devil tribe.
3. Tim LaHaye
The most influential teacher of end-time prophecy was the late Tim LaHaye. Followed by more than 100 million believers, his creative, speculative, and literalistic approach to the symbolic language of apocalyptic passages in the Bible read current events into Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation. He attacked those who disagree with him: “These are usually liberal theologians that don’t believe the Bible literally.” Respected evangelical and New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says that LaHaye’s “Left Behind” vision is a “pseudo-theological version of Home Alone” (The Anointed, 18).
Glen Scherer, in “The Godly Must Be Crazy,” argues that a delusional mix of ideology and theology, centered in the rapture, has moved from the wacko fringe of American life to the center of political power. At least half the members of Congress are rapture believers, which endangers environmental policy, and which has dangerous implications for foreign policy. LaHaye’s teachings are untrue, unbiblical, and dangerous. The devil, here, is in the details of how God will allegedly be the supreme perpetrator of genocide. The rapture ideology is the devil’s playground.
4. Ken Ham
The Creation Museum may look like any other tourist-trap theme park, but the dark themes of this ministry, promoted by Ken Ham, tells a different story. The danger here is not so much the naïve assumption that God created the world in six literal days, but in the anti-science movement that Ham and company have enabled across the nation. The anti-science movement, claiming to be about “real science,” has fueled anti-Vaxxers and climate denial. “Climate denial is certainly the most ‘epic’ form of fake-news our culture has ever known,’ according to philosopher Rupert Read. Climate-denial pretends to give the deniers power of nature itself and freedom from truth. While insisting that he is the “answer man,” Ham and his followers are unwilling to be bound by anything, even truth itself.
Ham talks a lot about how much he believes in science and how many young earth creationists scientists are intellectually respectable, but in the words of biologist, Kenneth R. Miller, “there’s no there there.” Ham has claimed that evolution is false, unbiblical, untrue, and dangerous. He has blamed evolution for every known disaster on the planet. The reality is that Ham’s message is false, unbiblical, untrue, and dangerous. His Answers in Genesis ministry is a powerful shaper of popular opinion with simple, comfortable, easy answers. The Creation Museum is a seductive experience, a veritable devil’s den of misstatement, false claims, and dangerous ideology.
5. Franklin Graham
Franklin Graham has a very long track record of anti-Islam bigotry. A month after the 9/11 terror attacks, Graham, speaking at the dedication of a new chapel, told an audience that Islam “is a very evil and wicked religion.” Pressed to clarify his comments by NBC, Graham said, “It wasn’t Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasn’t Lutherans. It was an attack on this country by people of the Islamic faith.” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/franklin-graham-islamophobia-trump-inauguration_n_587e3ea5e4b0aaa369429373. He has also accused Islam of being a “religion of war.” In 2014, Graham attacked the National Cathedral for allowing a Muslim prayer in its worship. He said, “It’s sad to see a church open its doors to the worship of anything other than the One True God of the Bible who sent His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to earth to save us from our sins.” Notice how seamlessly he promotes his Islamophobia with Jesus.
Following the example of Donald Trump, Graham doubled down to imply that Obama was a Muslim. “We’re going to see persecution, I believe, in this country because our president is very sympathetic to Islam and the reason I say that … is because his father was a Muslim, gave him a Muslim name, Barack Hussein Obama.” Graham paints a picture of a holy war, and he promotes an ideology that is xenophobic, patriarchal, idolatrous, bloodthirsty, and elitist. These are the clear earmarks of a Satan, the accuser.
6. Paula White
Perhaps no one has been more of an acolyte of Trump than prosperity gospel preacher, Paula White. This charismatic preacher claims she led Trump to Christ. Serving as Trump’s spiritual advisor, she was a paid employee on Trump’s staff. After the 2020 election, she held a prayer service, which was streamed on Facebook live. During the service White called on “angelic reinforcement” from the continents of Africa and South America. “I hear a sound of victory, the Lord says it is done,” she said. “For angels have even been dispatched from Africa right now… In the name of Jesus from South America, they’re coming here.” White praying for angels to bring Trump the victory has been passed off as harmless prosperity gospel hyperbole, but it is dangerous and heretical. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/11/05/paula-white-trumps-spiritual-adviser-african-south-american-angels/6173576002/.
White told her television audience, “Anyone who tells you to deny yourself is from Satan.” (Shayne Lee and Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Holy Mavericks, 111, 113, 124, 125). White has asked her followers to donate their entire January paycheck to her ministry during the pandemic. She once told her audience to sow the seed of faith in the form of a $1,144 donation to her ministry. White claimed that God specifically instructed her to ask for this $1,144 because it corresponded to her sermon text, John 11:44. The prosperity gospel is the work of the devil.
7. Jerry Falwell, Jr.
Jerry Falwell, Jr. lost his ranking as a top Trump apostle when he was photographed in a compromising picture with a young woman. He still makes the list because he qualifies as a fallen angel. Falwell claimed that seeking to impeach Trump would be the Democrats’ Pearl Harbor, and the 2020 election their Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Defending the right to bear arms, Falwell reached for extra hyperbole: “I’m pretty sure I’m going to call for civil disobedience if the Democrats go through with this. You don’t mess with people’s guns in this part of the state,” Falwell said. He said the Democratic party and its supporters were “no longer liberals — they’ve become fascists, they’re Brownshirts. You believe like them or you’re out.”
Falwell attacked Christianity Today. “With the magazine’s insidious condemnation of the greatest president in American history for people of faith, Christianity Today showed that it stands with the radical progressive left that wants to deny basic Judeo-Christian beliefs throughout our culture and society. A large majority of Americans and the Christian world stands with President Trump and against the radical left because he’s the only thing that stands between us and the escalating attacks on our faith and liberty.” https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/jerry-falwell-jr-christianity-today-is-wrong-about-trump-he-is-a-champion-for-people-of-faith. Unfortunately, Falwell learned there were limits to how much “devilment” the Liberty University board would tolerate, and he was dismissed for falling for the more ordinary, garden-variety temptations of the Evil One.
I have claimed there are devils on the loose speaking in the name of Jesus. You know they are devils because they are speaking lies. They preach that America was founded by right-wing Christians who espoused the same theology as they do. They preach that God created the world in six literal days and that all the answers are in Genesis. They promote an illusory Rapture where Jesus is supposed to show up and snatch all the good people into the clouds before he commits universal genocide. They teach that God hates foreigners, especially Muslims. They know the story of Ruth and Jonah, but still they are deeply prejudiced against foreigners. They know Jesus condemned his own people for being religious elitists, and yet they insist on demeaning persons of other faiths. They make God an agent in making money to support expensive lifestyles. They demean science and create mistrust in climate scientists and pandemic research. They produce false prophets who lead people to destruction.
Accepting the judgment that those who judge will be held to the same standard, I still say, “Call these preachers what they are: devils.”