You have seen the claims. Masks and distancing are not necessary. Just pray to God, and he will protect you from the virus…and oh, by the way, come to my church and put lotsa money in the collection plate.
The lies continue. Trump was chosen by God to be President. Satan helped Democrats cheat him out of his re-election, but don’t worry. God is gonna fix it, expose all the cheaters, and restore Trump to his rightful place as leader of our nation, anointed by God. When will this happen? Hand-waving. Maybe two weeks, maybe two months, maybe longer. Be patient. And meanwhile, keep feeding my collection plate.
It is tempting to lump all Christian evangelical pastors into one stinking putrid pile of excrement and condemn them as liars who are cynically duping their followers so that they can extract money and gain power. There are a number of those, but not all of them are stooping to such levels of despicable dishonesty, as an article in the LA Times pointed out today.
One pastor from a Baptist church in rural Michigan described a recent encounter with a member of his church. After he gave a prayer that lamented the attack on the Capitol, she told him that it was “too political.” She followed with a barrage of conspiracy theories: The election was a fraud, the attacks were incited and led by Black Lives Matter and antifa, and the FBI was in on it all. She finished by telling him that the day would soon come when all the evil, the corruption, would come to light, and the truth would be revealed.
The pastor was so startled by the attack that he was moved to tears. He told her, “You have been lied to. You need to know how crazy this is. You have been with my family, in my home, and I care for you. You are dabbling in darkness. You are telling me it is giving you hope. I am telling you, as your pastor, that it is evil.”
I suspect that he lost a church member. She has not spoken to him since. The pastor should be praised for his honesty and courage. The area where his church is located voted for 2-1 for Trump. His honesty will probably limit his tenure at the church, and worse yet (horrible thought) put his life at risk, just as Democratic Senators are in great danger. The assassination of a single Dem Senator from a state with a Republican governor could change the balance of power in the Senate, and allow Republicans to stonewall everything that Biden tries to accomplish.
The pastor spelled it out: “Something disturbing has happened with evangelicals in this country, where we have become prone to conspiracies and believing the worst about our enemies, where we end up placing the Republican Party and ourselves as Americans first before true Christianity,”
Some Christian leaders are pushing back. A group of more than 500 influential evangelical pastors and faith leaders published an open letter recently titled “Say No to Christian Nationalism.” The letter condemned “radicalized Christian nationalism,” and the rise of “violent acts by radicalized extremists using the name of Christ.”
As the Times article noted, the spread of disinformation is not exclusive to religious organizations. But because Christianity is the largest faith in the US, and churches are places where ideas spread, pastors are instrumental in forming the substance of those ideas. When they spread lies and conspiracy theories to the members of their churches, it has a magnifying effect because of their stature as religious leaders.
Andrew Whitehead, a sociologist at the University of Indiana and Purdue University, describes Christian nationalism as the “fusing of Christianity with the belief that we are a Christian nation, one that God has chosen specifically for success and a particular Christian path, one that has been tied to the Republican Party and being white.” He goes on to say that this joining of politics and faith “has been influential for decades but was given a much bigger megaphone by Trump. We’ve seen that those who embrace Christian nationalism are also more likely to believe in conspiracies.”
Mark Fugitt, a Baptist pastor in Missouri said he has battled against conspiracy theories in his congregation of 300. He listed a number of ideas his church members have shared: face masks cause carbon dioxide poisoning, germ theory is fake, 5G networks are part of a ploy for mind control, and the theory of a child sex trafficking ring with connections to Hillary Clinton and her allies was being run out of a Washington pizza shop. After seeing a recent post by a pastor who said who said rolling blackouts in Texas were the federal government “trying to condition us for communist control,” he was at a loss. He didn’t respond, he said because he “didn’t think he could change any minds.”
For some pastors, the craziness is too much to bear. Vern Swieringa, a Christian Reformed Church pastor left his post in the small western Michigan town of Hamilton after months of disputes with his congregation over his requirement that they wear masks, but he says there was a lot more. “Elderly church members shared videos claiming that Democrats were going to turn the country to socialism, that they were evil and that QAnon was right.” He moved to a church in South Haven, Michigan where masks are mandatory. (See Note)
Jared Stacy, a Southern Baptist pastor in Virginia, had a similar experience. Over the four years of the Trump administration, he observed a gradual increase in conspiracy theories that was dividing his congregation, especially the sex trafficking conspiracy promoted by QAnon.
“It’s like 2020 just exposed so many undercurrents that were already there and growing,” he said. “How could I compete with an hour sermon on Sunday, with a person who was committing hours and hours to media and information on YouTube and Facebook?”
Stacy left the church in November. Today he lives in Scotland, where he studies theology at the University of Aberdeen. He hopes to return to the US someday.
“the year 2020 drove my family to take a distance from America,” he said. “Christianity is global. Evangelical Christianity is global. When you look at US Christianity from the outside, you wonder what happened.”
NOTE: I grew up in Bangor, Michigan, a small town about ten miles from South Haven, so I know that area very well.