Overview:

Over the past few years, evangelical leaders have been exhorting their more daring sheep to sign up for ridesharing services.

But this isn't happening just for some spare cash. These drivers go into their gigs with the express purpose of evangelizing their passengers.

They've been preaching at captive audiences in creepy ways for decades already. Why stop now?

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Recently, Hemant Mehta asked a very good question: “Why are Lyft and Uber letting Christian drivers preach at passengers?” It’s a very good question. Uber and Lyft have not, as of this writing, explained why they allow this. Another good question is how evangelicals got to the point where preaching at captive audiences has become an honorable, even commendable, even divinely-commanded activity. In this equation, Uber and Lyft simply function as the newest mission fields for evangelicals.

Preaching at captive audiences is a beloved evangelical tradition. It always has been. Their entire way of life revolves around it. It’s arguably why they’re evangelicals in the first place.

(Related posts: TikTok as a mission field; Virtual churches as a mission field.)

Situation report: Uber and Lyft as a mission field

In Hemant Mehta’s Dec 2 story about the two ridesharing services, we learned that the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has sent official letters to both companies asking them to tell drivers to desist from this activity.

I’m unable to find any official response from either company. As far as I can tell, both companies dropped their respective letters straight into the circular file.

There’s a reason why Christian Uber and Lyft drivers keep pushing their religious views onto their passengers.

Every one of the offenders I’ve found online has been evangelical. And for a while now, evangelical leaders have specifically recommended the use of Uber and Lyft as mission fields for their followers.

In Christianese, a mission field isn’t just a long-term post in some faraway country. Evangelicals think mission fields can be anywhere that gives them an excuse to preach at the unwashed heathens around them. So public schools perform double duty as mission fields. So do county clerks’ offices.

Back in 2018, I presented a holiday post about Ed Stetzer, then a rising name in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). He was seriously telling his followers to evangelize their rideshare drivers over the holidays. At the time, I thought it was some of the worst advice I’d seen yet out of evangelicals. It was downright creepy of them, even abusive, to evangelize anyone they held power over.

But as usual, evangelicals took that creepy advice and told Ed Stetzer to hold their Bibles.

Evangelicals’ rationalizations for using Uber and Lyft as mission fields

Online, I found no shortage of exhortations to evangelicals to use Uber and Lyft as their own personal mission field. A late-November article from AP describes the situation, but the exhortations came much earlier.

In September 2018, Ed Stetzer’s former employer, Lifeway (the publishing, research, and propaganda arm of the SBC), published a post called “Lyft Your Eyes to Jesus: Why Ride Sharing Can Be the Next Ministry Frontier.” Its writer, Robert Carnes, describes a rideshare driver’s constant chatter about religion:

I thanked the driver for the ride, the conversation, and the work he was doing to share Jesus with people who needed it. Here was a guy who had every reason to give up or complain, but he was using his circumstances to its fullest potential.

Lifeway, September 2018

Carnes even began to fantasize about an evangelical-run rideshare service. He suggested that churches do exactly this:

Gather these volunteers. Thank them for what they’re doing. And explain the importance of reaching the community. Give them some guidance on how to listen to people and have gospel conversations.

Your volunteers might actually find this makes it easier to share about their faith. It’s outside of a church, so people are less guarded. Over time, they’ll learn how to turn small talk into meaningful conversations. And they’ll get multiple chances each time they drive.

Lifeway, September 2018

Gosh, what could possibly go wrong with evangelicals running a pseudo-ministry that acts like a business but is really all about achieving their own completely religious goals?

Of course, Carnes included a boilerplate caution about making sure to “gauge a person’s interest” before evangelizing them. I strongly suspect that he included that language only as a means of maintaining plausible deniability for when evangelicals inevitably evangelized people who did not want what they were trying to sell.

Evangelicals, plausible deniability, and captive audiences

Alas for Ed Stetzer and Robert Carnes alike, evangelicals have consistently demonstrated that they are completely incapable of reading the room when doing so correctly would hamper or impede them.

In this way, they are very similar to creeps: men who overstep women’s boundaries, making them feel supremely uncomfortable and often frightened. Back in 2011, a blog called Yes Means Yes discussed creeps. In the process, its writer blew apart the myth of social awkwardness that creeps often use for cover:

Long story short: in conversation, “no” is disfavored, and people try to say no in ways that soften the rejection, often avoiding the word at all. People issue rejections in softened language, and people hear rejections in softened language, and the notion that anything but a clear “no” can’t be understood is just nonsense.

Yes Means Yes, 2011

That writer drew upon research done on how women reject men’s sexual advances. The women felt socially conditioned to do so in the softest, gentlest ways possible to avoid enraging a potential abuser. Creeps, in turn, pretended not to understand that barely-there rejection so they could continue to creep on their victims.

These creeps understood perfectly well that their advances weren’t welcome. The researchers knew this because even the creepiest creeps are quite capable of recognizing soft rejections in many other social contexts. They just didn’t care in this one. Recognizing rejection necessarily meant they would need to stop making these unwanted advances. They didn’t want to stop doing that. So they somehow didn’t notice that the women had already rejected them.

This blog post and the research behind it was really talking about sexual advances and rejection. However, these ideas opened my mind to the world of religious coercion as well.

How evangelicals easily rationalize shockingly coercive behavior

Evangelical leaders can include all the boilerplate cautions about making extra-dextra-super-duper-double-dog-death-dare certain that their targets are open to religious conversations. In practice, evangelicals can and do disobey those cautions any time they wish.

After all, souls are on the line here, in their cosmology! That makes it completely okay and even laudable, in their world, to lie to people to get them to attend evangelism events, and even try to force them to stay at these events. Anything becomes permissible if it means evangelicals can shove their sales pitch, which they call “the gospel,” down their victims’ throats.

If even one victim wavers in their disbelief as a result of this shocking overreach, then no offense is too awful or too extreme to contemplate. Evangelicals’ sense of urgency and their entitlement matters more to them than their victims’ rights and dignity. They view their imaginary Hell as such a great threat that it justifies any and all strategies. The ends justify the means, always.

(Related series: The very earthly and understandable history and evolution of the Christian Hell.)

In the past, evangelicals rationalized overreach with bad analogies like the oncoming bus. In that bad analogy, a huge bus is bearing down on their marks, who are standing in the street oblivious to their danger. So it’s a morally righteous and good thing to push them out of its way. They might get bruised up and angry with you, but at least the bus didn’t hit them! They’ll be so happy when they realize that you—er, Jesus—rescued them from certain doom!

But by now, these rationalizations are barely even necessary to mention. Evangelicals are steeped in them from the moment of conversion.

And they’ve been trained since then in using coercive techniques to make sales.

(Related: Without coercion, Christianity cannot remain dominant.)

Evangelism as an expression of power and superiority

Another, far more insidious motivation may be at work in all too many evangelicals who practice coercive evangelism. And to explain this motivation, I reach again for the world of creeps. In this case, their behavior looks a whole lot like catcalling.

In catcalling, also known as street harassment, a male creep makes loud and vocal sexualized comments in public about a woman’s appearance, all within her earshot. Catcalling can take the form of whistles, shouts, invitations, or even crude compliments.

If the woman objects to a man’s catcalling, he retaliates. Almost always, he turns on her and begins hurling abuse at her. All too often, catcallers inflict violence upon their victims after rejection. Thus, women’s responses to catcalling are often tempered by their fear of the catcaller’s potentially-violent retaliation.

Catcalling has as much to do with real appreciation for a victim’s appearance as rape has to do with sexual desire, which is to say none whatsoever. Both are expressions of power and rage against the victim.

And likewise, evangelism itself often functions as an expression of disrespect and contempt—and perceived power over its victims.

Evangelists do not tend to deploy the same tactics on those who hold real power over them. They know better than to face real social risks for their overreach. Instead, they do their worst against those they feel cannot fight back in any way—especially those whose jobs and futures are beholden to the evangelist somehow, like Uber and Lyft passengers, nursing-home residents, schoolchildren, and retail workers.

When they can get away with it, evangelicals do prey upon those with social superiority—like elected officials—as a way to even the playing field and set themselves up as equals with those they evangelize. But I’ve rarely seen them try to hard-sell any people who can and will make them face real consequences for acting out like that.

Evangelism is an expression of disrespect. It always has been.

That’s why sales-minded evangelicals evangelize in the first place.

Uber and Lyft are just the latest favorite candidates for pushy evangelicals to abuse others

It’s important to note that we’re talking here about sales-minded evangelicals, not the majority of evangelicals.

Most evangelicals don’t act this way. They barely manage to squeak out a single evangelism attempt in a year. They’re scared, and rightly so, of the social risks of pushing unwanted evangelism on others. They understand that they’ll only set back their own stated cause by doing it, so they’re extremely careful to make sure their target’s waters are welcoming before dipping in an evangelistic toe. Younger evangelicals are especially likely to think that evangelists commit a moral wrong against their targets.

So very, very few evangelical laypeople actually evangelize on any kind of regular basis. It drives their leaders right up the tree, because nothing they say can convince the flocks to do more of it. For years now, evangelical flocks have made their unwillingness to evangelize crystal-clear.

In response to that unwillingness, evangelical leaders have pushed the goalposts back again and again, to the point of the word evangelism itself losing all meaning.

No, we’re talking here about that small percentage of evangelical laypeople who take their leaders’ exhortations seriously—and are all too happy to find any opportunity possible to force people to sit through their sales pitches.

Like my Evil Ex Biff, they were likely obnoxious, pushy gits before getting bitten by the evangelicalism bug. His conversion only transferred his love of “yanking people’s chains,” as he himself put it, to religious contexts. He delighted in making non-Christians uncomfortable.

And evangelicals themselves heap nothing but abuse on the people who don’t want to be sold at during their Uber and Lyft rides

I thought one response to the objection letters sent by the FFRF was interesting. It really does demonstrate every single thing I’ve asserted about evangelicals in this post.

Todd Starnes, its writer, got fired from Fox in 2019. The firing followed suspiciously quickly after he asserted on his radio show that Democrats worship Moloch, a pagan god associated with infant sacrifice. Whatever the cause of Fox’s decision, it only drove him to greater and worse misbehavior as he began dedicatedly pandering to his fanbase.

That’s what we see in his December 2nd post on his personal website. In it, he characterizes the FFRF’s concerns as “whining” that seeks to “forbid drivers from sharing their faith.” Because obviously, that’s all these drivers are doing, right? I mean, they’re not trying to hard-sell the people trapped in their cars under false pretenses and who just want to reach their destinations, right?

Then, as the most hilariously inept cherry on top of the worst sundae ever, he asserts that forced evangelism is “calming and inspiring,” which is why “Carrie Underwood asked Jesus to take the wheel, and not an atheist.”

It’s one of the most incompetent bits of evangelical strawmanning and mischaracterization that I’ve ever encountered in my life, and the competition for that title is fierce indeed. But it’s likely what rank-and-file sales-minded evangelicals think about those who dislike being put into the scary position of being at the mercy of a religious fanatic who has already demonstrated a lack of respect for boundaries. After all, they can’t imagine anyone dreading to be in the power of someone like themselves!

I can think of nothing less “calming and inspiring” to discover in a rideshare than a boundary-seeking narcissistic missile trying to get their religious jollies at my expense.

Consent cannot exist in a power-imbalance dynamic

In any situation where one person holds power over another, consent cannot meaningfully be given. Justice and mercy alike demand that powerful people not take undue advantage of their power.

That’s why we hold people criminally liable if they have sex with someone who can’t meaningfully consent to an interaction. In those situations, the more powerful person can abuse their power to get what they want. They don’t care if the other person absolutely wouldn’t consent if their power dynamic were more equal (or if the other person can’t consent at all, as in the case of children).

In the case of rideshares, passengers complain about creepy evangelism on social media. But they may feel very nervous about overtly rejecting a boundary-trampling zealot who doesn’t care about consent when they want to shill their product.

Similarly, the United States government has laws preventing religious harassment in the workplace. Workers may feel similarly constrained from responding honestly and naturally to their coworkers’ sales pitches. They may feel they must keep the peace at work, or that they may face retaliation for rejecting these overtures.

In theory, these laws should also protect public school students from similar religious harassment from evangelists. Alas, our Supreme Court appears to be doing its best to tear down those protections.

Still, we needn’t rely on laws to identify creeps. Human decency does that just fine. And here, too, evangelicals fall flat on their faces.

Creeping is also the point

One would hope that evangelicals would be supremely mindful of others’ unwillingness to hear yet another evangelical blathering about their so-called “good news.” If evangelicals actually cared about their Bible’s rules, they’d be loathe to present sales pitches to those who feel they can’t safely reject their creeping, like when they’re driving for Uber and Lyft with cringing passengers in tow.

One would even hope that they’d at least realize that they are destroying those prospects’ chances of ever acceptingJesusastheirpersonallordandsaviorthankyouamen, and only giving their religion an even worse name than it has already. As it is, by now no amount of Super Bowl ads, merch giveaways, and Times Square billboards can redeem evangelicals’ tattered, tainted brand.

But these particular evangelicals never have been interested in human decency or rules.

They’re way more interested in feeling dominant and superior. Even when their evangelism attempts fail, as evangelism seems explicitly designed to do, those failures only ensure that these failed salespeople will slink back to their tribemates and their indoctrination for a juicy hit of validation and reinforcement. One needn’t score even one convert to be known as an evangelism rockstar to the tribe. My Evil Ex demonstrated that point as well!

Being mindful of either rules or human decency would mean far fewer opportunities to creep on others. And just like cruelty is the point for evangelicals as a whole, creeping is the whole point of this kind of evangelism.

As always, these evangelicals do this stuff for their own benefit. It’s not for anyone else. It’s especially not for the benefit of their victims. It is for themselves, and and it always has been.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...