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In news that won’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention, even though evangelical Christian churches are losing members as a whole, the ones that are growing seem to be the ones that fully embrace MAGA cultism, QAnon conspiracy theories, and effectively serve as a propaganda arm of the Republican Party.

Some of their leaders are finally starting to grapple with that reality.

In a story for The Atlantic, titled “How politics poisoned the evangelical church,” Tim Alberta cites a number of pastors who agreed the church “is becoming radicalized” because some pastors are going all in on the MAGA train, rejecting the science of COVID and treating conservative Supreme Court appointees with more reverence than Jesus, while many others are too cowardly to push back against it and try to avoid the topic altogether. The end result is that churches focused primarily on Jesus are struggling while the ones worshiping Trump are getting stronger. And no church is exempt from the problem:

“A pastor asked me the other day, ‘What percentage of churches would you say are grappling with these issues?’ And I said, ‘One hundred percent. All of them,’ ” Russell Moore, the public theologian at Christianity Today, told me. “I don’t know of a single church that’s not affected by this.”

We hear from one pastor who heard a radical conspiracy theory from a congregation member, and attempted to set her straight (to no avail), but that anecdote ends with the woman still attending the church and the two of them not mentioning that incident ever again.

Maybe the most telling passage in the piece involves a conversation with an evangelical Christian who left a “moderate” church to attend a more MAGA-friendly one. That man falsely claims Trump won the 2020 election, leading to this exchange:

When I pressed him on these beliefs—offering evidence that Joe Biden won legitimately, and probing for the source of his conviction—Tony did not budge. He is just as convinced that Trump won the 2020 election, he said, as he is that Jesus rose from the dead 2,000 years ago.

That says everything, doesn’t it? When you belong to a religion that tells you to dismiss logic and reason in favor of faith and obedience, it’s not that big of a leap for worshipers to accept a difference kind of mythology. When you’re taught from a young age to avoid challenging authority and told to keep critical questions to yourself (or to “just have faith”), why would anyone be surprised when you fall for the flimsiest of conspiracies?

In that sense, the article’s headline is misleading. The evangelical church’s beliefs were poisonous long before Donald Trump entered the picture.

On the same day that article was published, a similar one from Ruth Graham went up at the New York Times, profiling Kevin Thompson, a conservative Arkansas pastor who, nevertheless, was deemed too liberal by his congregation:

If he spoke against abortion from the pulpit, Mr. Thompson noticed, the congregation had no problem with it. The members were overwhelmingly anti-abortion and saw the issue as a matter of biblical truth. But if he spoke about race in ways that made people uncomfortable, that was “politics.” And, Mr. Thompson suspected, it was proof to some church members that Mr. Thompson was not as conservative as they thought.

… A local woman emailed her Bible study group in the summer of 2020, warning that he was promoting a “progressive Leftist agenda.” When Mr. Thompson invited her to meet with him, pointing out that he was a frequent guest of Focus on the Family Radio and hardly a leftist, she accused him of being beholden to “The Marxist Agenda” and “the BLM agenda.”

A politically conservative preacher says sensible things about our nation’s greatest sin, but because his congregation takes FOX News more seriously than the Gospels, there’s no hope for them.

And yet I have to point out that Thompson’s other views—like denying the legitimacy of transgender individuals, rejecting marriage equality and LGBTQ rights, and supporting anti-LGBTQ Republican presidents—all of which are whitewashed with the phrase “conservative on issues of gender and sexual orientation,” are a poison of their own.

The problem with many of these preachers isn’t that they’re too focused on Jesus. It’s that they didn’t drink the last drops from the bottom of the barrel. And now they’re speaking with reporters wondering how everything went so wrong.

They should be looking in a mirror. They didn’t have courage to speak out in favor of human rights before. They built their careers in churches that took certain forms of bigotry and misinformation as givens, without saying a damn thing, and now they’re wondering why their congregations can’t recognize patently false bullshit from the usual false bullshit they’ve always been fed.

Some of them are in denial, too. Last summer, shortly after becoming the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Ed Litton, widely considered a “moderate” pick, told CNN that QAnon conspiracists, who represented 25% of white evangelicals according to one poll, represented a “fringe problem.”

A quarter of white evangelicals is hardly a fringe. For someone like Litton to downplay the problem as if it was just a handful of crazy people in a sea of perfectly sensible Christians suggested he didn’t understand the very organization he was about to lead.

I’ve said this before, but many of the factors that make a church grow and thrive—a sense of shared purpose, a feeling of knowing something others don’t understand, a desire for knowledge in any form—are the same weapons used by online conspiracists. If these pastors, who rightly reject QAnon and just want their members back, don’t understand the role conservative Christianity played in convincing people to adopt comforting myths that defy common sense, they have no chance of “saving” the people who need to be rescued.

These pastors are not heroes and they sure as hell aren’t victims. They’re people who purposely spread misinformation about a whole host of topics, including sex, LGBTQ people, science, abortion, etc., only to be cut loose after they chose not to spread misinformation about other topics.

This is what happens when you allow right-wing extremists to take up space in your church because they mean well. Of course they’re going to outnumber you and drive you out.

It’s parallel to what we’ve seen in the Republican Party, with the Trumpiest candidates outperforming “moderates” in primaries. Who’s to blame for that? Trump and his allies, sure, but save some condemnation for the so-called “traditional” Republicans who still vote with their extremist colleagues, who provide cover for their Party’s insane agenda on Sunday morning talk shows, and who refuse to ally with or vote for Democrats because they still want their Party to have all the power.

Similarly, unless more white evangelical leaders openly speak out against the worst beliefs in their community, they’re just as culpable as the ones spreading nonsense. There are pastors who remain silent on these issues. There are church members who stay in the fold even as their peers become more radicalized. They’re all guilty too. Christian leaders need to speak out against both the MAGA cultism in their midst as well as all the other awful, harmful, fact-free, evidence-denying evangelical beliefs that got us to this point. They can speak out against political lies (without endorsing a candidate). They can provide psychological help to members of their flocks. They can emphasize how being a follower of Jesus means never accepting lies even from people who hand you right-wing judges on a silver platter.

Until they do, they’re hardly better than the conspiracists they’re condemning.

The reason they won’t do that, though, is because there’s just way too much overlap between the sort of mindset that leads to QAnon acceptance and the mindset that tells people to accept the Bible as literally true. You can’t tell people to abandon one kind of thoughtless and evidence-free belief while urging them to embrace a different one. You can’t say there’s no secret cabal of Democrats when the other side of your mouth says Adam and Eve literally existed and Jesus rose from the dead — not with a straight face, anyway.

The problem isn’t that conservative Christians became so radicalized, that their pastors now feel lost at sea. It’s that after raising generations of conservative Christians to believe a series of lies, most of them no longer have any ability to discern the truth.

(Portions of this article were published earlier)

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.