As we understand that politics drives religious belief, pastors are the new authoritarian leaders spreading misinformation and disinformation to their masses.
As we see the world becoming victim to the effects of misinformation and disinformation of authoritarian political agents, it is worth remembering that this is also happening closer to home in our local churches.
I was reading an article in Atlantic magazine last night about an Evangelical church in Brighton, Michigan (a state in which I grew up), that recounts a typical service.
After 40 minutes of “praise music” followed by 40 minutes of preaching, pastor Bill Bolin went into his regular ritual, which he calls his “diatribe.” There is no mention of God or salvation or Heaven or Hell in this. This is pure politics, only it isn’t about parties or candidates. It’s about conspiracies. About the left-wing cabal that is trying to take over the earth and enslave us all. A major subject is, of course, vaccines, like this:
“A local nurse… [who is, of course, not identified] reported to my wife the other day that at her hospital, they have two Covid patients that are hospitalized. Two. They have 103 vaccination complication patients.” His congregation gasps. They believe everything he says.
These claims are wrong: First, the vast majority of people hospitalized with Covid are unvaccinated. Second, the rate of vaccination complications is vanishingly small.
“How about this one?” Bolin says. He tells of a doctor who claims to know that “between 100 and 200 United States Congress members, plus many of their staffers and family members with COVID, were treated by a colleague of his over the past 15 months … with …” Bolin stops and puts a hand to his ear. A chorus of people responds: “Ivermectin.” Bolin pretends not to hear. “What was that?” he says, leaning over the lectern. This time, they shout: “Ivermectin!” Bolin nods.Tim Alberta, “How Politics Poisoned the Evangelical Church,” The Atlantic
None of these people are named, of course, but his congregation laps it up.
Ivermectin is not proven to be effective against COVID, and could be dangerous. The assertion about members of Congress cannot be verified because the doctor involved refuses to identify the people he treated.
This is the kind of disinformation that is being spread, not just by right-wing websites like Parler, Zerohedge, Infowars, and the like, but by evangelical churches.
The late Christopher Hitchens deplored the lies that religious leaders would tell their flock about God, sins, and salvation, calling them “immoral” for doing so, even though they’re relatively benign. I wonder what he would say today about the outrageous lies that could mean life or death for their congregation.
Presidents and other prominent public figures are often accused of using their position as a “bully pulpit” to advance their personal agenda. Religious leaders are doing one better, using what I would call “bullshit pulpits” to spread malicious misinformation that angers and misleads their followers. This goes far beyond Hitchens’ claim of immorality.
It’s despicable—a new form of hate speech.
Pastors of churches have a unique position in the lives of religious believers. Everything they say is accepted as truth. They are generally highly respected members of their community, but they use the authority of God to justify their claims. Politicians have long realized that this can be a powerful political tool. Republicans have weaponized it very effectively, in spite of IRS restrictions on non-profit businesses meddling in politics.
A pastor with a different view
Ken Brown leads his own ministry in Trenton, a suburb of Detroit, and is horrified. He says, “the crisis for the Church is a crisis of discernment…”—the ability to separate truth from untruth. He says it is a core Bible practice, and many Christians are not practicing it. His concern is for the millions of American evangelicals who had come to value political power over integrity.
Although Bolin and Brown disagree on most things, they agree on this: There is a war for the soul of the American church. To many evangelicals, the enemy is no longer secular America, but their fellow Christians, people who hold the same faith but with far different political beliefs.
So, how did this happen?
For generations, evangelical Christians have deplored the “wicked” secularist society that is trying to expel God from American life. Every election, they warn the public that electing those “Satanist” Democrats will result in the nation’s demise. They have mobilized millions of voters with that message, using thousands of churches to spread the “word.”
When you start a movement like this, sometimes there are unintended consequences. For demagogues like Bolin, this is an opportunity. The Church is becoming radicalized. Politically radicalized. After a lifetime spent considering their political affiliations in the context of their faith, believers are now considering their faith in the context of their politics. And to them, winning the political war is more important than adherence to truth, integrity…or their faith.
Brown is horrified. “Hands down, the biggest challenge facing the Church right now is the misinformation and disinformation coming in from the outside.” He says the Church is becoming radicalized, and pastors who don’t address this fact head-on are only contributing to the problem.
Weaponizing religion as a political tool is not new. Republicans have utilized it since the days of Newt Gingrich. But it has now become a major divisive force in our society, one that threatens the fabric of our social contract. Confrontation, demonization, and, of course, disinformation are now the standard tools employed in political contests. Political defeats are blamed on “fraud” by the losers.
And the question is now as relevant as ever: Can a democratic society survive this chaotic combination? Can democracy survive the growth and spread of authoritarian ideas stretching from Brazil to Russia, Hungary to the Phillippines?
Whether we like it or not, we have become the subjects of an experiment to determine the answer to that question.
Bert Bigelow graduated from the University of Michigan College of Engineering, then pursued a career in electronic systems and software design. He has always enjoyed writing, and since retirement, has produced short essays on many subjects. His main interests are in the areas of politics and religion, and the intersection of the two. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.