Given the toxic, post-truth nature of our national politics, it should be no surprise to find rancorous divisions within our faith communities, too.
And as this Atlantic story confirms, such divisiveness seems to be "everywhere" in the Christian evangelical world these days. (In fact, it's from that world that quite a few of the believers in Donald Trump's Big Lie come.)
The story begins by describing a bitter conflict "at an influential megachurch in Northern Virginia," McLean Bible Church. After some details about that, the picture broadens with these words:
"What happened at McLean Bible Church is happening all over the evangelical world. Influential figures such as the theologian Russell Moore and the Bible teacher Beth Moore felt compelled to leave the Southern Baptist Convention; both were targeted by right-wing elements within the SBC. The Christian Post, an online evangelical newspaper, published an op-ed by one of its contributors criticizing religious conservatives like (David) Platt (the McLean pastor), Russell Moore, Beth Moore, and Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, as 'progressive Christian figures' who 'commonly champion leftist ideology.' In a matter of months, four pastors resigned from Bethlehem Baptist Church, a flagship church in Minneapolis. One of those pastors, Bryan Pickering, cited mistreatment by elders, domineering leadership, bullying, and “spiritual abuse and a toxic culture.” Political conflicts are hardly the whole reason for the turmoil, but according to news accounts, they played a significant role, particularly on matters having to do with race."
What I find especially distressing about this and related stories about "exvangelicals" who are abandoning churches that identify as evangelical is that hard-nosed political stances and tactics seem to be replacing foundational Christian teachings about love and respect. Beyond that, conspiratorial thinking at times seems to have slipped into churches and produced as much mis- and disinformation there as can be found in the political world these days.
As Peter Wehner, author of the Atlantic piece, writes, “'Nearly everyone tells me there is at the very least a small group in nearly every evangelical church complaining and agitating against teaching or policies that aren’t sufficiently conservative or anti-woke,' a pastor and prominent figure within the evangelical world told me. (Like others with whom I spoke about this topic, he requested anonymity in order to speak candidly.) 'It’s everywhere.'”
Indeed, it looks as if there's a big need for some training I would call Remedial Christianity. In fact, if you study Christian history very long, you find that the need for Remedial Christianity comes around at least every couple of generations -- and has for nearly 2,000 years. Sigh.
The novelist Edith Wharton seemed to be talking about this just over 100 years ago (1918) in a speech called "America at War" that she gave (in French) in Paris: She spoke of what she called "the moral condition of our great-grandparents. Most of them, at least those who influenced the American character most deeply, were weary of well-trodden paths, of old institutions, and most of all, of old abuses. They left Europe to give their ideas a free rein -- ideas that were not very interesting in themselves, since they remained within the narrow scope of theological quarrels. These people were, to put it bluntly, fanatics, the kind of boring, nasty, insufferable people that nature seems to produce from time to time in order to set in motion a widespread popular movement or to clear the land of a whole continent -- because, of course, likable, reasonable people never change anything in the order of the universe."
As for her last contention, I would add: It's the likeable, reasonable people who, in the end, are charged with cleaning up the mess that the fanatics leave. Again: sigh.
Later in that same speech, Wharton describes some of those "fanatics" even more bluntly as "hard, cruel, and jealous people, eager to escape the persecution of the English national church, and perhaps in turn to persecute others. Those who have been persecuted are, alas, all too often the persecutors of tomorrow." Alas, indeed.
(You can find that speech in the book The Glorious American Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate.)
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THE MISLEADING OF WHITE EVANGELICALS
To follow up what I've written above, let's look at a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute. Its findings may not be surprising but they are, nonetheless, deeply disconcerting. PRRI finds this: "Thirty-one percent of Americans think the presidential election was stolen from former president Donald Trump, but a full 60% of white evangelicals believe this." Lies sell. Big Lies sell more. And this: "Almost a quarter of white evangelicals (23%) believe in the QAnon conspiracy theory — more than any other religious group." There are many ways to describe QAnon conspiracies, but perhaps the most accurate is bat-blank crazy. And as for religious pluralism in the U.S.: "57% (of white evangelicals) indicate they’d prefer the U.S. be a nation primarily made up of people who follow the Christian faith. Only 13% of white evangelicals say they prefer the U.S. to be made up of people belonging to a wide variety of religions." No wonder Donald Trump had so much success calling for a ban on Muslim immigration. There are many issues on which there can be good and legitimate debate when it comes to politics and the future of our democracy. But such debate gets to be almost impossible when people can't discern truth from propaganda.