Are Christians hurting Christianity?
As a lifelong evangelical Christian and a military brat who grew up in a succession of Southern Baptist churches and schools, I am no stranger to seeing anger and faith commingled. I was angry myself, with my parents, for dragging me to church 17 times a week. If God wanted us to be in his house that often, I reasoned, he’d have outfitted it with bunk beds and a taco bar with all the fixings, including freshly-made guac.
I saw the anger in my church chums who joined Karate for Christ (actual name), or as we youth-group wags called it: Breaking Boards for the Lord. They didn’t use their newly acquired skills to get into fights, necessarily. But you could tell they were just itching to lay a Son-of-Man-spinning-wheel-kick on some poor heathen bastard who ran afoul of their natural aggression. Once, after a little shoving match in the Wednesday-night potluck line, I saw two peacocking twentysomethings take each other outside and turn each other’s cheeks with their fists until the deacons broke it up and sent them home without any supper.
It is always good sport for outsiders, who distrust people of faith (occasionally, with good reason) to scoff at all the latter’s foibles – from absconding with offering-plate funds to bonking church secretaries – as if it was some grand catch finding out that the latter are sinners. Spoiler alert: we’re all sinners. Even if the church should hold itself to higher standards, on account of whom it purports to be representing, why would it be more infallible than any other institution? For it can only be as perfect as its most imperfect members. And since there is no such thing as a perfect member, it’s only a matter of time before the law of averages catches up.
But even for those of us Christians who understand that there have indeed been Christian crimes against humanity – the Inquisition, Christian rock, the entire Falwell family - there are still some that leave me gobsmacked. One such crime hit me just the other day over breakfast. I was sitting there, minding my own business, reading Charlie Sykes’s newsletter Morning Shots over at The Bulwark, and what I read nearly made me boot my Frosted Mini Wheats.
Not because of objections to Sykes – a former colleague of mine at the late Weekly Standard. Nor because of his litany of conservative crack-up items, though as usual, he had plenty: from anti-vax protesters in Kansas showing up to meetings with yellow stars, now equating themselves to Holocaust victims. To Senator John Barrasso, on a Sunday show, overtly passing up four separate chances to distance himself from Donald Trump’s recent defense of the January 6 mob demanding to hang Trump’s own vice president. “President Trump brings lots of energy to the party,” insisted Captain Courageous. “He's an enduring force.”
No, the thing that got me was an item about how pew after pew of congregants at San Antonio pastor John Hagee’s Cornerstone Church were chanting “Let’s go Brandon,” which has become a minced oath for “Fuck Joe Biden.” If you’re one of the three people left in the country who haven’t heard how one became the stand-in for the other, you can read the tortured backstory here.
Mind you, this wasn’t an official Sunday-morning church service, and from press accounts, it’s not even clear if Hagee himself was present. (I called Cornerstone two days ago to see if they had an excuse/more details, and still haven’t heard back.) Instead, it was a three-day quasi-QAnon fest held right there in Cornerstone’s 5,400 seat sanctuary. Called “ReAwaken America,” the conference is now a national road show, organized by Thrivetime Show podcast host, Clay Clark, featuring the usual mixed-nut assortment of election conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxers, bug-eyed cranks, and axe-grinding paranoiacs who have all found common cause, and seem to want America’s “re-awakening” to resemble an Alex Jones nightmare. In fact, Jones, fresh from his state-court loss awarding damages to relatives of the 20 first-graders killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting (Jones alleged they were crisis actors and it was all a plot for the government to confiscate firearms) was himself a speaker. According to one account, he alleged that Bill Gates, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama were all servants of Satan.
Then there was upstanding teller-of-truth Michael Flynn, Trump’s former National Security Advisor, who was pardoned by Trump after twice pleading guilty to lying to investigators. (Drain the Swamp!) He was on hand to fight for America’s freedoms by calling for “one religion under God.” (Apparently freedom of religion – guaranteed in the First Amendment – doesn’t count as a freedom.) And even My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell was there, a guy who once reportedly called on Trump to invoke martial law to extend his own freedom to be president, even if he’d lost an election, and who will prattle on to anyone who will listen – often for hours at a time – about how the election was fixed.
How anyone could marshal enough energy to chant “Let’s Go Brandon” after listening to the dreary fan-fiction of the likes of Lindell is beyond me. I’d personally rather hang myself by Lindell’s patented Giza Dream Sheets from the balcony railing. But it seemed like a peppy crowd. In fact, the video even went viral:
But even if it wasn’t officially a church service, it all took place in Hagee’s church. A typical church service only lasts about two hours, tops. But this conspiracy-stoking wankfest lasted three days – about as long as it took J.C. to rally from the grave. And Hagee – no stranger to filthy lucre as evidenced by everything from his private jets to his 7,600 acre ranch in Brackettville, Texas, where visitors can pay a nice chunk to hunt exotic animals on-site (it was once named a “Lodge of the Month” by Field & Stream) - had to rent his church out for the proceedings. Or perhaps he just gave it over in solidarity, giving God a black eye in the bargain, as people who looked a lot like parishioners were essentially chanting “fuck the president of the United States” from his church pews.
While this became a story, it didn’t become a very big one. And why? Perhaps because it’s now like cultural wallpaper – it just blends into the background and we walk past it without noticing. We’ve become so used to people of faith acting like drooling party hacks that it no longer even fazes us. Not to be a tutting moralist, but when did the type of behavior, as exhibited at Cornerstone, become acceptable in Christian culture? And how does a shepherd square his sheep bleating eff-you chants in church? Well, he can’t. Not in good conscience, if he still bothers to have one. I won’t relay the entire history of Hagee’s political dalliances and crackpot pronouncements. If you’re feeling masochistic, here’s a good start.
What’s disturbing however, about Hagee, is that he isn’t some stand-alone aberration, but rather, by now a familiar type: people who haven’t just let politics influence their faith, but who have let politics supplant their faith. When the two are in conflict, politics wins. (See pastor John MacArthur insisting that “any real, true believer” had to vote for Trump, or Franklin Graham, the moral runt of Billy’s litter, comparing House Republicans who voted for Trump’s impeachment to Jesus’s betrayer, Judas Iscariot.)
Mind you, even though I once lived five minutes away from Hagee’s church as the crow flies, and am steeped in the culture that produced him, my disillusionment is not total. I have vast personal experience that says there are plenty of good apples in what sometimes appears to be a spoiled bunch. Just doing some quick math, I have sat under roughly ten ministers in my life, on a regular or semi-regular basis. Of those, none were plagued by scandal. And most have done worthy things, from feeding the hungry to bringing the light to very dark corners of this world, sometimes at great personal danger. Whatever their politics, which I often didn’t know, they didn’t bring those into the pulpit. And even when I did know their politics, and might even have a good-natured (or good-enough) slug fest with them on one matter or another, they left it all behind on Sunday morning. They respected their calling enough to still preach out of The Book, and not some partisan hymn book. God, they understood, was bigger than Republicans vs. Democrats. At least he should be, if he’s at all worth serving.
And yet, the recent numbers tell a story that ought to give a lot of people of faith pause. When I look through the last few years of Lifeway Research data (the polling arm of the Southern Baptists, the church of my youth), a not terribly flattering self-portrait is painted: 49 percent of U.S. Protestant pastors say they frequently hear congregants repeating conspiracy theories. A third of pastors now personally endorse candidates outside their church role. (A ten-point jump from one cycle earlier.) A third of evangelicals say they agree with the statement: “When someone with my political beliefs is accused of wrongdoing, I typically respond by citing examples of wrongdoing by the other side.”
Earlier this year, a Survey Center on American Life poll showed 74 percent of white evangelical Republicans say that the claim of widespread fraud in the 2020 election is either mostly or completely accurate. A full three-quarters say Biden was not legitimately elected . (Despite over 60 courts and numerous Republican election officials in contested states – plenty of them Trump supporters - who say otherwise.) Sixty percent of them also believed that the attack on the U.S. Capitol was carried out by Antifa. Which is, how to put it……bonkers. And I say that as someone who positively loathes Antifa, and who has stood in the middle of Antifa violence.
More troubling still, 31 percent – almost a third – had gone fairly QAnon, believing “Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that included prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites.” Never mind Trump appointees who actually resigned over helping Jeffrey Epstein, or Trump himself, who didn’t seem to mind fraternizing with him, once saying, “Terrific guy, he’s a lot of fun to be with.” Maybe he was trying to kill Epstein with kindness, instead of the Deep State doing it with a rope in his prison cell.
My point here isn’t to say Trump is bad. (I have tons of friends and family members, some of them immediate, who voted for him.) Rather, my point is to say that too many people of faith have taken their eye off their deity, and erected a graven image – or an orange one - letting politics corrupt their faith, or at least letting the former take primacy over the latter.
Neither am I suggesting that every enemy of people of faith is an imagined one. (Just ask the Christians of the Roman Empire, who literally were fed to the lions.) But the problem with cocked-fisted Christianity is that it often over-emphasizes the fists, and underemphasizes the Christianity. It gives short shrift to the most essential, if inconvenient, of Christ’s teachings - the very thing that is supposed to make a Christian what they are. (The root word “Christ” is right there in the name. It’s not terribly subtle.)
And what did Christ teach? Well, he said a lot of things, which hang together marvelously as a coherent body of work. There’s a passage in Matthew where he is asked what the greatest commandment in the law is. He responds with, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” But there’s a second-place finisher, which he says is “like unto” the first – in other words, just as important: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” In some ways, it might be the most difficult commandment in the Bible. But just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean it’s optional. And however you interpret that, it’s pretty clear it would not give sanction to chanting “Fuck Joe Biden” from a church pew.
Christ wasn’t always peace’n’love, mind you. He wasn’t always Hippie Jesus, walking the countryside in mandals, blessing people and healing the sick. There is one incident – recounted in three separate Gospels, so you know someone wanted us to get the point – where Jesus genuinely blew a gasket. When he entered the temple, and saw the money-changers defiling the House of God, he turned the dump over, almost literally. Matthew tells us that he “drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers.” Mark tells us that he said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations. But you have made it a den of robbers.” John tells us that Jesus went so far, when driving out the defilers, to make “a whip of cords.”
Yes, Jesus got so angry, that he went all Billy Jack on us. I wonder what he’d do with the Let’s-Go-Brandon chanters?
Maybe righteous anger is justified after all. I’m starting to think I should follow his example, and see if Karate for Christ is still admitting new members, even if I’m a little long in the tooth. Hey, Pastor Hagee, I’ll see you at my dojo!
Bonus track: For anyone uncertain of what Christ is actually about, I tend to think he’s about love, not karate, or demented rants from Alex Jones. And I’ve yet to hear a sermon where that’s more beautifully captured than in this 1980 song, which I have listened to (religiously) for decades. It’s sung by The Commodores, who never sang angry, but who had more reason to be angry than anyone I know, on account of the shirts they made them wear in the below photo. It’s a long song, and it builds slowly to a perfect crescendo. I encourage you to listen to it from start to finish, for the full transcendent ride. But even if you don’t, do forward to Lionel Richie playing off the yeah-yeah chorus (his best vocal of all-time, a genuine soul-fest), which starts around the 3:30 mark, and then just keeps going to the end.
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