Are these his servants, or his speed bumps?

“Hey guys, remember me?”

Sometimes, I hate talking to my friends, and not just because so many of them are imaginary. (No offense, Mr. Whiskers.) You get together for lunch, or drinks, or for a drinking lunch as required by media guild bylaws, and next thing you know, it becomes a “didja-read” fest, as illustrated in this Portlandia scene:

There is much to read, perhaps too much. And despite the average American reading on a 7th/8th grade level, or perhaps because of that sad fact, much of it is crap.  But the sheer tonnage of it is daunting.  Hell, there’s so much to read, I’m not even sure I have time to read Slack Tide anymore, and I write it.  Once your friends have loaded up your dance card with enough of their recommendations, you just want to go home, slink off to your sofa, and turn on the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

And yet, one of those recommendations broke through this week, and it was well worth the time, as it turns out to be one of the most essential pieces of religious journalism of the last many years. It concerns the toxins that have poisoned the evangelical church. As a lifelong evangelical myself, this pains me to say.

It was practically forced on me by several friends, including my former colleague Jonathan V. Last, who writes The Triad, the very purpose of which is to point out three things worth reading each day. (I should add that you should be reading The Triad, as JVL’s taste is pretty can’t-miss.) The piece I speak of was The Atlantic’s “How Politics Poisoned the Evangelical Church,” by Tim Alberta.

I don’t know Alberta personally. But I’ve read him enough to know that he puts time and care into his pieces, which automatically places him ahead of much of the vulgar herd. And on this particular subject, he’s not some godless secular political writer merely interested in bagging some easy-pickings fundie trophy to stuff and mount over his mantel. The son of an evangelical pastor in Michigan, he seems to be a believer himself, and not a lapsed one. He quotes scripture liberally, with the familiarity of someone who has read the Bible and doesn’t merely use it as a prop, unlike some religious arrivistes I could mention.

The piece is too long and loaded to adequately summarize here – I printed it off at 21 pages. But Alberta partially shoots his subject through the prism of two very different evangelical pastors.  First up is Pastor Bill Bolin, the carny-barker-in-chief at FloodGate Church in Brighton, Michigan, right across town from a church where Alberta’s dad has pastored.  It’s a milieu Alberta has been so steeped in, that he knows which preachers are feuding and which church softball teams stack their lineups with non-tithing ringers.

Bolin used to run a sleepy little outfit, until he defied Michigan’s temporary COVID lockdown orders on Easter of 2020. From then on, current events/politics set his soul – and those of his congregation – afire. Attendance began to soar, as church became less a place to worship or to receive biblical instruction, and more of an axe-grinding political pep rally.  In fact, Bolin started calling his sermon his “diatribe,” and congregants called it “Headline News.”

From the pulpit, the thick-jowled, hair-dye’d Bolin thunders about the pseudo-scientific merits of Invermectin  and spouts  election conspiracy theories like one of Trump’s crackpot Kraken lawyers. Local politicos and activists now borrow his pulpit to pimp their own political interests.  As Alberta writes:

I’ve spent my life watching evangelicalism morph from a spiritual disposition into a political identity. It’s heartbreaking. So many people who love the Lord, who give their time and money to the poor and the mourning and the persecuted, have been reduced to a caricature. But I understand why. Evangelicals—including my own father—became compulsively political, allowing specific ethical arguments to snowball into full-blown partisan advocacy, often in ways that distracted from their mission of evangelizing for Christ. To his credit, even when my dad would lean hard into a political debate, he was careful to remind his church of the appropriate Christian perspective. “God doesn’t bite his fingernails over any of this,” he would say around election time. “Neither should you.”

But another of his subjects is biting his nails plenty. Ken Brown, who pastors Community Bible Church in the Detroit suburb of Trenton, is now forever struggling to inoculate his conservative congregation “from being radicalized by the lies of right-wing politicians and media figures.” The crisis for the church, Brown tells Alberta, “is a crisis of discernment…..a core biblical discipline. And many Christians are not practicing it.” Alberta frames it as such (and I’ll quote him at length because it’s worth quoting):

Every time I heard Bolin preach, I could also hear Brown, the pastors’ voices dueling inside my brain. Brown is polished and buttoned-down; Bolin is ostentatious and loud. Brown pastors a traditional church where people wear sweaters and sing softly; Bolin leads a charismatic church where people dress for a barbecue and speak in tongues. Brown is a pastor’s kid and lifelong conservative who’s never had a sip of alcohol; Bolin is an erstwhile “radical liberal” who once got “so high on LSD” that he jumped onstage and grabbed a guitar at a Tom Petty concert. But in leading their predominantly white, Republican congregations, Brown and Bolin have come to agree on one important thing: Both pastors believe there is a war for the soul of the American Church—and both have decided they cannot stand on the sidelines. They aren’t alone. To many evangelicals today, the enemy is no longer secular America, but their fellow Christians, people who hold the same faith but different beliefs. How did this happen? For generations, white evangelicals have cultivated a narrative pitting courageous, God-fearing Christians against a wicked society that wants to expunge the Almighty from public life. Having convinced so many evangelicals that the next election could trigger the nation’s demise, Christian leaders effectively turned thousands of churches into unwitting cells in a loosely organized, hazily defined, existentially urgent movement—the types of places where paranoia and falsehoods flourish and people turn on one another. “Hands down, the biggest challenge facing the Church right now is the misinformation and disinformation coming in from the outside,” Brown said.

Russell Moore, now the public theologian at Christianity Today (but up until recently the president of the Southern Baptist policy arm who quit the denomination due to“psychological warfare” over his opposition to Trumpism in the church, as well as his emphasis on racial reconciliation) told Alberta: “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.’”

If you grew up Southern Baptist, as I did, you might be tempted to chalk Moore up as some squish or wannabe Episcopalian, God help us. But he’s not. I’ve seen what he’s describing myself as a true believer but a spotty church attender, often getting sucked into religious wars on the page over the last few years.

In 2017, I scalped James Dobson, a revered evangelical figure of my youth (my mom used to play him on the radio in our carpool on our way to Christian school, my dad made me read his book, Preparing for Adolescence, so that he wouldn’t have to explain the birds and bees to me – instead he’d outsource it to Dr. Dobson). But I felt compelled to direct a little verbal violence at Dobson after he shamelessly shilled for Judge Roy Moore, then running for Senate and running from allegations of sexual misconduct with nine different women (including one who would’ve been under the age of consent as a 14-year-old). Dobson was untroubled. Not because he necessarily thought Moore was on God’s side, but on Donald Trump’s (same difference to plenty of evangelical types these days – Trump won 81 percent of white evangelicals in 2016, and was only around five points off of that in 2020, after spending four years acting about as un-Christian as is humanly possible.)

Despite the steady drip of allegations, all was still peachy with Dobson, who cut a radio ad for Moore in the midst of the scandals:

Hello everyone, I’m Dr. James Dobson. You know, last November I believe God gave America another chance with the election of Donald J. Trump. But he now needs the presence and leadership of Judge Roy Moore to make America great again. And that’s why I’m asking my friends in Alabama to elect Judge Roy Moore to the United States Senate. Judge Moore is a man of proven character and integrity….

Many of us thought at the time that it’s a good thing we believe Christ rose from the dead, elsewise, he might be rolling over in his grave.

I’m not pompous enough to think that I’m God’s spokesman or God’s avenger.  If I truly knew the mind of God, I wouldn’t be writing inconsequential pieces, I’d be playing the horses. (Kicking back ten percent of my winnings in tithes and offerings, like a good Baptist, of course.)  But I’ve unsheathed my sword several more times, just on the off-chance that God needs an extra hand.

Shortly after the January 6 raid on Congress by rioters, I took on well-known Christian author and Trump fanboy Eric Metaxas in a no-holds-barred brawl in The New Republic, as Metaxas’s genuine devotion (to Trump, not Christ) seemed undimmed after two impeachments and the recent coup attempt, as befitting a man who’d gone so far as to write a “children’s” book titled Donald Drains The Swamp.  As I pointed out to Metaxas, he had a lot of company in Christian clerical circles: everyone from COVID truther John MacArthur who’d claimed that “any real, true believer” had to vote for Trump, to Franklin Graham, the moral runt of Billy’s litter (I greatly respected his dad), who went so far as to compare the ten lonely House Republicans who stood up to their own party on principle during Trump’s second impeachment vote as being akin to Judas Iscariot taking 30 pieces of silver to betray Christ.

And then just last November, in these pages (or pixels, whatever we call them), I took John Hagee’s San Antonio megachurch to the woodshed, in a piece titled “Jesus Wept,”  for hosting conspiracy theorizing demagogues of all stripes in his sanctuary while parishioners defiled the temple, chanting “Let’s Go Brandon” from Hagee’s pews.  An eff-you to Joe Biden, or the God they purport to serve?

If I keep returning to my vomit, subject-wise, it’s because they keep making more of it, as Alberta himself has now intensively reported, putting in a good year or so on the ground and surveying the opinions of ministers whose churches have been affected.  Some of the stats I cited in that last piece paint the picture:  49 percent of U.S. Protestant pastors say they frequently hear congregants repeat conspiracy theories, 74  percent of white evangelical Republicans say the claim of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election is either mostly or completely accurate, sixty percent of them believed the attack on the Capitol was carried out by Antifa, and 31 percent have essentially gone Q-bonkers, believing the statement “Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that included prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites.”

What’s causing all this madness?  Well look around, it’s in the air. Of course, the church is supposed to be a sanctuary from what’s in the air, but too often these days, it’s merely an extension of it. If everything from our professional sports to our entertainments have been politicized beyond recognition, why wouldn’t the church – which is, after all, made of imperfect people –  follow suit?

And yet the entire point of the church is that it is supposed to stand apart, to be in the world, but not of it, to abide by higher standards, and show the way. It is not supposed to sink to the level of those some of its members may perceive as ideological enemies – both real and imagined – but to transcend such petty concerns.  Plenty of fellow Christians I’ve talked to on the side, over the last several years, suggest that Trump, for instance, was serving as God’s hammer, pounding nails into a board with brutishly effective blows.  To which I say:  It’s reductive of the God you pretend to serve to insist he needs Trump. (Though Trump clearly needs God, as do we all.) And besides, if you believe in God, you tend to believe he wields ultimate control…….of the hammer, and the nails, and the board.   The other way around –  as we’re discouraged from saying in church – is ass-backwards. You’re putting your faith in the hammer, not in the one who is capable of swinging it.

In the book of John, Christ is quoted – on the record – as saying, “I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness.” And yet too many of his franchisees –  the ministers who do business in his name –  seem to be  flipping off the switch,  preferring instead to bumble around in the dark. Or to abruptly mix metaphors, too many are no longer functioning as God’s servants, but as his speed bumps, slowing the Good News down, as it’s getting defiled by too many other messages – their messages, which are often politicized ones.

When I was a kid, back in my strict Christian elementary school, I had to do a lot of uncomfortable things:  I had to memorize ungodly amounts of scripture and recite those passages before the class for a grade. (Which I resented at the time, but am now grateful for, those passages still come back to me to this day.) I had to wear a red-white-and-blue clip-on tie with Bibles and screaming eagles imprinted on them – not exactly fashion forward.  I had to sing Christian songs with the class, and if I didn’t, I’d receive demerits, forcing me to stay after school.

But one of the songs we sang was “They’ll Know We Are Christians.” It was a hymn that was written in the sixties by a Catholic priest. (If my Prot overseers had known it was composed by the mackerel snappers, they likely would’ve ditched it from the playlist.)  The lyrics went:

We are one in the Spirit
We are one in the Lord
And we pray that all unity will one day be restored
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love
By our love
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love

Maybe I was gloriously naïve, as the young often are, but despite all the strictures and iffy fashion choices back then, I had the sense that the words we were singing were true. Would that they were, still. For it doesn’t seem that’s how a lot of the world sees too many Christians anymore. Instead – despite all the good ones I personally know who indeed do the Lord’s work under the radar (a lot more than I do, I should add) – too many are now known by their anger, by their conspiracy-theorizing, by their compulsion to own the libs, and by their cheering on Brandon.

It’s a shame. Someone should turn the lights back on to show nonbelievers what Christianity looks like when it’s not immersed in darkness.

Bonus Track: Here’s a fantastic, obscure church song that my gospel fiend of an oldest son, Luke, turned me onto. It’s called “Satisfied Mind,” not to be confused with “A Satisfied Mind,” popularized by everyone from Porter Wagoner to Ella Fitzgerald to Jeff Buckley.  This “Satisfied Mind” is by Reverend Jennings, off an album called “Saved and Sanctified: Songs of the Jade Label.”  I wasn’t able to turn much info up on either Reverend Jennings, or the label, so I’ll just copy the liner notes, which are good enough to reprint: The rawest, DIY gospel ever resurrected. The West Side of Chicago was just an annex of the deep rural South for Gene Autry Cash and his flock of recent Old Dominion transplants looking to cut their fiery, unadorned sounds indelibly to plastic. His Jade label absorbed those God-fearing artists: family bands with wailing kids and barely amateur groups sourced from local parishes, infused with reverberations of country and western and deep soul. Glinting authenticity shines from every track on Numero Group’s Saved And Sanctified: Songs Of The Jade Label like a diamond in the unpolished rough – each group completely convinced that salvation comes through song.

I like this tune, and not only because of that chunky organ sitting underneath it. It has purity and a gentle swing, like Christianity does when it’s going right.

Slack Tide by Matt Labash is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.


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