While I’ve considered myself an atheist for nearly a decade now, sometimes I go back to church again just to remind myself of why I left it all behind in the first place. The experience rarely disappoints.
The past two free weekends I decided to visit a church I had never been to before—even though I did go to kindergarten there when I was little. Or rather I went there when it was still in its old location, back before all the white people moved to the north side of town to get away from all the black people (let’s be honest). Now the church is north of town, closer to where its core membership currently calls home.
The original campus where I went to kindergarten is now home to a seminary, which amuses me to no end because of the personal symbolism.
The new location, situated in the wealthiest part of the metro area, houses one of the most professional religious operations I’ve ever encountered. Mind you, there’s very little that’s unique about their way of doing things. What they’ve got going on is basically an upscale version of what this video parodies below:
Now, I grew up attending a much more formal Southern Baptist church, but the basic elements of my church’s traditions were still evident, even if perhaps more updated to keep up with consumer demand.
Crafting an Experience
There were no pews and no organ, no choir robes, and no steeple on the building. Inside the auditorium (calling it a “sanctuary” would seem oddly out of place) everything was arranged the way you’d expect at a professional concert. The worship service featured concert lighting and seating, flawlessly mixed sound from a praise band complete with a drummer enclosed inside a glass box and singing led by a good-looking guy in skinny jeans whose hair somehow defied gravity and who clearly sported an earpiece.
It took me a minute to snap out of the casual trance into which they put us to detect the faintest trace of dry ice smoke filling the darkened auditorium, adding dramatic flair to the moment. This worship service is clearly designed to craft a specific kind of experience. Everything here serves that single purpose. One wonders what they would do on a Sunday morning if the electricity were cut off.
The stage was filled with stylishly dressed pretty people. There was someone attractive to look at for almost everyone…unless you were black. No, wait! I spotted one! She showed up only briefly on my first visit but then never appeared again. The small choir that accompanied the praise band featured a much wider age range even if it did feature exactly zero racial diversity.
Judging by the clothing and the expensive frames of everyone who wore glasses, I’d guess a hearty portion of the choir was comprised of CEOs, lawyers, and chairwomen of several important local organizations. Nothing new to me there at all since my home church’s choir includes former governors, state congressmen, and some of the wealthiest, most successful people in my state.
The music they sang was an acquired taste, to be sure. Very white, very etherial and effusive, with lots of raised hands and eyes closed tight both on stage and all around the auditorium. The soothing, therapeutic words the worship leaders spoke all focused on helping the audience detach from the worries and concerns of their hectic daily lives. When the handsome young soloist with the guitar took center stage he kept telling people to “let go” of all their troubles, giving them over to God. A handful of long, wordless pauses accompanied by soft keyboard music helped to set the mood, preparing people’s hearts for the message that would soon be spoken.
A social psychologist would immediately recognize this as a form of group hypnosis. Everything from the soft music and the darkened room with reverberating sound to the calm, cool voices of the leaders up front was designed to help people overburdened with the cares of their lives to release all their tensions and transport them to a happier place.
Sitting in this auditorium now I can still remember how much I used to look forward to this moment each week. It was a shot in the arm that helped me get through the week that followed. The message from the preacher always gave me something to chew on as well, an organizing idea around which I could consciously frame everything I had to do from the moment I left the campus to the moment I came back the following week.
Lifelong atheists don’t understand how useful this ritual is to the people who regularly observe it. Century after century, the church keeps surviving the many shifts in the cultural tides because it does things for people that nothing else consistently does. It gives them hope, it gives them community, and it even helps them relax and let go of the many burdens they bring into the building from week to week.
And then comes the message.
A Quiet Disappointment
The two Sundays I attended this church straddled Election Day, which carried special significance this year since white evangelicals have now had two years to observe in action the man whom 4 out of 5 of them chose to lead our country. He’s been an unmitigated disaster despite the nearly unwavering support of one particular national media conglomerate with which his family is literally in bed.* I’d bet my annual salary that most in attendance here don’t trust any other source of national news, and yet I couldn’t help hearing the disappointment in the voices of both speakers I heard.
As an interesting side note, despite being one of the largest, most well endowed churches in my city, this huge church currently has no pastor. He just resigned a few weeks ago without any new church to “call” him, and as far as I can tell that happened without any pressing scandal or controversy demanding his departure (I have several friends on staff at this church). This fascinates me because my family’s church, also one of the largest and wealthiest churches in the city, has needed pulpit fillers for quite a while as they’ve not been able to keep a pastor for more than a couple of years at a time. It didn’t used to be like this.
What is it about pastoring evangelical churches in my area today that keeps driving ministers away? I have a handful of guesses but I honestly don’t know. And while I have friends and family on the very committees who handle these decisions, they rarely speak about them to me since they are “sensitive personnel matters” and because the church’s reputation and “testimony” are at stake.
But back to the messages. On the first Sunday I attended, the staff member who spoke never said a word about the upcoming election, which was less than 48 hours away. I kept listening for any sign at all that this church felt the need to influence the way its members vote, but the reality is that almost all of them are loyal Republicans, so I’m not even sure it would have been necessary. Wealthy white families in places like Mississippi are the president’s most reliable base.
That being said, however, I couldn’t help noticing that nothing he had to say indicated any connection between the work of the church and the work of the government. On the contrary, he sounded a note of resignation when he reminded his audience that according to their theology things won’t ever be right in the world until Jesus comes back. If his message had anything to say about what goes on in the world “out there,” it was that you shouldn’t look for things to get any better. Considering that the party that caters to evangelicals has been running all three branches of government and completely controls the state governments for half the states in the country, that kind of pessimism really struck me.
I know we only hear from conservatives who think President Donald Trump is the bee’s knees, but the reality is that huge portions of the people who elected him are now swimming in the international embarrassment that he has turned out to be. They just can’t bring themselves to express their disapproval out loud because they’re already terrified that they’ve forfeited the moral high ground from this point forward.
The second Sunday I attended the other speaker said basically the same thing, except in a way that made my blood boil.
Burning It All Down
The passage from the Bible the speaker chose this past Sunday morning came from the last chapter of 2 Peter:
[Some] deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.
…The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. [emphasis mine]
Simply put, this passage declares that one day God’s going to get mad enough at the world that he’s going to burn the whole thing down, people included. It’s not a pretty image, or a kind one, but that didn’t stop our speaker from trying to put a positive spin on it. He compared this coming annihilation of the world to a wildfire that wiped out large portions of Yellowstone National Park back in 1988, pointing out that years later the affected areas have not only grown back but are in better shape now than they were before.
This analogy upset me for several reasons.
First, it was incredibly tone deaf of him to use the image of a wildfire at this particular moment in time given that California has been battling the deadliest wildfire in its history for nearly two weeks now. Entire towns have been incinerated and people have been found burned alive in their cars. Over a thousand people have been reported missing and more than 80 fatalities have already been confirmed. Cadaver dogs can’t even identify which remains are human and which ones aren’t because the destruction of the bodies is so complete.
In fact, as I write this my partner, Lori, who works for the Red Cross, is in California helping the victims in shelters to reconnect with their families. The air quality is so poor there that they’ve been told it’s the worst in the world right now. She’s walked through the destroyed neighborhoods, or rather where they used to be, and has seen the devastation first hand. The loss of lives and of homes has left entire communities with absolutely nothing.
And here this guy is, standing on a church platform in Jackson, Mississippi citing a wildfire as an apt analogy for what God is going to do to the entire world, all the while trying to make it sound like an act of mercy. He is talking about the fiery destruction of not just homes and businesses but countless human lives. It’s for a good cause, he insists, because this is what it’s going to take in order for God to have his way in the world.
What do you want to bet this guy considers himself pro-life? And yet he’s ready to defend global genocide because if God does it, then it’s actually a good thing to violently take so many lives. It’s all for the best since God is only trying to remove the things in the world he doesn’t like to make room for what he does want.
Don’t tell me eschatology doesn’t matter because it does.
Giving Up On the World
Second, the speaker is basically telling people that there’s no use in trying to make the world a better place because God’s just going to torch the whole thing soon anyway. You don’t polish brass on a sinking ship, as they say, and there’s no sense in investing your precious time and energy trying to help a world that’s only going to end up on the trash heap anyway.
Remember…these are people he’s talking about, not just things.
White evangelical theology has leaned heavily toward premillennialism—expecting an imminent and dramatic return of Jesus—ever since their theocratic dreams were dashed by the Civil War in the 19th century that pitted slave-owning Southern states against abolitionist Northern states. Where once they believed God would establish his kingdom on earth through the United States of America, defeated Southerners now flocked to schools of eschatology that foresaw everything falling apart before things get any better.
Related: “Why Evangelicals Just Don’t Care“
Our speaker this past Sunday morning inherited that same pessimistic tradition and, after decades of letting the Calvinists and the Catholics convince them they could win the culture war if only they could put people of their own choosing in charge of the country, he surely must be learning that no miraculous reversal of fortunes is on its way. Baptists, of all people, should have known better.
They got to install their own people into every level of government—local, state, and national—and yet nothing seems to be getting any better. In fact, with the ascendence of a corrupt, foul-mouthed, thrice-divorced casino developer to the highest office in the land, the white evangelical church has almost certainly forfeited any moral high ground they were hoping they could maintain here in aftermath of the culture wars. It’s like somehow they won and they lost at the same time.
And now this guy is telling the church they shoulder no responsibility for the way the world is turning out. If God’s just going to torch it all then why try to do anything about it?
It wasn’t until this moment that I finally realized I’ve been interpreting Jesus’s relationship to the Pharisees all wrong. Here I was thinking Jesus despised their legalism because it prevented them from understanding that we are saved through faith, not by observing the purity codes by which they lived. But I’ve waded through enough competent biblical scholarship over the years to know that this assumption on my part owes more to the influence of Paul’s theology (and to the Protestant Reformation) than it does to Jesus himself.
What angered Jesus about the Pharisees was the way they constructed a theology that absolved them of any social responsibility at all.
Becoming What Jesus Hated
Like people today who expect Jesus to come back at any second, the Pharisees whom we encounter in the gospels were obsessed with maintaining their own moral purity more than they were with actually taking care of the less fortunate around them. How can you materially care for people you aren’t even allowed to touch or be around?
Remember the Parable of the Good Samaritan? Of course you do…it’s probably the most famous story Jesus told. Whether Jesus was mostly a literary creation or an historical person, this memorable story provides us with a window into the way he saw the world. What upset him most about the purity codes of the religious people of his day wasn’t that they were relying on legalism rather than faith for their salvation. That’s a very Pauline way of interpreting the ministry of Jesus (and remember that the gospels which made it into the canon were all heavily influenced by the churches that Paul himself established).
If you take away all the Pauline theology superimposed onto Jesus, you find a radical idealist concerned with the same things the much despised prophets of the Old Testament were always screaming about: That the people who considered themselves representatives of the God of love were too obsessed with their own moral purity to actually care about the people who needed help the most.
“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” —Matt. 9:13
And yet here is this man, two thousand years later, addressing a church full of wealthy, resourceful people and assuring them that they have no responsibility at all in making the world a better place because the only thing that really matters is helping people believe the right things about salvation so that they can go to heaven after they die.
The evangelical church of today bears a remarkable resemblance to the antagonists who drew the strongest condemnation from the man they believe they worship.
I have much more to say about what these visits to a wealthy, successful evangelical church in my town helped me to see, but for now I’ve scratched the surface enough to introduce a line of thinking that I intend to expand on a great deal in the coming months.
White evangelicals have inherited a theology that absolves them from virtually all social responsibility, assuring them that there is no use in polishing brass on a sinking ship. They believe Jesus is just going to come back and torch the place, so why bother?
This is how some evangelical Christians are dealing with the cognitive dissonance of their chosen leadership turning the country into the laughing stock of the whole world. They got what they wanted, and now the buyer’s remorse is weighing heavily on them…at least the ones not willing to say out loud what they’re really thinking.
I hope to start a conversation with those people soon. Stay tuned for much, much more along those lines.
Related: “Evangelicals and the Whitewashing of Jesus“
[Image source: Giotto Scrovegni]
* Technically Kimberly Guilfoyle had to leave FOX News after allegations of sexual misconduct arose, and now she has gone to work for the Trump family full time as vice chairwoman of one of their super PACs. But at that point she had already begun dating Donald Trump Jr.
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