Rick Wiles is a fringe figure in white evangelical Christianity in America. He’s not a household name. White evangelical pastors aren’t studying his books* or quoting from them in sermons. He’s not a featured guest speaker at mega-churches or someone who gets invited to speak at commencements or convocations at evangelical colleges.
If you asked most people at the big institutional centers of “mainstream” white evangelicalism what they think about Rick Wiles — people at Christianity Today, or Wheaton College, or InterVarsity Press — they would most likely say “Who?” He’s not someone they know. He’s not on their radar at all.
But he should be.
Because “mainstream” white evangelical “leaders” need to understand people like Rick Wiles to understand what they’re up against. They need to understand how people like Wiles circumscribe their own influence and “leadership,” and how such oddball entrepreneurial “fringe” figures like him are shifting the balance and changing their once secure-seeming identity as the “mainstream.”
I apologize for using so many ironic scare-quotes in that paragraph. They have become necessary when describing America’s white evangelical subculture in 2019, which is not at all the same as it was 25 years ago. This is the era of Franklin Graham, not of Billy Graham, and of Liberty University rather than Wheaton College. The former “mainstream” is dwindling to a rump fringe and the former “fringe” is becoming ever-more mainstream. The old “leadership” is losing its followers.**
Who are they following now? Fox News, mostly. And Donald Trump.
And people like Rick Wiles.
Wiles is, as I said above, a fringe figure, but that doesn’t mean he has little influence or that he can safely be ignored, because in the white evangelical subculture in 2019, the fringe is larger, louder, and more influential than the former “mainstream.” Wiles — a former marketing executive for CBN and then for Trinity Broadcasting — knows how to reach and build an audience of white evangelical laypeople and clergy. His cable/radio/online outlet “TruNews” is surely not, as he claims, “the most popular Christian news/talk program in the world,” but it’s big.
Just how big is hard to say. Wiles’ boasts about his vast reach and popularity never include specifics about his audience size across various platforms, but I’d guess “TruNews” gets more ears and eyeballs than, for example, Patheos. It may also be bigger than “mainstream” establishment institutions like Christianity Today, even if CT’s editorial board and most of its 130,000 remaining subscribers assume that no one they know listens to people like Rick Wiles.***
And what are these tens or hundreds of thousands of very nice, wholesome white evangelical Christians learning from Rick Wiles? They are learning to hate Jews.
Rick Wiles is an anti-Semite. I don’t mean that he occasionally says something that might, if interpreted uncharitably, be perceived as reinforcing the same kind of tropes and stereotypes that anti-Semites have always spread. I don’t mean that he sometimes plays footsy with anti-Semitic dog whistles by invoking George Soros as a bogeyman. I mean that he emphatically, explicitly teaches that the machinations of “lying Jews” are the Rosetta Stone of history and the source of every ill and grievance.
Here, for example, is what Wiles told his audience about conservative pundit Ben “Debate MEEEE!” Shapiro:
“Ben Shapiro is one of many Antichrists in the world today,” Wiles said. “Ben Shapiro is a liar because he denies that Jesus is the Christ. Mr. Shapiro is an Antichrist because he denies the Father and the Son.”
“Ben Shapiro is merely doing what many Jewish people have done for over 2,000 years,” Wiles added. “They lie about Jesus Christ and his resurrection. Rich Jews have paid people to lie about the resurrection ever since the morning Jesus came out of the tomb in his resurrected body.”
In a rant against “Hollywood Jews,” Wiles told his very nice evangelical audience that anyone who criticizes him is doing so because of Jewish money:
Who funds you? The synagogue of Satan that has been at war with Jesus Christ for 2,000 years. That’s what this is all about. There is no other story here. It’s the synagogue of Satan against the holy church of God.
This ain’t subtle. “The Jews are in rebellion against God,” Wiles teaches. “They’ve been in a state of rebellion against Jesus Christ for 2,000 years. … They are not chosen anymore.”
Wiles sniffs at those who “dispute” the anti-Semitic tract The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, teaching his white evangelical audience that this infamous, lethal forgery is “eerily correct” and “accurate.”
Yes, he’s that bad. Protocols-bad. Everything that troubles good white evangelical Americans, Wiles teaches — constantly — traces back to this single root evil:
Our culture has been decimated through abortion, pornography, the sexual liberation movement, filthy, raunchy movies [and] television shows, vile, violent rap music and hip hop and all of it owned by the synagogue of Satan. And I cannot be a preacher of the Gospel and not confront the synagogue of Satan, even if it costs me my life. A day is coming [when] Christians are going to lose their lives as they confront the synagogue of Satan. You cannot stand for Jesus Christ and righteousness in this world without confronting the synagogue of Satan.
… Who has brought the abortion, the homosexuality, the sexual liberation movement, the vile movies? Who has attacked our Christian culture? Who has filed lawsuits to remove crosses and Bibles? Who has done it? The synagogue of Satan.
This is all from just the past few weeks — all from after the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh.
And the audience for this is white evangelicals.
We need to do something about that.
The “we” there is complicated and differentiated. It entails different responsibilities for different values of “we.” I want to come back to that and to discuss, in greater detail, what this means for all the various meanings of “we” implicated by that. What can “we” do? What must “we” do?
* Unlike most of the president/founder types who have built their own entrepreneurial media fiefdoms within white evangelicalism, Wiles doesn’t crank out new titles of ghost-written books every year. He’s only got one title available on Amazon — a 1998 book predicting a Y2K calamity: Judgement Day 2000: How the Coming Worldwide Computer Crash Will Radically Change Your Life.
The back-cover description shows why that book hasn’t aged well:
America’s darkest hour is ahead. A worldwide computer crash beginning in 1999 will plunge the global economy into a depression. Governments will declare bank holidays when panic spreads throughout society. The biggest meteor storm in 33 years will destroy several vital satellites. Violent solar storms will disrupt telecommunications and the electric power grid. Families will shiver in the winter of 2000 when electric utilities shut down. An oil shortage and severe drought will devastate America’s food supply. Drinking water will be rationed by National Guard troops. Terrorists will launch a coordinated attack in America’s 100 biggest cities.
… In this explosive book, author Rick Wiles will stun you with unheard facts about Y2K. To your shock and dismay, you’ll discover the startling news that the media isn’t reporting!
Wiles’ book was put out by Treasure House, an evangelical publisher that has also printed a host of titles about the “End Times” that haven’t aged any better than Wiles’ failed prophecy did. Back in ’98, Wiles didn’t stand out much from other such “Bible prophecy” writers warning of apocalypse and global conspiracies, most of which contained the kernel of anti-Semitism found in all premillennial dispensationalist “prophecy” folklore, which calls for “strong support for Israel” today in order to hasten the imminent Final Days in which all Jews will be forced to convert or face eternal damnation. American Rapture Christians have also tended to “support Israel” and a form of Zionism because they want to keep all the Jews over there instead of having to treat them as neighbors and equals over here.
I think that’s part of what drives Wiles now. He’s just not as slick as, say, John Hagee, and tends to say the quiet parts out loud.
But while Wiles’ 1998 book was about one specific (failed) conspiracy theory, it also shows us that Wiles was already knee-deep in conspiracist epistemology. And it doesn’t really matter which “theory” a conspiracist starts with — Moon-landing hoaxers, anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, young-earthers, chemtrails, fluoridation, Planned Parenthood, Antichrist OWG, blue helmets, black helicopters, whatever — the belief that the Key to Everything is “the startling news that the media isn’t reporting!” always leads, ultimately, to anti-Semitism. Here in what was once Christendom, all conspiracy theories have the same inevitable trajectory, the same imagined nefarious villains Behind It All. No matter what benignly bonkers thing they start out talking about, they will eventually wind up muttering about “The Jews.”
** White evangelical “leaders” ought to have seen this coming because they’ve spent decades now helping to saw off the very branch they’re sitting on. The long-term project of the far-right, exemplified by Fox News and by its predecessors in right-wing talk radio, has been to erode the authority of every impartial arbiter — to create a game without referees and a world in which reality is pliable and deniable.
The goal of that project has always been what Rove or Gingrich or whoever it was described to Ron Suskind back in 2004:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. … That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”
The “mainstream leaders” of white evangelicalism apparently thought they could ride this out, as though they would somehow prove exempt from the elimination of any consensus notion of “mainstream leadership.” They even chose to participate in the project — enthusiastically supporting and joining in attacks on “media bias” and conspiratorial dismissals of academia and science. And they somehow did that while simultaneously repeating an endless series of “apologetic” warnings about the erosion of “absolute truth” and “values.”
Somehow, evangelical “leaders” imagined that they could celebrate years of attacks meant to undermine the credibility of CNN and The New York Times and The Washington Post without realizing that those who swallowed such attacks were also learning to dismiss everything printed by Christianity Today and IVP. They thought it was somehow possible to train their people to be hostile toward anything coming out of Harvard and Princeton without that same hostility spreading toward everything coming out of Wheaton and Calvin.
*** The great New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael is often misquoted as saying that “Nobody I know voted for Nixon,” as though she were puzzled by his landslide victory in 1972. But what Kael actually said was far more perceptive.
“I live in a rather special world,” she wrote. “I only know one person who voted for Nixon.” Kael recognized that her world was, in fact, “rather special” in the way it was detached from the larger populace which voted overwhelmingly in support of the CREEP. She recognized that Nixon-voters were “outside my ken,” but that she needed to work to understand such people.
Her comment, in other words, was not the exemplification of insular elitist detachment, but rather a warning against that very thing.