Back in 2017, when the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting was introducing the rest of us to Dan Johnson, the corrupt Pope of Bullitt County, the unfollowed leaders of 20th-century institutional white evangelicalism were desperately trying to show that people like Johnson and the rest of the 81 percent were not Real, True Evangelicals.
Boundaries were redrawn, polling data was parsed and reconfigured in an effort to show that Trump’s majority support among white evangelicals was somehow a minority position. The 19 percent, God bless ’em, were sure that if we just somehow defined “evangelical” precisely enough — accounting for twice-on-Sunday and Wednesday-night church attendance, perhaps, or tithing, or doctrinal correctness, or something — then we’d be able to show that they were actually, technically mainstream and influential, whereas folks like Johnson and Paula White and Steve Strang and Kenneth Copeland were still just an irrelevant “fringe.”
I wrote about the strain of this unconvincing effort in a post arguing that “The ‘Weird’ Fringe is the Biggest Part of White Evangelicalism.” (A very slightly cleaned up version of that essay was later published in Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be, edited by Mark Noll, George Marsden, and David Bebbington.)
The point isn’t that the old guards of institutional white evangelicalism no longer matter at all, but that they’ve long since been outnumbered and out-influenced by “televangelists, prosperity preachers, faith-healers, snake-handlers, “Bible-prophecy scholars,” Reconstructionist neo-Confederates, spiritual warfare obsessives, Ken Ham, Bob Jones, Pat freaking Robertson, etc.”
But just because the weird fringe is the mainstream now doesn’t mean it’s not still plenty weird. So let’s take a look at a few recent stories from the wide weird world of white evangelicalism.
• Thomas Achord’s story — and his career — unraveled last month on evangelical Twitter. The “author, podcaster, and [now] former headmaster of Sequitur Classical Academy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, parted ways with the school Nov. 23.”
Achord is from the Pretentious Pseudo-Intellectual Neo-Confederate branch of white evangelicalism. He wrote for slavery apologist Doug Wilson’s Canon Press and co-hosted a podcast with Stephen Wolfe, author of The Case for Christian Nationalism — a book that explicitly calls for the establishment of Anglo/European hegemony. He was headmaster at the homeschool-supplemental segregation academy Sequitur, best known for being where white paleo-conservative Rod Dreher sent his kids before scuttling off to Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.
Some would say that Dreher isn’t an “evangelical” because he’s a triple convert — a Methodist turned Roman Catholic turned Eastern Orthodox. But idiosyncratic, authority-shopping serial converts are, and always have been, a part of the white evangelical world and Dreher is like the living, breathing embodiment of Molly Worthen’s thesis in evangelicalism as a “crisis of authority.” His white Orthodoxy serves the same master as Wilson’s white ultra-Reformed Calvinism.
It’s not easy to be so explicitly racist that folks like Wilson and Wolfe and Dreher feel compelled to distance themselves from you, but Achord’s constellation of sock-puppet Twitter accounts using ponderous pseudonyms like “Tulius Aadland” were brimming with the kind of enthusiastic racism, misogyny, and antisemitism that even Doug Wilson was forced to condemn them.
The darkly comic part of this saga played out over the few days in which Achord at first denied having anything to do with those racist accounts before, eventually, admitting that he guessed he must have written them after all.
The sick part of this is that it took the Nick-Fuentes-level vitriol of “Tulius Aadland” to earn Achord’s racism this belated condemnation, given that this is a guy whose entire career has been based on the Great Replacement Theory and Defending Western Civilization from the barbarian hordes of his imagination.
• Worship-music-singer, evangelical church leader, and former Brazilian congresswoman Flordelis dos Santos de Souza was sentenced to 50 years in prison last month for the murder of her husband, and former c0-pastor Anderson do Carmo (who was also her former foster child). The BBC does its best to summarize this story in as matter-of-fact a tone as possible, but that ain’t easy because this story is utterly bonkers.
Again, some might object that Flordelis and her nondenominational pentecostal/charismatic mega-church can’t count as part of white evangelicalism because she and most of her congregation aren’t themselves white. But the whiteness of white evangelicalism is about the whiteness of the theology, not about the skin-color of its particular adherents. More than a century of colonial missionary work means that American white evangelicalism is now a global phenomenon.
Here’s Flordelis singing one of her worship-music hits. I don’t speak Portuguese, but this is still all-too familiar:
• Here’s another dispatch from the British press about another example of American white evangelical colonialism abroad, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in the UK. This is another non-denominational pentecostal/charismatic mega-church that’s helping Brits learn about another aspect of American-style white evangelicalism: traumatized exvangelicals.
• Finally, here’s Matthew Avery Sutton reflecting on God Forbid — the Hulu documentary on the rise and fall of Jerry Falwell Jr.:
While on the surface this looks like the same old tired story of religious hypocrisy, it is much more than that.
When one digs beneath the tawdry bedroom shenanigans, the story exposes how leadership sometimes functions in the religious right, and how Christian activists’ obsession over political power has transformed American culture.
Despite some claims to the contrary, fundamentalists and their evangelical successors always engaged in politics. By the mid-1970s, they focused on issues including rolling back the power of the state, removing sex education from public school curriculums, opposing gay rights, fighting feminism and, as abortion became a priority of feminists, restricting the procedure. …
In supporting Trump, Falwell and the religious right got exactly what they had spent two generations working for. Trump gave them three new Supreme Court justices willing to ignore popular opinion, throw out precedent and overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that guaranteed a right to an abortion. Today’s Supreme Court is their court.
We can laugh all we want at Jerry Falwell Jr., who often appears on social media as little more than a disgraced cuckold and meme. But it may well be that he will have the last laugh, helping masterfully complete the mission his father launched more than 40 years ago.
The former “mainstream” of institutional white evangelicalism still likes to remember — or to imagine — when Liberty University was an irrelevant “fringe” that could be safely ignored. But the weird fringe isn’t the fringe any longer, if it ever was. They’ve got us outnumbered, and they make the rules now.