Why are they still going to church?
Mainstream North American media recently have scoffed at white American evangelicals for continuing to meet on Sundays while, it seems, the rest of the world is in lockdown. And many of the rest of us, including many Canadian evangelicals, have been wondering, too: What is going on?
Even a basic explanation of what’s happening will take a little while, so let’s get a few things on the table right away.
First, there are more stupid and irresponsible people out there than perhaps you had recognized. But face it: Somebody has been watching all those outlandish religious broadcasters. Somebody has paid to watch another dumb Christian movie. Somebody buys all that crap advertised in that email spam you immediately delete each morning. Lots of somebodies. And a lot of them go to church in the good ol’ U. S. of A.
Second, the dynamic in some of these churches is just cultic. Macho pastors strutting their anointed authority in defiance of the Great Others: the Government, the Media, Hollywood, Satan—this is a moment nicely tailored for such narcissists and their adoring flocks to flaunt their superior spirituality.
Third, it’s not just white American evangelicals who are meeting. Since Donald Trump’s election they are the MSM’s favourite targets of shock and scorn, so they get the headlines. But Muslims in particular have been holding Friday prayers around the world to the consternation of civic authorities who want them, too, to stop.
By now, though, we have already picked up a few clues as to why those evangelicals are still meeting.
To be sure, most of them aren’t. Even someone as central to the American evangelical right wing as Rev. Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention recently set out a long apologia for churches closing per the request or order of civic government. Most conservative churches are, in fact, closed.
The fact that Land felt obliged to set out a long argument, however, provides us more clues to the subculture he is addressing. So let’s ask our questions and see what answers might be found in that subculture’s history.
“Why don’t they believe the media and the government?” To many white American evangelicals, these are the people who brought us legalized abortion, same-sex marriage, increased immigration from non-white or non-Christian nations, and the globalization of the economy that cost our whole town its main industry. Liberal internationalism has hurt us, and since liberal internationalism dominates the media and (until Donald Trump) the government, we have learned not just to distrust but to resent them.
“Why don’t they believe the World Health Organization?” The WHO has a record of questionable compliance with certain powerful governments at the expense of truth and fair dealing. Just look at its recent record on China versus Taiwan, for example.
Worse, the WHO is part of the constellation of global organizations—the IMF, the World Bank, the World Court, the United Nations—that might form part of the one-world government of the Antichrist so many preachers have been warning their congregations about for decades now. Which preachers? White evangelical preachers steeped in the more sensational versions of dispensational theology—a nineteenth-century interpretation of the world that has been given a steady stream of updates.
Sounds nutty? Maybe. But it’s popular. How popular?
Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late, Great Planet Earth was the bestselling book of the 1970s. Not the bestselling religious book: the bestselling book. More recently, Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye made fortunes co-writing the Left Behind series of novels, some of which were later turned into movies that you didn’t see but many people did.
So, no, we’re not going to believe just anything the World Health Organization has to say.
“But how can they disbelieve scientists? All those highly credentialed MDs and PhDs from the CDC and universities and public health offices?” Ah. Those would be the scientists that all believe in evolution and have been forcing it on our children as established, unquestionable truth.
More than 150 years have passed now since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. That book prompted culture-wide controversy about its implications for reading and trusting the Bible as the Word of God. Some Christians, even orthodox ones, made their peace with one or another version of evolution. But many didn’t.
Today, however, white American evangelicals are downstream of more than 50 years of being told quite starkly that they must choose between evolution and creation. Since John Whitcomb and Henry Morris published The Genesis Flood (1961) and gave “creation science” its definitive modern statement, millions of these Christians have been told flatly that they must choose between science and faith. And they have been told this not only by their pastors, but by the loudest of atheistic scientists on the other side, as well: from Richard Dawkins down to your local high school biology teacher who indulges in a little proselytizing in class.
So if we can’t believe educational authorities about one of the most fundamental teachings of modern science, then how can we believe them when they line up with equally suspicious authorities to tell us not to go to church?
Mainstream media and liberal Christian clerics delightedly pounce on these churchgoers as dangerous fanatics. And, as I say, some of them manifestly are.
But they’re not all snake-handling spiritual show-offs. They’re not all mindless cultists. And it’s so very easy for people who don’t ever go to church plus those of a squishy liberal religion to comply with the authorities on closing down worship services. When do they not comply with mainstream culture?
Serious churchgoers, however, aren’t like everyone else. For one thing, they are serious about churchgoing. Church means a lot to them, and they don’t surrender it easily.
For another, many (not all) of these evangelicals are charismatic or Pentecostal Christians, which means, among other things, that they believe in God’s protective and healing power here and now, not just in the world to come. They talk about healing all the time, so they’re not daunted by a medical threat such as this—not worried for themselves and not worried for others.
For yet another, a lot of these white evangelical American churchgoers have listened to the New Testament’s skepticism toward worldly authorities. They have heard that skepticism amplified by the American tradition of suspicion toward authority that goes back past the Revolution to the Puritans themselves. And they have long since stopped listening to mainstream cultural voices that routinely mock or marginalize their faith—the most important element of their lives.
Moreover, when those mainstream voices also seem discredited by their linkage with the economic forces that have destroyed their towns, families, and livelihoods, well, why listen to them now?
Don’t get me wrong, faithful reader. I’m practicing social distancing and I wish those white American evangelical holdouts would, too. But we’re not going to persuade them if we don’t first understand them. And writing them all off as menacing kooks isn’t the way to start.