There is actually quite a bit of diverse doctrinal opinion I can withstand within Christianity. As most know, I was raised evangelical, Pentecostal to be exact. There is much that is familiar, soothing and reassuring within that framework. However, there is also much within that particular expression of faith that I have found increasingly difficult to reconcile with Christ’s teaching and the admonitions of New Testament scripture. American evangelism has never seemed to be able to rise above its fundamentalist background (itself a derivation of slave-holder religion) and its admiration of Christian Nationalism (a derivation of European colonialism and white exceptionalism). This particular blending has resulted in a religious structure resistant to cultural diversity, and actually hostile to any views not expressed from a dominant white male vantage point.
Over the past half dozen years as I have questioned and “deconstructed” my evangelical belief system I came to realize there was simply too much cognitive dissonance to keep the shell of evangelicalism, while reforming its core. Like the parable of putting new wine in old wine skins, evangelicalism is too stiff and set in its ways to accept Jesus’ gospel message unaltered. True repentance and an acknowledgment of the evangelical role in systemic racism, sexism and xenophobia has been proven to be a bridge too far for white evangelicals. Evangelism still functions, largely as a system of political oppression.
In particular, the pandemic crisis has revealed the disappointing truth about American evangelicalism: it is extremely arrogant and entitled. Something as simple as social distancing, wearing a mask and temporarily suspending large gatherings has sent many churches into an absolute meltdown. Rather than being their brother’s keeper, the concern is that their rights are being denied. It doesn’t matter that these events, like John MacArthur’s church, pack a few thousand people together with little regard for health and have shown to be “super spreader events.”
My wife and I have been attending an evangelical church remotely via Facebook for some weeks now. It is the church she grew up in and I have attended for the last 27 years. I have been uncomfortable with some of the teaching, and as I have deconstructed, become aware of some of underlying assumptions that have contributed to a sort of tone-deafness to social injustices in America. This Sunday the Pastor started off with a special prayer for a Calvary Chapel church in Newbury Park, CA, …that God would be with the church as it practices civil disobedience to the State’s health orders to suspend large meetings. The large church felt that their “God-given right” to freedom outweighed any other considerations. A large group of “concerned” pastors and congregants from out-of-state also arrived to form a ring of “protection” around the Ventura county parishioners, who faced arrests and fines for endangering the community. As might be expected community members outside of the church arrived to counter protest the church’s decision and register their concern. There was a great deal of yelling, tussling and people getting knocked down. I just wonder what kind of a positive message the church was sending to this community? What kind of Jesus are those outside their church seeing?
Of course, a big part of the problem of this type of bad behavior and its resistance to CDC guidelines and state restrictions on large gatherings, is that conservative churches have decided to view this as a political affront to their “rights” and not as an opportunity to practice cruciform love. It is the ages old problem of balance of power and the fear of losing control over the narrative. The culture wars that started with Jerry Falwell and were abetted by respected leaders such as Billy Graham and James Dobson, were ultimately about acquiring power, not winning souls. Religious empires and mega-churches were built and maintained by the wielding of power and alignments with political leaders. Enormous amounts of money were changing hands. There has always been a major conflict of interest involved with mega-church/church growth movement.
In redefining the narrative as an infringement of the church’s “rights,” evangelicals have placed their own rights above those of others…something that has been repeated again and again over the years. It is reflected in the conservative religious response to caged children, the LGBTQ community, women and income inequity. By making it political rather than seeing the opportunity to show compassion, the church has condoned selfishness rather than selflessness as the path Christians should take.