Where, if any, are there areas where you see a conflict between scientific consensus and your religious beliefs?
The biggest struggle I have is that in the Bible, Jesus says to his disciples, “You should be recognized as my disciples by your love for others,” and today when you look at people who self-identify as Christians in the United States, love for others is not one of the top characteristics you see. Christianity is much more closely linked with political ideology and identity, with judgmentalism, partisanship, rejection of responsibility for the poorest and most vulnerable who we, as Christians, are to care for. You know, there was a really interesting recent article about the landscape of evangelicalism in the United States, and it said that about 10 years ago if you asked people, “Do you consider yourself to be evangelical?” and they said yes, and then you asked, “Do you go to church?” about 30 percent would say no. But nowadays something like 40 percent of people who self-identify as evangelicals don’t go to church. They go to the church of Facebook or Fox News or whatever media outlet they get their information from. So their statement of faith is written primarily by political ideology and only a distant second by theology.
At The Arkansas Times, a publication I founded 47 years ago, our pages focus on small-scale local issues, like protecting Medicaid expansion from the predations of our state legislature and other elements of Arkansas politics, history and culture. So I was surprised when in 2018 I received an ultimatum from the University of Arkansas’s Pulaski Technical College, a longtime advertiser: To continue receiving its ad dollars, we would have to certify in writing that our company was not engaged in a boycott of Israel. It was puzzling. Our paper focuses on the virtues of Sims Bar-B-Que down on Broadway — why would we be required to sign a pledge regarding a country in the Middle East?
I understood the context of that email. In 2017, Arkansas pledged to enforce support for Israel by mandating that public agencies not do business with contractors unless those contractors affirm that they do not boycott Israel. The idea behind the bill goes back 16 years. In 2005, Palestinian civil society launched a campaign calling for “boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights.” Around the world, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or B.D.S., as it became known, gained momentum. In response, Israel and lobbyists have used multiple strategies to quash the movement. In the United States, one such strategy took the form of anti-B.D.S. bills. Currently, more than 30 states have provisions on the books similar to Arkansas’s.
It soon became clear that The Arkansas Times had to answer our advertiser. Though boycotting Israel could not have been further from our minds and though state funding is a significant source of our income, our answer was no. We don’t take political positions in return for advertising. If we signed the pledge, I believe, we’d be signing away our right to freedom of conscience. And as journalists, we would be unworthy of the protections granted us under the First Amendment.
And so, instead of signing, we sued to overturn the law, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, on the grounds that it violates the First and 14th Amendments. We are still fighting it.
The Arkansas legislature is dominated by conservative evangelicals, such as the former Senate majority leader, Bart Hester. He is featured in the new documentary film “Boycott,” directed by Julia Bacha and produced by the group Just Vision. “Boycott” follows three plaintiffs, including me, challenging their states’ anti-boycott laws. In the film, Senator Hester explains that his religious belief motivates everything he does as a government official, including writing Arkansas’s anti-boycott law. He also explains his eschatological beliefs: “There is going to be certain things that happen in Israel before Christ returns. There will be famines and disease and war. And the Jewish people are going to go back to their homeland. At that point Jesus Christ will come back to the earth.” He added, “Anybody, Jewish or not Jewish, that doesn’t accept Christ, in my opinion, will end up going to hell.” Senator Hester and his coreligionists may see the anti-boycott law as a way to support Israel, whose return to its biblical borders, according to their reading of scripture, is one of the precursors to the Second Coming and Armageddon.
In other words, Senator Hester and other supporters of the law entwine religion and public life in a manner that we believe intrudes on our First Amendment rights.
These types of laws are not restricted to states in which fundamentalist Christians hold sway. In 2016, California passed a law requiring large contractors working with a state agency to certify that they will not discriminate against Israel, and Andrew Cuomo, as governor of New York, signed an executive order that compels state entities to divest money and assets from a list of organizations regarded by the state as participating in the boycott. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York proposed national anti-boycott legislation.
Let’s be clear, states are trading their citizens’ First Amendment rights for what looks like unconditional support for a foreign government.
When our case reached the Federal District Court in 2019, the state argued that boycotting was not political speech but rather an economic exercise and therefore subject to state regulation. We found that argument absurd. After all, our nation’s founding mythology includes the boycott of tea. Since then, boycotts have repeatedly been used as a tool of political speech and protest, from the Montgomery bus boycott to end segregation to the Delano grape strike protesting exploitation of farmworkers. University students throughout the country engaged in anti-apartheid boycotts of and divestment from South Africa. In 1982, the right to boycott as a method of collective political speech was upheld by a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in N.A.A.C.P. v. Claiborne Hardware Company.
And yet U.S. District Judge Brian Miller ruled against us. We appealed to the Eighth Circuit — and won — before a three-judge panel in February. But on June 10, a rehearing by the full Eighth Circuit was ordered. That hearing occurred on Sept. 21, and a decision is expected very soon. Frankly, we’re concerned it won’t go our way.
If we lose in the Eighth Circuit, our last hope is the Supreme Court. Ours isn’t the only case out there. In 2018 and 2019, federal courts in Texas, Arizona and Kansas ruled against their states’ anti-B.D.S. laws. If the Supreme Court rules against us, the other favorable rulings could be in jeopardy. Also concerning is that these states have since amended their anti-boycott laws, narrowing their scope so they apply only to companies with a large number of contractors and to public contracts that are more than $100,000 but without addressing what we see as the laws’ fundamental unconstitutionality.
Although the Arkansas press has covered the case, there has been little editorial support for or comment on our fight beyond that. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette signed the pledge — as did Arkansas Business, our business journal. And yet freedom of expression is a sacred American value and foundational to our democratic ideals.
If these anti-boycott laws are allowed to stand, get ready for a slew of copycat legislation. Texas passed two laws that went into effect on Sept. 1 — one prohibiting state agencies from conducting business with contractors that boycott fossil fuels and another preventing agencies from contracting with businesses that boycott firearm companies or trade associations.
What the outcome of The Arkansas Times’s lawsuit will be is unclear. One thing, however, remains crystal clear: These anti-boycott laws, allowing government to use money to punish dissent, will encourage the creation of ever more repressive laws that risk strangling free speech for years to come.
Pat Robertson and newsman Gary Lane of the Christian Broadcasting Network slammed the “horror stories” within Bernie Sanders’ reconciliation bill, such as expanding health care.. you know, just as Jesus would do.
SINCE THE start of the COVID-19 pandemic, evangelical Christians have been among the most polarizing voices in a divided nation struggling to respond to a grave public health emergency. From the moment authorities began addressing the crisis last year, evangelicals have protested government-ordered lockdowns, resisted measures such as mask-wearing, defied restrictions on indoor worship services, and fought public health officials all the way to the Supreme Court.
More recently, white evangelicals have emerged as the demographic group most resistant to getting vaccinated against COVID-19. Their embrace of conspiracy theories and overall pandemic denialism contributed to their avid participation in the January 6 insurrection at the United States Capitol. A religious group that prides itself on its patriotism has become a major impediment to advancing the United States’s goals.
The pandemic brought to the surface self-defeating forces that had been churning for years inside the United States’s most politically powerful faith community. One evangelical church in particular both illustrates and helped to drive this phenomenon. Of all the evangelical organizations that defied pandemic health orders and fought the government during this crisis, none was more prominent or influential than Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. Grace is a 65-year-old megachurch in the San Fernando Valley led by a low-key, theologically conservative pastor named John MacArthur. Since August 2020, the church has been locked in a highly publicized legal battle with Los Angeles County over restrictions on in-person worship. The church defied a county prohibition against large indoor gatherings beginning last summer and worked with a lawyer from Trump’s reelection campaign to fight the county in court. MacArthur, who is among the most widely known evangelical pastors in the United States, appeared multiple times on Fox News, and his court case became a rallying cry for evangelicals worldwide. A graduate of a seminary he founded on the Grace Church campus was arrested in January after persuading his own church in Canada to disobey official health orders. MacArthur portrayed his fight against the government in epochal terms. “Christ, not Caesar, is the head of the church,” he proclaimed in July.
MacArthur merits special scrutiny because, unlike many other evangelicals, he cannot be dismissed as a partisan Donald Trump supporter. Until last year, MacArthur studiously avoided politics. He voted for Trump grudgingly (“I’m voting for an ideology that is closer to Scripture,” he told a church leadership magazine in 2016) and rarely preached about political issues. He pointedly criticized the prosperity gospel preachers who became Trump’s closest Christian allies. “John doesn’t involve himself in politics,” a statement on a Grace Church website reads. “Since God left the church on earth to make disciples (not Democrats or Republicans), John believes the best way a pastor can spend his time, energy and influence is by preaching God’s Word.”
Pastor at Grace since 1969, MacArthur, 82, is regarded by evangelicals as a Christian elder statesman. His Bible studies and other books have been translated into more than two dozen languages, and his sermons are broadcast in English and Spanish throughout the United States and in 23 countries in Europe and Latin America. Graduates of The Master’s Seminary, founded on the Grace campus in 1986, lead churches around the world. MacArthur’s stature as a conservative biblical expositor, not a political activist, demands a different, subtler, more telling explanation for his and other evangelicals’ pandemic defiance.
Though Grace initially closed its doors in compliance with a statewide lockdown order, MacArthur changed course four months later, reopening his church’s 3,500-seat sanctuary to indoor worship, defying mask mandates. It was a remarkable change in posture. In a livestreamed conversation in April, MacArthur had spoken of Grace members who were hospitalized with the virus and said one of a pastor’s most sacred duties is protecting his congregation. “If we defy this and if we say we’re going to meet anyway, we run the risk of exposing people to this illness needlessly,” MacArthur said. “And why would we want to do that?”
Why, indeed. Something happened during those first four months of the pandemic that not only changed MacArthur’s mind but galvanized him into outright public anti-government opposition. He ignored a cease-and-desist letter from Los Angeles County, then countersued when the county sought to block the in-person services in court. News coverage of the case caught Trump’s attention. Spotting an opportunity to cultivate his religious conservative base, Trump called MacArthur to offer encouragement, and one of his campaign lawyers, Jenna Ellis, signed on to help represent the church in court. “Bring it on,” MacArthur taunted authorities during a Fox News appearance. One month later, citing a debunked interpretation of Centers for Disease Control mortality data, MacArthur proclaimed, “There is no pandemic.” The church has met in person every Sunday since. In March of this year, local health authorities ranked COVID-19 as the leading cause of death in Los Angeles County.
MacArthur citied various reasons for his defiance, including those debunked mortality figures and his umbrage that churches were kept closed even as casinos reopened and social justice protesters were allowed to congregate outdoors in large numbers. His top concern, however, had nothing to do with conservative talking points. A closer examination of his public statements, especially in sermons and other church appearances, shows that for MacArthur, the pandemic primarily challenged his personal and ministerial power. “Everything has been taken out of our control,” he lamented in a January sermon.
Now all of a sudden, all kinds of people were telling us what to do. […] [We’re] forbidden to meet, forbidden to sing, forbidden to fellowship, forbidden to have social events, forbidden to be with each other, forbidden to have funerals, weddings. […] If you’re in leadership, you would understand that there is a need to control things.
Throughout 2020, MacArthur preached about leaders in the Bible who gave in to worldly temptation and lost control over the tasks God had set for them. The pandemic, he implied, presented churches with a stark choice: retain power over their own affairs or surrender power to outside forces hostile to God. “A man who has character, conviction, virtue, righteousness, wisdom, honesty will be very careful with power,” MacArthur preached in September. “And the first thing he’ll do with his power is to make sure he honors God, and the church of God.” In an August court filing, Grace’s lawyers summed up the church’s position: “We see [Los Angeles County’s] action against us as an illegitimate misuse of power.”
MacArthur “does not like anyone telling him what he can or cannot do,” said Dennis Swanson, a former Master’s Seminary administrator who worked for MacArthur for over two decades. Swanson said that in recent years, MacArthur has dedicated himself to “cutting out as much of the outside influence as possible. […] He’s become more insular.” Swanson said he was fired in 2015 after warning MacArthur that conflicts of interest and an authoritarian leadership culture at the seminary would cause it to lose accreditation. Three years later, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges placed the seminary and a companion university on academic probation, citing lack of accountability in the schools’ leadership and an overall “climate of fear, intimidation, bullying, and uncertainty among significant numbers of faculty and staff.” (The schools were removed from probation last year after MacArthur stepped down as president, but an abrupt leadership shakeup in February suggests that MacArthur is seeking to reassert control and remove the seminary permanently from the accreditation process.)
Tax records show that MacArthur has consolidated authority over the church among a small number of family members and close associates, including his son Mark MacArthur, who was sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission in February 2020 for defrauding customers of his investment firm. Grace Community Church and a related nonprofit have funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation and no-bid contracts to MacArthur’s son-in-law and the relatives of other senior church leaders. In April, Grace withdrew from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a church oversight organization, after they requested recent financial statements. MacArthur’s pandemic fears of losing control followed years of efforts to ensure that no outside force challenged his power. “This is the closest thing to the experience of a church in war,” he preached in January.
Understanding the causes of evangelical radicalization has preoccupied many of the journalists and scholars who study contemporary American religion. Since Trump’s election, a publishing genre has emerged that could be called The (Evangelical) Plot Against the United States. Books such as The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism by New York Times contributor Katherine Stewart and Unholy: How White Christian Nationalists Powered the Trump Presidency, and the Devastating Legacy They Left Behind by investigative reporter Sarah Posner purport to draw back the curtain on a dangerous and organized effort by religious conservatives to hijack American government and public life. Analysts posit various reasons for this trend toward extremism. Pollster Robert P. Jones’s White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity identifies racism as evangelicals’ (indeed all American Christians’) original sin. The Atlantic’s Peter Wehner points to a decades-long devil’s bargain with conservative political operatives. Others cite evangelicals’ anti-rational rejection of science or their resistance to changes in American sexual mores. Even evangelicals themselves have joined the explanatory effort. Conservative commentators in recent years have invoked hostile intellectuals, secular media, anti-religious government, and even youth sports on Sundays as reasons for evangelicals’ oppositional anger.
In August 2020, New York Times religion correspondent Elizabeth Dias filed a 4,000-word front-page story from Sioux Center, Iowa, that wove many of these strands together into a single, comprehensively reported theory. Evangelicals, Dias wrote after spending several days in a conservative heartland town, feel alienated from and unfairly maligned by a nation that is pivoting away from their faith. To halt or at least slow the pace of the change, evangelicals have concluded they have no choice but to seize political power by any means necessary. “The Trump era has revealed the complete fusion of evangelical Christianity and conservative politics,” Dias reported. “Mainstream evangelical Christianity has made plain its deepest impulses and exposed where the majority of its believers pledge allegiance.”
Though there is widespread agreement about the broad outlines of this theory, I remain skeptical. Explanatory consensus about complex social issues is as likely to stem from groupthink as it is from true insight. If you arrive in a small town in Iowa and ask people why they support Donald Trump or resist wearing medical masks, you will hear stories like the ones in Dias’s reporting. If, instead, you ask people of faith what their hardest struggle was in the past year, you will get a very different kind of information. In my own journalistic conversations with evangelicals during the pandemic, I heard very little about political, racial, or cultural grievances. I heard far more often about prosaic concerns, such as the challenges of elder caregiving, fraying marriages, struggles with addiction, worries about children, lost jobs, grief, regret, and overall stress.
Christians go to church for help with everyday troubles such as these. And it is here, I believe, that a deeper explanation lies both for evangelicals’ anti-social pandemic behavior and for their larger pattern of divisive, anti-government attitudes. In recent decades, motivated by a combination of evangelistic zeal and everyday human ambition, evangelicals have embraced an explicitly business-oriented approach to ministry that has remade Christianity in the image of corporate America. In 2018, many of the United States’s most prominent evangelical leaders paid tribute to a church growth consultant named Bob Buford, who died that year after a decades-long career regarded by many evangelicals as transformative for their movement. Buford, a Texas cable television executive and disciple of the management guru Peter Drucker, used his personal fortune to bring business principles to evangelical churches. He is credited with catalyzing the growth of megachurches, elevating evangelicals’ longstanding affinity with corporate America into outright emulation.
The resulting “evangelical industrial complex” (so dubbed by critics) has succeeded in its goal of building large Christian organizations and attracting attention to Jesus through a variety of media. Life.Church in Edmond, Oklahoma, a pioneer in digital ministries, reported $150 million in revenue in 2019 and $325 million in total assets. In 2013, First Baptist Church in Dallas, led by prominent Trump supporter Robert Jeffress, opened a $130 million, 500,000-square-foot worship center with a 150-foot-wide video screen behind the altar, a glass sky bridge, and a baptistery fountain that plays hymns in time with water jets. First Baptist’s 44-person leadership team includes two executive pastors to oversee business operations, a communications director, and a wedding coordinator.
One thing such churches have proven less able to do, especially at a time of national crisis, is meet people’s everyday spiritual needs. Since the megachurch movement took off in the 1990s, the percentage of Americans identifying as evangelical has declined from nearly a third to just over a fifth. A mere six percent of megachurch attendees in 2008 were converts to the faith, according to Leadership Network, a church consulting organization. The rest migrated from smaller churches, which have withered as megachurches captured a larger share of the Christian market. A 2016 survey by Lifeway, the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, found that fewer than half of all evangelicals were able to identify or state their agreement with core Christian beliefs. A separate Lifeway survey found that a quarter of all evangelicals have read no more than “several passages or stories” from the Bible. More than a third believes faith in God will make you rich. Barna Group, an evangelical market research firm, now classifies a large proportion of American Christians as “notional” believers: people who identify as Christian but do not maintain strong ties to a church and view religion more as a cultural or political identifier than as a way of life. In the 2016 presidential election, 26 percent of voters identified themselves as evangelical. Just seven percent correctly answered a series of questions indicating knowledge of core evangelical principles.
Conspiracy theories and political extremism have filled the gap left by churches’ preoccupation with market share and media reach. Elizabeth Neumann, an evangelical who formerly served as a top homeland security official in the Trump administration and now studies religious extremism, told an interviewer recently that she sees a direct connection between how evangelicals run their churches and how they behave in the public sphere:
There was a big movement in the ’90s called Seeker-Friendly Churches. Willow Creek [one of the most prominent of those churches] did a self-assessment about 10 or 15 years ago, and one of the things that they found is while they had converted people to Christians, there was a lack of growth in their faith. They were not learning the scriptures. They were not engaged in community. They were not discipling anybody. And [Willow Creek’s] assessment was: We failed. We baptized some people, but they’re not actually maturing. […] My thesis here is that if we had a more scripturally based set of believers in this country — if everybody who calls themselves a “Christian” had actually read through, I don’t know, 80 percent of the Bible — they would not have been so easily deceived.
The pandemic struck at the heart of evangelicals’ ministry model. Though only 10 percent of American Christians attend a megachurch, their worship style and business orientation have become inescapable standards in evangelical Christianity. Pastors of even small churches are expected to grow membership, cultivate a social media following, and provide high-tech entertainment on Sunday mornings. A robust network of parachurch organizations exists to help pastors meet such goals. Websites furnish worship bands for rent, provide tools to help churches boost their social media following, and offer to coax contributions from high-income donors at weekend “Journey of Generosity” retreats.
All such activities became difficult or impossible at a time when indoor gatherings were prohibited, and many Americans were staying home, losing jobs, or juggling work and childcare. More to the point, ministries organized around marketing principles simply were not equipped to respond to church members’ sudden fears, economic dislocation, and need for one-on-one, compassionate support. “COVID revealed a fundamental weakness in the church,” Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Orange County told an interviewer in December. “Most churches only have one purpose: Worship. And if you take worship away, you’ve got nothing.”
Over the course of the pandemic, I spoke with dozens of evangelical church members and leaders. I observed a consistent pattern. Churches that were already doing a good job providing pastoral and social services to their congregations and communities weathered the crisis and even thrived, developing new ministries and gaining respect for their work. Size was not a criterion. Churches large and small found success. What seemed to make the difference was a focus on one-on-one ministry and a commitment to local communities. Saddleback, one of the United States’s largest churches, transformed itself into a social services hub, providing food and other resources to local residents and helping to promote vaccines via an online conversation between Warren and National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, who is himself an evangelical. For years, Saddleback has encouraged members to join small fellowship groups that provide the kind of personal contact and accountability otherwise lacking in large, anonymous megachurch services. In Austin, Texas, medium-sized Covenant Presbyterian Church bought and forgave $10 million worth of local medical debt. Oak Park Baptist Church in Jeffersonville, Indiana, with roughly 400 members, focused on a youth services program that benefits residents of nearby public housing complexes.
By contrast, evangelicals who spoke out most vocally against pandemic measures tended to belong to churches that depend heavily on in-person worship services and the star power of prominent pastors. Such churches suffered from the prohibition of indoor gatherings and left members searching for alternative ways to cope with the pandemic’s many hardships. Leaders fought to return to business as usual. Members gravitated to us-versus-them explanations for their troubles. The rise of pandemic radicalism reflected a massive failure of evangelical ministry.
Grace Community Church is an example of such ministerial failure. Though John MacArthur is admired by evangelicals for the influence of his ministry and his adherence to theological fundamentals, former Grace members say the church more resembles a family business presided over by a long-lived patriarch who brooks no opposition to his prerogatives. For members who agree with MacArthur’s approach, that arrangement works just fine. For others, the top-down structure creates what Roberto van Dalen, a former Grace Church deacon, called “a toxic church environment” and an “us versus them” leadership culture. Van Dalen said many church members and leaders are afraid to disagree with MacArthur because “if you get blacklisted, you lose everything.” Another former member, who asked to be identified only as Gregory, said elders and other church leaders told him they are forbidden from speaking publicly about church affairs without MacArthur’s permission and have been asked to sign non-disclosure agreements as a condition of employment. “They may disapprove of a lot that is going on, but they’re now an older staff who need the job,” Gregory said. “They couldn’t ever risk speaking to someone.”
The focus on MacArthur’s authority and star power weakened Grace’s ability to respond to the pandemic. Grace is what is known as a “commuter church.” In 2015, Swanson, the former Master’s Seminary administrator, was asked to write a report about Grace’s future prospects for growth. “I said the demographics are bad here,” Swanson said he told church leaders:
Sixty-seven percent of Grace Church attendees live more than 30 miles from the church. […] They’re coming to hear John MacArthur and when that ends they’re not going to drive that far. I would estimate the church will decline 40 to 60 percent when John MacArthur is not there.
Under MacArthur’s leadership, Grace has become almost wholly disconnected from the community surrounding it. Just 18 percent of residents in the Sun Valley neighborhood of Los Angeles are white, according to Census figures. A majority were born in Mexico and El Salvador. The median age is 28. Grace does not publish the demographic characteristics of its congregation, but video footage of sermons shows a mostly white, older audience. Of 40 senior leaders listed on the church’s website, all but three are white. “I don’t tend to notice people of color” attending Grace, said Judith Poppe, who has lived around the corner from the church and watched members walk to the sanctuary from their cars for 47 years.
In a January sermon, MacArthur spotlighted some of Grace Church’s accomplishments during the pandemic. Atop his list was holding in-person services in defiance of local authorities and suing Los Angeles County. To address community needs, MacArthur said Grace donated orchids to local police stations, celebrated a police officer’s retirement, gave away $70,000 worth of food to families in the congregation, distributed MacArthur’s books in prisons, and protested outside an abortion clinic. For comparison, I inquired about pandemic outreach at Mariners Church, a megachurch in nearby Orange County similar in size to Grace that for years has prioritized local service work. Chief Content Officer Cathi Workman told me that Mariners provided childcare for essential workers, offered workspace and technology assistance to families adapting to online school, delivered more than 1,000,000 meals, held blood drives, and helped to provide services for local adults with special needs. Workman said Mariners complied with local health orders and sought to keep politics out of pandemic ministries. “I see most churches just honestly, humbly trying to navigate an era that no one has seen before,” she said. “A lot of creativity is emerging.”
Grace’s defiance of public health rules had predictable effects. In October, county officials began investigating outbreaks at both the church and The Master’s University and Seminary. Officials confirmed three cases at the church. In December, a former longtime Grace member who remains in contact with church leaders wrote on his personal blog that numerous elders and other church staff had contracted COVID after attending a church Christmas party. “Hundreds” of church members and leaders were sick, the former member said via email. In an April court statement, MacArthur justified not reporting COVID cases at the church to health authorities “because none of the people listed on [a church prayer list of sick members] are church employees.”
In January, a Master’s Seminary student in his 60s died from COVID. Accounts of sickness and hospitalizations began appearing on Grace’s social media pages. “I just have not had the strength to give a report on my health status of over two weeks of Covid,” wrote Grace pastor and seminary teacher William Varner on his personal Facebook page on December 25. “Know what you’re feeling, Will. Wayne & I are entering our second week today,” responded Grace member Lyn Baldwin. Other church members chimed in: “Praying for you, Dr. V. Rina and I tested positive yesterday.” “It is no fun. Starting my second week […] the coughing is the worse.” “I am just home, discharged. Thank you for your prayers.” Varner and other church members who discussed their illnesses on social media did not respond to requests for comment.
“After Christmas, my family ended up getting COVID,” said Katarina Ritter, a former Grace Church member whose parents and brother still attend the church. “We think it’s from my cousins who had it, but it could have been from someone at Grace. We just don’t know.” Ritter said her parents and brother followed MacArthur’s lead in believing that the pandemic had been overblown and that masks and social distancing were not necessary. “John MacArthur is very persuasive,” she said. “My parents say, ‘No one wears a mask, so we’re not going to either.’”
The family’s COVID symptoms were serious. Ritter said her father has asthma and “felt tightness in [his] chest and shortness of breath.” Her grandmother was hospitalized and placed on oxygen. Though Ritter said her parents work in Grace’s youth ministry, and her brother helps lead the church’s junior high school band, none of the family’s COVID cases were reported to public health authorities. Ritter said she tried to talk her family out of attending the church in person, but they always replied, “I don’t know anyone who has COVID” at Grace. “Two weeks later, [my mother] is like, ‘There’s a family in my Bible study that has COVID.’”
Following a December 20 sermon, MacArthur abruptly disappeared from the pulpit. Church elders gave various reasons for his absence: he was resting or preparing for an upcoming pastors’ conference. When MacArthur reappeared on January 17, he appeared to be recovering from an illness and labored to breathe. After coughing several times at the start of his sermon, he paused and said, “It’s still in there. You’re going to get it later this morning.” That comment was subsequently edited out of a video and transcript of the sermon posted on the church’s website.
The tragedy of MacArthur and other evangelicals’ pandemic denialism is not simply the illness, deaths, and disunion that resulted from their defiance. The evangelical prioritization of growth and power that motivated MacArthur has robbed the United States of an important source of social cohesion in a time of crisis. “There is this vast social science literature that finds these positive correlations between religiosity and what we think of as good outcomes: Low crime rates, lower rates of drug and alcohol abuse, higher income, better educational attainment,” said James Choi, a behavioral economics professor at Yale University. In a supportive religious environment, Choi said, “You have high value in God’s eyes and that’s an encouraging thing for people to hear. If I have a setback I can pick myself up and carry on.”
The lack of such resilience was evident everywhere during the pandemic, and evangelical leaders such as MacArthur missed a prime opportunity to help ameliorate it. Focused on their own power and privileges, those leaders instead exacerbated division in the United States and left their followers searching for alternatives, which they found in Donald Trump’s thrilling anti-American aberrance. This ministerial failure, and the institutional structures and incentives that contributed to it, deserve closer study as Americans attempt to understand why the nation’s most powerful religious movement has become a force for subversion.
For his part, MacArthur remains unbowed. In an April court statement, he dismissed news coverage of the situation at Grace as “falsehoods” and mockingly compared medical masks to veils worn in ancient Near Eastern culture. He remained fixated on power. “It is simply not the church’s duty to enforce executive orders based on a politician’s whimsy,” he proclaimed. “Government officials have no right to interfere in ecclesiastical matters in a way that undermines or disregards the God-given authority of pastors and elders.”
“The numbers have dropped, but the trauma has not.” One of America’s foremost pastors reflects on religion, race, and the pandemic.
Bishop T. D. Jakes is one of the most famous pastors in America. His multi-thousand-member Dallas megachurch, the Potter’s House, is just one part of his platform; he’s recorded gospel albums, starred in television broadcasts, led several popular conference series, and published numerous books, including his latest, Don’t Drop the Mic. But all of that fame couldn’t prepare Jakes for the past year and a half, when his ministry has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic and racial tensions in the United States. Suddenly, he found himself inundated with calls and texts from desperate, grieving families. Meanwhile, he found himself making calls and sending texts to prominent white pastors all over the country who were stumbling through long-overdue conversations with their churches about race.
All of this has made Jakes think through his theology, he told me recently. The message of Christianity doesn’t align with “the contemporary theology of just blessings and gifts and promises,” he said. “Suffering is center stage to our faith.” This was a stark assessment coming from Jakes: Fairly or not, the pastor is often associated with a gospel of prosperity, which teaches that the faithful will be blessed by God with health and wealth. Jakes told me he’s spent the pandemic flipping through the Bible and reading about earlier times of disease and dying. This is how this feels, he thought.
Jakes has also had to think through who his allies are. Paula White, one of former President Donald Trump’s most prominent faith advisers, credits Jakes with building her reputation among Black Christians. For years, she was featured at his popular conference Woman Thou Art Loosed, and he spoke highly of her preaching abilities. Jakes told me he doesn’t consider her one of his mentees, and that she knows he takes a different view of politics than she does. Still, “I don’t think that we should stop talking to people because we disagree,” he said. “I honestly, earnestly believe that we can have civil dialogue without demonizing people for their views and saying, ‘Because you don’t agree with me, you’re evil.’” Perhaps not coincidentally, that’s what his new book is all about.
I talked with Jakes about the ongoing trauma of COVID-19 in his community, and whether white evangelicals have lost sight of Jesus’s teachings. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Emma Green: In the past year, how many members of your congregation have either gotten sick with or died from COVID-19?
Bishop T. D. Jakes: I can’t even answer the question, because the number would be so high. It’s hard to even tabulate, because a lot of people in our church, when they pass away, they go back home to be buried.
But I can tell you that there were weeks that I was inundated with phone calls literally every day about somebody who either was sick or had passed away. What was numbers to everybody else—and the numbers were horrific enough—was people to me.
Green: I wonder if there was a moment when you realized, Oh, this is going to be a really major thing in the life of my community.
Jakes: When New York was bad—the numbers were so inordinately high—one day, I literally just lost it. I’ve done a lot of book signings on Fifth Avenue at Barnes & Noble. I’ve spoken in New York since I was a very young man. And I just wondered how many of those people who were at my services or at my book signings were in those bags. And I just started weeping.
To all people, being close to your loved ones when they pass is important. But to Black people, being able to have a funeral and eulogy is sometimes the only time day workers and frontline workers get to be important. It’s the only day other than a wedding day that everything is about you. To be denied that celebration of life—we call them homegoings, rather than funerals—I knew we would be devastated for years to come. The numbers have dropped, but the trauma has not.
Green: Where do you see evidence of that ongoing trauma in your community?
Jakes: Where do I not see it? Marriages imploding. Self-medication. Serious bouts of depression.
It has been devastating to all of America, but particularly to minorities. And that, coupled with the racial tensions—we were hit on so many different fronts at the same time. Our counseling department says we are getting 300 percent more calls than we were before.
Green: I wonder how, theologically speaking, you guide people through a time like this, when so many people have gotten sick or know someone who died. What do you tell people about what God wants when there’s so much dark stuff happening?
Jakes: It’s funny, because it really makes you think through your theology. As a Christian, the one thing that is quite clear about the Christian message is that it does not hide itself from suffering and pain. When the emblem of your faith is a cross, it’s quite obvious. Suffering is center stage to our faith.
It isn’t the contemporary theology of just blessings and gifts and promises. It is also seasoned, frequently, with the stoning of the disciples and the killing of members of the early Church. Pandemics are all throughout the Bible. When I looked at those scriptures, it really, really took my empathy toward the text to a different level. It’s one thing to know something intellectually. It’s another thing to say, “Oh, that’s how they felt. This is how this feels.”
But the other part of my faith that’s important is that ultimately, we may see suffering on Friday, but we see resurrection on Sunday. That’s the blessed hope of the Church: that there’s better ahead than there is behind us.
Green: Obviously, the pandemic has disproportionately affected poor people, working-class people, people who have essential jobs who have been going to work consistently. I wonder if seeing that unequal impact of the virus has made you think differently about the policies and politics that led us to have such an unequal country.
Jakes: Can I be honest?
Jakes: That’s only a revelation to people who are far removed from it. [Laughs.]
Because the Church is a galvanizing place of all classes of people, this is something that we’re confronted with every week. It is amazing to me that we can live in the same city and have two completely different experiences. You can kind of be willfully blind to the pain of the people who are in your own city and have ladies’ meetings and come together to solve poverty around the world and not think a thing about poverty right in your own city.
Green: You know, when I hear you say that, I can’t help but hear an implication about the way certain other Christians—maybe white Christians in particular—live, with a kind of international orientation toward helping kids in Africa but not caring that much about helping people who are their neighbors in their own city. Am I hearing you right?
Jakes: [Laughs.] I think that’s true in some cases, but I don’t think that they are a monolith. I’ve met pastors who cared, and who have joined hands and tried to help and serve, and who were first responders in times of crisis. But by and large, it makes people uncomfortable to look at complicated problems. And the problems in underserved communities are complicated by poor education, poor access to medical care, crime, and the distance in culture. As a whole, I think white evangelicals lost sight of “What would Jesus do?” because they only define Jesus in very narrow terms.
Green: Well, you’re going to have to say a little bit more about that.
Jakes: [Laughs.] I think that social issues define the spaces where faith and politics and society intertwine—Roe v. Wade and same-gender-loving people. [White evangelicals] don’t always put the same level of weight on the poor, the disenfranchised, or criminal-justice problems. They don’t see that as important.
Green: Just to be clear, I take it that theologically speaking, you might not disagree with, say, a conservative Southern Baptist pastor on abortion or same-sex marriage. But you’re saying that there’s a difference in emphasis.
Jakes: Yes, there’s a great deal of difference—you’re exactly right. There’s a great deal of difference in emphasis.
To raise the concern for the unborn above the born—to fight for the life in the womb and not in the prison or in the school systems—if life is valuable, then after the mother pushes out the baby, that life should still be that valuable.
Watch: Atlantic staff writer Emma Green in conversation with T.D. Jakes
Green: At least at the margins, President Trump picked up support in 2020 from Latino communities and Black people, especially among men. I wonder if you saw that in your community.
Jakes: You know, I think it’s an oversimplification to think that color dictates the way we think or vote. Black people as a whole tend to be conservative on certain issues.
Still, I was as surprised as the rest of the nation about the inroads he made among Black males.
Green: One of your mentees, Paula White, was one of President Trump’s most prominent faith advisers and supporters. I wonder what you thought of that.
Jakes: Well, I mean, first of all, I wouldn’t describe her as a mentee. She had had years of ministry experience before she met me. During the period when she was working closely with me, President Trump wasn’t an issue. And by the time she had moved into that area, I don’t think that she really considered herself a mentee of mine. We certainly still have an amiable relationship, but our views on politics are certainly different. And she knows that.
Green: Did you all talk about President Trump?
Jakes: I haven’t talked to her in quite a while. I mean, she got pretty busy. And I was pretty busy.
Let me be clear: She knows that our views about politics are very different. But you know, I don’t think that we should stop talking to people because we disagree. I think that’s the problem in our country right now: We’ve become tribalistic. Everybody who disagrees with anybody is demonized.
The only real hope we have as a people is to talk to people who are different. And I honestly, earnestly believe that we can have civil dialogue without demonizing people for their views and saying “Because you don’t agree with me, you’re evil.”
Green: I wonder if you’ve sensed more of an openness among white pastors—who, maybe even a few years ago, would have avoided tough conversations on race—to have those kinds of conversations.
Jakes: Where I’ve tried to focus is on the white pastors who spoke out and tried to say something positive that was misunderstood. And I literally got on the phone with some of them and encouraged them to keep talking. Their immediate reaction was “I got it wrong; I’m not going to broach that subject again. I’m going to stay away from it. I’m just not going to talk about it.” And if we do that, we’ll never get better. We have to keep talking.
Green: Can you tell me who that was, who you called up?
Jakes: I knew you were going to ask me that. I can’t divulge that—I think that would be unethical. But I can say it was several.
The reason I did it is because they were hurt. They were wounded. They didn’t really mean to enrage people who were already enraged. They were trying to fix it, and they didn’t have the language to communicate across the board. When you come up speaking to a congregation where the amens come free and you start speaking to a global audience, there are people who feel just as strongly in the opposite direction.
Green: I think the question of how people react to certain language really matters. I’ve noticed, in these conversations happening in the past year or so about race and the Church, that some very conservative white Christians are willing to say “I believe Black lives matter” but then explicitly distance themselves from Black Lives Matter, the organization, or any kind of political action. Why do you think there’s so much hedging in conversations about race in the Church?
Jakes: I think the peaceful demonstrations that took place about George Floyd and Black Lives Matter were extremely gratifying because I remember the civil-rights movement. You did not see a lot of white people marching with Black people in the streets. This time, you saw, sometimes, more white people marching than Black people. I think we need to pause and underscore how far we’ve come, that we could see crowds of people who chose not to be blind, who do care, who did march and wrote pieces and did things that were positive. That, to me, is the big story.
Were you more into punk than the Beatles? Were you less likely to protest the war than streak? You might be a Generation Joneser.
I think it was the 50th anniversary of Woodstock last summer that finally pushed me over the edge.
All summer long we’d been reliving the ’60s. Again. There were the boomers, reminiscing about Howdy Doody, Vietnam, the Summer of Love.
Watching all of this, I thought, well, damn. I don’t have anything in common with these people at all. Which is awkward, because I too am a baby boomer.
Or so I thought. Because then a friend of mine — born, like me, in 1958 — told me that we’re not boomers. We’re Generation Jones.
It was a term I’d never heard before, although a quick internet search revealed that yes, Generation Jones is an actual thing. It refers to the second half of the baby boom, to a group of people born roughly from 1954 to 1965.
We might be grouped with the baby boomers, but our formative experiences were profoundly different. If the zeitgeist of the boomers was optimism and revolution, the vibe of Gen Jones was cynicism and disappointment. Our formative years came in the wake of the 1973 oil shock, Watergate, the malaise of the Carter years and the Reagan recession of 1982. Above all, we resented the older boomers themselves — who we were convinced had things so much easier, and in whose shadow we’d been forced to spend our entire lives.
The fact that most people have never even heard of Generation Jones is the most Generation Jones thing about Generation Jones.
But if you identify more with punk, funk or disco than, say, Elvis, Buddy Holly or the Beatles, you’re a Joneser.
Is “Leave It to Beaver” kind of a hazy memory, while “The Brady Bunch” is crystal clear? You’re a Joneser.
Were you too young for the draft (which ended in 1973) but too old to have to register for it (starting in 1979)? Was there a time when you cared more about CB radio than Twitter? Did you wear Earth Shoes? Were you less likely to protest the war than to streak? Hello, Mr. Jones.
“Older boomers may have wanted to change the world,” Richard Pérez-Peña wrote in these pages in 2014; “most of my peers just wanted to change the channel.”
The term was coined in 1999 by Jonathan Pontell, a cultural critic, who likes the double meaning of “Jones”: not only the anonymity of it, but also the sense of yearning. And in an interview last week, Mr. Pontell told me he thinks that Generation Jones may play a crucial role in the 2020 election.
Unlike older boomers, members of this generation are reliably conservative, perhaps because the traumas of the 1970s led us to distrust government. But Mr. Pontell thinks that Jonesers are now tipping to the left, for two reasons. First, Mr. Trump’s fumbling response to the Covid-19 crisis has hurt him with Jonesers, who are part of the demographic most at risk from the disease. And then there is Mr. Trump’s cruel mocking of Joe Biden’s senior moments. “There are lots of seniors out there that also have senior moments,” Mr. Pontell says. “They don’t really like the president mocking those one bit.”
Donald Trump (who is, it should be noted, an older boomer) has been a fraud on so many levels, but if there’s anything authentic about him, it’s his air of grievance. It may have been this, Mr. Pontell says, that made Jonesers vote for him in 2016. Hillary Clinton, to them, was the epitome of older baby boomer entitlement, and if Mr. Trump stood for anything, it was for the very things Gen Jones most identifies with: jealousy, resentment, self-pity.
There’s a word in Ireland, “begrudgery.” Padraig O’Morain, writing in The Irish Times, says: “Behind a lot of this begrudgery lies the unexamined and unspoken assumption that there is only so much happiness to go around. And guess what? The others have too much and I have too little.”
I turned to the feminist author Susan Faludi — a fellow Generation Joneser, born in 1959 — for more insight. “I recognize the yearning/resenting description of that cohort,” she told me. “Personally, I’ve always been in the yearning category — a modern-day Miniver Cheevy, ‘born too late’ to be in the thick of the ’60s social justice movements, which I shamelessly romanticized. As a girl, I had, God help me, a suede fringe vest and a hippie doll that came with a sign that said ‘You Turn Me On!’”
But many Jonesers feel bitterness about the 1960s, Ms. Faludi said, not nostalgia: “Researching my book ‘Stiffed,’ I met many angry baby boomer men — laid-off workers, evangelicals, militiamen — who felt they were slipping down the status ladder and blamed civil rights, antiwar, feminist and L.G.B.T. activism for their misery.”
Jonesers expected that as adults, we’d inherit the same wide-open sense of opportunity as our older brothers and sisters. But when those opportunities dried up, we became begrudgers instead — distrusting of government, nervous about change and fearful that creating opportunities for others would mean a diminishment of our own.
And so instead of changing the world, we’ve helped to create this endless mess — a result of the choices we’ve made, and in the voting booth not least.
Damn. The more I think about it, the more I think I don’t relate to Generation Jones either.
But maybe not relating is what Generation Jonesers do best.
“In a way,” Ms. Faludi asked me, “aren’t we all Generation Jonesers now, all still living in the unresolved rain shadow of the ’60s, still fighting the same issues, still shouting the same chants (‘What do we want?…’)?”
Maybe. But I’m hoping that this tumultuous, traumatic spring is finally the time Generation Jones — and the rest of the country, too — embraces the idea of transformational change. It’s been 50 years now. Couldn’t 2020, at long last, be the year we end the 1970s?
We’ll soon find out. Something’s happening here, and you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?
I think as long as Trump plays to their fears and racial grievances they will stand by him. Play any of his speeches, any at all and if you distill them to their basic messages it would go as follows:
- Trump is the greatest
- Anything bad that happens to him is always someone else’s fault and there is always someone out to get him
- They (white Americans) are the “real” Americans
- “Real” Americans are the real victims of a government and liberal left that wants to punish them for being conservative/ christian/ white
- They (minorities and non white immigrants) are mostly criminals who want to take the America you know and change it forever into something worse
- Only Trump can protect the “real” Americans and keep the “others” at bay
That is basically every Trump speech ever in a nutshell. He knows his target audience well and plays on their grievances and fears constantly. Trump knows he doesn’t need to control the whole Republican base but just enough to play kingmaker in the primaries and he has control of the party.