Religion is a difficult subject to discuss. People have the right to their beliefs, and it can seem judgmental to criticize a belief system. Importantly, no one should ever be disrespected or discriminated against because of their religious beliefs.
Nevertheless, the worldwide church needs to be engaged in an ongoing dialogue in what it means to be a Christian. Jude 1:3 informs us that we must “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” This attempt to earnestly contend for the faith is crucial because only Christians can point out the errors within sects of Christianity. This dialogue is important for the future of America and, even more importantly, to the sanctity of the Christian Church.
One of the most distinguishing attributes of Appalachian West Virginia is the strong devotion to the Christian church. An underlying and little discussed fact about the area’s embrace of white supremacy over the past few decades is the outsized role of the white evangelical church.
For much of the 20th century, when West Virginia was considered a reliably progressive and openminded area, the state’s largest denominations included the moderate, educationally focused and socially just United Methodist Church and the equally involved Presbyterian Church. The clergy of these mainline denominations were often seminary trained or otherwise educated.
This started to change mid-century, when many abandoned these and other social justice denominations to join the “more spiritual” white evangelical churches.
Many of the evangelical churches were fundamentalist which are often much less educationally focused, many with untrained clergy who were uninformed socially and focused on trying to preserve Christian purity. This is often done under the imprimatur of anti-abortion and the marginalization of the gay and lesbian community. This purity message also often involves the preservation of white supremacy, sometimes unwittingly, other times knowingly.
The racism for many of these white evangelical churches was shown when they established their own Christian schools after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education integration case and later when there was controversy in West Virginia over textbooks in the 1970s. These virtually all white church schools with limited curriculum and few outside social interactions became breading grounds for bigotry and the acceptance of ignorance through lack of contact. This also contributed to West Virginia’s rank as last in the nation with the percentage of residents who have obtained a four-year bachelor’s degree or higher.
This made the area fertile ground for the racism, ignorance and the faux intellectualism/anti-intellectualism of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. Some of these white evangelical pulpits became havens for the acceptance of conspiracy theories, refusal to believe in scientific based subjects such as climate change and aligned them with right wing corporate interests. These churches also led many of their poor adherents to vote against their own financial interests. It is a difficult thing for a religious person to vote in opposition to their preacher’s admonition that to vote against a certain political party or corporate interest, including the NRA, is to vote against the Kingdom of God.
Recently it has been appalling to witness white evangelical vocalized outrage at the kneeling of all Colin Kaepernick, yet observe their silent approval of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. The acceptance of the “big lie” of former President Donald Trump has been astounding. It has also been disappointing to watch how narrow-minded many white friends and acquaintances from high school have become once they are a part of these evangelical churches. Many once moderate people have bought into the lie and have ordered their lives around inequality based upon theological myths such as the curse of Ham, which facilitated slavery and the marginalization of people of color.
The messages that white evangelicals receive from the pulpit of many of these churches, on a weekly basis, are tinged with the most conservative elements that, to my mind, are filled with racist undertones, misogynistic tendencies, homophobic admonitions and corporate support. All to the detriment of the Gospel support for the poor, the immigrant and the disenfranchised.
How can we counter the dangerous levels of misinformation? There is no easy way to rebuild the partition between church and state that has preserved our religious liberty over the many years. While there are no easy answers, the future of our democracy is at stake so we must at least attempt to return to some type of normalcy.
One way to mediate the political influence on church members is to reinvigorate and enforce the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment, passed in 1954, prohibits all 501c3 organizations, including houses of worship, from endorsing political candidates. It has been instrumental in establishing the nonprofit charitable sector and churches as one of the only platforms of nonpartisan civic engagement in the United States.
When any nonprofit organization, including churches on the left and right, endorses political candidates there should be an immediate rescission of their tax-exempt status pursuant to the Johnson Act. This will at least give some second thoughts to the politicization of the pulpit. Those churches deciding to be arms of political parties should not also enjoy the exemption from paying taxes. This will also provide, at the very least, some second thoughts before preachers engage in political rhetoric over their pulpits.
As we witness some of the white evangelical church being unfortunately radicalized, we ignore them, much like the world ignored the Taliban, to the detriment of our democracy. It is time for the greater church and Christians to act in love to reclaim the truth, reclaim the faith and, hopefully, preserve our democracy.