Last time we met up, we talked about how evangelicals destroy their witness online. That means they act in ways that decimate their credibility as Christians. Now, evangelicals have engaged with the internet from the beginning almost, so you might well think that they’d be able to behave themselves better on social media than they do. But instead, social media is where an evangelical’s witness goes to die.
There’s a reason for that, of course. That reason doesn’t make evangelicals look very good, but then again, what does these days? Today, we’ll finish the story we began last time to see how evangelicals’ decline led straight to the sorry state of the tribe today – and why evangelical leaders can’t do a thing about it.
(This post went live on Patreon on 11/16/2023. Its audio cast should be available there as well!)
An evangelical’s witness, obliterated: The creepiest evangelical I have ever personally encountered on social media
Around 2015, when I first joined Facebook, a middle-aged evangelical fellow we’ll call Ambrose asked to friend me. Jesus had told him, you see, that he needed some heathen friends. And lucky me, I was the one chosen for this honor! (/sarc) At the time, I didn’t care as long as he wasn’t a pest.
Ambrose, it turned out, had a family with high-school aged kids. He delighted in sharing info about their doings, and for a while it was pleasant enough to see the updates. Then I began noticing him sliding religious sales pitches into his posts. Eventually, he began posting about marriage equality. Obviously, he stood against it. I ended up getting into a lot of long arguments with him and his like-minded pals. Personally, I think I won the bulk of these. Either way, evangelicals didn’t come by these opinions through love, compassion, or facts, and so none of that is powerful enough to sway them.
This was around the high tide of the grand era of the atheist/evangelical keyboard wars. And the heathen side had recently made a very boneheaded move: Realizing that the Bible fully endorses slavery, we’d hurled that at evangelicals as a rebuttal to their childish doctrinal stance of biblical literalism. This position holds that the Bible is not only literally true but also morally correct and eternally-applying to humans—well, except the boring difficult dietary laws and whatnot.
This hurled rebuttal was a huge mistake because when evangelicals absorbed it, they immediately decided that maybe slavery wasn’t so bad after all. Well, you know, not Southern style slavery. Biblical slavery was fine. That was Yahweh-blessed! Why, anybody would be fine with Biblical slavery! It was just like working for a fast-food restaurant, they said. (And yes, all of that is verbatim what I personally heard and read from them at the time.) In fact, a big-name evangelical pastor, Joe Morecraft, went on record in 2013 saying that he wished that Americans could legally enslave atheists—to fine upstanding evangelicals like himself, naturally.
The ensuing arguments and counter-rebuttals and counter-counter-ripostes had been going on for a couple of years by then. Even other Christians were writing blog posts telling evangelicals to STFU already because Biblical slavery was a meaningless term; Old Testament-style slavery was just as awful and cruel and evil and dehumanizing as any other kind of slavery.
Ambrose saw all of this and decided that the world required the input of a mediocre white male evangelical.
Apparently, I was the first person he messaged to announce that he’d finished a grand post on his personal site about slavery. He was hoping I could read it and comment. He was sure that I would change my mind immediately once I’d seen all his arguments in favor of slavery as a perfectly fine and valid system for any society as long as it conformed to Old Testament rules.
I remember little of the post. Just that I read it in growing horror. The guy was writing about owning other human beings in this bright, chipper, upbeat style—in the exact way of someone so completely and smugly assured of his own exalted place in society that he’d never, ever, ever have to worry about losing his own freedom like that.
I’d never seen anything so wicked and cruel in all my life. Never. It made my skin crawl more and more with each paragraph. I don’t think I could finish it, even. And there was Ambrose in my messages bouncing around like a giddy child showing off his school project: Did I like it? What’d I think? Was it compelling?
I told him it was a work of pure, undiluted evil. I said reading it made me feel like he was reaching for me with a sadistic grin and bloody knives strapped to each of his fingers. And then I blocked him.
It took a long, long time to feel normal again after that. If I’d had any doubts about evangelicalism as a broken and corrupted system, that sure settled them. I never heard of Ambrose again, and I stopped accepting any further friend requests from evangelicals so I was completely out of his social circles. I don’t even remember his real name anymore.
Looking back at the whole situation, I bet he’s still proud of that essay and displays it proudly on his personal site still. But he destroyed his witness. That means that he completely shredded his own credibility as a Christian and as a salesperson for his flavor of the religion. He had behaved in ways that made me think less of evangelicals, not more, and had made me less likely ever to join up, not more. That’s the polar opposite of how Jesus commanded Christians to act around heathens.
A decline that led directly to evangelicals’ new age of complete hypocrisy
Evangelicals began to seriously decline in membership and cultural power around 2006. The signs of decline had been all around them for a couple of decades already. But that’s when I think they hit their high-water mark. That’s when Americans began to take a serious look at the political power evangelicals held and wanted, at how they went about recruitment, and at how they indoctrinated kids (as shown in documentary Jesus Camp).
Thanks to innovations like televangelism and megachurches, evangelical leaders rose to prominence. They began amassing absolutely unthinkable amounts of wealth and power. And as one does, they began to consider how to keep their power safe. Dynasties of evangelical families arose to guard and grow that wealth and power, like those of Johnny Hunt (archive) and Jerry Falwell.
A healthy group dynamic wouldn’t let those leaders do what they wanted. These were people who craved power. They were dysfunctional authoritarians. They were drawn to evangelical groups because those groups had laughably low bars to entry, no real way to sniff out predators and fakers, and no way at all to remove bad-faith actors once they’d amassed enough power.
When more functional people in the groups objected, the dysfunctional ones chased them away. That’s how the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)’s “Conservative Resurgence” went in the 1980s-1990s. They went from a mostly-functional authoritarian group that mostly supported a woman’s right to abortion care in 1971 to a horrifyingly abusive, misogynistic, and dysfunctional authoritarian political group that is hellbent on preserving as much of the SBC’s money potential and power-creation abilities as they can. Anyone objecting to this radical shift, like genial old seminary leader Russell Dilday in 1994 (archive), got fired and hounded all the way out of the denomination.
A deteriorating evangelical witness in the rise of social media
Back in 2013, Rachel Held Evans—once a prominent evangelical writer and speaker—wrote about how awful Calvinist evangelicals were in “the scandal of the evangelical heart” (archive). Their behavior tore her up mighty bad. They seemed impervious to attempts to rein in their viciousness and their downright insectoid cruelty toward others.
In person, they were hilariously villainous and nasty.
But online, as I can attest, they let that freak flag of theirs fly even higher. That behavior messed with my head, too. I’m naturally a sweet and sunny person who generally trusts others. Back then, it used to confuse me when I encountered people who were downright evil and callous but who insisted they’re actually good and kind. Now I trust my own judgment a lot more—and I’ve learned how to counter gaslighting. But back then, it made no sense at all.
The non-Calvinist evangelicals weren’t anywhere near as bad, but they sure weren’t shining examples of Jesus-osity or anything either. They freely used threats, snarl words, and smears on everyone who disagreed with them—including other evangelicals! Between the two tribes, they chased Evans right out of evangelicalism.
But neither I nor Evans could possibly have foreseen what Trumpism and QAnon would do to her former tribemates. If anything, they only got worse over the ensuing ten years.
This hypocrisy happens everywhere that evangelicals hang out. Their social media pages, blogs, video and streaming channels, and faux-news sites are particularly rife with it. It’s easy to find evangelicals calling each other liars, compromisers (archive), and more. The evangelicals at that “compromisers” link save their worst savagery for their culture-war enemies, of course—calling the Democratic Party itself “irredeemably evil” (archive) in another post and human rights-preserving laws protecting abortion access “demonic” elsewhere. And on social media, as most vocal non-Christians online can attest, they’re happy to wade into fights and sling mud at the people they hate so much.
Awww, so loving, much Jesus-y! Truly, Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity has finally come true after almost 2000 years! Gosh, it’s true! We really CAN see just how valid Christians’ claims are by how unified and loving they are toward each other!
Modern evangelicals have entirely lost their witness
Why did I title this article “Homosexuality and the Reign of Terror”? That may seem greatly overstated right now[. . .] [Spotted at Fundies Say the Darndest Things, 2015]
In the mid-late 2010s, Donald Trump only accelerated these amplifications. He blatantly, shamelessly pandered to the worst-of-the-worst impulses of his biggest fans. Suddenly, evangelicals decided en masse that maybe it didn’t matter to them anymore (archive) if a politician displayed unvirtuous behavior—coincidentally right when the most unvirtuous candidate in recent history unironically promised them power (archive) if they voted for him.
At the same time, being so primed for a grand moral panic, they all fell for QAnon’s ludicrous lies like dandelions before a supernova. Many evangelical leaders pleaded with the flocks to stop worshiping Trump, to stop consuming QAnon lies. They even tried to shame evangelicals back on track by reminding them of the need to maintain a good witness. You can find a good fair few of them doing so in a 2017 article from Washington Monthly (archive).
But it was far, far, far too late. Evangelicals now are completely unrecognizable from the ones I knew in college. As a group, they are perhaps best described as evil: constantly causing harm to others without care or remorse. On the plus side, they’ve been shrinking steadily as a group for years now. On the minus side, though, that shrinkage has led to evangelicals being encountered mostly online. They tend to keep to themselves, according to surveys (archive).
For the most part, they inhabit a carefully-sealed social bubble composed of like-minded evangelicals. No more, the days of everyone mixing like my friends and I did in college! And online, that may go double. On their social media, evangelicals tend to follow only like-minded evangelicals (archive) and to avoid people with different opinions.
Further, younger evangelicals are becoming way more aware of the value of friendships and the necessity of maintaining them. They consistently report being unwilling to wreck their relationships with evangelism (archive). And they seem to be aware that QAnon is just a moral panic, at least. When you look at the evangelicals flooding QAnon social media and attending Trump events, they are a distinctly older crowd.
I don’t see those younger evangelicals rescuing the tribe, though. Not even a billion-dollar ad campaign like that ridiculous waste of money “He Gets Us” can possibly erase the 24/7 example of millions of evangelical hypocrites acting out, especially not online where almost everything is forever (first capture in 2015; last capture in 2020). Even if someone saw one of those ads and made the cardinal mistake of thinking evangelicals might be worth checking out, it wouldn’t take more than a few minutes on social media to snap out of that error.
And now, evangelicals plead for a better witness online
This week’s topic has been evangelical hypocrisy online. But you might have noticed that as we’ve gone along, I’ve used examples from the real world as well as online to make my points. That’s because you will find almost no evangelical leaders anywhere addressing evangelicals’ behavior online these days. They talk about having a good witness in general, but they don’t generally draw any strong lines between that and online conduct.
Funny, isn’t it? The A-#1 star destroyer of evangelicals’ witness these days is their very own social media. And yet, evangelical leaders seem utterly lost about how to deal with the problem. There are no shortage at all of evangelical guides about the use of social media, sure. It’s all about what you’d expect—what my husband calls “don’t put a bean up your nose” advice. Here’s a representative sample from Medium a couple of years ago (archive):
- “Imitate Christ.”
- “Be a Witness.”
- “Don’t Agitate.”
- “Mute and Block.”
The very Calvinist site The Gospel Coalition offers a list that’s more admonishments (archive) than anything else. I can see why, given the Calvinist leaning of the site:
- “Don’t instigate quarreling.”
- “Don’t be impulsive.” [N.B.: The writer informs us here that he’s so incapable of restraining himself that he has his wife approve everything he wants to post on social media.]
- “Don’t be disrespectful.” [The writer now must clarify what evangelicals are and are not. They are not “Elijah before the prophets of Baal,” etc. He cites several Bible verses about gentleness too.]
- “Don’t gossip.”
- “Don’t seek attention.”
It’s like a Grand Tour of Hypocrisy up in that list. Relevant, which is aimed more at Millennial evangelicals, offers a similar list of admonishments (archive). Sometimes, we also find evangelicals like Ed Stetzer lamenting how prone to conspiracy theories (archive) their tribemates are, while outsiders can only marvel at how big a hit to someone’s credibility such beliefs are. And I found one fairly scholarly-sounding essay at Crosswalk complaining (archive) about how evangelicals’ use of social media “worsens theological divides.”
Alas, any evangelical who relishes misbehavior won’t listen to any of that stuff, while anyone who actually values good behavior and a strong witness never needed a guide in the first place. So much for Jesus inhabiting them and making them into better people, eh? If that claim were even a tiny smidgen true, nobody’d need to issue lists of behavioral rules either, nor any complaints about misbehavior.
But for evangelicals, the situation gets even worse. Yes, worse than just being completely incapable of reining in the flocks when they want to blow up at people online or act like snooty, arrogant, pretentious asshats who have taken it upon themselves to be everyone’s Designated Adult.
Evangelical leaders have completely totally lost control of the tribe’s collective witness online
No evangelical leaders are talking about how humiliating it is to see evangelicals being hypocrites online. No cries from the wilderness from fire-eyed prophets tasked with convicting (read: Jesus-shaming) evangelicals about how their social media use affects their witness. In fact, I found one and only one website complaining that social media was destroying their “mission,” over at Beautiful Christian Life (archive). And that was as much about evangelicals’ use of social media as about their tribal enemy “wokeness” supposedly dominating the social-media scene.
That tells me something potent: Evangelical leaders are clearly finding it impossible to rein in the flocks who are out there destroying evangelicals’ witness. I suspect this is because when the internet was still in its infancy, evangelical leaders were completely ignorant about it. For all the many Christians who leapt onto the new trend with both feet, actual church leaders didn’t seem to pay it much mind at all. The same situation is going on today with virtual reality. Big-name Christians seem completely unaware of its existence, while up-and-comers and laypeople are leaping on board.
By the time the internet began reaching consumers’ home computers, church leaders got completely T-boned by it. If there existed a time when they could have seized that tiger by the paw, it passed before they thought to reach out to do it. It was already everywhere by the time they noticed it. And their witness was already starting to disintegrate on contact with this new technology.
So when some guy wrote an exhortation on Desiring God in 2018 (archive) advising evangelicals to get the heck off social media, it did not, in fact, result in a tidal wave of evangelicals deleting their social media accounts. Dude even slammed anyone who refused as being very, extremely, insufficiently Jesusy! Hmph, he says, HMPH sir!
But it didn’t matter. Evangelicals like their social media about as much as anybody else. Jesusy or not, sinful or not, witness-building or not, they shall continue to use it as they please—without caring what their Dear Leaders say about it.
This entire witness situation will not improve any time soon
Evangelical leaders may pretend to rule with rods of iron, but in truth they are employees, almost all of them. That means they’re beholden to their church congregations. Those congregations hired them, and they can fire them too. So if their leader leads in a direction they don’t want to go, they can refuse—and then throw that leader out on his ear!
That’s why evangelical pastors almost never excommunicate members who get unapproved divorces or couples who have clearly been cohabiting and having unapproved sex. Similarly, they don’t publicly humiliate big-roller donators who get found to be cheating on their spouses or their taxes.
They know how far to push, most of them. The ones who don’t won’t be pastors for long.
Savvy evangelical leaders also know, being dysfunctional authoritarians, that it’s best not to start a fight they’ll only lose. The more often authoritarian followers win fights against their leaders, the less obedient they get and the more precarious that leader’s position becomes. Better not even to address the situation than to be blown off.
Maybe that’s why I’ve seen only ONE-count-him-ONE pastor ever try to make such a demand besides this Desiring God guy. I can’t remember his name, but he tried hard to tell his flocks to avoid all internet use. As I remember it, he sent this message through his church’s Facebook page. Yes. I don’t know if he caught the irony there or if he didn’t consider Facebook to be “the internet.”
It’s just so hilarious to me, just so laughably silly, just so very earthly and human, that evangelicals are in this situation at all. If their claims were even halfway true, it wouldn’t be like this. But they’re not true at all. That’s how evangelicals can act out like they do on social media and still believe they are totally just like Jesus, all tough guys flipping tables and commanding adulterers to go and sin no more. Oh yeah, they are such incredibly totally TRUE CHRISTIANS™! Yep yep, Jesus totally approves their nastiness and cruelty! Grr! Rawr!
The rest of us are, however, under no obligation to humor them. Now that their tribe is optional to join, we can just say no and keep rejecting them no matter how much they insult and try to dehumanize us. Let them rationalize our rejection all the way to the day their Facebook accounts get marked as memorials. When we’re all “fairy tales in books written by rabbits,” maybe by then they’ll have learned some manners at least.
Such an education won’t be as valuable to them as a good witness, no, but I’d rather have good neighbors and friends than yet another salesperson—no matter how sterling their credibility might be.
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