When historians look back to assess the decline of American Christianity in the first half of the 21st century, they will no doubt finger Twitter as a point of no return.
If you are among the 77% of Americans who never use Twitter, this may sound like nonsense. But if you are among the Twitter faithful — even among the Twitter lurkers — you are likely nodding your head in agreement already.
While much of the justified concern about social media influence gravitates to Facebook — it has 3 times more users than Twitter — the damage done to Christianity on Facebook pales in comparison to Twitter. Twitter has become the American cesspool of religious chatter. I won’t even use the word “dialogue” here because what Twitter enables is not, in fact, dialogue.
Twitter is about shouting, shaming, scaring, scarring, spinning and slandering. Even when debating religion. Like Clark Kent entering a phone booth, otherwise mild-mannered pastors and laypersons think they can be super-defenders of the faith because there are seemingly no consequences to their bad behavior.
Case in point is the Southern Baptist Convention, an easy illustration because of its size and influence. Surely similar tales may be told among Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and others. My own vantage point is observing Baptists and the nondenominational world adjacent to Baptists.
I’m old enough to remember those glory days when there were Southern Baptist statesmen and stateswomen who people listened to because they had a proven track record of having something to say. These were the great pulpiteers, the great missions leaders, the great educators, the great community servants.
Where is a Herschel Hobbs among Southern Baptists today? Where is an Alma Hunt? Not on Twitter.
These two giants, and others like them, were revered leaders because they kept showing up, kept doing the hard work, earned respect and spoke God’s truth without snark. Anyone like them would be cut to shreds on Twitter today — and by people with half the smarts, half the commitment and three times the pent-up anger.
“Where is a Herschel Hobbs among Southern Baptists today? Where is an Alma Hunt? Not on Twitter.”
I cannot count how many times BNG has reported on controversies afflicting the SBC that were sparked on Twitter and soon became raging bonfires. All because someone most Southern Baptists never heard of threw down a match to draw attention to themselves and challenge someone else’s theology, politics or personal morality.
These flamethrowers are not individuals who otherwise would get a hearing apart from social media in general and Twitter in particular. They are not the great preachers of the day, not the great theologians of the day, not the great missions leaders of the day, not the great lay leaders of the day. They generally are narcissists who have learned they can get attention on Twitter.
And the damage they have done and are doing is immense. For the very same reasons Twitter eventually instituted a lifetime ban against former President Donald Trump.
Now, of course, Elon Musk says when he controls Twitter he will welcome Trump’s tweets back to the platform under the banner of free speech. Never mind that Trump is the greatest pathological liar of our lifetimes and a severe threat to democracy.
And Twitter is full of Trump admirers who act just like him — whether tweeting about politics, culture or theology. This is bad for democracy and equally bad for theology.
In an excellent opinion piece for TIME magazine, Silicon Valley investor Roger McNamee issues a dire warning: “Amplifying harmful content for profit has serious consequences. It gives disproportionate political power to the most extreme voices. It enables bad actors to suppress other voices and harass those with whom they disagree, including marginalized communities that depend on Twitter to make themselves heard. Thanks to its central role in journalism and politics, Twitter has managed to subvert democracy without being a business success. No wonder many of its biggest users refer to Twitter as a ‘hell site.’”
There’s a theological term for the times: A hell site.
“Social media and Twitter have the potential to lift up the voices of the voiceless. But instead, Twitter has been taken over by bullies.”
Do not overlook the second point McNamee makes: Social media and Twitter have the potential to lift up the voices of the voiceless. But instead, Twitter has been taken over by bullies. I could cite chapter and verse here for multiple examples of theological bullies on Twitter, but you can just do a quick search on our website to easily find some of them.
Since Twitter’s leadership isn’t likely to take its moral responsibility seriously, there’s one sure way to change the theological discourse on Twitter almost overnight: Lay leaders in congregations should hold their pastors accountable for the venom they spew on Twitter. That’s not likely to happen, though, because most of those spreading lies and accusations on Twitter have larger audiences there than in their own congregations. That brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “feed the beast.”
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global.
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