See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe and not according to Christ. (Colossians 2:8, NRSV)
For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. (2 Timothy 4:3-4)
I do not remember exactly what he said, but shortly before I left for college my childhood pastor probably quoted one of these verses in a sermon. I cannot know exactly what he said because the sermon archive does not stretch that far back, but I remember when because I emailed him about it (I was one of those kids). Ultimately, he was talking about the primacy of Scripture over other ways of knowing and emphasizing the revealed nature of God. However, to the young ears of a conservative evangelical getting ready to go off to a liberal arts college (albeit a Baptist one), I heard a warning about what to read, listen to, watch and believe.
If you grew up in a conservative Christian environment in the United States, these verses are probably familiar. They are usually nestled into diatribes about political correctness, liberalism or any other ideology incompatible with conservative evangelical teaching. I remember hearing them a lot growing up and consequently fearing that secular music and television would lead me astray. While Harry Potter and pop music were the most frequently bludgeoned piñatas of these verses, their use spoke to a far broader passion for intellectual purity or a sort of cultural circling of the wagons.
That such strongly and sincerely held beliefs gravitating around these verses evaporated or proved bankrupt in the past year is deeply troubling. I consciously try to take people at their word when they are talking about their religious convictions rather than assuming their beliefs are politics or some other ideology in thin religious trappings. The past year or so has challenged that posture significantly and raised questions about how fellow Christians are so easily taken captive by things like fake news and have such itching ears for fake gospels.
Around this time last year, 14 people were killed and 22 seriously injured in the San Bernardino shooting carried out by a married couple radicalized by jihadism. This attack came on the heels of the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris less than a month earlier. These attacks also coincided with Donald Trump’s rise to prominence in the Republican primary. After he called “for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” Trump soared in the polls and cruised his way to the nomination and eventually ascended to the presidency. The aftermath of the San Bernardino attacks marked the beginning of the widespread acceptance of Trump’s movement on the American right, even among Christians.
Trump proposed in the days following and since the San Bernardino attacks what amounts to a false gospel bolstered by fake news. Trump’s movement has a gospel, good news for his supporters (and often bad news for his detractors). He positions himself as a Messiah for his people, promising that “I alone can fix it.” In the past week alone, he has claimed to be sole holder of truth, urging his supporters not to trust everything from the mainstream media to the CIA. He has an apocalyptic vision of an America that is ambiguously “great again.” He promises, “We will make America strong again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. We will make America great again.” Trump envisions a world dramatically altered from its current state, a paradise for his followers free from the corrupting influence of losers and liberals and safe from the threats of Hispanic and Latino/a immigrants and Muslims.
This gospel is bolstered by its own set of facts and news, what many have taken to classifying as “fake news.” Fake news began long before the 2016 presidential campaign, but it reached its peak this year. Trump’s call for a Muslim ban was preceded by his erroneous and blatantly false claim that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims cheered in Jersey City on 9/11. Various streams of disinformation and outright lies propagated by fake news websites and social media accounts wrought havoc on the American public in the months-long campaign following Trump’s lies about Jersey City Muslims. Whether perpetrated and propagated by Russia, teenagers in Macedonia, or talk-radio hosts like Alex Jones, these fake news stories bolstered Trump’s movement and its message. Fake news for a fake gospel.
Fifty-eight percent of Protestants voted for this gospel on Election Day along with 52 percent of Catholics. A whopping 81 percent of white evangelical or white born-again Christians voted for it. Most troubling, increased involvement in church was more predictive of support for this gospel, not less.
As disturbing as the tactics and messages themselves are, particularly chilling was the willingness of American Christians to go along with them. The Christian gospel, especially for we Gentiles, hinges upon our acceptance — as strangers and enemies of God — into God’s movement to save the world. Christianity, too, promises an apocalyptic conclusion, one in which a new world is revealed that sets the old one right. But our faith promises that it is by God’s own power that we are saved, not by any human effort — not our own and certainly not Donald Trump’s. Alongside this cosmic vision of a world made right, Jesus’ teaching proposes an ethic that eschews violence and coercion in favor of self-sacrifice and mutual care. Jesus began his ministry by advocating for the poor and oppressed, but he never promised legions of centurions would get it done. The promises and message of Trump’s movement run counter to the content of the New Testament; insofar as it constitutes a gospel, it is a fake gospel for Christians. Nevertheless, many of us still embraced it — some enthusiastically.
The Sunday after the San Bernardino shootings and the beginning of Trump’s rapid rise to power, the Revised Common Lectionary included an appropriate passage from the prophet Isaiah. “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid,” it said. “For the Lord God is my strength and my might; God has become my salvation” (Isaiah 12:2, NRSV). It was a stark contrast to the bombastic messianic posturing of Donald Trump. Certainly, people voted for Trump for a variety of reasons, and it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise. Some were voting against Hillary Clinton, some against Barack Obama’s legacy, and others generally in favor of conservative policies. But we cannot neglect the fact that, for many, Trump’s gospel had persuasive power — and it was more powerful than the gospel of the New Testament in their lives. And many of these folks are Christians. At the very least, Trump’s fake gospel was tolerable despite its opposition to the Christian message.
Where does that leave Christians? One of those passages about false prophets not quoted at the outset comes from 1 Thessalonians. In the final exhortations of the letter is some helpful guidance for the coming days. “Do not quench the Spirit,” Paul said. “Do not despise the words of the prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22).
As Christians of every political stripe, we need to test everything, hold fast to what is good, and abstain from evil.
That means, like the evangelical preachers of my past advocated, we must be careful about what we read, listen to, watch and believe. We need to get our news from a variety of trustworthy sources, privileging print publications (not cable or comedy news) dedicated to communicating the truth and good journalism. We should get our news less from partisan (left and right!) Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and more from generally non-partisan news organizations, even if they have a bit of a partisan flavor we disagree with. Maybe it will not be as easy to get taken captive by a fake gospel if we do not have such itching ears for fake news.
In addition to testing everything, we need to remind ourselves of our gospel. Maybe that means our preaching and teaching in our churches needs to return to some basics. We may need to spend some more time in Advent talking about Jesus’ vision for the end of all things, more time at Christmas talking about the subversive nature of Jesus’ Messiahship, or more time in Lent talking about the repentance God continually requires of us. Maybe we need to be reminded that our gospel hinges on hospitality to strangers and relying on God for our salvation. We need to hold fast to what is good, too, by doing the things Jesus told us to do: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, and visiting those in prison. All these tasks will become more and more important in the years to come.
Finally, we need to abstain from what is evil. One thing I learned growing up in a conservative evangelical environment was that we should not be afraid to name evil. I do not believe naming Harry Potter or pop music evil was the best use of our time, but naming and dismantling personal and social sin in rampant racism, misogyny and all forms of prejudice sounds like good gospel ministry. All our politics fall short of addressing America’s sins — the Democrats have no more an adequate Messiah than Republicans did in Donald Trump — but we have some evil that needs naming and dismantling right now, particularly in the resurgence of white nationalism. As a church, and especially as good Baptists, we must be as dedicated to being worthy dissenters as we are to doing good deeds.