“What is truth?” was Pontius Pilate’s cynical retort to Jesus as he presided over his trial and ordered his execution. Pilate’s rhetorical question was proceeded by Jesus stating: “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
In context, Pilate’s question about truth is quite revealing. It reveals that he believed the truth concerning Jesus’ identity to be relative.
While Pilate found no fault in Jesus, the mob demanding his crucifixion believed him to be guilty of blasphemy for claiming to be king of the Jews. Pilate caved under the pressure, publicly washing his hands to verify his decision to have Jesus crucified and to symbolize his belief that he was not ultimately responsible for Jesus’ death. However, Pilate was guilty, and Jesus’ blood will forever be on his hands.
“What is truth?” is currently a question being raised by many white evangelicals in America. This question is not so much being raised through their words, but by their actions in the public square. Yes, the actions of white evangelicals speak louder than their words.
“The actions of white evangelicals speak louder than their words.”
This is highly ironic, given white evangelicals’ consistent professions to be on the side of truth. Since white evangelicals overwhelmingly aligned themselves behind former President Donald Trump, they have been engaged in an all-out war on truth — the same truth they piously claim to defend.
Much of my spiritual formation took place within predominantly white evangelical spaces, so I do not speak as an “outsider.” While in college in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was trained in apologetics and taught about the evils of moral relativism. “Absolute truth” was presented as the sine qua non of a “Christian worldview.”
I found it curious how, in the minds of many, what was deemed a Christian worldview was perfectly congruent with conservative Republican political positions. Well, since the rise of Trumpism, what previously was known in part is now fully known. White evangelicalism is primarily a socio-political movement, not a religious one.
As a movement, white evangelicalism’s highest priority is the pursuit of political power, not biblical truth. If biblical truth really were the priority, Trump never would have been elected president.
The white evangelical war on truth currently is being manifested in six sinister ways:
1. COVID-19 denialism
At this writing, more than 760,000 people in America have died of COVID-19. African Americans and other people of color have been disproportionately impacted. Several of my extended family members have been gravely ill with COVID-19, one of whom died as a result of the virus. Yet, there are many white evangelicals who believe the pandemic is “overblown.” Some have callously called it a “plandemic” created by “the left” to gain political advantage.
They further assert, without evidence, that hospitals and the “mainstream media” are fudging the numbers. By “mainstream media,” these white evangelicals essentially mean every other network besides ones like Fox News, One America News Network, Newsmax and Breitbart, which traffic in extreme right-wing propaganda and crackpot conspiracies. Early on during the pandemic, these networks echoed Trump’s spurious and dangerous talking points about coronavirus. Many white evangelicals ate up this “fake news,” and they continue to do so.
But it doesn’t stop there. White evangelical leaders and churches have been among the most prolific purveyors of COVID-19 and mask misinformation in the country. A prime example of this is Pastor Greg Locke of Global Vision Bible Church, located in Middle Tennessee. In the past, Locke has told his members if they come to worship wearing masks, they would be turned away. Locke also said in an interview, “I do believe COVID is a flu strain that would have never been heard of had it not been an election year.” He has since been banned from Twitter for spreading misinformation.
Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in Los Angeles has said from the pulpit, “There is no pandemic.” MacArthur also allowed thousands of maskless church members to gather despite pandemic orders, even as some fell ill.
What makes the positions of Locke and MacArthur so ironic is that both identify as “pro-life.” Epidemiologists agree: When people wear masks, they are protecting their neighbors from the potential spread of the virus. Despite the actions of these pastors, Jesus did have something to say about loving one’s neighbor.
2. Vaccine denialism
There is clear scientific evidence that the current COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective. However, many white evangelicals are in denial about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines. They see faith and the science related to these vaccines as being mutually exclusive.
White evangelicals have been one of the most vaccine-hesitant segments of the United States population since vaccines first became available. In fact, among religious groups, white evangelicals are the most resistant to vaccination. The Kaiser Family Foundation has been conducting a rigorous ongoing study. As of June 2021, it found that about 14% of American adults say they won’t get vaccinated under any circumstances, while the number is 22% among white evangelicals.
Some white evangelical leaders have said outlandish things concerning COVID-19 vaccines. At one point, Locke said the vaccines were actually “sugar water.” To exploit peoples’ fears, other leaders have falsely claimed that vaccines contain fetal tissue or microchips or are somehow associated with the “mark of the beast” referenced in the book of Revelation.
“Focusing on one’s ‘personal freedoms’ at the expense of one’s neighbor is selfish.”
Still other white evangelical leaders have been telling their followers they don’t need any vaccine. They simply need to have faith that God will protect them from COVID-19. Using this logic, many of these same individuals simply need to have faith that God will protect them, and give up all their guns. Mind you, I affirm one’s basic right to bear arms. I’m just illustrating the inconsistency of these leaders’ argument.
There are a few prominent white evangelical leaders who are encouraging their followers to get vaccinated, but these are outliers. Even among those encouraging others to consider vaccination, some engage in a rhetorical two-step of sorts by saying, “But you have your freedoms. It’s your choice.” This is a rather Trumpian approach. Focusing on one’s “personal freedoms” at the expense of one’s neighbor is selfish. It is not looking out for the interest of others, as the Apostle Paul encouraged his readers to do in Philippians 2:4.
Natalie Jackson, research director of the Public Religion Research Institute, has said, “If anything, the pattern of white evangelical resistance to vaccination has reached the point where some white evangelical leaders who might otherwise urge vaccination hesitate to do so because of the political climate.”
Simply put, rather than standing on the truth concerning vaccination against COVID-19, these white evangelical leaders usually give in to the pressure. This sounds eerily similar to the position Pilate took relative to Jesus before authorizing his crucifixion.
3. Climate change denialism
There is general consensus in the scientific community on the issue of climate change. Further, people of various religious faiths believe our planet is getting warmer and we humans must take responsibility for this.
That said, white evangelicals are among the most skeptical with regard to climate science. According to a Pew Research Center poll from May 2020, while 62% of religiously unaffiliated American adults agree that the earth is warming primarily due to human action, only 24% of white evangelical Protestants do.
Given the numbers, it’s easy to see how the talking points of many white evangelical leaders and climate change denialists in the Republican Party are strikingly similar. Many conservative Republicans and white evangelicals immediately dismiss any talk of environmentalism and climate change as a part of a “leftist agenda.”
Trump has described climate change as a “hoax,” and he’s been called the “worst president for the environment in history.” Over the four years of the Trump administration, major climate policies were dismantled. Moreover, according to a New York Times analysis, nearly 100 rules governing clean air, water, wildlife and toxic chemicals were officially reversed, revoked or otherwise rolled back. This did not result in any massive outcry among white evangelicals. They apparently saw no inconsistency bearing the banner of “pro-life” while supporting one whose policies were largely pro-death, especially for those whom Jesus called “the least of these.”
There’s a segment of the white evangelical population that believes in global warming. However, there’s no urgency to do anything about it among most. Some believe God’s instruction to humans, in the book of Genesis, to take dominion over the earth and everything in it implies unrestrained power and control.
But Psalm 24:1 makes it quite clear that “the earth and everything in it” belong to the Lord. In view of this biblical truth, those of us who inhabit the earth should be good stewards of it. Therefore, white evangelicals who profess to have a high view of the Bible and a belief in the sanctity of life should be at the forefront of addressing this critical issue.
4. Fair election denialism
During his first presidential campaign, in 2016, Trump made numerous claims of “voter fraud” occurring in the United States. In 2017, after his election, he created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity through executive order. This commission was formed to examine a “problem” that did not exist. Study after study had demonstrated there was no widespread election fraud in the United States. By June 2018, this commission was disbanded without producing one shred of evidence substantiating Trump’s erroneous claims.
Like a spoiled child insisting on having his way, long before any votes were cast in the 2020 election, Trump planted many seeds of doubt about the forthcoming election results. He said things like, “The only way we’re gonna lose is if it’s rigged.” After Trump lost, in a free and fair election, he never conceded, falsely claiming the election had been stolen.
In his article titled “Rise of Conspiracies Reveals an Evangelical Divide in the GOP,” Daniel A. Cox discusses how much more likely white evangelical Republicans are than other Republicans to believe conspiracy theories, such as the QAnon conspiracy. Cox said: “The assertion that the 2020 presidential election was rife with voter fraud — a claim Trump has repeated consistently without evidence — is common among white evangelical Christian Republicans. But is less widely held among other Republicans. Seventy-four percent of white evangelical Republicans say the claim that there was widespread fraud in the 2020 election is either mostly or completely accurate.”
“75% of white evangelical Republicans say President Joe Biden was not legitimately elected.”
Cox goes on to state that 75% of white evangelical Republicans say President Joe Biden was not legitimately elected. By some estimates, white evangelicals make up about a third of consistent Republican voters. Consider the corrosive impact such false beliefs could have on the Republican Party, the Biden administration and democracy as a whole.
Shortly after the 2020 election, a number of states began riding the wave of Trump’s Big Lie that the election was stolen, passing voter suppression laws. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, between Jan. 1 and July 14, 2021, at least 18 states enacted 30 laws that restrict access to the vote. These laws disproportionately impact people of color, who tend to vote for Democratic candidates. The term “election integrity” is simply a pseudonym for voter suppression.
5. Insurrection denialism
In my lifetime, there are two events during which I can say exactly where I was. The first is the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. The second is the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. I saw the events of that fateful day in January unfold in real time as I watched the news in my home while recovering from COVID-19.
An overwhelmingly white mob of Trump supporters was storming the Capitol, viciously attacking police along the way. Trump clearly incited this insurrection while peddling the Big Lie at the “Stop the Steal Rally.” However, he started his diabolical disinformation campaign long before the election. It resulted in the Capitol being breached and desecrated, five fatalities, 140 injuries to law enforcement, and scores of traumatized officials. Most notably, it was arguably the greatest threat to our democracy since 9/11 or the Civil War.
But what sickened me the most about this failed attempt to overturn a democratic election was the strong influence of white evangelical and Christian nationalist elements within the mob. I never will forget the Trump and “Jesus Saves” banners being raised collectively with the American, Christian and Confederate battle flags.
Some of these white evangelical Christian nationalist terrorists chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” because the former vice president would not prevent the certification of the electoral votes. In their perverted way of thinking, they saw themselves as “patriots” and not the misguided, thuggish Trump cult members they really are. I saw live on TV some illegally enter the Senate chamber and while proudly standing atop the dais, they offered a prayer, invoking Jesus’ name.
After all this, a good portion of the white evangelical electorate denies what we all saw with our own eyes. It was obviously Trump loyalists who engaged in this seditionist affair. Not the “Deep State,” not Black Lives Matter, not Antifa, not the FBI. This was no “false flag operation.”
This was the real deal: a terrorist attack inspired by and incited by the sitting president of these United States. Yet a great percentage of white evangelicals either downplay this fact or want us to forget it even happened in the first place. And these are the people who are supposed to be defenders of truth? I think not.
6. Systemic racism denialism
At the peak of the pandemic, I received a text message from a white evangelical pastor who had been a longtime friend of mine. For years, we had shared in joint worship and “the breaking of bread,” as we call it in church circles.
In light of the racial justice protests of 2020, he expressed concern for me and a desire to get together that he might provide support. Naturally, I agreed. We met in my pastor’s study. He began by stating his belief that the officer who murdered George Floyd deserved to be executed. Like many Americans, he seemed genuinely appalled by what he saw with his own eyes. However, he was focused on the glaring injustice of that singular event.
Given my friend’s myopic focus, I began to explain to him the historic realities of systemic racism manifested in policing across the country. I told him that Floyd’s murder was not just about one “bad apple” in a police department, but one of countless examples of how Black bodies are policed in America. I cited other examples of systemic racism, such as redlining, as well as racial disparities in sentencing and in household income. A look of discomfort came on his face as he began to fidget in his seat. I listed several authors and resources I had personally found helpful on the subject of systemic racism. Suddenly, he became less willing to listen and more eager to push back on what I was attempting to share. We abruptly ended the conversation.
“Later, I texted my friend, asking if he would be willing to read some of Jemar Tisby’s work. He emphatically declined, indicating his admiration for Voddie Baucham’s work.”
Later, I texted my friend, asking if he would be willing to read some of Jemar Tisby’s work. He emphatically declined, indicating his admiration for Voddie Baucham’s work. Interestingly, Baucham is the Black author many white evangelicals and fundamentalists reference when they want to refute any validity of Critical Race Theory and/or the very existence of systemic racism. Such persons have predictably mislabeled authors such as Tisby “Critical Race Theorists” or “Cultural Marxists.”
I surmise that most of these individuals don’t even know what Critical Race Theory or Marxism actually are, nor have they read primary sources related to either. All they know is that these terms can be deployed as weapons of mass distraction, intended to shut down any substantive conversation about race or racism.
What made the interactions with my friend so deeply disturbing and traumatizing is that he gave more weight to the perspectives of an author he’s only briefly met as opposed to those of me, one whom he’s called “friend” for years.
Sadly, my experience is not uncommon among African Americans who have tried to engage white evangelicals on the issue of systemic racism. The hyper-individualistic theology and cultural arrogance of many white evangelicals makes it very difficult for them to see beyond the limited scope of personal sin. For the sake of my mental health, I will only engage individuals who are truly ready to listen and learn.
Like Pilate, white evangelicals say Jesus is a king. Much more, they say he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. This I believe with every fiber of my being. I also believe Jesus, based upon what he told Pilate, came to testify to the truth. He also said, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
It is clear to me, and I pray it is clear to all who read this, that many white evangelicals are not on the side of truth. It is apparent that relative to the critical issues addressed here, they’re not listening to Jesus. They’re being discipled by Fox, OAN, Newsmax, Breitbart and most notably, by Donald Trump. Frightening, indeed!
I call on white evangelicals to walk in truth, not in lies, as in the case of Trump. I also call on white evangelicals to repent of their gross political and cultural idolatry — their sordid love affair with power.
Woe to you, hypocrites, who preach one thing, but practice another! You have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear!
Joel A. Bowman Sr. is a native of Detroit and serves as the founder and senior pastor of Temple of Faith Baptist Church, in Louisville, Ky. He also maintains a practice as a licensed clinical social worker with nearly 30 years of experience in the mental health field. His commentaries and poems have been printed in numerous publications. Joel and his wife, Nannette, have three children, Kayla, Katie and Joel Jr. Follow him on Twitter @JoelABowmanSr.
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