The woman’s voice waivers.
She breathes deep, then rushes forward to detail how church pastors took part in the multiple years of sexual abuse when she was a child. Despite my anger and disgust, I probe more. Years of war prepared me for the dark underbelly of human nature, but — within in these interviews and confessions — my stomach lurches. I try to contain my temper, but punch the steering wheel as I drive home later in the day.
My investigative article will release a year after interviewing sources, survivors, and experts. Once published, I grow tired and cynical. Perhaps it’s more of a lament. So few Christians even cared that mega church pastors glossed over rampant sexual abuse and continued to protect their buddies. Some Christians even went to bat for the pastors in question. I ponder, for months, how it’s possible that the American church has strayed so far into cults of personality and politics, money and power, and a desire to be “blessed” more than following their founder’s teachings about worldly possessions.
Once I learn of an investigation following 20 years of sexual abuse inside the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), I turn sources and legal documents over to the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express. Their report will become a bombshell and make national headlines in early 2019. I’d hoped their findings would cause some reform, and in fairness there were some changes, but overall it was a dog and pony show by pastors and SBC officials until it blew over. Many of the issues from 2019, however, passed into obscurity once the nuclear holocaust of 2020 began.
As the pandemic swept across the globe, I once more wondered how the Christian church and their faithful would respond to such tumultuous times. Would we change? So far, our record wasn’t fairing well given the previous year. Historically, Christians lived their faith well during a pandemic. In the early Christian church, when the Plague of Cyprian hit Rome, the rich and powerful fled the city — much like how wealthy New Yorkers are currently abandoning the city for safer pastures. In antiquity, Christians rushed into the Roman cities to take care of the sick, poor, and dying at great expense to their well-being. Historians credit this pandemic for the rapid explosion of Christianity in the early century. Not so in this pandemic it would appear.
If anything, 2020 has proved how far removed American Christians are from their historic roots amid a global crisis. Instead, a truly epic meltdown is occurring. Political ideology has infected the faithful like cancer and many pontificate about how their candidate reflects their faith or ideology. Sunday morning is still the most segregated time in America. The #metoo/#churchtoo movement got swept under the rug. Christians care more about their level of comfort and avoiding suffering despite their scriptures teaching on the value of suffering. Let us not forget that instead of loving our neighbor, we hate them should they have different ideologies, beliefs, or lifestyles.
The late martyr and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, would call these recent actions of the average Christian “cheap grace.” It’s a style of belief rooted in nothing but “I believe intellectually in the faith. Yet, nothing in my life aligns with my faith and is overshadowed by allegiances to secondary loves” (i.e. politics, comfort, money, etc). One has to wonder how the American Church and faithful strayed so far from orthodoxy and their roots? Where did the slow decline start, and how did we end up here?
We can point to many nuances in history, from Constantine to the Crusades, but it’s only been in the last 200 years that the church in the West turned Jesus Christ into a psychological tactic and Caesar-like figure. And it all began with every pastor’s favorite false weapon — The Sinner’s Prayer.
The Sinner’s Prayer is a form of psychological manipulation used in most every Protestant church in America. What people don’t know is that it only became dogma in the last 170 years. If you’ve ever been to a church service, then you probably know the schtick. At the end of a service they do an “altar call” where you pray and invite Jesus into your heart. Once you invited Jesus to live in your heart and trust him — whatever that means — you’re “saved.”
The major problem is that there is no historical or biblical basis for this blatant monstrosity that’s used in the American Church. This tactic of conversion wasn’t even used until the 1740s when, in 1741, a minister named Eleazar Wheelock developed a practice called “The Mourner’s Seat.” He would target non-Christians by having them sit in the front row pews during his sermons. Afterwards, many were susceptible to whatever Wheelock told them, and eyewitnesses recorded multiple false conversions. His technique, however, would not advance for another hundred years until Charles Finney adopted it in 1835.
Finney named his tactic the “Anxious Seat” and developed theology around his conversion technique. His method attracted the ire of many Protestant preachers who considered it a form of psychological manipulation and referred to it as “quackery.” Finney’s system led to high fallout and was almost abandoned until Dwight Moody picked it up in 1860 by utilizing trained counselors in a room called the “Inquiry Room” to push conversion. Moody’s people would ask several leading questions (think “if you died tonight, do you know where you’d go?”) and then pray with the willing as a method to “receive Christ.” Moody’s system caught fire and evolved into the Sinner’s Prayer we know today. The major revival crusades of the 1900s then formalized this process under Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, and Bill Bright. (1)
To back up their method of conversion, Billy Graham and others used a bible passage from John 1:11–13 about “trusting in Jesus,” but used the Living Bible Translation. The problem is that the translator, Kenneth Taylor, blatantly inserted presuppositions that have no basis in the Greek for “trusting in Jesus.” Later translations fixed this, but to no avail — this conversion method had become the standard, despite being based in false theology and corruptive history. Billy Graham would then go on to be an advisor to sitting Presidents and Congressmen for spiritual guidance, thus beginning the American Church’s slow descent into political fascination and ideology.
But it would be the Jerry Falwell Sr. and the rise of the Moral Majority that began hammering nails in the coffins of American Christianity while appealing to the manipulated masses.
In modernity, it’s easy to assume that Christians have always been involved in politics. Our current news media considers evangelicals a voting bloc in polls, as are Catholics and Jews.
Surprisingly, evangelicals prior to the late 1970s predominately stayed out of politics— at least in any organized way. Many believed in the separation of church and state, basing their premise on the founding of the United States. Their reasoning held that by doing so, they were free to continue to exercise their religious liberty without the government infringing on those rights. However, a Catholic political activist and religious conservative named Paul Weyrich realized that were he to rally Christians, then their large numbers would become a formidable voting bloc used to advance his ideology.
For years he tried different causes: porn, prayer in school, even abortion, but nothing took hold. While many assume the roots of the Moral Majority created by Weyrich and Falwell have their basis in abortion, they’d be wrong. The issue that got American evangelicals involved was segregation.
When the IRS began threatening to revoke 501c3 charitable statuses from Christian universities that did not admit African Americans after the Green v. Connally ruling, evangelical leaders took note. They believed it was an assault on their religious freedom and practice of beliefs, infringing on the separation of church and state. Even Falwell Sr. became infuriated when the IRS began inquiring about his own Lynchburg Christian School’s policy on integration. The landmark moment that pushed everyone over the edge was when Bob Jones University had their charitable status revoked. Consider the following from an investigative report by Politico on the roots of the Moral Majority:
For many evangelical leaders, who had been following the issue since Green v. Connally, Bob Jones University was the final straw. As Elmer L. Rumminger, longtime administrator at Bob Jones University, told me in an interview, the IRS actions against his school “alerted the Christian school community about what could happen with government interference” in the affairs of evangelical institutions. “That was really the major issue that got us all involved.”
Falwell and Weyrich were smart enough to then tap into the anger of Christian leaders who then tapped into that of their congregations. While Roe v. Wade had been law for five years, it didn’t become the issue for Christians until 1978 when Falwell and Weyrich used it for their own advantages. I’m not sure they really cared about abortion as an issue more than they cared about tapping into political influence and prestige. With the rise of their Moral Majority, religious leaders intermingled faith with politics, and even drove Jimmy Carter — a fellow Christian who, both as governor of Georgia and as president, sought to reduce abortions — out of office. By the 1980s the Religious Right had firmly planted their flag in the political arena and churches began giving out tracts on how Christians should vote. Even my childhood church invited Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma (R) to deliver a “sermon” on how Christians should vote.
Between the Sinner’s Prayer and politicization of the Christian faith, the average Christian became no more than number used to boast of a church’s success in conversions and dumb enough to believe whatever their pastor told them from the pulpit — including how they should vote.
When the Protestant Reformation kicked off, Martin Luther began by criticizing the Roman Catholic Church for selling indulgences to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica. Indulgences were “a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins,” and became a large marketing effort by the church in Rome. Since Constantine, the Catholic Church had also increasingly become intermingled in politics and consolidating power in that arena. The Reformation sought to correct the errors and abuses many saw happening inside their faith, but also led to the greatest split in Christianity.
Given that the Catholic Church focused heavily on good deeds which gave way to the rise of indulgences, Martin Luther would develop a theological system around “salvation by faith alone” and reject good works. Catholics also believe that right standing with God is through faith alone, but believed good works were evidence of a life submitted to God. However, once political ideology, money, and power came into the picture, the Church lost its way and leaned heavily on good works to fund their pet projects and wars.
In the Gospel writing of James — the half-brother of Jesus — much of the epistle focuses on Christian’s good deeds as an outworking of their faith and is also a critique on lazy faith. Luther hated the book of James so much he called it “the epistle of straw” and believed someone other than Jesus’s half brother had written it. For better or worse, over time the Reformation’s impact helped diminish the role of acting like Jesus in word, action, and deed. By the time the Sinner’s Prayer went into effect, there was little emphasis on lives lived in service to Christ, but more about how many professions of faith people made. Once the Moral Majority got involved by manipulating the masses into combining faith and political leanings, the implosion of anything resembling historic orthodox faith and action took an utter nosedive.
The subsequent results have proved devastating, and American Christians have given their allegiance — both on the left and right — to worshipping a Caesar like figure. They believe a candidate will somehow fix their woes, and many look to them in a Messianic role instead of being a simple civil servant. Even those that aren’t of the Christian faith have bought into this nonsense. Men and women have wept over candidates losing elections and placed their hope and undying allegiance into a politician. Instead of seeking to change the world around them for good, they take the lazy route and think an elected official will somehow fix it. In the almost 40 years I’ve been alive, no politician has really fixed anything. Wages haven’t increased with inflation, our education system continues to crumble, cities like San Francisco have the income disparity of Rwanda, we’re a nation divided, and there’s endless war. But sure, your candidate will fix this in 4 to 8 years while history continues to prove the opposite. Both the converted masses and even those outside of faith, direct their devotion, anger, and hopes into a person on stage making grandiose, but unrealistic, promises. Say what you will, but there’s a simple term for that: worship.
The disheartening truth in all of this is that the converted masses look nothing like their Lord and Savior but parrots of whoever they favor politically. They have arrived in these positions because of psychological manipulation, in addition to the greed and ego of men who have hijacked the Christian faith. Combined, the average Christian is the perfect pawn in their game of chess. They do not love their neighbor, instead they hate them for differing beliefs. Instead of being peacemakers, they are warmongers and keyboard warriors. Whereas Jesus states the Kingdom of Heaven is not of this earth, they worship the rulers and Kingdoms of Earth with blind allegiance. Whereas God asks his followers to care for the poor, marginalized, foreigner, orphan, and widow, they — like the biblical character Cain — reply “am I my brother’s keeper?”
It may be tempting to argue with the problem and premise I’ve presented, but I must ask — is one truly a follower of Christ if most of their words, deeds, and actions don’t align? One can claim to be an astronaut, but if they’ve never piloted a spacecraft or left the atmosphere, are they really? Jesus even reminds his disciples that diseased trees produce diseased fruit, yet we appear to have preachers, pastors, and congregants that continue to ignore the stench of a rotting life. The veneer is crumbling and everyone is getting to see who the true puppet master is.
It is not Christ. It isn’t even Christianity. It is Caesar wrapped in a flag with false promises. And like the fickle masses who stood by on a Friday afternoon, once the real Jesus shows up, they’ll be the first to yell, “Crucify him.”
(1) Much of this section is a result of Steve Staten’s well documented article The Sinner’s Prayer: A Brief History of a Novel Practice