How the Pandemic Radicalized Evangelicals




SINCE THE start of the COVID-19 pandemic, evangelical Christians have been among the most polarizing voices in a divided nation struggling to respond to a grave public health emergency. From the moment authorities began addressing the crisis last year, evangelicals have protested government-ordered lockdowns, resisted measures such as mask-wearing, defied restrictions on indoor worship services, and fought public health officials all the way to the Supreme Court.

More recently, white evangelicals have emerged as the demographic group most resistant to getting vaccinated against COVID-19. Their embrace of conspiracy theories and overall pandemic denialism contributed to their avid participation in the January 6 insurrection at the United States Capitol. A religious group that prides itself on its patriotism has become a major impediment to advancing the United States’s goals.

The pandemic brought to the surface self-defeating forces that had been churning for years inside the United States’s most politically powerful faith community. One evangelical church in particular both illustrates and helped to drive this phenomenon. Of all the evangelical organizations that defied pandemic health orders and fought the government during this crisis, none was more prominent or influential than Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. Grace is a 65-year-old megachurch in the San Fernando Valley led by a low-key, theologically conservative pastor named John MacArthur. Since August 2020, the church has been locked in a highly publicized legal battle with Los Angeles County over restrictions on in-person worship. The church defied a county prohibition against large indoor gatherings beginning last summer and worked with a lawyer from Trump’s reelection campaign to fight the county in court. MacArthur, who is among the most widely known evangelical pastors in the United States, appeared multiple times on Fox News, and his court case became a rallying cry for evangelicals worldwide. A graduate of a seminary he founded on the Grace Church campus was arrested in January after persuading his own church in Canada to disobey official health orders. MacArthur portrayed his fight against the government in epochal terms. “Christ, not Caesar, is the head of the church,” he proclaimed in July.

MacArthur merits special scrutiny because, unlike many other evangelicals, he cannot be dismissed as a partisan Donald Trump supporter. Until last year, MacArthur studiously avoided politics. He voted for Trump grudgingly (“I’m voting for an ideology that is closer to Scripture,” he told a church leadership magazine in 2016) and rarely preached about political issues. He pointedly criticized the prosperity gospel preachers who became Trump’s closest Christian allies. “John doesn’t involve himself in politics,” a statement on a Grace Church website reads. “Since God left the church on earth to make disciples (not Democrats or Republicans), John believes the best way a pastor can spend his time, energy and influence is by preaching God’s Word.”

Pastor at Grace since 1969, MacArthur, 82, is regarded by evangelicals as a Christian elder statesman. His Bible studies and other books have been translated into more than two dozen languages, and his sermons are broadcast in English and Spanish throughout the United States and in 23 countries in Europe and Latin America. Graduates of The Master’s Seminary, founded on the Grace campus in 1986, lead churches around the world. MacArthur’s stature as a conservative biblical expositor, not a political activist, demands a different, subtler, more telling explanation for his and other evangelicals’ pandemic defiance.

Though Grace initially closed its doors in compliance with a statewide lockdown order, MacArthur changed course four months later, reopening his church’s 3,500-seat sanctuary to indoor worship, defying mask mandates. It was a remarkable change in posture. In a livestreamed conversation in April, MacArthur had spoken of Grace members who were hospitalized with the virus and said one of a pastor’s most sacred duties is protecting his congregation. “If we defy this and if we say we’re going to meet anyway, we run the risk of exposing people to this illness needlessly,” MacArthur said. “And why would we want to do that?”

Why, indeed. Something happened during those first four months of the pandemic that not only changed MacArthur’s mind but galvanized him into outright public anti-government opposition. He ignored a cease-and-desist letter from Los Angeles County, then countersued when the county sought to block the in-person services in court. News coverage of the case caught Trump’s attention. Spotting an opportunity to cultivate his religious conservative base, Trump called MacArthur to offer encouragement, and one of his campaign lawyers, Jenna Ellis, signed on to help represent the church in court. “Bring it on,” MacArthur taunted authorities during a Fox News appearance. One month later, citing a debunked interpretation of Centers for Disease Control mortality data, MacArthur proclaimed, “There is no pandemic.” The church has met in person every Sunday since. In March of this year, local health authorities ranked COVID-19 as the leading cause of death in Los Angeles County.

MacArthur citied various reasons for his defiance, including those debunked mortality figures and his umbrage that churches were kept closed even as casinos reopened and social justice protesters were allowed to congregate outdoors in large numbers. His top concern, however, had nothing to do with conservative talking points. A closer examination of his public statements, especially in sermons and other church appearances, shows that for MacArthur, the pandemic primarily challenged his personal and ministerial power. “Everything has been taken out of our control,” he lamented in a January sermon.

Now all of a sudden, all kinds of people were telling us what to do. […] [We’re] forbidden to meet, forbidden to sing, forbidden to fellowship, forbidden to have social events, forbidden to be with each other, forbidden to have funerals, weddings. […] If you’re in leadership, you would understand that there is a need to control things.

Throughout 2020, MacArthur preached about leaders in the Bible who gave in to worldly temptation and lost control over the tasks God had set for them. The pandemic, he implied, presented churches with a stark choice: retain power over their own affairs or surrender power to outside forces hostile to God. “A man who has character, conviction, virtue, righteousness, wisdom, honesty will be very careful with power,” MacArthur preached in September. “And the first thing he’ll do with his power is to make sure he honors God, and the church of God.” In an August court filing, Grace’s lawyers summed up the church’s position: “We see [Los Angeles County’s] action against us as an illegitimate misuse of power.”

MacArthur “does not like anyone telling him what he can or cannot do,” said Dennis Swanson, a former Master’s Seminary administrator who worked for MacArthur for over two decades. Swanson said that in recent years, MacArthur has dedicated himself to “cutting out as much of the outside influence as possible. […] He’s become more insular.” Swanson said he was fired in 2015 after warning MacArthur that conflicts of interest and an authoritarian leadership culture at the seminary would cause it to lose accreditation. Three years later, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges placed the seminary and a companion university on academic probation, citing lack of accountability in the schools’ leadership and an overall “climate of fear, intimidation, bullying, and uncertainty among significant numbers of faculty and staff.” (The schools were removed from probation last year after MacArthur stepped down as president, but an abrupt leadership shakeup in February suggests that MacArthur is seeking to reassert control and remove the seminary permanently from the accreditation process.)

Tax records show that MacArthur has consolidated authority over the church among a small number of family members and close associates, including his son Mark MacArthur, who was sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission in February 2020 for defrauding customers of his investment firm. Grace Community Church and a related nonprofit have funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation and no-bid contracts to MacArthur’s son-in-law and the relatives of other senior church leaders. In April, Grace withdrew from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a church oversight organization, after they requested recent financial statements. MacArthur’s pandemic fears of losing control followed years of efforts to ensure that no outside force challenged his power. “This is the closest thing to the experience of a church in war,” he preached in January.

Understanding the causes of evangelical radicalization has preoccupied many of the journalists and scholars who study contemporary American religion. Since Trump’s election, a publishing genre has emerged that could be called The (Evangelical) Plot Against the United States. Books such as The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism by New York Times contributor Katherine Stewart and Unholy: How White Christian Nationalists Powered the Trump Presidency, and the Devastating Legacy They Left Behind by investigative reporter Sarah Posner purport to draw back the curtain on a dangerous and organized effort by religious conservatives to hijack American government and public life. Analysts posit various reasons for this trend toward extremism. Pollster Robert P. Jones’s White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity identifies racism as evangelicals’ (indeed all American Christians’) original sin. The Atlantic’s Peter Wehner points to a decades-long devil’s bargain with conservative political operatives. Others cite evangelicals’ anti-rational rejection of science or their resistance to changes in American sexual mores. Even evangelicals themselves have joined the explanatory effort. Conservative commentators in recent years have invoked hostile intellectuals, secular media, anti-religious government, and even youth sports on Sundays as reasons for evangelicals’ oppositional anger.

In August 2020, New York Times religion correspondent Elizabeth Dias filed a 4,000-word front-page story from Sioux Center, Iowa, that wove many of these strands together into a single, comprehensively reported theory. Evangelicals, Dias wrote after spending several days in a conservative heartland town, feel alienated from and unfairly maligned by a nation that is pivoting away from their faith. To halt or at least slow the pace of the change, evangelicals have concluded they have no choice but to seize political power by any means necessary. “The Trump era has revealed the complete fusion of evangelical Christianity and conservative politics,” Dias reported. “Mainstream evangelical Christianity has made plain its deepest impulses and exposed where the majority of its believers pledge allegiance.”

Though there is widespread agreement about the broad outlines of this theory, I remain skeptical. Explanatory consensus about complex social issues is as likely to stem from groupthink as it is from true insight. If you arrive in a small town in Iowa and ask people why they support Donald Trump or resist wearing medical masks, you will hear stories like the ones in Dias’s reporting. If, instead, you ask people of faith what their hardest struggle was in the past year, you will get a very different kind of information. In my own journalistic conversations with evangelicals during the pandemic, I heard very little about political, racial, or cultural grievances. I heard far more often about prosaic concerns, such as the challenges of elder caregiving, fraying marriages, struggles with addiction, worries about children, lost jobs, grief, regret, and overall stress.

Christians go to church for help with everyday troubles such as these. And it is here, I believe, that a deeper explanation lies both for evangelicals’ anti-social pandemic behavior and for their larger pattern of divisive, anti-government attitudes. In recent decades, motivated by a combination of evangelistic zeal and everyday human ambition, evangelicals have embraced an explicitly business-oriented approach to ministry that has remade Christianity in the image of corporate America. In 2018, many of the United States’s most prominent evangelical leaders paid tribute to a church growth consultant named Bob Buford, who died that year after a decades-long career regarded by many evangelicals as transformative for their movement. Buford, a Texas cable television executive and disciple of the management guru Peter Drucker, used his personal fortune to bring business principles to evangelical churches. He is credited with catalyzing the growth of megachurches, elevating evangelicals’ longstanding affinity with corporate America into outright emulation.

The resulting “evangelical industrial complex” (so dubbed by critics) has succeeded in its goal of building large Christian organizations and attracting attention to Jesus through a variety of media. Life.Church in Edmond, Oklahoma, a pioneer in digital ministries, reported $150 million in revenue in 2019 and $325 million in total assets. In 2013, First Baptist Church in Dallas, led by prominent Trump supporter Robert Jeffress, opened a $130 million, 500,000-square-foot worship center with a 150-foot-wide video screen behind the altar, a glass sky bridge, and a baptistery fountain that plays hymns in time with water jets. First Baptist’s 44-person leadership team includes two executive pastors to oversee business operations, a communications director, and a wedding coordinator.

One thing such churches have proven less able to do, especially at a time of national crisis, is meet people’s everyday spiritual needs. Since the megachurch movement took off in the 1990s, the percentage of Americans identifying as evangelical has declined from nearly a third to just over a fifth. A mere six percent of megachurch attendees in 2008 were converts to the faith, according to Leadership Network, a church consulting organization. The rest migrated from smaller churches, which have withered as megachurches captured a larger share of the Christian market. A 2016 survey by Lifeway, the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, found that fewer than half of all evangelicals were able to identify or state their agreement with core Christian beliefs. A separate Lifeway survey found that a quarter of all evangelicals have read no more than “several passages or stories” from the Bible. More than a third believes faith in God will make you rich. Barna Group, an evangelical market research firm, now classifies a large proportion of American Christians as “notional” believers: people who identify as Christian but do not maintain strong ties to a church and view religion more as a cultural or political identifier than as a way of life. In the 2016 presidential election, 26 percent of voters identified themselves as evangelical. Just seven percent correctly answered a series of questions indicating knowledge of core evangelical principles.

Conspiracy theories and political extremism have filled the gap left by churches’ preoccupation with market share and media reach. Elizabeth Neumann, an evangelical who formerly served as a top homeland security official in the Trump administration and now studies religious extremism, told an interviewer recently that she sees a direct connection between how evangelicals run their churches and how they behave in the public sphere:

There was a big movement in the ’90s called Seeker-Friendly Churches. Willow Creek [one of the most prominent of those churches] did a self-assessment about 10 or 15 years ago, and one of the things that they found is while they had converted people to Christians, there was a lack of growth in their faith. They were not learning the scriptures. They were not engaged in community. They were not discipling anybody. And [Willow Creek’s] assessment was: We failed. We baptized some people, but they’re not actually maturing. […] My thesis here is that if we had a more scripturally based set of believers in this country — if everybody who calls themselves a “Christian” had actually read through, I don’t know, 80 percent of the Bible — they would not have been so easily deceived.

The pandemic struck at the heart of evangelicals’ ministry model. Though only 10 percent of American Christians attend a megachurch, their worship style and business orientation have become inescapable standards in evangelical Christianity. Pastors of even small churches are expected to grow membership, cultivate a social media following, and provide high-tech entertainment on Sunday mornings. A robust network of parachurch organizations exists to help pastors meet such goals. Websites furnish worship bands for rent, provide tools to help churches boost their social media following, and offer to coax contributions from high-income donors at weekend “Journey of Generosity” retreats.

All such activities became difficult or impossible at a time when indoor gatherings were prohibited, and many Americans were staying home, losing jobs, or juggling work and childcare. More to the point, ministries organized around marketing principles simply were not equipped to respond to church members’ sudden fears, economic dislocation, and need for one-on-one, compassionate support. “COVID revealed a fundamental weakness in the church,” Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Orange County told an interviewer in December. “Most churches only have one purpose: Worship. And if you take worship away, you’ve got nothing.”

Over the course of the pandemic, I spoke with dozens of evangelical church members and leaders. I observed a consistent pattern. Churches that were already doing a good job providing pastoral and social services to their congregations and communities weathered the crisis and even thrived, developing new ministries and gaining respect for their work. Size was not a criterion. Churches large and small found success. What seemed to make the difference was a focus on one-on-one ministry and a commitment to local communities. Saddleback, one of the United States’s largest churches, transformed itself into a social services hub, providing food and other resources to local residents and helping to promote vaccines via an online conversation between Warren and National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, who is himself an evangelical. For years, Saddleback has encouraged members to join small fellowship groups that provide the kind of personal contact and accountability otherwise lacking in large, anonymous megachurch services. In Austin, Texas, medium-sized Covenant Presbyterian Church bought and forgave $10 million worth of local medical debt. Oak Park Baptist Church in Jeffersonville, Indiana, with roughly 400 members, focused on a youth services program that benefits residents of nearby public housing complexes.

By contrast, evangelicals who spoke out most vocally against pandemic measures tended to belong to churches that depend heavily on in-person worship services and the star power of prominent pastors. Such churches suffered from the prohibition of indoor gatherings and left members searching for alternative ways to cope with the pandemic’s many hardships. Leaders fought to return to business as usual. Members gravitated to us-versus-them explanations for their troubles. The rise of pandemic radicalism reflected a massive failure of evangelical ministry.

Grace Community Church is an example of such ministerial failure. Though John MacArthur is admired by evangelicals for the influence of his ministry and his adherence to theological fundamentals, former Grace members say the church more resembles a family business presided over by a long-lived patriarch who brooks no opposition to his prerogatives. For members who agree with MacArthur’s approach, that arrangement works just fine. For others, the top-down structure creates what Roberto van Dalen, a former Grace Church deacon, called “a toxic church environment” and an “us versus them” leadership culture. Van Dalen said many church members and leaders are afraid to disagree with MacArthur because “if you get blacklisted, you lose everything.” Another former member, who asked to be identified only as Gregory, said elders and other church leaders told him they are forbidden from speaking publicly about church affairs without MacArthur’s permission and have been asked to sign non-disclosure agreements as a condition of employment. “They may disapprove of a lot that is going on, but they’re now an older staff who need the job,” Gregory said. “They couldn’t ever risk speaking to someone.”

The focus on MacArthur’s authority and star power weakened Grace’s ability to respond to the pandemic. Grace is what is known as a “commuter church.” In 2015, Swanson, the former Master’s Seminary administrator, was asked to write a report about Grace’s future prospects for growth. “I said the demographics are bad here,” Swanson said he told church leaders:

Sixty-seven percent of Grace Church attendees live more than 30 miles from the church. […] They’re coming to hear John MacArthur and when that ends they’re not going to drive that far. I would estimate the church will decline 40 to 60 percent when John MacArthur is not there.

Under MacArthur’s leadership, Grace has become almost wholly disconnected from the community surrounding it. Just 18 percent of residents in the Sun Valley neighborhood of Los Angeles are white, according to Census figures. A majority were born in Mexico and El Salvador. The median age is 28. Grace does not publish the demographic characteristics of its congregation, but video footage of sermons shows a mostly white, older audience. Of 40 senior leaders listed on the church’s website, all but three are white. “I don’t tend to notice people of color” attending Grace, said Judith Poppe, who has lived around the corner from the church and watched members walk to the sanctuary from their cars for 47 years.

In a January sermon, MacArthur spotlighted some of Grace Church’s accomplishments during the pandemic. Atop his list was holding in-person services in defiance of local authorities and suing Los Angeles County. To address community needs, MacArthur said Grace donated orchids to local police stations, celebrated a police officer’s retirement, gave away $70,000 worth of food to families in the congregation, distributed MacArthur’s books in prisons, and protested outside an abortion clinic. For comparison, I inquired about pandemic outreach at Mariners Church, a megachurch in nearby Orange County similar in size to Grace that for years has prioritized local service work. Chief Content Officer Cathi Workman told me that Mariners provided childcare for essential workers, offered workspace and technology assistance to families adapting to online school, delivered more than 1,000,000 meals, held blood drives, and helped to provide services for local adults with special needs. Workman said Mariners complied with local health orders and sought to keep politics out of pandemic ministries. “I see most churches just honestly, humbly trying to navigate an era that no one has seen before,” she said. “A lot of creativity is emerging.”

Grace’s defiance of public health rules had predictable effects. In October, county officials began investigating outbreaks at both the church and The Master’s University and Seminary. Officials confirmed three cases at the church. In December, a former longtime Grace member who remains in contact with church leaders wrote on his personal blog that numerous elders and other church staff had contracted COVID after attending a church Christmas party. “Hundreds” of church members and leaders were sick, the former member said via email. In an April court statement, MacArthur justified not reporting COVID cases at the church to health authorities “because none of the people listed on [a church prayer list of sick members] are church employees.”

In January, a Master’s Seminary student in his 60s died from COVID. Accounts of sickness and hospitalizations began appearing on Grace’s social media pages. “I just have not had the strength to give a report on my health status of over two weeks of Covid,” wrote Grace pastor and seminary teacher William Varner on his personal Facebook page on December 25. “Know what you’re feeling, Will. Wayne & I are entering our second week today,” responded Grace member Lyn Baldwin. Other church members chimed in: “Praying for you, Dr. V. Rina and I tested positive yesterday.” “It is no fun. Starting my second week […] the coughing is the worse.” “I am just home, discharged. Thank you for your prayers.” Varner and other church members who discussed their illnesses on social media did not respond to requests for comment.

“After Christmas, my family ended up getting COVID,” said Katarina Ritter, a former Grace Church member whose parents and brother still attend the church. “We think it’s from my cousins who had it, but it could have been from someone at Grace. We just don’t know.” Ritter said her parents and brother followed MacArthur’s lead in believing that the pandemic had been overblown and that masks and social distancing were not necessary. “John MacArthur is very persuasive,” she said. “My parents say, ‘No one wears a mask, so we’re not going to either.’”

The family’s COVID symptoms were serious. Ritter said her father has asthma and “felt tightness in [his] chest and shortness of breath.” Her grandmother was hospitalized and placed on oxygen. Though Ritter said her parents work in Grace’s youth ministry, and her brother helps lead the church’s junior high school band, none of the family’s COVID cases were reported to public health authorities. Ritter said she tried to talk her family out of attending the church in person, but they always replied, “I don’t know anyone who has COVID” at Grace. “Two weeks later, [my mother] is like, ‘There’s a family in my Bible study that has COVID.’”

Following a December 20 sermon, MacArthur abruptly disappeared from the pulpit. Church elders gave various reasons for his absence: he was resting or preparing for an upcoming pastors’ conference. When MacArthur reappeared on January 17, he appeared to be recovering from an illness and labored to breathe. After coughing several times at the start of his sermon, he paused and said, “It’s still in there. You’re going to get it later this morning.” That comment was subsequently edited out of a video and transcript of the sermon posted on the church’s website.

The tragedy of MacArthur and other evangelicals’ pandemic denialism is not simply the illness, deaths, and disunion that resulted from their defiance. The evangelical prioritization of growth and power that motivated MacArthur has robbed the United States of an important source of social cohesion in a time of crisis. “There is this vast social science literature that finds these positive correlations between religiosity and what we think of as good outcomes: Low crime rates, lower rates of drug and alcohol abuse, higher income, better educational attainment,” said James Choi, a behavioral economics professor at Yale University. In a supportive religious environment, Choi said, “You have high value in God’s eyes and that’s an encouraging thing for people to hear. If I have a setback I can pick myself up and carry on.”

The lack of such resilience was evident everywhere during the pandemic, and evangelical leaders such as MacArthur missed a prime opportunity to help ameliorate it. Focused on their own power and privileges, those leaders instead exacerbated division in the United States and left their followers searching for alternatives, which they found in Donald Trump’s thrilling anti-American aberrance. This ministerial failure, and the institutional structures and incentives that contributed to it, deserve closer study as Americans attempt to understand why the nation’s most powerful religious movement has become a force for subversion.

For his part, MacArthur remains unbowed. In an April court statement, he dismissed news coverage of the situation at Grace as “falsehoods” and mockingly compared medical masks to veils worn in ancient Near Eastern culture. He remained fixated on power. “It is simply not the church’s duty to enforce executive orders based on a politician’s whimsy,” he proclaimed. “Government officials have no right to interfere in ecclesiastical matters in a way that undermines or disregards the God-given authority of pastors and elders.”

¤

Jim Hinch is a senior editor at Guideposts magazine.

 

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