Stop grooming our kids, you godbothering weirdos

In a decision remarkable mainly for how little effort the majority put in to convince us it even cared about the facts of the case, the conservative Supreme Court gave the go-ahead last week for schools to elevate religious zealotry alongside children's sports programs. The basic reasoning is conservative from top to bottom; the worst Christian person you know must have the right to make themselves a destructive public nuisance everywhere they happen to go, whereas The Children have no rights at all, not one, and must abide whatever the adults have in store for them.

The party of Jim Jordan and, well, Florida, is very clear on that last point and gets very prickly if you suggest otherwise. The Children must learn about conservative ideologies in schools, and must absolutely not learn anything their parents might object to. No learning about America's systemic racism; no learning what a uterus is; no learning about the existence of Jews, Muslims, Black authors, families with two moms, spouses in general, or rainbows.

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School football coaches, however, have generally been immune to such pressures. This is mostly because nobody thinks high school football coaches are in danger of teaching their kids a single damn thing, but it's also because there's no small town in America where parents' sole evening entertainment plans revolve around smuggling six packs into school stadiums to yell slurs at, for example, spelling bee contestants.

If the AP Biology teacher gets caught teaching children about the Forbidden Organs, there's no parent group that will launch itself into action to save them. If the school's athletic director gets caught raffling off tickets that allow the winner to hit the shower with his team of underage boys, then calls for justice will be responded to during school board meetings with feverish parent concerns about how the punishment might affect the team's winning season.

We're this close to the championships, after all. Is now really the time to rock the boat?

Well, I too am a parent, and I too have something to object to. I object to your religious practices, sports coaches that make a show of public prayer during school sports events. Your religion is wrong. Your religious beliefs are garbage, and you're a garbage person for having them. And, most importantly, I don't want my child or any of America's children to be anywhere near you.

Stop grooming our children, you freaks. Stop indoctrinating them to believe that the God they should believe in is a vapid entity that throws high school sports games based on the whims of abusive authority figures. Stop teaching them that God is a slot machine for them to put quarters in.

I don't care what religious sect you belong to: If you're leading children in prayer on the 50-yard line, your religion sucks. I don't care what you call God or how many gods you believe in; if you're leading a prayer on the field that ties the outcomes of sporting events to how the deities feel that evening, what is wrong with you.

Teaching kids about the history of lynching in America is not "grooming" them. Teaching our kids the formalities of praying in your religion is absolutely "grooming" them, and is in fact grooming them to be the worst kind of religious charlatans. Performative. Public. Hollow-headed. Insincere. Trivial.

Whatever your religion might be, you have no right to suggest to everyone else's children that if the sportball of the day did not go into the right net or hoop or zone it is because God did that. If you are teaching children how to hit other children as hard as possible while wearing worn-out protective gear that may or may not even fit them, you do not get to claim that an injured child is the result of God intervening to hurt them. Seriously: What the hell is wrong with you?

The role of Our Lord Almighty in American sports is a long and shady one, probably because many devoted sports fans are uninterested in any injustices around them that do not involve the team they are rooting for. But it always goes in one direction: God is always praised for making the Good team win, but is never grumbled about when the Good team loses.

You never hear a post-game interview in which a kicker says "yeah, I would have totally nailed that field goal but God screwed me. He totally moved my foot wrong at the last moment." You never hear a high school coach telling his team "Well, that was a great game but it turns out God doesn't love you. You should probably go home and reflect on that a bit."

The moment you are invoking an almighty deity as the guiding force behind how the evening's sports match turned out, you're grooming all the children forced to listen to you to believe that God is a vapid and bored entity that may not care about genocide or natural disaster, but absolutely has a stake in local team sports.

The children who belong to every religion that is better than yours, and that includes all of the atheist children, have every right to have you not insult their own religious beliefs by interjecting vapid, empty-brained thoughts like that.

If your school has just been the scene of a mass shooting and you, as an authority figure, announce to the children in your care that it is because God wanted their friends dead, I am going to personally book an airplane ticket, fly to your house, and punch you in the face. If your school is down three points in the fourth quarter and you call a risky play that results in an interception, then there are a hundred factors that have led to that outcome that are all more consequential than God deciding which children he loves best. I don't want my child or anybody else's child to hear your impotent, self-promoting bleating about how God shares the blame.

It is offensive! Genuinely offensive! How dare you groom my child to believe that the Creator of All Things is a pachinko machine that you toss prayers into and test your luck!

Football coach religion is the worst religion on the planet, and it doesn't matter which religion they belong to or how often they attend. Football coach religion is always, each and every time, terrible. It is inherently cultish.

It is also inherently coercive. This is such an obvious fact that it by itself proves the Supreme Court majority to be dishonest and hackish; a Supreme Court that claims it cannot possibly deduce how the school's most visible authority figure (especially in all the towns that have so few authority figures that "high school football coach" automatically gets bumped to near the top of their list) might be pressuring students to pray in the manner of his own religion rather than their own—that shows such clownish contempt for fact-finding that it should justify impeachment all on its own.

Did you know that different Christian denominations say the most famous Christian prayer differently, with different words? Many children find this out when they are obliged to offer a prayer in a public or semi-public setting and oops, find out that the words everyone else are tediously chanting aren't the same ones coming out of their own mouths. It's a bit of an awkward moment, to be sure, and one that is not likely to become less awkward when you are surrounded by peers whose main defining characteristic is that they are meatier and more aggressive than the rest of the class.

What will you do then? Will you bend the knee as the coach does, rather than as you were taught? Will you say his words, and not your own? Will you break your own religious belief that prayers should not be done for public show or for vapid, self-serving reasons in order to fit in with the compulsive grown man who makes every decision on who gets to play, and in what positions, and for how long?

That is what every child must decide, as they are groomed by a religious zealot who believes their own religious practices naturally supersede that of every other person on the field and in the stands. And if the coach is zealot enough to believe that, and to impose public pressure on children he holds power over so that they'll comply, that dude is not a football coach. He's just an aspiring cult leader who's lucked into his own captive audience.

American parents have every right to expect that their children, attending public school, will not face public pressure to adhere to a particular old coot's personal religious beliefs. We have every right to expect that public school officials will not teach our children to pray to an audience rather in private, and will not suggest to them that a deity each child may or may not believe in is Actually the force that controls each child's successes in at least equal proportion to their own hard work and choices. Get bent. Get out of here with that garbage.

I'm not worried about my child stumbling onto a book about Ruby Bridges and turning to a life of crime. But there's no way in hell I'd willingly leave my child alone for 10 minutes with a coach like that.

I don't care what religion my child chooses to be, just as long as they don't grow up praying to the God of Endzones and Conveniently Timed Knee Injuries. Three-quarters of American religious faith can be boiled down to that, and it doesn't need any help.

So there you go, Supreme Court conservatives who believe authority figures ought to be able to preach to children in a manner that displays those children's reactions for public view and possible community retaliation. I, an Actual Parent, am lodging an objection. You have violated my religion by exposing my child to a different religion which is in every way inferior, primitive, and stupid.

Since the decision was reached by lying about what was going on, however, we can assume that whatever religious beliefs Supreme Court conservatives might hold are demonstrably worse than even that of abusive football coaches, which takes some doing. Perhaps we could get some better Americans to take those reins. Perhaps even a few Americans whose religious beliefs do not specifically hinge on being able to pressure public school students into going along with their petty public stunts.

The religious right and its leaders are desperate for power, even at the cost of the innocent

When the history books reflect on Donald Trump’s presidency, the religious right’s unflinching support of him will surely get a lot of ink. Trump promised the religious right everything it wanted and then some—particularly conservative federal judges and Supreme Court justices who would roll back abortion and marriage equality.

It is obvious why the religious right supported Trump. One thing that has nagged at me for the better part of six years, though, is how they could justify doing so. How could rolling back abortion and marriage equality be so important that some of the same people who pilloried Bill Clinton over character issues were willing to make a Faustian deal with a guy who plastered a news anchor’s personal cell number on social media, mocked the disabled, condoned violence at his rallies and against the media, and reveled in degrading women?

Looking back at how the religious right has done business since it started rearing its ugly head in the late 1970s and early ‘80s seems to reveal at least part of the answer.

All too often, it seems that the nation’s self-declared moral guardians have been willing to forsake Jesus’ warning in Matthew 25 about caring for “the least of these.” They have been willing to throw the vulnerable under the bus for the sake of not only making America great again, but making America Christian again—or more accurately, making America Christianist again.

A stark example of this mentality comes from James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family. Long before he rose to prominence in the late 1980s and early ‘90s as one of the most vocal generals in the religious right army, Dobson was a prolific author. But at least two of his books say a lot about who he really is.

In 1983, he penned a book called Love Must Be Tough, in which he offered advice to individuals and couples in troubled marriages. One of those individuals was “Laura,” a mother of two in a horribly abusive marriage for the last 12 years. According to Dobson’s book, Laura’s husband was two-faced, or at least he was in 1983. While most people knew him as a prominent lawyer and church leader, he frequently went into fits of rage and beat Laura to a bloody pulp before blaming her for the abuse.

A trained psychologist like Dobson would know that there is only one acceptable response to Laura’s question: Tell her to get out, and get out now. For that matter, it shouldn’t take any training to know that marriage died long ago. But incredibly, Dobson told Laura that “divorce is not the answer to this problem.” Rather, he encouraged Laura to “change her husband’s behavior” by taking his most outrageous demands, wadding them up, and throwing them back at him.

Dobson did suggest that Laura move out until her husband “gives her reason to believe he is willing to change.” Only then, he noted, should the process of reconciliation begin. But one shouldn’t need a psychology degree to know that when abuse has gone on for this long, there’s no reconciling, especially when kids are in the situation.

In 2015, R.L. Stollar of Homeschoolers Anonymous, a community of people who share their experiences in the evangelical homeschooling world, discovered that the sage advice from Dobson remained unchanged in the 2007 edition of Love Must Be Tough. The book has gone through four editions, with the advice to Laura remaining the same in all of them; the most recent was in 2010.

Telling Laura to stay in an abusive marriage isn’t the worst thing that has come from Dobson’s pen. That came in 1978 from one of his many books on child-rearing, The Strong-Willed Child. Dobson starts that book by recalling how he took a belt to his 12-pound dachshund, Sigmund Freud, after “Siggie” refused to go to bed. This vile account has remained unchanged through five editions—most recently in 2017. As disturbing as this is on its own, it’s even worse when considering the mountain of evidence that cruelty to animals inevitably leads to cruelty to people.

Dobson still went on to become one of the most powerful voices in the religious right, with the ear of three presidents—including Trump. Watch him give his thoughts about Trump on CBN News.

But how was Dobson even allowed to get to that point? The only plausible conclusion one can draw is that the publishers, pastors, and Christian radio stations who supported Dobson and Focus on the Family were willing to overlook these outrageous statements due to his conservative views on child-rearing, reproductive roles and rights, and the family. A little violence against a senior dog didn’t matter so much when Dobson’s publisher and his audience liked the rest of the book.

This conclusion doesn’t sound so outlandish in light of the religious right still being in thrall to Trump, even in the face of his many depravities. Trump infamously declared in January 2016 that he wouldn’t lose any supporters even if he turned Fifth Avenue into a bloodbath. But in 2020, The New York Times’ religion reporter, Elizabeth Dias, revealed that Trump said something else in that speech.

“I will tell you, Christianity is under tremendous siege, whether we want to talk about it or we don’t want to talk about it,” Mr. Trump said.

Christians make up the overwhelming majority of the country, he said. And then he slowed slightly to stress each next word: “And yet we don’t exert the power that we should have.”

If he were elected president, he promised, that would change. He raised a finger.

“Christianity will have power,” he said. “If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that.”

Trump gave that speech in a corner of northwestern Iowa that’s one of the most fundified regions of the country. This was the former bailiwick of one of the most odious members ever elected to the House, Steve King. According to Dias, this speech encapsulated why people in this region, and evangelicals as a whole, flocked to Trump. They knew full well he was a gangster, a boor, a bully. But at least he was “the bully who was on their side,” someone who would “restore them to power.”

Seen in this light, the religious right’s continued support for Trump despite his voluminous outrages, as well as its willingness to peddle a false narrative about him, makes more sense. For instance, after the Access Hollywood tapes came out, it seemed like religious right leaders were falling all over themselves to say that his profane words didn’t matter nearly as much as Trump’s promise to appoint line-drawing conservatives to the courts who would roll back abortion and marriage equality. Indeed, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council openly admitted he and other so-called moral guardians were giving Trump a “mulligan” for his past depravities. To service the massive debt he owed them for their support in 2016, Trump just had to give evangelicals what they wanted on policy. During Trump’s first impeachment, pro-Trump pastors actually claimed that those evil liberal Democrats were actually impeaching their values, under the influence of demons.

This nonsense hasn’t let up since Trump left office, even though it has been demonstrated beyond any doubt that Trump was not just lying about the 2020 election being stolen from him, but also incited a deadly insurrection in hopes of stealing another term. For the better part of a year, a number of so-called “prophets” have insisted to everyone who would listen that Trump is the legitimate president, and that God himself will right the terrible wrong done to him. One of them, Johnny Enlow, even declared with a straight face that those who don’t bow and pray to the orange god that he and his fellow moral guardians helped make do so at risk of their salvation.

Sadly, this approach is working among the religious right’s followers. In late September, a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found that a whopping 61% of white evangelicals believed that Trump had a second term stolen from him. An equally staggering 68% of white evangelicals considered Trump a “true patriot.”

In what world is it possible for people holding themselves out as moral guardians to go all-in for a man whom they know is a thug and a reprobate? And in what world is it possible for a significant segment of a major party’s base to be in thrall with such a man even after it has been amply demonstrated that he is guilty of moral and political corruption at best, and treasonous acts at worst? In the world of the religious right.

With this knowledge in hand, a number of other low moments in the religious right’s worship of Trump suddenly make more sense. The one that sticks out the most came during the battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Almost from the moment Trump picked Kavanaugh to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, the religious right went all-in on the effort to get Kavanaugh that black robe. It’s no surprise: Kavanaugh was Reason 1-B for the religious right prostrating itself before Trump. (Neil Gorsuch was Reason 1-A, and Amy Coney Barrett was Reason 1-C.)

But just how determined the nation’s so-called moral guardians were to get another potential vote against Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges was revealed when Steve Strang, publisher of Charisma magazine, claimed that Christine Blasey Ford’s claims that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her were no big deal.

For some time, Strang has used his platform as the publisher of the largest Pentecostal/charismatic-oriented magazine in the world to carry water for the religious right, including the effort to bully the country into worshiping Trump. Strang has written two paeans to Trump, God and Donald Trump and Trump Aftershock, arguing that Trump’s upset victory was a miracle, and that he wasn’t just making America great again, but Christian again—which we’ve of course heard before.

Strang hit absolute bottom in late September, when he told Charisma’s Facebook followers that Kavanaugh should have been confirmed—even if Ford’s allegations of assault were in fact true. As he put it, even if one believed Ford, Kavanaugh was merely engaging in “the kind of nickel and dime stuff that high school kids do.” No, this isn’t snark. Watch him say it.

Religious right’s worship of Trump proves what we already knew: It’s drunk on power

When the history books are written about the Donald Trump era, a lot of people on the right are in for a lot of well-deserved scorn. The religious right, in all likelihood, will come under particular scrutiny. These self-appointed moral guardians tried to get the nation to bow to Trump, knowing full well that he was manifestly unfit and unqualified. These so-called leaders were willing to support a guy who plastered a news anchor’s personal cell number on social media, mocked the disabled, condoned violence at his rallies and against the media, reveled in degrading women, blew blatantly racist dog whistles, mishandled the worst peacetime crisis in our nation’s history, and on, and on, and on.

Oh no, the religious right told their followers when they dared to flinch at the idea of supporting Trump. None of that matters. What mattered, they insisted, was that Trump opposed abortion and wanted to end Roe v. Wade; that he supported the definition of marriage as one man and one woman, and would appoint line-drawing conservatives to our courts.

For people who cut their political teeth during the Bill Clinton years, as I did, seeing the religious right go all-in for Trump was particularly bewildering. Despite Christian conservatives slamming Clinton over his character issues during the 1990s, they were willing to look the other way for Trump, even though they knew full well that he was a reprobate and a thug, so long that he checked the right boxes on social issues.

Not long after the Access Hollywood tape came to light, former Christian Coalition chairman Ralph Reed told NPR’s Scott Simon that hearing Trump boasting about forcing himself on women wasn’t nearly as important to “conservative people of faith” as a president who would oppose abortion, strengthen the economy, and scrap a nuclear deal with Iran that he and his compatriots considered “an existential threat to Israel.” Along similar lines, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins told BuzzFeed that the religious right’s support for Trump wasn’t based on “shared values,” but “shared concerns” about the country going off the rails. Franklin Graham claimed—with a straight face—that as bad as Trump’s comments were, the Supreme Court mattered more.

Franklin Graham

It is not possible to overstate what Reed, Perkins, Graham, and other purported moral guardians were doing at this moment. They effectively told their followers, and the nation at large, that they would look past behavior that no decent person would ever tolerate—all for the sake of a few policy wins and the prospect of putting a distinctly conservative stamp on the federal judiciary.

I was reminded of this just days before Election Day 2020, when one of my more conservative friends laid into me for citing Trump’s degrading comments to women. She told me that trashing women was nothing compared to “murdering babies.”

Worse, the religious right is not just willing to condone Trump’s outrages, but willing to bully those who exposed them. During Trump’s first impeachment, a number of pro-Trump pastors went as far as to frame the impeachment effort as an attack on their values. That was pretty mild stuff, compared to what we heard from other prominent pro-Trump pastors. Perry Stone called Trump’s foes in Congress “demonic,” and threatened to ask God to smite them if they didn’t leave Trump alone. Hank and Brenda Kunneman tried to spiritually “shush” the evil forces that were supposedly driving the impeachment effort.

Several prominent members of the religious right signed onto Trump’s effort to steal the 2020 election, long after it was clear he had lost to Joe Biden. Some of the worst offenders were the Kenneth Copeland clan. Just 24 hours after the major networks declared Biden president-elect, Copeland’s daughter, Terri Pearsons, led her flock in praising God for giving Trump “legal strategies” to expose the (nonexistent) fraud that supposedly denied him victory. She even called for a new election, if necessary.

A day later, Pearsons and her husband, George, led Copeland ministry staffers in an effort to cover Trump’s efforts in prayer. Terri told the audience that she’d organized the meeting after the Trump campaign asked for prayer as it sought to throw out ballots in Pennsylvania, supposedly cast after Election Day.

At that same meeting, George Pearsons issued a “heavenly cease-and-desist order” against the supposed scheme to deny Trump another term. Two weeks later, George told his flock that he’d had a vision of Jesus walking up and down a roomful of tables where ballots were being counted in Philadelphia and flipping them over. The symbolism was obvious: George was likening this scene to Jesus’ flipping over of tables in the Temple after he saw it had been turned into a marketplace.

Here’s Terri Pearson in early December, perpetuating election fraud in six states.

When Terri Copeland Pearson says the “vote is counted and that is matters”, the subtext she’s implying is that any vote that doesn’t agree with hers shouldn’t be counted because it’s not aligned with the will of her white supremacist

— Zachary Forrest y Salazar (he/him) (@zdfs) December 8, 2020

Even hearing Trump attempting to bully Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger into trying to “find” enough votes to overturn Biden’s lead there wasn’t enough. Less than 24 hours after The Washington Post’s story about the shakedown went live, Al Perrotta, managing editor of The Stream, a Christian conservative web magazine, demanded that Biden agree to Sen. Ted Cruz’s call for a 10-day audit of the election results, despite the hard proof that Trump was the one trying to steal the election.

One would have thought that the Jan. 6 riots would have knocked some of the scales off the eyes of these pro-Trump “men and women of God.” Far from it. Mark Taylor, the “firefighter prophet” who claims God told him in 2011 that Trump would be president, promised that God was going to perform a miracle that would allow Trump to stay in office—even as Trump was recording a video acknowledging that he was going to leave the White House. Considering that Taylor rose to fame by retconning his original claim that Trump would unseat Barack Obama, it’s just more evidence that his vision was just a little clouded.

But even that pales in comparison to Graham claiming that the 10 Republicans who supported impeaching Trump had forgotten “all he has done for our country.” Even worse, Graham claimed they had been induced into doing so for “30 pieces of silver,” suggesting that the Republicans who voted to impeach betrayed Trump in the same manner that Judas betrayed Jesus.

Seeing the religious right sweep Trump’s depravities under the rug—and use Scripture to praise him—has been especially sickening to me, as I’ve been down this road before. Back in college, I saw firsthand what is possible when a right-wing Christian group is willing to embrace some of the most outrageous tactics—all in the name of supposedly doing God’s work.

It’s no secret to my regular readers that I had a very up close and personal experience in the belly of the (religious right) beast. During my freshman year at the University of North Carolina, I joined WayMaker, which I thought was a campus fellowship group. It was actually a hyper-charismatic outfit whose parent church, King’s Park International Church (KPIC) in Durham, subscribed to some of the mind-bending stuff that, then as now, is standard fare on TBN and other Christian TV networks.

I got a hunch that something was way off about them, but couldn’t put my finger on it until my “brothers” and “sisters” tried to guilt trip me into doing a total philosophical 180—from a liberal Democrat to a Christian Coalition Republican. I was told that I had no business being pro-choice, and that I had to junk my liberal leanings without another thought. The realization that I could not and would not reorder my mind on such simplistic terms was, I believe, a big reason why I was able to avoid being sucked in. Even so, it took months before I finally walked away for good.

Jim Bakker

Looking back almost a quarter-century later, that experience feels eerily reminiscent of how the religious right outright bullied evangelicals into supporting him. A mere month after Trump’s upset win, Jim Bakker warned that any county that voted for Hillary needed to brace for the wrath of God. Later, not long after Trump took office, he claimed that anyone who opposed Trump was probably possessed by a demon. Along similar lines, when Pat Robertson joined the religious-right chorus warning against opposing Trump in the early stages of 2017, he explained that doing so was tantamount to opposing God’s plan for this country. Rick Joyner let it be known that the devil himself was behind the opposition to Trump, and warned anyone who dared oppose Trump is at risk for being “smacked” by God himself.

According to 2020 exit polls, 76% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. This marks a significant drop from the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump in 2016. How could it still be even that high, even in the face of Trump’s endless outrages? Well, for the better part of five years, the religious right subjected its devotees to a steady diet of warnings against opposing Trump. If you opposed Trump, at best, you opposed God, and at worst, you needed a demon cast out of you. These rabidly pro-Trump pastors and evangelists preach to a choir that mostly lives in a bubble. Their children are homeschooled or attend Christian schools. The entire family consumes a news diet of Fox News, Newsmax, One America News, and Christian talk radio. In other words, they’re hearing this pro-Trump drumbeat day in, day out, and with little to counter it.

Combine that with some four decades of being told—sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly—that merely voting for a Democrat puts one’s salvation at risk. Suddenly, it makes sense why so many white evangelicals were still willing to vote for Trump, even though it was amply demonstrated that he was a gangster and a thug. Considering the environment in which most of Trump’s most diehard evangelical supporters live, it’s natural for anyone who had even mild reservations about Trump to keep their heads down—especially if they lived in one of the few areas where Trump’s approval ratings were still in the stratosphere.

In hindsight, it also explains why it took so long for me to walk out on WayMaker, even when I knew in my gut that they were feeding me baloney. When you spend six months being told that your doubts might be demonic in nature, it’s natural for even the most resilient person to wonder, “What if they’re right?”

That’s why I can’t begrudge most of my more conservative Christian friends for still backing Trump. The real scorn should go to what passes for leadership on the religious right, who are still all in for Trump, despite knowing exactly who he is. Like Tony Perkins, who told Politico that he and his religious right compatriots were giving Trump a “mulligan” for his sins, such as having an affair with Stormy Daniels. And like Shane Idleman, who claimed that Trump’s 280-character tirades didn’t matter as much as the fact he was “fighting for biblical values” in a climate where Trump’s foes were coming after “you, me and our Christian values.”

Uh-huh. So the 26 women (at least) who claim Trump sexually assaulted them didn’t matter to Perkins because Trump, and not Hillary, was making conservative appointments to the courts? And when Trump praised “both sides” in Charlottesville, it didn’t matter because he opposes abortion? As noted above, the list goes on, and on, and on. As a Christian, I consider supporting Trump to be grossly hypocritical—even before noting that many religious right luminaries hammered Bill Clinton for far less while being willing to bow and pray to a neon—or rather, orange—god they helped make.

It takes me back to my sophomore year at Carolina, when I discovered by accident that KPIC, the parent church of the group I’d left, had once been part of Maranatha Campus Ministries, one of the more notorious “campus cults” of the 1970s and 1980s. Maranatha had come under well-deserved heat in those days for abusive and controlling practices; it was denounced as a Christianized version of the Moonies or Hare Krishnas.

After I left, a number of people from Maranatha came to me to warn me that I had chosen the path of destruction. Meanwhile, I still had doubts as to whether I had done the right thing. I started having panic attacks, believing that I would experience the wrath of God. 14/27

— Richard Wattenbarger (@musicologyman) November 22, 2020

I’d stumbled across a list of “friends and former members” of Maranatha while trying to get in touch with others who’d been burned by KPIC’s campus ministries at my campus and others in North Carolina. KPIC’s address and website were listed there, along with the name of its longtime pastor, Ron Lewis. I was dumbfounded. It was now obvious to me that Lewis was hiding his Maranatha past to avoid getting the hairy eyeball from school officials who still remembered the abuses that had won Maranatha infamy a decade earlier. Further research confirmed that I’d narrowly escaped a watered-down version of Maranatha.

But when I told my former “brothers” and “sisters” about this, their collective response was, in so many words, “So what?” They had no problem with Lewis’ deceit because people were being saved through his church and ministry. The fact that Lewis was blatantly lying about his past with a denounced, dangerous ministry didn’t matter. I think they might have overlooked nearly anything once they were part of an effort to “bring the good news of Jesus to UNC!”

"Deeper than postmodernism" strikes a chord bc I joined the group after completing an MA in English, which in the late 90s meant a degree in postmodernism and "theory." While I didn't disagree with all of it I was concerned then that it would undermine facts and science. 3/x

— (yes I'm a real Dr. too) ulyankee, Ph.D. (@ulyankee1) August 29, 2018

I’ve found myself thinking back a lot to that time ever since I realized how many religious right pastors and evangelists pushed their followers to vote for Trump simply because he made the right clucking noises about key social issues. Forcing people to give birth was so important, they could look past over 30,500 false or misleading statements Trump made in four years and believe he deserved another term. More conservative judges were so important that devout evangelicals were told to look past Trump’s choice to knowingly “play down” the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and vote for his reelection. I realize now that I saw a prelude to this cherry-picking mentality when my former friends in WayMaker were more than willing to stay loyal to a pastor who they knew had lied to them about some serious stuff.

The religious right’s support for Trump has exposed the movement, once and for all, as utterly morally bankrupt. I saw the beginnings of that moral bankruptcy during my college days, and it is this moral bankruptcy that has contributed to the poisoning of our political discourse. If we are to prevent a next time for this, we must call it out when we see it … and we must do so loudly.

Ash Wednesday’s universal message: Honor sacrifices made for our future

In the past ...

Ash Wednesday 2001 was also in February, just a few months after a close election decided by Bush v. Gore in December of 2000. I was a Catholic graduate theology student at a Methodist institution, in a suburb of Atlanta, filling my car up with gas. The station was literally across the tracks in a poorer part of town where the cheaper gas fit my budget. I had just come from a church that was hard enough to locate in the days before GPS.

Asking for directions to a Catholic church in the south often got me weird looks. And on that night, I had a big smudge on my forehead while I pumped my own gas. The night was dark and I wore a Syrian keffiyeh as a neck scarf against the cold.

When I went to pay, the Arabic employee just sort of stared at me. I was not his usual customer at this late hour in the evening. He didn’t quite know what to make of me. So he gestured with his hands as he fumbled for change. He pointed to my scarf and I said, “My sister in Washington, D.C., gave it to me.” Then he pointed to my head, which is when I realized I still had ashes there. “Why?” he asked. “What does it mean?” 

Since it was very cold and we both wanted to get back to our warm places, I fumbled with something quick to say. “It’s Ash Wednesday,” I said. But that didn’t get very far. “I’m Catholic … it’s a religious thing.”

I don't know what that conveyed to him, but that was as far as we got.

Less than a year later, I moved to D.C. to complete my theological training. I began my studies on September 11th. I stopped wearing my keffiyeh not long after when I rode the metro. During my studies, which included interfaith dialogue, I’ve gone back to that moment more than once.

I realize now, the simpler explanation could have been: “I am a sinner entering Lent.”

In the present ...

So here we are in 2021. Ash Wednesday this year falls after the 57-43 vote on Former 45’s second impeachment for the January 6 insurrection (our own self-inflicted 9/11). It also comes after Valentine's Day/Parkland Anniversary and the Super Bowl amid Black History Month to remind us of all the things we can cram into the shortest month. And like everything in 2021, the calendar cycles through a lens of how it’s not 2020, but we’re still not past its shadow either.

I don’t know whether mainstream media will make a big deal of Ash Wednesday with our second Catholic president. I suspect he might go to mass and would most likely have ashes imposed (perhaps placed on his forehead, perhaps sprinkled). 

The scripture readings for the day are a bit ironic. They talk about how to not make a show of yourself. For example, if you are fasting, you should still clean yourself up and go about your day. After all, what you are doing isn’t for others to see, but for God to see. At the same time, there is a collective call for a public gathering and display so that everyone in the community understands and commits themselves to this period of reflection and preparation in advance of Easter.

I will leave it to priests’ homilies and secular pundits to apply these things to our everyday lives. I have a habit of wanting to experience things anew, not simply to repeat them. While I enjoy rituals and traditions, I am much more interested in change and transformation. Lent always begins with Ash Wednesday. It’s always 40 days. It always involves fasting, abstinence, and works of charity. It always culminates in Easter and Jesus’ resurrection.

In short, as I used to say when I taught such things in parish ministry, HE always rises. Good for Him. The question is, what happened to us? How have we changed? How do I have a better answer for the stranger who was less concerned about me paying for gas and wanted instead to know more about me and why I was there?

The simplest thing I can say in 2021 is this. “Remember you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.” This is often what is said as the ashes are traced on foreheads in the sign of the cross. After 2020, mortality stares us in the face globally in a remarkable way. It’s the great equalizer. The baseline from which the human spirit arises in solidarity and acknowledgment of our inherent dignity. (Notions of pro-life don’t quite capture that.)

The other thing we Christians try to remember is that someone died for us and that calls us to change our lives radically. I don’t expect non-Christians or secular people to come to that exact same conclusion. But I think we can all look at 2020 or our lives before and acknowledge that sacrifices have been made and that people have died before us. And we owe them something. We need to do something to honor that debt and pay it forward.

  • We owe Officer Brian Sicknick and two other fallen officers for doing their duty on January 6, alongside the courage of Officer Eugene Goodman, who is still with us.
  • We owe our investment to better public health and safety for the 2.4M dead worldwide and 450K+ in the USA from COVID-19.
  • We owe our continued commitment to social justice in the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Lewis.
  • We owe it to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, among so many other lives that matter to work for systematic change.
  • We need to dedicate ourselves to addressing climate change as at least 54 are reported dead and another 200 are missing in India after a glacier broke in the Himalayas.
  • We bear the burdens of 500+ children, separated from their families while trying to cross the border seeking asylum. They are still missing.

The list could and does go on. We all know loss of one kind or another. We all find hope somewhere that this is not the end for us. We have to be prepared. We have to get ready. Are 40 days enough? Are Biden’s first 100? Be resolved, we know what it has cost.

Somebody died for you. Make your life count for them.

Postscript ...

My first protest of the Trump era: Neighbors protesting the Muslim Ban Feb. 7, 2017, stand in solidarity outside ADAMS center in Sterling, Virginia, near Dulles airport, while Muslims come to pray.

I spent time with many Muslims in Atlanta aside from that gas attendant. Hassan was the chief of security at the museum where we both worked. He was a high-level engineer from Iraq, but this was the only job he could get in the states, perhaps because of his background as a soldier. I remember calling him from near the World Trade Center just moments after we first started bombing his country.

“It’s OK,” he said. “He’s a madman.” I also remember his last words to me before I left the area. “When I look at you, I see your keffiyeh and say to myself: There is my friend...

Trump administration grants permit to maskless superspreader ‘worship protest’ on National Mall

Apparently all you have to do to have your COVID-19 superspreader event approved by Trump’s National Park Service is play the religion card.

As reported by the Independent:

The National Park Service has approved a permit for an evangelical “worship protest” gathering this weekend on the National Mall in Washington DC, which is expected to attract 15,000 attendees amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Sean Feucht, a singer and former Republican congressional candidate, will host the event as part of his “Let Us Worship” tour. He’s held the tour in cities across America amid the coronavirus pandemic to protest Covid-19 restrictions against religious gatherings.

Current guidelines in the nation’s capital prohibit gatherings of more than 50 people. But the National Mall is under the jurisdiction of the Park Service, which has been without a director for the entirety of Trump’s term. Instead, a series of quasi-directors hand-picked by interior secretary and fossil-fuel lobbyist David Bernhardt have controlled the agency. As a result, as pointed out in this article written by Mark Kaufman for Mashable, “The president's office can manipulate or bend it to its whims.”

And those whims apparently extend to subjecting Washington, D.C. residents to COVID-19 infection—as long as its done in the name of Jesus.  According to the Daily Beast, the Park Service issued the permit for the Oct. 25 “protest” with no COVID-19 restrictions required. A spokesman for the Park Service confirmed to the Daily Beast: “While the National Park Service strongly encourages social distancing, the use of masks, and other measures to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, we will not require nor enforce their use.”

Public health experts are appalled.

“It’s disgraceful,” Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University who advises the World Health Organisation, told The Daily Beast. “It violates DC’s Covid-19 plan and it’s almost certainly going to lead to a superspreader event — and cause many new cases, hospitalisation, and even death. It violates virtually every principle to mitigate this pandemic.”

As noted by the Independent , the instigator of this “worship” protest is Sean Feucht, a failed Republican candidate for Congress, singer/musician, and “worship pastor” at the Bethel Church in Redding, California. Feucht was denied a permit for a similar event by the city of Seattle last month. He also provoked the wrath of local health officials in Nashville after holding one of these public gatherings in violation of that city’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Feucht’s attitude towards social distancing measures amounts to mockery. After his permit to infect Seattle was denied, he penned a screed for the right-wing Federalist, which decried the infringement on his “God-given freedoms.”

Now in major cities across America, godless politicians are adopting tactics that more closely resemble those of jihadist ayatollahs than men and women who are sworn to uphold the rule of law.


Truly, the actions of militant, anti-Christian forces, who want to shut down our churches, silence our worship, and even shoot our fellow believers in the streets, have stirred the soul of the American church.

Feucht is careful to call his superspreader events “protests.” After the Nashville gathering he posted a video on Instagram, stressing: "It's officially a protest, OK? So it's legal."

During the run-up to Donald Trump’s impeachment, Feucht and about 50 other “worship leaders” met with Trump in the Oval Office for a “faith briefing.” At that time, Feucht posed for a picture in which he conspicuously posed touching Trump’s sleeve in the same manner Jesus is described as being touched in the Gospel of Luke. Vice President Mike Pence recently appeared at one of Feucht’s “protests,” and Feucht has also appeared on Fox News.

The event is taking place this Saturday and includes a tent where attendees can be “baptized” by a group of “pastors,” after which the participants will doubtlessly return to wherever they came from, putting everyone they encounter at risk along the way. The Daily Beast interviewed one Washington, D.C. resident, who called the event “fucking stupid” and an “attention-grab” for Feucht.

“This is insane,” D.C. resident Allison Lane told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “This is truly selfish behavior from people who claim to be devoted to the word of God. I don’t get it. The National Park Service is being willfully ignorant.”

No one should be fooled into believing that Feucht’s dangerous agenda is about God. It’s about Feucht.

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