by Bob Hughes, Ed.D.
According to report by KUOW, two King County schools account for the overwhelming majority of juvenile COVID-19 cases in the county. Both schools are affiliated with churches belonging to the Assemblies of God denomination. Because I have some personal knowledge of this branch of the Christian tree, I was not surprised by the news. As someone who has spent their adult life working in education, however, I am sad that a school is ignoring science and the safety of its community and embracing radical beliefs that put children at risk.
Most people who know me today will be surprised to learn that 45 years ago I was a member of an Assemblies of God church. I was not brought up in this church, but I converted in my late teens and early twenties to seek direction in life. At the time, I became fully committed to the beliefs of this denomination. I even obtained a bachelor’s degree from an Assemblies of God college where I majored in English and completed a compulsory second major in Christian theology. My first teaching job was in a Christian high school run by the Assemblies of God for a year and a half. It was through attending this college and teaching at this school that helped me leave Christianity as I observed and experienced the changes emerging in the denomination and its schools over these years. In the 40 years that have passed since these experiences, I have witnessed further development as the Assemblies of God and other fundamentalist groups more aligned with radical right-wing politics. If you read other newspaper articles, you will see that Assemblies of God churches are often cited as anti-vax and anti-mask leaders in local communities.
As an active believer attending a Christian college in the mid to late 1970s, I saw how this denomination evolved into its current position. I was first drawn to fundamentalist Pentecostal beliefs because of the fervor shown by the followers. The people I have met lived the beliefs they espoused. They believed in daily devotion to the Godhead. Their god was real because he spoke to them and acted daily in their life. Faith was not something they talked about on Sunday morning. They relied on their beliefs to guide them at all times. I was drawn to this sense of dedication; it was something I was trying to emulate. I found comfort in believing that a divinity was involved in every moment of my life. But then my relationship to the church and the faith changed when a turn towards political radicalism began to take over churches in the mid-1970s.
Many people who study the evolution of right-wing Christian politics have widely documented this change. But for me it was a personal change. Religious services for fundamentalist churches at the time were generally Sunday mornings and evenings and mid-week (usually Wednesday) evenings. Sunday mornings were intended for a general community of believers and for raising awareness of potential new believers. Sunday evenings, however, were for the most faithful believers to come together in a more intimate group focused on deepening faith and connecting to God. Wednesday was the time when believers explored the intricacies of the faith as they learned to interpret the scriptures.
But at some point in the 1970s, pastors began inviting special speakers on Sunday evenings and Wednesday services to talk about politics. At first, these people spoke of the need to protect the faith by being politically aware of the many attacks they claimed to have been carried out against the faith. Over time, these exhortations have become calls to action for believers to preserve the faith: vote for certain candidates, support certain laws, and write to elected officials. Special speakers like this were especially important at the Assemblies of God quorum I attended. Speakers denounced the ungodly actions of a Supreme Court that ruled on everything from women’s health to school desegregation. They complained about a social safety net supporting laziness that was anti-Christian. They denounced the “homosexual agenda” which, according to them, permeated society. Their grievances against the societal changes of the time were confused with theology and faith. Eventually, in the late 1970s, right-wing politics merged with faith and became a symbiotic and dogmatic theme for Sunday and Wednesday night services. As the church radicalized and dramatically clashed with my own political beliefs and worldview, I realized that I could not continue with this denomination. Eventually, as I examined the faith more, I gave up Christianity completely.
My decision was a personal decision that I did not extend to beliefs about what others should do. I have friends and family who have a fundamentalist faith, and I respect both people and their beliefs as genuine. Just as I believed before leaving that faith, they view their relationship with their god as personal and meaningful. I understand and will always admire this. What I cannot understand and respect, however, is the impact that the political change has had. The two King County schools with COVID-19 outbreaks are good examples of the influence of this political change. One of the two schools has gone so far as to seek legal advice on how to tackle mask warrants they see as encroaching on their freedom. Having studied the Christian faith in a formal way and having experienced it personally, I cannot recall any scripture that dictates the kind of extreme libertarianism that is expressed when people refuse to adopt a simple measure of public safety like the port. a face mask. Yet this view is now merged with religious beliefs that combine political libertarianism and belief in God.
It was an illogical belief system that resulted from this marriage. Politics overtaking faith has led right-wing fundamentalists to reject former President Jimmy Carter, whose heartfelt Christianity made him teach Sunday school until he was 90. These same fundamentalists are now kissing former President Donald Trump, a notorious libertine crook who only waves a Bible to make political points. The adherents of the new merger make this choice on the basis of political calculations about who will advance a defined political program, and not on who is an ethical leader or an example of the Christian life. Their illogicality opens these people up to being manipulated by political actors who play on their fears and prejudices – none of which are based on the fervor of faith characteristic of earlier fundamentalism before it was co-opted by a radical political program. Political calculation has gone beyond faith, and the result is impacting fundamentalists and also those of us who live with them – as evidenced by the two King County schools.
The fusion of fundamentalist faith and right-wing ideology has not served the church well. It creates a narrow definition of Christianity that excludes people who share the faith but not the political perspective. At a time when people are increasingly divided, the link between fundamentalist beliefs and radical politics creates another schism in society. Additionally, right-wing radicalism makes fundamentalist worshipers fearful of differences among others and suspicious of authority, such as when public health experts explain the need to wear masks during an epidemic. As a result, this coupling has damaged the capacities of fundamentalist churches to participate in the communities in which they reside.
In 1981, Billy Graham, the most respected fundamentalist evangelist of the time, notoriously warned that “I would mind if there was a marriage between religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it. His statement turned out to be prophetic, as even Billy Graham’s son Franklin Graham, who now controls the ministry his father built, succumbed to the lure of right-wing politics.
In the decades since I left Christianity, many fundamentalists have replaced fervor of faith with fervor for ideology. Or, at least, they allowed this ideology to join with the faith to run their lives in a way that was previously reserved for their faith alone. As Billy Graham warned, fundamentalists who fell prey to right-wing ideology became pawns for leaders with agendas – generally undemocratic and often authoritarian agendas. So when I read that two schools run by a fundamentalist denomination were producing the most juvenile cases of COVID-19 in my county, especially at a time when these infections were preventable, I understood how it came about. product. But that doesn’t make this result any less sad.
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Bob hughes spent 40 years in Washington State education as a teacher, researcher and administrator. He is professor emeritus at the University of Seattle.
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