The Cult of the Shining City Embraces the PlagueRoundup
tags: Christianity, Evangelical, coronavirus, Conservative Movement
Jared Yates Sexton is the author of American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World but Failed Its People, forthcoming from Dutton/Penguin-Random House. Currently, he serves as an associate professor of writing at Georgia Southern University and is the co-host of The Muckrake Political Podcast.
Coming of age in the 1980s, I was like many other children raised in this environment who spent each Sunday either in the pews of the church or else sitting on my grandma’s couch watching hours of televangelists warning of evil armies coalescing for the Apocalypse and begging for donations. The satanic forces were legion. They were in the culture. In the movies and television shows and music. There were enemies. Overseas. Among us. Literally everywhere. It sounds absurd now, but that was reality. You could turn any corner and find Satan waiting to take your soul. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse could ride at any moment, and the Antichrist was more than likely alive and well and gathering converts in a foreign, wicked land.
While this paranoid, jumbled reality began well before the 1960s, it was in that decade that the modern era of white-identity evangelicalism took shape. Jerry Falwell Sr., a charismatic preacher in Lynchburg, led the charge as the civil rights movement gained momentum and speed. Falwell’s main antagonist was Martin Luther King Jr., whom Falwell disparaged at every turn. Falwell’s particular problem with King was the way he used Christianity, and Jesus Christ’s sermons of social justice, to attack the institution of racism.
Falwell was firmly a segregationist. In his sermons, he railed against the dismantling of segregated society, calling the racist system divine and bellowing, “When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.” Raised in the segregated South, he was steeped in the tradition of Confederate preachers who sermonized to their flocks in the Confederate States of America on the holiness of white supremacy and characterized the Christian God as inherently racist. The Christian faith was so integral to the Confederate cause that public ceremonies ran through with invocations of this racist God, and military defeats led to days of religious atonement and humiliation.
The reaction to King’s usage of Christianity as a weapon against white supremacy was to abandon any notion of social justice and progressivism within the New Testament and reestablish the white supremacist notions of Confederate theology. Falwell opened private schools that were openly characterized as “for white students.” The faith focused on accrual of wealth and power, these markers of societal status becoming proof of God’s favor. Through this preaching, white dominance in political, judicial, and economic affairs became denotations of the will of the universe instead of means of racial control.
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