On March 24, 2021, Ryan Burge published an essay in Deseret Magazine on how religious disaffiliation is rising in America. Dr. Burge used this essay to summarize his outstanding book “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They are, and Where They Are Going” and to make sense of the March 2019 General Social Survey data collected in 2018 on American political and religious life—statistical evidence that clearly underscores that the religiously unaffiliated are increasing at a stunning rate. One of the variables that Dr. Burge outlines, among many variables, is the hypocrisy of modern-day churches. This hypocrisy has been further highlighted by writers who have wondered about the behaviors of some (not all) Christian churches before, during, and after Donald Trump’s presidency and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As one example, Andy Stanley, pastor of one of the nation’s largest megachurches, states in his recent 2022 book “Not In It To Win It: Why Choosing Sides Sidelines the Church” said that he was embarrassed by how certain church leaders acted in the aftermath of the 2020 election and during the COVID-19 pandemic. His frustrations lie with how Christian leaders twisted scriptures to support political agendas and demonize differing groups. Although Easter has long passed, I believe the Biblical story of how the chief priests, Sadducees, and Pharisees handed Jesus Christ to Pontius Pilate can help Christians reflect on how their own hypocrisy may be causing people to question and leave Christian intuitions. In this story from the New Testament, Jesus Christ calls out the hypocrisy in the churches.
Let me begin by drawing an analogy related to couples therapy, as I have worked as a licensed mental health counselor with many people trying to improve their relationships. Oftentimes when a couple embarks on relationship therapy, they are keenly aware of their partner’s weakness and struggles but rarely can they use this same critical eye on their own behaviors or cognitive distortions. Occasionally, I will engage with a couple where each partner is able to critique themselves—demonstrating an awareness that their relationship can become better by focusing on changing their own behaviors and attitudes. For instance, they may recognize a lack of compassion in themselves instead of telling their partner they are too sensitive.
To other Christians reading this, I hope you can likewise be reflective about the values and principles you’ve committed yourself to—as well as those of your current Christian affiliations and associations. In the past five years, I have been shocked at how certain (not all) Christian associations have treated people during the COVID-19 pandemic and the messages they have sent people during the administration of former President Donald Trump. I personally know over a dozen Christians who have stopped coming to church because of this. I hope what I share about the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus Christ can cause some Christian readers to reflect deeply if they, and their church affiliations, are living Christian values or are engaging in hypocrisy. A scripture that rests at the foundational aspects of this essay is in the later chapters of Matthew:
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto white sepulchers which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of uncleanness. Even so, ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.
First and foremost, I want to reassure readers, especially Christians, I am a deeply Christian man. In the past 30 years, I have rarely missed going to church on Sunday, have been a faith-based leader in my church for 15 plus years, and have taught in nonprofit leadership at a university, which includes supervising faith-based leaders completing master’s degrees. Although I am a full-time professor at a public university, I also work 10 hours a week as a licensed mental health counselor at a private faith-based institution and volunteer in an interfaith council in my community. I have spent years studying the social context that led to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and have found the most important sources to be the four Gospels, the writings of Josephus (a first-century Romano-Jewish historian who wrote about Jesus Christ, New Testaments documents, and Roman culture in The Jewish War [75 CE] and Antiquities of the Jews [95 CE]) and the Biblical scholar and Professor of Roman historical law, Aldo Schiavone’s, book Pontius Pilate: Deciphering a memory. I want to share these ideas by purposefully not sharing my own religious affiliations nor the affiliations of differing Christian associations. I do not want to call out any particular Christian faith group, and instead am trying to create a pause for reflection. I want the reader—especially Christian readers—to reflect more upon contemporary religious leaders and associations, especially when it comes to their core values and actions. In the process, I hope you may begin to reflect more on yourself and your (Christian) loyalties and commitments. There is so much good that comes from following Christ, but, as outlined throughout history and in John and the synoptic Gospels, so much individual and societal harm can come from religious leaders who use the name of Christ for self-centeredness, manipulation of others, political agendas, and violence or for status, power, and wealth.
Angry agitators of a previous era. The chief priests (including Joseph Caiaphas, who presided over the Sanhedrin Council that handed Jesus to Pontius Pilate), Sadducees, and Pharisees were the dominant religious groups when Jesus Christ lived on Earth, and they had a transactional political alliance with Pontius Pilate (26-37 C.E.). In addition, these religious leaders used an immense Temple economy to profit themselves and gain social control as they manipulated the poor and less educated, all in the name of God. In short, these religious heads wanted Jesus killed after the Only Begotten Son condemned the activities taking place in the Temple in Jerusalem—turning it into a vehicle of big business that sustained the religious elite’s hierarchical way of life while they polluted foundational teachings of God. Some (not all) American Christian associations of today are similar to the Sadducees and Pharisees of the past through the pursuits of business and political agendas that sustain the religious elite’s way of life.
Some (not all) American Christian associations of today are similar to the Sadducees and Pharisees of the past through the pursuits of business and political agendas that sustain the religious elite’s way of life.
Holy hypocrisy in our day. Dr. Kristin Kobes Du Mez (Professor of History at Calvin University—a private, Christian-based school) reported that she did not recognize members of her church laughing at insults and cruelty at a Donald Trump rally at her past Christian-based school in Iowa. I have had a similar experience, witnessing Christian people I have known for over 20 years cheering on Donald Trump as he bragged about sexually insulting and abusing women, physically mocking a reporter who had a disability, showing no compassion and rather downright cruelty to a gold-star mother who lost a son in war, celebrating the fact the John McCain was dying from cancer and calling him a loser for being a POW, and leading chants about violence. The Christian adage “What would Jesus do” seemed to have been lost by people I knew who taught this reflective reframing technique in Sunday School.
I heard various leaders from current dominant religious groups speak and write on how Trump’s behavior was “okay” as it was needed to win supreme court justices in a war against liberalism and abortion. (As an aside, although both extreme left and right want to portray President Trump as the architect of the recent Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, ending the right to abortion, I have a hard time believing that past conservative leaders such as Mitt Romney, Mike Pence, Mike Huckabee or Ted Cruz would have nominated pro-choice Justices).
To me, these modern-day religious leaders justifying such behavior were not very different than the chief priests, Sadducees, and Pharisees—leaders of dominant religious groups who had a political alliance with the President, who voted for Donald Trump for favors and then turned a blind eye to violence, violent rhetoric, and the normalization of abuse and mental pathology (e.g. no compassion and empathy, regularization of violence and abuse).
To this end, some (not all) American Christian associations of today are similar to the Sadducees and Pharisees of the past through the pursuits of business and political agendas that sustain the religious elite’s way of life (power, status, and wealth), and which runs counter to Jesus of the Gospels. These religious elites from dominant religions turned the message of Christ into a big money business, but instead of a vast Temple money-making structure, they leverage popular culture and a militant or warrior Jesus scheme, undergirded with violent rhetoric and political alliances with certain Government leaders. Historical research by Dr. Kristin Kobes Du Mez in her book Jesus and John Wayne suggests that in the 1970s, a tough-talking and military-type Jesus was manifested by some dominant American Christian associations, and the money-making was directed toward consumer-based Christianity and products: Christian books and magazines, contemporary Christian music and concerts, Christian radio and television, feature films, conferences, blogs, family vacations and so forth. The warrior Jesus was front and center, so very different from the Jesus of the Gospel, that raked in millions and millions of dollars.
Pride and pandemics. Then COVID-19 happened, and I was just as shocked to hear some (not all) Christian leaders condemn different public health strategies as some type of government takeover of churches. This slippery slope fallacy was led by too many (but not all) Christian associations that were too cognitively rigid and hell-bent on fighting for religious freedom and demonetizing government leaders rather than making personal and structural adjustments to prevent a terrible virus from spreading. I felt that wearing a mask was not only a sensible request but arguably even a true Christian principle since such an action begins and ends with thinking of another person and trying to prevent harm to others, especially the most vulnerable (e.g. people with cancer or autoimmune disorders). I was fortunate, as in the church I attended, at both the highest and local leadership, the focus was on wearing masks as a Christ-like attribute. However, there were too many Christian churches and leaders who opposed it, pitting God and religious freedom against the government, with a militant Jesus as a metaphor. These religious leaders were quick to underscore the faults of government leaders but had far less to say about their own potential failings. Even while calling for more critical thinking in public leaders before them, I would have liked to see more critical thinking about their own actions and perspectives.
For instance, instead of partnering with government leaders and offering fair-minded criticism with better ideas, they insisted that wearing a mask was an intrusion on religious freedom. But even in my own denomination, despite leaders modeling mask-wearing behavior, I was surprised at how many members came to church without masks, singing praises to the Lord in hymns while potentially spreading a deadly virus. In my view, they were harming others as they were proclaiming their love for Jesus Christ. Some were condemning government leaders who advocated for mask-wearing while renewing promises to be like Jesus; they could not bother to wear a mask for an hour at church, seemingly fine that the less vulnerable did not attend church for fear of catching COVID-19. These were people who I had heard express that they would give their life for the Savior but could not make a small adjustment to wear a mask for an hour to help the “least among us.” (Even if they had honest questions about the effectiveness of masks, the reality is that many who stayed away from church had no such questions—and would have experienced such a gesture as a welcoming act of kindness.)
Preserving Christian community in a spiraling society. As a mental health counselor, I always hope that a reflective pause leads to behavioral change. So, what are we to do? Here are a few ideas.
- Churches need to be politically neutral and focus attention on teaching gospel principles and serving people and communities. (Although there is a fine line to walk, I believe churches can address social justice issues to some degree while maintaining political neutrality.)
- Religious leaders need to stop endorsing political leaders. Faith-based churches, colleges, and schools also need to stop being places for political rallies.
- Church leaders need to stop making money and fattening their own financial pockets through an alliance with government and big business, similar to what occurred between the chief priests, Sadducees, Pharisees, and Pontius Pilate. The machinery of big business—consumer-based Christianity—that turns church leaders into millionaires (sustaining the religious elite’s way of life, like the dominant religious leaders who aligned with Pontius Pilate) should be stopped.
- Christian leaders also need to stop presenting a warrior-type Jesus fighting for religious freedom and pitted against the evil-doing government. Instead, I would hope to see more drawing on the Jesus of the Gospel, who does not instruct his disciples to be self-centered or money-focused warriors—but instead encourages his followers to engage in acts of self-transcendence and sacrifice for other people.
- I believe religious freedom can be achieved from dialogue and partnership far better than through condemning the government from the pulpit as a means to create contention against government leaders. There is a long history of government leaders—both Republicans and Democrats—that were awful people spreading harm, but there are also decent and good government leaders in both parties, and Christian leaders need to spend more time partnering with the good side of government.
Learning from the past—Christian churches in the 1950s—might be a good start to re-imagine a non-consumer-based Christianity, and that can start by reading books that explain the history of Christianity in America and by talking to people you might know who were active Church members 50, 60 or 70 years ago (e.g., older church members). For years I have found the older members of my church to be some of the wisest, and they have so many fascinating stories to tell about how Christianity was so much different than it is today.