Jonathan Merritt on Evangelicals Perfected Cancel Culture. Now It’s Coming for Them.

Church of the Highlands senior pastor Chis Hodges addresses racial injustice and his recent social media activity in his message on May 31, 2020. Video screengrab via Church of the Highlands

Jonathan Merritt is author of “Learning to Speak God From Scratch” and an award-winning contributor to The Atlantic.

Liking a tweet is technically free, but one Alabama megachurch is paying a hefty price.

This month, Chis Hodges, senior pastor of Church of the Highlands, an evangelical congregation with 60,000 members spread across 24 locations, came under fire after screenshots were shared online showing the pastor liking several posts by Charlie Kirk, a controversial pro-Trump activist.

The posts in question were considered racially insensitive and, among other things, questioned whether white privilege actually exists.

These actions sparked outcry from Birmingham residents, including the pastor of at least one black church who was already displeasedthat Hodges’ church has been planting white congregations in black neighborhoods to which they had no connection.

Hodges attempted to quell the furor by deleting his social media accounts and tearfully apologizing to his congregation, but Birmingham’s Board of Education, which leased two public high schools to the church, was unconvinced.

The board abruptly canceled Church of the Highlands’ six-year lease, prohibiting the church from continuing to meet in the schools. The city’s housing authority also terminated a partnership under which the church provided various social services to residents.

Hodges had been “canceled” – a term for what happens when people, most often on social media but increasingly in “real life,” band together and employ shaming tactics to block a person from having a platform. It can mean boycotting the target’s businesses, refusing to consume their books or films or pressuring friends, colleagues and activists to denounce them or formally cut ties.

Ironically, evangelical Christians, who now decry what happened to Hodges, are well practiced at this treatment. While “cancel culture” may be a recent phenomenon, public scapegoating, shaming and silencing tactics are not.

Following the cultural upheaval that began in the 1960s, conservative Christians bathed in a sense of loss. By the mid-1970s, traditional American Christian values were on the decline in favor of a new kind of pluralism. To protect themselves, leaders of the newly formed religious right argued a kind of Christian cultural separatism in which all that was deemed evil would be cut off from all that was deemed holy.

Among their enemies were liberal politicians, social justice activists, feminist professors, abortion rights advocates, secularists, pornographers, humanists, atheists, Hollywood moguls, civil rights leaders, working moms and stay-at-home dads.

Paige Patterson closes his eyes during a special meeting
of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
trustees on May 22, 2018. Photo by Adam Covington/
SWBTS via Baptist Press

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, church youth groups coordinated book burnings and music bonfires to purge their world of evil art. On any given night of the week, televangelists and Christian activists could be found on cable news attacking their enemies by name and blaming them for the “moral decay” of America.

Evangelicals tried their level best to smear and shame any person or organization who didn’t behave or believe appropriately in order to forcibly craft a society according to their Christian values.

When the target of their wrath wasn’t vulnerable to their smears, they used the foremost tool of cancel culture: the boycott. In 1997, the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention boycotted the Walt Disney company, which they perceived to be too gay-friendly.

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Source: Religion News Service