by Bob Hughes, Ed.D.
According to reporting by KUOW, two schools in King County account for the overwhelming majority of the 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 that branch of the Christian tree, I wasn’t surprised by the news. As someone who has spent his adult life working in education, though, I’m saddened that any school would ignore science and the safety of its community to adopt 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 wasn’t raised in that church, but I became a convert in the late-teen-early-20s stage of seeking life direction. At the time, I became fully committed to the beliefs of that denomination. I even earned a bachelor’s degree from an Assemblies of God college where I majored in English and completed a mandatory second major in Christian theology. My first teaching job was at an Assemblies of God-operated Christian high school for a year and a half. It was attending that college and teaching at that school that helped me leave Christianity as I observed and experienced emerging changes in the denomination and its schools during those years. In the over 40 years since those experiences, I’ve watched a further evolution as the Assemblies of God and other fundamentalist groups became more aligned with radical, right-wing politics. If you read other news accounts, you’ll 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 ’70s, I saw how this denomination evolved to its current position. I was initially drawn to Pentecostal fundamentalist beliefs because of the fervency that followers displayed. The people I encountered lived the beliefs they espoused. They believed in a daily devotion to divinity. Their god was real because he spoke to them and acted in their lives daily. Faith wasn’t something that they talked about on Sunday morning. They relied on their beliefs to guide them through each moment. I was drawn to that sense of dedication; it was something that I sought to emulate. I found comfort believing a deity was participating in every moment of my life. But then my relationship to the church and faith changed when a shift to political radicalism started invading the churches in the mid-’70s.
Lots of folks who study the evolution of Christian, right-wing politics have documented that shift extensively. But for me, this was a personal change. Church services for fundamentalist churches at the time were generally on Sunday mornings and evenings and midweek (typically Wednesdays) in the evening. Sunday mornings were for a general community of believers and for outreach to potentially new congregants. Sunday evenings, however, were for the truest of believers to congregate in a more intimate group focused on the deepening of faith and connection to god. Wednesdays were when believers explored the intricacies of the faith by learning to interpret scriptures.
But at some point in the ’70s, pastors began inviting special speakers on Sunday nights and Wednesday services to talk politics. At first, these people spoke of the need to protect the faith by being politically aware of the many attacks they purported were waged against the faith. Over time, these exhortations became calls to action for believers to preserve the faith: Vote for certain candidates, support certain legislation, and write to certain elected officials. Special speakers like this were especially prominent at the Assemblies of God college I attended. The speakers decried the godless actions of a Supreme Court that ruled on everything from women’s health to school desegregation. They railed against a social safety net as supporting slothfulness that was anti-Christian. They denounced the “homosexual agenda” that they believed pervaded society. Their grievances against societal changes of the era were conflated with theology and faith. Eventually, by the late ’70s, right-wing politics merged with the faith and became a symbiotic, dogmatic theme for Sunday and Wednesday night services. As the church radicalized and clashed dramatically with my own political beliefs and worldview, I realized that I couldn’t continue with that denomination. Eventually, as I examined more of the faith, I left Christianity altogether.
My decision was a personal one that I don’t extend into beliefs about what others should do. I have friends and family who have fundamentalist faith, and I respect both the people and their beliefs as genuine. Just as I believed before I left that faith, they see their relationship to their god as personal and meaningful. I understand and will always admire that. What I cannot understand and respect, however, is the impact that the political shift has had. The two King County schools with COVID-19 outbreaks are good examples of the influence of that political shift. One of the two schools went so far as to seek legal counsel to determine how to fight the mask mandates they see as impinging on their freedom. Having studied the Christian faith formally and having experienced it personally, I don’t recall any scriptures that mandate the kind of extreme libertarianism that’s expressed when people refuse to adopt a simple public safety measure like wearing a face mask. Yet, that view is now merged with religious beliefs that conflate political libertarianism with belief in God.
It’s an illogical belief system that resulted from this marriage. The overtaking of faith by politics led right-wing fundamentalists to reject former President Jimmy Carter whose sincere Christianity had him still teaching Sunday school into his 90s. These same fundamentalists now embrace former President Donald Trump, a famously libertine grifter who only waves a Bible to make political points. Adherents of the new merger make this choice based on political calculations about whoever will further a defined political agenda, not who is an ethical leader or an exemplar of the Christian life. Their illogic opens these folks to being manipulated by political actors who play to their fears and biases — none of which are based in the fervency of faith characteristic of earlier fundamentalism before it was co-opted by a radical political agenda. Political calculation has overtaken faith, and the result impacts the fundamentalists and also those of us who live with them — as evidenced in the two King County schools.
The melding of fundamentalist faith and right-wing ideology hasn’t served the church well. It creates a narrow definition of Christianity that excludes people who share the faith but not the political perspective. In an era when people are increasingly divided, the connection between fundamentalist beliefs and radical politics creates another schism in society. Also, right-wing radicalism makes fundamentalist churchgoers fearful of differences within other people and distrustful of authority, like when public health experts explain the necessity of wearing masks during an epidemic. As a result, this coupling has damaged fundamentalist churches’ abilities to participate in the communities in which they reside.
In 1981, Billy Graham, the most respected fundamentalist evangelist of that era, famously warned that “It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.” His statement has proven prophetic, as even Billy Graham’s son Franklin Graham, who now controls the ministry that his father built, has succumbed to the lure of right-wing politics.
In the decades since I left Christianity, many fundamentalists have replaced the fervency of faith with a fervency for ideology. Or, at the least, they’ve allowed that ideology to come alongside faith so that it directs their lives in ways that were previously reserved for only their faith. As Billy Graham warned, the fundamentalists who’ve fallen prey to right-wing ideology have become pawns for leaders with agendas — agendas that are typically anti-democratic and often authoritarian. So when I read that two schools operated by a fundamentalist denomination produced most of the juvenile COVID-19 cases in my county, especially at a time when these infections could be prevented, I understood how that happened. But it doesn’t make this outcome any less sad.
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Bob Hughes has spent 40 years in Washington State education as a teacher, researcher, and administrator. He is a professor emeritus at Seattle University.
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