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The lasting appeal of the Evangelical industrial complex
I once had someone tell me that I had a really good bullshit meter. She said this during a conversation where I was recounting some of the truly absurd things I encountered in my childhood church. This was a “skill” I didn’t really know I had until she mentioned it. This is a “skill” that I now realize is more of a by-product of C-PTSD and codependency, but, thankfully, after a decade of living in relative peace and stability, this bullshit meter is semi-retired. It served its purpose. But it still goes off from time to time.
Take the other day, for example. I was wading through an article this past March about the mass killing of school children in Nashville when I ran across a comment by Representative Tim Burchett that sent my bullshit meter off the charts. After a pithy comment about how “Criminals are going to be criminals,” followed by a strategically folksy anecdote about his “daddy” fighting in the Second World War, Burchett said, “I don’t think you’re gonna stop the gun violence. I think you gotta change people’s hearts.” The reporter then asked Burchett what role Congress had in stopping the rampant gun violence in this country, to which he shrugged and said that he thought Congress could only “mess things up.” He then said something that felt oddly familiar:
“As a Christian, I think we really need revival in this country. I think our ministers and our communities of faith need to come together and start preaching about love from the pulpit."
He doubled down on this in another interview a few days later: “Repenting of your sins … seems to me to be the way we’re going to turn this around, because we have some sick and evil people doing some very vile things. Revival seems to be the way to go for me.”
Having removed myself from Evangelical Christian circles years ago, it’s been a long time since I’ve heard someone talk about revival. My childhood pastor – who happens to be one of Burchett’s mentors – would talk about it all the time. (This same pastor also frequently talks about the “vileness of humanity” and “changing people’s hearts” and other favorite Burchett talking points.) Revival is the unicorn of Christian experience – everyone wants it and prays for it and yet few people have ever seen it. When I heard Burchett abandon his Constitutional duty to protect his constituents and call for a revival instead, I knew exactly what he was up to.
My church, like many in my town, held a revival meeting every spring. They would pitch a big white tent in the parking lot, invite a guest evangelist to come speak, and then hold a full week of meetings. We’d sing revival songs, which either specifically mentioned revival or were written decades ago specifically for revival meetings. The evangelist – specifically chosen for his animated style of preaching – would rant and rage against the evils of the day and scold us for not living separated lives. By the time the call came to dedicate yourself to God anew, dozens of us would flood to the altar, begging God to cleanse us and make us right with him.
Revival meetings like this have been a staple of American Christianity since the 1700s. The message, even though it has evolved with the times, has largely stayed the same. One of the most infamous of the revival sermons is Jonathan Edwards’s screed “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The gist of his sermon is that we are so sinful that God could, and perhaps should, throw us into Hell at any time. “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire,” said Edwards.
It is by his mercy that we are not consumed and therefore we need to repent to save ourselves – and, ultimately keep society in check. Given the emotional weight (dare I say emotional manipulation) of these sermons, people would “walk the sawdust trail,” flooding the aisles to the altar, begging God for forgiveness and mercy. They would walk away reborn, with a spring in their step and a renewed dedication to live for God for the rest of their lives. Well, at least until the next revival season.
Among Evangelicals, this “hell in a handbasket” message has remained largely unchanged. Modern day evangelists still spread this message, but instead of tent meetings, they host conferences like Passion and Hillsong or deliver highly digestible sermons via TikTok. These conferences and influencers call for a “return” to the gospel and call for “spiritual awakening.” They tout modesty, daily Bible reading, and wifely submission. This, they say, is what our country is missing. And for the low, low price of $119, you too can encounter God in ways you never thought possible. Until next year’s conference, that is. You can also buy their books, and attend their seminars, and go to the summer camps, and purchase the merch, and the music, and on, and on, and on. It's an endless quest for piety that is always just out of reach.
The question remains: do revivals work? There is absolutely a temporary effect. After hearing Jonathan Edwards or a Billy Graham or a Hillsong, people’s behavior does change for a while. People get hyped up emotionally and are sincere about change in the moment, but once the emotions die down, life returns to business as usual. In fact, lasting change seems antithetical to the revival model. If people change for good, then they won’t need your conferences or workshops or books. They won’t need revival.
Why then is Burchett – not a pastor, but an elected official – talking about revival when asked about gun control? It’s what his constituents expect. Their pastors and religious influencers tell them that the only solution to the world’s problems is revival. It’s the Bible, they say, that has all the answers and that if the world just “got right with God” then poverty, crime, disease, and all the other ills of society would go away. It’s a dog whistle to let them know that he holds their Christian values and, as his Twitter feed attests, they hear his message loud and clear and they love him for it.
There is, however, a more nefarious side to this message. “America needs revival” is a tool of oppression. It is a way to exploit people’s faith to maintain political power. Burchett said that Congress would only “mess things up” when it comes to gun control, but he’s wrong. What is the government for except to protect its citizens? If the solution to mass shootings is revival, and only God can bring revival, then it’s on us – not Burchett, not the government – to fix it. It makes me wonder then, by this rubric, what on earth is the point of government? I’ve heard people I love dearly say they vote Republican because it aligns with their Christian values, but that they don’t keep up with politics because it won’t make a difference.
They’re kind of right. It doesn’t make a difference. It’s designed that way. The people they are voting for want to use revival as a scapegoat, because it benefits them. It benefits Burchett to not do anything about gun reform because he will keep getting re-elected. He will keep getting kickbacks. He will retain his power. Teaching people to vote their values and then to leave it up to God and pray for revival gives people the illusion of civic involvement while keeping them far enough away to not notice what’s happening. These people truly believe what their religious leaders are telling them. They believe this is how it works. And why wouldn’t they? The problem is that these well-intentioned people are voting against themselves by voting their values.
People who have spent their whole lives fighting and marching and advocating for social justice all say the same thing: justice happens through legislative change. It happens by rooting out systemic injustice. It happens when we stop thinking about individual piety and start thinking about the collective good. We do need a revival in this country. Not from the pulpit, but from the polls.
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