Bringing the Culture War to the Pulpit - Word&Way

Bringing the Culture War to the Pulpit

“I believe that the Bible and the Constitution do not have to contradict so long as the Constitution is seen as being breathed out of the words of the Bible by our founding fathers. And the only way that the Bible and the Constitution would ever contradict is when we interpret the Constitution through the current cultural lens of compromise, capitulation, and buckle to the sins and sexual wickedness of the people. Yes, you’ve walked into one of those churches.”

That’s how Rev. Jerry Cook set the stage for “meet the candidates” Sunday during morning worship on Aug. 28 at Freedom’s Way Baptist Church in Santa Clarita, California. With an American flag image on the front of the pulpit, he also explained that the service was to help people get to know the candidates and vice versa. He added, “It’s a chance also for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ to reassert our dominance as a force for good and righteousness in the world.”

“God and country is still very much a part of our spiritual DNA,” Cook said. “We are not woke, but we are awake.”

Over the next two hours, congregants heard from 15 conservative candidates for local and statewide office. Cook introduced the politicians, while working in jabs at Democrats and offering his support for the various candidates. He also noted that one person couldn’t make it and texted to say she wasn’t feeling well and “tested positive.” He said, while rolling his eyes and shaking his head, that he told her she was “fine.”

The church heard from Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Mark Meuser, Republican U.S. House of Representatives hopeful Lucie Volotzky (both of whom are running longshot campaigns to unseat Democratic incumbents), and candidates for state assembly, school board, city council, local water board, and state board of equalization. Several candidates emphasized their faith and their plans to govern according to their interpretation of the Bible.

“There are two books that have been written that we have to stand by: the Bible and the Constitution,” declared Volotzky. “I will swear to protect you … in D.C. I’m telling you something. I will do so. Because a lot of people swear and they don’t do a damn thing for us. Enough is enough!”

Meanwhile, Meuser invoked a term David used to describe Goliath before killing the giant: “Many people say, hey, you live in California, the home of the fruits, the nuts, and the flakes. You have no chance to win. And every time somebody tells me I have no chance I mutter under my breath, another uncircumcised Philistine.”

Screengrab as Rev. Jerry Cook introduced five candidates for school board to talk at Freedom’s Way Baptist Church in Santa Clarita, California, on Aug. 28, 2022.

Mixed in during pleas for votes, the service included prayers, a reading from Romans 13, and a worship leader wearing an American flag dress shirt leading the congregation in hymns like “Crown him with many crowns,” “This world is not my home,” and “Amazing Grace.” Then came the “sermon.”

For this service, Cook turned the pulpit over to controversial talk show host Todd Starnes, who joined the pastor in taking aim at Democrats and espousing Christian Nationalist ideas that merge American and Christian identities. Despite a checkered past, many Christians continue to tune into Starnes and view him as an authority on what it means to offer a conservative Christian public witness.

So, in this issue of A Public Witness, we introduce you to the man behind the microphone of the Todd Starnes Show before listening to his sermon Sunday. Then we offer a warning about risking the Church’s witness by elevating partisan voices like Starnes in pulpits that should be devoted to offering a word from the Lord.

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Not So Fair and Balanced

The Baptist Press exists within an awkward tension. As the formal mouthpiece of the Southern Baptist Convention (and funded by the SBC’s Cooperative Program coming from church offering plates), the media entity serves as a promotional vehicle for highlighting denominational activities and expressing the official views of America’s largest Protestant body. While it is unlikely to ever lead an investigative charge of the SBC, it also claims to uphold journalistic standards within those restraints.

When the Baptist Press landed an interview with then-U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige in 2003, it was a nice feather in the outlet’s cap. Yet, the interview became a source of national controversy for a surprising reason. It sparked denunciations of Paige and even calls for his resignation for extolling the virtues of Christian schools relative to public ones.

“The reason that Christian schools and Christian universities are growing is a result of a strong value system,” BP reported Paige saying. “In a religious environment the value system is set. That’s not the case in a public school, where there are so many different kids with different kinds of values.”

The original story also had Paige declaring, “All things equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community, where a child is taught to have a strong faith.”

In reality, the reporter asked Paige to evaluate “the best deal” between Christian, private, and public universities. The secretary began his answer with an omitted qualification: “That’s a judgment, too, that would vary because each of them have real strong points and some of them have some vulnerabilities.”

The Department of Education pushed back by releasing a transcript of the interview showing several of Paige’s quotes in the published interview were taken out of context. BP acknowledged the piece “contained factual and contextual errors” and the reporter “no longer will be employed to write for the Baptist Press.” That reporter was Todd Starnes (who faced similar allegations on another story during his BP tenure).

Starnes managed to fail upward. He landed at Fox News in 2005, holding a variety of roles and continuing to incite controversy along the way. During a July 2019 appearance on Fox & Friends, Starnes asserted that Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress and a naturalized U.S. citizen, should buy a “one-way plane ticket back to whatever third-world hellhole you came from.”

Todd Starnes speaks at the 2018 Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 22, 2018. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

Starnes also stirred outrage in 2019 because of claims made on his radio show by Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Dallas and one of former President Trump’s strongest evangelical supporters, that “the god they [Democrats] worship is the pagan god of the Old Testament Moloch, who allowed for child sacrifice.”

Shortly thereafter, Fox removed Starnes from all their platforms. But after the news of his departure broke, Starnes defended himself on social media.

“I’m proud to call myself a gun-toting, Bible-clinging, Deplorable Trump supporter,” he tweeted. “I am a rock-solid conservative and I do not compromise my beliefs. Period.”

His next act would be launching his own media group and radio show where his beliefs could air without oversight. As that platform continues to draw a large audience, he even hosted a Southern Baptist Convention presidential candidate earlier this year who campaigned on Trumpian and right-wing programs while unsuccessfully trying to push the SBC further rightward.

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Culture War Sermon

After noting his various media platforms where people can hear and read him, Starnes started off his remarks at Freedom’s Way Baptist Church on Sunday by relitigating comments made by some of his favorite Democratic targets.

“I’m one of these people that President Obama talked about a long time ago. He talked about people like you and me, said we cling to our guns and our religion,” Starnes said. “And it wasn’t too long after that that Hillary Clinton called us a ‘basket of deplorables’ — ‘Irredeemable’ is the word she used. And I got to thinking about that the other day. And I want you to know I am proud to call myself a gun-toting, Bible-clinging song of a Baptist and I’m not bitter, I’m blessed and I’m not irredeemable because I’ve been redeemed by the blood of the lamb.”

Starnes then bragged about being an NRA member and upsetting his neighbors when he used to live in Brooklyn, New York. And he joked about his aunt being the pianist for her church and also providing security.

“She has a bedazzled glock that she keeps on the piano bench,” he said. “She’s the only woman I know who can actually play ‘Amazing Grace’ and squeeze off a couple of rounds without missing a beat.”

Starnes also hit on other red-meat issues for his Republican audience gathered in the church. He praised “a Trump Supreme Court” for overturning Roe v. Wade, criticized those who were concerned about “the China virus pandemic,” and complained about content allegedly taught in public schools. He also criticized the removal of statues honoring Confederates who enslaved people and fought against our nation.

Additionally, Starnes said the Biden administration was funding “atheist missionaries.” We were a bit confused by that last assertion, so we googled it. Turns out it’s a claim pushed by a commentator … Todd Starnes. It takes a few jumps to get to “atheist missionaries,” but he seems to think that a State Department program for racial equity and justice that is intended to “protect and advance the human rights of people belonging to marginalized racial and ethnic communities and combat systemic racism, discrimination, and xenophobia around the world” will actually be promoting critical race theory, which he thinks is Marxist and thus atheistic.

Screengrab as Todd Starnes speaks at Freedom’s Way Baptist Church in Santa Clarita, California, on Aug. 28, 2022.

Starnes compared conservatives today to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the biblical book of Daniel who were thrown in the fiery furnace for obeying God instead of government. So, he praised Freedom’s Way Baptist Church for bringing candidates to speak during the service and for previously not following COVID-19 public health measures. But he warned the congregation they will need to fight.

“I believe the persecution is already here,” Starnes claimed. “I believe this is a time, a Bonhoeffer moment, for every Bible-believing patriot in America. And the time has come for all of us to stand resolute and declare that we are one nation under God.”

“The fight goes on. That’s the message today. The attacks on our values, our way of life, they continue today,” he added. “They’re going to be trying to silence us. They’re going to be trying to bully and intimidate us, but we must not be silent. We must not be bullied. And like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, we must not bow down.”

After sharing a story about American troops in the Vietnam War, he urged the congregation to similarly fight. In doing so, he tossed in two metaphors Jesus used in Matthew 5 (the same chapter where Jesus says that “peacemakers” will be “children of God”) to describe the Christian community, but Starnes reinterpreted Jesus’s words as applying to the United States.

“We are surrounded. The cultural bullets are flying. The enemies of freedom are advancing. And the time has come for us to stand resolute,” he said. “We are freedom’s last line of defense. So, I say this: Do not hide liberty’s light under a bushel. You hold it high … And let our prayer be on this day that our great nation will once again be that shining city on a hill.”

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Credibility Matters

Compared to Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and other Fox luminaries, Todd Starnes is far from a household name. But even on a network known for pushing conservative ideology over hard news, some of the opinions and positions staked out by Starnes turned heads.

There was the claim of “Christian cleansing” by the Obama Administration, inaccurate accusations of anti-Christian bias with the Veterans’ Administration, using an airline disaster to attack President Obama that drew a public rebuke from another Fox host, and a litany of other egregious remarks documented by Jonathan Merritt in The Atlantic.

Merritt argued that Starnes’s offenses created a significant credibility problem for the news channel (we would argue that Fox’s problems in that area were and are far bigger than Starnes). But Merritt suggested a reason Fox employed him for so long: Starnes found success by being outrageous in a medium that feeds on outrage.

“So, while Starnes is doing everything wrong, he’s also doing everything right. He’s ginning up controversy, often when it doesn’t exist, and in some cases perhaps deliberately misleading the public. But the result is a loyal base of fans and an expanding platform.”

It’s a style that’s defined his career. And Mark Wingfield, executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global, sees this style of journalism going way back. In comments to us, he recalled the transformation of Baptist Press after the rightward shift of the SBC. That shift included the firing of the journalists leading BP back in the days when it was much more than a PR arm (and in response to that move, then-Word&Way editor Bob Terry joined other Baptist journalists to launch an alternative to BP that was known as Associated Baptist Press and today as Baptist News Global).

“Todd Starnes represents the most extreme version of politicized Southern Baptist evangelicalism,” Wingfield told us. “That he was brought into the Southern Baptist journalism network years ago as a representative of the then-new conservative resurgence idea of ‘news’ illustrates exactly why Paul Pressler had to fire Dan Martin and Al Shackleford. The goal never has been truth; always control and spin. What happened in the SBC later played out in the Republican Party, and some of the players are the same.”

We asked Jerry Cook, the pastor of Freedom’s Way Baptist Church about Starnes’s past, but Cook didn’t see it as a problem anymore: “Todd has taken his lumps and learned. I’m so thankful for God’s amazing grace.” Cook also claimed to us that he didn’t endorse candidates even though he clearly encouraged his congregation to vote for the candidates speaking during the service (in ways that run afoul of IRS rules for non-profit 501(c)(3) organizations). Of course, Cook has his own local radio show where he pushes similar politics as Starnes. And his church was criticized in 2020 for putting up an unofficial ballot drop box and encouraging people to turn in their ballots.

While Starnes’s loose relationship with the truth and conflation of Christianity with an extreme partisan agenda are a problem, they can also distract from the larger issue. The only reason Starnes continues to enjoy a platform is that a market exists for his brand of political entertainment. He gets invited to churches and makes money through his media company because lots of people, including many Christians, enjoy listening to what he offers them.

The real credibility issue Starnes poses is to the teachings of Jesus and the integrity of Christ’s Church. In America, he has every right to say what he believes. The problem is that too many Christians believe he is preaching the gospel.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood

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