Preaching a Gospel of Conspiratorial Politics - Word&Way

Preaching a Gospel of Conspiratorial Politics

The senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Georgia, is upset. Rev. Anthony George complained during his sermon Sunday (Oct. 23) that someone publicized what he said during a prayer event earlier this month with U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker. That someone was me.

On the morning after allegations emerged that Walker paid for a girlfriend’s abortion, George emceed a prayer event for Walker at First Baptist. For George, the allegations were just an attack by Satan. We know that because while First Baptist staff barred reporters from entering the building, I found videos and broke the news about what George and Walker said behind closed doors. Although a staffer said they would give George my request for comment, he never responded. Now George thinks my reporting is also the work of the devil.

“One of the things that people will do to you — and Satan will use people to do to you — is to try to make you afraid of following God,” George preached on Sunday. “I had this happen just a few weeks ago. Had a little prayer meeting here, said it was going to be private [with] somebody seeking office.”

“The thing went public, people posted it, and I’m telling you I got all kinds of hatred and animosity coming at me on social media,” he added before turning his fire on who publicized his comments. “You cannot be intimidated by adversaries. And sadly, your biggest adversaries in the will of God are not even pagans, they are liberal Baptists — which may be pagan. But I’m telling you: There are wolves in sheep’s clothing out there. So, this thing about being in the will of God, it is not for pansies, it is not for sissies, it is not for the faint of heart.”

None of this is too unusual for a George sermon (except the part attacking dissenting Baptists like me). Satan is nearly omnipresent in George’s sermons as he warns constantly about the attacks of the devil on himself and First Baptist. And he regularly peppers his sermons with political rants, conspiratorial claims, and warnings about alleged persecution of Christians. At times his messages sound a bit like a cable news show with some Bible verses and prayers instead of commercial breaks.

Screengrab as Anthony George preaches at First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Georgia, on Oct. 23, 2022.

While numerous media outlets reported on George after the Walker prayer event, the routine politicking from the pulpit goes virtually ignored. Yet, his exhortations each Sunday and Wednesday work to disciple thousands with a partisan gospel.

Such MAGAchurch preaching occurs in sanctuaries across the country. But the prominence of First Baptist in Atlanta and his involvement in an important Senate campaign makes George a particularly important case study. So, in this issue of A Public Witness, I introduce you to George and his sermons before considering what this means for the witness of American Christianity today.

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Out of the Shadow

In its nearly 175-year-old history, there’s one figure who looms large over First Baptist: Charles Stanley.

Anthony George, who became senior pastor of the congregation just two years ago but has been on staff since 2012, acknowledged his uneasiness with the public spotlight on Sunday, saying he got used to being “in the shadow for eight-and-a-half years” as an associate under Stanley. And that was a lengthy shadow.

Starting in 1971, Stanley led First Baptist for 49 years. In 1972, he launched a religious TV program. Then in 1977, he founded In Touch Ministries to broadcast his messages and build his ministry empire. His still-ongoing show grew to reach hundreds of radio and television stations.

In 1979, Stanley partnered with Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, and others to start the Moral Majority, a Christian Right political organization. That same year, Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler launched an effort to push the Southern Baptist Convention further to the right and to become more active in Republican politics. Stanley became the fourth president in that campaign, winning elections in 1984 and 1985 to lead the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

The 1985 meeting was the largest ever for the SBC — with more than 45,000 voting messengers present — as the controversy over control of the convention climaxed. Pressler, who has since been accused in court by several men of unwanted sexual advances, later said of Stanley’s win, “It was like Gettysburg, but this time the right side won.”

Screengrab as Charles Stanley preaches at First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Georgia, on Aug. 2, 2020.

As his global fame grew, Stanley weathered controversies two decades ago about the separation and then divorce from his wife. His lofty status at First Baptist, where he’s pastor emeritus, remains intact. George frequently invokes Stanley in sermons, urging congregants to be the people and church Stanley would want them to be.

Even though George now leads an influential megachurch, he still sees himself in the shadow of his predecessor. And he’s likely reminded of that fact just by driving to work, since Georgia last year named a portion of Interstate 285 near the church in Stanley’s honor.

As he tries to live into the legacy of Stanley, George is similarly engaging in partisan politics and efforts to push the SBC even further rightward. Not only did he host the Walker event earlier this month, but he also brought Walker onto stage during Sunday worship in February to campaign.

Additionally, George joined other preachers in working with political activists like Mike Huckabee, Bob McEwen, and Tony Perkins on the steering council of the Conservative Baptist Network. This group, which Patterson helped launch in 2020 after being fired from his seminary for mishandling allegations of student rapes, formed over critiques of critical race theory and intersectionality as well as a desire to defend having Republican Vice President Mike Pence speak at the SBC meeting.

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From Preacher to Pundit

George became senior pastor of First Baptist during COVID — with the church empty because of the virus. And for George, the pandemic was a Chinese weapon created in a lab and purposely released and then used by socialists in the U.S. to shut down churches and try to get people to take a dangerous vaccine. To borrow from the biblical proverb, as a dog returns to its vomit, George repeats these arguments over and over in his sermons.

George suggested on multiple occasions that the virus wasn’t actually natural. For instance, as he preached on Oct. 9 that God will build his church no matter what, he added a conspiratorial example to this theological claim.

“That means, we face a pandemic, we come out stronger because God’s building his church. They can come up with some other lab virus that ‘escapes’ from somewhere overseas and it can wipe us out again, we’ll come stronger because God’s building his church,” he declared while using air quotes for “escapes.”

Similarly, during a Bible study on Aug. 24, he called the COVID pandemic a “manufactured” crisis and lumped COVID in with other things he doesn’t believe are real.

“I think about all of the current issues we face today with COVID pandemic and other health mandates, the issues of what’s being taught in schools, this radical environmentalism with climate change, global warming, and other ridiculous things like that, human sexuality which is now all fluid,” George said. “Get ready because there’s going to be some more manufactured crises in the next few years. I don’t know if they’ll compare to the COVID pandemic, but there will be other crises, they’ll be manufactured.”

Thus, he insisted they would not follow public health rules in the future like the congregation had at the start of the pandemic (when Stanley was still senior pastor).

“Keeping the doors closed to a church is no longer an option,” George said during his July 31 sermon. “I don’t care if COVID round two comes back. I don’t care if melanoma becomes contagious by droplets in the air. You hear what I’m telling you? I don’t care if Monkeypox moves beyond the community that could control it right now, by the way.”

In addition to pledging to keep the church open, George also frequently criticized the safety and efficacy of the COVID vaccines — and noted he had refused to get vaccinated. He argued during a March 30 Bible study, “I deserve the right to make that choice about my own body.” So, he said he waited to see how many people die or “develop tremors” from the vaccines.

George particularly argued that vaccine mandates are wrong, comparing them on March 30 to the mandate against praying to God that Daniel violated in the Bible. And during a Bible study on Oct. 19, he encouraged his congregants to stand up against vaccine mandates in workplaces and schools because “the vaccine has not been vetted, the vaccine has not had enough time for the side effects and all the potential disastrous consequences of it to be manifested through research.”

Beyond criticizing President Joe Biden for taking COVID seriously and trying to stop disinformation (like the sources George apparently consulted during his sermon preparation), George also repeatedly pushed conspiratorial false claims about Biden trying to persecute Christians. He stated during an Aug. 10 Bible study that funding for more IRS employees is proof the government will “weaponize its agencies against us” because we have “a government that wants to be God.” Two weeks later, he again invoked the “90,000 IRS agents” as proof the government will “target people who are Christians.”

“They’re coming after us, they’re going to come after churches. It’s all, you can just see it all playing out,” he added. “You want to know why? Because all of the forces of this world that are not bowed before Jesus are in the hand of the devil and his demons.”

“I’m predicting more and more adversity to be directed against the church, particularly from the government,” he added in his Oct. 9 sermon. “Don’t tell me that the president’s newly-deployed 87,000 IRS agents aren’t going to target God-fearing people and come after churches for whatever reason they deem necessary. Now if I’m wrong, you all can stone me as a false prophet.”

Given the fact-checking on the claims made about the new IRS funding, George may want to avoid rock quarries or other places where stones are readily available. But even when not discussing the IRS, George routinely argues Christians will soon be persecuted by the government and that we are heading into the end times. For instance, he declared during his March 28 Bible study that cultural changes show “they’ll shut us down one day.” And he argued it’s already happening as he claimed about Ivy League schools during his July 5 sermon, “You’re liable to get arrested if you go to one of them with a Bible in your hand and try to share the gospel.”

Screengrab as Anthony George preaches at First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Georgia, on July 5, 2022.

One way this persecution is happening, George argued multiple times, is through efforts to confront racism — which he insisted are actually racist. As he criticized “progressive Christians” for pushing “a new gospel called the gospel of diversity, equity, and inclusion” on July 5, George said it was an attempt to undermine the nation’s “foundations of Christian heritage” with “Marxism and socialism meant to undo the social order.”

“All of this diversity, equity, inclusion, you may think it’s promoting minorities. It is about advancing the perverse, that’s what it’s about,” he added while in a church with a history of racism. “This is what burns me up! They’ve jumped on the back of Africans, African Americans and they’ve hijacked the civil rights movement!”

Similarly, he attacked Black Lives Matter during his Oct. 16 sermon as one of the “demonic philosophies” facing Christians today.

“This Black Lives Matter thing came out of nowhere, and they started pumping that mess down our throats. Like I needed a left-wing, radical, socialist organization to tell me that Black lives matter,” he shouted to applause. “They wanted to manufacture all of this societal, historical guilt and put it in the microwave and force-feed it down our throats so we would send them millions and millions of dollars to buy mansions out in California.”

Other political issues that drew George’s ire in recent messages included in his Aug. 10 Bible study as he attacked government entitlement programs and shifted to complain about immigration: “They welcome all of these people to come into the country illegal [sic], and then put them on entitlement programs and eventually, watch what happens, they’ll give them the freedom to vote.” During his July 10 sermon, he attacked Biden and environmentalists for high gas prices, rather than Russia and oil companies: “The reason you’re paying a blessed $5 at the pump is because of the cult of Earth-worship. That’s why you’re paying that much money at the pump, is because radical environmentalism, which sways control over the current regime, is nothing but a worship of the Earth in the place of God.”

Additionally, during his March 30 Bible Study, George complained that men are under attack in our society because elites want to “eradicate male leadership, to diminish manhood.” As proof, he mentioned those criticizing Will Smith for “toxic masculinity” after slapping Chris Rock. George ranted in response, “Okay, so let’s just castrate men, let’s just make men devoid of testosterone, and let’s just deemphasize the importance of a man in society, the importance of a male-led home, of a male-led marriage.”

And these are just some of the examples from the last seven months of his messages.

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Partisan Babbling

Last month, First Baptist hosted the Family Research Council’s Pray Vote Stand Summit featuring Republican politicians (like Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Sen. James Lankford, and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt) and conservative political activists (like David Barton, David Limbaugh, and Todd Starnes). The church’s choir sang at the event and George was featured on the promotional materials. This event in First Baptist’s sanctuary aligned with what occurs during worship there on Sundays and Wednesdays. In fact, George promoted the political organizing conference during several Sunday services. Afterward, he announced to the congregation he had been inspired.

“We learned about the importance of Christians running for school board,” he said during the Sept. 18 service. “And I felt convicted our church needs to start mobilizing people to run for school board in DeKalb and Fulton and Cobb and Gwinnett. And this is your pastor’s resolve, amen, hallelujah. So, we’re going to start getting candidates out here and getting some sense knocked into the heads of these school boards.”

George promises his church will become more active in partisan politics. But it won’t just be through hosting special events like those of the FRC and Herschel Walker’s campaign. It’ll come from the pulpit as George holds his Bible and declares this to be a word from the Lord. That such politicking occurs during pastoral messages makes it more powerful. Standing in that holy space, he’s baptized his politics and christened his conspiracies, thus giving them a persuasive weight that Fox News and candidates for office wish they could clone. But as long as he does the work for them, they don’t need to.

“The pulpit ought to be configuring the ecclesia in a different way, instead of being modeled on the dysfunction in political bodies right now,” O. Wesley Allen Jr., a professor of homiletics in the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, told me. “While we want to be engaging contemporary life and society and politics in the pulpit, we need to be careful because people see us as speaking the word of God or at least speaking with some kind of authority that’s different than just a talking head on TV.”

Allen, author of Preaching in the Era of Trump and several other books on preaching, also noted the role of the congregation — especially in light of First Baptist applauding George’s political diatribes.

“I don’t know which came first, chicken or egg, but certainly right now it’s cyclical and they’re feeding off of one another,” Allen said. “The praise does feed it for sure. So, it becomes a cycle of, okay, the preacher is affirming me and what I think, and I’m affirming the preacher.”

As the congregation stands and claps for a partisan attack on Biden, vaccines, or liberals, it likely encourages George to rant more in his next sermon. They’re radicalizing each other within their echo chamber. It’s bad enough in partisan media, but this babbling of pagans is even worse when it takes over a sanctuary.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor

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