Jeff Sharlet: Harper’s has posted the entirety of my feature from its May issue, “Soldiers of Christ: Inside America’s Most Powerful Megachurch,” the first half of which I posted here on The Revealer. If you already read that and want to skip directly to the second half, scroll down to the picture of Pontius Pilate at right, or search the phrase “last election,” and you’ll be whisked there right away.
The print edition is illustrated with a series of paintings by evangelical artist Thomas Blackshear. Harper’s‘ online edition is illustrated with a series of 19th century prints. They begin with Jesus, move down to Pilate, and end with Judas — just above my author bio. Are my editors trying to tell me something? Some of the subjects of the story might think so. Yesterday I received word that the people whom I most liked — and tried to portray favorably — felt betrayed. So I’ve been asking myself: Who’s the Judas? Me? Or Pastor Ted Haggard, selling Christ through “free market” theology? I ask in earnest.
Evangelicaldom, as a movement, is giddy with power right now, and verbose with proclaimations of good faith in the public sphere. But there are many within the evangelical ranks who experience this moment of empire not with exhileration but with vertigo. It’s like a bad joke: What happened to the gospel on the way to the coliseum?
Triumphalist evangelicals feel betrayed by media that does not reflect their victory in all its humble glory. Uneasy evangelicals feel betrayed by the triumphalists — and the media that reveals their strength within Christendom.
And “the media” — in this instance, me — feels betrayed by the Christians of conscience who close ranks when the press comes calling. It’s not the Ted Haggards of America who scare me. It’s the ordinary Christians, good and thoughtful people, who cringe at the power being seized in their names and yet remain silent, unwilling to challenge those who invoke Christ’s name for the sake of influence.
I’ll concede that I’m a Judas of sorts. “Writers,” observes Joan Didion, “are always selling somebody out.” It’s what we do; it’s how we get stories. And I won’t be shy about calling Ted Haggard, James Dobson, and all the other power preachers Judases. They’re writers of a kind as well, telling stories about the nation, and they inevitably betray their subjects despite best intentions.
But there’s another order of Judas in America right now, more powerful than Ted Haggard, and certainly more powerful than Harper’s. I’m thinking of the silent Christians, those who buy the stories preachers and writers tell and sell out the truth of their own consciences to subsidize them. You could call it moral tithing. Give up ten percent of what you know to be good, or right, or true, keep mum about that which you don’t know, assume the rest, and take your seat on the train bound for glory, and power.
Additional reading: A Colorado Springs blogger called Non Prophet read my Harper’s piece, then read a column by an associate pastor at the church I wrote about, and decided to visit the church and make up his own mind. Find out what happened.