Bob Kerns: Thinking

Thinking about Science, Engineering, and Technology


Emilia Asks About the GOP Religion and Hate

by Bob Kerns

A bright 15-year-old young woman asks:

Tweet from Emilia

My response, lightly edited:

Well, I can’t actually answer the “why so many”, which is at the crux of this, but I can provide some relevant background.

Tyndale’s Unicorn

Let’s start at a beginning: The Bible, translated to English.

In 1526, William Tyndale published the first English translation of the Bible. This was not popular with the oligarchs of the time, and escaping to Holland did not help. He was executed for heresy: strangled, then burned at the stake (I guess it’s better in that order!)

But that wasn’t the end of it. A couple years later, King Henry commissioned the Great Bible. And Protestants who had fled to Geneva, under John Calvin, produced the Geneva Bible. This is the Bible that W. Shakespeare knew and used.

These were based on heretic Tyndale’s! These and a couple of others were the basis for the King James version—a true committee work. James set 47 scholars to the task, in response to complaints from the Puritans.

Tyndale was still dead. Unicorns were still in it. It would be centuries before that was thought odd.

But meanwhile, off in Geneva, John Calvin and his friends had a bunch of arguments, about things like predestination and how that could fit with salvation. If God knows our futures, do we have free will? Is sin our fault? Is it predetermined who will be saved?

When I come back, we’ll briefly visit Holland, and England again, then jump to the US in the 19th century. There are some interesting twists ahead.

A visit to Holland

OK, back. later than expected, ‘cause daughter was later than expected. Do your parents a favor and come home on time or let them know, ‘k?

So the bit about predestination wasn’t a detour. It’s why we’re visiting this history. I’ll sew that up after we cover planes & TV!

Meanwhile, back in the late 16th century, we return to Holland, to consider Jacobus Arminius. Trained in Geneva by a successor to Calvin, he had a different take on predestination. I’ll simplify as “free will exists, kinda”.

On to England, where Arminius’s ideas had taken hold in the Church of England. John Wesley, an ordained Anglican, his brother Charles, and a friend Whitefield, began to preach outdoors to reach miners and others who would not enter churches.

Evangelism begins

A pamphlet referred to them as “The Oxford Methodists”, so Wesley himself adopted the term. They became a sort of a church within the Church of England.

Wesley was invited to the colonies. What he started during his time here, became separate & evangelism took aim at natives.

But Calvinist ideas came, too, with denial of free will. Life is as God ordained; sinners are damned, the saved are blessed, end of story.

This is more compatible with the notion of slavery. Perhaps you can see where this is headed, already?

It’s not that Calvinism supports slavery. But if you take that idea of predestination, and give a little twist, you can convince yourself that slavery is God’s will, just like everything else. Sinners and the saved are pre-determined, as God willed.

Wealth as Religion

Religion is often no match for creative rationalization. But Calvinism and Arminianism coexist. The notion of hard work = saved, laziness = damned takes root, alongside evangelism. Of course, there are many divisions and variations, such as Baptists and Anabaptists. Do you baptize infants?

The Anabaptists like the Amish and Mennonites don’t play a large role in our story, but the Baptists reenter.

But now we come up upon the Gilded Age. The age of western expansion, railroads, and steel.

And Andrew Carnegie, a self-made man, rose to the top of the heap.

Now, Carnegie was a religious man, and a great philanthropist. 3000 libraries, half of CMU, and more. He was a major benefactor of the Tuskegee Institute, for Black education.

And he wrote a booklet, The Gospel of Wealth.

In this, he argues for the accumulation of wealth, and subsequent philanthropy.

But let’s give that idea another century to percolate. I promised you airplanes. And on that track, I must correct a small error. The Mennonites make a brief appearance, by kicking out Martin Boehm.

In response, Reformed pastor Philip Otterbein welcomes him and they found the United Brethren. They flourish.

In 1889, the same year as Carnegie’s Gospel, there’s an argument. One of the bishops leads the conservatives off on their own.

We’ll join up with the majority later.


I meant to mention, the United Brethren had taken a strong stand against slavery, but slavery has now ended. But we’re still talking about white-lead churches here. I’ll come back to that.

Meanwhile, meet Bishop Milton Wright. His sons invented the plane. More planes later!

A Trip to Los Angeles

In 1903, the same year as the first flight, William Seymore moved to Houston seeking to further his religious education, where he connected with Charles Parham, who’d rebelled against his Methodist education & pioneered speaking in tongues, faith healing, etc. The Jim Crow era racism made it difficult for Seymore, who had to sit outside the classroom door to circumvent the laws. But he and Parham preached frequently together outdoors.

They are the founders of the Pentecostal movement.

In 1906, Seymore was invited to preach in Los Angeles. Los Angeles proved fruitful, with the Azusa Street Revival drawing large crowds. The ideas took root and spread, most especially in the black communities.

But our story lies with the white branch. And we return for a while to the United Brethren majority who did not join Wright. In 1946, right after WWII, they joined up with the Evangelical church, to form the Evangelical United Brethren.

Meet my grandfather, Rev. Dragoo. Meet my father, Rev. Kerns Meet bigot Steve King (IA-R). He grew up half-way between my fathers’ and grandfather’s churches. And I went to the same school as Rep. King’s mother.

And I have no idea where he gets his hateful ideas, nor why he got elected. Hopefully @Scholten4Iowa will put an end to that. [Ed: Nope, sigh] [Ed: Maybe 2020?][Ed: Nope]

So we haven’t quite arrived at our toxic destination.

In 1968, the EUB and the Methodist churches merged to form the United Methodists.

And Pentecostal televangelist Oral Roberts became an Elder, believing this made him a part of the United Methodist clergy.

And now we can begin to see the pieces come together, answer just out of reach.

Prosperity gospel. Predeterminism. And jet planes. And coming up, a surprise personal encounter with bigotry.

Praying for Dollars

Televangelism as big business was really started by Pat Robertson, in 1960. He started as a Southern Baptist, but far outside their mainstream. He tried to become a lawyer, failed, so became a minister, founding the Christian Broadcasting Network.

This was too profitable, so it had to be spun off to avoid his non-profit status. CBN begat CBN Family, which was spun off and sold, became ABC Family, Disney family, and now Freeform. Contractually bound to perpetually air CBN’s 700 Club.

We’re starting to get at “so many”!

Robertson founded Regent University. And, in response to the ACLU, the ACLJ. A Regent U student, Jay Sekulow, became their lead counsel. Argued 12 cases before SCOTUS on “religious freedom”.

Sekulow’s family now controls ACLJ and became rich.

Jay Sekulow is Trump’s Mueller lawyer.

Oral Robert also founded a university. Named it after himself. A Houston preacher’s kid (like me) named Joel Osteen studied TV communication there. No degree, no divinity degree. But took over his father’s church after his death, and built an empire, and bought the Compaq Center, a stadium, to be his new church.

It wasn’t big enough, so spent millions expanding it. Includes TV studio. Bought a huge mansion.

And of course, TV evangelists need jet planes. Remember Carnegie’s Gospel?

This is all part of the message. Riches are a sign of God’s blessing. Wanna be rich? Get blessed. Donate!

Tying It Together

So let’s look where these threads have brought us.

We have a truly massive reach, pushed by really big money, and penetrating deep into politics, even the presidency.

We have a religious justification for the accumulation of wealth, and wealth as a sign of religious and personal worth.

And we have predestination. The notion of predestination slots with people’s ideas about others. They’re poor? It’s because they’re not chosen. They’e not worthy.

LGBTQ? Born that way?

Predestination to be that way. And to be damned.

These ideas slowly spread into the more mainstream traditions. In I think 1992, I attended a Methodist service as part of my parent’s anniversary celebration. At this service, a lay delegate gave a report on the Methodist conference—at which they ruled out gay marriage and ministry. That was disturbing enough, but he delivered it with glee. Adding to the dissonance was he was dressed and groomed to perfection, to a degree I would have guessed he was the very thing he feared. I’m not guessing at his sexuality, but the futility of his fears.

Had it been any other occasion, I would have stood and protested, and left!

But we have a theme here. Remember Tyndale? Remember predestination justifying slavery? With predestination, you can if you choose, write off anyone you disapprove of. LGBTQ? They belong to the devil.

Remember, the Methodists were Arminianist. They still reject that formulation of predestination. But it has become pervasive, thanks in part to the power of televangelism. The Azusa St. Revival was just a foreshadowing, with no marketing power.

And the poor? They will be with us always because it is Gods will that they be poor, and that they’re not worthy.

Maybe God is telling them they should work harder. Maybe gays aren’t trying hard enough to be straight. Maybe my religion requires me to hate those who would help.

It’s a long story. This is just one of the challenges we face. Evangelism was never about this kind of thing, any more than it was about slavery, which it opposed.

But it was the original viral message, and it can be weaponized.

And that is one of the things we face today.

Christianity is not unique in this. And I don’t write this as an anti-religion screed. But it is the context for why so many of today’s evangelicals can countenance very unchristian behavior. There’s history, precedent, and ideology.

Best of luck in coping with it.