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I’ve been an evangelical Christian all my life, with the exception of my exuberantly misspent teenage years and early 20s.
Raised a Southern Baptist, the son of a Baptist preacher and a Sunday school teacher who hauled me to church three times a week, I later converted as a young adult, along with my parents and sister, to the even more enthusiastic charismatic/Pentecostal movement. I’ve been an ordained minister in that tradition 40 years.
I buy into all—OK, not all, but nearly all—of evangelicalism’s core tenets. I believe I’m saved by grace through faith in Jesus. I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God. I believe in sharing my faith (something I’m doing at this minute). Heck, as I demonstrated in my 1996 book “Modern-Day Miracles,” I even believe in divine healing, prophecy and, yes, speaking in tongues.
Despite all that, from childhood I’ve felt out of sync with my own people. I believe in God and the Bible and miracles, but I also trust science and secular experts. To me, those things don’t necessarily cancel each other.
I felt my old discomfort flare up again when I read about the recent death of Marcus Lamb, 64, a big-time televangelist killed by COVID-19.
Lamb led his global Christian TV network, Daystar, “in spreading inaccurate information about coronavirus vaccines and instead promoting treatments that are not proven remedies,” wrote religion reporter Michelle Boorstein.
Lamb’s milieu was “a deep base of politics, conspiratorial thinking and a skepticism of anything that appears secular. And that makes frank discussion of Daystar’s activism against vaccines, even in the face of death, unlikely.”
The pandemic has brought evangelicals’ anti-science, conspiratorial thinking into fresh relief, but there’s nothing new about it.
It dates back at least to the 1925 Scopes monkey trial over the teaching of evolution in public schools. Historians of religion mark this as a turning point. The Scopes debacle left a rancid taste in the mouths of evangelicals and their ultra-conservative cousins, fundamentalists, that has never abated.
Those earlier evangelicals and fundamentalists felt the national press and other wise-acre elites had intentionally, almost sadistically, abused them during the Scopes trial.
The arrest of John Scopes for teaching evolution was planned by civic boosters of Dayton, Tenn., in a misguided but good-natured attempt to promote the town, historian Garry Wills has written. Scopes volunteered to be the defendant, even though it wasn’t clear to anybody, including him, that he’d actually taught evolution.
In the evangelical view, secularists seized on this non-event as an opportunity to lampoon and discredit low-church Christians and wildly misrepresent their beliefs. (I’ve read a bit of the Scopes coverage, including that of influential newspaper columnist H. L. Mencken. It truly was reprehensible.)
Scalded by the experience, evangelicals withdrew into what commonly has been called the “evangelical ghetto,” where they nursed their wounds and preached to each other in an echo chamber. Some devolved into conspiracy theories. A hostility toward secular authorities and many things scientific has festered for a century. Thanks a lot, Mencken.
Some came to suspect the government was secretly controlled by communist atheists. Some obsessed over progressive denominations that didn’t share their theology. Some saw an ongoing media campaign against them. Others decided barcodes foretold the Antichrist’s rise.
Everything rose from a nefarious plot. Nothing was what it appeared on the surface. This sort of thinking feeds on itself.
Then came COVID-19. Evangelicals have proved the most hostile of skeptics toward the disease, vaccines and public health efforts.
It’s odd, kind of. Evangelicals historically have embraced technologies and products created by science. They were pioneers in their use of radio, TV, cable, communication satellites and the internet. When they have headaches, they take ibuprofen.
But now, when science might save their lives, a disproportionate number dismiss it as a deception from the devil or a plot by unbelievers, or both.
This is simultaneously tragic and infuriating. Even after all these years, it still won’t compute in my head.
Of course, I’m not the only evangelical who feels that way, thank God. There’s a terrific website called BioLogos, founded by evangelical and renowned geneticist Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project. BioLogos explores the complimentary roles played by science and faith.
BioLogos’ president, Deborah Haarsma, an astrophysicist with a doctorate from MIT, declares in one website article that Christ gives us hope, but science equips us to act.
Elsewhere, she says God both inspired the Bible and created the universe. The natural laws by which the universe works—the subjects of science—reflect God’s mind.
The folks at BioLogos don’t see science as a threat, then, but as a blessing, even when the truths it reveals sometimes appear to contradict their theology.
I agree. I believe in the Lord and simultaneously believe in vaccines and the methods scientists employ to develop them. Just because science did it doesn’t mean God wasn’t behind it. Science can be one way the Lord relieves us from suffering.
Sometimes science is the miracle.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at email@example.com.