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COVID and Apocalyptic Evangelicalism

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One of the biggest reasons why the United States does not have nearly the leftist tradition of other nations is the power of evangelical Protestantism. This has been well known for a long time and yet we don’t actually talk too much about it these days. When New England textile manufacturers moved down South in the early 20th century, one of the stated reasons was that the tradition of evangelicalism in the white communities of the Piedmont would make union organizing nearly impossible and that was sure enough true.

Anyway, evangelicals really thrive in conditions of desperation, extreme poverty, and other disasters. That’s certainly true of pandemics. Leah Sottile of High Country News has a good, if scary, story on how evangelical extremist preachers in the West are using this to gain power over more people.

Wilson has never backed away from those writings. Rather, he revels in his controversial profile: In one 2018 video, he casually smoked a cigar while sitting on a burning couch. “It’s not the job of the preacher to be a firefighter out in the world,” he said. “We’re supposed to be arsonists.”

Wilson characterized himself to me as “about as conservative as you’re allowed to be,” but his writings in recent months go beyond mainstream conservatism, revealing common extremist talking points. In March, he said President Donald Trump is in a battle with “the deep state.” In April, he called environmentalists a “pagan death cult.”

Wilson wasn’t alone. In the far northwestern corner of Montana, worshippers at Liberty Fellowship in Kalispell were hearing similar conspiracy theories about COVID-19. There, Pastor Chuck Baldwin said the virus was a fear-mongering device dreamed up by the government to declare martial law. “Make no mistake about it,” he wrote in a blog post titled “Now We Know How Germany Let It Happen.” “We are in the beginning of a war against our liberties that will not subside until the American people decide, AGAIN, that essential liberty is more valuable than temporary safety.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented extremist religious figures across the Northwest with an opportunity. The virus, the shutdown orders and the resulting uncertainty stemming from a chaotic and contradictory federal response became a tool, a call to arms and a moment to push scientific skepticism, anti-government conspiracy theories and apocalyptic Christian Reconstructionist ideas to fearful people looking for answers.

But leaders like Wilson and Baldwin were not coming up with these ideas on their own. They were spouting ideas that have long existed at the edges of the far right, rooted in a decades-old movement seeking to eliminate the separation of church and state and simply hand the reins of America over to Christians with fundamentalist belief systems. In order to understand both pastors’ reactions to the virus and the subsequent shutdown orders, one need look no further than the founder of Christian Reconstructionism — which advocates for a society governed by Biblical law — and an early defining split within a religious-right think tank he founded, the Chalcedon Foundation.

In COVID-19, its followers appear to have seen a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

It gets far scarier from there.

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