Readers who have been with this blog for a while may recall a dust-up I had with Pastor Douglas Wilson of Moscow, Idaho, over the way he and his church handled an instance of sexual misconduct and abuse. It is more than fair to say that Wilson’s bomb-throwing Calvinism is not my jam. In fact, that’s a massive understatement. But I’ve got to stand up for Wilson and his church’s associate pastor, Toby Sumpter, in a matter of great importance to all religious people, both conservative and progressive, and to anybody who stands far outside the mainstream making radical critiques.
With coronavirus restrictions forcing the closure of church gatherings worldwide, and authorities threatening to punish those who continue to attend public worship, the Christian church has become more dependent on the internet than ever.
Churches are now employing popular social media and video sharing platforms to conduct their services and broadcast their sermons. But how will the tech giants and social media outlets respond, especially considering their tendency to censor unapproved messages?
Well, it would appear straight-up banning churches isn’t off the table for some platforms, as a church in Moscow, Idaho discovered last week.
On Friday, Google suspended Christ Church’s app from the Google Play store after accusing the pastors of a lack of sensitivity and/or capitalizing on the current coronavirus pandemic.
The church received a notice from the platform, stating: “We don’t allow apps that lack reasonable sensitivity towards or capitalize on a natural disaster, atrocity, conflict, death, or other tragic event.
“Your app has been suspended and removed due to this policy issue,” the notice added.
Here’s what the church posted on Twitter in response:
.@GooglePlay suspended our app today.
— Christ Church (@Christ_Kirk) April 10, 2020
The story I link to above lists three sermons — two by Wilson, and one by Sumpter — as possibly at fault. I don’t have time to listen to all three, but I did spend over an hour listening to the Sumpter one, and the second Wilson one, and taking notes.
Here’s the Sumpter sermon, titled, “A Message On Plagues”:
The sermon is a standard one for traditional Christianity. Preaching on verses from the Old Testament book of Joel, Sumpter says that Christians should regard the coronavirus as a call to repentance. He says that Joel tells us that the greatest punishment of this plague is that God’s people are not allowed to gather for worship (Sumpter is preaching to a congregation watching by livestream). He’s not calling on Christians to defy the authorities, but is saying that God is sending us a message about the way we were living prior to the plague.
The fact that we are all stuck at home, and not able to gather for worship, is a sign of God’s judgment “because we have not used the gifts of God to praise Him.”
“Does it break your heart that you can’t worship God, that you can’t gather with his people — or not?” asks Sumpter. He adds that this plague is a test of faith. God is testing us to see if we will praise him in hard times as well as in good.
He says if you’re not giving God thanks for all He has given us — mac and cheese, paper towels — then you are failing. He’s asking us if we will praise him even in times of suffering.
Like I said, this is standard Christianity. A church that does not read this plague as a call to repentance is a church that doesn’t know how to read the Bible. This isn’t a Calvinism thing; this is straightforward Christianity.
As I said, I listened to one of the two Wilson sermons. Doug Wilson is the kind of pastor who preaches and writes as if he believes that pugnacity is next to godliness. He is a powerful rhetorician, and can be quite funny — but humility is not his strong suit. One his blog, which is how I know his work, he comes across as someone who is more interested in owning the
libs heretics than in converting hearts and minds. I tell you this up front to let you know that I am the sort of Christian who, though a conservative, is not favorably disposed to listen to a message from Doug Wilson.
Here is the sermon I listened to. It’s from late March:
This sermon has a lot more pepper than Sumpter’s, and is probably what triggered Google. Still, it is a standard message in traditional Christianity. Wilson’s basic argument is that the plague is a call to repentance — and he warns that we don’t want to acknowledge that. He points out that in the Exodus story, the plagues God sent against Egypt to compel Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go only hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Wilson says that all of us should be looking into our own hearts now, to root out the corruption we find there. And part of that corruption is idolatry.
“We need to stop having faith in the things we once thought were so secure,” Wilson says. “God is shaking everything so that we would have faith in Him.”
How is that not true? It’s certainly true — and all of us need to hear that.
So what probably got Wilson in trouble? In this sermon, he condemns, and condemns in strong language, abortion and gay marriage as sins that require repentance. Now, I wish he had listed sins that are more likely to be committed by people in Moscow, Idaho, and in the rest of Red America. God is no doubt angry over the widespread use of pornography in our country. Think of all the pridefulness, the selfishness, the hardness of heart towards our neighbor — all things that you find in Red America too. Think of all the disordered heterosexual lust. And the warmaking this country has fostered on innocent people. I don’t disagree with Wilson about abortion and homosexuality, and I am sure that he would agree with me about these other things, or most of these things, being sinful. I wish, though, that he would have called out us conservatives too. This is not a time for us to fall prey to self-righteousness.
Here’s where I think Wilson’s sermon was radical, in a powerful and prophetic way. Toward the end, after talking about hardness of heart, he mentions that the Japanese did not surrender after seeing one of their cities (Hiroshima) vaporized. It took a second city being obliterated (Nagasaki) before they gave up. Wilson says that we Christians ought not to be praying for relief from the plague, but rather, “We should be asking God to do what it takes” to bring us to repentance.
“Don’t pray that God will let up. Don’t pray that God will lighten up,” he says. “Pray that God will press through and do what it takes to get us to sign the surrender papers.”
He goes on to say that all of this suffering will have been for nothing if we only return to how we were living before. If the churches are full at Easter, he says (remember, this sermon was given before the holy day), that will be a disaster. If people are “going to church for the same reason they’re going to Costco,” then “we’re simply waiting for Nagasaki.”
He goes on to say that “if breaking the United States of America, in her pride and insolence” is the way to get rid of gay marriage, then Christians should welcome it. Says Wilson, of abortion, “I would rather live in a poor broken country that didn’t kill babies than in a rich, insolent once that does.”
That’s a great line. He also says that the problem is not that our elected representatives fail to represent us. “The problem is they represent us well,” he says. “And that should be part of our repentance.”
Now look: you can fault Wilson for focusing on this sermon on gay marriage and abortion, or you can fault him (as I do) for focusing on these sins and not naming others that strike closer to home among his congregation, and those outside his congregation who look to him for leadership. But the idea that America has to repent is powerful and true. Had a progressive pastor spoken of the sins of greed and violence, for example, it would have been just as true, and just as necessary to hear — though it would also have been preferable had that progressive pastor spoken to the sins that are closer to the hearts and lives of progressive people, and not just called out those who are unlike his congregation.
My point is this: whatever my conflicts, theological and otherwise, with Doug Wilson and his circle, I profited from hearing these sermons. I was challenged by them, in a good way. Did I agree 100 percent with them? No I did not. Do I believe that these sermons ought to be freely available on Google’s platform for people to hear? Absolutely.
We don’t know precisely why Google booted Wilson’s church’s app, but listening to Wilson’s sermon (more than Sumpter’s), it’s not hard to guess why. So, even though it probably makes him cringe to have Rod Dreher stand up for him, and believe me, it makes Rod Dreher cringe to do it … I’m going to stand up for him.
First, if Google really did boot Christ Church over Wilson’s comments connecting abortion and gay marriage to the judgment of God, then they may well kick off the platform any number of Christian churches for holding those views. Few Christian churches are led by a pastor who is as combative as Doug Wilson, but if Doug Wilson has lost his platform over this, no traditional Christian church is safe.
This, by the way, is not the state’s doing; it’s Google’s, which, as a private company, has a right to decide who it wants on its platform. But dissident Christians, and political dissidents of all kinds, should be aware that this is an incredible amount of power to wield. Those who control access to Internet platforms control what can and can’t be said on there.
Which leads me to my second point, one meant not only for right-of-center Christians. We should want to protect unpopular speakers and unpopular speech in the public square. It hardly needs saying that people in the Bay Area who censor Google’s platform are bound to be more eager to silence right-wing radicals than left-wing radicals. But what if those right-wing radicals happen to say something true and important? Something that only they can see, and say? (The same is true of left-wing radicals.) It is true that a time of national crisis does call on us to be more prudent about what we say, and it certainly gives the state more power to control what is said in the public square. There’s no getting around that. To cite an extreme example, Britain in World War II could not have allowed Nazi propagandists to operate freely. Speech that is a direct threat to public safety and order may legitimately be suppressed.
But this is not that! Is this offensive speech? To many, yes. Doug Wilson has a special gift for making enemies, and he can be incredibly obnoxious. But at the risk of sounding like a fundamentalist liberal, what makes America great is that we have a political order that protects offensive speech. This is not pornography. This is theological, and maybe political, discourse. You don’t have to like it to defend its right to exist, and to be heard.
Again, a time of national crisis is a time when we need to protect the contrarians and the wild-eyed prophets more than ever. In 1918, the US Government threw the socialist Eugene V. Debs into prison on sedition charges for a speech he gave opposing military conscription. It was wrong of the state to treat Debs that way. That’s not exactly the same thing as privately-owned Google deplatforming a bunch of hardcore Calvinists in Idaho, but you see the parallel. Google is using this crisis to exercise its immense power to silence voices it doesn’t like.
What constitutes “reasonable sensitivity”? If you only follow a Bay Area secularist’s idea of “reasonable sensitivity,” then you’d better throw out the entire Bible, which is not a warm and fuzzy self-help book. What does it mean to “capitalize on a natural disaster [or] tragic event”? Is drawing conclusions, even conclusions that offend some, the same as capitalizing? What if a speaker said that the pandemic crisis reveals the need for a communist revolution — would that violate Google’s standards?
It could be that Google deplatformed Team Wilson for reasons that are not apparent in these two sermons. But if these sermons are the cause of Google’s act, then I read it as a clear warning to traditional Christians about how Big Tech is going to treat us in the future. Don’t think for one second that disapproving of Doug Wilson and his radical church’s teachings is going to protect you, either.
UPDATE: Guys! I am not defending Doug Wilson’s teaching or his behavior as leader of the Kirk. As I said at the top of this post, I got into a big online argument with him a few years ago when I criticized him for the way he handled sexual abuse within his community. I am only defending here his right to be heard, and in so doing, point out that even someone with whom I strongly disagree on many things can teach me something.