With an Oval Office-endorsed pastor chatting with a Fox News star, no wonder the evangelical scribes at The Babylon Bee saw last week’s rites at First Baptist Church in Dallas as must-see television for Donald Trump supporters.
The Bee proclaimed: “Sean Hannity Leads First Baptist Dallas In Sincere Prayer To Donald Trump.”
The satire website pretended that Hannity prayed: “We just ask, Father Trump, that you would just, just use this place to advance the good news of right-wing politics, that you would spread your message far and wide. ... Amen!”
That’s fake news, of course.
The reality was more complex than that. While there were Trumpian overtones, this Sunday service demonstrated how many evangelicals have fused talk-show media, faith and politics to create a unique American niche culture, said a conservative church-state scholar at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
“It struck me how different this kind of evangelicalism is, compared with what we’ve known in the past,” said Francis Beckwith, after watching the “America at the Crossroads” event online.
“Evangelicals have always tried to reach out to unbelievers, trying to win them over. ... But no outsider is ever going to be persuaded by this. The whole purpose was to rally their base, the people they already have. ... Maybe they realize that there’s no persuading going on in America right now. People are just preaching to their choirs.”
This high-energy service blended music by a giant choir -- backed by an orchestra, an organ and a rock ensemble -- with the preaching of the Rev. Robert Jeffress and the promotion of Christian media products, in this case a new faith-based movie, “Let There Be Light,” with Hannity serving as executive producer. Visitors received a free Jeffress book, “America at the Crossroads: Christianity and America, Volume 1.”
But at this 13,000-member church -- Jeffress called it “Hannity country” -- the key was the Fox News star’s heartfelt testimony about his journey from the Irish Catholic “guilt” of a teenaged bartender and high-school theology student, to born-again faith. Rather than depending on Catholic doctrines, Hannity said he has learned to seek God by listening to his own conscience.
“There were nights when I was a junior and senior in high school and I’d tend bar till 4 a.m., close the bar, go eat breakfast and go to school,” said Hannity. “I’ll be honest, the only reason I stopped living that way was that I didn’t really feel great about myself anymore. ... Pretty quickly I learned that, if you wake up in the morning and you feel like that, to me, that was God speaking to me -- in my conscience -- telling me that I wasn’t living the right way. So, I just changed my life.”
Hannity left the bar and his “crazy friends.” He started reading -- the Bible, Dante’s “Inferno,” “Pilgrim’s Progress” and more. Eventually, he said, he decided Catholicism “got it wrong” on a key church-history issue: papal authority. Jeffress, who once tied Rome to a “Babylonian mystery religion,” affirmed that choice.
Hannity said this personal approach to faith has shaped his life and career.
“I know when I’m being a jerk, when I’m angry. I know when I’m wrong because God -- in my heart -- tells me I’m wrong. So I think that we all have that quiet voice of conscience ... that’s God drawing him closer to us,” he said. “I think, for me, that is the guide to my life.”
All of this sounded familiar to Beckwith, who made headlines in 2007 when he returned to Catholicism -- while president of the Evangelical Theological Society.
The irony is that Hannity’s stress on the authority of the individual conscience resembles the logic of liberal Catholics who reject centuries of church teachings on sex and marriage. Meanwhile, noted Beckwith, many “NeverTrump” conservatives insisted that they couldn’t -- as a matter of conscience -- vote for the New York billionaire. Would Hannity affirm these choices on the religious left and right?
“The human conscience is important, but it can be malformed and corrupted,” said Beckwith. “It’s hard for us to stand on our own all the time ... And when Jesus said, ‘Take up your cross and follow me,’ he wasn’t talking about doing whatever makes us feel better about ourselves. That’s not what faith is all about.”
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)