When all is said and done, one of the biggest questions about the Donald Trump era will be how evangelicals flocked to him like moths to a flame despite ample evidence that he was a boor, a bully, a gangster, a thug. I’ve long suspected that at least part of it has to do with the authoritarian atmosphere present in much of the evangelical world.
In my experience in evangelical, Pentecostal and charismatic environments, I’ve noticed that many people in those circles, especially older ones, have a mind-blowing respect for authority. In a lot of these environments, speaking out against your pastor is tantamount to speaking out against God himself. It goes hand-in-hand with the recent stories about sexual abuse in churches getting swept under the rug.
Seen in this light, it probably explains why evangelicals remained so much in thrall to Trump, even after it was amply established that he was a boor and a bully. Well, I may have gotten even more confirmation of this in recent days. A prominent evangelical pastor subjected the journalist who got him pushed out of the church he founded to a tirade that would do Trump proud.
Back in 2019, James MacDonald was fired as senior pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, a multi-site evangelical church based in Rolling Meadows, Illinois; a suburb of Chicago. He had founded the church in 1988, and seen it grow from 18 people meeting in a local high school to 13,000 people at seven (now six) campuses across Chicagoland.
But the ground began shifting out from under MacDonald in the winter of 2018 with a series of articles by Christian freelance investigative journalist Julie Roys. While Roys isn’t that well known in the secular world, she’s well known in the evangelical world for exposing waste, fraud, corruption and abuse in the church. Unlike the likes of David Brody, she hasn’t thrown her integrity out the window to do it. Indeed, she blew the lid on a raft of corruption at Moody Bible Institute, even as she was working as a host on its affiliated radio network, Moody Radio.
Roys’ first piece about Harvest, which ran in World magazine, exposed patterns of bullying, corruption, and outright lying on the part of MacDonald and other Harvest leaders. MacDonald’s response was to sue her for defamation, alongside two former members who ran a blog critical of the church. However, they dropped the suit when they lost a bid to keep a number of subpoenaed documents private—which included a letter from several former elders claiming MacDonald was no longer qualified to be a pastor, and a text message exchange from a then-current elder speaking out against MacDonald’s abusive tactics.
A month later, Chicago-based shock jock and former Harvest member Mancow Muller aired a series of audio clips in which MacDonald joked about framing Christianity Today CEO Harold Smith for possessing child sex abuse material, and also made degrading comments about Roys and Billy Graham Center director Ed Stetzer. MacDonald was fired hours later. All of the elders tendered their resignations as well; one of their last acts, in April 2019, was to apologize for the defamation suit. A financial review later that year found that MacDonald had misused millions of dollars in church funds, and that his leadership style resulted in “massive corporate governance failure.”
Fast forward to June 14, when MacDonald tapped into that following to blast out an email to his followers asking for donations to replenish his ministry after winning all digital and physical assets of his former broadcast ministry, Walk in the Word, in an arbitration with Harvest’s new leadership. When Roys asked for clarification, MacDonald refused to respond on the record. However, he did reach out to Roys in a manner straight out of Trump’s playbook.
However, MacDonald texted me an invitation to appear with him in a public forum “to answer for the many many lies” I’ve reportedly written about him. The text included the hashtags “#gossipslut #gossipmonger #filthygutterwebsite #cancerinChristsbody.”
When Roys didn’t respond, MacDonald took to Twitter with this.
He then fired off a 1,600-word essay in which he claimed he was justified in using such degrading language because it was exactly the way the prophets talked in biblical times. Judging by the reaction on Twitter, not many people are buying it.
Let’s see. A man exposed as a corrupt, abusive jerk goes on an unhinged, degrading tirade on the female reporter who helped expose him. Sound familiar? This sounds EXACTLY like something Trump would do. Moreover, this has the same tenor as Trump calling Stormy Daniels “horseface” and Omarosa a “dog.” The more I think about it, the only thing missing from these tirades is a “Sad!”
And yet, even after being exposed, MacDonald not only maintains a large following, but feels empowered to do this? How is this possible? Well, I hazard to guess it’s because this sort of behavior has long been SOP in the evangelical world. MacDonald simply can’t bear to be criticized. Again, this sounds all too familiar.
If you want to know how evangelicals voted for Trump in staggering numbers even after it was clear he was a gangster and a thug, look at how MacDonald thought he could hurl this Trump-like tirade at one of his biggest critics.