One of the must-reads in the Sunday newspapers. (Only a portion from a longer story is posted below.)
It is troubling for conscientious and logical thinkers to ponder the mindset of those who term themselves Christian and yet actually live their lives, as the parishioners in this news story demonstrate, so far from the teachings in the Bible. It is also telling how far conservatives have drifted to meet a political label as opposed to the calling of their faith. This sums up what Donald Trump has done to ‘the ole country church’ in America.
In early 2017, a pastor in the Alabama countryside named Chris Thomas prepared to give his Sunday sermon. President Trump had been inaugurated the week before, and the new administration was already making headlines with a travel ban that included refugees from Syria.
Mr. Thomas knew of no one in his congregation who had ever met a Syrian refugee. Still, the ban deeply bothered him. So did the prospect of speaking against it from the pulpit, which he preferred to keep clean of politics.
And so that morning at First Baptist Church of Williams, a relatively liberal church with a mostly white congregation, he carried with him a sermon on the Beatitudes, eight blessings for the needy Jesus is said to have given to his followers on a hillside in Galilee.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” went one.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” went another.
To these, the pastor added a verse of his own: “Blessed are those who seek refuge and have the door shut on their face.”
What Mr. Thomas, a 35-year-old preacher with cropped sandy hair and a trimmed beard, didn’t know was the degree to which Mr. Trump’s election had already polarized his small church. Nor did he know how the Trump presidency would continue to fracture the congregation for the next three years — a rift that would widen and threaten his own stewardship of Williams Church as the culture wars spilled into its pews in ways he could not control.
A few days after the sermon on the Beatitudes, a group of congregants wanted to talk.
“They more-or-less said, ‘Those are nice, but we don’t have to live by them,’” Mr. Thomas recalls church members saying about the verses, a cornerstone of Christian scripture. “It was like: ‘You’re criticizing our president. You’re clearly doing this.’ From thereon, my words were being measured.”
Mr. Trump rose to power with a boost from evangelical Christians, and their role in his re-election bid has not been lost on the president this year. As governors restricted public gatherings to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Mr. Trump declared churches “essential” and threatened to override officials who prevented them from opening their doors.
He had protesters forcefully removed for a photo op with a Bible in front of a church amid demonstrations against police brutality. And this past week he attacked the Supreme Court after a ruling on protections for gay and transgender workers that was unpopular among some evangelical leaders.
The doors of Williams Church in Alabama are about 700 miles from Washington. But a conflict born of the Trump Era smoldered there for years.
After the sermon on the refugees, churchgoers began to monitor Mr. Thomas’s posts on Facebook, reporting back to each other when something the pastor “liked” was seen by them as too liberal. When a group of church missionaries returned from a humanitarian trip to the Mexican border, they got a cold welcome from those who said they supported Mr. Trump’s border wall plans. One family proposed a “watchdog” group to ensure new members weren’t gay.
Then in 2018, a small group of churchgoers led a secret attempt to oust Mr. Thomas to clear the way for a more conservative preacher.
“There’s no doubt the country is more polarized, and the church started to reflect it,” said Bobby Burns, a former member of the church’s finance committee. “The walls of this church just weren’t thick enough to protect us from the world.”
As America prepares for another presidential election, this time under extraordinary circumstances, the country church is taking stock of the toll the last few years have wrought: At least 40 congregants, a third of the congregation, have left Williams Church, many to pray at a rival church down the street that is more conservative. And this month Mr. Thomas announced he, too, would depart the church, leaving Williams now without a pastor.