Evangelicalism’s Broken Halos
On a Saturday night in January of 2019, I heard something on Christian radio that gave me pause.
For as long as I can remember — and longer — Focus on the Family has run a weekend broadcast that sends their worldview spiraling across the country, for an hour at a time, on Saturday nights. It’s an extension of Focus president Jim Daly’s weekday show, a piano-tracked tortoise of a half-hour that might bring a Christian comedian talking about parenting, a high-school student bringing her Bible to school, or a guest who embodies Focus on the Family’s entire reason for being: A political activist, raising Cain on social issues like abortion and gay marriage.
Daly’s Saturday guest was Amy Ford, who ran one of those crisis-pregnancy charities that tries to talk, or ultrasound, or exhort, desperately pregnant women out of getting abortions. Daly had probably done a dozen interviews with Ford’s brothers — okay, fine, sisters, too — in arms in the previous 12 months alone, and he wanted to keep this one to the basics: Abortion is a horrible atrocity, and you — yes, you, sitting in your midsized SUV in the parking lot of a half-abandoned mall on a suburban winter’s Saturday night — should agitate against it, and the right way to agitate against it is to protest here, and donate there, and vote for them, and contact those. Basic stuff? Sure. But it was basic stuff that had kept the blood circulating through the pro-life movement since the Supreme Court handed down Roe v. Wade in 1973.
Daly’s guests didn’t want to be basic. For one, both Ford and another of the broadcast’s guests had faced unplanned pregnancies in their teenage years; Ford even declared, “I don’t care how perfect you are; it is almost impossible to try to stay pure” — Christianese for not having sex with people besides your spouse. For a split-second, it looked like she might let the words hang in the air, before she realized what she had just said and added, “Unless you set meaningful boundaries.” (“Right,” Jim Daly murmured, approvingly.) For another, they weren’t just there to lay the lumber to places like Planned Parenthood; they had a few choice words for the church, too.
Around the six-minute mark of the show, Amy Ford launches into a monologue about a girl who came into her ministry from time to time. “This girl was very young,” Ford began, “like, fifteen or so,” and the poor kid was “terrified of actually giving birth.” When one of Ford’s colleagues pointed out that the girl could get an epidural — a procedure that numbs the posterior region of the spinal cord to make childbirth less painful — the girl revealed that she could get no such thing. “My mom,” the girl explained, according to Ford, “said it’s my punishment for getting pregnant. I’m not allowed to get an epidural.”
Amy Ford kept talking. (I should have mentioned this earlier, but Amy Ford talks the way I run the fast break at Tuesday night pickup games: If I have the ball, and I’m running down the court, something’s going to happen when I get to the basket — the only problem is, I’ll find out when you do.) As she did, Jim Daly let out a low, guttural hum — not a huh, or a wow, or a sigh of regret, but the sound you made when your 3rd-grade science teacher got into a real estate dispute with a perfectly-positioned Lego. And yet, Amy Ford had the ball, so the conversation went on, towards God-knows-where.
I didn’t join the Focus on the Family team on their journey. For years, the pro-choice side of the abortion mountain had insisted that this wasn’t about babies at all; instead, they said, this was a fight between the people who wanted women to make their own choices, about their own bodies, and their own sexuality, and a shadowy theocratic coalition that wanted those decisions to be made from the top. For the first time, at least since I’d been paying attention, there was absolutely no doubt about where the mom in Amy Ford’s story sat.
How many people were there, exactly, like the mom in Amy Ford’s story, if she could take Focus on the Family through a linguistic joyride and somehow pluck a story like this off the curb? Hundreds? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? More importantly, if that number stretched into the last two, didn’t it mean that the entire pro-life movement, no matter how well-meaning the people at its center, was just laundering the fatwas of a few controlling churchgoers? Once you’ve gotten as high as Daly in the religious Right, those questions probably stopped mattering a long time ago.
One of the Old Testament’s more famous stories is about getting high in the halls of power: An aging prophet is dispatched by God to find Israel’s next king. The prophet lands on the turf of a sheep farmer, and the rancher’s older sons parade before the prophet in a kind of kingly catwalk. They’re tall, notes the prophet, and kind of hot; this rancher’s sons just kind of look like kings. But God tells the prophet to keep going — He’s not impressed with any of them.
Finally, God and His prophet have run through so many sons that the prophet asks the rancher if he has any more sons. Sure, the rancher says, there’s one more. I can call him out of the hillsides, if you want.
They call the kid out of the hillside. His name is David, and he is, indeed, a kid. (“Ruddy and handsome,” the text opines.) But God tells the prophet to uncork his oil anyway, because this is Israel’s next king.
Wild choice, sure, especially for a country in Israel’s position — more on that later. But God Godsplains to the prophet that, well, “Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart..” If you’re reading this, you might know the rest: David, the story goes, becomes Israel’s greatest king. He, and his six-pointed star, come to symbolize the highest ideals of Jewish nationhood.
The Old Testament’s stories are almost entirely about the formation of the Jewish people, and those stories are almost exclusively underdog stories. Dang near everyone in the Bible thinks that dang near every hero in the Bible is too sinful, too weak, too ineffective, or just too dang weird to lead the kingdom to greatness — a stigma that doesn’t even end with the New Testament’s centerpiece, the only guy in ancient Rome who found Himself on death row for, uh, talking smack in the synagogue: Jesus Christ. Mostly, these underdogs are dewy-haired outcasts or wide-eyed weaklings who couldn’t even survive a confidence vote if Russell Westbrook ran the Knesset. But, at least to God, that’s the beauty of it — they didn’t have to be perfect to be the perfect people for the job; they just had to be perfectly fine lending God their hands and feet for as long as He needed them.
Okay, you might believe these stories are literally true — I once heard a Catholic radio host declare that story of Moses, the Israelites’ first leader as a nation, with our knowledge of George Washington. I’m not going to fight you on that — not here and now, anyway. But I am absolutely going to fight you if you insist that the moral of the story is, “Take your shoes off in synagogue, because that’s what Moses did, dang it!” These stories have a lot of points, but at their core is the devaluation of earthly power: You don’t need money, or political influence, or exquisite pecs, to be important. What you need is a willingness to do the right thing, even when it puts you at odds with everyone who has what you don’t need.
Chris Stapleton’s “Broken Halos” is one of the more recent lightbulbs dangling from the ceiling of country music. “Halos,” dedicated to the souls lost during the Smoky Mountain Wildfires of 2016, won a Grammy, two CMA awards, and an Academy of Country Music award, every single last one of which established it as the best country song of the year. Stapleton sings about the lives and deaths of regular people — in wildfires, hurricanes, and shootings — who became angels, just by wanting to help and guide people around them. A stranger passing through might not look at them and think they were anything special; more importantly, they didn’t see anything special when they looked in the mirror. What they saw, to quote Carroll Shelby in Ford vs. Ferrari, was “a body, moving through space and time.” They saw an opportunity to use that body in the service of others — sometimes in big ways, and sometimes in those invisible, infinitesimal moments that float us to the surface of existence like rock salt in a kiddie pool. (If you got that reference, congratulations.) They were “doing the Lord’s work” — not because they were so high and holy, but because they were available.
Available to do what, exactly? For Jim Daly and most of the evangelical church, that meant rebuilding Christianity around the issue of sex like Netflix bends itself for Stranger Things. They treated abortion like the worst atrocity in history, turned ignorance about reproduction into a teenage sacrament, and outlasted the rest of America by a solid half-decade in their persecution of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. If that wasn’t sketchy enough, they hitched their holy wagon to a crop of politicians who promised to cater to their grievances, let those same politicians do whatever the heck they wanted besides, and — eventually — became more of a Trojan horse for our political fights than anything recognizable as a religious institution. And the evangelical revolution was fine, at least to most people, as long as it wasn’t televised.
Well, it’s not off of TV anymore. In the spring, the columnist Ezra Klein branded America’s Christian conservatives as “the dog that caught the car,” and he wouldn’t be wrong. Evangelicals ended a 50-year touchdown drive with the fall of Roe v. Wade this spring, thanks to their gaudiest, sketchiest tribune yet. Now, they’re helping legislators in aboriton-hostile states build the legal regime that’s going to govern a post-Roe planet. In some ways, the church in America has realized every church’s fever dream: Evangelicals, as Jon Bois would say, have turned their Pinocchio into a real boy, one who can poke his head down from the clouds and bend the curvature of the Earth.
But just look at what they had to cut away to get there.
I remember listening to a comedian, on Jim Daly’s show, describe the prayer he’d say over is kids before he put them to bed, and how he’d end it every night by tickling them and saying, “Thank you, God, for giving ’em joy.” When the comedian described his son carrying on the tradition with a stuffed animal, his storytelling drew a unified awwww from the listening audience. And why wouldn’t we say aw? That’s an adorable story!
That’s not the only memory I can find in the corners of my mind. There are other little inklings of goodness, floating belly-up on the waves of faith. I’ll always remember every single last one — the fourteen good episodes of Adventures in Odyssey that I can pick off the top of my head, that one joke about killer LEGO bricks, even one odd, crooked radio preacher who insisted that “nothing is different until you think differently.” On balance, I think I’m a better, more complete person because of those moments than I would have been without them.
But religion, at its worst, doesn’t produce a Thing that lives and breathes with the breath of God. At worst, it’s what James Baldwin described as an instrument of blackmail, one that uses the supposed power and goodness of some deity to guilt and scare us into harming ourselves and others. More than I’d ever want to admit, my faith has served as cover for me when I’ve hurt others in the name of God, and those are the moments that stick with me as much as any of the good times. Religion, maladministered, can turn into the computer from The Matrix — stealing our time, energy, and effort to empower and enrich whoever’s running the show at the moment while keeping us controlled with self-satisfaction and incuriosity.
I insist that there is so much beauty in the Gospel of Jesus Christ — the idea that God Himself would walk a mile in our shoes and spend two nights in our tombs, so that we could forgive and be forgiven. (For shame! Toddling around with earthlings like we’re, you know, people of worth or something!) And so much beauty has come tumbling out as a result of that Gospel, and as a result of the notion that we’re made in the Lord’s image. (Okay, let me jog your memory: The Civil Rights Movement.) His example, therefore, has become allegory as much as example, for everyone from Nelson Mandela to Caesar Chavez.
But, if I’m going to insist on the beauty of Christianity, I can’t ignore the blemishes. You know — colonialism, belligerence, and bigotries of various kinds, for starters, and that sinking feeling that we’ve been placed at the bottom of an elaborate, political MLM scheme. (Thanks, D.L. Mayfield.) Turns out there are two ways for a halo to break: The first is when our time is up, and our bodies go from ethereal service to eternal rest. But the second comes when we break the halo ourselves, masquerading as instruments of God while indulging in the pursuits of man. Christianity’s beauty is worth fighting for, in my humble opinion — and the things that stain it are worth fighting against.
Focus on the Family’s other broadcast — another of several, actually — is a child-focused radio drama called Adventures in Odyssey. It’s mostly vintage Focus: A bowlful of banal-sounding religious grains speckled with blueberries of authoritarian politics. But one of their strangest episodes yet — a self-own, dare I say it — came in 2012, when they told the story of a secret agent who’s sent to arrest a crime boss in London. The agent gets involved in all kinds of sketchy activity, but he finds himself justifying it for the sake of a greater good. Finally, one of his colleagues nearly kills a suspect, and that’s all it takes for the agent to reconsider everything — his life, his career, and even his relationship with God. He’s done, he says; his halo is broken.
Adventures in Odyssey has made a number of creative decisions that you wouldn’t associate with a Religious Right think tank: They made an episode about the exploitation of immigrant laborers in 2008, another episode that implies that tithing is functionally useless if you never give to anything else, and a multiplicity of shows about racial justice, Black history, and — implicitly — embraces across racial lines in a community. (Believe me: That’s gutsy stuff, if your target audience is Christian homeschool kids in white, rural America.) Fine. But no decision was nearly as strange as the warning they fired off when they released the labyrinth mere months before a presidential election: It’s not okay to sanction evil, or sully the reputation of Christ, to chase after your pet project. You might get what you want, and you might even be celebrated for it, but nothing will make that payoff worth it if you rob your own faith to get there.
More than anything from Adventures in Odyssey, and like few things from the rest of my religious upbringing, the words of the secret agent’s father as he tells him goodbye in the United States ring in my ears in the middle of the night. Four years before evangelicals take — and fail — their biggest test ever, nine years before Christian nationalists turn the Capitol into the West’s most venerated crime scene, ten years before their flagship denomination was exposed for covering up sexual abuse, and twelve years before they have to decide whether to keep going down this road permanently, the agent’s father leans forward and whispers six haunting, prophetic words into his ear: Don’t get lost in a labyrinth. Translation: Don’t rely on evil devices, as Stephen Colbert (of all people) once said, when your God insists that good has already won.
Dare I say it: Nice going, Focus.