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New Evangelical Term Used in the War Against Culture: A Canary in the Coal Mine

canary in a coal mine

I celebrated my sixty-sixth birthday on Monday. I spent fifty years attending and pastoring Evangelical churches. While I began life as a hardcore Independent Fundamentalist Baptist — a sect that positions itself on the extreme right of the Evangelical tent — over the years I drifted slowly leftward, always Evangelical, but more and more liberal socially and politically. I am a perfect example of Evangelical evolution.

One constant during my time in the Evangelical bubble was the war against American culture. While some Evangelicals are counter-cultural, most are anti-cultural. Their goal is to burn the house to the ground and build a brand-spanking new one from scratch. The goal is nothing short of Christian theocracy — the establishment of Jesus as ruler and king and the Bible (as interpreted by Evangelicals) as the law of the land.

Evangelicals have spent the past five decades building what they perceive to be God’s kingdom on earth. Initially, they abandoned secular/cultural institutions and built Christian versions of these things, walling themselves off from the unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines at the gate. Over time, Evangelicals became restless within the walls of their metaphorical celestial city. Tired of cheap Christian replacements for everything, Evangelicals flung open the gate, left their walled city, and, en masse, stormed the public square. Realizing waiting on the second coming of Jesus was a wasted effort, Evangelicals decided to use political power and sheer force to build Christ’s kingdom on earth. Abandoning piety, Evangelicals sold their souls to the Republican Party and a plethora of churches, pastors, and parachurch organizations that are determined to reclaim the United States for their peculiar version of God — by force, if necessary.

Today, Evangelical culture warriors are fighting battles on numerous fronts, everything from banning books, boycotting woke corporations, criminalizing abortion, violently pushing LGBTQ people back into the closet, to rolling back one hundred years of social progress. We are now seeing an alarming uptick in Evangelicals taking over school boards and other government institutions. And once they do, they make their agenda clear: establishing a theocracy.

Evangelicals played a big part in the January 6, 2021 attempt to overthrow the U.S. government. They continue to support Donald Trump, and many QAnon and militia members are Evangelical theologically. While Evangelical churches are in numeric decline, as a political and social force they are more powerful today than they ever have been. Most of the most extreme right-wing members of the U.S. House and Senate are Evangelical Christians (or conservative Catholics). The same can be said at the state level too. While progressives and liberals were busy fiddling while Rome burned, Evangelicals have orchestrated a takeover of government at every level. I think I can safely say that if Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, or Mike Pence is elected president in 2024, we could see the collapse of our liberal democracy.

I follow and read scores of Evangelical blogs and websites. I also listen to Evangelical podcasts and sermons. Here’s what I have noticed: an uptick in violent, extremist talk. Sermons and articles about the coming collapse of Western Civilization are common. Church members are encouraged and challenged to do everything they can to rip American culture away from the wicked hands of liberals, progressives, atheists, abortionists, evolutionists, and any other demographic deemed an affront to the thrice holy God of Evangelical Christianity.

One phrase I’ve seen increasingly used in Evangelical blog posts, “news” articles, and sermons is this: a canary in the coal mine.

Wiktionary describes the term this way:

An allusion to caged canaries (birds) that miners would carry down into the mine tunnels with them. If dangerous gases such as carbon monoxide collected in the mine, the gases would kill the canary before killing the miners, thus providing a warning to exit the tunnels immediately.

Something whose sensitivity to adverse conditions makes it a useful early indicator of such conditions; something which warns of the coming of greater danger or trouble by a deterioration in its health or welfare.

Evangelicals see American culture, government institutions, corporations, and Christian sects as coal mines, each with a canary monitoring the health of these underground mines. Everywhere Evangelicals look they see canaries struggling to breathe as the air of secularism, communism, socialism, humanism, and atheism choke the canaries to death. Never asked by Evangelicals is whether it is Evangelicalism, Trumpism, political extremism, or open warfare against public institutions that is the culprit. Lacking awareness, Evangelicals look for socialists, communists, secularists, and ho-mo-sex-u-als under every bed, sure that once these evil Satanic forces are eliminated, the kingdom of God will be established on earth. (Ironically, these beliefs diametrically oppose their eschatological beliefs around the rapture, the great tribulation, the millennial reign of Christ, and the eternal Kingdom of God.)

What are the canaries Evangelicals see in the proverbial coal mine?

  • Egalitarianism
  • Socialist government programs
  • Open southern border
  • Abortion (especially morning after drugs)
  • Certain forms of birth control
  • Euthanasia (physician-assisted suicide)
  • Marijuana legalization
  • LGBTQ-friendly books in libraries
  • Corporate friendliness toward LGBTQ people
  • The very existence of LBGTQ people
  • Hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery
  • Pride month
  • Pride parades
  • Drag queens
  • Drag shows
  • Atheism
  • Humanism
  • Gun control laws
  • Separation of church and state
  • Women serving as pastors

I have heard Evangelical preachers and talking heads mention every one of these canaries in recent months, using their sermons, blog posts, and podcasts as effective tools to whip up mass hysteria. And it’s working. Evangelicals think the United States is on a slippery slope, and if they don’t stop the slide, Christianity will be outlawed and its adherents hunted down and imprisoned. Evangelicals believe they are currently being persecuted for their beliefs. None of this, of course, is true. The slippery slope is actually a horizontal road called progress. What Evangelicals want to do is turn our culture around and push it back to the 1950s — a time when women were barefoot and pregnant and keepers of the home; a time when Blacks knew their place and LGBTQ people were buried deep in the closet; a time when abortion and birth control were illegal and homosexuality was a criminal offense; a time when Mexicans picked our tomatoes and then went home and drag was only seen on Disney cartoons; a time when people went to church and school children prayed and read the Bible in public school classrooms.

Evangelicals are a large minority, but they do not have the numbers necessary to advance their pernicious agenda IF people with progressive values register and vote. The “nones” are now a similar-sized demographic to Evangelicals. Sadly, many “nones” don’t vote. If and when millennials, gen-x, and gen-z realize the power they hold in their hands, the Evangelical reign of terror will end. Like it or not, the only way to affect change in the United States is to vote. Posting social media memes and writing blog posts have their place, but the only way to push back is by voting. The canary in the coal mine of American democracy is voter registration and turnout. Republican politicians, who are largely conservative Christians, know this, and that’s why they are doing their damnedest to keep people — especially people of color — from voting. The only way to turn back these anti-democratic attempts is for people of every political persuasion to vote.

Do we need better candidates? Absolutely. I am sick of voting for the lesser of two evils. I am no longer a Democrat. I vote Democrat, but I no longer support many of the policies of the party. I didn’t vote for Hilliary Clinton or Joe Biden in the Democratic primaries. But when it came time to vote in the general election — knowing the threat many Republican candidates are to American democracy — I held my nose and voted for Clinton and Biden. I am a pragmatist. I must never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

The canary in the coal mine of our republic is wheezing and gasping for breath. Another Trump (or DeSantis) presidency will draw the last bit of oxygen out of the air and kill off our grand democratic experiment.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    Right wingers, especially the more extreme, like to refer to democracy as ‘mob rule’. They claim that democracy is unfair on minorities as it subordinates the rights of those minorities to that of the majority via a might is right mentality.

    In reality, the reverse is true. Politically savvy minorities have long discovered ways in which they can thwart the will of the majority by means that are far from democratic. This can range from the ‘legal’ variety, such as two senators per state regardless of size, to outright insurrection, as shown by the Jan 6 mobs. That is mob rule! The subjugation of the will of the majority to the whims of the minority, be it gun control, abortion, drag, god, Covid, or LGBTQ. Get over it, for goodness sake. Europe on the whole keeps these things in perspective (though we do have what seems to be increasing right wing mania), so we can get on with things that matter.

    Incidentally, and I’m quite sure it’s connected, I read yesterday a report on a study of excess deaths during and following the pandemic, split between nations. The UK was being criticised for being somewhat in the middle in Europe at 3%: the startling statistic was the US at 17%! It would be especially interesting to see a breakdown between states. All this in the context of obsession about abortion, yet clearly having no interest in protecting those people once they are born! Oh, and did I mention gun rights…….?

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    The third paragraph of this article is perhaps the most succinct summary I’ve read anywhere on the transformation that’s taken place in evangelicalism in recent years. I’m 51 now, and I spent 30+ years in the walled garden of the evangelical subculture. As messed up as much of it was, a key difference was that, for all of its condemnation of “the world,” most evangelicals were largely preoccupied with personal piety.

    Keeping unstained by the world used to be the priority. Since about 2015, there’s been a massive shift in the public tone of conservative Christians. There’s less talk of reaching the lost with the message of the gospel, and a rising militancy in advancing the earthly kingdom you mentioned. No longer a fringe teaching, dominionism is unabashedly the new goal.

    I used to be a huge fan of the musician Steve Camp, whom you’ve mentioned before in your blog. In my late teens and 20s, I practically idolized the man. Most of his music focused on personal piety and a passion for winning the lost. Today he’s an obscure but vocal pastor regularly promoting the worst people on the right. Some time ago, he posted a pic of himself proudly wearing a “Fuck Joe Biden” t-shirt. I tagged him in Twitter comments, talking about his new image versus the songs he used to sing. He eventually blocked me.

    After years of accumulating doubts, the rise of evangelical fascism was the metaphorical final straw that killed my faith. A good tree can’t consistently produce bad fruit.

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    Ted M. Gossard

    Thanks, Bruce. Yes, unfortunately I find myself in agreement with what you’re saying. The last twenty plus years I worked for Our Daily Bread Ministries here in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Around three years ago we joined a progressive Mennonite church (Grand Rapids Mennonite Fellowship). I think a lot of what you say is more or less taken for granted by so many evangelicals. I do tend to be a glass half empty person, but I can’t see good up ahead. I see the United States already as a failed state. I am imagining bad days ahead, hopefully not as bad as it could get. But after that some return to a sanity that allows a true democratic process. But I do believe that without a doubt the worst problem we have on our hands are the evangelicals. Even ministries like the one I used to work for which want to acknowledge racism, etc., can do little to thwart this. And we know that no matter what happens in the next election, it will be just another 2020 election denying time not possible apart from the evangelical undergirding and blessing. My own faith isn’t at all dead. But I am discouraged over Christians around me. I would rather be in a “secular” bookstore with coffee any Sunday morning than in any evangelical church. One last thing, as a Mennonite in the Peace tradition, the current mess is all the more difficult for me given the dependence on guns and ardent support for military action by yes, evangelicals. Naturally, Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez takes us through the last fifty years or so all too well. Thanks again for the article. A sad, difficult time.

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    My grandma was a serious right-wing culture warrior un the 70s, 80s, and early 90s. While she was in the minority of what Southern Baptist church members were like back in those days, she would be more of a norm if you transplanted her to modern times. While I was well aware of what she believed, and was affected by her teachings (I had a HELL OF A LOT of deconstruction to do), I was blind to how powerful this movement became. Granted, I left evangelicalism in 1994 and was no longer living in the Bible Belt, so I didn’t see how extreme mainstream evangelicalism had become until the Trump era. I never would have predicted the outsized power this vocal and strategic minority would obtained. They literally are hell-bent on subjugating people like you and me. I agree that our democracy and freedoms are hanging by a thread.

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    Yulya Sevelova

    Happy Birthday,Bruce ! In so glad that you went out and had a good time, those family photos are adorable ! In looking at the term,”Canary in Coal Mine, I always though that this applies to homeless people, because negative domestic policies will affect them first and the worst. I was looking up Opus Dei,and just how many hard- Right U.S. leaders and judges are a member of this very secretive and destructive cabal. They’ve been trying to return this Roman Catholic empire that existed in Europe during the Middle Ages back to that level of power and status,and using both parties to do this !! They gained a lot of traction too, more than most people know. It’s just more OBVIOUS with Republicans,that’s all. I had to fix a problem with payments for bills with my bank, which I don’t like anymore. The bank officer wore his Fascist leanings on his sleeve, I wasn’t expecting THIS going in,that’s for sure- he was boasting that banks in America will be going cashless by 2025 ! It ties in with the ” digital dollar”. Maybe everyone may have seen some small articles on it ( ?). Anyway, one reason WHY the Republicans were charging ahead to crash the economy and trigger default is because they do want to bring on calamity with a once- stable currency. A free America is in their way. You may have heard about Kevin McCarthy’s newly named study commission to shut down Social Security. They are still trying to force a collapse and shutdown, even after they supposedly struck a deal to halt this- for now. But no, behind the scenes they’re going at it again. Their agendas are time- sensitive, they won’t stop until it’s 1929 again ! I have to find the links, to show the research you can do in your own. Open tabernacles.wordpress, that’s one of them. Leonard Leo,and his trip with Samuel Alito,was a meeting about Opus Dei,and further plans to wreck democracy. The Catholic Information Center,The Witherspoon Institute, see for yourselves who’s involved with them. There’s a new book out, regarding the Catholic version of a Fascist Nationalism agenda, it’s absolutely terrifying !! The tech exist now,to track and control everyone, no joke ! Like the saying goes, ” If you’re not mad, you’re not paying attention !” I’ll find that title and post it soon.

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    They are right about the canaries… There will be a new sheriff in town and it won’t be them. Most of their counterattacks have already employed anti-democratic methods. For example gerrymandering, voter suppression, and SCOTUS packing and shenanigans. Hopefully the pendulum begins moving the other way. The majority don’t want a fundamentalist Christian theocracy, and if it was put in place most Evangelicals won’t want it either. You can only subvert the majority for so long. I wish people took voting seriously. If you suffer long waits where you vote, get an absentee ballot every time. Some states have no reason absentee, but if they don’t just say you expect to be out of town. No one can prove otherwise and it’s never been prosecuted.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Happy Birthday, Bruce!

    If people like me (transgender, leftist, feminist, humanist) are canaries in the coal mine, Evangelicals, conservative Catholics and other religious fundamentalists are like cornered species that know their days are numbered. Their numbers are dwindling, and they’re not getting any younger, but they to perpetuate their vision of the worlld. So they become more virulent and violent–and will ally themselves with anyone and anything that will help them survive. That is why they also do everything they can to keep the rest of us from voting or anything that will help us gain or keep bodily autonomy, intellectual freedom and social and economic mobility.

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