Given my experience, I do not trust the intentions behind anything the American evangelical leadership says. Specifically, there's one agenda item that has recently emerged from the evangelical movement that I'm especially curious about. The current obsession with sex trafficking, especially the trafficking of children, is largely about political posturing. It may also contain a degree of psychological projection, given the recurrence of troubling stories like the one about Benjamin Garlick, a traveling evangelist who was recently indicted in Tennessee (along with his wife) on charges of raping and abusing a child. In any event, it's no way based on actually saving people from the sex trade.
First of all, let's admit this is a brilliant political move. Sex trafficking is without question a real and dreadful thing, happening to far too many people in too many places around the world. The numbers coming out of the evangelical propaganda machine are almost certainly exaggerated, and are also overly focused on the U.S.-Mexico border. But at least we can say evangelicals are paying attention to a legitimate human rights issue, even if there is something decidedly off about their political obsession.
So let's break this down. There has been considerable pressure within the evangelical movement to engage with some sort of social justice issue, especially since the evangelical positions on abortion and same-sex marriage are broadly unpopular. There are far too many messages around social justice in the teachings of Jesus Christ to ignore the question together. The most conservative elements of the evangelical church look increasingly heartless when it comes to the suffering of the poor and disenfranchised. So evangelicals had to find an issue that could prove they still had some heart for vulnerable people and that had nothing to do with oppressing women and rejecting the LGBTQ population. But at the same time, they needed an issue that aligned with the current talking points of the Republican Party, rejected the reforms of President Biden and the Democrats and was difficult to criticize on the merits.
One key ingredient here is that the sex-trafficking issue aligns with the Republican agenda in a particular way — because of another issue conservative evangelicals have really struggled with. There is nothing less Christian coming out of the current Republican Party than its anti-immigration policies. The Bible is absolutely clear on this question, as are the teachings of Jesus: Christians are called to welcome foreigners, travelers and strangers, with no regard for their legal status. There is no theology available anywhere in Christian thinking or teaching that allows believers to reject the immigrant for any reason — except, apparently, if the threat of sex trafficking is used as a pretext.
It is a perfect theological and political loophole, and Republican evangelicals have seized upon it and exploited it to the maximum. The success earlier this year of the evangelical propaganda movie "Sound of Freedom" is the perfect example. Fueled by evangelical money and the supposed star power of Hollywood lunatic Jim Caviezel, this unexpected hit supposedly showed the world the horrors of child sex trafficking, while hinting at elements of the QAnon conspiracy theory (which overlaps with the evangelical community to some degree). But for what purpose? To save people caught in this deplorable trade in human beings, or to win elections and build support for restrictive immigration policies?
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My honest opinion, as an evangelical minister of long experience, is that leaders of the evangelical church largely couldn't care less about the substance of this issue. What they care about raising money, holding and keeping political power and keeping poor and downtrodden people in their place. The advantage of this issue, for conservative evangelicals, is the way it can be framed in language that no reasonable human being could reject.
Most evangelicals genuinely believe that liberals reject the teachings of Jesus because they are diseased and immoral people who want to destroy the family, murder babies, make sex with children legal and outlaw Christianity.
Consider the words the evangelical movement favors. They claim to support life, liberty, freedom and family, while rejecting murder, rape, human trafficking and pedophilia. Liberal perverts, they claim, are in favor of everything on that second list. I'm not exaggerating. If you don't know much about the inner workings of the evangelical mind, let me assure you that most evangelicals genuinely believe that liberals reject the teachings of Jesus Christ because they are diseased and immoral people who want to do dreadful things. In the evangelical imagination, liberals and progressives want to destroy the family, murder babies, make sex with children legal and outlaw Christianity.
Admittedly, Biblical scripture poses certain problems for evangelical believers. It's important to understand that no matter what some evangelicals claim, almost no one treats scripture literally. If I did that, I would surrender my daughters to be raped in order to protect angels, I would silence any women who held authority over any church, I would expect all married women to submit sexually to their husbands at all times and in all circumstances, and I myself would accept death by stoning for my tattoos.
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I am honestly grateful that the evangelical movement understands the importance of social justice issues, and that some of its leaders and followers are at least pretending to stand against oppressors and defend the innocent, as nearly all of us would agree that scripture calls us to do. With that in mind I would humbly ask evangelical leaders to use their enormous political voice on behalf of a few other issues:
- Isn't it time to have every American covered under a single-payer health insurance program? I seem to recall some stuff in the gospels about healing the sick, am I right?
- It would also be cool if every person in America, regardless of the class they come from, the color of their skin or the neighborhood they live in, could received the same level of educational opportunity.
- It strikes me that Christians should support a justice system that treats everyone equally, not one that punishes the poor and rewards the rich.
- I would personally argue that scripture calls us to grant legal status to all immigrants now in our nation, and to welcome others who come here willing and able to work. The commandment here is not just religious but also economic: Who do you think will build and repair our houses, pick our fruit and vegetables, care for our children and older loved ones?
- Lastly, I would be grateful if evangelical leaders fought for my daughters' rights to marry whoever they want and to control their own bodies. I sadly recognize that wish won't come true anytime soon.
In both political and human terms, this sex trafficking issue is total bulls**t. If evangelicals actually cared about protecting the innocent and the weak, they would have behaved quite differently over the last 50 years. This is yet another cynical political gambit. It has literally nothing to do with ending the sex trafficking industry, and everything to do with protecting right-wing evangelicals' wealth and power.