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A divide between the pulpit and the pew is roiling the evangelical church

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. In 2020, Daniel Darling, an evangelical author and spokesman for the National Religious Broadcasters, spoke out in favor of COVID-19 vaccinations after his family had contracted the virus and his kids' piano teacher had died from it. The resulting furor from religious conservatives angered by Darling's embrace of the vaccine soon cost him his job.

Our guest, New York Times correspondent Ruth Graham, says the episode is far from an isolated case. She writes that the issues dividing the Republican Party today are creating tensions within white evangelical churches across the country. Pastors who won't embrace Donald Trump's views are facing criticism, losing parishioners and, in some cases, leaving the ministry.

Ruth Graham is a Dallas-based national correspondent covering religion, faith and values for The New York Times. She graduated from Wheaton College and previously worked as a writer and reporter at Slate. Ruth Graham, welcome to FRESH AIR.

RUTH GRAHAM: Thank you so much.

DAVIES: You write about a pastor in Fort Smith, Ark., Kevin Thompson, who delivered a sermon in the fall of 2020, which would have been right in the middle of the Trump-Biden presidential race. What did he say in this sermon?

GRAHAM: This was a pretty standard sermon that you'd hear in an evangelical church. It was about the gentleness of God. But he made one reference in the sermon that stood out to a couple of people in his congregation. So he was drawing this contrast between God as a loving and accessible figure and just sort of comparing them to, you know, earthly celebrities as remote and inaccessible characters. And he just made a quick reference to, I think, Oprah, Jay-Z and then Tom Hanks, just to sort of draw this contrast in an understandable way. And several congregants afterwards asked him, by text message and phone call, what did he mean by that reference to Tom Hanks? And one of them raised the possibility - you know, sort of suggested that he obviously didn't care about the issue of sex trafficking.

He was completely confused by this at first, but sort of pieced together that they were being influenced by QAnon. A piece of the QAnon conspiracy theory is that Tom Hanks is part of this ring of Hollywood pedophiles. So it was, you know, kind of a wake-up call for him - one of a couple of wake-up calls - that his congregation was really being influenced and listening to voices that he was having a hard time figuring out how to reach and how to respond to.

DAVIES: Kevin Thompson had been at his church, the Community Bible Church, for a long time. And this little episode is reflective of a rift among and within white evangelical churches, which you write about. How would you describe this rift? What are the battle lines here?

GRAHAM: So evangelicals - they're in this sort of slow-motion crisis. And the reason I was interested in Kevin's church is because it is - you know, just a few years ago, I would have described it as a utterly typical mainstream evangelical church trying to be, you know, basically apolitical, or at least not - you know, not a lot of discussion of politics from the pulpit, but broadly united by both theological and political conservatism and pretty untroubled. Like, you know, everyone there sort of got along pretty easily until, really, the Trump era.

And that's when these divides started to emerge between pulpit and pew in a lot of cases. People like Kevin Thompson, who - he ended up speaking out against Trump, and people in his congregation - many of whom were really uncomfortable with that and strongly supported Trump. So he talks about being really shocked - not necessarily that people would end up voting for Trump, but that so many people in his congregation were really fans - you know, really loved Donald Trump and did not want to hear any negative words spoken against him.

DAVIES: When you say he spoke out against Trump, that was not from the pulpit, right? That was in a blog, right?

GRAHAM: Not from the pulpit, right. He maintained this blog where he would write about, you know, current events and sort of think things through. He's a writer, too - has written several books - and would kind of use that as a space to think through contemporary events in a way that he really didn't want to do much of from the pulpit. There's a real strong evangelical streak of not wanting to mix politics and worship. Historically, there's that streak. So, yeah, he used the blog to sort of think through more, you know, direct political and cultural issues.

So he spoke against Trump there. He also - a few years later, he used the phrase Black Lives Matter there. And it was really the blog that got him in quite a bit of trouble from the church because that was the place where they were realizing, you know, our values aren't exactly in line here, and we're not comfortable with the direction that he's nudging us.

DAVIES: It's worth noting that the pastor here, Pastor Thompson, was not a liberal - right? - or a Democrat.

GRAHAM: Absolutely not. That's part of the kind of surreal part of this story. He was a big fan of Mitt Romney. He loves the Bush family - like, lifelong conservative, lifelong kind of, you know, interested-in-politics conservative. He's conservative on gender, sexuality issues. I mean, just right down the line, he is absolutely a conservative. And he thought in 2016, like, you know, I'll vote for Jeb Bush. No problem. This is not an issue. And then a lot of those assumptions really got exploded for Christians and leaders like Kevin Thompson. 2016 really exploded a lot of those relationships and assumptions.

DAVIES: As these divisions ripple through these evangelical congregations, what are some of the other issues that people are fighting about?

GRAHAM: So race is a big one. And the summer of 2020, with - all the conversations about racial justice that that opened up in the country more broadly really trickled down to evangelical churches, as well. There were a lot of white pastors who really wanted to have conversations that summer, who wanted to use the protests as a reason to, you know, talk with their congregations, push their, you know, congregations, have panel discussions, have, you know, more Black voices at their church - you know, have these conversations. And a lot of congregations were really not ready for that and not interested in it.

The pandemic has really complicated all this as well. So initially, just the fact of not being able to meet either for a short or a long time - that separates people. People are only encountering each other on social media. They're not gathering. They're not sort of coming together and seeing each other face to face. So things got - you know, that led to a lot of ugliness.

And then, of course, the politicization of issues like vaccines, church closures themselves, masking - all of that became so fraught. And for pastors trying to hold a congregation together - you know, I heard from so many people over the last few years that just felt whatever they did in that arena was going to make half of the church upset, or at least, you know, a significant portion. And as Kevin told me, you know, he learned in seminary it only takes seven people in a church to get you fired. So with this much sort of discontent roiling over racial issues, cultural issues and then the pandemic laid on top of that, it's really an uncomfortable time to be an evangelical pastor.

DAVIES: The seven people who could fire you being - who? - the elders of the congregation.

GRAHAM: No. Really - so because, you know, leadership structures are different. So not elders, but just seven really unhappy, noisy people, you know, who are talking about you with their friends and kind of ginning up discontent, that that's - you know, I guess in a kind of loose way, that's the number of people that can sort of start the discontent that would lead to your ouster.

DAVIES: You know, Pastor Kevin Thompson in Fort Smith, Ark., was troubled by people thinking that Tom Hanks was somehow involved in child trafficking, which raises the question of the reliability of the information that people are counting on. And you write that Pastor Thompson wrote in his blog that Christians should apply research and discernment, and that promoting things that are not true about others violates the Ninth Commandment. That's the one against - about bearing false witness, right? What was he getting at?

GRAHAM: He was really disturbed by what he came to see as a crisis of authority within the evangelical church more broadly. So you have people watching other pastors, other kind of media figures online, getting their own views affirmed and countering conspiracy theories that way. It just becomes - it's much easier to just find a spiritual voice who matches your political worldview online than to sit around while your pastor makes you feel uncomfortable in your seat at church. So you know, a line that I hear from a lot of pastors is, you know, I get them for one hour a week. And Fox or OAN or anyone else gets them for - you know, it could be 20 hours a week. So it's just really hard to compete with the voices that conservative American evangelicals are encountering online and on cable news.

DAVIES: So there are tensions, there are disagreements. And what has it meant for the membership of, you know, congregations like Community Bible Church, which is the one that Kevin Thompson in Arkansas headed?

GRAHAM: It's been really difficult. So the people that I spoke with at Community Bible were really frustrated and saddened by what they saw as sort of the collapse of the church that they had known, where they felt very comfortably apolitical there, where, you know, supposedly, sort of anyone could come, anyone could be comfortable. And we didn't have to hear about, quote-unquote, "politics" in church. As Kevin points out, you know, he would occasionally speak about abortion from the pulpit, and no one thought of that as politics. No one saw that as political. But then when he would talk about racial justice and issues related to that, you know, suddenly, that was political. So there is this kind of interesting in-group shifting definition of, you know, what it means to be political in church. But for church members, they felt, you know, five years ago, we were comfortable here. All of a sudden now, our pastor is telling us that we are, you know, implicated in systemic racism. And we're not comfortable with that.

DAVIES: So was he losing members?

GRAHAM: Yes. Absolutely. And this is not just at Community Bible, so across the country still, even as almost every church is meeting in person again now. But attendance is still really dramatically down. So it remains to be seen what that will look like in another few months or in a year. But there is a real sort of attendance crisis in the American church right now overall.

DAVIES: So that's churches everywhere, not just evangelical churches, not just...

GRAHAM: Absolutely.

DAVIES: Right. Right. So those families who left Community Bible Church in Fort Smith, Ark., were they going to other churches where more politically conservative pastors led the congregations?

GRAHAM: Yes. So there's not sort of one alternative church in Fort Smith where sort of everyone who wants to hear more hard-line conservatism from the pulpit knows to go to this one place. But there's a lot of competition. And there are churches that sort of preach more in that vein and seem to be really benefiting from it. So people do want to hear - you know, I listened to some sermons from the church across the street from Community Bible. And they're talking about, you know, standing firm against, you know, a culture - a secular culture that wants to tell you how to raise your children and just sort of confronting political issues much more directly and calling congregants, you know, to arms, metaphorically, in the culture war in a way that a church like Community Bible does not. And that's the kind of church that is really resonating with a lot of people right now. And those churches seem to be really benefiting from this moment.

DAVIES: So Kevin Thompson had spent most of his career, I think, at Community Bible. Did he stay?

GRAHAM: He did not stay. So last fall, he left Fort Smith, where, I should say, he grew up. So he was born and raised in Fort Smith. He left for seminary, came back, expected he would live there for the rest of his life. But it just became untenable, you know? He and his wife talked about - you know, the way they talked about it was, we can stay here and have all these sort of happy memories sour and have things potentially really go south here. Or we can leave, you know, sort of cut our losses and keep those happy memories. So they left. He's an associate pastor out - at a bigger church out in Sacramento, Calif. And I think that was a really - you know, a bittersweet - the right decision, as he talks about it, but also really bittersweet, leaving family and friends and just an expectation that he would be embedded in that community for the rest of his life.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Ruth Graham. She is a national correspondent for The New York Times, covering faith, religion and values. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAIA WILMER OCTET'S "MIGRATIONS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Ruth Graham. She's a national correspondent for The New York Times, covering religion, faith and values. She's written recently about issues that are dividing the Republican Party, that are now creating tensions within white evangelical churches across the country.

We spoke a moment ago about a pastor in Arkansas who, ultimately, left the congregation that he led for many years because more politically conservative parishioners objected to his kind of leadership. Let's look at the other side of this. Are congregations whose leaders openly and avidly embrace Donald Trump's politics, are those congregations growing?

GRAHAM: Yes, there are a lot of individual churches like this where pastors are really speaking openly about political issues that are booming. One way you can see that is churches that responded really defiantly to pandemic - you know, early pandemic precautions and lockdown orders. And, you know, churches that defied that and opened early, in some cases courting lawsuits, in other cases suing themselves, those churches are really thriving. People really responded to that. And, you know, people wanted to meet in person. I mean, I think that was true of almost any regular churchgoer. But there was sort of the defiance there specifically that people really did respond to.

DAVIES: You had an interesting comment from a pastor named Wade Lentz, who's also in Arkansas, about why evangelicals find this more, you know, directly political approach appealing. What did he say?

GRAHAM: Yeah, the way that he talked about it is that people are sick of going to church and just hearing everything's fine. You know, every day is a great day. The sun is always shining. And that doesn't reflect - you know, the sort of positivity and "Kumbaya," you know, does not reflect the really embattled and aggrieved feeling of a lot of American evangelicals right now who really feel like they have a duty to sort of stand up and fight in what they see as this broader culture war that they're - you know, they see themselves as victims and sort of imperiled in the U.S. So people want to get encouragement from that in their churches. And his church, it's not a huge church, but it has grown as he has kind of leaned into that. So he preached a sermon. At one point, it was called We Believe Tyranny Must Be Resisted about vaccine mandates specifically. People responded really well to that. His church is growing. He has a podcast where he describes himself as a patriot pastor and talks about politics. And that's resonating with his congregation and people in his community.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting. Whenever a message is popular, you know, it presents opportunities for people in media or social media, people who want to, you know, get attention and make money, which, you know, not to question the sincerity of people in their religious beliefs, but have you seen people suddenly appear and form new churches with, you know, an aggressive embrace of these beliefs and succeed?

GRAHAM: Yes, there's new churches. There's also people who have almost sort of changed the branding of their existing churches. So there's a pastor in Tennessee named Greg Locke, who has just - his social media profile has exploded. He was, you know, there at the January 6 protests. He has become a major national figure based on initially his resistance to pandemic precautions and vaccine mandates. And he also - his church has really, really grown. So it's exploding in popularity, and that's just one example. So there's a lot of people in this kind of media space who - you know, the sizes of their churches varies a lot. Some of them are actually surprisingly small, but they've built these media platforms where they reach a lot of people, including people in a town that doesn't have a church exactly like that yet, so, you know, a town like Fort Smith. And they just have huge reach at this point, calling for, you know, bold churches, churches waking up. There's, you know, a lot of this sort of revival language that you'll hear.

DAVIES: Has any of this activity and the success of congregations which embrace, you know, very politically conservative ideas, has any of that changed seminaries and training for ministers or the extent to which people coming from seminaries are able to pursue their profession?

GRAHAM: So in a lot of these settings, seminary training is optional. So Kevin had it, but it wasn't required by his denomination or by his church. Seminaries are shrinking. And for him, having gone to seminary actually ended up contributing to this sense among some people in his congregation that he had gone liberal. You know, he had gone off, he had gotten this education that had sort of broadened his view on a lot of things. He came back to town and had a different view of racial issues, of other cultural issues, in part because of this seminary education, which is how he would describe it, too. I mean, he describes it as really beneficial to his growth and knowledge. So all that to say it's unclear if it's actually - you know, if what students at seminary are being taught is changing yet. I think that that would take a while to happen. There are some new seminaries popping up. But I think the bigger thing is that it would just be a trend away from seminary education, sort of accelerating an existing trend away from seminary education.

DAVIES: And the fact that you can read the Bible, you can look at what's going on, you can speak from the heart and find a following, I guess.

GRAHAM: Yes, absolutely. And that's always been a core element of not just evangelicalism but really a lot of Protestantism, is that the core changes are in your own heart. You can sort of follow your own instinct checked against the Bible at all times, of course. But there's not a tradition of deference to a specific higher authority other than God and your own relationship with him.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Ruth Graham. She's a national correspondent for The New York Times covering religion, faith and values. She'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "OLD TIMES")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Ruth Graham, a national correspondent for The New York Times covering religion, faith and values. She's written recently that many of the political issues dividing the Republican Party are causing deep rifts among white evangelical churches across the country. Many pastors are feeling pressure from parishioners to embrace Donald Trump's unsupported claims about election fraud or even QAnon-based conspiracy theories about child predators. Those who don't are losing followers and, in some cases, leaving the ministry.

You know, in some of these articles that you write about this, you talk about people that are politically conservative. You also use the term theologically conservative. What exactly does that mean?

GRAHAM: So, again, it would - it depends a little bit on the tradition, but I would describe some of the core things there as a really foundational belief in the historical validity of the Bible, in the claims about Jesus's divinity, a literal resurrection. And, you know, you're not just looking at the Bible as a sort of guidebook for becoming a nicer person, and you pick and choose what feels right with contemporary sensibilities kind of trumping this - what they would describe as a plain reading of the Bible. So it's not necessarily biblical literalism, but it's taking the claims of the Bible very seriously.

There's a famous kind of definition of what it means to be an evangelical. It's called the Bebbington Quadrilateral, named after this theologian David Bebbington. And the four pieces of it are the centrality and truth of the Bible, the significance of the story of the crucifixion and the resurrection, the concept of being born again, and then an obligation to activism or service propelled by that. So we can get into, you know, how evangelicalism - if that still works as an actual description of American evangelicalism, that that's a pretty good definition of theological conservatism.

DAVIES: This is a big question. But I'm wondering, I mean, like, certainly people besides evangelicals are attracted to the - to Donald Trump and to his political views. But it does seem from these stories that white evangelicals are embracing them in a really passionate way. Do you think that there's something about the experience of being an evangelical that makes one more predisposed to accept and propagate these messages?

GRAHAM: I think what made them so loyal to Trump, in part, it's that he courted them really directly. He made promises to them. He showed up in their churches and, you know, not just churches like Kevin's, but, you know, healing prophetic churches. He made a really distinct appeal to charismatic Christians and sort of brought them into the fold in a way that other Republican presidents and sort of held that cohort at a little bit of arm's length. And evangelicals as a whole, I think, saw Trump as someone who was fighting the good fight on their side, understood what they wanted, took them seriously. And for a lot of them, you know, the country has sort of gotten to the point in their eyes where the stakes are too high to keep being nice.

And it was not a lot of naivete. When I talked to evangelicals who strongly support Trump, I very rarely heard the idea that anyone was fooled into thinking that this thrice-married casino magnate was, you know, their idea of a great Christian. There's a lot of doubts about whether or not Trump is saved or what kind of Christian he is or, you know, the sort of contents of his soul. But the proof was in the pudding. And they saw him making and keeping promises to them and fighting on their behalf. And in fact, there's a little bit of freedom in having someone who doesn't need to pretend to be gentle and nice, as the New Testament would ask you to do, but instead is sort of, you know, unleashed to really be a bully and a brawler on your behalf.

DAVIES: You know, we talked earlier about how politics has become infused in white evangelical congregations. And you and your Times colleague, Elizabeth Dias, recently wrote about a kind of a complimentary development that Trump politics are being infused in - at least in their practices with religion, how we're seeing worship a part of political rallies and events. And do you want to share an example of this?

GRAHAM: Sure. You know, I actually - we're talking on Wednesday morning, and I just was watching some video from Doug Mastriano's victory party for the primary for the Pennsylvania governor last night. And I saw this - a worship leader named Sean Feucht was on the stage there. He's a familiar character to me. And he was singing a worship song called "Way Maker" that Elizabeth and I wrote about just a few weeks ago, how that particular song is sort of popping up in all these protest and political settings. So that's something that we started to notice a few months ago. It's probably been going on longer.

But we were hearing these relatively new worship songs, songs that are written for church settings, written to to worship God. And we're starting to see those being sung, you know, at the introductions to political rallies, at events like Doug Mastriano's event. Elizabeth covered a sort of celebration for the one-year anniversary of the January 6 assault on the Capitol, where, again, "Way Maker," that that song was sung there. So we're seeing these songs and even that sort of style of charismatic, really intense, charismatic prayer crop up at political rallies, at protests like the Canadian trucker protests a few months ago that were primarily - it was an anti-vaccine but much broader than that - and all these sort of ostensibly secular settings, we're seeing evangelical worship happen there. And again, not just - that we're not talking about like a quick reference to God or Christianity or amazing grace but really new and intense products of evangelical culture.

DAVIES: The song "Way Maker," tell us a little bit about it. Who wrote it? What's it about?

GRAHAM: So "Way Maker" is a song that has really exploded in popularity within evangelical churches in the last few years and on the evangelical music charts and - or Christian music charts. It's written by a singer-songwriter from Nigeria a couple of years ago and then made its way to the U.S. I think the most popular recording is by a performer named Leeland. But really the way most people are encountering it is on Sunday morning in their services. So a lot of evangelical churches will have a worship band with, you know, a guitar and drums. And they will open the service by singing several worship songs that the congregation can sing along with. And it's a way of kind of entering into a time of worship and prayer.

And "Way Maker" is hugely popular in churches. And it's really not, you know, as a song, if you read it, it's not political. It's actually been sung - some marchers at Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 were singing "Way Maker." So it's a song that is really adaptable. It's catchy. It's soaring. It's - sort of has, like, U2 vibes, like a lot of this - a lot of contemporary worship music does. And then over the course of the pandemic, it really - it just became, like, a megahit in that time. So if you go to a certain kind of evangelical church, you know "Way Maker."

DAVIES: Yeah, it's about devotion, essentially - right? - devotion to God.

GRAHAM: Yes. Yeah, exactly. It's a song of praise. So it's like, you know, way maker, miracle worker. It starts kind of by listing these attributes of God. It's a song of praise - promise keeper, light in the darkness. Yeah, a song of praise.

DAVIES: Why don't we listen to a little bit of it? This is "Way Maker," performed by Leeland.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAY MAKER (LIVE)")

LEELAND: (Singing) Yeah. I worship you, Lord. And you are way maker, miracle worker, promise keeper, light in the darkness. My God, that is who you are. Yeah, you're the way maker. Way maker, miracle worker, promise keeper, light in the darkness. My God, that is who you are. Yeah, sing it again. You are, yeah, way maker...

DAVIES: That's the song "Way Maker," performed by Leeland.

Let me reintroduce you again. We are speaking with Ruth Graham. She's a national correspondent for The New York Times, covering religion, faith and values. She'll be back to talk more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BAD PLUS' "THE BEAUTIFUL ONES")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're talking with Ruth Graham. She's a national correspondent for The New York Times, covering religion, faith and values. She's written recently about political issues dividing the Republican Party that are also causing deep rifts among white evangelical congregations.

You know, one of the things that struck me as I considered this is that, you know, people are very committed to their political beliefs, including, you know, people who follow Donald Trump. But if, you know, it becomes not just a matter of what's right for the country or what's the best political course but a religious principle, I mean, it's struck me that that might reduce the chances for, you know, compromise. I mean, you don't go halfway on the will of God, right?

GRAHAM: Well, right. I mean, religion and politics - each of them sort of raises the stakes for the other. So if you can infuse some religion into your politics, all of a sudden you're talking about not just the next election, but, you know, eternal - you know, eternal life, eternal consequences. Like, you know, just - it could - the stakes could not be higher, in some ways, once you can put religion into that political sphere.

And at the same time, infusing politics into your faith gives it a kind of urgency and immediacy. So we're not only talking about high-flown, you know, ideas about the soul and - but we're - what we are talking about - you know, what happens next for my family, for my state, for my country? There's kind of an urgency and immediacy and sort of intimacy. So it's a symbiotic relationship that I think fuels each side and gives both a lot of energy.

DAVIES: There's a rise in Christian prophets. Who are these people? What are they prophesizing?

GRAHAM: Yeah, so prophecy is - that's a piece of the charismatic movement, which has this focus on miracles and faith healing and kind of the Holy Spirit being active in the world today. And a piece of that is a belief that individuals who are alive today - you know, so not Old Testament figures - but can actually be gifted with a gift of prophecy and be able to make predictions - you know, some quite specific.

So I was having lunch with some people in Georgia a few years ago now, and they were making casual conversation over lunch about, you know, oh, did you hear what so-and-so prophet said - who was going to win the Super Bowl, you know? And sort of just chatting about this as if it was, like, a news event or a - you know, a piece of news analysis. So the prophecies can get really specific.

But leading up to both the 2016 and the 2020 election, there were a lot of political prophecies - and including, overwhelmingly, that Trump was going to win. This caused sort of a crisis in the movement after 2020, where some prophets sort of repented and said, I got it wrong. Others doubled down and said, well, no, you know, because of these election conspiracies, you know, election fraud, that Trump actually did win. You know, my prediction was right.

And so it's this whole little universe that is actually not taking place primarily in churches but is at, you know, other events - at conferences, online, on the radio, via newsletters. So it's disseminated in all these sort of other kinds of venues, and a lot of people are listening.

DAVIES: Is this connected to the influence of, you know, right-wing political ideology within the churches?

GRAHAM: The prophecy sphere is overwhelmingly conservative. And so, yes, it's closely tied with that. It's connected to the charismatic movement, which, again, is who Trump really brought into political prominence in a new way, a way that no president had ever done before - so, you know, inviting charismatic worship leaders and other charismatic leaders into his inner circle, into the Oval Office, having worship events in the Oval Office. So there's a - there is a close connection there.

DAVIES: Do they make prophecies that involve Trump?

GRAHAM: Oh, absolutely. I mean, there were very concrete prophecies about his victories. There's a prophet who I remember sharing - there's a lot of sort of sharing of prophetic dreams. So this guy Jeremiah Johnson (ph) shared this dream. And a lot of these things kind of go viral. So this dream went viral of Trump stumbling while he was running the Boston Marathon. And then there were two elderly women near the finish line who came out of the crowd and helped him over the finish line. So, you know, it becomes this kind of complicated form of storytelling and where people can read different figures or themselves or different movements kind of into these really, in some cases, kind of complex or kind of wild stories. I mean, you can absolutely understand why they're entertaining.

DAVIES: You know, you wrote about a Trump rally in Michigan where an evangelist offered a prayer which included, father in heaven, we firmly believe Donald Trump is the current and true president of the United States. And then he prays in Jesus' name that local delegates would support Trump endorsed candidates. This kind of thing typical?

GRAHAM: It is and it isn't. I mean, you're seeing it in sort of political settings more and more. But I think it's also important to say that for a lot of American Christians and a lot of evangelicals, that's really bordering on blasphemy. And it's really deeply disturbing to a lot of Christians. So, you know, that's been one of the really disorienting things to watch, you know, for a lot of Christians over the last few years is to see this happen and sort of notice who objects to it and who says don't use my faith in this way and who is comfortable with it.

DAVIES: You know, as I share about this Christian - prophets and, you know, some of these things that people are believing, like the QAnon conspiracy theories, I mean, it is striking how - and this is something that's been observed for a long time - that faith in major American institutions, you know, has declined. And I guess that includes, you know, traditional religious leaders.

GRAHAM: Yes. I mean, I think that's really in some ways what all this is about. So a pastor like Kevin Thompson, who we started out talking about, once upon a time would have had a real, you know, and a significant authority in the lives of his congregation. So he would have been who they looked to for wisdom when, you know, their own lives got confusing, when, you know, the events of the world got confusing or hard.

And now there's this sort of crisis of authority there where people don't trust voices like Kevin Thompson because they're hearing all sorts of competing ideas from from other kinds of voices. That means that they don't trust his kinds of churches. They can find other churches that that speak to them more directly or in ways that resonate with them more. They don't trust the media, I can attest to that. They don't trust doctors in a lot of cases. I mean, that was something that I think surprised a lot of pastors who were initially very supportive of the vaccine of the COVID vaccine. And so, you know, it's sort of - in any direction you can look at, there is this radical breakdown of trust in institutions and that absolutely includes churches.

DAVIES: Well. Ruth Graham, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GRAHAM: Thank you. I really enjoyed this.

DAVIES: Ruth Graham is a national correspondent for The New York Times covering religion, faith and values. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan has some fiction to recommend for early summer reading. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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