A recent Los Angeles Times profile is headlined, “In the Trump era, a visit to ‘Full Frontal With Samantha Bee’ feels like ‘feminist church.” Entertainment reporter Meredith Blake describes the “Trump bump” lifting subscription rates, clicks, and views for progressive programming since President Trump’s election. It’s also apparently filling chairs for comedienne Samantha Bee’s show, a woman-dominated “rarity in the boys’ club of late night.”
‘Full Frontal’ correspondent Allana Harkin comes out to rev up the crowd by asking how they’ve been contributing to ‘the resistance,’ the self-styled movement against Trump.
The vibrant response, and the overall kinetic mood is reflective of the weekly live audience for ‘Full Frontal,’ which, like other politically flavored comedy shows such as ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,’ is enjoying a boost in viewership thanks to the relentless shifting controversies surrounding the Trump administration.
Executive producer and showrunner Jo Miller tells Blake “I have a friend who comes to the show sometimes and calls it ‘feminist church.’” She’s not wrong, which is not as much an indictment of Bee’s show as it is of American Christianity — or, as “Issues, Etc.” radio host Todd Wilken aptly labels this sizeable portion of American religion, “pop American Christianity.”
In no way should church be anything like a political television harangue, but for many Americans it is an accurate comparison. It’s not that the entertainment industry has stolen church; it’s that many churches have stolen their style from the entertainment industry. And, let’s be real: entertainers have always done entertainment better. When church is about the feels, of course rock bands and TV hosts and comedians are going to outdo some overgrown pajama-boy schmuck with frosted tips and a slightly visible tattoo. Beyonce, or this guy?
It’s not even a slightly difficult choice for this committed churchgoer who is not particularly a Beyonce fan. I’d pick the Beyonce every time, and so do millennials. I’m not going to review all the research discussing how the most theologically ignorant generation in American history was born to the most-churched parents in American history, but you can hop on over to Pew for some more datapoints and Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith for some depth.
Fascinatingly, the “spiritual but not religious” attendees at the Church of Samantha Bee have something big in common with their worst enemy: The Trump tribe is more like them religiously than not. In the primaries, conservatives who were more religiously active were dramatically less likely to support Trump, and a good portion of these devout folks either stayed home on election day or voted third party. “Regular, weekly church attendance…predicted a statistically significant and substantive opposition to Trump,” noted political scientist Matthew MacWilliams. The typical Trump fan could be more fairly described as “spiritual…but not religious.”
Wow, what other demographic does that fit? Oh, right — millennials! Live that one down, guys.
As a number of articles on The Federalist have argued, many Americans are replacing their religious void with politics. It’s most visible on the Left right now, but it’s also a phenomenon on the Right, with Trump as its current avatar. These two opposing factions of rabid social justice warrior versus the “America, f— yeah!” types are united by the fact that politics is their religion.
For them, that makes politics apocalyptic. Losing is not just a temporary shift in a slight aspect of one’s temporal life, but another sign of the apocalypse, an immanentizing of the eschaton. This accounts for their unhinged behavior. If the antichrist really were president, a lot more folks would be anticipating the world’s imminent end.
Alright, enough philosophizing. Let’s look at some outward manifestations of these philosophical similarities between adherents to Samantha Bee’s show (and those like it) and your more typical megachurch.
1. Cult of Personality around Charismatic Leader
TV hosts need the force of personality to carry an entire show. Samantha Bee is a comedic descendant of the Jon Stewart family, which has spun off a number of such single-hosted shows. Same for religious institutions in which people come not for Jesus but the charisma, which elevate the pastor and his team to rock stars, complete with Vevo, major publishing, and music contracts instead of “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
It’s not that there is anything inherently bad about making money at preaching the gospel, but there is a definite tension between “the worker is worthy of his wages” and rampant gluttony that defames the name and work of Christ. Likewise, what may be entirely necessary for the professional world of temporal entertainment — an eponymous show host — may not be appropriate for a completely different kingdom’s economy.
2. Skits and Rock Music During the Service
People love skits, people love rock music, people love R&B. That’s why all of these things are integral parts of TV shows like Bee’s. The fact that these are themselves good and enjoyable things, however, does not necessarily mean they are appropriate to a church service. To take a crass example, God says sex (within marriage) is a wonderful thing, and the Bible includes some rather erotic poetry. Almost nobody but utter barbarians, however, would argue this good thing should happen during Sunday worship.
So, what is the purpose of a church service? To make people feel good? HONK, nope, that’s the job of entertainment. Your pop American Christianity is showing. Try again, please.
Well, my religious tradition answers this question with some variation on “We go to church so God can give us his gifts, to strengthen and preserve us in our faith until Christ returns.” Christianity is singular among the world’s religions in that our God does all the work of saving people. In every other religion, adherents have to do something to merit eternal life. Not Christians. Our God does all the work, we just thank him for it (which power he also gives us, since he gives everything good). And that’s what church is for: Christ giving us his gifts (which the church has typically called word and sacraments, chief of which are communion and baptism); and us thanking him for those gifts, and ask him to keep giving them.
Appropriate to a ceremony in which the universe’s Creator comes down to serve beings that have to a man desecrated his offerings, my church practices reverential behavior and appearance during worship. We don’t put God’s body and blood on a stage on which crooning singers thrust their hips or on which people cavort in jungle costumes. That also comports with the historic practice of the church.
3. Salvation By Works
Like all the other world religions besides Christianity, in the Samantha Bee church and many megachurches adherents are given little to-do lists to effect their salvation. The LA Times profile says in Bee’s audience, “As fans trickle out of the studio after the taping, an audience coordinator urged them, ‘Call about Gorsuch. Call about healthcare. Keep fighting the good fight’…[and] a recent segment that encouraged viewers to call their representatives about a bill that would loosen hunting restrictions on national preserve lands in Alaska.”
Likewise, megachurch prosperity gospel preachers like Joel Osteen seem to offer their flock a “gospel” message: “Your best life now.” But underneath the optimistic facade is the heavy hand of religious law, as a careful review of Osteen and colleagues’ sermons will show. Their message is not about what Christ has done for you, but what your life will look like if you are a real Christian, which puts pressure and focus on your performance and outcomes rather than Christ’s completed work.
To be a member in good standing of these churches, you’ve got to do something: Call a senator. Leaflet your neighborhood. Put on a p-ssy hat. Be happy. Have lots of material “blessings.” Sow “seeds” of financial donations to religious hucksters. Push God’s buttons, and he’ll push yours.
4. The Politics Are Always Left
Ross Douthat’s “Bad Religion” tied the postwar decline of evangelicalism into its self-identification with the political religious right, but a number of American megachurch leaders trend politically left, and the politics doesn’t seem to hurt their size. The highest-profile example of this is Saddleback pastor Rick Warren, but it’s also notably true of his televangelist friend Oprah.
Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written about the inevitability that megachurches trend left as the culture becomes increasingly hostile to orthodox Christian teachings about sex, starting with divorce, on which most churches have already capitulated and which inevitably leads to downplaying the authority and inerrance of scripture, ending in a complete evisceration of Christianity itself (as the mainline denominations have shown). Once scripture isn’t really scripture, you lose the objectivity of truth and descend into subjectivism, in which your feelings determine reality.
That very state is an intrinsic part of modern progressivism. It’s not a baby. I’m really a woman inside. It doesn’t matter whether my big-spending program helps — or hurts — anyone so long as I feel good about having “done something” with other people’s time and money. Both theological and political liberalism are intrinsically tied to relativism — the refusal to acknowledge hard limits on one’s desires.
5. The Sacrament Is Self
For both the political and the religious megachurch, attendance is about managing your emotions rather than obedience to God’s commands or receiving his gifts. The focus is on you, the god who displaces Christ.
The dominant emotion in Bee’s show is anger. She snarls at the screen. I feel like I have to start drinking as soon as her shrill, joyless voice comes out of my laptop speakers. The dominant emotion when watching megachurch services is comfort. Soothing. Tranquility. Synthesizers. Sleepy. Now, both anger and tranquility have their place, but emotion management is ultimately not the purpose of church, as I’ve discussed above. That’s because a real church is not about you; it’s about Christ for you. Anyone who says otherwise is a heretic.
6. The Sermons Are Really Pep Talks
In a real church, the sermon is an opportunity for a pastor educated in God’s word — its original language, history, and interpretation across centuries of church thinkers against various heresies — to administer that word to you for your soul’s eternal benefit.
In the political and religious megachurch, the sermons are instead substance-free pep talks. Megachurch pastors tell anecdotes and jokes and have clever pop-psychology acronyms, acrostics, and alliteration. High Priestess Bee makes you feel like she’s totally devastated some Trump Nation sidekick but actually just smeared somebody with snide, half-truth one-liners and microaggressions. You feel like you got something, but what you got was essentially an emotional experience untethered to reality. That’s why the high fades and leaves a crash.
7. Talk Therapy and Virtue Signaling
Megachurch pastors, including Osteen, are often adherents of the “word-faith” heresy. These people literally believe that saying what you want to have happen can make it happen. I’m sure all the Christian martyrs simply forgot to pray for God to prevent their brutal murders, right?
Millennial Samantha Bee churchgoers are also known for slacktivism and virtue signaling, behaviors in which saying or demonstrating your approval of a certain politics is supposed to magically accomplish those politics and make them effective in achieving your noble desires.
8. Rejection of Suffering
Speaking of martyrs, neither Bee’s church nor the typical platinum pastor is very much interested in the classic concept of suffering into truth. In the progressive world Bee inhabits, “when somebody hurts, government’s gotta move.” That was a managerial progressive, but same essential belief system. Millennials just transferred the hurt from physical to metaphysical, ratcheting up the religiosity. If anything is wrong anywhere, government should do something. In the progressive mindset there is no limiting principle for government power. The existence of a perceived problem is sufficient justification for government action.
The sofa-laden world of megachurches is little better. Typically the “gospel” preached in such churches whitewashes the blood, sweat, and tears out of real Christianity. The cross is Precious Momentsed. Sacrifice is reduced to financial donations, and missionary work to religious-themed entertainment safaris through the Third World that often harm the intended recipients.
For one megachurch, Jesus is a lottery ticket. For the other, government is.
9. Neither Offers a Real Religion
It should be clear at this point that these two substitutions for God do not and cannot do him justice. None can, of course. Part of the reason progressive politics is never satisfied is because government can not heal what are ultimately existential wounds. Part of the reason megachurches churn through so many people despite the high stadium numbers is the lack of spiritual nourishment they provide despite God’s clear direction for how and what his sheep need.
Government cannot fix sin. It can only partially mitigate it. The classic limiting principle for government in the Western tradition comes directly from religion, when it commands governments as God’s agents to execute justice. Government functions best when it does what it alone can do best, which is execute temporal restraint over evil (that is the only true justice available to broken men, not “social justice,” which is a frame for attempting to have humans take God’s place to mete out spiritual justice, for which we are very ill-qualified).
Churches function best when they carry out their unique function, which is to preserve the means by which God has promised to provide eternal salvation. When we confuse the comparative roles of government and church, we get not only secular and religious megachurches, but a lot of hurting people roving about for a savior they can never seem to find.