Facing division, praying for unity
Part 3 of a series about divisions within American evangelicalism
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When I chose to follow Beth Daranciang, a 55-year-old white woman in Seattle, and Michael Byrd, a 37-year-old black pastor in St. Louis, for this story, I had one goal: to find people who didn’t fit Twitter-branded tropes. Many prevailing narratives flatten individuals, with all their nuances and idiosyncrasies, into confusing labels such as “woke” or “social justice warrior” or “Christian nationalist” or “bigot.”
Both Daranciang and Byrd talk about truth, but in different contexts. Daranciang focuses on freedom of speech, and criticizes how the government, media, and big corporations silence dissenting voices. She worries that one-sided liberal news is indoctrinating fellow evangelicals. Byrd focuses on discipleship and missions, and wonders why evangelicals who hold orthodox beliefs but different political views are treated as though they’ve trespassed gospel boundaries. He worries about the church’s witness: Why would people believe in Jesus, when they see professed Jesus-lovers slandering one another?
That’s a key difference: While Byrd frames truth as power that can redeem humans who can then redeem society, preaching often about how orthodoxy naturally begets orthopraxy, Daranciang frames truth as power to resist and restrain evil. While they both believe in spiritual warfare, the enemy looks different in everyday life: Daranciang is an activist in a blue state; Byrd is a pastor in a red state. Daranciang sees herself in a spiritual war against anti-Christian cultural tides. Byrd sees himself in a spiritual war to save and shepherd souls.
Daranciang and Byrd’s responses are nuanced, but over time, over a multitude of daily decisions and choices, their paths diverge wider and wider—reflected in their churches.
Parts 1 and 2 of this series
Political and social issues are splintering American Christians. Can the Church find unity?
Part 2 of a series about divisions within American evangelicalism
ON JULY 4, Daranciang’s senior pastor Alec Rowlands at Westgate Chapel paused multiple times during his sermon to hold back tears: “I don’t think I have to tell you the mess this nation is in.” That’s why he began Apologia, a monthly forum on culture, at his church. Some people had gotten offended that speakers from the political right were invited, but “I’m not going to apologize for Apologia,” he declared, to enthused cheers and applause, “because Christians have sat by and sat on their hands while the enemy has systematically eroded this nation and stolen the very things that we hold precious.”
After 32 years of striving to be apolitical in the pulpit, Rowlands changed course after the pandemic shut down his church from March through June 2020. With no end to the pandemic in sight, and sensing Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was “gunning for churches from the very beginning,” church leaders decided to open against the governor’s orders. They took precautions: They blocked off every other pew and asked congregants to voluntarily wear masks. Several church members left over the decision to open, but the church also gained hundreds more newcomers, such as Daranciang.
Responses to racial unrest also stirred disagreements among members, including elders on his church board. What most shocked Rowlands was that people were leaving because he spoke out against abortion, homosexuality, Black Lives Matter, and critical race theory—stances that he considered “are not open for debate, but clearly Biblical.” That’s when he realized, “I’ve done something wrong here. … We’ve left the interpretation of biblical issues to the congregation.” He publicly apologized several times for “doing a disservice” to the church.
In February 2021, Westgate Chapel launched its first Apologia event to talk about cultural issues “where the Bible is being attacked.” An outpouring of financial support from church members and outsiders helped woo big-name figures such as Charlie Kirk—a right-wing activist and media personality who founded Turning Point USA, a nonprofit that advocates for conservatism on school campuses—and Eric Metaxas, a prominent evangelical author who’s a staunch Trump supporter. (Speaker fees vary from $2,500 to $10,000.)
Rowlands said he only invites speakers whose positions he believes “line up with the Bible.” “If my positions Scripturally happen to line up with the platform of the Republican Party, I can’t help that.”
Kirk drew the largest crowd so far. The audience cheered and clapped as Kirk urged Christians to step up on political platforms. The left’s agenda is clear, Kirk declared: “It’s one of control and permanent political power, and you’re already seeing it manifest.” He linked pandemic resistance to Daniel’s courage in Babylon.
Kirk is known for provocative statements, and Rowlands didn’t agree with everything he said, but he defended Kirk’s invitation: “If you put yourself in the place of the average Westgate Chapel attender that’s being bombarded by the left daily … it’s refreshing to see someone on a national level espouse and speak to the values that are your core values, because you’re not getting it any place else.”
Meanwhile at Byrd’s Faith Community Baptist Church, the cultural war rhetoric wasn’t present. Before a men’s Bible study early on a Saturday morning, Byrd and three other church members had a casual conversation about movies and TV shows. One man mentioned his surprise at how “real” Hollywood was becoming in addressing controversial racial topics such as police brutality. Another man chimed in: “Now they’re actually going there!”
During lunch at a chicken and waffle house, I heard church members talk about how a recent power outage destroyed the food in their community’s fridges and freezers. They talked about managing childcare while both parents work. They worried about high-school kids who still can’t read, a public school district with a high teacher turnover rate that’s rapidly losing students and funds to suburban schools, private schools, and city charter schools. They talked about the effects of trauma on their kids.
“It’s different when we live and serve among the poor,” one church leader told me. Another deacon told me, “My wife owns and runs a business while taking care of the kids. Politics is the last thing we think about.”
One church member said he left his previous church after nine years there to avoid culture war rhetoric. A 52-year-old carpenter, Mike used to attend a majority-white church with close ties to Pastor John MacArthur’s church. CRT was a frequent topic there, he said. He didn’t understand what CRT had to do with the gospel.
Mike and his family left that church in May 2020. George Floyd was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Mike told me. He didn’t think he could stay in a church that denied the existence of systemic racism, something he sees affecting his own community: “I wanted to have more impact in the community I’m part of, and I knew I couldn’t do that there.”
“OH GOSH, they’re still going at it,” Daranciang sighed.
She had just glanced at her iPhone, and neighbors in her Nextdoor group were bickering online. It started several days ago, when a neighbor posted a message urging everyone to stand with their Asian neighbors during a slew of publicized attacks against Asians. One person blamed “the orange demon” for the spike in anti-Asian attacks. Daranciang objected and said the mostly white antifa has committed more violence in their area. Someone wrote that by denying the existence of white supremacy, Daranciang is “one of them.” Daranciang pointed out that she’s married to a Filipino man and has biracial kids. An Asian American woman responded, “You just pulled a ‘I have a black friend’ card.”
Such responses irritate Daranciang. These people don’t know her, she says. They don’t know that growing up, her parents sponsored several Vietnamese refugee families. She cooks Filipino dishes such as menudo and pancit at home and shops for ube-filled buns in Filipino supermarkets. She enjoys learning about new cultures and gets teary-eyed when her church celebrates ethnic diversity in their congregation.
Daranciang, her husband Ditos, and I had just left church service and were heading to a nearby GOP event. During the drive, Daranciang commented that the Seattle school district was intentionally keeping Latino students in ESL classes for money. Ditos made a frustrated noise: “I don’t think it’s the district’s fault, Beth. Some people just don’t integrate well.”
He turned to me: “This is where I disagree with Beth. I think many people give canned Republican answers when there are many points of view. The Republicans are not always right. The Democrats are not always right. But Republicans and Democrats live in echo chambers. I think that’s why we’re seeing polarization in our country.”
Daranciang pointed out that she lives in Seattle, an uber-blue city: How is that living in an echo chamber? I asked her if she has any liberal or progressive friends. No, she said, but pointed out that she’s part of a watchdog group on transgender policies that includes lesbians and radical feminists bullied by their fellow liberals.
Daranciang dived into local activism after her kids got older. While tuning into the Washington state legislative hearings in 2018, she was stunned at how some Democratic legislators seemed to dismiss opposing views. One of the bills they discussed was the Uniform Parentage Act, a surrogacy bill backed by LGBTQ groups. Daranciang saw it as legalizing “baby-selling” and “child abuse” in broad daylight: “This is evil. They’re calling evil good and good evil. Our leaders are pushing this, and we voted for them.”
After her daughter graduated from high school, she ran for the state senate in 2018. She was mindful that a white Republican candidate’s chances of winning in Washington were slimmer than Twiggy. She lost but ran for state representative in 2020. She lost again.
Ditos worries politics is sucking his wife in. “Beth talks enough about politics for the whole family,” he half-joked when I met him. But I saw Daranciang come alive in politics. Normally measured and soft-spoken, her voice rises with passion when talking about the mainstream media’s bias against former President Donald Trump.
So even before Election Day, when Trump made comment after comment about election fraud, Daranciang paid attention. After Trump’s defeat last November, a Vietnamese American immigrant in Daranciang’s Republican group recruited other Trump supporters in the state to attend the Jan. 6 rally. Daranciang wanted to witness Trump’s last rally as president, and she suspected “there was significant fraud in the election,” so she joined them.
She didn’t anticipate that the day would devolve into an insurrection. When chaos broke out at the Capitol, Daranciang had no cell phone service, so she had no idea what was going on inside the Capitol. She heard the police had shot tear gas and pushed people down the steps and was upset that the police “acted brutally” against rally attenders. Despite plenty of video evidence from rioters themselves and police body-camera footage from the Capitol, Daranciang said she isn’t sure what to believe about Jan. 6.
At the Sunday GOP event, she hugged everyone she knew. It was like a big family reunion. People wore red, blue, and white attire, along with MAGA T-shirts and Trump 2024 hats. As candidates gave their campaign speeches, Daranciang whooped and clapped. From the other corner, her husband turned around to look at her. She was half-dancing, grinning from ear to ear. He smiled: It was nice to see her in her element.
YOU WON’T FIND Byrd in any political event. He’s voted for both Republican and Democratic presidents. He voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but not in 2012. He wrote in a candidate for both the 2016 and 2020 elections. When then-Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the 2018 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, he walked out. “They turned a gospel stage into a political stage,” he fumed. “They were rallying the troops for Trump.”
He remembers the first time he saw someone tweet the word “woke” as a pejorative: “I was very shocked.” Being “woke” to him meant being socially conscious—something everyone should aim for. To see it used as a slingshot against fellow Christians was jarring.
It was a tweet by Owen Strachan, a provost and research professor of theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Ark. Strachan had posted a six-part lecture on “Christianity and Wokeness,” describing wokeness as “an ungodly system.” Byrd watched all six videos, aghast. He had met Strachan: “This is a brother in the Lord, right? I’m grateful for his ministry. He loves the truth, right?” But the way Strachan explained wokeness sounded distorted to Byrd: “He built a straw man. And everybody is following it.”
In my conversations with Byrd and Daranciang, I noticed that whenever they criticized the “other side,” they were envisioning the loudest, most provocative voices on social media. The way those voices described people “like them” sounded not just untrue but uncharitable, tunnel-visioned, and intellectually dishonest. It felt like a personal attack.
Yet offline, face to face, people act very differently than they do online. That’s what happened with Daranciang’s Nextdoor group. After days of pinging and quibbling online, one neighbor invited everyone to his house.
About six neighbors gathered at the man’s driveway and munched on Krusteaz-mix pancakes. Someone asked Daranciang for her thoughts on anti-Asian attacks. Daranciang said she thinks it’s complicated. Sure there’s some racism, but the United States is the most free and least racist country among any other heterogeneous countries in the world: “People of all races come to America with nothing and make successful lives for themselves”— people like her husband and his siblings. One young Asian American woman objected. She said Daranciang, a white woman, can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be a minority. “There’s a lot of hate,” the woman said.
Because it was an intimate face-to-face group, they all measured their tone and choice of words. The conversation was short, and none changed their minds, but Daranciang was glad to offer a real-life face to liberals: She wanted them to see her, a lone conservative, as a fellow human being with well-reasoned thoughts.
Toward the end of my time with Byrd, I told him about Daranciang, and how she feels treated like a deplorable because of her beliefs. Byrd went quiet. Then he said softly, “I’m heartbroken that my brothers and sisters in Seattle feel like they’re under attack.”
He paused: “I don’t know them. I don’t know their church. But what I can tell you is that I love them. They are part of my family. We may worship differently, talk differently, think differently. But we’re still family. My prayer is that, even with all these things that could potentially divide us, we will allow what unifies us to pull us closer together.”
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