The Anatomy of a Cancellation Attempt

Christians Should Not Join in Online Smear Campaigns

Social media pile-ons in evangelical circles are sadly a routine occurrence. A short excerpt of a podcast, sermon, or book is released. Then, scathing comments flood the zone, usually resulting in a pastor or congregant being the target of unhinged derision and antipathy. 

Third-way types suddenly shun their above-it-all mantra and jump into the fight. Online theologians continue their penchant for making categorical statements that seem far more at home in a political campaign than a careful examination of a theological doctrine. Pastors denounce the person in question without understanding either the medium of social media or its place in regime-level politics.

Sometimes, the downward spiral continues, and the life of the person who’s been targeted is irrevocably altered, especially if he is doxxed. Even sincere repentance may not halt the attacks. In these cases, the person could become a pariah in his local community, making it difficult for him to make ends meet and provide for his family. And sometimes, family members, close friends, associates, and institutions in his community get caught up in the mix as well.

Like clockwork, the evangelical pile-on has happened again.

A 30-second clip of a recent sermon by Pastor Michael Shover of Christ the Redeemer Church in Pella, Iowa, was blasted out on social media. In the brief excerpt, he states that the First Amendment is an idol that needs to be cleared away. Doug Wilson has pointed out that in the manuscript, a distinction was made between the original First Amendment and subsequent bowdlerized versions that need to be cleared away. For the professional critics of Christian nationalism inside and outside of the church, of course, this was catnip. 

This clip was clearly shared as part of a broader cancellation campaign against Pastor Shover, Christ the Redeemer Church, and the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC) denomination. 

It’s important to note that Pastor Shover was preaching to his congregation—this shortened excerpt was taken from a sermon on Isaiah 61 that’s over 40 minutes in length. He was not making blanket statements in an online forum or during a public debate outside of a church context. 

But my focus is less on the content of this sermon, which is important in its own right and should be discussed among those with level heads at length. Instead, I want to focus on patterns of behavior that are sadly all too familiar in online evangelical circles—even conservative ones. 

While some on social media had thoughtful responses, too many were interested in making drive-by moralistic denunciations that support the popular narratives currently being peddled by the cognoscenti.

Listening to an entire sermon should be the very least a Christian should do before rebuking a pastor’s teaching publicly—especially rebukes coming from fellow pastors and public theologians. I’m curious to know how many critics took the time to listen to Pastor Shover’s entire sermon before posting a comment. My guess is that very few did.

Scripture, of course, teaches that public rebuke must sometimes take place (Prov. 27:5; 1 Tim. 5:20). But it also teaches that this should be done in a careful manner and spirit. Is what was said simply disagreement among brothers or does it in fact rise to the level of sin? If the latter, have there been multiple private interventions without repentance? Or is it a sin that has happened once in a private setting and repentance has taken place? 

Importantly, how likely is it that the manner in which a rebuke is made be weaponized against the person being reproved, a sword of Damocles precariously hanging over him going forward? 

In his epistle, James outlines the overall character that should guide Christians in their interactions with fellow believers, which certainly applies in cases of rebuke: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (Ja. 1:19-20).

St. Augustine clearly supported rebuking in this spirit in a letter to Bishop Aurelius of Carthage: “According to my way of thinking, those abuses are not done away with by harsh or severe or autocratic measures, but by teaching rather than by commanding, by persuasion rather than by threats. This is the way to deal with the people in general, reserving severity for the sins of the few.”

All of these considerations and more should be prayed over and thought about carefully before rebuking a fellow Christian in public.

Another difficulty in the kerfuffle over the short clip of Pastor Shover’s sermon gets into the thorny problem of exactly which First Amendment we are attempting to uphold. This is an area where pastors need to tread lightly because of the inherent political nature of such questions. 

If my understanding of Pastor Shover’s entire sermon is correct, the section on the First Amendment was about distinguishing between that amendment as written and ratified and how that amendment has come to be interpreted, which violates the First Commandment.

The founding generation didn’t think the First Amendment was inconsistent with laws against blasphemy, obscenity, or slander and libel and those that privileged Christianity in the civil realm. But our version today is of a far more libertine vintage. Endorsed by institutions that are purportedly on the Right such as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, our modern First Amendment protects gross and obvious violations of the moral law under the auspices of “freedom.” 

This was the product of a revolution mostly undertaken in the 20th century. Due to machinations of the Supreme Court among other political actors, the original Constitution was supplanted by a second constitution. With at least the tacit support of the American people (it’s doubtful the men of the revolutionary generation would’ve put up with this), the Supreme Court became a rolling constitutional convention that hollowed out old rights, created new ones out of whole cloth from the Constitution’s “penumbras, formed by emanations,” and generally turned the supreme law of the United States into a mess of pottage.

On a related note, pastors need to recognize the limits of their areas of competence, because any discussion of politics in our time can get out of hand rather quickly. We moderns seem to have little familiarity with how great thinkers throughout the ages investigated the architectonic science of politics. Pivotal questions that are part of any decent political treatise—that is, the differences in regime types, questions over who rules, and what should be supported and prohibited for the health of the regime—are scary to our modern liberal ears. 

Descriptive arguments about princes and magistrates—one way of discussing these same topics today is Red and Blue Caesars—are often confused for prescriptive lessons by those who are unfamiliar with the basic contours of political philosophy and political theory. This lack of understanding of how politics has historically been discussed explains at least part of the controversy over Stephen Wolfe’s Case for Christian Nationalism.  

Finally, returning to the medium of social media, there’s been a marked tendency among evangelicals to be oblivious to how those who despise Christ and his sheep weaponize them to bash orthodox Christianity. Evangelicals frequently seem to mistake cancellation campaigns for a discussion of correct theology, a category error of massive proportions.   

Evangelicals must have an awareness of which accounts they choose to highlight on social media. In the case of Pastor Shover, a quick scan of the account that boosted the short clip from his sermon reveals someone who has an obvious grudge against Doug Wilson, the CREC, complementarianism, etc. Whatever you may think about these topics, it is plain that conservatives ought not to engage with this account. As Pastor Kevin DeYoung has written, “Too often we blast the sheep and coddle the wolves, and waste all our time on the pigs.”

Evangelicals need to understand that social media—X especially—is not a neutral playing field. Above all, it’s a tribal space in which warfare is being constantly waged between those who want to maintain their conferred status and prestige, and the system backing it, and those who see an emperor without any clothes. 

Those at the commanding heights of politics and culture like to use social media platforms as a means to undermine their opponents in Red America. This is obvious with the coordinated attacks by the intelligence community against Donald Trump in 2016 and the feverish efforts against him by the social media conglomerates in 2020. 

This means that the only way social media can truly be a useful marketplace of ideas is if exchanges of views are done within tribal boundaries, between those who share the most important things in common (this is why taking away Twitter Circles was such a disappointment, an error I hope Elon rectifies soon). For Aristotle, after all, friendship is higher than justice. 

Quite simply, there are political implications in the realm of social media that go far beyond a simple exchange of theological views. And the foregoing analysis neglects the myriad ways digital life shapes us that Marshall McLuhan, Jacques Ellul, and other prominent thinkers have studied and written about.

Before joining a future skirmish, evangelicals you should ask yourself why you decided to enter the arena. You should interrogate your motives and see if there’s another way you can voice your displeasure. Or you may decide it’s best not to comment publicly at all, which is likely the best course of action most of the time.

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Mike Sabo

Mike Sabo is a Contributing Editor of American Reformer and an Assistant Editor of The American Mind, the online journal of the Claremont Institute. His writing has appeared at RealClearPolitics, The Federalist, Public Discourse, and American Greatness, among other outlets. He lives with his wife and son in Cincinnati.

2 thoughts on “The Anatomy of a Cancellation Attempt

  1. I also view a lot of these cancellation attempts in the light of scripture’s condemnation of false accusations. When someone on social media begins to make accusations and attacks against one’s character outside of what they actually know of the person, that’s making false accusations and should be condemned. I think we can all be guilty of doing it, but it is the standard we are held to.

  2. I find it inconsistent to complain about the “cancelation” attempts made by some against Trump while neglecting to mention Trump’s cancelation attempts against those who stood in his way. And that is a shame because the cancelation of others is a relevant issue to discuss.

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