Worshipping at the Church of Anti-Vax
"Much of fundamentalist Christianity is more than just a religion: it’s a conspiracy theory gone wild"
I’ve been writing a lot lately about the pushback against vaccinations, and those hawking alternative Covid 19 treatments like Ivermectin.
Whenever I’ve written about Ivermectin, I get a variety of people yelling at me on social media — often pointing me to headlines like this: “Australian GPs can legally prescribe Ivermectin Triple Therapy Protocol.”
I really wish they still taught people to check their sources, or even just consider if a website thrown together by a graphic designer exclusively versed in 90s-era WordArt is one to be trusted:
To be clear — Australia had not just approved Ivermectin for treatment of Covid-19. The “Cairns News” piece doing the rounds was a rehash of 2020 misinformation that had been doing the rounds on WhatsApp.
So what’s the problem of talking about things like Ivermectin? Well, this:
Person Hospitalized After Taking Livestock Ivermectin From Feed Store To Treat COVID-19
At least one individual has been hospitalized in Mississippi after ingesting a drug intended for treating worms in livestock, the Mississippi State Department of Health revealed today. The medicine, ivermectin, is not approved for treating COVID-19.
So many people also had this bright idea, the Mississippi State Department had to issue this health alert warning four days ago:
“The Mississippi Poison Control Center has received an increasing number of calls from individuals with potential ivermectin exposure taken to treat or prevent COVID-19 infection.
At least 70% of the recent calls have been related to ingestion of livestock or animal formulations of ivermectin purchased at livestock supply centers.”
In the midst of all this, it’s been deeply annoying to see New Zealand’s dumbest churches hopping on the anti-vax bandwagon.
As I mentioned last week, Destiny Church made its stupidity known, proudly announcing leaders Brian and Hannah Tamaki would not be getting the jab. As you can imagine, the Facebook comments underneath were a trash-fire of maniacal bullshit:
What is particularly frustrating is that many of Destiny’s members are in higher-risk health groups, and really could use some better health information than what self-appointed Apostle Brian is giving them.
But also — for all the press it gets, Destiny Church is small fry. More alarming is City Impact, whose Auckland’s HQ is run by this man, pastor Peter Mortlock:
Last week Mortlock held a sermon which he called a “Special Meeting”. His “special meeting” started with this:
“Let me just start off that there’s so much information out there that it’s very hard to find the truth, and that of course is what I am interested in — the truth.”
He’s a showman, a rube, a carny. His speech slows while he dramatically preaches: “Many people are saying ‘you’re pretty brave Peter to get up here and talk about this’ — and I don’t mean to be brave I just want —”
His voice starts to break and crack. He seems near tears, and he’s only about 20 seconds into his sermon.
“…what’s best for the church!” he splutters from the pulpit. I can’t stomach an entire 90 minutes of this man, so I randomly skip through the video:
At about 11 minutes he talks about Covid 19 death rates being inflated.
24 minutes in he’s talking about news coverage about vaccinations: “All those needles going into the arm, it’s like they’re trying to wear me down!”
At 52 minutes, 10 seconds: “Others would say, not obviously all, would call this vaccine experimental…”
“We do know it has not been fully approved by the FDA…”
(Note: it’s been approved).
On their website, Pastor Mortlock provides a PDF document of links for his congregation to check out. On his list of recommendations, Pastor Mortlock lists a veritable whose-who of conspiracy theorists, from Robert Malone (“The Vaccine Scientist Spreading Vaccine Misinformation”) to Naomi Wolf (“The Madness of Naomi Wolf”). There is no update on his website about the FDA approval.
Towards the end of his rant, at the one hour, 30 minutes mark — Mortlock says this: “Now I’m not going to tell you if I am getting vaccinated or not — that is my pri- pri— not that I am a very private person but I just don’t want to give […] I am not going to go there.”
You know what? I’d argue there’s a high chance that smug mug has been vaccinated. I wouldn’t put it past Brian Tamaki and Hannah Tamaki, too. I’d bet they’d keep themselves safe while preaching Covid and vaccine scepticism to their congregation — because Mortlock and Tamaki are cut from the same conspiratorial cloth.
As Newsroom reported last year:
Senior Pastor Peter Mortlock contended in August 2020 that the world’s elite are trying to ‘reset the world as a One-World Government’.
These covert elites, he claimed, ‘are anti-Donald Trump, because he is anti-globalisation. He’s anti the One-World Government’.
Apostle-Bishop Brian Tamaki of Destiny Church made much the same claim in a March 2020 lockdown sermon about ‘the New World Order’.
Tamaki claimed that ‘President Trump has been a spanner in the spokes. He has been, basically, used by God to slow that down.’
Of course all this becomes more frustrating when you think of the money — because let’s not mince words — this is what the grift is about. It always has been, and Covid’s just another opportunity to cash in.
As City Impact church waxes lyrical about overreaching government control, let’s just take a look at what handouts they’ve taken from the government’s wage subsidy scheme:
Besides spreading Covid 19 and vaccination misinformation, what else do these men have in common?
Well, they’re Evangelical Christians. Sure, you can argue over that classification, just like you can argue whether a metal song is death metal, black metal or progressive alien deathcore.
Pentecostal, Charismatic, Apostolic — it’s all under the banner of Evangelicalism. It’s all Greg Locke shit.
So — what’s the link between this breed of Christianity, and getting sucked into a conspiratorial vortex?
For the answer, I turned to former evangelical Christian, Joshua Drummond. I’ve actually published some of this piece on Webworm before, but it was in the early days and I think it got kinda buried. He’s added some stuff to it, and I’m excited to share it.
In light of City Impact church’s “Special Meeting”, Josh’s perspective answers a lot of questions about the link between evangelical Christianity and the anti-vax rhetoric we’re seeing. Buckle in, it gets weird.
Evangelicalism is not just a religion; it’s a parallel culture
an essay by Joshua Drummond
I was brought up in mainstream Evangelical culture. Since leaving the church in my early 20s, I’ve realised that my former day-to-day life in Christianity comes across to normies as a super-freaky cult — or, ironically, a wild conspiracy theory, too nuts to be true. When I tell people about my experiences, they often laugh. I try to tell it funny, or it’s just too weird. After a while listeners tend to look a bit serious. Then the head-shaking starts, usually around when I mention something like how many exorcisms I’ve personally witnessed.
Some of my best conversations are with other ex-Christians of the same sort. We will hole up and discuss details for hours. The good, and the bad. The community, the love, the sense of belonging. The incredibly stirring, powerful, manipulative music (accompanied by a congregation of extremely amateur singers).
The babbling in tongues, the prophecies shouted aloud, the agonised howls of a woman being exorcised, held down by half a dozen men. The financial coercion, every Sunday. The demented guest speakers. The abusers and the paedophiles, right there in the congregation, singing three quarters of a tone off the note, along with everyone else.
Here’s the scariest bit: This particular strain of Christianity (proper names include Pentecostal, Charismatic, or Apostolic, but it’s all under the banner of Evangelicalism) makes up a huge proportion of practicing Christians.
Here in New Zealand, when you think of churches that match my description, Destiny Church probably comes to mind. They get all the press, for what I think are racist reasons. Sure, Brian Tamaki is a massive self-promoter, and he and Hannah Tamaki court all the media they can. But they and their congregation are mostly brown, and what annoys me is that pretty much every other Apostolic/Pentecostal church in New Zealand is just like them. They just tend to have white pastors and less-brown congregations. They get a free pass. But they shouldn’t.
The Assemblies of God are like this. The City Impact megachurch in Auckland is like this. The annual Parachute music festival was like this. That Celebration Centre place in Christchurch with the pastor who went viral with an homophobic, racist tirade a while back? It’s also like this. The little church around the corner with the enthusiastic smiley congregation who make quite a bit of noise on Sundays? Probably also like this.
People don’t realise that Evangelicalism is not just a religion; it’s a parallel culture, a different way of thinking. Evangelicals have their own special media: they follow different news; they have their own books, music, even movies and videogames (all distributed online and through Christian bookshops.) They believe in a parallel pseudo-science: biblical creationism, sometimes given the euphemism “intelligent design.”
Evangelicals are taught to be suspicious of all that “the world” has to offer, while blindly accepting certain dogma, and certain people who deliver it. There are degrees of fanaticism and plenty of disagreement within Evangelicalism — you’ll never get two in the same room who agree on everything — but what the fundamentalists do tend to line up on is: “the world” is broken, ruled by Satan, and everything that comes out of it should be avoided or dismissed. Evolution? Satanic. Medicine? Suspect. Climate change? Inconceivable. After all, the Bible says that the world is only around 5000 years old and that the next judgement will be fire, not flood. The real world, with all its nuance and complexity, is rendered down to the black-and-white reality of a Chick tract. Good vs evil. Us, the elect, vs the world.
Selectively reading the bits of the Bible we were told to study sometimes reinforced this worldview, but the Christian media we consumed did far more. We read He Came To Set The Captives Free, by Dr Rebecca Brown, about a Satanist* who claimed to have sacrificed children and had sex with Satan on numerous occasions, as well as Hal Lindsay’s Satan Is Alive And Well On Planet Earth.
These books helped create and sustain the Satanic Panic, and spurred on a practice called spiritual warfare - where groups of Christians go to war against legions of literal demons by praying really really hard (best described by an incredible Christian novel called This Present Darkness, by Frank Peretti, and the Forbidden Doors series by Bill Myers, featuring American teenagers battling demons with Bible verses.) We read the Late Great Planet Earth, a lurid, thermonuclear account of the End of Days, when Satan will get to torture the world for seven years of tribulation, before Jesus comes back and liquefies all the remaining unbelievers.
I’m not making any of this up. We believed it, all of it. It was literally true and happening right now. We were fighters in a great cosmic war. God had selected us and would take care of us. I still remember the Christian school assembly when we were told that a certain prophecy had been fulfilled, that the One World Government was coming, and the End of Days was finally upon us, with all the half-scorpion demons that Armageddon entails. I was about eight at the time and terrified. I cried all night. I knew that Jesus was supposed to swing by and pick up believers via the Rapture before all the really bad stuff went down, but I didn’t want to go.
Of course, reality has a way of trying to break in. Fundamentalist faith is fragile. Unlike more flexible versions of Christianity, which can tolerate ideas like evolution or climate change, the gold-star version of Evangelicalism holds (without realising it) that if one bit of the Bible isn’t literally true, none of it is. Evolution can’t be true, because if it is, then the Creation story isn’t, and Jesus’ redemption means nothing. So you learn to keep the world out; build up walls in your mind, plastering over the cracks of doubt. There’s even a Bible verse for the process. I know it by heart. “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” Romans 12:2. That’s the King James version, which hides a bit of meaning under its beautiful, lyrical prose. The New Living Translation is more direct: “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.”
And that’s what we did. We washed and scrubbed our brains dutifully. I’d mutter that verse to myself at night, over and over, an incantation against the cruel intrusive thoughts that wormed into my mind no matter how hard I tried to believe. That kind of faith is a foundation of glass. One sharp blow and the whole edifice comes crashing down.
It happened to me. The cracks grew, then my faith — my worldview, my culture, my personality — shattered almost overnight into a billion irrecoverable shards. I couldn’t get any aspect of it back. It was gone. My entire life, I’d been talking to God, loving God, like he was a parent. Then, one day, he was worse than dead. He’d never really been there. I realised that who I’d been talking to was just... myself. There was no-one else. Just me, and the echoes in my head.
I would not wish this experience on my worst enemy. When I left the church I lost all but one of my close friends. I’d always been an anxious person and the gap in my life left by faith was eagerly filled by what, in hindsight, was fairly serious mental illness. I functioned, I found new friends, but my health suffered terribly for over a decade. It's only now that I’m really getting over it. It created a terrible rift between myself and many of my loved ones: although it’s since healed in a lot of ways, there are still topics we can’t really talk about, and they are in total denial about my beliefs, or lack thereof. I don’t blame them. When you seriously, genuinely believe that death for unbelievers means an eternity of torture, I think a bit of denial is probably helpful.
I often miss my belief. Although I’m technically an atheist, I dislike calling myself one. I find myself raging at people like Richard Dawkins who, without any experience of having faith themselves, seek to speak about people who do. He can’t conceive of the all-encompassing aspect of it, of the security and joy, of the thrill of certainty. He can’t understand how withering the experience of a loss of faith is. People like Dawkins ignore the evidence - that calling religious people idiots and mocking their gods just makes them double down, burrow away, being ye even less conformed unto this world, transforming themselves by the renewing of their minds, until their minds are at right-angles to reality.
Much of fundamentalist Christianity is more than just a religion: it’s a conspiracy theory gone wild, given form and substance. When you think the way I did, QAnon ideas like children being harvested for their precious bodily fluids aren’t even slightly far-fetched. In fact, they fit right into the framework. Vaccinations? Climate change? Evolution? Certain musical genres? All part of Satan’s plan. We are warriors, fighting the good fight. Onward, Christian soldiers! Marching as to war!
It’s worth emphasising that this kind of Christianity wields vast cultural and political power. In the United States, while Christianity on the whole appears to be in decline, approximately 41 percent of Americans still regard themselves as “born again or evangelical.” And while it bears repeating that self-described Evangelicals definitely don’t agree on everything, the movement’s most fringe, fundamentalist elements still have remarkable access to power. You could easily see Evangelicalism as a far-reaching, organised, enormously powerful conspiracy, with its tentacles deep in government and society, ensnaring many of the world’s elite, brainwashing the many, empowering a few. Ironic, eh? Many of the people I love the most are still utterly caught up in it. You’ll probably know a few who are too.
What can be done? I think it’s really important that non-believers reject the likes of Dawkins and stop thinking of people who think in terms of conspiracy theories, Christian or otherwise, as idiots. They’re not. Some are, but many are intelligent, thoughtful, kind people. Sure, there are really bad ones, the predators and grifters I’ve alluded to, but this minority preys on the decent majority. Wolves among sheep.
One thing that interests me about conspiracy theories, now I’ve got a bit more perspective, is how many of them are memes - in the original sense of the word, meaning an element of culture or behaviour that gets passed from person to person and evolves as it goes. In other words, there are only a few conspiracy theories, endlessly born again. Here’s one: a parasitic global elite, an evil They, secretly run the world while trafficking children for their adrenochrome. That’s Qanon, right? Well, yes, but it’s also a remix of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a centuries-old conspiracy theory and hoax that was created with the express intention of smearing Jews. The parallels are exact: the evil elite = Jews, the kidnapping of children to harvest precious bodily fluids = blood libel. Evangelical Christians have their own special memetic conspiracy theories which are bound up with Biblical prophecies, mainly in the books of Daniel and Revelation. Specifically, Revelation speaks of of a one-world government in which there’s a “Mark of the Beast,” which requires “all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark.” That might not be so bad except for, as Revelation makes clear a bit later on, if you get The Mark, you don’t get to go to heaven, and instead get chucked into Hell.
This is some trippy shit, right? But fundamentalist Christians have been freaking out over the One World Government and the Mark of the Beast for hundreds of years now, and the meme has taken on many forms in recent decades, often related to whatever technology is new and scary. In the 80s, the Mark was definitely going to be a barcode, and the One World Government was going to be the European Union. In the 90s the Mark was definitely going to be a microchip, and the OWG was definitely going to be George HW Bush’s New World Order. And now lots of Christians think that the Mark is in some way related to vaccines - most especially, the Covid vaccines. Because if you need a vaccine passport, that means you can’t buy or sell without getting jabbed, right? And you get jabbed in the arm, that’s pretty close to your hand! And masks - well, they go on your face, so that may as well be your forehead! And the Pope told us to get them, and there’s a good chance the Pope is the Antichrist - oh God, it all adds up!
This isn’t a joke, and this way of thinking is not an accident. This stuff - the One World Government, the Mark of the Beast - is often preached or hinted at from the pulpit. I heard similar sermons dozens of times. If it’s a bit too far out for your everyday local church preacher, don’t worry, there’s a visiting pastor who’s all too keen to pass it on. Or one of the more excitable dudes from one of your small groups. Or a Facebook preacher with a sizeable YouTube following. Don’t take my word for it, Google it. There’s an ugly infinity of these lies out there to find.
Why do some religious leaders indulge in this stuff? My theory is that frightening people with this scary, dark material - believe me, as silly as it may sound from the outside, it is fucking terrifying to live this stuff - increases loyalty. Whether it’s intentional or not, it’s the same technique that cult leaders use to keep their followers on board, and it’s ultimately a grift. If your followers are terrified of the world outside, of an always just-around-the-corner totalitarian One World Government that will forbid you from worshipping Jesus and will force you to get a Mark that sends you to Hell, they’re more tractable, they’re more likely to listen, and crucially, they’re more likely to keep giving you money. (Or buy the very reasonably-priced supplements/horse dewormer you’re hawking that means they’re not going to need the potentially-damning vaccines.)
In my strongly-held opinion, we should pity, and try to help, those who are led astray. The Evangelical fundamentalist worldview — that the World is itself suspect — leaves many Christians extremely vulnerable to people who position themselves as authorities and preach this sort of doctrine. All you need to do is pass yourself off as somewhat outside or against the mainstream and loosely aligned with Christian core beliefs and you’ll get snapped right up. Fundamentalist Evangelicals will pass everything “of the world” through a fine filter of religious skepticism, but as soon as it’s preached from a pulpit, with the veneer of faith, they’re lambs to the slaughter.
If you have formerly lovely Christian relatives or friends who have veered on to a strange, paranoid path, this is a very likely reason why. It’s why Aunty Laura doesn't believe the news but believes garbage made up by irony-poisoned incels for the lulz on 4chan, and subscribes to JohnnyWWG1WGA_420 on YouTube. It’s why Jen from school knows that UN Agenda 2030 is Satanic but Alex Jones is just trying to help people see the light. It’s why Uncle Jim, who used to be so nice, is now a raving Trump fan with a well-worn MAGA hat. And so on.
If any of this sounds like someone you know, I’ve got some good news: I grew up believing a whole bento box of conspiracy theories and as far as I can tell I’m pretty much over it. But not only have my beliefs changed to be a bit more aligned to reality,** I feel a lot better in just about every way possible. I found new, genuine friends, I married a wonderful person, and I was privileged enough to be able to seek mental health help. A few years of therapy did the job and the crushing anxiety I used to suffer on a daily basis is now mostly a distant memory. I feel like a new person. In a way, it’s like being... born again. Hmm.
It’s important to note that, even though I no longer believe in God, I know plenty of people who manage to be faithful Christians without getting caught up in the conspiracist, fundamentalist mindset. With this in mind, we need to remember that Christians who do get caught up in conspiracies have been led astray, often by grifters who have weaponised faith.
If we know people like this, we need to find ways to talk with them, to keep up contact, to make them realise that there are real problems and real issues in the world that could benefit from their singularity of purpose, their kindness and commitment. Help them realise that their faith doesn’t have to be fragile, and that they can accept the findings of science as a way of learning about the world that God created. Help them see that, at heart, the things they value, and the things their neighbour values, are almost entirely the same: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness - all good things! We need to help them understand that they don’t have to live in a fragile reality constructed from fear. I’ve even got a Bible verse for it.
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”
- 2 Timothy 1:7, NKJV
*The story about the former Satanist who said she had sex with Satan is true, in a sense, but it’s mainly just sad. The woman who made the claims turned out to have severe mental illness, as did the woman who treated her and wrote the book, Dr Rebecca Brown. That didn’t stop it becoming part of contemporary Christian folklore and helping fuel the Satanic Panic. The full bizarre story is here.
David here again. I’ve made this newsletter free, because I want City Impact church members to be able to read it. And anyone else. Please share it far and wide.
Just quickly, I’d like to reiterate something Joshua said:
I think it’s really important that non-believers stop thinking of people who think in terms of conspiracy theories, Christian or otherwise, as idiots. They’re not. Some are, but many are intelligent, thoughtful, kind people. Sure, there are really bad ones, the predators and grifters I’ve alluded to, but this minority preys on the decent majority. Wolves among sheep.
We should pity, and try to help, those who are led astray. The Evangelical fundamentalist worldview — that the World is itself suspect — leaves many Christians extremely vulnerable to people who position themselves as authorities and preach this sort of doctrine.
It’s the authority figures in these bogus movements we need to be wary of. Mr Peter “I’m-not-gonna-tell-you-if-I’m-vaxed” Mortlock, I’m looking at you.
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Also — here’s Part II of the City Impact story, when Peter Mortlock decided to email me:
PS — if you were in Peter Mortlock’s congregation for that talk, I’d love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org — or comment below.