How much does a politician’s church of choice tell us about their style of governance or the way they view the constituents they serve?
Citizens of Kingston, Ontario are raising some concerns around that question after finding some racist and homophobic beliefs spouted in the sermons of Pastor Francis Armstrong (below), founder and leader of Third Day Worship Centre — a non-denominational, evangelical Christian church attended by Kingston’s very own Mayor Bryan Paterson.
The sermons came to light through a video — “Francis Armstrong Preaching” — which featured clips from sermons posted earlier this year on the Third Day website. The most recent clip went live in late June and featured misinformation about COVID-19, including the conspiracy theory that eventual COVID vaccines will be used to impose the Mark of the Beast as well as the more general complaint that quarantine is taking away our freedoms:
Our choices are being taken away from us every single day. I can’t go to Manitoba, do you realize that?… Well, I can go to Manitoba, but I’d have to quarantine for 14 days. So if we think we’re free, like we were six months ago, we’re not. Certain countries still you can’t fly to, and they can’t fly here. So it’s choice — that’s what’s gone: your choice, your ability to choose yes or no is gone, to a large degree.
Well, yes, because we live in a society where we acknowledge that personal freedoms are not the most important social good, and we’re willing to make some sacrifices to try to help other people not die.
If that’s not grim enough, some parishioners say there’s a flyer circulating through the congregation, entitled “In Israel, No Death From COVID-19,” which recommends drinking a concoction of lemon juice and baking soda to rid the body of the virus.
But Armstrong’s racism runs deeper still. The Islamic Society of Kingston, located just down the street from Third Day, has appeared in one of his rants, in which he claimed that their mosque was built with government funds denied to Christian organizations in spite of “known terrorist activity.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the allegations were upsetting for members of the Islamic Society. Education coordinator Mona Rahman responded with a level of grace Armstrong frankly doesn’t deserve:
I think it is common knowledge that the Muslim community in Kingston has always worked for the betterment of community, both Muslim and non-Muslim, and stood against any type of terrorist activities… It is sad that one of our neighbors seems not to know us as a community and as a neighbor. Perhaps when we are out of the COVID pandemic it would be good to sit and get to know each other over tea/coffee.
His prejudice against the LGBTQ community — or, as he mockingly calls it, “the LGBTQABCDEFG” — appears in even more of his preaching. In the “Francis Armstrong Preaching” video, he denounced homosexuality as “an abomination unto God” (whether or not an individual is “practicing”). Another video contained even more anti-queer rhetoric, with a particular focus on gender identity. He decries “effeminate men” and urges women to be “soft, cuddly, gentle, marry-able.” He even leverages a threat of a gender-free future in order to convince parishioners to tithe:
A boy is still a boy. A girl is still a girl. [Cheering.] But did we ever think we’re going to get to a time when the next baby or babies born in this church won’t even have a gender? And you as a parent won’t be able to talk to them about their gender.
At times it’s almost humorous to see Armstrong try to position same-sex marriage as a step down the road to human-animal unions (as if the LGBTQ community has never heard that one before) or collapse into paroxysms of horror at the idea that men might wear clothing with colors. But the reality is that his dehumanizing rhetoric has consequences, even casualties. The ideas he supports and validates are harmful to real people, and they encourage others in his flock to act harmfully towards real people, some of whom are significantly marginalized.
Which brings us to the problem of Mayor Paterson.
Paterson is a man who says that he prefers not to make his faith a political issue, which is in some ways fair enough. People of faith who are able to relate respectfully to others aren’t an issue. That’s what Paterson claims in a statement he sent the Kingston Whig-Standard on Friday:
The church doesn’t speak for me and I don’t speak for the church, nor do I condone hate in any form… Faith is an important part of my life — something that centres me and is a place of prayer and to serve others. My core values of inclusivity, support, respect for all residents will continue to guide how I work to lead our city.
But it’s easy to see how some Kingston residents could find room for doubt. Third Day Worship Centre is far from the only church in Kingston where Paterson could pray and center himself. Yet his congregation of choice is a place where parishioners distribute anti-Semitic tracts and cheer on their pastor’s rants about the “atrocities” of LGBTQ equality, where sermons are sometimes laced with casual accusations of Islamic terrorism and vaccines containing the Mark of the Beast.
And his involvement with this church is long-term and far from casual; in 2014 he came under fire for remarks he made while acting as a youth pastor. He spoke critically of morals and values imparted by “a proliferation of online pornography” and preached about the danger of “terrorist nations,” calling on the youth to “raise up an army for God.”
That sermon was first recorded and posted on YouTube in 2011, but was removed, just like the current crop of clips from Armstrong’s sermons.
Is it likely that his views have shifted and changed since then? Absolutely. Is it possible that he really doesn’t accept Armstrong’s more radical views about Muslims, COVID, and the LGBTQ community? Sure. (Even then-candidate Barack Obama was forced to distance himself from Rev. Jeremiah Wright during his 2008 campaign, after Wright’s rhetoric became a political issue.)
But people whose lives are politicized at every turn have the right to wonder: If he’s so big on inclusivity, support, and respect for all, why does he show up to listen to this guy talk?
(Screenshot via YouTube. Thanks to Amanda for the link)