Article

Cancel culture comes to Birmingham

Social media's influence on church and community partnerships

June 12, 2020

A deeply disturbing situation is brewing in Alabama. This week both the Birmingham Board of Education and the Birmingham Housing Authority took steps to distance themselves from the nondenominational Church of the Highlands, which has more than 20 campuses and is the largest church in the state of Alabama. The church had been renting space to hold weekend worship gatherings at Woodlawn High School since 2012 and began hosting additional services at Parker High School in 2018, both of which are in Birmingham. But on Tuesday of this week, the school board in Birmingham voted to end its leases with the church. And similarly, the housing authority in Birmingham also decided to ban the church from its facilities this week ending a years-long partnership that allowed the church to provide free services to residents in many of Birmingham’s affordable housing properties.

But what could cause the school board and housing authority to take such drastic steps? One would assume it was some particularly egregious scandal or act of impropriety. But in reality, far less was required.

Social media’s influence

Like so many things today, this incident began with social media. In both instances, the decisions to separate from the church were made after the social media activity of Chris Hodges, senior pastor of Church of the Highlands, was subjected to public scrutiny. Recently, a public school teacher in Birmingham took to social media to criticize Hodges’ online activity. In a Facebook post, the teacher noted multiple tweets that Hodges “liked” on his personal Twitter account that she deemed racially or culturally insensitive. And using her own account on a different social media platform, the teacher sought to raise the alarm about Hodge’s actions.

Among the tweets liked by Hodges that the teacher found offensive were several posts by Charlie Kirk. President of the conservative, pro-Trump organization Turning Point USA, Kirk has over 1.7 million Twitter followers and is known for posting provocative material on social media, particularly related to politics. But the teacher not only took exception to specific tweets posted by Kirk that were liked by Hodges but also objected to the fact that Hodges would follow Kirk’s account in the first place. Ultimately, the teacher’s concerns fomented significant public outcry, which was exacerbated by the current moment of civil unrest related to racial justice in America.

And as public pressure mounted, the school board and housing authority determined to act. But in severing ties with the church, the school board cut off nearly $300,000 in annual revenue generated by the church’s lease with the schools. And to put that in perspective, since 2014 the church has paid the school board more than $800,000 in rent for the use of its facilities. Likewise, prior to this week’s decision from the housing authority, the church had also “provided free mentoring, community support groups and faith, health and social service activities at the Housing Authority of Birmingham Division’s nine public housing communities.” But staff and volunteers from Church of the Highlands will no longer be allowed to offer these services to the residents of these communities despite the fact that the church always bore the expense of providing them and did not receive remuneration.

A needed response 

Responding to these events, Hodges has issued a statement of apology and addressed the matter during a Saturday morning prayer service as well as during the church’s regular Sunday morning worship service. “I realize that I have hurt people that I love deeply because I ‘liked’ multiple insensitive social media posts” Hodges said. And referring to the posts in question Hodges insisted, “Each one was a mistake. I own it. I’m sorry. I’ve learned so much in the past few days about racial disparities in America. I wish I could sit down and have a conversation with everyone impacted or hurt by my actions.”

Clearly, this is an unfortunate situation, but there is some good news. After having his online activity scrutinized, Hodges took steps that one would expect from any Christian. He not only recognized where he had erred and took time to understand how his actions had hurt those around him, but he had the humility to offer a public apology that he believed was owed. More than that, in the days since the school board and housing authority announced they would no longer lease to his church or partner with them in future efforts to serve underprivileged communities in Birmingham, Hodges has led his church to double down on its commitment to support both the people and the public schools in their community.

A dangerous precedent

But beyond all of this, the situation remains incredibly troubling. One does not need to support the views of figures like Kirk (personally, I rarely do) or even the theological beliefs of Hodges to recognize that something is deeply wrong here. The fact that any person or entity would feel empowered to use a pastor’s social media feed as justification for barring a church or religious organization from renting a public facility is simply unconscionable. And more than that it is dangerous not only for churches but for the flourishing of local communities.

In this case, the issue was related to politics and race. But next time it could just as easily be about theology. And it would take only a matter of minutes for similar concerns to be raised about a pastor’s endorsement of a Christian view of human sexuality. And this is the entire point. Neither elected officials nor bureaucrats should be in the business of policing a person’s thoughts. Nor for that matter should they be concerned with one’s social media activity or political views—excluding truly exceptional circumstances such as those that might lead to the actual physical harm of other individuals. 

Churches provide critical services to their communities. And while these services are variegated and difficult to quantify, they undeniably benefit the communities in which local churches exist and minister. An obvious example related to this case: During the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, the healthcare clinic operated by Church of the Highlands, provided free COVID-19 testing for residents in Birmingham’s public housing. And before the onset of the pandemic, this medical clinic established by the church provides vital health services to members of the community who are most in need. But such services are only possible because of the selfless and sacrificial efforts of the church’s dedicated members. 

Cancelling people because of their political views or cutting ties with an organization on account of their social media activity sets a very dangerous precedent. And we should all be asking ourselves where this will end. Clearly, cooperating together for the sake of the common good is better for all involved. 

Limited partnerships between churches and public institutions (like local schools) allow taxpayer dollars to go much further. Moreover, allowing elected officials or unelected bureaucrats to determine the acceptable boundaries of belief is a path we cannot afford to walk. This week the board of education in Birmingham voted to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual revenue for the sake of political correctness. This was a mistake that will prove costly, in the same way that driving volunteers full of love and compassion away from the places where their service and sacrifice could do the most good will harm the very communities that can least afford it. 

Illiberalism and intolerance hurts everyone. And there is no need for debate. Birmingham’s school board and housing authority should take whatever steps necessary to reverse these misguided actions.

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester serves as the Chair of Research in Christian Ethics at the ERLC. He is also pursuing a Th.M. in Public Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Josh is married to McCaffity, and they have two children. Read More by this Author