By Anna Winham
Diving down the rabbit hole of evangelical YouTube.
In the run-up to the 2016 US election, I was one of the more secure among my friend group, immigration-wise. I already had a green card, and I’d immigrated from the UK, a majority-white country that hadn’t been demonised by Donald Trump. Meanwhile, a friend of mine from Honduras felt herself in a more precarious situation: she and her boyfriend, destined to marry at some point in any case, hastened the date. She was the first person to ask me what my ‘just in case’ plan was.
Imagine my surprise when I stumbled across her Instagram in 2020 to see someone I almost couldn’t recognise: a woman emblazoned with Trump slogans from top to toe.
Even though we’d fallen out of touch, I felt I had to reach out. Our conversation was short and a little terse. She was voting for Trump on the grounds of a single issue: abortion. I was dumbfounded. How on Earth did she go from fearing the man’s deleterious effect on her life to proclaiming him the pro-life president? I clicked on the link in her Instagram bio which led me to a YouTube video titled ‘So Will I (100 Billion X) - Hillsong Worship’ with over 102 million views. Giving in to my curiosity, I fell down the rabbit hole into the world of evangelical YouTube.
In case you haven't had the chance to explore its depths, evangelical YouTube is a surprisingly-populated corner of the internet. Accounts featuring young, attractive Christians give out advice on everything from how to date as a Christian to ‘Would Jesus Wear a Mask?’ (he wouldn’t, so neither should you). These channels take deeply regressive political stances on everything from the American election (voter fraud) to vaccines (made with dead baby parts) to the LGBTQ+ community (conversion therapy will save you). And yet their appearance is slick and appealing. The young believers look like the kids who were mean to you in high school, the kind of people whom you’d love to invite you to join their lunch table.
The channel behind ‘Would Jesus Wear a Mask?’ is my personal favourite. Recently married Kentuckians Paul and Morgan have about 144,000 subscribers. Morgan has a tattoo; Paul wears funky sweaters. At first glance, I really feel like I could be friends with these people. With her infectious laugh and hyper-expressive face, Morgan is fun to watch as she tells stories, and it's easy to imagine running into her at a Brooklyn house party. Meanwhile, chiseled and well-dressed Paul looks like someone you might spot in Hell’s Kitchen, belting Britney from a bar top. And just in case you’re wondering about their sex life, you can watch their ‘Unfiltered Marriage Q&A’, featuring questions like ‘Is it hard for Morgan to submit?’ and ‘Is our sex life great?’. Another channel of this genre is Nate and Sutton. With 180,000 subscribers, they produce mostly dating, marriage, and family videos with clickbaity titles like ‘WE ARE PREGNANT!!’. Viewers are enticed into watching ‘How Porn Almost Ended Our Relationship’ by the promise of dramatic details, only to be shamed for committing the sin of lustful thoughts. As both couples’ videos stretch on, often for over 30 minutes, and they reveal their opinions on women (they should follow rather than lead), gay pride (nothing to be proud of), and vaccine mandates (‘Kentucky does not have any of that stuff, praise the Lord’), I can’t help but feel deceived.
Substantially more popular is The LaBrant Fam channel, which boasts over 13 million subscribers. Their most watched video ‘OUR WEDDING VIDEO!!! *Vows to 4 year old daughter*’ has over 48 million views. As the name of their channel would suggest, The LaBrant Fam features not only the attractive blonde couple but also their beautiful children, who each have their own YouTube channels. The channel plays like a cross between Dance Moms and Keeping Up with The Kardashians — if the Kardashians were wholesome evangelicals. Their Christianity appears almost a happy afterthought to their suburban bliss.
For my recently married, pro-life, immigrant and Trump-supporting friend, however, Christianity was front and centre. When we were still in touch, she’d invite me to her church, Hillsong, several times. At first glance, Hillsong seems more like a party than a service, taking place near Times Square at night. Shayla Mars, who used to attend the church, described Hillsong services as fun and welcoming — just like these evangelical YouTube videos. She said there was always a line out the door, and that as she entered the building, everyone would greet her in a genuine way. She missed the gospel choir from the Baptist church she’d grown up with, but the friendly atmosphere of Hillsong was enough to entice her to stay.
I decided to go and see what Hillsong’s church services were like for myself. As COVID-19 meant the cancellation of almost all in-person services, I had to settle for watching services on — you guessed it — YouTube. Their East Coast branch’s website touts a beautiful promotional video with high production value. A male narrator, using that classic film trailer voice, repeats the question: ‘What if I told you this was church?’ while what looks like a dance party plays in the background.
On the last Sunday of October, Tolu Badders and Deb Choi, a young Black woman and Asian woman respectively, opened the service with thanks for the warm weather. They joked about electric biking in Central Park and Halloween parties whilst funky muzak played in the background. It felt, honestly, fun and welcoming. The two led a short, simple prayer in common English before letting a rock band take the lead. The singer, an attractive blonde called Destiny, looked suspiciously like the YouTube influencers, while the rest of the band members were of varying ethnicities. This echoed what Mars had told me: the church was fairly racially diverse. After 15 minutes of Christian rock, the hosts made a number of praise announcements, celebrating the return of someone’s grandmother from cataract surgery and the safe birth of a baby. They announced that holiday funds would be available for members of the congregation in need; just text the number on the screen. Thinking about what Mars had said regarding the authentic welcome, I began imagining the warmth of becoming a member of this community. And it really felt like a community: the hosts knew the baby’s parents; knew whose grandma she was. It reminded me of the feeling I got watching YouTube — the feeling I could be friends with the evangelical influencers.
Watching this service and speaking with Mars drove home an important point: the combination of the young congregation, the fun atmosphere, and the warm welcome of this church was enough to overcome some serious doubts. Mars, for example, noted an occasion where a pastor wore a sombrero and poncho close to Cinco de Mayo and she let it slide — she felt like she could forgive one mistake when the rest of the church was so convivial.
Outside these giant, popular megachurches, there’s a cottage industry of lay preachers on evangelical YouTube. Unaccountable to congregations and not reliant on funds from donors, these channels can make unfounded claims with little personal consequence. YouTube is the second most-trafficked site on the internet and 94 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 use YouTube, which is more than for any other online service. It had been my impression that Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok were the giants of social media, but if the audience is on YouTube, why wouldn’t the influencers be?
The danger with YouTube, like other social media platforms, is its tendency to drive users to extreme or polarising content. Kevin Roose’s extensive research on YouTube radicalisation among the alt-right and Q-Anon conspiracy theorists on his podcast Rabbit Hole shows that the algorithm pushes viewers towards ever more extreme content. Such a model brings in more advertising money for YouTube, former YouTube employee Guillaume Chaslot confirmed on Twitter. Controversial right-wing channels put down roots in YouTube while booted from other platforms, and since YouTube’s recommendation algorithm suggests videos with similar but more extreme content, right-wing channels benefit from the proliferation of other right-wing channels on the site.
As Roose reports in The New York Times, his research shows that YouTube ‘has also been a useful recruiting tool for far-right extremist groups’. Bellingcat, an investigative news site, analysed messages from far-right chat rooms and found that YouTube was cited as the most frequent cause of members’ ‘red-pilling’ — an internet slang term for converting to far-right beliefs. A European research group, VOX-Pol, conducted a separate analysis of nearly 30,000 Twitter accounts affiliated with the alt-right. It found that the accounts linked to YouTube more often than to any other site.
But does it matter? After all, Paul and Morgan having 144,000 subscribers on YouTube counts for hardly anything these days, right? And are those subscribers even genuine fans, or are they simply subscribing for a good laugh? The gateway to subscription is the sense that there’s a community one would want to be part of. As I watched these videos on YouTube, it was easy to see how the friendly, cool appearance of the hosts could normalise the shocking and regressive content they were promoting. A viewer might start off with The LaBrant Fam’s videos about their daughter’s dance competition, but soon be propelled through the YouTube algorithm to anti-vaccine, pro-Capitol-insurrection, evangelical videos. YouTube’s environment is the perfect place for right-wing content replete with misinformation to spread like wildfire.
Evangelicals, and particularly white evangelicals, are the most conservative voting bloc in US politics. They’re also notoriously suspicious of science, campaigning for many years to block the teaching of evolution in public schools, and were home to the budding anti-vaccine movement even before the pandemic. Celebrity and charisma are also built-in components of evangelical culture, and TV preachers were common broadcasters of the faith before the rise of the internet. Megachurch culture encourages unquestioning faith in, and following of, the pastor.
To be clear, these attitudes towards the virus, vaccines, abortion, women, and LGBTQ+ people are not shared by all Christians or even all evangelicals. ‘From my perspective, which is one in which scripture is read in the context of a community, it doesn’t seem contradictory or inconsistent to wear a mask, to be socially distanced, and to pray for a miracle,’ says John Shinkwin, a Theological Studies Masters student at Notre Dame and a Catholic. He believes that Christians should ‘be open to the possibility that one way God answers your prayers is through your action in the world.’ Such action might include wearing masks or receiving a vaccine. Similarly, some Christian YouTubers hold science-driven views and are concerned about the effects of other channels' dangerously misinformed statements. Brenda Marie Davies, who runs channel God is Grey, was raised in Catholic and evangelical traditions, but now describes herself as a science and LGBTQ+-affirming, pro-sex Christian. ‘The narrative of God protecting religious people from COVID is not only based in privilege,’ she claims, ‘but also in arrogance and the traditionally patriarchal, unchecked power of the Evangelical church’. Noting that most church leaders have healthcare cover, which members of their congregations may not, Davies mourns that ‘the marginalized — as usual — will suffer for the sins of the privileged religious right’. Like Shinkwin, Davies does not see a conflict between the word of God and the role of science. ‘When it comes to science, I believe God illuminates truth.’
In some cases, these channels truly are innocuous. But in others, evangelical channels are disseminating dangerous misinformation on everything from the spread of coronavirus and the legitimacy of the election results, to the mechanics of abortion and the science of birth control. Their videos reach millions. While millions may not seem a lot by today’s YouTube standards, for the teenage girl too afraid to buy Plan B because of what she’s heard on YouTube or for any of the hundreds who’ve died from COVID after super-spreader evangelical events, the misinformation that these channels spread, even if only to a small segment of the population, is literally a matter of life and death.
Multiple channels, including that of musical artist and preacher Marcus Rogers — who has over 500,000 subscribers and whose videos rack up millions of views — claimed that megachurches should continue in-person services during the pandemic if the government did not mandate their cessation. Some channels, such as Paul and Morgan, have gone so far as to applaud when churches resist government orders to pause in-person services. The recent supreme court decision to lift COVID limitations on religious services means that whether or not to host in-person services was left in the hands of the churches. Marcus Rogers, Paul and Morgan, and others have also disseminated the dangerous misinformation that only those who are symptomatic can spread coronavirus and that Christians need not take precautions against contracting the disease since they are ‘covered’ by God. Since asymptomatic people can in fact spread coronavirus, since practicing Christianity does not in fact prevent the contraction and contagion of this disease, and since indoor events that include large crowds and singing have been shown to create super-spreader circumstances, this messaging is not only scientifically incorrect but also mortally dangerous. Its propagation has potential to lead to an increased number of deaths.
In reality, it already has. A Sacramento megachurch has been linked to over 70 coronavirus cases. Bethel Church has been found to be the primary epidemiological source of hundreds of infections. Carsyn Davis, only 17 years old, died from pneumonia brought on by COVID-19 after attending the maskless reopening party of the evangelical First Youth Church. Even pastors who preach against social distancing restrictions are clearly not ‘covered’ when they break those guidelines. Evangelical pastor Landon Spradlin, who had posted on his social media about ‘hysteria’ regarding the virus, died from COVID-19 after preaching during Mardi Gras. It is clear that the misinformation being spread by some of these channels is not only dangerous but deadly, and no one is exempt.
Possibly-preventable COVID deaths are a timely example of the effects of evangelical YouTube on American society. Evangelicals make up 25% of the US population, according to Pew Research, so it is no wonder they have taken YouTube by storm. Evangelicals have always, by definition, been lithe communicators, firstly in real life, then, with the advent of cable TV, on dedicated channels; and now on social media. Through its organisation, this demographic has exerted an outsize influence on the US polity for decades. Segregationist George Wallace courted them for his presidential runs in the 1960s and 70s; they were a key force behind both the 'Southern Strategy' of Richard Nixon in the same era, and Ronald Reagan's redefinition of the Republican political base in the 1980s. And they voted, overwhelmingly, for Donald Trump: according to one poll, 75% of evangelicals approved of the Trump presidency, and research shows they form 35% of the Republican base. Given the comfortable historic relationship between some evangelicals and segregationists — not to mention white supremacists — evangelical YouTube may seem laughable, but the joke is really not funny.
Anna Winham is a writer and editor who ping pongs between Brooklyn and Seattle. When she isn’t joining cults she’s doing her best to impersonate an octopus.
Art by Jemima Storey.