In his 2007 book The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception, megachurch pastor John MacArthur describes a conversation in which one of his followers said that MacArthur was a lot “nicer” in personal conversations than in his sermons.

The highly influential evangelical leader rejected the assertion using a reference from 1 Corinthians, saying that his fan’s observation was really a “severely skewed understanding of what authentic love demands. Real love ‘does not rejoice in iniquity but rejoices in the truth.’”

MacArthur’s point is representative of a common claim in evangelical books and sermons: Real love cares about truth. This isn’t incorrect. One doesn’t need the Bible to know that a person who is good at loving others is also concerned about telling them the truth. But do evangelicals like MacArthur care about “truth” and “love,” really, especially in this post-Trump era?

Flux founder and editor Matthew Sheffield wrote a compelling piece earlier this year in which he makes an excellent point about the tendency of the most conservative Christians to cultivate their own echo chamber rather than to engage with the intellectual developments around them, leading them to be interested in truth only as “the product of social power” rather than something independent of whatever most other fundamentalists have decided is true regardless of the evidence: “Instead of discarding the relatively recent invention of Biblical literalism as it continues to collapse intellectually and socially,” he says, “Christian conservatives have instead created a culture that prefers preaching to the choir through their own media rather than casting pearls before pointy-headed intellectuals and satanic atheists.”

This is precisely what made the fundamentalism of evangelicals like John MacArthur so ripe for exploitation by the GOP and Trumpism in particular. Like many other evangelicals, MacArthur ended up supporting Trump in 2016 and in 2020, and he even went so far as to hire Trump‘s election heist lawyer Jenna Ellis when he was fighting California officials to hold in-person services despite the pandemic, the existence of which he has denied, despite eventually catching Covid himself. This makes his many books with the word truth in the title ironic, as well as his claim quoted above that real love cares about the truth.

If he could not be bothered to listen to scientists and medical experts about the pandemic, then how can he “love his neighbor as himself” if he cares so little for his surrounding community that he refuses to have his church follow government mandates to protect others from a potentially deadly disease?

Of course, MacArthur wasn’t the only conservative Christian pastor to have flouted Covid restrictions last year. Many others were doing so as well before he followed suit. Originally, according to their own recounting of things, MacArthur’s church initially did follow restrictions. But in keeping with the white evangelical idea that truth is a “product of social power,” he saw what other fundamentalists were doing, and ultimately matched their viewpoint.  

That’s not to say that conservative Christians like MacArthur are incapable of real truth-telling or genuine love. If his prior dogmatic commitments don’t get in the way—and depending on the person to whom he is speaking—MacArthur can take the time to treat people like human beings, as his conversation with the caller quoted at the beginning of this article shows.

That conservative Christians are capable of real truth-telling or genuine love (insofar as their dogma allows them), however, is beside the point. Here, we’re discussing how they understand truth and love rhetorically, which may not match up with how it works out in practice.

If truth is whatever the general conservative Christian consensus is (obviously, there are exceptions), then how they understand what it means to love others is inevitably affected. After all, as MacArthur himself says when he quotes 1 Corinthians 13:6, real love values the truth. He uses the NKJV’s rendering: “[Love] does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth.” The Greek word the NKJV translates as “iniquity” is ἀδικία (adikia), which could also be rendered as “injustice.”

This is significant because MacArthur, among other evangelicals, is known for his opinion that “social justice” is in opposition to the message of the gospel. But as biblical scholar and social activist Obery Hendricks points out at about the 16:27 mark on a recent episode of the podcast Straight White American Jesus in which host Bradley Onishi interviews him, the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) is saturated with references to two Hebrew words: מִשְׁפָּט (mishpat), which Hendricks translates as “justice,” and צְדָקָה (tzedaqah), commonly translated as “righteousness” but which Hendricks says is best understood as “doing right in society,” given the non-individualistic context of the Bible. That combined with what Jesus frames as the second-greatest commandment (“love your neighbor as yourself” from Leviticus 19:18), Hendricks argues, should result in wanting the social good for your neighbor—social justice!

Another point Hendricks makes in the podcast episode that is worth parking on for a moment is that conservative Christians are often more interested in what Jesus calls the greatest commandment (“love YHWH your God with all your heart, soul, and strength” from Deuteronomy 6:4). For more insight like this, see also Obery Mack Hendricks, Christians Against Christianity: How Right-Wing Evangelicals Are Destroying Our Nation and Our Faith (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2021), 35-54.

I myself once observed a conversation between an evangelical and ex-evangelical in which the evangelical insisted that because loving God was the greatest commandment, it was more important than loving one’s neighbor as oneself, which was why the child separations at the border during Trump’s implementation of his zero-tolerance policy were supposedly justified.

But according to 1 John 4:20, loving God without loving one’s sibling is impossible. In order to love God, one must love one’s neighbor. And if humans are, indeed, physical manifestations of the image of God (as Genesis 1:26 says), in order to love God, one must love one’s neighbor. And that requires the social well-being of one’s neighbor, which in turn requires understanding what one’s neighbor needs.

It stands to reason further that if one’s neighbor is of a marginalized or oppressed community, loving that person requires acknowledging some truths about them. But if you can’t do that, you can’t love them properly. Let’s say you’re a white person: You can’t love your Black neighbor, for instance, if you self-servingly say that “all lives matter” when they tell you that “Black lives matter.”

Which is why the fundamentalism of evangelicals like MacArthur prevents them from wholly committing themselves to real love and genuine truth. They’re stuck defining truth in their own echo chambers, chambers meant to benefit whiteness and Christian and cis-het supremacy, not anyone outside those bubbles.

And yet, despite the fact that fundamentalism encourages a disengagement with nuance and a stunting of the capacity to love those who don’t fit one’s theological construct of the world, fundamentalists are also human, and humans have the capacity for change and empathy. If I as a former fundamentalist evangelical can grow and change, then so can they, even if it’s not likely.