Promiscuity with an "evangelical" face

david berg.jpgAll right, time for another friendly straw poll: If an article mentions David “Moses” Berg or his movement known as the Children of God (later The Family), what words would you expect to see?

Sex? Yes, of course, what with Berg’s enthusiasms for promiscuity and “flirty fishing” among his followers.

“[Onetime] Jesus freaks”? Fair enough, considering that Berg originally attracted many hippie converts who answered to that nickname.

Cult, sect, alternative religion? Check, check, check.

Evangelical? Whoa, mama.

Now, the disclaimers:

• Don Lattin of the San Francisco Chronicle is a highly respected veteran on the religion beat, and he’s written many fine stories about characters in the Bay Area and beyond.

• Randall Balmer mentions Berg in his Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism, perhaps owing to Berg’s starting his ministry in a coffeehouse formerly run by Teen Challenge.

Nevertheless, calling Berg’s movement a “desert evangelical sex cult,” as the Chronicle does in its headline and as Lattin does without elaborating on “evangelical,” takes theological shorthand toward incoherence.

The details in Berg’s story, as provided by Lattin, suggest that Berg shed whatever remained of an evangelical background about as easily as some Children of God shed their clothes:

Berg died in 1994, but his movement lives on today as “The Family.”

Other survivors of the Children of God include hundreds — perhaps thousands — of “Jesus babies” born in the 1970s and ’80s. Their mothers were young missionaries who followed Berg’s call to share sexual favors in order to bring young men to Christ.

They called it “flirty fishing.”

Steve Kent, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta, said the highly sexual climate at Children of God communes “did real damage to that second generation.”

Under such usage, Berg’s followers can join a select group of people who retain the evangelical label despite their anti-evangelical theology and practice. I think of Chris Brain, leader of the Nine O’Clock Service/Rave Mass movement that came to San Francisco in 1994. When it became clear that Brain was persuading many women into his bed by promising “sexual healing,” the archdeacon of his diocese in the Church of England blamed this sexual abuse on Brain’s charismatic and evangelical background rather than on the neopagan message Brain was preaching. (Roland Howard tells the story in heartbreaking detail in his Rise and Fall of the Nine O’Clock Service: A Cult Within the Church?)

Any preacher without accountability can be lured into heresy or megalomania, but mention Jesus at any point in your career and you too might forever lay claim to the adjective of evangelical. One contributor to Daily Kos, for instance, refers to mass murderer Jim Jones as a “notable evangelical Christian leader.”

Evangelicals do not answer to the same rich history and tradition as Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox believers. But their primary voice, the National Association of Evangelicals, does require member churches to affirm its statement of faith, and the same statement is a common feature in evangelicalism’s parachurch ministries. Evangelicals affirm specific beliefs — the very same beliefs that, without fail, are rejected by charlatans who proclaim themselves either the Messiah or a special messenger to whom the usual moral and theological standards do not apply.

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  • JoJo

    We could critique this terminology business to great lengths, and we probably should. Wasn’t it Mark Twain who commented that the difference between the right word and the almost right word was the difference between lightning and the lightning bug?

    Instead of “evangelical”, the reporter probably should have used “evangelistic”. “Evangelistic” is distinguished by its emphasis on zealous recruiting, whereas “evangelical” seems to be defined by its theology. Similar word, same root, but somewhat different meaning. Even so I checked an online dictionary and found more overlap between the two than I expected.

    On a related note, I was interested to see that the Statement of Faith for the NAE includes the five core beliefs of Christian fundamentalism that we noted in yesterday’s topic.

  • David Neal

    Question: Are those “five core beliefs” different from those of Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians?

  • Charlie

    JoJo has said what I intended to say. I’ll also note that both evangelistic and evangelical are being used somewhat interchangeably as buzzwords in business, which further dilutes and confuses their more traditional uses.

    Berg’s legacy of hedonism is on the front page of my morning paper (Arizona Daily Star). A young man raised in “The Family” murdered his nanny in Tucson before attempting to kill himself in California. He says he was despondent about being raised in the free-sex cult and that his mother, who is still with the cult, refused to leave. His mother became David Berg’s wife in the 70′s, and is apparently the current head of The Family.

    I don’t know Lattin’s work, but perhaps linking Evangelicals with this group of wackos is his way of tweaking Christians?

  • Camassia

    Question: Are those “five core beliefs” different from those of Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians?

    Eastern Orthodox don’t go for the substitutionary theory of the atonement, and to my understanding Catholics accept it as a possibility but don’t make it a point of dogma. Also both churches believe in biblical inerrancy but not literalism.

  • Lex

    Although the primary definitions of “evangelical” derive from the Greek “euangel” and refer to good news (i.e., the good news of the Gospel), a perfectly acceptable secondary definition is any group that proselytizes, whether religious or otherwise. So to that extent, I find no fault with the headline cited in this post.

    Calling Jim Jones “evangelical,” however ….

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Camassia writes:

    {Eastern Orthodox don’t go for the substitutionary theory of the atonement, and to my understanding Catholics accept it as a possibility but don’t make it a point of dogma. Also both churches believe in biblical inerrancy but not literalism.}

    It’s worth noting that the NAE’s statement of faith does not include any assertion of literalism. On doctrinal points, its assertions all have a basis in the Nicene Creed.

  • GregK

    What the guy did was terrible, but look at the smile on this face!

  • SouthCoast

    “Steve Kent, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta, said the highly sexual climate at Children of God communes “did real damage to that second generation.””

    So, under our current societal norms, they grew up just OK…

  • Harris

    Let’s be honest, the word “evangelical” is a slippery one.

    First, it may be used to describe protestants generally, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. That is, a kind of party label.

    Second, the term may be used of conservative protestatism generally, often in popular usage synonymously with “fundamentalism.”

    Third, “evangelical” also stands in for any variety of conservative or sectarian protestantism, independent of the actual correspondence between religious community and the formal (NAE) definition.

    Fourth, in popular secular usage, the term is sometimes confused with “evangelism” and vice versa.

    Then there is the cultural meaning. We can speak of an evangelical culture, meaning a culture shaped by evangelical belief and practices, now abbbrevieated by “red state.” Here, one can be evangelical in culture without necessarily being evangelical in belief.

    Also, one may be evangelical in belief but not be evangelical in culture (call this the Sojourner’s option).

    Given all the above, is it any wonder that some one on the outside might use the term inappropriately?

    Finally, by way of definition, I think Doug has it wrong in the last graf. While the NAE standards give a reasonable definition, in popular speech those standards seem to be too narrow. The primary referent is cultural. I would suggest that “Evangelical” be better understood to encompass culture shaped by conservative non-separatist protestantism.

  • Camassia

    Yes, I was referring to the five fundamentals of fundamentalism, rather that the NAE creed which is pretty standard Christian. Perhaps I misunderstood David’s question.

  • E C Jacobson

    If, in conversation, a non-Christian (of the unbelieving Materialist kind) refers to me as a Fundamentalist, I will generally bite my lip, and accept the designation. But my partner in conversation is almost certainly not using that term in relation to the ‘Five Fundamentals’ heretofore described. Most non-Christians couldn’t name the five, let alone give a credible definition of any of them. Instead, he is using the term to refer to my affirmation of specific revelation regarding objective truth and metaphysical reality. To the contrary, his Creed begins with the assertion that there is no God to speak. Every other objection he makes is therefore derivative and ultimately extraneous. In his mind then, any Religion which makes exclusive Truth claims is ‘Fundamentalist.’ So I will accept the label according to his usage.

    But it still annoys me because it is imprecise. If you wish to call me a Fundamentalist in the context of the early 20th century, then I will glady bare the designation. But I am no part a Fundamentalist in accordance with current Christian taxonomy. To my ear, modern Fundamentalism implies disregard for History, disregard of Theology, and distrust of scholarship. It is prone to isolation, wooden exegesis, and over-reliance on personal experience; thus making it vulnerable to all sorts of doctrinal errors – for example, King James Onlyism. It is, in a word, anti-intellectual, and proudly so.

    I fear this association between anti-intellectualism and fundamentalism is not inadvertant, but is consciously drawn by Materialists in order to negatively characterize their Theistic opponents. But it does not represent the sum total of Christian thought, nor does it adequately represent the origins of Fundamentalism. The rise of the Materialist Creed – complete with its own set of dogmas, doctrines, and non-negotiable first principles – gave birth to the Fundamentalist movement. The resulting clash between world views continues to this day. If you would accurately use the term Fundamentalist, this is the clash you must fairly describe – not as a clash of Faith vs Reason, but as a clash of Faith vs Faith.


    BTW, do not misunderstand my words. I hold to the following. This is not a closet argument for the Jesus Seminar.

    1) The inspiration and verbal inerrancy of Scripture

    2) The Deity of Christ and the Virgin Birth

    3) The substitutionary atonement

    4) Justification by faith alone

    5) The physical resurrection

    6) The bodily return of Christ at the end of the age.

    7) The physical reality of the miracles of Christ

  • Dwight

    I would call myself an evangelical. I have a brother who has been in the Family/COG for over thirty years. We’ve argued, debated over Family beliefs and practices for years, and I have come to the painful confusion that they are now about as “evangelical” as the Mormons. Dig a little deeper than their “hedonism” and you’ll find ideas about sex with children, and communication with spirits and the dead. Enough.