Leopards Don’t Change Their Spots: Kim Davis Edition.

People have been talking about hypocrisy again lately with regard to Kim Davis.

I don’t personally think it matters if Kim Davis is a hypocrite or not regarding her own string of marriages and affairs. I agree that yes, she is totally a hypocrite. But I also agree with Sarah Morehead and JT Eberhard here: even if she’d stayed married to her first husband and never even once cheated on him, she still wouldn’t be in the right to deny other Americans their rights.

That said, it’s important to note something about this whole fight she’s started.

One of our feline overlords plans the next move. (Credit Mike Lewinski, CC license.)
One of our feline overlords plans the next move. (Credit Mike Lewinski, CC license.) Join me in welcoming them.

Ms. Davis is using as her defense against charges of hypocrisy one of the biggest lies the Christian Right propagates and indulges in, a lie behind one big reason why she’s been adopted as one of their favorite mascots to date (they sure never said Phil Robertson was just like their god “showed up in the form of an elected Democrat named Kim Davis”).

Kim Davis is from a family of super-duper-fervent Christians in a super-duper-religious town, but she claims that her new birth only happened a few years ago for the very first time. As a result of her new birth, she is totally changed and a whole different person, and all her transgressions are forgotten. Indeed, it bothers her that people think she’s a total hypocrite. She’s indignant about it–and hates that while “God” has forgotten her past, people keep bringing it up.

And I wonder who is fooled by this blatantly self-serving assertion of hers.

Fundagelical Christians like her like to say that the second they are converted, anything that happened previously is off-limits. They are “born again,” in a very real sense: new creations, totally different people. Today I want to talk about how wrong this idea is, and why it only serves to further fundagelical interests and promote abuse. I’ll start by discussing Fireproof, that awful Christian movie I reviewed recently.

The movie centers around a book called The Love Dare, which didn’t actually exist until the movie was made. It was written in conjunction with the movie by the movie’s creators (who have no qualifications whatsoever in this subject). Various characters perform the book’s suggested “dares” for 40 days to transform themselves and hopefully save their marriages. In this 122-minute-long infomercial movie, the program described in the book is treated as totally effective (in reality, it is far less so, as numerous folks in reviews have shared–and in the movie’s official “Stories” section, one notes that almost all of the featured testimonies are from people who are only just beginning the “dares,” with hardly any from anyone who’s successfully finished the book’s program). The dares themselves generally are either meaningless, one-sided tokens or else center around proselytization to the authors’ brand of conservative Christianity; by its midway point, the book is already shamelessly proselytizing and declaring that nobody can possibly save a marriage without converting to this particular brand of the religion.

Kirk Cameron‘s character starts the program at his father’s suggestion. In the course of the movie he goes from an angry little man-child to a devoted, favor-performing, romantic, patient, generous grown-up after he converts to the book’s flavor of Christianity at the correct point. The movie and book both make abundantly clear that only “Jesus” can make a marriage last a lifetime or change anyone for the better, which I’ve no doubt fundagelicals believe even while their divorce rate continues, despite their constant attempts to change or at least spin-doctor this fact, to mirror or even exceed that of non-fundagelicals. And both the book and movie make even more clear that conversion can, itself, lead someone to massive personality changes that last.

Motivated Reasoning.

Motivated reasoning is what people engage in when they allow their biases and desires to impact their thinking too much. The classic example is an experiment performed in which football fans watched a controversial play on video and then evaluated the referee’s call on that play; one could tell in advance exactly how the subjects would judge the call by what team they supported. Their team affiliation actually impacted what they thought had happened in the play. When someone’s really motivated to come to a particular conclusion, then that’s the conclusion that’ll emerge. It’s just one of the many ways that our minds organize information–but it can backfire when we mis-remember things or interpret events incorrectly because of our biases. (And here we see yet another reason why the scientific method is so powerful despite being reviled by fundagelicals for its “Western materialism.” One cannot help but wonder if Christians would welcome that “Western materialism” more if it actually supported a single one of their supernatural claims.)

I bring this up because I see a lot of elements of motivated reasoning in extremist religion, especially with regard to the power that a conversion can work in a person’s life.

Christianity greatly depends upon the idea of the “new birth.” “Born again” is the term used when someone has a powerful conversion experience (though it’s worth noting that even lifelong Christians can and do join in the fun by claiming a similar experience as a sort of confirmation or re-dedication), though the idea has much greater currency in conservative Protestantism. In this rebirth, the spirit of Jesus is thought to come into and dwell within a person’s entire being–and incidentally make that person eligible for Heaven. From now on, this divine spirit is thought to inform and influence the Christian’s actions and make that Christian a better person–though different denominations handle exactly what that last bit means differently. Some believe the Christian is simply transformed through magic by belief alone; others believe that the spiritual indwelling will lead the Christian to work hard on adopting better habits and manners.

Even liberal Christians tend to believe that conversion does something powerful to a person’s life. In reality, conversion means about as much as losing one’s virginity–and for the same reason. The next day, life looks the same really either way for most folks. But when the Christian fails to behave as if transformed, then that person will be blamed. The system is perfect, we see again, so if someone doesn’t really seem transformed then obviously that person is the problem.

Absolutely crucial to the idea of being “born again” is the idea that that person’s whole entire life pre-conversion is now washed away, forgotten, unimportant, trivial, and even worthless.

But as I mentioned some time ago, Christianity doesn’t actually materially change anybody. It doesn’t even make them more capable of change. It might not even make them really motivated to change stuff that probably needs to change. Nonetheless, you’ll hear Christians say constantly that “Jesus” helped them change, but apparently he doesn’t believe in long-term effectiveness (“dammit, Jesus, you had ONE JOB”). The party line, however, is the total opposite of that reality–as we see in Fireproof.

At the movie’s opening, it rapidly becomes clear that Kirk’s character’s big problem isn’t that he’s non-Christian; it’s that he’s an abusive, controlling, whiny, misogynistic, petulant person who has no business inflicting himself on anyone. And it’s hard to escape the distinct impression that he remains that way after his miraculous rebirth given that a big part of his turnaround is that he attacks his family’s shared computer with a baseball bat to demonstrate how firmly he rejects his “addictions”*.

Grand gestures are not how real emotional work is done.

They are often actually a substitute for it, and Christians make use of these gestures in precisely that way.

As this Christian marriage counselor notes,

While grand gestures may have a large qualitative value attached to [them] as a deposit (as in the end of the movie Fireproof), when withdrawals have occurred numerous times daily and over the course of time, large value deposits are effectively worthless against the debt that is owed. This is the reason why a spouses attempt to do something grand and/or expensive to help an ailing marriage (like a vacation, jewelry, chainsaw) often has very short term value without changing the day to day deposit/withdrawal ratio.

The counselor goes on to speculate that The Love Dare might train spouses to start making numerous small investments into their marriage, but s/he doesn’t realize that without both spouses on board with this idea, it’s unlikely to succeed. As Tim Minchin famously told a Christian fan trying to “save” him, “Love without evidence is stalking.” And all of the book’s proposed token gestures will only backfire on a partner who doesn’t reciprocate–especially if that partner doesn’t buy into fundagelicalism’s various (false) teachings about relationships and gender roles.

Kirk never once engages with the damage he did to Kat or understands why she is hurt and upset–and the book itself doesn’t especially encourage that kind of introspection in its rush to proselytize and preach. The two of them reconcile without actually ever having a single serious conversation about what they want or need; there’s still no indication by the end of the movie why these two even belong in a relationship togetherThe Love Dare promises to transform Kirk into a better person. It promises as well that if he converts to its style of Christianity, he’ll be equipped to complete the program and take advantage of the only hope he has of saving his marriage. These are promises the program cannot keep any more than Kirk will be able to keep the ones he makes to Kat when she finally weakens under his onslaught of false niceness and returns to his control.

The movie asks us to believe that his big sea change is, as Kirk puts it, “the new normal.” Kat wants to know what has  changed him–when he answers her that Jesus did, she’s so excited she converts on the spot. But in the real world, we know that liars still lie after conversion; cheaters still cheat. People with rage issues still lose control of themselves and attack the family computer. Controllers get extra permission to be that way. Narcissists and predators discover what a fertile hunting-ground religion can be. Kirk did not actually do any work on himself at all. The book has fill-in blanks at the end of each “dare” asking readers to make notes about the tiny gesture they did that day and whatnot, but I didn’t see anything in there that looked like a serious examination of those mental habits and processes that makes our flaws so hard to dispel, or any serious advice about establishing the new habits that truly defeat those flaws. The authors offer folk wisdom at best, and I can tell you for a certainty that if anybody actually manages to maintain lifetime, lasting changes in themselves while performing this book’s program, it’s a case of hunting bears with umbrellas: if  a bear is actually taken, then you know someone else landed the killing shot.

Life’s not a movie, and the curtain doesn’t fall on our lives at the end of a dramatic gesture. I’m guessing that real couples everywhere have discovered that facades like the one Kirk learned to present through that book’s teachings weren’t actually their “new normal” for long.

And I can say that because of my personal experience. Every so often Biff would declare he’d seen the light and was going to be a good boy from now on. These grandiose declarations usually happened after an intense sermon (or a particularly nasty fight), and he wasn’t the only man in our religion who regularly made similar promises and declarations. Often the vibration of his words in the air wouldn’t have stilled before the promise was broken. It’s exhausting even to remember how exhausting it was to hear each fresh new promise. I’d be so hopeful, but my hope was eventually tempered with the knowledge that real change seemed maddeningly impossible to maintain.

I didn’t realize why that was at the time. I do now: these were false promise, ones Biff felt free to ignore once he’d gotten what he wanted from me. (The last time he made one of these promises of reform, all I could say was something like “Oh, okay, that’s nice” –and he got mad at me for not sounding excited.)

So false promises of “new birth” and becoming a totally new person are endemic ideas in the religion–beloved especially by terrible people who love the blank check they get with every declaration of lasting change from a community built around the idea of easy change and new beginnings.

Christianity loves these “new person” narratives for a reason.

People who want something from others make these promises. The promises are so grand that they seem too good to be true, which would be because they are. They are a wonderful way to keep victims in hand and focused on the future while discouraging any focus on past failures. They are also a great way to gain credibility and respect from Christian audiences who all believe in the possibility of change through magical thinking.

By relying on the falsehood that “Jesus” somehow changes people, or that belief in Jesus is somehow the best or only mechanism by which lasting change can begin and occur, Christians avoid the messy work of self-improvement that everyone else must undergo. And gang, self-improvement is hard. That’s why most people don’t do it and why so many people fail at it–and also why snake-oil magic bullets like weight-loss drugs and faith-healing sell as well as they do.

Christians’ misplaced belief in “rebirth” fulfills three functions (at least) in Christianity.

First, it produces believers who are largely passive and lack the skills or ability to initiate and maintain change on their own. People who are passive are easy to control and manipulate–and the system itself ensures that they will never consider moving on their own to make big changes.

Second and more importantly, this false belief keeps people coming back to the well for more snake oil and magic bullets. Just like how video games know how to hook gamers by the use of inconsistent rewards, this belief tells people that if they just keep trying and fit a particular set of criteria (which is not outlined specifically and is impossible to fully guess), then their god will magically help them change.

Third and most importantly, these promises form a narrative that reinforces Christians’ false worldview.

Some Christians actually do manage to affect lasting change in their lives, which these success stories will attribute to their god and faith, which only adds to the problem that other believers will have. Believers will keep trying and trying to take advantage of the promise their religion repeatedly makes to them, and they will almost all keep failing. But they will see the success stories paraded in front of their dazzled eyes–and they will believe that these examples’ success is owed to Christianity’s promise of rebirth and divinely-assisted (if not divinely-orchestrated) change. Indeed, it’s not hard to see reviewers of The Love Dare waffling between “OMG this is so awful” and “this program is awesome!” There’s a reason for that. I’m betting that the people who liked it largely bought into the ideas behind it–and motivated reasoning did the rest.

When a promise of reform fails to materialize? That’s all the deceptive promise-maker’s fault if the Christians judging the situation aren’t feeling generous, or chalked up to “sin nature” or the like if the judges are sympathetic. (Bonus: Both of those posts were written by the father-in-law of one of Josh Duggar’s many victims–the latter after the child sex abuse scandal came out, and the former after the adultery scandal emerged. Note how shocked he seems in the former.)

So did Kim Davis actually figure out how to fix her problem with adultery? Is she really a whole new person, transformed by her faith in Jesus?

Don’t bet the farm on that.

That’s her real hypocrisy: not the marriages, not the constant stream of adulterous affairs she’s had, not the children she’s had out of wedlock, but her insistence that she’s now a totally different person who’s been washed clean and pure by the blood of Jesus when she absolutely is not any such thing. And that’s the hypocrisy that I hold her accountable for. She’s playing the Jesus card and talking up her “rebirth” to explain why she’s allowed to “sin” aplenty while forcing others to live by a moral code she’s never managed to uphold. She wants us to overlook her past while refusing to overlook anyone else’s present.

Though Christianity has all kinds of ways of rationalizing that kind of hypocrisy, the rest of us are getting less and less patient with those excuses, and can see quite easily that nobody supernatural has made the newest mascot of the Christian Right into a loving, compassionate, and kindhearted person. And we are right to be impatient.

On that note, I still think it’s really weird that fundagelicals can’t find someone to idolize who’s actually worth idolizing.

* Scare quotes because I really don’t think he was addicted to anything. Christianity takes as given that anybody who likes pornography is addicted to it, but he shows zero signs of addiction. It seems like the main problem Kirk has with porn is that his wife buys into false fundagelical teachings about it.

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