I saw Star Wars as a young child in 1977. I still remember one scene in it that struck me powerfully and has stayed with me ever since. In it, Leia Organa tells her captor, Grand Moff Tarkin, of the dangers of trying too hard to control people. It’s a shame that religious zealots don’t watch science-fiction movies, because that’s a lesson they’ve never learned. Well, maybe they’ll start paying attention to Leia’s timeless wisdom. Today Lord Snow Presides over Christianity’s evangelicalism problem.
The Grip Has Indeed Tightened.
In the scene in question, Leia faced–and defeated–the Empire’s tortures. Her situation was still extremely precarious. Despite her danger, she couldn’t resist twisting the knife a little in the gut of one of her worst adversaries.
But that adversary felt the same exact way about her. She’d caused him no end of trouble. Finally, he had her completely in his power. He felt safe in gloating a little, so he did. He informed her that the Empire had finally gotten its “battle station operational,” referring of course to the Death Star. This station was the biggest weapon humankind had ever created, and he was justifiably proud of it.
Leia’s reply became an iconic emblem of rebellion:
The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.
Grand Moff Tarkin wasn’t impressed, but I certainly was.
Controllers Only Speak One Language.
It’s possible that Leia didn’t understand exactly how powerful this Death Star was–not yet, anyway. That said, she knew very well what it represented to her enemies.
Leia knew that controllers only speak one language, that of control. That, literally, is what they seek and what they try their best to maintain. When problems arise, they always involve threats to their control. And solutions always look to them like finding more–and more effective–means of control.
Most of all, Leia knew that we only have one good way to respond to controlling people. We must oppose them. We must deny every single attempt they make to seize control over us.
She knew this, but somehow we’ve forgotten that lesson over time.
Love in the Time of Culture Wars.
For years, we’ve known about a consistent criticism of Christianity: its over-politicization. This criticism comes from both within and outside of the sheepfold. It’s probably a very familiar complaint to most of us.
To put the matter briefly, Christian leaders have increasingly whipped up their gullible sheep to frenzies over politics. They do this because politicization brings with it gifts of power for those who harness it well.
The more conservative the flavor of Christianity, the more its adherents buy into a culture-war mentality. That means they see themselves as holy crusaders fighting for their religion’s continued dominance over popular culture, all levels of government, and interpersonal relationships themselves. These crusaders genuinely think that they are all that stands between their god’s wrath and a vulnerable world–and that if they were only allowed to run that world in every conceivable way, then everything would be better.
In the past 50 or 60 years, in particular, conservative Christians have clawed increasingly frantically and ruthlessly for power. Their leaders have callously engineered and orchestrated a series of moral panics meant to increase Christian politicization. We collate it all into the idea of culture wars.
We do not use the term “war” lightly here, either. Conservative Christians certainly don’t. They truly see themselves as locked in a huge life-and-death fight. Their enemies are, well, everyone else in the world—including other Christians. The victory they seek is a complete resurgence of their onetime dominance over their tribal enemies.
And the weapons they like most are lawsuits, elections, chest-beating displays, brutal suppression of heresy and dissent wherever possible, and constant attempts to sneak their religion into any public space they possibly can.
They are in this to win this. The clock is ticking. They must enshrine their privilege into law before they lose all of it.
If we aren’t playing to win, then we’re the ones who’ll suffer.
Christianity’s Evangelicalism Problem.
Eventually, this deadly-serious game produced some unexpected blowback.
The first and foremost result of the culture wars is that now the general public sees evangelicalism as the face of Christianity itself.
At a time when less than a quarter of Americans even identify as evangelical, much less believe in genuinely evangelical doctrines, evangelicals have managed to wriggle into a position as the dominant voices of their religion.
One can see why. Constantly, they get out in front of every single cultural issue and story of the day with a bigoted, sexist, racist, classist talking point. They make huge spectacles of themselves at every single opportunity. They throw tantrums, make unreasonable demands, and whine incessantly. Worst of all, they attack, smear, and insult everyone who gets in their way.
It’s a primal scream of pomposity, willful ignorance, belligerence, and rage. And evangelicals want it that way.
A very few Christians recognize that politicization has brought evangelicals to this pass. But they don’t appear to understand how their social system’s setup has allowed–even mandated–it to happen. Ultimately, they’re nowhere near fixing the situation.
All It Takes Is One Speck of Poo to Ruin the Stew.
Journalists and scholars have spent decades examining the influence of conservative religion on American politics, but we largely missed the impact conservative politics was having on religion itself.
Amy Sullivan, “America’s New Religion: Fox Evangelicalism,”
December 15, 2017
Even non-Christians often fall prey to thinking that if someone identifies as Christian, they simply must subscribe to an entire array of regressive, transgressive social stances and political ideologies. Often, we must forcibly stop to remind ourselves that most of them aren’t like that! (Not that it’s our circus or our monkeys to care about it.)
The “Good Ole Days.”
In a very real way, conservative Christians‘ single-minded quest for power began to backfire years ago.
We just couldn’t see the situation yet.
Without the power to force people to put up with their nonsense, we won’t put up with it. We’ll reject them. We’ll walk away from them. And they simply don’t have that power anymore. Indeed, they don’t even seem a little bit likely to get it back.
In years past, they might have been able to suppress news of their various scandals entirely–or spin-doctor the coverage of it. They certainly could–and did–retaliate viciously against anyone who spoke against their antics. They could pursue whatever regressive policies they pleased; nobody dared oppose Christian leaders on a rampage. Whatever someone thought about them or the religion, they kept it quiet if it was critical or heretical. And it simply wasn’t safe at all to leave the tribe, or to work against it.
The Twilight Years of Christian Dominance.
All of that control over popular culture was possible because Christians held vast coercive powers.
They’ve been steadily losing those powers for years, however. Now people largely feel free to react naturally to Christian displays of overreach and cruelty–and to leave the tribe entirely, if they wish to do so.
The real irony is that toxic Christians have reacted to this loss of control as if they still had their onetime power. Yes, indeed, they’re actually getting more belligerent, more grabby with other people’s lives and rights, and more abusive toward those who speak and act against them.
Leia knew the score. The only language controllers speak is control. If things are falling apart, all they know to do is grab for more and renewed control over others. It’s the only way they can soothe themselves.
A Most Understandable Alliance.
Increasing evangelical Christians’ level of politicization probably sounded like such a great idea, back in the 1950s when leaders of the day concocted the Red Scare. Definitely it gained evangelicals truly dizzying amounts of power in the 1970s and 1980s, with their battle against women’s rights.
Over those decades, evangelicals carefully entwined their version of Christianity tightly around a terrifying vision of theocracy and nationalism. They deliberately wedded their religion to a particular set of political stances. They made non-belief an expression of outright treason, while belief became equated with patriotism.
Worst of all, they began favoring a strongly anti-intellectual, anti-education mindset. From there, they became the prime creators and consumers of “fake news.”
Many journalists have claimed that Donald Trump formed an “unholy alliance” with evangelicals. In reality, that alliance makes perfect sense.
I’ve suspected for a long time that these culture wars laid the groundwork for Christianity’s decline.
Well, now we’ve finally got some research to confirm those suspicions.
How Politicization Has Created the Evangelicalism Problem.
A few weeks ago, I showed you some fascinating new research about Christianity’s excessive politicization. Basically, this paper’s authors discovered that Christianity’s decline began around the 1990s–with the tribe’s increased forays into politics. Around 2006, when evangelicals hit the height of their power and began to act out the most seriously against others, their dominance began to nose-dive.
The paper’s authors discovered a link between how political a Christian adherent’s church and pastor were, especially if those opinions clashed, and how likely they were to leave that church. Those researchers discovered that a pastor dove into politics from the pulpit only at great risk. If the congregation liked what that pastor had to say, then all was well. People who disagreed with the pastor, however, especially if they weren’t very firm members of the church to begin with, might just leave at that point.
What a bombshell of a paper! It got a dramatic follow-up a year later with one released recently called “Are the Politics of the Christian Right Linked to State Rates of the Non-Religious?” This paper focused on the Religious Right’s active campaigns against marriage equality. And they discovered that the more decisively Christian bigots had won their various fights, the more adherents their states lost.
The results were clear: the greater the political power and success of the Christian Right in each state, the more rapidly the number of nones had risen.
But it gets worse for Christian leaders.
Everyone Gets Smeared With This Brush.
It wasn’t only evangelical groups who lost adherents after those squabbles.
Everyone lost adherents, including more moderate and progressive groups. The study’s authors think that evangelicals had simply made themselves so damned visible that people saw them as the representatives of Christianity itself. So in rejecting bigotry, these folks rejected all of Christianity, not just evangelicalism.
And as much as that might frustrate non-bigoted Christians, I can totally see that as a valid impression to get.
When Christians tell me that they disavow these “bad apples,” I can appreciate the sentiment–but I can’t help but wonder why, with all this disapproval showered upon evangelicals, nobody can rein them in or do anything about the power they’ve amassed.
More progressive Christians can disapprove of them as hard as they like. It probably makes them feel much better, at least.
But they aren’t directing those efforts where they’ll do any good. Instead, they’re trying to shape the thinking of those damaged by their religious bunkmates. I’d so much rather see them directing their energy toward fighting their evangelicalism problem.
The Worst Condemnation Imaginable.
I don’t care how totally not-like-evangelicals these non-toxic Christians are. I already know that most Christians aren’t like that, and I already don’t hold them personally responsible for what evangelicals do. These protests are impotent; they do nobody any good. They are usually meant to exonerate the Christian doing it or to shine up the tarnished image of the religion itself, not to protect the vulnerable or rebuild what their fellow Christians have destroyed.
And considering the religion they represent, and the ideals they themselves claim to hold and want to advance, that’s about the worst condemnation of them that I can possibly imagine. We need everybody on point. As Mr. Captain says in his Stompy Robots Internet Game, “flanking is just another word for running off to die alone.”
We need to be listening to Leia Organa more in these dreadful days. When we face oppression, we respond with defiance. We do not make excuses. Instead, we face it head-on.
Today Lord Snow Presides over a much-deserved decline, and chickens roosting exactly where they need to be.
NEXT UP: We look at a Christianese phrase that’s been grinding my gears lately. See you then!
If you like what you see, I would love to have your support. My PayPal is firstname.lastname@example.org (that’s an underscore in there) for one-time tips. I also welcome monthly patrons via Patreon with Roll to Disbelieve. Thanks!
Lord Snow Presides… is our weekly off-topic chat series. I’ve started us off with a topic, but feel free to chime in with whatever’s on your mind! Lord Snow is my sweet, elderly white cat, who keeps a careful eye on us like he’s the reincarnation of Hachiko.