When Rachel Held Evans wrote her beautifully moving piece in the wake of the World Vision brouhaha, How Evangelicals Won a Culture War And Lost a Generation, it was a cry from the heart: she, like many other evangelicals, has finally seen what outsiders and ex-evangelicals have always known. She might be late to the party, but she’s finally seeing just what her brand of Christianity is all about: disapproving of and controlling people. Her aching pain brings tears to my eyes because I, too, remember very well what it was like to realize that the more I tried to be and do exactly what the Bible said, the further I seemed to get from whatever the “best statement” of Christianity was: charity, love, doing good to those around me, being the light that shone before the eyes of outsiders. But you can imagine that evangelicals themselves did not respond very well to her cry of pain and longing. Today I want to talk about that response and why it is yet another indication of the sickness I perceive in Christianity.
It only took four days for Daniel Darling to pen a poisonous little treatise attacking her piece, Millennials and the False Gospel of Nice. Daniel Darling is, according to the CNN bio of him, “the vice-president of Communications for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission,” so I’m not putting a lot of faith into his ability to see anything very clearly; “religious liberty” has become a Christianese euphemism for “the right to control and stomp all over other people in the name of my religion.” But okay, let’s look at what he has to say.
He starts by positing two “presuppositions” that Ms. Evans holds true: that young evangelicals are leaving evangelicalism in great numbers, and that “the real message of Jesus looks nothing like orthodox Christianity.” A presupposition is a fact you just take for granted. For example, if you were to say, “I don’t want to go on that ride ever again,” that presupposes that you’ve been on “that ride” at least once. But it isn’t quite the same thing as an assumption; an assumption can mean literally whatever you wish, but a presupposition is something very specific in theology and philosophy. In the same way that toxic Christians have seized upon and misused the word “theory,” they are seizing upon and misusing this term too, and in an equally dishonest and self-serving way.
So when you hear a fundagelical talk about “presuppositions,” that’s Christianese for “an assumption that I think is terribly wrong.” They labor under all sorts of assumptions themselves, but those aren’t presuppositions because they think those assumptions are correct. What Ms. Evans is really making here are not assumptions or presuppositions but rather conclusions based on what she’s seen, heard, and read. But if he acknowledges that they are conclusions, not assumptions or presuppositions, then he’s implicitly acknowledging that she has in fact seen, heard, and read stuff that she thinks supports her conclusion. And we can’t have that.
He’s also seriously misusing the word “orthodox” here to mean “the kind of Christianity to which I subscribe.” Actual Orthodox Christianity doesn’t look much like modern fundagelical Christianity. It’s a real movement with real people in it and it’s existed for over a thousand years. They have about as much in common with the Southern Baptist Convention as I do. If he doesn’t grasp that fact, then I’m not sure what else we can do for him. I suspect many Christians will find that misuse offensive, but I don’t think he cares what folks think. Nor do I think he realizes that he’s making an argument from tradition here, saying that just because “orthodox Christians” believe something and have for a while that that thing simply must be true, which is patently absurd.
It’s a little bizarre to read that he thinks “One might argue that young evangelicals aren’t fleeing core conservative institutions, but flooding them” and that bigotry will win in the end when we know that anti-LGBTQ attitudes played a role in many people’s decision to leave their childhood religion and affiliations and that the SBC itself is seeing a decline in numbers, which, while not utterly humongous, is severe enough to make two different big-name Christian leaders use terms like “heartbreaking”. The SBC itself is, according to that link, seeing its lowest rate of baptisms since 1948–and remember, the SBC believes in water immersion baptism of people who are old enough to make the decision to do it, not infant baptism like the Catholics do, so that in itself would worry me hugely if I were a Baptist leader and saw that number. Some of the people being baptized (well, probably most really) are the children of adult members of their churches, while others will be converts “won” (read: poached), largely from from other churches and denominations. And most of these converts will be fairly young; one does not often hear of very old people converting. Even then we are seeing the lowest rate of baptisms in 70 years. I’m not sure where he’s getting the idea that young people are “flooding” conservative institutions.
And, too, we must consider the absolutely stunning rate of disengagement among young people in Christianity. Disengagement means to withdraw from the typical formal expressions of the religion, in this case prayer, church attendance, and private Bible study. And only 20% of young people in Christianity maintain their same level of engagement with the religion after high school. That means that when you see crowds of shrieking teenagers at youth rallies, you can mentally cross out 8 out of 10 of those kids as being that involved by their college years. Think about that for a second, and marvel as I do every time I contemplate it. I guess Mr. Darling hasn’t heard about this figure.
One of the reasons cited by young people for disengagement, incidentally, is that they “cannot find a local church that will help them become more like Christ.” The director of the study concluded that all that stuff that churches do to make teenagers flip out for Jesus just doesn’t produce stable believers after high school. I can’t say that I disagree. Speaking as someone who was married to a youth pastor who worked with several churches across the country, I can tell you that most of the stuff that happens in “youth ministry” is about generating excitement, with the hope that this excitement will carry the young person through to adulthood and the formation of a family (my church thought, as most seem to think, that once any Christian has children, that this new parent will drill down harder on religion; alas, that isn’t true either). Oh, and teaching them about sexual purity, which churches are obsessed with. Obviously I can’t speak for every church or every denomination, but I don’t remember any theology or church history ever taught–and that’s probably a consequence of my husband and all the other youth pastors I knew not having a background in either topic. Any schmuck who can talk to kids without getting rolled eyes from them can become a youth pastor in most churches; the requirements are incredibly and depressingly low considering these are the people who are tending the future Christians of these churches.
Even when we get past that disengagement rate, we’re still dealing with a movement whose members passionately believe in evangelizing–which is a fancy way of saying “telling everybody who’ll sit still long enough about this religion”–but who don’t actually talk to anybody about their faith. Even among evangelicals, only 2/3 of the respondents in that study had actually talked to at least one person over the last year about their religion. If I were a salesperson with a hugely important product and I only talked to one person over one year about that product, I’d get canned pretty quickly!
Now, the number of believers in an idea has zilch to do with whether that idea is true or false. That’s an argument that Mr. Darling himself is guilty of making; despite his assertion that he’s totally fine with stasis in membership, he’s very clearly stung and butthurt over the very idea that his church might be hemorrhaging members. I know that fundagelicals hold a couple of assumptions dear to their hearts, contradictory though they might be: that their god blesses those who serve him, meaning that their ventures will succeed and their churches will flourish, but that also “the world” will reject them at every turn when they’re doing things right. Prosperity gospel jostles very uncomfortably with the modern fundagelical persecution fantasy. On the one hand, Christian leaders gloat about numbers when they are good, saying that these obviously mean they are blessed by their god, but on the other they spin-doctor and mutilate numbers when they are not good, saying that these obviously mean that they are blessed by their god. Cain’t lose for winnin’, can they?
But none of that excuses Mr. Darling from being slickly dishonest.
The problem is that he’s not only misusing the numbers he’s citing to make a hemorrhage sound like a steady holding pattern or even an increase, but that he’s also misusing them to abuse and dismiss Ms. Evans–and by extension all the evangelicals she has heard from who are also sick of Christianity’s current culture war, and all the other Christians she’s talked to who are also getting very weary of abusing others in the name of Jesus. He seriously thinks that the problem is that Christianity might be getting way too nice–and his solution is to drill down harder on the paternalism and toxicity that has long marked fundagelical culture. We’ve talked here before about how Christians like Mr. Darling might view outsiders and atheists as minor threats, but they see less-nasty Christians as an absolutely huge one–with some of ’em putting progressive Christianity up there with Communism and Islam in terms of how much of a threat they are (notice that atheism, paganism, and Nones don’t even come close to making the list).
When Ms. Evans says she wants to stop fighting the culture war and start washing feet, Mr. Darling scoffs at the very idea. Like most toxic Christians, he thinks that if the world “hates” him and what he stands for, that obviously means he is doing everything correctly:
Jesus prepared us for seasons like this, urging his followers to a counter-cultural faith, one that gains the favor of heaven, but earns the antagonism of the world. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me,” Jesus says in the Gospels.
And yes, that’s in the Bible, but by using this verse he is making a presupposition of his very own, one that toxic Christians make constantly: that every time someone speaks out against him and what his religion is doing to people, that obviously means that he and it are doing things correctly. This presupposition is flat-out wrong. Jesus hated all sorts of things, like hypocrites and people who were cruel to the marginalized and fig trees that were out of season and people who hurt others in the name of religion. Does that mean that the money-changers and fig trees and adulteress-stoning mobs and the Pharisees of his day were actually doing things correctly, because he spoke out against them? We speak out against all kinds of people who are doing things wrong, like the Phelps clan of Wichita and skinheads; does that mean that they’re doing things right and that Jesus approves of their activities?
He doesn’t get that his detractors might well be speaking out against him because he is doing something wrong, not because he’s doing things correctly. This is the churlish, puerile logic of the troll: that if people have something negative to say about him, then clearly he is touching a nerve and he is right and they are wrong. He’s like a terrible artist on DeviantArt who thinks that all critics of his work are obviously just hugely jealous of his skill. It’s a lot easier to stick his head in the sand than to confront the very real problems inherent in his worldview.
Mr. Darling and Christians like him show us, yet again, that their brand of Christianity exists not to do what Jesus actually said to do–to love their neighbors and do charity for those that need it. He thinks Christianity is about forcing everybody to live like he thinks people should live, and about disapproving of and silencing–through law if necessary– acts and ideas that he doesn’t like. Fred over at Slacktivist put it well:
Like his Southern Baptist mentors, Daniel Darling is working hard to ensure that no one associates evangelicalism with social justice or with being nice. And he’s certain that will ensure its population doesn’t remain “relatively steady” for long. I suspect that much is true, just not in the way Darling imagines.
I don’t know about y’all, but when I see fundagelicals in action, I certainly do not feel compelled to look into their religion, and I don’t think most other folks do either. When someone acts like a royal jackass in the name of religion, like these bigoted, woman-hating toxic Christians so often do, then genuinely good people will be repelled. Indeed, that’s what is happening even among fundagelicals themselves: Rachel Held Evans has said that she’s heard from a great number of evangelical young people who tell her, “I don’t think I’m an evangelical anymore. I want to follow Jesus, but I can’t be a part of this.” I wonder how many evangelicals she’s heard from who say “Wow, these guys are hardcore! This is totally what I want to be identified with!”
Because folks, make no mistake: like attracts like.
A faith system that is inherently mean-spirited, controlling, nasty, bigoted, misogynistic, emotionally manipulative, violent (emotionally and yes, physically), dishonest, and uncharitable will not attract people who are egalitarian, good-hearted, and kind; those folks will be driven away. It will attract people who are themselves just like the faith system trumpets as the best possible expression of itself. The soldiers who will congregate under its banner will be mean-spirited, controlling, nasty, bigoted, misogynistic, manipulative, violent, dishonest, and uncharitable. They will find its arguments plausible and compelling. They will feel affirmed in their own feelings of superiority, smugness, and meanness. That kind of Christianity will make total sense to them. It will give them a reason to bludgeon and bash others. It will feed their need for feeling right and persecuted. When someone comes along and says “Hey, I think that as Christians we should love our neighbors and do a lot of charity,” that person is going to be a huge threat to their worldview and must be silenced at all costs. The religion such a good Christian represents will make absolutely no sense to these toxic Christians; it will have absolutely nothing in common with their type of Christianity beyond a vague similarity in source material and a similarly-named founder. Its banner is not their banner. They will reject that banner and hold their oily, greasy, blood-stained, torn-up, trod-upon banner to their chests and raise it high.
And they will carry that banner forth, wading through the sand, seeking zealots just like themselves to move their faith system forward. And they will find them, because like attracts like. A sick religion will find sick adherents. It’s that simple.
I can’t help but think that if Jesus existed, he’d have absolutely nothing to do with Mr. Darling or anything he’s talking about as the expression of his faith. He’d be busy eating dinner with gay couples and working as a women’s clinic escort. He’d be busy volunteering at food banks and harvesting fruit from community gardens for the poor. He’d be busy overturning the tables of Koch-funded lobbyists in Washington. The kind of religion Mr. Darling is talking about would make no sense whatsoever to him, and he would speak out against it–
–and be condemned just as Rachel Held Evans has been by the Daniel Darlings of the religion he started.
We’re going to talk about that movie and book thing, Heaven is For Real, next time, and I most definitely invite you to join me.