When someone desperately wants to have status, there are really only a couple of ways that person can go about getting it on his or her own. Either that person can go out and do something that garners status, or that person can cheat and borrow status from some other source. Guess which route religion often takes? Today I wanted to talk about that a little, in the wake of a few things I’ve been seeing around of late about super-overreaching religious weirdos.
I think it’s pretty natural for people to want respect, power, and admiration from others. Who doesn’t like being shown such deference? But getting those things can be so very hard and take so much time. There are some very good shortcuts to getting them, and a lot of people have figured out the secret. You already know who they are:
A Big Man on Campus.
A legend in their own mind.
A big fish in a little pond.
There are a lot of ways to describe the situation, but they all boil down to the same mindset: a person who really, really, really aches to have respect, power, and admiration, but doesn’t want to do a lot of work to get them.
When I was in high school, our football team’s quarterback was a dashing, attractive blonde fellow we’ll call Alec. He would have reminded you of Cap Garland from the Little House books–he had crystal-blue eyes and a smile that lit up rooms. And he worked very hard to be a good football player. I liked him; he was friendly even to a nerd like me in the classes we shared, and even invited me to one of his home parties for no reason that I can discern. He did all the stuff that football players are supposed to do, didn’t slack at school or in practice, and still cultivated the personal qualities necessary to be a pleasant and decent human being. He wasn’t a Big Man on Campus; he was just a really popular young man.
Alec wielded his considerable personal power with a surprising degree of grace; I never heard of him bullying anybody or being gratuitously unkind. It was not at all uncommon to see him holding court in the lunchroom, around the halls, or out on the fields with a crowd of people around him while he reclined or slouched slightly above them on something, just idly watching the proceedings and chatter while he relaxed. He’d distinctly earned all of his status, but he was careful not to abuse it. I don’t know how much of his behavior was studied and how much was just natural, but I do know that it was effective.
Compare and contrast this young man with my preacher ex Biff, who was also dashing and attractive but lacked any kind of discipline or fortitude. Biff thought of himself as a landless aristocrat from a long line of titled people from another country, but he also refused to display any marks whatsoever of good breeding (if he knew them at all, as he claimed he did; it’s hard to imagine someone actually understanding etiquette and then deliberately choosing to be so boorish). I was young and stupid enough to think that this goofy ungraciousness indicated a certain stylish insouciance when it fact it was a mark of supreme disrespect toward everybody around himself and a red flag of both intellectual laziness and emotional narcissism. He insulted people on purpose just to get them angry, acted blithely ignorant of every single social grace you can imagine, and lied constantly about every single thing possible.
What Biff wanted ultimately was control over others. He wanted personal power and admiration. What I did not recognize at the time was that he was testing out a few different methods of getting those things.
As trolls everywhere know, the power to anger and disrupt people is a very powerful show of control over someone else. But sooner or later, a troll’s victims will shut the game down. In real life, trolling can get someone beaten up or ostracized; online, it’s easier for the troll to move from group to group as one’s avenues are banned and blocked and people lose interest in engaging with him or her. For many trolls, that’s perfectly fine; what they want is that thrill of goading people, so it’s okay if they have to move around and start over from scratch. But Biff didn’t want just a short-term thrill like that. He wanted a court like Alec had once had. That required a steady group of admirers, a group that was fast shrinking for my then-boyfriend. By the time of his conversion into Christianity, even I’d gotten sick of his shit and was on my way out of his life, and I’d stuck around longer than any of his other now-alienated friends. He lacked the ability to be anything pleasant but wheedling and charming, had deliberately eschewed the development of social graces, and had not counted on people eventually tiring of his act. So being deliberately provocative and insulting wasn’t really working out for him.
There are several different ways to get admiration. Developing a skill–like playing football–is one way to do it. I knew a lot of young people in my school who were hugely accomplished; I had a bit of a crush on a martial artist (the first I ever met) who had caught my attention once by getting to his feet from a laying-down position without using his hands, just springing to his feet in one silken catlike motion. Musicians, singers, thespians, walking French-English dictionaries, it seemed like almost all of us had some special thing that was ours that others might admire, and all of those things required quite a bit of work to master, which Biff was singularly unwilling to do for almost anything.
Biff was a competent artist–in fact a very good, near-professional-level one–but that alone wasn’t getting him the admiration he craved. Courts of admirers (at least in my neck of the woods back then) didn’t typically sit around watching the object of their idolization draw. Nor did art really grant Biff personal power over others. I think at the time power in art came from avenues like interior design and fashion, and I’m sure you can guess how interested my then-boyfriend was in those subjects. So that wasn’t going to work either. Ironic, isn’t it? The one skill he’d bothered to cultivate was the one skill he really couldn’t use to propel himself into personal power.
Then he found out that I’d been briefly Pentecostal not too long before we’d met, and I am sure he realized almost instantly the potential of this suddenly-opened new vista of opportunity.
Fundamentalist Christianity was custom-made for someone like him. The second he walked into the church, he lit up like a supernova. He understood these people better on first encounter than even I had understood them after a long time among them. I am sure he realized immediately that they wanted drama, explosive narratives, and boyish charm, and they were infinitely forgiving, trusting, and accepting of anybody who could make up a good story.
They valued childlike behavior, which he could supply in infinite amounts with his childishness. His total lack of social graces were totally overlooked and even remarked favorably upon by the elders, who thought he was a breath of fresh air from their own stodginess. When he shrieked in made-up “tongues” and acted like a five-year-old, this was considered very very Christian indeed, and got him a ready audience of people showering him with praise and admiration for what they saw as someone approaching Jesus with the faith of a little child. (Nowadays you hear adult Christians calling their deity “Daddy-God,” and getting the same praise.)
They valued great storytelling, which he was obviously very capable of doing. Not a single person in the denomination ever fact-checked a single claim he made or story he gave about himself, which allowed him to spin yarns that still shock me to think about today. They naturally assumed he was telling the truth, because who’d ever lie about that stuff? Who’d ever lie if Jesus was inside their hearts? And because they assumed he was telling the truth, they considered him a huge success story in the religion. His testimony indicated that he’d been such a bad, bad person before, you see, that his miraculous turnaround was seen as a huge show of divine grace. That meant obviously he should be allowed to preach and testify all the time, and he should be given leadership positions despite his lack of formal qualifications for leadership and his experience in the field. He got caught lying fairly often, but he always managed to squeak out of it; his new reputation as a miracle-worker and the recipient of such divine grace carried him through any rough patches.
As for drama, oh, he could provide that in spades. He’d always gravitated to this vision of himself as a leader in his own personal tales of valor. In Christianity, that became a fascination–even an obsession–with “spiritual warfare” and Endtimes prophecies. “Endtimes” is Christianese for all the stuff that’s supposed to happen at the end of the world–the wars, the “Left Behind” Rapture nonsense, the Beast/Antichrist taking over the world, and finally the whole planet being shitcanned before being recreated for the eternal party. Fundamentalists tend to be really buggy on that subject anyway, but Biff took it to heights I’m sure our peers hadn’t quite imagined.
As for “spiritual warfare,” that’s also Christianese; in our denomination, that meant being truly and shockingly obnoxious to outsiders, grabbing for control in every single venue and conversation, and fighting to enshrine theocracy in any way possible. Fundagelicals all imagine themselves to be warriors wearing 1st-century Roman or Palestinian battle garb with real live imaginary swords in their hands and shields on their arms. When you hear about the “war on Christmas” on Faux Noise, or about yet another frivolous lawsuit from a school board about a proselytizing teacher or some local council that insists on praying before meetings, those are examples of what Christians envision as “spiritual warfare.” We’ll talk about it more soon, but for now, just know that the worst excesses and overreaches, the most boorish and insulting chest-thumping, the very slimiest manipulation tactics and distortions, all stem from this idea that Christians are fighting a very real war against the forces of Ultimate Darkness. A mindset of the ends justifying the means suited Biff down to his fingertips; he had little grasp of ideas like morality or empathy for other human beings, and the idea that he had free license to do whatever he thought necessary to achieve his–er, sorry, his god’s–goals was one that liberated him to some truly grotesque lows in behavior. And all those lows did was get him more admiration for his “sold-out,” “on-fire” spirituality.
I want to make clear that Christianity didn’t turn Biff into the awful person I’m describing. These were all traits that he’d always had, but they just hadn’t been valued in the outside secular world. A floppy, egocentric, narcissistic, goofy, childish, insulting, pandering, rude pants-on-fire liar with few other redeeming qualities just doesn’t get too far there. But in church? The sky’s the limit.
So with these suddenly-valuable traits and skills, he gathered to himself quite a large court of admirers–including, it must be said, me at first–and set about exercising his power over them–and me. He reveled in it; he loved it. He often ran into all sorts of problems, like when he inevitably got caught lying to friends, or that time he was almost late to a preaching gig, which got him a talking-to from our elderly, far more sensible pastor and also which almost saw his nascent career disintegrate before it’d even gotten started really.
It’s been said that all someone has to do to get prestige and respect, especially in fundagelical-mad America, is to put the word “Reverend” after their name. It’s also been said that fundagelical preaching’s an excellent way to make a living if you just can’t do anything else. I was shocked the first time I heard a seminary graduate reveal that most of her graduating class was well aware that the Bible was far from the inerrant, literally-true, totally-coherent document they’d all be presenting to freshly-scrubbed congregants every Sunday morning as soon as they found home churches to employ them. I asked her if any of them got so disgusted by the disconnect that they just quit and went into some other line of work. “What?” she replied in horror. “And work for a living?”
Oh, it isn’t totally easy at all for the honest ones, that’s very true. A truly goodhearted preacher will burn out very quickly under the huge workload, the sheer human misery and need, the backbiting from the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ paying his or her salary, and the total isolation and lack of a support network.
By contrast, the conjobs, the bullshit artists, the preening narcissists, they grow fat as ticks on preaching work; with it they can catapult very quickly into the upper echelons of power in America. They don’t need support; they need an audience. They don’t care if TRUE CHRISTIANS™ gossip about them; they thrive on attention. They will quickly find both audiences and attention if they’re willing to pander to the lowest elements of toxic Christianity. And they can do it all while holding the self-serving belief that nothing less than a god has given their “ministry” divine approval, because if it’s growing then obviously it’s blessed and that means they’re doing everything just fine. That’s the only barometer that matters–if anybody speaks out against them or opposes their predations, then that person is oppressed by demons or else resisting the divine influence of the “Holy Spirit.”
I am very pleased to see surveys and studies that indicate that Americans are getting way less likely to afford pastors and preachers benefit of the doubt or respect out of kneejerk custom. According to Gallup, lately pastors have been getting the lowest ratings for respect and trust since Gallup began asking the question; currently, fewer than 50% of respondents rating clergy “high or very high” with regard to their trustworthiness and honesty. And given what I know about the type of people who are the loudest members of the profession right now, I can totally understand why. I only grieve that the good eggs are getting thrown out with the bad ones, because I know some good ones and they don’t deserve that kind of tarring.
Of course, these bad eggs, these attention-hounds, will bluster and storm and thunder and say that “Satan” is behind their sudden drop in status and prestige. They will say that it “obviously” means that they are doing all the right things because opposition only happens, in their world, when someone’s doing something so well that “Satan” is upset enough about it that “he” lashes out against the person doing it. They’ll drill down all the harder on the bullshit act because that’s all they’ve got in their toolbox. All the other times Christian bullshit whisperers got caught, they were able to wriggle free and start over again with the same act a little while later. They have no reason to suspect this time will be different. They may lose a few followers, but more will come along later if they just keep shouting the same stuff they’ve been shouting (maybe a bit more extremist, a bit more racist, a bit more sexist, a bit more isolationist, a bit more bigoted, but the same ideas).
But we’ll know the truth, friends.
We’ll know better.
Every time, another person like me will slip free of the bonds and start seeing things clearly for the first time.
Every single time a clergyperson is caught doing something horrible, the public’s general friendliness to the profession is shaken a little bit more. When normal folks found out that a pervert with a known criminal record had been allowed into the pastorship of a church in Kentucky, then went on–shockingly–to molest more children there, I imagine most of them were absolutely dumbfounded. So too were the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ at that church, though for the wrong reasons; even though they’d totally known they were hiring an accused pedophile to be their church’s pastor, they’d decided on their own that he was innocent and let him run loose among their children because they value “forgiveness” over children’s safety.
Don’t expect the leaders in this fiasco to do anything but keep their chins high and keep doing things the same way as always as they hope desperately that the blowback will fade as memories dim; as their new interim pastor said,
he was “not in a position to judge anyone. We’re firm believers in the Bible so if God’s forgiven you, then we’re in no position to treat you otherwise,” Bratcher explained to WBKO last month.
I’m sure the Interim Pastor’s whining that he doesn’t want to judge anybody and that he trusts any fool who says he’s been forgiven by “god” will be a great comfort to the victims of this child rapist and their families as they deal with the fallout of his disgusting crimes.
How many of these things have to happen to the church’s own families before they stop giving pastors automatic trust and respect? Do you suppose this was the straw that will break the camel’s back of gullibility and over-trusting-ness? The rest of us already know that the Christian church, especially the loudmouthed brash side of it, is a safe harbor for predators just like bathroom tile is a safe harbor for foot fungus. When Christians themselves realize that there’s no god magically making their leaders better people than anybody else, things will finally begin changing in that toxic miasma of a culture they’ve created for themselves.
None of this would even be happening if the people in these churches looked seriously at the people coming in, ignored their Jesus smiles and ultra-earnest preacher eyebrows and considered these folks on their own merits rather than the ones they’re claiming Jesus gave them.
Ted Cruz. Every picture I see of this clown, his eyebrows appear to be trying to knit themselves together and then take off into orbit.
I don’t expect Christians to wake up to reality just because they get hit with one too many of these disgusting perverts, though. It’s the financial hit that will likely do that. Churches don’t care what anybody thinks until that opinion starts costing them a lot of money. These pious Jesus-smile-wearing church leaders sanctimoniously refraining from judging perverts will start doing so in a damned hurry once not judging them starts costing them their pants. I’m not a lawsuit-happy person by nature, but I genuinely hope that the families of this Tennessee predator’s victims are already lawyering up to force their church to take a little goddamned responsibility for what they allowed to happen to their most vulnerable, defenseless members.
Part of the necessary snipping-away of Christianity’s reckless, roughshod trampling of liberty and rights is this painful recognition of how their worldview and practices have allowed people to rise to power who patently do not deserve the kind of trust and adoration that Christians are showering upon them. Just as I had to see Biff as he truly was, long ago, as someone who ached for responsibility but had no skill in exercising it in a loving or constructive way (or even really the desire to do so), just as I had to figure out that Biff had taken to Christianity because it let him finally have the admiration and respect he’d craved since childhood, just as I’d had to learn the hardest way possible that many of the worst Christians leading the religion today are there purely because they couldn’t get the fame, wealth, and power they have in religion any other way, Christians themselves are going to have to learn that too for themselves.
Considering the entire fundagelical movement is based on the concept of a god giving power and authority to those who deserve it most and heaping his approval and “blessings” on these people in the form of successful revivals and piles of money and political dominance, that’s going to be a sea change of epic proportions–and a much needed one.
Next time we’re going to talk a little more about this idea because I want to develop it a little further to discuss some other specific cases and times when Christians have been giving way too much trust to people who really don’t deserve it. Yep, it’s time to look at “Christian counselors” and a whole bunch more. I hope you’ll join me!