One of the reasons I tend to be so optimistic about America’s future is that we are slowly coming to our senses about some of the religious overreach that’s been going on recently. I know that–especially given the dismal outcome of the last election–that it can sometimes feel overwhelming, but I don’t think that my optimism is at all out of place. Here are two examples of why I think that.
I’ve talked about Mars Hill Church a few times on this blog. Mars Hill Church, based out of Seattle, is a megachurch franchise started by Mark Driscoll, who presented himself as a more user-friendly style of Christian. The first Mars Hill church was just a little homebrew plant, but his message fell on fertile soil. Very quickly that little home-meeting church blew up into a network of satellite churches and many tens of thousands of members–so many that the church had to make smaller cell groups that were like mini-churches within their churches, which is where I first heard about the practice. (When I was a Christian, we certainly broke into little informal groups and cliques that met for Bible study and prayer and whatnot, but we didn’t have formal names for these groups or consider them an official part of our practices, so I had no idea this was even becoming a trend till I heard about Mars Hill Church doing it.)
Mr. Driscoll’s hipster, in-your-face style of evangelism and preaching hid a fairly standard-issue Calvinist theology. I mean, I didn’t even know that’s what it was till I began this blog and wanted to find out for a post about him. I think it was a good idea that he kind of kept that on the down-low; Calvinism is–out of every flavor of Christianity–the most vicious, mean-spirited, and nasty flavor of Christianity there is, in my opinion. Calvinist Christians hold the view that their god has already decided who’s going to Heaven and who isn’t from the beginning of time, and if you’re not among that lucky number, there’s nothing you can do about it anyway. They don’t even apologize for how horrifyingly evil their outlook makes their god seem. Might makes right, and people who are in the club should just rejoice that he chose to have a little tiny bit of mercy on them. You can probably imagine very easily what sort of heartless Christian results from that sort of thinking, and you’d be right. To me, the real wonder is that Mark Driscoll fooled people as long as he did.
It didn’t take long for his true colors to start showing, though his flock hand-waved and explained away most of it at first–and when their leader felt compelled to apologize, they happily accepted his repeated and frequent apologies in the heady early days of Mars Hills’ ascendancy. Still, cracks began appearing in his uber-godly super-bro facade. People began noticing that he really, really, really didn’t like men who didn’t act like stereotypical ultra-masculine men like him. They began noticing that he really, really, really had some firm (but erroneous) ideas about harmless practices like yoga. They began wondering why, in his sermons, he kept drilling down on women’s proper roles, why he kept bad-mouthing his wife, why he seemed so totally obsessed with sex, and why he kept emphasizing that married women should always be sexually available to their husbands no matter what.
Slowly tales of extreme victimization began leaking out of the church–people who’d tried to leave but got harassed by their now-ex-leaders, women who’d faced demands from Mr. Driscoll himself to share with him details of their sexual habits and preferences, Mars Hill-sponsored forums he’d polluted with rabidly misogynistic language under a pseudonym, people he’d threatened physically and driven out of leadership positions for disagreeing with him, and–finally–allegations of leadership and financial impropriety, as well as a sort of offensively self-serving dishonesty, such as a time outlined in that Daily Beast piece when he claimed that copies of his book had been taken away from him by security at a church conference he’d crashed, when video evidence showed that no, actually, he’d given those books of his own free will to that conference.
It’s pretty clear to me that Mr. Driscoll was running his own little kingdom at Mars Hill. I’m really not sure why he thought he could keep going that way forever. When the church-planting group he’d helped start, Acts 29 (Christians in the Cool Kids’ Club would know immediately that it was called that because the book of Acts in the Bible only has 28 chapters, seewhutheydidthere?), finally got sick of his shit and removed Mars Hill from its network this past August, that was a big indication that things were swinging in the other direction. When finally a board of elders investigated him, found him at fault in a number of ways, and removed him from active leadership last month (October), you could all but see his outrage crackle through the not-pologies he issued wherein he tried to claim that he’d done nothing blatantly illegal (implying that he didn’t see what the big fuss was about). He decided to take a six-week “vacation” in the middle of that investigation, but it wasn’t hard to see where things were going–and by then his church’s membership across campuses was about half what it’d been beforehand, and it was bleeding money from arterial wounds to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in the red.
When that board provided what the Christian biz calls a “restoration plan” for him to improve his behavior and eventually return to leadership with their full blessings, he flat-out resigned rather than allow anybody to have any kind of power over him.
Unsurprisingly, now we learn that Mars Hill Church is closing its doors. Its satellite churches will become independent; the church will make one final disbursement of funds to them from its depleted coffers, and then the entity “Mars Hill Church” will cease to be.
It’s the end of an era.
I admire that–even knowing what the likely outcome would be for their church, their finances, and their own comfortable positions–some of those leaders still tried to do the right thing. It means a lot to me, as an outsider deeply concerned about Christian overreach, that some of them clearly had consciences and tried to do right by the people Mr. Driscoll and his cronies had victimized. But I don’t think they’re going far enough, and neither do some of their members and ex-leaders; they’ve openly said that they’re disappointed that Mr. Driscoll has never really atoned or even come to grips with what he did to the people who trusted him so much (and certainly doesn’t seem like he’ll be changing his ways–I guess Jesus doesn’t really change people?), and they’re not happy that Mars Hill’s various churches don’t appear to have realized that their members want greater accountability and transparency in both finances and leadership style. In other words, they realize that their church would rather close entirely than treat people the way they think they deserve to be treated, and they realize that Mark Driscoll would rather take his ball and go home like a petulant Cartman than accept any kind of overseeing or regulation.
One thing that really just tore my heart was seeing, though, how some churches held on to the bitter end wanting Mr. Driscoll to somehow make a grand return. One church kept posters advertising his impending visits and sermons long after he’d come and gone, specifically in hopes that he’d stay as the leader of this organization:
I ran into Pastor Scott Harris as he left the church property. Harris said it’s been a tumultuous time and he didn’t want to be interviewed on tape. He said the posters reflected the hope that Driscoll wouldn’t leave the church. James Wellman says the loss for many church members is shocking.
Awww, poor widdle Mark Driscoll….. Now, I want you to think about how his victims would take that statement. If you’d been one of the men he’d threatened or one of the women he’d sexually harassed, if you’d been one of his “small group” members who’d been stalked and threatened for leaving the group, how would you feel seeing this misplaced sympathy? I know how I’d feel–I’ve been there myself, when I saw people feeling all sorry for my ex-husband after I’d had to flee from him and his physical threats of violence. It feels like a negation, like a re-victimization all over again. It’s a slap in the face. It’s so out of touch with reality that it just staggers the imagination. And I’m not even directly involved.
So I’m not guessing we’ll be hearing a hell of a lot more out of Mars Hill. The question is whether or not the trusting, ignorant people who bought into that nasty brand of Christianity realize what it does to its adherents and leaders before they flock to another charismatic Calvinist leader. The way I see it, the problem isn’t Mark Driscoll himself–like Joyce Meyer did, he just saw a niche that he could fill and he filled it. If it hadn’t been him, it’d have been somebody else. It’s the mindset that is at fault. That brand of Christianity produces predators and victims, and nobody should be shocked or surprised that Mars Hill abounded with both. So I do not grieve its passing. May its corpse rot on the roadside as a warning to all of us.
Our second collapsed megachurch is another I’ve talked about off and on: New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, which is run by the super-popular pastor Eddie Long. Like a great many megachurch pastors–especially African-American ones–Mr. Long took a very hard-line stance against LGBTQ people. He preached a theology which that link calls “messy,” focusing on prosperity gospel. Prosperity gospel is the idea that the Christian god deeply rewards those who please him. Rich people are obviously especially favored. Showing one’s wealth is almost required. The hint is always offered out to desperate congregations that if they just give till it hurts and obey no matter what, sooner or later they will be showered with riches and favor just like their pastor. Mr. Long delighted in taking selfies of his gym-honed, muscular body; he favored tight muscle shirts and flashy gold jewelry. People ate it up with a spoon.
As we see happening with quite a few rabidly bigoted Christians, though, there were some significant skeletons in Mr. Long’s closet. The news came out eventually that even while he was preaching that gayness was “a spiritual abortion,” he was himself grooming young men in his church for sexual predation. Though he vehemently denied the allegations, more and more young men bravely stepped forward to accuse him of giving them gifts and vacations to induce them to have sex with him. In the end, he settled the lawsuits out of court and somehow weathered the storm.
Then another lawsuit broke against him last year, this one alleging serious financial impropriety: it seems he’d encouraged his church members to invest in a financial scam that lost them a lot of money. Though Mr. Long had been warned well in advance that Ephren Taylor’s financial seminars were scams, he allowed the Ponzi schemer to hold those seminars and encouraged his flock to invest in the fellow’s company, introducing him to the church members as “my friend, my brother, the great Ephren Taylor”–though rather tellingly, Mr. Long did not invest in any of those scams himself.
That lawsuit as well was settled out of court. Some victims got at least a little of their money back. Neither Mr. Long nor Mr. Taylor admitted any wrongdoing whatsoever. (And I’ll mention this too: my preacher ex-husband Biff used to do a Jesus smile for photos the exact same way that Mr. Taylor does in that link’s photo of him; it’s actually unnerving for me to see the exact same expression like that. Just as educated people are reluctant to say that a pedo-smile is the unerring mark of a pedophile, I’m reluctant to say that a Jesus smile is the unerring mark of a Christian conjob, but it is a little jarring to realize how many Christian conjobs wear this same expression. I’ll think about it and we’ll talk about it later sometime.) And just as in the previous lawsuit, a number of Eddie Long’s supporters remained supportive.
Remember what we were just talking about with Mark Driscoll and how his victims are very likely viewing the support he still has from a great number of people in his church? Remember how those people who were victimized by his bullying, swaggering, verbally-violent behavior likely felt about seeing posters for their abuser hanging in the halls of their churches and hearing their pastors pine openly after his return? Now imagine you’re a very old African-American lady who just lost her entire life savings to a scam that Eddie Long knowingly allowed to happen at the hands of someone he’d been warned was a conjob. Imagine you’re one of the young men he preyed upon and groomed sexually for his use. How would you feel knowing that the man who’d allowed and perpetrated harm to come to you was still strutting around a stage preaching the word of your savior like everything was totally fine? Imagine how it would it feel to have your fellow church members say shit like what one longtime member said: “What he does in his personal time, he does. As long as he’s in there preaching, that’s what matters to me.”
Whatever the dude does “in his personal time” is totally fine with that person?
If I were any of Mr. Long’s victims, I’d be pretty upset by that show of insouciance. Considering how his group is so hugely bigoted that when Coretta Scott King died a number of civil rights leaders refused to attend the funeral his church held for her, they certainly show themselves happy to push into other people’s lives and judge their private decisions. But now suddenly they don’t want to judge what their leader is doing? If I found out that someone I respected and followed was raping people or stealing, you can damned well bet I would disavow that person. We’re not talking about someone who’s just doing something that hurts only him- or herself. I’ve had friends who cheated on their significant others with other consenting adults, or who maybe didn’t repay small personal debts, or small things like that. We’re all human. But this goes way past personal shortcomings. We’re into a far more malevolent territory. We’re dealing with someone who sees nothing wrong with systematically victimizing others and abusing them, someone who doesn’t understand basic issues like “consent” and personal integrity, someone who is happy to line his own pockets at the expense of elderly people’s losing their retirement savings and who lavishes troubled young men with riches to induce them to fuck him.
And that so many of his flock have been so willing to overlook this very basic flaw and accept their pastor anyway speaks to me of people who would rather keep believing in pie-in-the-sky than accept that Eddie Long’s ideology produces people like Eddie Long: dishonest, predatory, vain, abusive, and greedy. They would rather keep believing that their god rewards the just and punishes the unjust than accept that Eddie Long doesn’t seem like he’s being punished at all.
Or isn’t he?
Just days after the sex abuse case got settled in 2011, Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. and an elder of his church, resigned from her position without comment. And Eddie Long’s own finances a couple years ago saw considerable scrutiny, examining his millions of dollars in personal debt and his private plane and enmeshment of his personal finances with church finances and whatnot.
Ephren Taylor himself, that “brother” and “great” fellow that Eddie Long introduced in such glowing terms, ended up going on the run from the law. They just caught him in June and he just pleaded guilty last month to scamming Eddie Long’s flock and is awaiting sentencing–which I’d think would tell members of that church just how culpable their pastor was in allowing something like this to happen to them.
And the franchise itself is losing one of its big-ass satellite churches to foreclosure–a foreclosure brought about by a series of devastating financial scandals and mistakes on the part of its leadership. Its pastor, Terrell Murphy, had already resigned last year to go start another church, but the church is still struggling along. Having lost their six-year-old, 2400-seat church and all 64,000+ square feet of its campus, they’re meeting now at what sounds like a healthcare office. Meanwhile, back in Atlanta, Eddie Long’s own church had to close its 20-year-old Christian school.
The picture I see painted when I look at all of these splashes is one of a deeply dysfunctional and struggling organization, not one whose own prosperity gospel says should be winning on every single level. I’m sure it’s that prosperity gospel itself that is spelling Eddie Long’s downfall.
So, friends, we have two major megachurches, two major leaders, and two major endings here.
The problem with evangelical Christianity really is that it’s dishonest and ends-justify-the-means. To rise to those dizzying heights almost requires a certain amount of amorality and narcissism. But once there, amorality and narcissism can be hugely problematic. That type of Christianity–yes, a toxic kind at that–also has a circling-the-wagons mentality that doesn’t allow members to speak out against abuse or discuss wrongdoings they see going on, but even then abuses will come out at some point. In this new era of accountability and transparency, such wrongdoing and abuse becomes even less tolerable. And once word gets out, some church members will drill down harder on supporting their leaders–but others will drift away. I’ve heard some of them talk about leaving for other churches, and others eventually hit that point where they just don’t see the point of going to church at all.
Every single scandal rocking Christianity today–and oh, I could write about those scandals every single day and twice on Sundays!–is a symptom of the disease. The disease is that it is not true, and deep down, their leaders know it, I bet. Of all the world, these leaders have the most incentive to obey what they themselves preach. And yet even they cannot.
That’s why I’m optimistic. At the end of the day, these scandals and these closures and these lawsuits represent a lot of human misery and suffering, yes. But they also mean that fewer and fewer Christians are putting up with this shit from their leaders. This kind of Christianity is not winning. It’s too early to say they’re done completely, but they are definitely fading and losing their cultural dominance.
Take heart, my friends.