The old joke goes thusly:
A man became well-known for robbing banks. Every time he got released from prison, he’d go right out and rob another bank. Finally, someone asked him why he kept robbing banks. He replied in some surprise, “Why, because that’s where the money’s kept.”
In the same exact way, when Christians treat non-believers like children, they are showing us where their “money” is kept–what the rewards are that they actually seek and treasure so much that they’d rather have that than whatever their stated goal is. Today we’re going to examine whether or not their behavior actually results in the “money” they say they want.
Remember the goals that Christians state (or at least imply) they are trying to achieve with their paternalism. This is the “money” they claim they want to win when they treat us like we’re their children:
* To put themselves back into a position of dominance over non-believers, bringing their tribe back into dominance generally over all other tribes.
* To prevent natural disasters, outbreaks of societal violence, and other catastrophes, which they think are sent by their infuriated but somehow still “loving” deity as punishment for non-believers’ refusal to comply with Christian demands.
* To persuade non-believers to convert to Christianity once we see how wonderful it is to live according to Christian demands.
Notice that none of this sounds like “love and serve your neighbor” and only tangentially concerns itself with converting people, but fundagelicals stopped caring about that stuff quite some time ago. We’re just looking at their actual goals here, not the ones the Bible tells them they should have. Though fundagelical Christians themselves famously don’t care if their behavior actually results in the achievement of their stated or implied goals, out here in reality-land that’s how we test and measure the effectiveness of our strategies. We define what we’re trying to accomplish, and then see how well our behavior brings us in line with that goal.
If I said I wanted to lose 50 pounds and was planning to do it by watching Netflix and eating 6000 calories of chocolate bars every day, at the end of a month I could measure my weight and determine that something had gone seriously wrong. Because I wasn’t gaining a pound a day before trying this new fad diet, chances are that the serious problem would be the chocolate-and-chill diet itself. The results of my behavior wouldn’t be lining up at all with what my stated goals were. If I kept insisting that this diet was an effective weight-loss method when I obviously was not only not losing weight but gaining it, then people would have good reason to look askance at me and to distrust the diet I was praising to the skies. And if my job were to persuade people to try this diet, then they would be right to reject it out of hand as clearly ineffective (which is why diet companies tend to fire spokespeople who seem to constitute living proof that their system doesn’t work).
So it’s simply astonishing to me that Christians don’t see that what is getting accomplished by their constant shows of controlling paternalism are not only not getting them what they want, but are achieving the dead opposite of what they say they want.
What Christian paternalism accomplishes:
1. It gives Christians a feeling of authority over others that they can’t get in any other way.
When I was Christian, I noticed that a lot of people in my church derived feelings of authority and superiority from their religious faith. Even someone on the lowest rungs of society could feel superior to a bank president because he or she had chosen the right religious nonsense to believe. They talked about it sometimes–even gloated about it in ways that echoed the Bible itself: “see how the lowest is made high, and the highest is brought low!” I see that same attitude in paternalistic Christians, who very clearly relish the authority they’re trying to assert over non-Christians. Little wonder their conceptualizations of their relationships with non-believers tend to put them into the roles of missionaries, teachers, parents, military and police officers, and government leaders.
2. It gives them a burst of moral and intellectual superiority they couldn’t attain by treating non-Christians as equals.
Studies have shown that people involved in extremist right-wing ideologies tend to have much higher needs for certainty than those who don’t get into such movements. Treating those outside the tribe like they’re know-nothing children clearly boosts Christians’ own feelings of certainty. Some of them will go on to piously declare that they “planted a seed” and will now let “God” handle the rest, which is Christianese that means that they’re abdicating responsibility for whatever happens after their attempt to wrestle control away from their victims has been rejected. The mere act of behaving certain about their claims makes them feel more certain about those claims.
3. Fighting–both with us, and among themselves about doctrinal issues and practices–makes them feel deliciously persecuted and gives them something to oppose.
One could describe the entire thrust of fundagelical Christianity, especially as it is practiced in the United States, as one big squabble with non-adherents. The movement largely began as a reaction against modernization of attitudes and mores in most of America, and now largely stands as a proudly and defiantly contrarian, regressive, and obstructionist movement reacting to the further modernization of those attitudes and mores–largely by attempting to “reconstruct” their largely-mythic view of antebellum America. If the Christians who buy into this “war on X” and “for their own good” nonsense didn’t have anything to fight against or grab for, they would have to examine themselves for flaws instead–and goodness, that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.
4. It gives them an excuse to control and dominate others.
The entire paternalistic thrust of fundagelicalism is very little more than a big permission slip that Christians write themselves in order to mistreat others. Borrowing “divine” authority allows them to sidestep their own culpability in mistreating people–it’s not their choosing, of course, nobody would choose to mistreat people and nobody likes to mistreat people… it’s just orders from the top, man, whaddya gonna do? But if those orders don’t actually exist and if the particular god they think is giving them these orders doesn’t either, then they’re getting these marching orders from themselves. Until they can demonstrate otherwise, that is what I–and a great many other people–are going to be thinking when we see them treat us like we’re children who must obey them as our parents. Genuinely good people who happen to be Christian shrink away from the idea of mistreating people–and they generally claim to reject this tactic because of Jesus too.
5. It gives them a way to negate and silence people with whom they disagree.
As we’ve recently seen around here, accusing a non-Christian of being “childish” is one way that Christians excuse themselves from having to engage with people they don’t like or approve of. They don’t even have to listen to what’s being said if they can hand-wave it all away with an accusation of “childishness!” Who’d ever listen to a kid who wants candy for dinner, right? Obviously everything that a kid says is nonsensical and ludicrous, and children can never be trusted to be right about anything. (For all their obsession with infantilization, Christians don’t think very highly of children generally.) Negating and silencing each other works in their churches because people indoctrinated into fundagelical culture are trained to respond to it, so of course they’re going to try the same tactics on people outside that bubble.
Now that people aren’t required to be Christian or to comply with Christians’ demands, Christians have to persuade us to do what they want us to do. And what they’re doing is having exactly the opposite effect, as I’ll show you now:
What Christian paternalism does not accomplish:
1. It does not persuade anybody to change their behavior or minds about anything they’re doing.
Nobody likes being treated like a child, especially when they’re not being childish and not answerable to the people making the accusation. If the goal is to shame people into behaving more like how Christians want them to behave, it’s certainly not working to do that. When Christians try to control, negate, or silence us, we deny them–every chance we get. There might have been a time that their efforts paid off, but that time is fast fading into memory. At this point, the harder they try to control others, the harder they get rejected for it–and the more of their own adherents they alienate and drive away in the doing.
2. It does not make Christians look better as a group.
Most people are well aware of the fact that Christians aren’t better people than non-Christians are, so this parental act of theirs only drives home how hypocritical Christians are and how ill-equipped to wield the power they desperately crave over others. Me, I’m looking forward to the day when people look at Christians trumpeting their superiority in the same way they consider “family values” politicians. As it is, many Christians are now declining even to publicly use the Christian label for themselves, leaving church culture entirely, and finding other ways to distance themselves from their onetime group because they are embarrassed about what their brethren are doing to the group’s name.
3. It isn’t making people convert to Christianity.
I’ve never heard of someone being condescended at or disapproved of so hard that they converted. Have you? No Christian I’ve ever asked has ever seen this either, though when a Christian suggests maybe the group should stop trying to control people often the accusation flung at that person will inevitably be something like “you’ll never convert sinners if you’re nice to them!” Generally when you hear about Christians’ efforts resulting in a conversion (or, more normally, a re-dedication by someone who’d once been Christian but hadn’t actually deconverted), it’s because the Christian went the second mile in being loving, accepting, and gracious toward the other person.
Christians want non-believers to ask “What does this person have that I don’t have?” But that’s not what we’re asking. I can’t think of many people who would actually want to join a religion whose people behave like fundagelicals in particular do. Certainly we don’t see anything they have that we lack–and a lot of things they do have, we don’t want. Whatever they think they have, we’d just as soon they inflicted on their own people and left the rest of us alone unless we specifically ask to talk to them about it.
4. It isn’t making anybody even vaguely more friendly toward the idea of Christian dominion over non-Christians.
People are not only rejecting Christian control efforts, but they are rejecting those efforts so vehemently that it’s producing a backlash against Christian overreach. I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Christian efforts to control others actually accomplish much the opposite, like what Fred Phelps’ efforts to criminalize and shame gay people did for LGBTQ acceptance generally. In much the same way, polls show that Americans’ once-firm support for “religious liberty” and “conscience exceptions” took a sharp nosedive after Kim Davis showed them exactly what those terms mean when played out in real life with real human beings suffering as a result of Christian bigotry. The various petty-looking crusades that Christians keep mounting to try to regain their lost relevance are finally starting to see some serious pushback from members of their own tribe, as well–with Christians themselves speaking up about fundagelicals’ furor over, in this case, a secular, for-profit coffee company that didn’t pander enough to fundagelicals this holiday season. Even Christians are losing patience with their tribe’s chest-thumping.
5. It does not accomplish Jesus’ command to his followers to “love your neighbor” or to serve others.
As much as Christians want to claim that treating adult non-believers like children is a form of loving them, they’re never going to convince the rest of us to use their Bizarro-world definition of love. What they’re doing doesn’t feel loving. It doesn’t produce loving interactions or a blossoming of understanding or compassion. It is done by sanctimonious, supercilious Christians who sniff down their noses at non-believers and want to control them. Period. Do you ever wonder how much money fundagelicals spend to fight “the War on Christmas?” I sure do. I bet that’s a lot of homeless people’s meals right there. What about their war on LGBTQ people and equal marriage? How many houses could they build for those who need it? How many utilities bills could they pay this winter for people in danger of losing heat?
Forget their palatial Fort God worship buildings and their “parsonages” that are bigger than the average apartment complex. Forget their youth “poor-ism” missionary trips and their youth programs that look more like weekly Metallica concerts. Forget their huge big ole statues of crosses and praying hands. Forget the fancy suits and cars their leaders enjoy as “blessings for their obedience.” Just think about their crusades to maintain Christian tribal dominance: the elaborate nativity creches on government land, the Christmas pageants, the stone idols of their holy book, the ads and signage they make and display, the airtime bought and sermons preached to get people to send money to fight all these “wars” they keep coming up with, the books they print and buy to get the sheep whipped up into a frenzy, the money spent to buy and keep politicians saying the right things, their efforts to sneak Creationism into schools, and all the rest of it. Does a single bit of Christians’ financial focus say “love” to anybody outside the tribe? Because it sure doesn’t to me.
And as much as it’d help Christians out if folks would accept this grandstanding, pandering, and fearmongering as loving, we’re not going to do it. When they try to insist that it is, all we think about is how happy we are that we’re not part of a religion that requires us to hold such a markedly bizarre definition of love. They’d rather control society than love or serve it, and that fact is quite plain to perceive.
The end result of mismatched goals.
At this point just about more young people view Christianity negatively as view it positively, with one survey discovering that only 15% of surveyed young people claimed they were “deeply committed” to the religion, and let’s just remember here that these young people were supposed to be the next generation of Christians. They were supposed to replace all the older people who are now “graying in place” in pews across America.
If this religion can’t even hold onto its own people, one cannot expect it to do much better in winning outsiders to its banner. And indeed, it isn’t. If you look at a list of countries where Christianity is actually growing, according to Christians themselves, you’ll notice something immediately about them: they tend to be theocracies or dictatorships that are not exactly bastions of freedom, liberty, and compassion. In Western countries noted for their freedom of religion, Christianity is fading fast. Survey groups like Barna are starting to slip terms like “post-Christian” into their writings–and are starting to publish a lot of editorials and blog posts about how they and their flocks should proceed in the wake of societal rejection of them and their message.
Christians act like someone saying that a 6000-calorie-chocolate-bar-and-Netflix diet will result in weight loss, which is ironic given that they literally compare non-believers to children who want to eat chocolate instead of healthy food. When they survey the sorry results of this diet, their only options are to deny that they’re gaining weight, try to knock down those who criticize their diet fad as if they’re playing a game of Last Ideology Standing, or to insist that somehow, via magic, they’ll wake up one morning and discover that they’re a size 4 if they just keep obediently eating all that chocolate and watching Netflix.
None of these strategies have gotten them to the bank they say they want to reach. But Christians pursuing the strategies I’ve outlined above will reach an entirely different kind of bank–the one that stores the money they really want. We need to watch where they’re really heading if we want to learn what their priorities are–and for the ones who genuinely want to achieve the religion’s goals of loving their neighbors and serving those who need it, which (again) is what Jesus actually told his followers to do, then giving serious thought to their chosen tactics may serve as a wake-up call that is sorely needed.
Nothing would please me more than seeing Christians heed that wake-up call and amend their mistakes. I don’t think doing so will convert people, but at least it’ll very likely stop the hemorrhage of so many existing Christians from their churches–and it’ll certainly lead them to becoming more of a force for good in the world than they are now. Really, it’s up to them. But I don’t think they have a lot of time left before they hit a tipping point from which their religion cannot return–if they haven’t reached that point already.
And I won’t grieve about what happens either way, because either way… well… you know, right?