Hi! Last time we met up, I was talking about something Al Mohler said about two young men who’d left his denomination to become ministers elsewhere. He was positive that the adults in their lives hadn’t adequately “trained up a child the way he should go” to ensure that they would stay evangelicals.
Today I want to talk a little more about this idea, because it’s becoming one of Christians’ favorite excuses for why people leave their religion (or refuse to join it in the first place). What they don’t realize is that it also now forms one of the best illustrations anyone could devise for why evangelicalism is faltering as hard as it is lately.
Implicit Demands and Erroneous Assumptions from a Fading Dominant Faction.
One of our commenters picked up very quickly on one of the central fallacies in Al Mohler’s thinking as he discussed these young men’s “defections” from the evangelical end of the Christian pool:
“When these two boys, identical twins, were asking deep theological questions, who was there to help them? . . . Who was there to guide them? Who was there as an evangelical thinker, apologist, theologian, friend, pastor and guide to help them to understand these questions?”
It’s strange indeed to see that the president of the “flagship school” of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, might be so incredibly ignorant about how people operate–especially people in the age groups involved here and in the religion he himself helps to lead–but there’s a reason for it.
Both of his errors are ones that he won’t understand, much less address, until he comes face to face with the truth he’s avoiding so assiduously.
Here are the errors in question:
FIRST, he’s assuming that these two young men had serious questions about their indoctrination that they did not ask of any of those adults in their lives.
Al Mohler accuses adult evangelicals generally of not taking adequate pains to “ground our children in the faith,” saying that those children “are going to find the answers to their questions elsewhere” if someone in their own church doesn’t provide those answers. He is, in effect, accusing every single adult in those men’s lives of not being on hand “to guide them” and “to help them to understand these questions.”
We’ll skip for now the fact that his idea of guiding and helping young Christians understand their indoctrination involves drilling more talking-points, pseudoscience, apologetics arguments, and reality-denial into their heads. Al Mohler is simply making wild guesses here in his rush to find someone–ANYONE–to blame.
The problem is, he has no idea what those un-asked and un-answered questions might have been.
Even Mr. Mohler can’t figure out “any specific failing” that their home church or any adults in their lives could have committed because nothing they said supports such an accusation. In the Wall Street Journal article about the twins, they don’t indicate that anyone in their church or family did anything wrong by them. It seems plain to me that they literally found themselves wanting something that the SBC couldn’t provide by virtue of its ideology and worldview, so they found what they needed somewhere else. There was literally nothing that any SBC leader could have done to improve the situation because doing so would have required that the SBC, as a denomination, become something it isn’t and offer something it isn’t set up to offer.
Further, the young men grew up in a deeply religious home and were indoctrinated from an early age, from Vacation Bible School to singing in the choir to attending regularly both church services and Sunday School. Their mother was a “devout” evangelical stay-at-home mom, their father a proper evangelical breadwinner, and neither boy got into trouble as children.
Really, their accuser would be hard-pressed to find a single detail about their early lives that would fall outside of the prescribed life script evangelicals say is perfect for molding future lifelong evangelicals. That accuser even conceded that point.
But his worldview leaves no room whatsoever for any other reaction except figuring out who to blame for causing these young men’s defections.
It’s striking, isn’t it, to see how often fundagelical Christians make unfounded accusations against their own brethren?
SECOND, he implies that those young men were required to ask those questions of his tribal leaders.
almost funny to see someone with so little real power making such big, sweeping demands of others. Al Mohler doesn’t appear to realize that he’s the one who has something to sell, not the other way around, any more than he realizes that he’s insulting his own potential and former customers by making these unfounded accusations.
Maybe he could take a tip from other business owners and maybe stop saying nasty and untrue things about people. Any Southerner worth their flour-free cornbread* ought to know that you can catch more flies with honey, as Baptists themselves are quick to remind anyone who speaks out against their various overreaches, predation, hypocrisy, and errors.** (Alas, evangelicalism is at its core a “do what I say, not what I do” sort of worldview.)
Whether he chooses to be loving or hateful, Al Mohler is trying to claim an entitlement he does not actually deserve and to impose rules on people that they aren’t actually obligated to follow.
Nobody who refuses a sales pitch is then required to sit down with the salesperson of that product to figure out if their refusal is going to be acceptable to the salesperson or not. Like any marketer, Mr. Mohler enjoys only as much power as he is granted.
But Al Mohler really hopes nobody realizes that truth because his denomination’s evangelism is all but based around this kind of overreach. Salespeople are often explicitly taught to “push past the no” to make a sale. Christianity might not boast a physical product to sell, but don’t imagine it’s any different from any other sales-oriented business. Evangelical “salespeople,” like those of any other such business, depend upon people’s adherence to social codes of civility and politeness to impose upon our time and patience.
In that sense, what seems to upset and anger Al Mohler the most is that those two young men didn’t give his salespeople enough time or attention to close their sales. They may well have simply left without comment, or “ghosted,” and not much pisses off fundagelical leaders nowadays more than the idea of someone ghosting on them. It reminds them that they are not powerful anymore, that they do not control their adherents’ lives like they used to, and that people can leave whenever they want.
Worst of all, people who leave fundagelical churches show the rest of the sheep that escape is possible.
I don’t wonder at all about why fundagelical leaders like Al Mohler are starting to panic over the huge number of people opting to leave their churches via whatever means they feel are necessary.
Mr. Mohler simply doesn’t possess the power over others that he imagines he does. The risks and penalties associated with leaving both his religion and denomination are dropping like a rock with butterfly wings, and this decline seems like it’s accelerating faster every day. There was a time when I got the sense that church leaders were visibly bristling at the idea of having to work to make Christians want to stay members of their various churches.
They’re not quite that indignant anymore, but they still don’t have the faintest idea how to market themselves in a world where membership in a Christian church–any Christian church at all–is rapidly becoming optional rather than mandatory, and where Christians routinely switch churches or pull away from churches altogether rather than put up with environments that once they would have endured without a peep.
King Mohler Does Not Approve.
Well, Tough Noogies.
Nobody in a dominant group likes losing dominance. Al Mohler is no different. He wants to pretend like he’s still dominant, and he wants everyone, even people outside his tribe, to play along with this ruse and pretend he still does.
Here is how he’s making that demand:
1. He accuses these two young men of leaving his denomination over shallow reasons that aren’t valid to King Him.
Evangelicalism didn’t spiritually feed those two youths, so they left and found denominations that did. Most non-evangelicals would consider this explanation more than adequate. But many evangelicals can’t cope with the idea of someone being spiritually “fed” better elsewhere than at their table.
Both of the young men became ministers in their respective new denominations, so clearly they’re not just childish little hedonists seeking easy answers and an amusement park experience, as Mr. Mohler implies repeatedly. It takes hard work to become ministers in those denominations–maybe even harder work than to become a Baptist minister in some SBC-affiliated churches.
More importantly, people don’t just flit away on a whim from a denomination that makes the kind of lurid threats of violence and torture that the SBC does against dissenters.
People in dominant groups often totally mischaracterize a “defector’s” decision to leave by minimizing them or making them sound poorly-considered; it’s a great way to avoid engaging with the actual objections and challenges someone raises about their religion. It seems like evangelicals think that if they can knock down the reasoning behind the “defection,” then the person who made that decision will change their mind out of pure shame over having been deemed to have left over reasons determined to be inadequate.
(OH NOES! These people I no longer consider authoritative think I did something they don’t like for a vain, shallow, or foolish reason! WhatEVER shall I do?!?)
But if their target doesn’t grant them the right to make such judgments or doesn’t respect their powers of discernment, then this tactic falls flat–and may remind the target anew that these people use sales tactics based on psychological manipulation.
2. Mr. Mohler assumes that whatever concerns these young men had could have been quickly and easily addressed by his religion’s offerings of talking points and pseudoscience–and he also assumes that no adults in these young men’s church offered them.
Evangelicals really don’t like being confronted with the truth here, which is why I say it as often as I do: There is not one single evangelical response to challenges that really sounds compelling to someone who is aware of logical fallacies, the burden of proof, and the various cognitive biases that plague evangelical Christianity.
So yes, it is more than possible to receive a thorough indoctrination and still leave the religion. It is more than possible, as well, to hear every talking point an evangelical can summon and still reject the religion’s various truth claims.
Not only is it possible, but it happens often, if the ex-Christians I know are anything to go by.
Almost every evangelical out there seems to believe that he or she is a Magic Christian who can parrot one of those talking points in a way that a non-Christian has never heard before and will find compelling, but the truth is, every time an evangelical tries it, they just come out of the exchange having made themselves–and their religion–look even worse.
If Al Mohler had any really compelling reason for anyone to buy into his religion’s claims, we’d already know what that reason was–and nobody of any religion would be able to gainsay it because that’s how evidence works. He’s led with his most compelling arguments already, and they are lacking to anybody who can critically evaluate claims and is willing to do so even with his or her own religion’s claims.
It doesn’t take long for someone paying attention to notice that there’s no point in bringing up their questions because all they get in response is more of the same stuff that didn’t work in the first place to keep them believing!
One can hardly blame a person for not wanting to heap yet more of those tediously-predictable and ludicrous answers on themselves, even if it’d buy the Al Mohlers of the world more time to try to manipulate them.
3. He assumes as well that HIS version of Christianity does not “lead people by their senses,” while others do. Seriously.
For all that the SBC trumpets its adherence to and belief in (what it misunderstands as) the Bible’s commands and claims, its version of Christianity is far more “Low Christian” than “High Christian.” By that I mean that fundagelicals live far more on the folklore end of the Christian scale than the ivory-tower academic end of it, and their practices are far more orgiastic and spontaneous than scholarly and ritualistic: to wit, more Dionysian than Apollonian.
Knowing what I know of the various denominations, it’s downright weird to see a Southern Baptist pretend that his denomination is more theologically-minded and less emotion-driven than Catholicism or Anglicanism. In my direct experience, they usually accuse those other denominations of being too liturgy- and theology-oriented to care about their “personal relationship” with
the ceiling Jesus and for producing believers who are “lukewarm” (which is Christianese for “a Christian who isn’t nearly as fervent as I am”). Hell, that’s why they keep calling “seminary” “cemetary” and saying that’s where Christian belief goes to die–and why evangelicals are so rabidly anti-education and anti-intellectualism.
The leaders of evangelical denominations can pretend all they like that their doctrines and worldview are based on scholarship or studied consideration of Bible history and archaeology or science or whatever else they want to think. To people like me, evangelical doctrines and worldview look painfully ignorant, childish, puerile, politicized, cruel, controlling and regressive. Evangelicals generally start with a conclusion and work backwards to find some way to shoehorn their desired behaviors and beliefs into their accepted authorities (misunderstood Bible verses, pseudoscience, etc). They find whatever permission slip they can wrangle for they really want to do and believe, then beat everyone else over the head with the policies that flow from that top-down reasoning.
There’s more than one way to be “led by the senses,” is what I’m saying here.
It’s not just being swayed by raucous, loud music (like one encounters in evangelical churches) with manipulative lyrics and beats (see previous note) and repetitive, mind-numbing refrains (see previous note), emotionally-manipulative preaching and evangelism based on terrorizing people and enticing their greed (see previous note), pushing a Prosperity-Gospel-like message that promises adherents all kinds of good things if they are obedient and all kinds of punishment if they are not (see previous note), or a perky happy-happy-joy-joy-all-the-time mentality that doesn’t allow for extended periods of sadness, doubt, or despair (see previous note).
People can also be led by their feelings of smugness, their need to feel correct and superior, and their desire to look down on, judge, and control other people…. Mr. Mohler.
They’ll flock to any ideology that tickles their ears if it tells them what they want to hear…. Mr. Mohler.
Those who have ears to hear, let ’em goddamned well hear.
Next time: Sometimes evangelicals forget, when they’re railing about non-believers and ex-believers, that they’re talking about real people and not constructs in their bubble-reality. That’s why so much of what they say to and about us doesn’t seem to bear the faintest resemblance to our lived reality (or even whatever we just said to them).
Al Mohler, in this podcast he made about those two young men, isn’t just singing to his own choir. He’s also sending a clear message to people who are considering leaving his denomination. I’ll show you what that message is next time, and talk about why so many Christians feel the need to send such a message. See you next time!
* I will not bend on this point. Southern cornbread doesn’t have wheat flour in it. Sorry. I’ll look away if you want to put brown sugar in it, as Mr. Captain likes it, but if you put flour in your cornbread you no longer have cornbread. You have muffins. Or cake. And that’s fine. I’ll eat it anyway and probably like it. I just won’t call this unholy marriage “cornbread.”
** But you catch more honeys being fly, as Mr. Captain said out of nowhere the other day.