Sometimes right-wing Christians can behave in ways that confuse outsiders to their culture.
The National Day of Prayer (NDP) and its associated grandstanding may seem like yet another example of that confusing behavior, but it really isn’t. It fits in perfectly with their motivations and goals. Understanding the NDP can help us understand Christians themselves better–and better understand where their religion is going and why.
First, let’s touch on what a tribe is and how Christianity fits in with that term.
Building a Tribe.
A “tribe” is a term used to refer to a group of people who are more loyal to their group than they are to anything else that might unite them (like race, nationality, or even family). It’s a group that’s more than just a group; they have a strong identity, specific goals, particular practices, and a certain way of looking at other groups.
The members of a tribe see themselves as unique, special, and deserving of power over other groups. Other groups are enemies that must be fought and above all conquered; tribal groups may even see the people of those other groups as sub-humans who don’t really “count” as real people like themselves. They have customs and an ideology that they think is unique to themselves and far superior to the customs and ideologies of other groups; often they consider their customs the moral customs while other groups’ customs are immoral, and their ideology is true while other ideologies are false.
The main danger of tribalism is that tribes often think they must fight, conquer, vanquish, and eliminate other groups’ customs and ideologies for the good of all humankind. They can’t actually share the playground with other groups; they must dominate and own it all for themselves. They are the ultimate war economy: they function best when they are fighting a dreadful enemy for ultimate stakes.
If a tribe gains enough power, then they can claim that playground all for themselves. If someone else wants to play there, then they quickly come to the conclusion that they must join the tribe if they are to have any hope of getting to use the swings.
As you are likely already thinking, Christianity is, indeed, a tribe.
A Wafer-Thin Mint.
Tribes make demands of their members that outsiders would probably consider excessive if not ridiculous. Compliance not only finances the tribe’s ambitions but also gives them political clout. These demands also encourage tribe members to feel more attached to the group and more loyal to it.
Not all of the demands are big ones, especially when the tribe is first recruiting someone. Indeed, those demands sometimes seem very small.
We know that the more “favors” that someone does for another person or group, the more sympathetic that person will be to the recipient of the favor. By giving money, time, and attention to the tribe and its goals, people sink investments into that tribe that deepen their attachment to it. Demands to pray even on their own time, attend church, and do other Christian activities are issued by the tribe’s leaders and form part of a Christian’s investments in their tribe.
Some of these demands are pretty easy–perhaps to pray before meals–but as a Christian continues along in the religion, the demands will become progressively more onerous and invasive: refraining from stuff the Christian wants to do (or having to sneak around to do those things); relinquishing a significant part of their income to the tribe to use as its leaders please; wearing frumpy clothes; the list goes on and on.
By the time a believer realizes just how heavy the yoke is that’s been laid across their shoulders, it may seem too late to escape.
Part of the problem is a cognitive bias we suffer from called the sunk cost fallacy. We tend to expend more effort to avoid losses more than we expend to seek gains. In other words, someone who’s sunk $3000 into fixing an old car will feel reluctant to purchase a new car when another $1000 in repairs is needed. If we’ve already begun to attend a particular event that we paid to attend and discover that we aren’t having fun and can’t get a refund for the tickets we bought, we’re likely to sit right there and endure the event because we paid for it!
In the same way, if someone has already made a public profession of faith in an ideology or made it part of their self-image and identity, they’re unlikely to reject that ideology later without significant challenge. The longer they’ve been a member of the tribe, the harder it is for them to leave it. When they’ve learned to say “yes” to the tribe, they will find it difficult to start saying “no” later.
And those first “yeses” don’t even need to be given to big-ticket requests. One brilliant examination of this exact idea can be found in this video that compares Fifty Shades of Grey to a cult:
In the video, we see that Christian Grey gets a number of small “yeses” out of Anastasia Steele before he works up to asking her for bigger ones: he offers her a pencil, which she accepts; he offers her a coffee date, which she accepts; finally he offers her very expensive presents, which she accepts. Every “yes” she gives him is another investment she makes into their budding relationship; every “yes” also makes a future “no” all the harder to issue. Eventually, he demands her complete sexual compliance and obedience, which she gives him. But if he’d charged up to her and demanded her compliance and obedience right out of the gate, she’d have rightly laughed in his face. Tribes, in the same way, know to build up to their ultimate demands, and they know as well that people generally don’t notice this buildup–and will have trouble defying them even if they realize that the tribe’s demands are unreasonable.
The other problem making tribes so powerful is that if a tribe does indeed gain the power they crave, then other people will gravitate to the group simply to gain access to those resources–and to avoid becoming seen as that tribe’s enemy. People who want power are drawn to groups that wield power. People who are upset about losing power join groups that still seem to have the power they think they’ve lost. Nobody wants to be part of a losing team or to face a humiliating defeat, after all. A tribe that finds itself on the losing end of a squabble needs to come up with a way to regain their onetime power or else at least find a way to make themselves seem much more powerful than they really are.
That’s why Red Scares, National Days of Prayer, and other such grandstanding efforts are so terribly important to the tribe of toxic Christians.
These demonstrations are not meant to persuade. They never were.
Really, they never could.
All they’re really meant to do is give existing Christians a way to see and affiliate with their tribal leaders in a demonstration whose significance seems profound–and to send a message to non-Christians that they will not mistake or overlook.
Do What They Say, Not What They Do.
Events like the National Day of Prayer are meant to be a demonstration of tribal power–one that is needed desperately right now by Christians. Participating in the NDP’s many rallies and events gives Christians in the tribe a nice, easy way to show that they are members-in-full of the right group.
Indeed, they’re sure not doing much else that would show that affiliation!
The Pew Research Center has found that only about half of American Christians say they pray daily, while a quarter say they almost never pray at all. The younger the Christian, the less likely they are to say they pray daily. Older Christians say they pray more often than younger ones do–which tells me that though the NDP’s been going on for over 60 years, Christians are actually reporting way less prayer nowadays than they did when the NDP began. Similarly, Christians say they attend church way less often than they claimed to attend in earlier decades.
Notice that I’m drawing a clear distinction between what Christians say they do and what they actually do. We know that Christians’ self-reporting of religious observances varies quite a bit from what they really do. Christians, to put it frankly and directly, lie constantly when it comes to their spiritual walks.
Tribalism explains this situation as well.
Cheap and Easy.
Declaring that they’re doing what the tribe demands is a lot easier for Christians than actually fulfilling those demands. It’s a “cheap and easy” way to affirm and signal their tribal affiliation.
Christians know that nobody really knows what they’re doing in private. In large cities, their “church family” might not even see them or interact with them at all except during church services, so they can dress, talk, and act however they wish away from those people. They could claim they pray several times a day and never once hit their knees in private. (On that note, Biff claimed exactly this, but I never once saw him pray in private at home until I deconverted–and even then, he only did it so I could hear him!) They can act like the most pious, righteous saints of all time while they’re around their peers, and nobody will ever know any different.
Their leaders certainly don’t care if they’re meeting tribal demands or not, as long as the tribe itself remains strong. For all those leaders might rage and bluster about so-called “nominal Christians,” they were perfectly content to have those folks attending their churches for years, warming their pews, and donating to their causes. Until they got irrefutable proof that why yes indeed, their “baptism drought” is real and not just a fluke of critics’ imaginations, they didn’t seem all that upset at all about all these apparently sub-par, unworthy Christians who were cluttering up their churches.
Once Christians realized that the Religious Landscape Survey had some truly dismal things to say about their religion’s present situation and its future, that’s when they began to panic. Their power as a tribe was in danger, you see. It’s bad enough that their membership numbers are decreasing every single day, but those decreases translate into significant losses of people’s time, service, and money–and that’s worse. If the tribe could maintain its perceived stranglehold on power without the losses of those “nominal Christians,” you can bet Ed Stetzer and his pals wouldn’t be writing oodles of blog posts downplaying the impact of these defections or making truly grotesque stabs in the dark to figure out how to re-indoctrinate them before they become “Nones” and exit the tribe entirely.
As my old pastors used to say, “Dogs don’t bark at what don’t move.” Christians are responding to the threat of ex-Christians because they perceive ex-Christians as a serious threat to their cultural dominance. Ex-Christians (and others rejecting their religious claims and demands) wreck Christians’ illusion of victory.
A Comfortable Illusion.
Christians like thinking of themselves as victorious. Victory is a requirement for their tribe, and it’s one of the major reasons that I see Christians joining the tribe and staying members of it. Christians may be the underdog, they may lose a few battles along the way, but with “God” on their side they think they cannot possibly lose in the long run. It’s totally inconceivable (IN-CON-CEEV-ABLE!) for them to lose a fight, especially if they think Jesus told them to wage it.
That total faith in victory is why James Dobson was so flabbergasted when “the Lord said no” to his demand that Mitt Romney win the 2012 Presidential Election. That’s why Republicans (the “Jesus Party”) seem so confused when “God” tells them to run for offices that they end up losing. And it’s why Christians demand their god heal their loved ones’ diseases and injuries, then seem to totally forget they ever asked for such a thing–or blame themselves for messing up somehow–when their loved ones die anyway. Their tribe always wins, even when it loses.
They need victory so much that when reality refuses to give them victory, they’re perfectly content with making up victory and pretending that happened instead of their crushing defeat–and with demanding that everyone else pretend along with them that they won instead of lost.
We’ve talked about this dishonesty around losing before, when we discussed why Christian movies are so totally divorced from reality. Christians aren’t winning in reality, so they make movies that show them winning–even if it makes those movies unwatchable wrecks for everyone else.
The National Day of Prayer is one of the ways that Christians can pretend they’re still dominant. At a time when barely 20% of the country can be found in a church on any given Sunday, at a time when most people under the age of 48 are classed as “Bible skeptics”, when the biggest denomination in America releases findings of its 15+ year decline in baptisms, the NDP tells Christians that they’re so important that a secular nation’s leaders cower before their scrutiny and beg for their favor.
Despite this posturing, however, Christians know that they’re losing.
They know that tons of people are exiting their ranks every single day. They know that their efforts to persuade succeed only among the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the young, and the desperate. They know that their pseudo-scientists are the laughingstock of the real-scientist community. They know that their apologetics books exist almost entirely for the benefit of Christians, and that non-Christians are entirely immune to these works’ abysmal arguments and total divorcement from reality.
But the National Day of Prayer lets them pretend for just a little while longer that these are just temporary setbacks.
Fundagelicals’ Big Special Day reassures them that they are ultimately winning, even though reality tells them that they’re really losing in every single direction imaginable. The NDP tells them that their tribe is still victorious. It soothes their hurt feelings and indignation over the meaniepie ex-Christians and atheists who keep stubbornly refusing to accept their oversight and control.
And it lets them send a clear message to both tribal insiders and outsiders: We are winning. If you want to win, you need to join us–or at least stop opposing us.
When we look at huge grandstanding moments like the NDP, we need to see these gestures as being no different from the high school student who “bravely” leads a graduation ceremony through a prayer, or from a fundagelical-controlled political party trying to pass yet another restriction on women’s reproductive rights. They’re sending a tribal message, not actually trying to persuade sinners to give their lives to Jesus.
Little wonder they cling to the NDP like they do and make such a screaming big deal out of it. They’ve got little else going for them right now.
Next time we’ll be talking about the fun and entertaining ways that Christians find ways to circumvent, avoid, mangle, and ignore the direct commands the Bible gives them–and why they do it. We’re circling toward our grand finale in this series, and I do hope you will join me.
Also, I’m still working on the Patreon/PayPal thing but we’re almost done. I think by the end of the week that should be live. Thanks again, and please know that regardless of how it turns out, I’m hugely awed, humbled, and grateful that so many people seem so interested in supporting my work. I can’t say I don’t need that support. You can probably imagine how much time these posts take to write.
Thank you. I really heart y’all. Thank you for spending your time with me on this amazing journey.