Last time, we were talking about Robert Bentley, the now-ex-governor of Alabama, who was ousted amid accusations that he’d used state resources to facilitate and cover up his sordid affair with a staffer. One Christian minister rationalized the whole fiasco by claiming that Satan himself had gone a-hunting for this hapless TRUE CHRISTIAN™ politician. I wanted to focus more on that statement today, because I think it’s a sign of the major error in Christian thinking.
A Fundagelical’s Fundagelical.
The minister in question is the Rev. John Killian, who is billed in the NYT piece as a former president of the Alabama Baptist State Convention. He’s now the pastor of Maytown Baptist Church, a smallish church in a small town (that nonetheless has a full roster of volunteers for “security“). Though you will find the Southern Baptist logo nowhere at all on any page of the Maytown Baptist Church’s website, if you dig enough you’ll discover that John Killian is totally SBC to the fingertips–and that he has the same racist, sexist, classist leanings of any of his pals in that denomination.
His duties are clearly sparse enough to allow him to keep inserting himself and his religion into the public sphere. (Aren’t you glad that you’re helping subsidize this guy so he can push his toxic ideas onto the world?)
Last year, a few months after Robert Bentley’s staffer Spencer Collier was fired and retaliated with his fateful tell-all interview, Mr. Killian wrote a shrill, alarmist op-ed piece about how “forces of evil–antithetical to God’s moral law that defined American and British common law for centuries and antithetical to the principles of federalism which define our nation’s constitution – have hijacked the legal system.”
By this shocking (and completely historically ignorant) claim he means equal marriage, in case you’re wondering. And his advice to his tribe in how to combat this mortal peril is that TRUE CHRISTIAN™ judges and lawyers should keep working tirelessly to stop equal marriage from being a thing. He manages to hit all the moral-panic buttons that his tribe of fundagelicals holds dear, and then ends with a threat of torture in Hell just for good measure. (On the plus side, check out the comments–the readers of that site scorched him. My favorite comment so far: “Alabama: Proudly ignoring diversity and the inevitable since 1819.” That warmed the cockles of my blackened, shriveled heart.)
That was a year ago, and equal marriage is still a thing; Jesus doesn’t appear to have stopped it. Aside from a few hysterical editorials out of World
Nut Net Daily, I haven’t seen many TRUE CHRISTIANS™ trying to walk back that law, not even in Alabama. Zealous fundagelicals are still fighting against transgender rights with attempts to get bathroom bills passed in states like Texas, but when North Carolina tried to get an anti-equal marriage bill even to the hearing stage recently, it was shot down in flames. Equal marriage is the law of the land, and aside from frantically scrabbling fundagelicals, it seems like it’s going to stay that way.
Religious Narcissism in Action.
One wonders if John Killian was actually thinking of Robert Bentley’s self-inflicted troubles as he wrote that piece in WND. Certainly he has plenty of opinions to express about the topic of the ex-governor’s scandal. In the NYT article posted on Tuesday, he’s quoted as saying this:
“I think [Bentley’s] just like all of us: He’s made of flesh and bone, and he’s temptable,” said the Rev. John Killian, a former president of the Alabama Baptist State Convention. “I believe it was the devil, and I believe the devil knew he was bagging big game.”
Yes, because Satan himself is very, very concerned about “bagging” the souls of elderly politicians in backwards Christian-dominated states–so much so that he goes to extra-special effort to tempt such men. Otherwise they’d never fall into scandals and get caught doing so many hypocritical things. Despite having a real live god living inside them, somehow Christians are even worse at managing to live moral, compassionate lives than non-Christians–all because of demons! Who’d have thunk?
John Killian has expressed a very common belief among Christians. The further right you go, the more you see devils and demons being blamed for stuff–especially for instances of shocking hypocrisy coming out of Christian leaders. It’s a degree of narcissism that can hardly be imagined by people outside the faith.
So Mr. Killian is the full meal-deal package of everything Southern Baptists are all about these days, encapsulated in that criticism from Wayne Flynt, a historian and Baptist minister himself:
Being sound on the fundamentals depends on what the evangelical community has decided the fundamentals have become. At this time, what is fundamental is hating liberals, hating Obama, hating abortion and hating same-sex marriage.
He was criticizing this mindset among his peers, which we can tell because he didn’t use their approved euphemisms for all of these culture-war touchstones. Fundagelicals have long been known more for what they hate than what they profess to love; culture wars are what draw in their few new converts and keep their ranks polarized, whiny, grabby, and enraged. Though Mr. Flynt was talking about Robert Bentley in particular, he could easily have been describing John Killian as well–and most of the toxic Christians in America.
Mr. Flynt doesn’t sound like a terrible guy and he’s trying hard to combat that mindset using his limited toolset, so I’m inclined toward a measure of sympathy for him here, but he’s a product of his environment too. At the end of that NYT piece, he goes on to blame “secular culture” for “eroding evangelicalism to the point where it takes us one full year to get rid of the governor because of all of these conflicting pressures. [Bentley] would have been out the door in an hour in the 1940s,” so hang onto any cookies you might have been preparing to give him. The 1940s were no wonderland of virtue in that state.
The truth is, any Christians who blame anything but their own culture and doctrinal teachings for what’s happening in Christianity are only fooling themselves and very likely hastening their own religion’s decline into total irrelevance.
Blame, Blame, Blame.
Wayne Flynt blames secular culture. That isn’t too much different from John Killian’s blaming of Satan himself. Both men suffer from the same marked misconceptions about where the source of their religion’s repeated problems can actually be found.
Religious narcissism is one element of this problem. There’s something very flattering to believers about feeling like they are soooo important in the cosmic scheme of things that no less than angels, demons, the Lords of Hell, the Principalities of Heaven, and more besides are warring to make them commit sin or to give them the courage to avoid it.
I remember being distinctly uncomfortable at first with imagining myself as being that important, and yet preachers constantly insisted that we all were. We were “more than conquerors,” the sons and daughters of a god, and would feast at the very table of that god after we died and live in mansions he’d made specifically for each and every one of us. (There are, obviously, a lot of logistical issues with this utopian vision, but it was a very common teaching and probably still is.) That discomfort didn’t last that long, and gave way to that particular kind of arrogance that we often see out of fundagelicals.
The missing piece here is external blame for internal problems. By keeping the blame on purely external–and thus uncontrollable–sources, the people in a broken system can indefinitely avoid ever scrutinizing their system for flaws–much less fixing them.
After all, the encroachment of secular culture (by which Mr. Flynt undoubtedly means everything in modern culture that isn’t totally evangelical and Jesus-centered) is as inexorable as the tide. One might as well try to halt the sun from rising every day as stop secular culture from seeping into even the most gung-ho hardcore TRUE CHRISTIAN™ group. (This equation of modern culture with spiritual danger and fake Christianity falls well into that “true original Christianity” myth that a lot of Christians ache for–like I once did.)
The total lack of authentic, credible evidence for Christians’ claims guarantees that their culture will lose when it brushes up against the secular culture they fear. Christians who buy into particularly ludicrous flavors of the religion will always be playing catch-up to prevent their members from accidentally coming into contact with the many debunks and refutations of their pseudoscience and nonsensical fallacy-ridden arguments. Only isolation can prevent that seepage. At one time, total isolation was easier to accomplish, but now–with the modern age’s connectedness and inclusiveness–even children have computers in their pockets, and with those computers the access they need to instantly connect with communities of skeptics and scientists who can easily set them straight about the truth of all those false claims and arguments.
So all preachers and pastors can do is sigh wistfully for the good ol’ days when nobody had access to the information needed to critically evaluate all the claims being made–and thunderously denounce the people who are peeking at that information. It’s a very safe element of society to blame. Meanwhile, legions of non-believers live cheek-to-jowl with Christians, and most of us don’t have any problem maintaining trust in stuff like the Theory of Evolution, Germ Theory, the importance of bodily ownership and consent, an old universe, and a strange global lack of fairies and unicorns.
Blaming demons is even better than blaming secular culture. Any fool can see and experience secular culture–and figure out that it’s nowhere near as corrupt and evil as Christians like John Killian and Wayne Flynt make it out to be, nor as riddled with hypocrisy as fundagelical culture tends to be. But nobody’s yet actually seen, measured, or experienced the supernatural in any kind of credible way. Just as making promises that only come true after death is a guaranteed return on investment for religious people the world over, making threats based on stuff nobody can see is guaranteed to capture all the people who fear the “What if?” that religions use as their bread-and-butter.
Moreover, when Christians blame demons, they’re engaging in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Their religion tells them that they are so scary to demons that such beings will go the extra mile to torment and tempt them when they’re doing something Jesus likes. So obviously whenever one of their leaders falls to hypocrisy, that must mean he was doing something so scary to demons that they had to act definitively to eliminate the threat that Christian posed to them. My preachers used to say often, “Dogs don’t bark at what don’t move,” meaning that a Christian who felt beleaguered by troubles was probably facing demonic setbacks of some kind. You can probably imagine the effect this teaching has on its adherents.
(Of course, even if this idea were true and demons really were accosting Christians left and right, their system very poorly prepares its “prayer warriors” for their battles. Even if their supernatural claims were vaguely true, the actual system of belief and devotions they teach and learn obviously don’t come close to addressing the needs those claims entail.)
The System is Not Perfect.
When you see the same kinds of scandals erupting in one group over and over again, that’s a big sign that you’re looking at something broken in that group.
One-offs aren’t that big a concern. No large group can help having a few fringe elements who make the rest look bad or who really don’t get what the group is about. A solid, functional group has ways of handling those people, warning innocents who might run afoul of them, and expelling problem children who just don’t get with the program.
Think in terms of any high-functioning BDSM group in RL. The Dommy McDommy Dom types and other such unpleasant people get pinpointed very quickly. Innocent or newbie members get warned about the dangerous or incompetent folks in the local scene. And if those folks don’t figure themselves out and fix their damage, they soon find themselves frozen out of events or even barred from entry if they persist in trying to schmooze into any. Having a dangerous person in the scene has serious–even life-threatening–repercussions, so a healthy group will do everything it can to ensure that everyone playing at all events is safe to be around. That’s why you find so many poseurs and predators in the scene online–that’s their only viable hunting field.
By stark contrast, a dysfunctional group that is part of a broken system has no way at all to reliably identify, much less deal with, a problem child. Hell, such a person can actually climb the ranks very quickly to end up in a leadership role because there is nothing whatsoever stopping them from doing so. That is why pedophiles are drawn to Christian groups where they’ll gain free access to members’ children, and why scam artists target Christians so often. These aren’t just aberrations. They are trends.
The scary phone call, in other words, is coming from inside the system’s house, not outside of it.
That means that “secular culture” is not the issue here.
Nor is some Dark Ages conceptualization of a boogeyman with pointy horns and a pitchfork.
Ring, ring. (Maybe not SFW.)
The issue is Christian culture itself–specifically, fundagelical culture. The very group that Wayne Flynt criticizes for being so hung up on culture-war topics is the same one that dominated the Deep South’s secular culture in the 1940s–nurturing the very entrenched racism that he now fights against in his peers. And Christians like John Killian have been blaming demons for their own group’s raging hypocrisy for centuries. Both excuses are undistilled horseshit. Even if demons or secular culture were really a problem for Christianity, in 2000 years you’d expect a functional group to have come up with effective ways of engaging with both.
Yet these threats have always been serious problems. As Baptists and Catholics well know, it’s very difficult to definitively expel a predator from ministerial ranks. Even most church small groups have at least one person who’s “That Guy,” the tiresome git who keeps annoying everyone or hitting on the cute members of the group. (Nerds may well know this same pain from their own groups, which are way too often broken in similar ways to Christian groups though for different reasons–a criticism we could also level at many atheist groups.)
When a group’s leaders buy into a broken ideology and create or maintain a system using its ideas, one of the biggest symptoms you’ll see is a marked inability of the group to identify and rid itself of problem members. You’ll see, over and over again, the same scandals crop up among the same group. There has to be a way to prevent these scandals and to identify and purge these members before they can cause mischief and harm, or else people bent on causing harm are going to keep finding ways to infiltrate the system and do their will.
When you’re a group leader who sees a trend like the nonstop string of sexual crimes and scandals coming out of fundagelicalism this past few decades, you can do one of two things:
You can wring your little hands and clutch your pearls and cry about demons and blame the meaniepie atheist secular culture for making your perfect lil system go so wrong, thus absolving your system of any of the blame it deserves and also excusing yourself from ever examining the system too closely or fixing it, and sure, yeah, you can totally pretend that a hick-state politician who is dumber than a box of melted hammers is what the Lord of All Evil in the Cosmos considers “big game.”
Or you can buckle down and ask the tough questions about what about this system allows this sort of stuff to keep happening, and make the systemic changes that need to happen to fix the problem.
It’s easy to see what America’s fundagelicals have chosen to do.
And that’s why they’re going to keep seeing scandals like the one Robert Bentley has caused.
They’ve left nothing to chance on this one.
Next time we’ll be checking in with an old “friend” who’s gotten into fresh trouble since we looked at him last. Remember Douglas Wilson, the slavery apologist? Yeah, we’re coming his way. See you Saturday!