Of late, I detect a new note in toxic Christian leaders’ campaigns. Sure, they still care mightily about reversing their ever-worsening decline. Yes, of course they do. But their marketing campaigns feel like they’ve shifted a bit. Now, they promise marked improvements in their marks’ relationships through the following of toxic Christian social rules. And guess what that promise represents? If you said something we can actually objectively test, then you’re right! So let’s strap in and do exactly that. Do the most extremist, authoritarian flavors of Christianity really have a monopoly on the best marriages and happiest families? We’ll see. Today, let’s start with the belief itself–and why it’s so important to those who hold it.
The Cult of Family.
Weird, isn’t it? Jesus was, by most scholars’ reckoning at least, a bachelor who hung out with a bunch of other men. He all but disavowed his family. It’s just as well, since they apparently weren’t very impressed with him either. This wild-eyed Jewish prophet convinced himself and a great many other people that nobody had time to start families, much less raise children to adulthood. The end of the world was coming ANY DAY NOW. They had to prepare for it. He allowed his followers no distractions at all from their mission.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the final apocalypse.
The years ticked by and the world somehow failed to end.
Now, some cults–even some sects of Christianity–take an ANY DAY NOW view of their immediate futures. They discourage or even forbid members from marriage and parenthood. And those cults and sects tend to die out after a fairly short time because, well, gatekeeping marriage and indoctrinating their own children is a big part of how religious groups have always sustained themselves. (That’s why church leaders are panicking right now–as well they should!–over how few young people remain in their groups.)
I find myself fascinated with how the worst flavors of Christianity somehow morphed into what I can only call the Cult of Family: this gauzy, dreamy-eyed view of the perfect family life.
How the Cult of Family Operates.
In this perfect family, the man of the house functions as its lord and master. He earns the family’s money with an outside job and performs disciplinary tasks for the couple’s many children. Otherwise, his wife and children wait on him hand and foot. He wields the power of life and death over them; his word is undisputed law. His wife tends the home, maintaining it to his satisfaction, and renders him sexual favors upon demand. And the couple’s many children serve him and get trained to be the group’s next generation of believers.
The kinds of Christians who adopt this belief tend to consider the family a sort of allegory for their entire religion. The family’s father equals their god, obviously, while his wife represents the universal body of believers. Their children equate to unwashed heathens, of course. TRUE CHRISTIAN™ parents must restrain and brutally dominate children–exactly like those Christians want to do to all of us who reject their overreach and sales pitches.
We’ve talked many times about complementarianism. That’s the doctrine that declares that the Christian god wants men to rule over women and for women to submit to, serve, and obey men. The doctrine tells those who believe it that men and women are totally equal, just they have markedly different roles in society and in the family unit. And gosh, wouldn’t ya know it? This god just happened to assign men all the heavy lifting of leadership and management. (Aren’t women lucky to be spared all that awful and tedious work?)
One can’t consider the Cult of Family a strictly far-right evangelical thing. I’ve seen the same thinking in far-right Catholicism as well. Mormonism, of course, all but revolves around the notion.
An Example from the Wild.
A while ago, I ran into this column about a speech Russell Moore gave last fall. That’s the same guy who recently mouldered his way through a New York Times editorial to hint at the utter lack of changes we’d be seeing out of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in response to the “Abuse of Faith” journalistic report.
In this earlier story, Russell Moore declared that Christians, above all people, know how to “love their families genuinely.” Oh yes! He continues:
[I]f you ground your identity and your inheritance not in your family but in the cross, if you see yourself as crucified with Christ, if you — as Jesus tells us — find your lives only by losing them, then you are actually freed to love your family.
He told his audience that some of them were “blocked from the joy of loving your families right now because of fear.” If they’d just Jesus up, they’d know that their fear was foolish (the brackets are from the original):
The fear is resolved by the fact that you already have been through [being judged in Christ’s death], and now you have the freedom through the Spirit to love the family that you have.
Aww, too bad for us heathens, right?
We’ll dive into his ideas in more detail later. For now, I just wanted to point out how it fits into Christians’ notions of the idealized family and what it represents.
The Family as an Extended Metaphor and Barometer.
A great many Christians do believe they hold a monopoly on good families and relationships. They see the family as a little mini-me of their entire religion. That thinking falls right into line with a bunch of other Christian beliefs, particularly complementarianism. Christian leaders promise their flocks that if they toe the line with those beliefs and follow the rules to the letter, then they will be rewarded appropriately with handsome and doting husbands, beautiful and obedient wives, and harmonious and loving families.
In particular, Moore’s speech hints very clearly at his solution to the difficulties of toxic Christians’ family lives. Married men should clamp down even harder on the other people in their families. In turn, married women should go to extra lengths to obey and revere their husbands. And by no means should Christians loosen up even one tiny bit on their culture wars. That recklessness immediately opens the doors to the utter destruction of Christians’ families and relationships!
That’s definitely how Moore’s tribe took his message. He wrote a whole book about the topic of his speech. The Gospel Coalition (TGC), where integrity and compassion go to die, did a review of his book. Their reviewer (a Kentucky pastor) adored it–especially the absolute blithering meaningless nonsense Moore included like “the only safe harbor for a storm-tossed family is a nail-scarred home.” The reviewer concluded his review thusly:
Safe harbor is found when we make our home with Jesus Christ.
I’m sure that sentence thrilled its writer–and the Christians who buy into similar beliefs. But such babble suffers one serious drawback:
It correlates not one little bit with reality-based observations and experiences.
Yes, Yes. But What Does That Look Like?
How exactly do Christians “make our home with Jesus Christ?”
How can others tell for sure that a Christian is doing that or not doing that?
How does that accomplishment relate to the gaining and maintaining of a happy, loving family?
If that accomplishment matters so much in obtaining and maintaining a happy, loving family life, then why do so many Christians who say they’ve done that still have terrible family lives, while so many non-Christians and liberal Christians have great ones?
The people pushing the Cult of Family don’t know those answers. For a group that idolizes objective morality, not much about their ideology looks remotely, well, objective.
To combat the lack of objective markers and standards in their ideology, Christians like Russell Moore count on doctrinal correctness, rigorous observance of rituals, and sheer fervor to handle their real-world problems, that trifecta I nicknamed Jesus-ing.
When that fails to solve their problems, these Christians can only suggest drilling down harder on all three of those things: in other words, Jesus-ing harder.
Ugh. After a while it all melts down in my mind to a bunch of beady-eyed, corn-fed fundagelical preachers locked in a room together, all bellowing “Jesus? Jesus! Blah blah Jesus! Jesus! Jesus more! Yay Team Jesus!” like in that 1999 movie Being John Malkovich.
This movie traumatized me at first.
The other big problem with Jesus-ing harder lies in how its three components easily fall into the realm of performance art. These metrics do generally possess a whiff of objectivity, yes. One can look at a Christian and ascertain their level of displayed fervor, or one can see how often that Christian shows up for prayer meetings. And anybody can declare what doctrines they believe.
However, these metrics are also all very easily faked. That super-duper-mega-fervent-on-fire-sold-out-RADICAL Christian who never misses a prayer meeting might be the worst hypocrite in the building. And all too often, that’s exactly what that person turns out to be. Weirdly, “Jesus” very rarely tips his followers off to all the fakers in their midst.
Believing the Marketers’ Hype.
The takeaway here is that if Christians Jesus hard enough, then their families will be happy and harmonious.
Christian leaders teach that those who follow all their teachings and rules will achieve happy families. And because happy families represent one of their products, woe betide anybody who says they followed the rules and ended up with a deeply unhappy family! Just like with happiness itself, another marketing campaign, happy families become a by-product of belief.
But if someone’s family turns out poorly, that can never be the fault of their leaders’ teachings and rules.
But what else can they do but lie? Their recruitment rate is tanking. Consequently, they can’t possibly present themselves honestly–or even to create any really useful advice about how to achieve a happy, harmonious family life. Everything they say and do must remain on-message. It all has to feed into Jesus-ing harder.
That simple reality makes all their nonsensical guff about how to achieve happiness in their family lives worse than useless. And that’s where we’re heading next.
NEXT UP: How to achieve the perfect family, according to dishonest hucksters. See you next time!
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(Endnote: In the light of my monitor I saw Mr. Captain making weird arm gestures for a moment. “What are you doing?” I asked. He replied, mildly, “Rockin’ out.” Ah, okay.)