As we discussed last time, authoritarian Christians have begun drilling down hard on how awesomely superior they claim their group is at producing perfect families. Originally, I planned today’s post to cover exactly how someone could gain that promise and achieve that happiness. But rapidly, I realized that to even get into that, I had to explain a bunch of stuff first. Today, we begin with how Christian salespeople utilize the Cult of Family as a sales pitch. Come join me for a look at how the sausage of this sales pitch gets made–and used.
(No hate for sausage. I love artisanal sausage and know it is of the highest quality. Heck, I’ll happily eat sausage that contains even meatstuffs I won’t touch in whole form. In this post, I simply refer to the old saying: “Laws are like sausages: it’s better not to see them getting made.” Religion’s exactly the same!)
Does This God Even Want His Followers To Have Happy Families?
The answer to this question varies wildly by the Christian leader and what he (or, sometimes, rarely, she) wants to sell to the flocks right then.
I mean, you would think that if a god really wanted his followers to have some kind of leg up on good family lives, he’d imbue his followers with that knowledge. However, nothing could be further from the reality experienced by Christians. Their god doesn’t tell them squat about how to conduct their relationships. Nor does he grant them the wisdom to figure stuff out on the fly.
As a result, a huge Christian cottage industry long ago sprang up to “minister” to the flocks seeking this goal. (Minister to is a Christianese term. It means, roughly, sell worse-than-useless junk.) Most of those hucksters seek to sell seminars, courses, books, and video series to Christians desiring happy family lives.
So yes, these salesmen insist that their god totally does earnestly desire for his followers to have happy families.
Indeed, many Christian leaders trumpet this insistence to the very skies.
And they all have something to sell.
(Examples: Tomorrow’s World, Mormonism (of course), the Church of God, Prosperity hucksters Olga Hermans and Adrian Rogers, the Jehovah’s Witnesses (LOL), the United Church of God, and various blogs like this guy’s.)
Even in Dissent, Lockstep Agreement.
But other Christian hucksters market a whole different product to the flocks. Their success depends on enforcing rigid, brutal conformity and obedience, not on making their audiences feel good. They seek members who will place ideology ahead of their own future happiness and emotional health. In that context, happiness might follow after someone has lived those rules sufficiently fervently, but it probably won’t.
So no, to this second group of hucksters, their god does not actually care if their followers are happy. They present their wares with an eye toward making a happy family life sound unimportant or incidental. Examples include Focus on the Family, Rowdy John Piper (however: here), and the ever-dependably-wackadoodle Charisma News.
And they present their wares in this way precisely because they know that their competitors take the opposite view, but that their own product absolutely does not produce anything like happiness on a consistent basis. Their customers, as accustomed as they are to failures, will find this failure so dramatic that they can be counted upon to talk about it enough to scare off other customers.
However, one notes that even these dissenting hucksters generally insist that conformity and obedience produce rewards of their own. TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ confers the only correct and trustworthy form of joy–one defined and controlled by its hucksters. The Charisma writer linked above noted that Christians all too often “confuse” that emotion with happiness:
[His definition of “joy”] is an inward sense of peace, contentment and even ecstasy due to our righteous standing in Christ and fellowship with the Holy Spirit. Joy should be present in all believers in spite of the circumstances or challenges one might be facing. Joy is a supernatural experience that cannot be explained outside of a supernatural act of God.
Ah, okay. So it works exactly like the competitors’ product, just more mysteriously. (The Christian-centric comic strip Rose is Rose calls this state “the No-Reason Happies.”) Obey, and it’ll work out to your benefit. Somehow. If it never does, that’s certainly no valid reason to abandon the ideology.
Really! How dare you think this is about you?
This Ain’t Nothing New.
For many decades, Christian leaders–particularly authoritarian ones, as we find in evangelicalism–didn’t worry their pretty little heads much about increasing rates of disengagement. They counted on the Cult of Family to bring those lost sheep back home. When disengaged Christians married and had children, went the conventional wisdom, then they’d return to churches on their own. Consequently, church leaders reckoned that they didn’t need to do much about those drifting away during college.
I don’t think they realized how far gone the disengagement had gotten until a few years ago, when it was far too late for them to do much about it.
The Cult of Family had somehow failed to ensure churches a new and growing next generation.
Christian leaders still don’t know what to do about that failure, either. They can’t possibly engage with the idea that maybe their ideology doesn’t work to produce happy families, and people finally care more about having happy families than they do about conforming to these hucksters’ ideologies. The mere idea slams down their antiprocess shields.
So the Cult of Family’s hucksters drill down all the harder on their marketing promises.
These promises always depend, ultimately, upon the audience’s conformity and obedience to these salespeople’s demands. Weird, huh?
Happy Families: A Mystical Ancient Secret.
A Cru site called Family Life demonstrates very well exactly what I’m talking about.
In “The Secret to Building a Great Marriage and Family,” this mostly-young-adult college ministry insists that there’s some “secret” to it.
It’s as if there is a secret that some of your friends and neighbors know, giving them that special edge on life, but somehow you’ve missed it. You’ve seen the glow from inside the relationships of their homes—even when they’re having problems. What makes them different? How can you know the secret?
Sounds a bit like what Christians imagine their general spirituality to be like for non-Christians, doesn’t it? Like there’s some brightly-glowing Jesus Aura around happy, harmonious Christian families that non-Christians simply can’t ever understand without being in on it.
We saw exactly the same sentiment on display in a 2012 post from Thom Rainer of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), covered a while ago. Here is #5 on his listicle of Things He TOTALLY Hears All the Time from Non-Christians About Christians:
I wish I could learn to be a better husband, wife, dad, mom, etc., from a Christian. “My wife is threatening to divorce me, and I think she means it this time. My neighbor is a Christian, and he seems to have it together. I am swallowing my pride and asking him to help me.”
(Feel free to take all the time you need to laugh at the idea of Christians having demonstrably better personal lives in any direction at all than the vast majority of non-believers. It’s a blog; we can wait.)
Mercifully, Cru lets us in early on what the secret is.
A happy home life only results from people cultivating “a vital relationship with Jesus Christ.”
A Primer: Sin.Indeed, Cru assures readers that their own “sin” renders it impossible for them to be truly happy.
“Sins” are offenses against the Christian god. They might be completely harmless, victimless missteps. Indeed, many of them are wrongdoing purely and simply because this god happens to dislike them.
Even one of these offenses, in authoritarian Christian belief, ensures that the Mad Blood God of the Desert (MBGD) will set their ghosts on fire forever after they die. (Many of the wickedest authoritarians even believe that all the other Christians will laugh at their suffering while their ghosts burn alive forever. (See also this Christian compilation; I suspect its creator disapproves.)
Heck, because thoughtcrime constitutes “sin” in their ideology, even disapproving of how this god runs things becomes, itself, a sin worthy of eternal torture.
The Consequences of Sin.
Might makes right in authoritarian minds. Their god is, by their definition, mightiest. That makes him rightiest. They also believe that he who smelt it, dealt it.
Thus, whoever creates something owns it–completely and forever–and their god made everything! As a result, their god can brutally punish and destroy anybody he wants to, and he owns the right to make all the rules, enforce them however he wants, and even change his game’s terms whenever it pleases him–and his followers don’t even get the basic right of appeal over it.
People can only escape that fate by recognizing their offenses against this curiously-tetchy godling, apologizing profusely for them, and psychically promising lifelong and abject obedience to this god.
If they do that, though, they don’t overcome “sin.” They’ll still sin all the time. Nope, they have to repeat this process constantly to ensure that the MBGD doesn’t torture them eternally after death. Now, the MBGD is maddeningly coy with his followers. As a result, they must tender that lifelong obedience to the hucksters speaking in his name, since obviously he likes them better and actually talks to them.
(As George Carlin explains here, obedience always involves giving large amounts of money to this god’s hucksters. See, their god is super-bad with money. If believers don’t hand over their money, it’s ghosts on fire time, missy! Forever!)
The (Prosperity) Gospel of Happiness.
What I describe here functions as the very biggest gun in the Christian evangelism arsenal.
Salvation constitutes the real reason why people should convert, in the salespeople’s opinion. Even if all the tangible, real-world promises and threats turn out to be false and laughably childish, this one about salvation–impossible to prove, relating to an afterlife nobody can even demonstrate exists–still counts as totally true.
However, this god’s hucksters promise all manner of secondary, tangible, real-world benefits given alongside salvation, offered as a bundle with it.
Here, for example, that Family Life writer assures readers that if they obey their god, he will save them from Hell in the afterlife, yes. But he will also, at the same time and in this life, help them to be happy and to cultivate happy families.
In fact, the post’s writer provides laundry list of virtues that “result naturally from the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives.” That’s a common claim as well. These virtues appear in believers’ lives according to their obedience to the MBGD, as demonstrated by their obedience to his salespeople. If believers slack off in obedience, of course, their personal lives will deteriorate accordingly until they get back in line again.
Nothing here is new either. I firmly believed exactly the same things back in the 1980s and 1990s as a Pentecostal. And it’s something our evangelists promised people just like this Cru writer does here.
When the Promises Don’t Materialize.
The thing is, even after making the Cult of Family a marketing promise, its hucksters will completely blame their marks for taking those promises too seriously. If any of those marks ever say that realizing how bogus these marketing promises are played any role in discouraging them (much less deconverting them), then the hucksters will verbally lash out at them for saying so.
See, happiness in their hands becomes a side promise. And that means that nobody’s allowed to get too upset if it doesn’t happen. For the most part, nobody really does, though. They know exactly how those promises function in their religion. Many such promises exist, too.
They tell potential new recruits: The Christian god will heal those who suffer pain or weakness. He will comfort the afflicted and walk beside those who feel lonely. His groups will welcome with open arms those who seek community. All of this will happen through sufficient obedience. But only if he’s in a mood to do it in the first place. Either way, though, there’s still Heaven. That’s what really matters! So quitcher whining, missy!
Really! How dare you take their promises so seriously, just because they made them unequivocally!
How That Worked Out For Me.
And that’s largely how I took those promises during my years as a Christian, incidentally. When people behaved like stone-cold hypocrites, I tried not to let it bother me. When I realized my marriage was a sham perpetuated by a narcissistic liar, I doubled down on my own obedience. My leaders told me, constantly, what they tell Christians today: Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, which is Christianese for “don’t let the turkeys get you down.” But in hucksters’ hands, that old admonishment becomes a mandatory requirement.
As a result, even today I really don’t think that “bad Christians” or disappointment over not getting prayers answered, in and of themselves, were the causes of my deconversion. Like Christians today, I was well-trained not to let that stuff get to me. Eventually, though, I had to start wondering why my religion contained so many “bad Christians” and why so many prayers went unanswered, when my belief system, if true, should make both situations exceedingly rare flukes rather than the norm.
It wasn’t the false promises, for me; it was what the false promises indicated about the religion’s undercarriage. And I can’t help but think that today’s Christians and potential Christians are noticing what I did years ago. They seem to see it, too, way more quickly than I did. I don’t reckon many Christian salespeople think much good comes of letting customers see how their sausage gets made.
NEXT UP: We dive into exactly how the promise of happy families gets delivered–or more to the point, how it doesn’t.
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