Evangelical Self-Interest: Why This Shoulder Angel Always Wins

Evangelical Self-Interest: Why This Shoulder Angel Always Wins November 9, 2019

Hi and welcome back! Last time we met up, I showed you yet more bad news for Christian leaders: their troops seem singularly unwilling to obey their demands. Today, I’ll show you why they balk so much, and how this scandalous state of affairs affects their religion’s chances of regaining dominance.

person reading a tract very earnestly
(Robert Koorenny.) Check it out: one of the worst evangelism techniques ever. But it’s one of the few that the flocks are willing to do sometimes.

The Scandal of the Evangelical [Insert Noun Here]

“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

— Mark Noll, shots fired

Way back in 1994, Mark Noll wrote one of the most definitive evangelical analyses of his era: The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. In it, he described the steady erosion of evangelical intellectualism and education, their growing distrust of science and objectively-true facts, and their growing antipathy toward higher education.

Very quickly, the book reached bestseller status. More than that, evangelicals themselves now regard the book as one of the most important ones written about religion in recent years. Amazon ranks it respectably highly on their site for sales.

In addition to becoming a classic in its field, Noll’s book spawned a variety of similar observations and copycats.

Once a trend hits evangelicals, man alive, it hits hard. It all reminds me of Preston Sprinkle’s laughable attempt to create the catchphrase scandalous grace!” 

(Of course, evangelicals try really hard to avoid talking about their actual real scandals. Oh, and by the way: we’ll definitely talk more about this book sometime soon. It’s amazing.)

“A Cri du Coeur.”

The authors of all of these cited works issue them as wake-up calls. They want to alert evangelicals to the damage they do through misbehavior and failure to abide by their leaders’ commands. They see themselves as outsiders to standard-issue evangelical culture. Sometimes they even present themselves as feeling driven-out by that dominant culture.

Indeed, Mark Noll insists in his book’s preface that he wrote it as “an epistle from a wounded lover.” (Letters from a Portuguese Nun, this definitely ain’t though!)

I feel some sympathy for science-accepting evangelicals. When I was Pentecostal myself, my Dear Leaders hadn’t yet made science denial a mandatory tribal marker belief. But even by then, they’d set the roads in place to usher in a whole new–and troubling–set of “Christian virtues” for their flocks.

However, less-regressive evangelicals fight a losing battle here.

A Dealbreaker: Why Evangelicals Even Need Wake-Up Calls.

Back then, a lot of stuff about my religion already troubled me. Had I thought at the time of what I’m about to describe, I can’t imagine staying Christian afterward. To me, it’s that serious.

Here it is, blockquoted for emphasis:

Christianity doesn’t teach Christians to be decent human beings all by itself. And it’s beyond obvious that no gods provide instant fixes for anyone. Even worse than that, their group follows a broken system.

Consequently, Christianity does not, in and of itself, reliably instill decency in believers. Whatever decency Christians possess, they come by it elsewhere and elsewise.

This simple truth explains why we can’t predict how decent or kind someone is by their religious label. It’s also why Christianity is so blasted superfluous and irrelevant to the living of life.

Jesus never tells evangelicals they’re Jesus-ing wrong. He never corrects their errors or guides them to the truth. He’s content to let them keep believing stuff that isn’t true and doing stuff that is purely reprehensible. Heck, he even fails to warn them of child molesters and con artists in their midst!

(See endnote for a quick definition of broken systems.)

The Failure of Wake-Up Calls.

So yes, of course evangelicals issue wake-up calls and cries-of-the-heart. Their blogs, books, videos, sermons, all of it, consists largely of exhortation and cajoling along these lines. It’s quite a breathtaking spectacle, all these evangelicals crying out in the wilderness:

PLEASE change your ways! You’re hurting people! You’re making Christianity look terrible! Y’all need to start Jesus-ing better! OMG STOP BEING SO AWFUL!

The prophets issuing these demands always behave like their work is going to change everything.

However, these calls and cries always fail. Utterly. Always. Without question and without variation on an endless theme. The flocks hear these attempts to bring them into line with the marketing hype–and they continue to act in ways that directly contradict their own claims.

There’s a reason for these continuous failures, of course.

The Return on Investment.

People get involved with groups like Christianity because they perceive that it holds benefits for themselves that outweigh its many costs.

Back when Christianity was compulsory and mandatory, the benefits probably looked way more powerful and tangible–and included safety from “Christian love” should someone feel like dissenting against or walking away from the group. In addition, membership opened doors to many opportunities. Sure, members had to endure all kinds of hardships due to their peers’ and leaders’ rampant hypocrisy. And yes, for those who believed in an afterlife, membership conferred at least a hopeful sense of safety there.

Then, some years ago, Christianity lost the unthinkable power of being a mandatory group.

After that loss, people’s evaluations of social utility shifted in small but powerful ways. This shift caused people to rejigger the cost-to-reward, return-on-investment (ROI) calculations around church involvement.

And suddenly, Christianity simply didn’t measure up anymore to all the other stuff people could be spending their finite resources on. (See endnote for one activity that Christians prize way more highly than church membership. OMG!)

But one group reliably remains part of the most authoritarian, demanding, toxic flavors imaginable in Christianity. More than that, they even gravitate to those flavors from less-demanding, less-onerous flavors.

The Carrot and the Stick.

I’ve mentioned before that greed and fear drive evangelicals like nothing else ever could. And evangelicalism itself deals in both currencies. Christian leaders drive their flocks with both the carrot of pie-in-the-sky promises and the stick of threats and “Christian love.”

Savvy leaders deploy these tools judiciously, bearing in mind their victims’ temperament and needs. Less-savvy leaders run rampant, utilizing whatever pleases them most right then.

As a result of this careful indoctrination in the basics of power, members develop an exquisitely well-tuned sensitivity to threats–and a natural-born conjob’s nose for potential benefits.

Read between the lines of almost any testimony, and you’ll get an idea of what drove that Christian to join up with their flavor of religion. Almost always, Christians’ reasons for joining up involve self-interest somehow–and isn’t it just the biggest hoot when they don’t realize exactly what their testimonies say about them as people?

Screw Alla Y’all, I’ma Get Mine.

It’s totally okay to make purchasing decisions based on one’s own needs, resource pool, preferences, and evaluations of the product on offer. Obviously it’s okay!

It’s just that evangelicals like to pretend something else motivates them to join and remain part of their groups. From that dishonest vantage point, they look down on people who say that Christianity simply doesn’t provide enough of a return on investment. Instead, they pretend that they’ve totally evolved past those petty mortal considerations.

They insist that they’re totally fine with Christianity being a piss-poor investment of their resources–in fact, they’re happy with that state of affairs! Hmph!

And then they reveal the self-interest and motivated reasoning that drove them to their decision to affiliate with a regressive, ultra-authoritarian, and ignorance-glorifying group like evangelicalism. As J. Warner Wallace revealed a few months ago:

I moved from certainty related to the [Gospel] accounts, to certainty related to my own desperate, fallen nature and need for a Savior. . . I’m a Christian because I want to live in a way that reflects the truth. I’m a Christian because my high regard for the truth leaves me no alternative.

Check that out! A live, in-the-wild example of the Appeal to Screw Alla Y’all, I’ma Get Mine!

The Church of Sacrifice For Meaning and Belonging.

I’d be remiss here, as well, not to offer up one of Lambchop’s favorite quotes:

If we accept the oftentimes reasonable proposition that most people seek the greatest benefit for the least cost, they will seek meaning and belonging with the least change possible. Thus, if they can go to either the Church of Meaning and Belonging, or the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging, most people choose the former. It provides benefit for less cost. “In practice congregation members expect the minister to do nothing (such as taking a prophetic voice) which would interfere with the harmony and growth of the membership.” As a result, many religious leaders, even if they desire change, are constrained. Unless their message is in the self-interest of the group, they must necessarily soften and deemphasize their prophetic voice in favor of meeting within-group needs.

Divided by Faith

I don’t think pastors like knowing this stark truth, if they accept it at all.

I especially don’t think they like thinking about it and then assessing exactly what they offer in terms of a group to attract people who use that model.

The Gathering Storm Continues to Gather.

Back in 1969, Jeffrey K. Hadden wrote The Gathering Storm in the ChurchesIn it, he explained a growing gap between clergy and laypeople in attitudes and expectations for themselves and their counterparts.

Mostly his book examines churches’ responses to the Civil Rights Movement. Plenty of clergy wanted to get involved in the fight for equality for African-Americans. However, quite a few laypeople resisted any and all calls for them to get involved or do anything extra to help. Hadden offered readers a story of a wealthy church member who withdrew a USD$600k donation to his church because he was furious over the pastor’s involvement in the Civil Rights fight (p. 31 in the hardback edition I have). And he found similar stories all over the place.

As Hadden investigated, he discovered that actually ministers held quite a few opinions that were markedly different from those of their flocks. And these differences affected everything, including doctrinal beliefs. Clergy wanted to get out there and make a difference in the world itself. Laypeople wanted to lay back and be spoon-fed and burped.

Hadden, at least, saw the huge disparity between clergy and laypeople as a real live crisis. But it’s one that hasn’t abated a single bit since this book was published. It’s just so telling to me that this book could, with only a few edits, describe modern-day Christians!

Served, Not Serving.

Now let’s tie together all these strands of thought.

Evangelical leaders make a whole lot of demands of their flocks, these days. From evangelizing more often to rearranging their wills to give money to churches after they die (instead of to their families), from voting Republican to starting a civil war to regain lost dominance, from volunteering in churches more often to tithing more money to buying more merch and survival slop, my goodness! It’s mind-blowing.

They make these demands because they must. Evangelical flocks simply don’t do this stuff on their own. They need to be prodded significantly, hard, and often.

It’s crystal-clear to me that the reason for this reluctance is that they did not sign up to their groups to serve others or lay out tons of their own resources.

Instead, people join these groups to get something out of them.

They join not to serve, but to be served.

Marketing Hype.

And y’all, that’s exactly how Christian salespeople market their product.

Look at the appeals that evangelists make. Examine the reasons they offer for why their marks should totally buy their product (which is membership in their own particular group).

These salespeople ain’t dumb. They don’t talk up the money it’ll cost to do what they demand, nor the time required. Nor do they inform recruits that one of their biggest duties will be to SELL SELL SELL WITHOUT MERCY. If any of them ever concede that Christianity won’t actually do much for Christians, it’ll be done in the vaguest possible terms to poison the well in case a customer gets buyers’ remorse.

Instead, salespeople talk up the benefits of affiliation with their groups. They speak glowingly of what Christianity totally will provide for customers. And of course, they also warn of the dire risks involved in rejecting their product. All in all, they use terms that would make any 1950s advertising executive giddy.

an old ad selling lysol as a feminine hygiene product
A powerful threat, deployed to sell something women would never ordinarily want to purchase or use: Lysol as a feminine hygiene product.

When these new recruits discover the reality of what leaders demand in these groups, you can bet they do what Christian converts did in the earliest days of the religion, back when they still enjoyed the luxury of choice in the matter: they did some quick mental arithmetic to work out whether or not this product was worth what they were paying for it.

The Failure of Cries for Reform.

So yes. Of course all these “epistles from wounded lovers” and cries from the heart fail. They always fail. And they always will.

The system as it stands isn’t changing. Its costs and benefits remain exactly the same. In effect, then, all these would-be reformers are out here demanding that Christians take one for Team Jesus. Thus, their intended audience gains no further benefits and expends even more resources by heeding these calls for reform.

Worse, change would run them against the hardliners in their groups. For every Christian complaining about nonexistent tipping in restaurants, there are a dozen more furious about the demand. And for every Christian (and possibly ex-Christian) warning evangelicals that their idolization of Donald Trump is wrecking their witness before the whole world, there are hundreds of others trampling any Christians who soften their allegiance to the Orange Calf.

(We’ll be talking about that Christianese word “witness” soon. It’s a complex word. For now, I’ll just say it’s a mostly-evangelical word that loosely refers to a Christian’s credibility level and reputation.)

A Purely Human System.

Christianity, as a religion, is a very human and earthly system. No gods involve themselves anywhere within it. Duh, right? That’s as obvious as saying that no unicorns or leprechauns do.

Nothing about Christianity is remarkable or inexplicable. It all works exactly as one would expect if no gods existed at all. The decline of the religion, itself, is completely understandable as well. It’s exactly what I’d expect to see in a group that’s coasted on its coercive powers for almost all of its existence–before losing most of those powers.

And nothing speaks to that truth quite like the conduct of Christians themselves in dealing with their decline.

They aren’t asking hard questions of their leaders, nor demanding (and enacting) changes to their group structures and customs that could make those groups more appealing in and of themselves.

Instead, they all drill down harder on what used to work to gain recruits back when they still possessed that power. They’re hoping to weather these cultural changes somehow and emerge from this epic shift more or less where they were when it began.

Good News, Everybody!

As a result of that desire to keep everything as same-same as possible, evangelicals stand ready to ignore calls for reform and improvement–especially if it requires them to do anything.

Maybe that’s why not one reputable survey house or research group gives any Christians a ghost of a chance of regaining their onetime dominance in America.

In its way, though, their stubbornness and laser focus on their own self-interest represent good news for us.

See, Christianity will decline a lot further, faster, and harder than if Christians made even insubstantial moves toward improving what is, at heart, a completely broken system.

NEXT UP: Lord Snow Presides on Monday! And then, I’ll show you that time in high school that a friend of mine ran afoul of the Satanic Panic. See you next time!


Endnotes.

Broken systems: A broken system doesn’t necessarily imply an ineffective one. Rather, it refers to a system that doesn’t and indeed can’t fulfill its own mission statements. Instead, members all seek to grow their own power at others’ expense and climb up the ladder to wield as much of it as they humanly can. Instead of doing whatever the group says it’s about, it’s nothing but a power-mongering service for those who recognize it as such. Incidentally, I have a tag for “broken systems” that’ll take you to a bunch of posts on this topic. (Back to the post!)

OH my stars and garters! This situation just STEAMS evangelical leaders: A few years ago, they noticed that youth sports appeared to be drawing member families away from church attendance. Seriously. Youth sports. It makes evangelicals absolutely crazypants frustrated. I can see why, too! The whole situation represents such a glaring indictment of the relevance and desirability of their product. For what it’s worth, I understand completely. It really should frustrate and alarm them to see how they stack up against an activity that contains real, tangible benefits for members that outweigh its high affiliation cost. (Back to the post!)


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.

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