Hi and welcome back! Evangelicals’ support of super-conservative politics and conspiracy theories has been getting some much-needed attention of late. Suddenly, the culture warriors of evangelicalism are pulling back to a discussion about getting back to that love stuff Jesus commanded them to show without fail. They call it their ‘Greatest Commandment,’ in fact. But the ‘Greatest Commandment’ always vies uncomfortably with their other directive, the ‘Great Commission.’ Here’s why these two supposedly-divine commands are fundamentally incompatible, and why culture warriors have forever lost all potential of being known by their love.
(For newer readers: Welcome! When I talk about Christianity as a sales process, I mean that evangelists seek to sell a product to their prospective customers. That product is not Jesus. Rather, it is active membership in their own particular churches. They may be absolutely abysmal salespeople, but that’s really what they’re trying to do.)
The Greatest Commandment…
We find Christianity’s so-called “Greatest Commandment” in John 13:34-35. During the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples:
“A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.”
This pairs with another command he gives in the Gospels (Matthew 22:35-40, among others). In that one, he tells his followers that they must love their god with everything they’ve got. So these two commands together (love their god + love each other) make up the Greatest Commandment.
For a good information source about what this god considers “love,” we can look to the Bible’s so-called “Love Chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13. It’s a fairly short chapter that tells Christians how to identify love. Most folks recognize it as that Bible chapter Christians read at their weddings and then forget about forever. Here’s a snippet that I like:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.
Unfortunately, not many evangelicals reflect this chapter’s description. And this shortcoming might just derive from their focus on the second major part of their belief system.
… vs. the Great Commission.
The Greatest Commandment squares off against the so-called Great Commission.
Supposedly, in Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus tells his followers:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
These verses are very likely a late-stage addition to the end of the Gospel of Matthew. (The command got its current nickname around the 17th century.) But Christians everywhere take them as “gospel,” if you’ll pardon the term.
I mean, at least Christians who even know about the verses do. Though I don’t consider Barna Group a great source by any means, a 2019 survey of theirs discovered that only 17% of their respondents even knew what the phrase “Great Commission” meant. (A few more recognized it, but couldn’t explain its meaning.) Even among evangelicals, I’d venture to guess that this survey is fairly accurate. After all, it’s a rare Christian indeed who has much knowledge about the nuts-and-bolts of the Bible.
The Great Commission means that no Christian ever gets off the hook for what they call personal evangelism. That term means person-to-person evangelism, usually of personal acquaintances, friends, and loved ones. Christians must be selling 24/7 to everyone they come into contact with, always looking to push their religion on others, always seeking to make converts.
It might sound just exhausting to read that previous paragraph. Living it is ten times worse, I promise you.
There’s no way that Christians can show 1 Corinthians 13 love to people while also wanting to sell them membership in their groups.
Culture Warriors: Forced Compliance is Fine.
The entire term “culture war” gained popularity in the early 1990s. Culture warriors seek to enforce their worldview on others through political dominance. They fight for dominance with their political counterparts, who seek to block their power-grabs. Once they gain that dominance, culture warriors next seek to pass laws requiring everyone else to live according to their own rules — and brutally punishing anybody who gets caught breaking them.
Of course, disobeying rules is a sign of power in right-wing authoritarian groups. Thus, culture warriors barely even obey their own rules — and the higher up their ladder of power a given culture warrior is, the fewer rules are obeyed and the more egregiously they’re disobeyed. Also, the higher up that ladder a rulebreaker is, the less of a chance they’ll face any repercussions at all for their rulebreaking.
Nonetheless, culture warriors are happy to impose those rules on others. Freedom for me, not for thee: it is their guiding principle.
Culture warriors know that they cannot gain buy-in through persuasion. They barely ever even try to get it that way. No, they long ago made peace with gaining power through suppression and oppression.
So in a very real way, culture warriors seek to regain the powers of coercion that Christian leaders used to have long ago.
Culture Warriors Seek to Make Love and Control Coexist.
Christian culture warriors have always tried to claim that their efforts to seize political control of the United States are all done from “love.”
I mean, maybe from “Christian love,” which isn’t actually love at all. But this control-grab definitely does not represent love. Control and love can’t coexist. The moment someone tries to suppress another person’s rights or limit them, to rob them of their rights and dignity, to fundamentally invade even their privacy, love flies out the window.
And very little is quite as controlling as trying to change someone’s beliefs. It’s not even respectful, much less loving, to demand that someone else become a mini-me like that — especially when threats are involved, which in Christianity happens almost as a given.
Nothing about this process feels loving at all.
Almost every single Christian seeking conversions knows exactly how slimy it feels sometimes to snake a soulwinning attempt into a normal conversation. They know how dishonest it feels to present a Christianity that they don’t even live out themselves. Worse still, they know the shame of presenting marketing promises to unwary marks that haven’t even come true in their own lives. It’s all so dishonest. So craven.
But Christian leaders hammer their flocks 24/7 with indoctrination that makes them feel worse if they don’t do all that. And then they are told that what they’re doing is loving — and that not doing it is hateful.
Even worse, these same Christians have persuaded themselves that seizing control of Americans’ private lives somehow represents this same love.
It does not.
They’ve simply decided to take by force what they could never gain through persuasion.
Why Culture Warriors Prefer the ‘Great Commission’ Over the ‘Greatest Commandment.’
Culture warriors are authoritarians, in case that wasn’t painfully obvious already. Love is too strong a force for authoritarians to contemplate, and they know how often they lose to the real deal. Little wonder, then, that authoritarian leaders’ first mission usually involves destroying the love-based relationships in their flock’s lives. They separate husbands and wives, take away their children, and set about convincing every person in the flock that their god demands more devotion and loyalty than they would ever give their own families. Above all, they want to set their idol — with them as self-appointed spokesperson, of course — above love.
Second, they’ll want to convince the flocks that what they’ve done is, itself, love. They’ll redefine love entirely to allow them to seize the control they like. By the time they’re done, the word doesn’t even vaguely mean to the flocks what it does to outsiders. They see hate as love and love as hate. Most of them have never in their lives experienced the real deal — not even from their own parents. So this cruel tactics usually works, at least until they get bowled over by something closer to the real deal.
So it shouldn’t be any surprise that given the two completely contradictory, competing commands that Christians operate under, that authoritarian Christians in particular should choose to follow the one that feels most comfortable to them.
It’s fun to point out to them that they’ve not only failed the Great Commission but also the Greatest Commandment, when they might have at least complied with the latter at the expense of the former. In seeking sales as aggressively and dishonestly as they do, and in grabbing for political dominance as hard as they are, they catastrophically fail both.
That said, I’ve never yet encountered an authoritarian Christian who’s expressed any concern over breaking both of Jesus’ supposed direct orders.
If They Can’t Get Enthusiastic Consent, They’ll Take Grudging Compliance.
Centuries ago, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote a work called Il Principe (The Prince). (Way back when, a “prince” was considered a ruler, a kinglike figure. This titular prince was not a king-in-waiting, a son set to inherit; he was already a ruler.) In his book, this Florentine diplomat aimed to advise secular rulers. In his day, there really weren’t any purely secular rulers. At least in Europe, rulers saw themselves as ruling in Jesus’ stead and with his approval, and they portrayed themselves in a very idealized light. But his work aimed for a purely secular leadership style and it was ruthlessly pragmatic.
One bit of it has always stood out to me, since I ran into it not too long after deconversion. You probably already know which bit I’m talking about, too. It’s one of the most famous bits in the book. Indeed, it hit me like a thunderbolt. In answering the question of whether a prince should want the fear or love of his colleagues and subjects, Machiavelli wrote:
The answer is that one would like to be both the one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.
Lemme tell ya: that hit home.
Culture Warriors Speak the Language of Control — Not Love.
In a lot of ways, Machiavelli was a product of his time. Seriously, read a biography of the guy. He was seriously chasing clout with the ruling Medici family all his life. In fact, Il Principe was really written for the current head of the family more than anyone else. So he poured his heart and soul into this document, only to have most religious and secular rulers in Europe condemn it — and him for writing it.
But they all seem to have read it in private.
As much as they condemned its straightforward advice about wielding and gaining power, none of them could deny the simple fact that Machiavelli fluently spoke the language of power. He was a die-hard authoritarian. He understood how to control groups of people. And he knew that personal bonds of affection, as a motivator, can be fickle in the aggregate. Fear, however, will make people reject their own children. Bring enough of it to bear, and the flocks will do literally anything they’re told.
(But don’t go too far — or their spirits may flicker back to life. Authoritarians often fluff that directive.)
Similarly, the culture wars themselves give culture warriors plenty of fodder to use to control others through fear. They are nothing but fear: fear of sex, fear of intimacy, fear of the unknown, fear of those who are different, and most of all the grinding, ever-present fear of losing dominance.
Culture Warriors Can’t Square This Circle.
Today, as I think about what I see in those authoritarian flavors of Christianity lately, I think about two Bible verses that such Christians should care about a lot more than they obviously do.
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who turn darkness to light and light to darkness, who replace bitter with sweet and sweet with bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. (Isaiah 5:20-21)
The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice. (Proverbs 12:15)
Well yes, of course. Because these Christians entirely lack any objective way of evaluating their own behavior, nobody can rein them in or tell them they’re behaving in hurtful, hateful ways — and accidentally revealing just how fear-addled they really are.
We know exactly why these Christians rarely try to persuade anymore, only to fight for temporal powers of coercion. We know why they go with threats instead of love. Yes, we know them.
In the months and years to come, I suspect more people will recognize the sheer hatred, control-lust, gullibility, and cruelty that makes up the authoritarian Christian psyche. The culture wars that culture warriors love so much are already biting them right in their sales metrics, and I hope that trend continues until Christianity is nothing but a footnote in history books — and regarded then as Mithraism is today.
And their inability to show genuine love will be exactly what sends them to those footnotes.
NEXT UP: We’ll meet a Christian who makes the cardinal mistake described here. He’s a culture warrior, but he’s unkind about how unkind his fellow culture warriors are. Hey, that ship’s sailed — forever. We’ll talk about why tomorrow. See you then!
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Last thought: Today’s post reminded me that my family moved to Texas right as the state raised the minimum drinking age to 21. Oh my, people were beyond angry at this change — especially Texans aged 18-20. I was way below the age of 18, so it didn’t matter to me. I converted to evangelicalism not too long after moving there, and became responsible for the souls of my entire family even though I was still legally a child. The kicker: had I converted earlier, I’d have just been saddled with this inappropriate level of responsibility at a younger age. It only produces stress and mind-bending frustration to do that to children, but who’s surprised that evangelicals do it so often?