Milgram’s gatekeepers

Milgram’s gatekeepers February 7, 2019

Ken Wilson writes — from experience — about the gatekeepers of white evangelicalism:

Often public-facing evangelical leaders — including one who prefer other monikers than evangelical — present a softer image on issues like LGBTQ. But the base rules even the most progressive leaders under the evangelical umbrella. These leaders cannot cross the base without being punished. Toe the line? Sure. But cross it, and the electric fence that bounds evangelicalism (and all organizations that depend on it) zaps them … hard.

Yes. ‘Twas ever thus, as we discussed here a while back when looking at “Five sentences that contain the entire history and explanation of white evangelicalism in America“:

[Carl Henry] was in a tough spot. A whole generation of white evangelical “leaders” have followed him in that very same tough spot, and very few of them have even tried, as he tried and failed, to do the right thing. Most of the people who have inherited his role of nominal leadership haven’t even had the courage to try to challenge the actual leadership of the moneymen and the guardians of white privilege. They’ve simply recognized — correctly — that this was a power struggle they couldn’t hope to win. Alienate the moneymen or those other “segments of the constituency” and you’ll only wind up getting Ciziked or Gaebeleined. Easier just to play along the way that Henry’s heirs are, even now, at this very moment, playing along.

The functional gatekeepers are the employees of the donors and funders (sometimes formally “Trustees,” but often not). These guys — the ones tasked with hitting the button to “zap … hard” any person or group crossing the line — often hate that aspect of their job. Henry didn’t like having to tell Frank Gaebelein not to praise the Civil Rights marchers. Wilson’s former Vineyard authorities didn’t enjoy having to tell him to be cruel. But they did it anyway because the people who write the checks demanded it.

Wilson’s use of the term “the base” for these donors and funders is potentially confusing. In politics, talk of a party’s “base” usually refers to the masses, the hoi polloi of the majority of supporters. That’s not who these donors are. They are far, far, far, far, far to the extreme right of most of white evangelicalism. And I mean the far right politically, because these wealthy donors fueling and shaping white evangelicalism have no theology other than extreme right politics.

These donors give instructions. Sometimes directly, on the phone. Sometimes also indirectly, mobilizing their heavily subsidized astroturf networks of frightened and gullible followers gleaned from the actual masses to create the illusion of widespread popular support.*

The professionals hired to serve them as gatekeepers always take their phone calls. They don’t relish those calls. They usually wish this wasn’t part of their job or their “ministry.”

But they do what they’re told. Reluctantly, regretfully, unhappily perhaps, but always obediently. They think that’s their job.

Eugene Peterson said what now? Sigh. Yes, sir. I’ll handle it.

But she’s our first-ever tenured black woman professor, we can’t just invent some pretext to … Yes, sir. Of course. Right away.

World Vision? Don’t worry, I’m on it.

InterVarsity is getting all Frank Gaebelein-in-Selma about Black Lives mattering? Yes, sir. I understand we can’t have that. We’ll make that perfectly clear.

This donor/funder “base” of oilmen and segregationists and their equivalents does not wield this power because they are especially devout or pious, or because they possess an elevated spiritual concern for the gospel or for the church. They wield this power because they are wealthy. Very wealthy. So wealthy that it doesn’t seem to matter to anyone involved that they are also an especially impious bunch with a depraved spiritual indifference for the gospel and the church.

But they sell lots of soap and herbal supplements. (Or, more accurately, they exploit an army of people into exploiting other people into trying to sell soap and herbal supplements.) And that lets them write big checks.

Very big checks.

They write those checks to evangelical publishers and institutions, universities and ministries, denominations and parachurch organizations. Not because they want those ministries to thrive, but because controlling them is a relatively cost-effective way of influencing politics ever-rightward.

And the Very Nice People who run those publications, institutions, universities and ministries believe they are dependent on those big checks and that they dare not disobey the instructions from the donors. When their “uneasy conscience” struggles with that, they convince themselves — as Wilson says — that a limited amount of cruelty and injustice may be justified in service of the greater good of whatever it was they originally wanted to do when they first got involved in their ministry.

And so those otherwise Very Nice People do what they’re told, told to do.

But the dynamic Ken Wilson describes is only the tip of the iceberg:

When the base is aroused, pastors, denominational officials, and local congregants who are otherwise considerate and supportive, fall quickly in line. Really good people hit the electric fence, get zapped, and back off. And this happens all the time.

The larger mass — the larger, more dangerously corrosive effect — is unseen below the water. The harsh “zapping” commanded and deployed to get people to fall back in line has the larger pernicious effect of making sure that no one dares even to think about falling out of line. It means that questions won’t be asked, even silently to ourselves. Even when those questions are obvious and urgent. Even when we already know what the answers would be.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* The Pavlovian letters or calls or emails orchestrated through these networks are sent by real people — actual, flesh-and-blood members of the multitude of people who make up the white evangelical “base” in the more traditional sense of that word. But it’s inaccurate to imagine that such letters are in any way representative of the majority of that base. Or even a plurality.

What they represent, rather, is a loud, perpetually frightened and perpetually angry minority fraction of that base.

And that tiny, angry, fearful and hateful fraction is composed, frankly, of awful people that deserve to be ignored. Why? Because they are people who relish extortion, blackmail, threats, and ultimatums. That is what drives them. That is what they have chosen and are choosing to be.

This is why the particulars of their feigned outrage changes from week to week. Those inconstant particulars always matter far less to them than the thrill of scoring points or claiming scalps — the ugly thrill of wielding power via extortion, blackmail, threats, and ultimatums. They don’t really care about whatever it is they’re pretending to be upset about. They care about the game of bullying others by pretending to be upset.

Awful people, really. They need our prayers. They need Jesus. But they surely do not need — or deserve — any more respect or attention than they’re willing to show anyone else.

Some small portion of those people might also be small donors, but it seems likely that most of those firing off letters angrily informing World Vision that “You’ll never get another dime from me” had never sent a dime in the first place. And I’d bet that nearly all of the people angrily threatening that they’d never read another book by Eugene Peterson had never previously done so and were unlikely ever to do so. The people angrily threatening to cut off their support for InterVarsity? They already exclusively supported Cru because IV had Tony Campolo speak at Urbana decades ago.

Maybe — maaaybe — deleting the angry emails from that crowd and ignoring their threats would result in a small, short-term reduction in donations. But that would be a tiny price to pay for you and your organization not having people like that trying to run your life.

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