new faith paradigm
Reading Time: 7 minutes Simon Rowe, "Norwegian Church,", CC BY 2.0
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Recently, I alluded to a situation that often crops up in authoritarianism. Namely, authoritarian leaders create these instructional roadmaps that simply don’t get followers to their promised destinations. Followers try their best to follow these roadmaps, but they will never reach their Promised Land that way. Today, I’ll show you why that is, and why their leaders offer those roadmaps anyway.

looking up from inside a narrow tower
(Aron Van de Pol.)

Mike Huckabee’s Diet Advice.

Recently in comments, we discussed Mike Huckabee and his weight loss saga.

Back in 2003, he lost a ton of weight. By 2006, he was showing up on talk shows and whatnot to boast about his accomplishment. He even wrote a book in 2005 about how he managed it. He made that saga a damn-near central pillar in the story of his rise to power in Republican politics.

Everyone wondered how he’d done it. He insisted he hadn’t undergone weight-loss surgery (WLS). The New York Times noted:

With the help of doctors. . . the governor went on a strict diet and began to exercise, shedding weight so rapidly that it was as if he simply unzipped a fat suit and stepped out.

In a 2006 interview, Huckabee declared that he “had to learn that it [weight loss] was a change of lifestyle.”

The way he told it, he was a Big Damn Hero. He’d conquered morbid obesity through willpower and self-denial–or as he put it, “the old fashioned way.” Not only did he make that claim, but he made it with very obvious pride and smugness. He told everyone who’d listen that if he could do it, so could they.

But the roadmap he sold them didn’t work.

The Old Fashioned Way.

Huckabee’s fans loved what he sold them. But a bunch of other people thought he was being deceptive. They accused him of having had WLS and then lying about it. Indeed, hints abound that those critics might be right.

I like how WereBear sleuthed out Huckabee’s apparent deceptiveness:

I knew SOMETHING was up, though, because I’d seen his weight loss book and flipped through it. What struck me as completely bizarre was that it was nothing like any weight loss instruction/memoir I had ever read. Platitudes from beginning to end, without any of those personal anecdotes about the struggle.

Everyone with a weight problem has these similar stories: the times they felt helpless and humiliated, or craved some stupid junk food so much they did something foolish to obtain it. In adjusting to their new way of eating, they always come up with substitutes, even if temporarily; and there’s always those moments of triumph where a person realizes the emotional and psychological issues that are always part of it.

I haven’t just read these books, I’ve lived it. I’m only on my auto-immune diet for a year now, and it has wrought such a huge transformation in my life and health. But Huckabee’s book had NONE of this. It was the book of a man who went to sleep and woke up a hundred pounds thinner.

. . . Huckabee’s book was like a novelization of a nutritionist’s handout. There wasn’t a personal thing in it, OR anything that rang true.

A doctor has also written a column echoing those concerns and adding a few observations. Huckabee was just too vague where we would reasonably expect details–and his actual behavior that we observed was very inconsistent with the rhetoric he parroted. Whatever he did, it wasn’t the methods he sorta-describes having done.

And we can extend those clues out to other Christian roadmaps.

The Flawed Roadmap.

It seems like Mike Huckabee wanted his followers to think that he’d followed a tribally-prized roadmap to get to the Promised Land of permanent weight loss. Unfortunately for him, he almost certainly didn’t follow that route. The other route, surgical help, would have been perfectly fine to most people–but not to Mike Huckabee’s fans, who’d consider WLS as taking the easy way out of a problem. I’m sure he knew that.

So he was happy to direct an employee of his to tell everyone that OH WELL, you KNOW, it’s OKAY for SOME people to get WLS. But he just DIDN’T, OKAY? 

If Huckabee never actually followed his own prescription for weight loss, it makes sense that he couldn’t adequately describe the journey he took in 2003 to lose weight. And a January 2020 story about him makes clear that he couldn’t maintain the loss, either.

His own book’s advice turned out not to work for him in the long run. That boasted-about “change of lifestyle” didn’t last.

If any of his followers ever tried to put his book’s advice into lived action, they’d have encountered some very serious problems duplicating his feat. Nobody can get from Point A to Point Svelte using it, any more than he could have.

Gurus Who Don’t Practice What They Preach.

I’m bringing up Mike Huckabee’s situation today because it touches on something important in authoritarian groups, something we’ve brushed against so many times by now that it’s time to introduce ourselves:

Authoritarian leaders often offer their followers roadmaps that just don’t work–not even for themselves.

Countless gurus offer advice and guides-to-life to their followers. Most of this advice is worse than useless–it not only won’t get followers where they want to go, but will result in them wasting time and money and possibly wrecking their health and finances.

But behind the scenes, those leaders aren’t actually following their own advice. They’re doing something totally different. Maybe they’re doing something that’s actually working to get them to their Promised Land.

Or maybe they’re just pretending all along to follow whatever program they’re selling their followers–like that one gal claiming to eat a raw-vegan diet. She got caught at a restaurant last year with a plate of (cooked) fish! Imagine all the followers giving her money, listening to her advice, and trying to live like she did–all without knowing she wasn’t even vegan anymore! And she was happy to take their money under that pretense.

All of these leaders are, come to think of it. What does a bestselling diet book make for a high-ranking Republican politician these days?

Giving It All to Jesus.

Often, these roadmaps focus on self-control, self-denial, intense levels of what these leaders call personal responsibility, and action steps that can’t be tangibly put into practice for goals that nobody can really articulate. It’s like these groups are headed by an Underpants Gnome.

I experienced that same problem as a Christian myself. Women in Christianity often feel like simmering cauldrons of seething resentment. To fix it, their leaders tell them to give their anger to Jesus.

In my group, the actual method of giving one’s anger to Jesus varied. Usually it involved telepathically asking Jesus to take it. Sometimes the people giving these instructions even mimed handing something upwards to their imaginary friend.

Even very tiny children get taught to do this, since it isn’t safe for them to show anger either.

But guess what? Telepathically handing “emotions” to an imaginary friend doesn’t make them go away. Who coulda guessed? In fact, none of these directions get women from Point A to Point Serenity-At-Last. All this advice is good for is helping people point fingers at women’s anger and shame them for feeling it.

Solving Doubt (Except Not Really).

Along those same lines, Christian leaders offer bad roadmaps to their followers for all kinds of other problems.

Need to resolve doubt? Ligonier tells us how easy it is!

  1. Be honest about your doubts. (Haha, as if!)
  2. Ask for your imaginary friend’s help. (Try not to remember that he could have prevented this state of doubt in the first place.)
  3. Go without food and think very hard at the ceiling. (Hopefully you’ll induce a trance state that you’ll confuse for divine intervention.)
  4. Remember the Bible’s promises. (Don’t, however, compare them too much with reality.)
  5. Just don’t allow doubt to overtake you! (Obviously! They could have just led with that. Doubters must always resolve their doubt with renewed faith. Sure, it’s not an honest approach, but hey, this is fundagelicalism in a nutshell.)

Wow, that looks so easy! It’s just wild to imagine millions of Christians suffering from doubt–many even deconverting entirely from it–when they could just take this five-step list’s advice, isn’t it?

Oh wait, it’s not actually useful at all.

It doesn’t work.

None of that will ease doubt because it doesn’t address the sources of doubt. It just tries to trample doubt down instead of offering good, credible reasons to believe Christian claims.

Despite its utter lack of effectiveness, though, this list does have value to the fundagelicals who value Ligonier’s value-less opinions:

When some Christian chirps that list out to ex-Christians as bad advice, and we retort back that we did all that and more and we still deconverted, these instructions’ vagueness allows the still-believing Christian to accuse us of having done something terribly wrong.

Yes Yes, But What Does It Look Like?

Indeed, these vague, impossible-to-fulfill directions serve important functions in authoritarian groups.

First and foremost, such lists of directions keep followers dancing on the line and knocking themselves out. Followers spend their time spinning their wheels on impossible directions–which keeps them from thinking too hard about whatever nonsense the group might believe or the control-grabs their leaders keep making at their expense.

Second, these directions perpetuate an atmosphere of blame and self-recrimination. When the group’s members inevitably fail to reach the goal, the leaders turn around to blame them for doing something wrong. In these groups, followers can’t argue with or criticize their leaders. If the leader says the roadmap goes there, then it must. Somehow. If the leader says the directions are sound, then they must be even if nobody can put them into action in the real world.

Third, a bad roadmap maintains a power differential that authoritarian leaders need like air. In authoritarian groups, the leaders give the directions. Followers must, well, follow those directions. Followers always look to their leaders for those instructions; many become very task-oriented after a lifetime spent in these sorts of groups, so they lack initiative and self-direction. Authoritarian leaders exploit this tendency as much as they can.

Round and Mean.

Giving very task-oriented followers impossible goals with inadequate instructions is downright mean, but it keeps everyone busy and blaming themselves. Failure, in these groups, functions as a baked-in benefit for the leaders: it gives them something to yell about and blame followers for. The followers buckle down harder to try to meet the leader’s demands. As the leaders continue to pretend that their instructions are sound and viable, that insistence gaslights their followers.

Those followers may end up suffering from a weapons-grade case of cognitive dissonance, which will only leave them feeling more off-kilter and at odds with themselves. That, too, works to their leaders’ benefit.

Sounds like a pretty vicious circle to me.

NEXT UP: The Unequally Yoked Club rides again! Christians are starting to talk again about mixed-faith relationships. Let’s check out their advice this time around. See you soon!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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