Well, y’all, it’s been an awesome night and you’re a great audience. I thought I’d finish up tonight’s set with a little ditty I just recently wrote. See if’n y’all can follow along, yeah? I call it…. “The Ballad of the Bad Christian.” I hope you like it.
A long time ago, before times got so hard
When things made much more sense
Before the plant shut down and the chemtrails struck
And a black atheist Muslim was President
There were only good Christians
Yes, there were only good Christians
And they were really, really good
I’ve been talking about Christianity’s slide from dominance for years, but I’ll never stop being fascinated with seeing how the religion’s leaders and adherents alike handle their loss of credibility, power, and members. Ever since the comprehensive Pew Religious Landscape Study came out in 2015, I’ve been keeping an eye out for more studies so I could track the trends. (Hey, you need two points to define a line.)
As we saw last week, a trickle of studies and surveys have come out since then–and they all confirm the Pew study. If anything, they make the religion’s losses seem even worse and more complete.
Now, there’s still room for them to rally and recover–obviously. It could happen, especially in a country where Donald Trump could get elected. It just seems unlikely without there being a huge change in how young people regard the religion–especially its more noisome and rambunctious adherents.
But that comeback seems less and less likely the more I see Christians’ reactions to their losses and their strategies for recovery. Today I’ll show you their newest invented enemy: BAD CHRISTIANS.
Bad Christians in the Nightlife.
Now a threat overruns us like bugs in a summer camp
And it’s Christians who make all of us look really bad
BAD CHRISTIANS, grabbing and clawing whatever they can
BAD CHRISTIANS, wrecking the success we once had
Like monster trucks in the nightlife*
Yes, they’re now upset about Bad Christians wrecking the witness of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ (like themselves).
(Just to catch you up, witness is Christianese for someone’s overall image in the eyes of both their own tribe and those of outsiders; it’s a catch-all term that has a lot of meanings including “reputation,” “Jesus Aura,” and “credibility.” Someone with a good witness will be given positions of power and responsibility and is generally regarded as a good spokesperson for the religion. Someone with a bad witness is probably going to have a lot of trouble making sales and won’t be as highly-regarded.)
The idea here is that lots of people are being repelled from the Good News because there are all these Bad Christians hootin’ and hollerin’ and carryin’ on with their bad selves and making Christianity look all terrible.
It’s downright fascinating, which is why we’ve talked about it before here–just not like this.
Out of every single thing that Christians could point to as their new boogeyman, the new enemy that is causing all of their problems with losing so many adherents and so much credibility and influence in the eyes of the world, they simply had to latch onto this one as the one they’d devote resources and time to fight.
It would have made more sense had they decided that the problem was stevia or polyester or something, instead of their own hypocrites. And I’ll get more into why that is in a minute here–for now, I just want to note that indeed, this is their big strategy.
No, No, You Guize, the Pope Totally Called This One.
The man in the funny hat held his hands wide
And told them all to relax, he had this one covered
He knew the answers, straight from the throne above
He knew what to do and what to say
Everyone stopped screaming and turned with wide eyes
As he thundered at them: it’s those BAD CHRISTIANS
Those BAD CHRISTIANS are just the worst
And the crowd heard the words and liked the taste:
Blamin’ others always went down so smooth
Way back when, all my tribe of fundagelicals needed to reject an idea out of hand was to hear that the Pope liked it. But that was long, long before fundagelicals got into bed with their onetime enemies, the Catholics, over racism and borshun and all that and then took turns Dutch ovening each other under the sheets while pretending to be pals.
So I wasn’t surprised to learn that now that the Pope thinks that hypocrites in Christianity are The Big Problem Here, fundagelicals have taken that idea and run with it. Indeed, the Pope gave a big speech during his morning mass on June 6th in which he excoriated hypocrites and declared that “hypocrisy can kill a community.” I assume he meant a Christian community, since the sermon was entirely about Christian hypocrites, but it’s interesting that he didn’t specify, isn’t it?
This whole ZOMG HYPOCRITES push had to be something that Christian leaders generally were thinking about, too, because I noticed a lot of them suddenly were talking about this one topic like it was their lucky black feather–like all they had to do was cling to it, and they’d be able to fly their way out of trouble.
But the Pope is totally barking up the wrong tree, and it’s not hard to see why.
Nor is it hard to see why he’d totally blame Satan for creating hypocrisy in human hearts.
This isn’t a new problem and it sure isn’t demonic in nature or even supernatural, though he’d like to pretend that his religion’s endemic hypocrisy is both.
The growing attention being paid to hypocrites in Christianity totally misses that our growing recognition of the problem itself is nothing more than the outgrowth of perfectly natural forces–so hang onto this thread for a minute.
“One of the Most Dramatic Failures in American Political History.”
BAD CHRISTIANS, you see, ruin everything
But oh they sure shine out those big Jesus Smiles
BAD CHRISTIANS, clawing for all that they can get
Like monster trucks in the nightlife
In The American Conservative, George Hawley tackles the question of how much responsibility the Religious Right bears for the coming collapse of Christianity.
He nails the main ideas on the head one after the other, and I thought it was particularly amusing to see him call out fundagelicals for being proud of hemorrhaging slightly fewer members, proportionally, than the mainstream denominations were. They seriously thought that they had a slightly lower churn rate because they had shinier Jesus Auras and were more “biblical,” and that the mainstream denominations–being all liberal and LGBTQ-inclusive and woman-affirming and all–were being cursed by someone (tee-hee!) for their disobedience to the Bible.
Like Mr. Hawley, though, I don’t hear that kind of talk these days. Now the “biblical” groups are starting to lose just as many people as the mainstream folks were a few years ago, they ain’t boasting much anymore. (How’s that humble pie? I hear it goes down well with bile. It’s the breakfast of
He blames the growing number of deconversions in America on the Christian Right’s relentless push to identify its extremist movement with Christianity itself–even to assume the role of gatekeepers to decide who gets to call themselves Christian at all. And that over-identification effort has now backfired. In other words, if someone decides that to be Christian is to associate with one of those bigoted, racist, sexist blowhards, then that person may well decide that they don’t want to take on that baggage–particularly if they weren’t really strong believers anyway. And Mr. Hawley has some other studies he thinks bolster his case that the extremists of the Christian Right have managed to annoy, irk, alienate, and push away all kinds of people who might otherwise have stayed Christian (and kept their money and butts in their churches) were it not for those blowhards.
It’s a fascinating piece–as is the sociology paper he cites from 2002, which is available on jstor.org–and in the main I agree with his findings. I do think that fundagelicals are now the face of Christianity in America–and that many people think of their boorish antics when they think of the religion. I also agree that all things told, the movement as a whole has never been very effective as a political force, though obviously they did manage to rally enough to help get Donald Trump into office.**
His argument ignores the unfortunate eternal reality of hypocrites in Christianity, however–and also ignores exactly why and how fundagelicals managed to make their extremist brand of the religion into the face of the entire religion.
Still, this is another thread we need. Hang onto it.
Always the Bridesmaid, Never the Bride.
What the Pope ignores and what fundagelicals themselves obscure (desperately, futilely) is that there has never ever been a time when there weren’t tons of Bad Christians in Christianity.
Indeed, the religion’s history is replete with villains and craven cowards, predators and conjobs. Its history is one long string of petty squabbles, lies, brute force, and territory-marking–all at the expense of the groups and people the religion has always singled out for exclusion and abuse.
It’s always been like that.
I’m not exaggerating. Not even a little. From the religion’s earliest days, people were already observing how poorly Christians treated both their own tribemates and their sales marks. That criticism has dogged the religion ever since those early days. There has never, ever, ever been a time within Christianity, not even in the eras that most Christians imagine were their religion’s most idyllic and perfect years, when things were any different.
Though some Christians recognize that hypocrisy has always been an issue, a lot of others like to imagine that there was this magical wonderful time when there weren’t so many “bad apples” to spoil the bunch. Most of them restrict these fantasies to the first or second century CE, before the Pauline version of Christianity caught on and wiped out the version in the Gospels, which they often imagine is “original Christianity” (or red-letter Christianity).
I myself suffered from very similar thinking when I was Christian, which led me to search relentlessly for that version I imagined had once existed and surely did somewhere out there. Surely somewhere out there I’d find a group of people living out that Original Christianity in love, compassion, and generosity of spirit. (Don’t call me Shirley!)
Instead what I found was savagery and hypocrisy. You put a bunch of hardcore Christians together in a religious group, and you are going to end up with all kinds of horrific stories trickling out of that group as people gradually escape from its cult leader. The more hardcore they think they are, the worse the abuse will be. No exceptions, ever.
Other Christians think that that magical idyllic time was around the 1950s, which has grounded in many Christians’ imaginations as their Good Ole Days, when life for them looked exactly like Mayberry on TV. They, too, are wrong–because there were never Good Ole Days for most people, even most Christians.
So hang onto that thread because we’ll be weaving it back into the tapestry shortly.
John Pavlovitz Strikes Out.
This whole topic grew out of a link in the comments about another Christian who is taking a stab at the “Bad Christians” argument here. And I replied there, because I’m a blabbermouth who assumes everybody wants to hear my pearls of wisdom, but I wanted to build on what I told him there because he’s gotten the whole matter bass-ackwards.
John Pavlovitz is a pretty nice guy–by Christian standards. He’s what you might call a progressive or liberal Christian. I don’t dislike him at all. I suspect that if we were RL neighbors, we’d be on good terms. But he still makes his living in Christianity, and that allegiance causes him to see things through a filter that doesn’t quite match reality. I don’t hold it against him, either.
His post is called “The Christians Making Atheists,” and it’s pure Bad Christian tosh through and through.
He writes of how, when he grew up in his home church, he was taught that Christians should “live in a way that reflected the character and love of Jesus so vividly, so beautifully, that others were compelled to follow after him; that a Christian’s living testimony might be the catalyst for someone’s conversion.” And he clearly thinks that his church crowd at the time did this.
I can’t completely argue with the idea, either. When one hears about a person converting to Christianity, often it involves some astonishing kindness given to that person by the Christian(s) who made the sale. It almost never involves them being beaten about the head and shoulders with threats or Bible verses laid down like Magic cards. What I would argue with is how often this astonishing kindness flowed forth even in his childhood. I suspect we’re about the same age (he might be a bit older than me), and I don’t remember even knowing any non-Christians until I went to college. And I lived in Houston for my early fundagelical years.
I don’t think that anybody sees the Jesus Aura of a Christian and connects it to, well, anything supernatural at all–or even to the broken system of Christianity’s various rules and regulations. As I semi-mockingly pointed out some years ago, even back in the 1990s when someone did run across an extremely gracious, compassionate, kindly person, they have always been more likely to assume that those qualities exist because of some other cause–like in that case vegetarianism.
But those were The Good Old Days, you see, and now “the very Evangelicals who’ve spent that last 50 years in this country demonizing those who reject Jesus—are the single most compelling reason for them to do so.” Oh yes! See, non-Christians “aren’t stupid. They realize that bigotry, even when it is wrapped in religion or justified by the Bible spoken from a pulpit is still bigotry. They can smell the putrid stench of phony religion from a mile away—and this version of the Church, frankly reeks of it.” I can’t argue that point either. So he thinks we’re “steering clear in droves,” ultimately joining other, non-Christian groups to find meaning in our lives and to seek community and love among like-minded peers.
And John Pavlovitz thinks this culture-wide rejection of Christianity is the fault of these Bad Christians, who have totally wrecked his religion’s witness and made selling Jesus impossible.
But he is wrong.
We’re even talking galactically wrong.
Mommy, Where Do Bad Christians Come From?
Short version: When a broken system and a toxic worldview love each other very, very much, they create hypocrites.
In other words, the Christians freaking out about Bad Christians aren’t looking far enough into the matter to see why their religion is so full of them.
They’re hating the players, when they really should be hating the game that created those players.
Those Bad Christians can only exist because of three reasons:
- First, they need a culture that keeps their existence on the down-low so they can operate in dank darkness. They need the people in that culture to consider them one-offs–to ignore their presence, to downplay them, to hand-wave them away, to consider them glitches in the Matrix.
- Second, they need an ideology that gives them free license to operate wherever they wish, seeking victims and favorable situations for themselves. They need an ideology that blames victims for their own victimization, that gives unilateral power to select people and groups, and that pushes the downtrodden to stay right where they are.
- Third, they need there to be a compulsion to join and remain in Christian churches–so their victims have nowhere to go, nobody sympathetic to turn to, and no rescue in sight. They need power.
And Christianity provided all of these, in glorious Technicolor.
So Bad Christians didn’t come along and wreck the Good Old Days.
They are, in fact, the perpetual and inevitable, even the unstoppable outgrowth of Christianity. They are its children–and they are just as legitimately begotten as the hospitals the religion’s adherents have started, as the charities they’ve run, as the hymns and paintings they’ve created.
And ex-Christians know this. We know the big secret that John Pavlovitz doesn’t yet know:
Christians do not make atheists.
People are only just now hearing about all those Bad Christians because as society grows more and more secular and the penalties for rejecting Christianity keep shrinking, the three necessary conditions for Bad Christians to operate freely are eroding.
See, we used to not ever hear about the worst hypocrites in the religion–except, perhaps, in the vaguest and most veiled rumors. Usually their worst deeds never even came to light. For example, I was floored, a few years ago, to discover a serious pedophilia scandal that’d been brewing in my very own denomination right under my nose when I was actually still a member there. It sure didn’t make the news! But today, the Google news alert thingie I keep on my phone sends me a dozen new examples of clerical crimes every day or two–many just as bad-sounding as the crimes my denomination saw years ago. Now we’re finally seeing just how bad this religion is–and we’re under way less of an obligation to stay Christian anyway, or to excuse those hypocrites somehow to keep the dominant religion’s image and ideas whole and unsullied.
That’s why people leave Christianity, not just the toxic obvious right-wing conservative flavor they might have belonged to. That’s why they reject Christianity, not just the wackadoodle branches they see on TV. And that’s why there’s not some magical flavor of Christianity that could win us back.
H/t to Friendly Atheist.
It’s not like we weren’t perfectly aware that there are 40,000-some-odd flavors of Christianity out there. I’ve never even met an ex-Christian who wasn’t at least minimally acquainted with the basic denominations and theologies in the religion; most of us know more about those topics than the adherents still within them.
When we realized that whatever flavor we were in right then wasn’t the real deal, we had to make a whirlwind series of decisions. Some of us don’t even realize we made those decisions till long, long after our deconversions, but we still made them.
This was the decision: If not this one, then maybe some other variant of Christianity?
Some of us do end up stopping off in some other variant of the religion–maybe for life, maybe just as we sidle our way out entirely. I’ve heard from a lot of ex-Christians who briefly dabbled in pretty much everything under the sun.
But most of us just leave the whole religion behind–and we discover very quickly that our lives only improve once we do.
Hanging the Tapestry.
Here, then, is the brutal truth about both evangelicalism and Bad Christians:
Evangelicalism did not, itself, cause Bad Christians.
Rather, Bad Christians caused evangelicalism.
They gained more freedom to move around and operate thanks to evangelicalism, they may even have been worsened by evangelicalism, but they existed long, long before evangelicalism ever did. And because the broken system that created evangelicalism will exist long after evangelicals become a non-issue in Western culture, there will still be Bad Christians preying upon the vulnerable wherever they can.
And there is nothing in the world that all those disapproving Christians out there can do about the damage Bad Christians are causing.
If you took all the John Pavlovitzes of the world and you built an SDF-1 out of all of them, with John Pavlovitz arms and John Pavlovitz legs and a John Pavlovitz head with a super-cool swoopy helmet on it and gave it the ability to do a Pavlovitzian Daedalus Maneuver on its enemies, they still wouldn’t be able to stop evangelicals–or Bad Christians–from hurting people.
Their religion is just that useless. It’s just that weak. It not only does not produce good people or compassionate groups, but it cannot protect anybody at all from its very own bad apples.
That truth is what ex-Christians see when we come face-to-face with the pure boiling hatred and rage and terror in the evangelical heart and then look past that heart to see where all that horrible stuff came from.
We saw that the religion itself is what caused those people to come to power and gave them the power they needed to rend and tear–and that even in the very nicest flavors of the religion, the core tenets of the religion itself are what lead to the power inequities that in turn lead to Bad Christians. We saw that the few kind, loving Christians we knew or ran across were like that despite Christianity, not because of it, and that the religion itself had nothing to do with their kind and loving natures.
That is why so many of us left.
And that, right there, is why Bad Christians will continue to be a big problem for Christians. They can’t fix the problem without making such big changes to their religion that it’d largely stop being uniquely Christian at all.
So what I’m saying is that the kids will be all right.
BAD CHRISTIANS, doing what they always do
Shining bright as knives and red as death,
Passing mileposts, banners, marking year after year
Wheels spinning, horns blaring, trampling the rest
Like monster trucks in the nightlife
We’re going to look at one way that some folks are trying to stay Christian without taking on all that baggage we just talked about–join me next time as we talk about Christians “who love Jesus, but not the church!”
Perry Cox would probably have done way better meter.
* The first part of this post’s title came from some Tumblrina’s poetry blog I saw once and it stuck in my head. The blog appears to be gone now and one can’t really fault her for taking it down, but I always got a kick out of that image.
** That is seriously going to be our age’s go-to example of “a justifiably dying toxic movement that somehow pulls a pyrrhic victory out of its ass” for about the next six hundred years, so we might as well get used to it. Long after we’re all just fairy tales in books written by rabbits, that’s going to be the fable they tell to illustrate that point.