Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, we discussed the origin story of the latest blowup in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Back in 2013, one of their major subgroups, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), desperately needed an image makeover. They hired Russell Moore to solve their crisis, and he did indeed solve it. But then, the SBC’s top leaders found that they had created a whole new problem, one that they couldn’t easily solve: their hype had collided with their reality. Today, let me show you why you just can’t trust a broken system’s hype, ever, no matter how ethereally perfect it might sound.
(Related posts about Russell Moore: How Russell Moore Got His ERLC Job; Yes But Was He Hateful Enough; How to Fool a Monster; Russell Moore Reveals the SBC’s ‘Abuse of Faith’ Strategy; The SBC Just Drove Out Another Dissenter. Also see: The SBC Still Doesn’t Get Why People Don’t Like Them Anymore; Frank Page’s Very Clean Cup. “Fundagelicals” are fundamentalist evangelicals. And I always use “tribe” in the sociological/political sense.)
Hype: The Beautiful Lie.
Bowfinger (1999) is one of my favorite movies. In it, Z-list moviemaker Bowfinger (Steve Martin) decides to shoot a science-fiction movie starring AAA-list action star Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy).
Unfortunately, Kit turns him down cold.
Undeterred, Bowfinger decides to shoot the movie anyway. He just won’t tell Kit he’s in the movie!
Then, Bowfinger lies to the rest of the cast and his crew, telling them Kit’s signed to star in their movie.
Kit has no idea the diva’s acting out a scene. Meanwhile, Carol thinks he’s playing his role straight.
As stranger and stranger things happen around Kit, he slowly begins to question his own sanity. He retreats further and further into the teachings of Mindhead (a riff on Scientology).
Finally, Bowfinger’s production gets busted by Mindhead. His cast and crew finally realize that Bowfinger has been lying to them this whole time. Kit had no idea this movie even existed. All their work’s been for nothing.
Disconsolate, they gather without Bowfinger in his bungalow/office. The scriptwriter asks one of the actresses what she thinks of it all.
After a pause, she replies with all the high drama one expects of an overdramatic theatre diva:
I think… I think it was a beautiful lie.
Her assessment has stuck with me for decades now. There’s just so much to unpack in it.
Most of all, she perfectly describes how people engage with hype: those glorious self-descriptions that groups and people use to get others on board with their ideas, and then what happens when reality comes crashing in on them (or not, in her case).
Bowfinger represents hype at its very peak. The entire story revolves around the way that conjobs like Bowfinger create hype and use it to draw others into their projects.
Hype can sound so beautiful. It makes people believe some very grand things and it can inspire them to give their all to their chosen groups and causes.
But if there’s nothing real behind it, hype is just, well, a beautiful lie.
The Devastating Truth.
It’s always such a painful thing for me to encounter fervent Christians who really, truly believe their tribe’s hype. Usually, these encounters happen right after a Christian’s discovered the truth about that hype. It can be so incredibly crushing. It’s like realizing that your whole life was built on a series of deceptions.
I’ve been there.
When I was a fervent Christian, there was so, so, so much hype I believed about my religion and my tribe of Pentecostals. I truly believed we were better than other people. We had the truth, and we had a god living inside of us. That meant we were best qualified to lead our country and to handle tough, thorny ethical questions.
But slowly, my beliefs fell completely apart. I met ultra-racist TRUE CHRISTIANS™. Dishonest tribemates took advantage of me financially — like one very highly recommended auto mechanic with Jesus fish all over his signage. My churchmates displayed constant hypocrisy, while their interpersonal behavior completely contradicted our hype about being a “church family.”
Eventually, I had to admit to myself that there was absolutely no positive difference between my tribe of Christians and the outsiders we referred to as the world. If anything, the world seemed to contain a lot more truly moral, ethical, kindhearted people than my tribe did. That was a painful thing to admit.
If all we had was just hype without any basis in reality, if it was all just “a beautiful lie,” then I wanted no part of it.
I didn’t know why my response was so incredibly strong — not yet.
But I always get there in the end.
Christian Hype is SUPPOSED to Sound Magnificent.
It’s said that history is written by the victors. That sentiment applies double in the case of Christianity.
Remember, always, that this hype was created by Christian leaders. For many centuries, these leaders held uncontested dominance over a big chunk of the entire world.
Consequently, they could say literally anything they wanted about themselves.
Who was gonna stop them? Nobody, that’s who.
Anybody who even tried to challenge Christians’ lies ended up in deep trouble. For example, I don’t think it’s any accident at all that the writings of Celsus, an early critic of the religion, survive only in quoted fragments in a Christian’s rebuttal.
Yeah, I’m sure it frosts authoritarian Christian leaders’ cookies that they can’t memory-hole criticisms like they used to — or barring that, simply destroy the critics themselves. Even nowadays, Christians tend to respond to criticism with demands for the critics to shut up. They often even punish those bringing them information about Christian wrongdoing (as I discovered myself).
Similarly, we already know exactly what authoritarian Christians do when they don’t have any fear at all of pushback:
They create more hype and polish their existing hype to a mirror shine.
Creating It, Unleashing It: Why Hype Exists.
I’ve known so, so many decent people who belong to toxic, authoritarian flavors of Christianity. Always, they say they’re there for the same basic reasons:
- Despite its flaws, [X] denomination/church has the best handle on [insert important ideal that the group’s behavior directly insults].
- Sure, [X] is full of hypocrites and its leaders are absolute monsters who abuse children, but its guiding principles are just so ethereal and awesome, dude.
- My group may be lying about literally every single aspect of themselves and their real goals, but they can’t possibly be lying about Jesus/Heaven/etc. (Example)
It doesn’t matter what horrific new scandal these believers discover about their group, because they will remain members of it regardless. They may squirm a bit about their association with such monstrous predators (and try hard to distance themselves from those nonstop scandals). They may struggle a bit to explain why they keep cutting their group so much slack and supporting such people through their affiliation with these groups.
But ultimately, it all boils down to them being unable to look past their group’s well-crafted hype.
That hype was so well-made and so profoundly resonant for them (or flattering, or otherwise pleasing to believe) that they’ll overlook literally any real-world contradictions to it so they can keep embracing it.
In short, a lot of Christians would rather embrace fake hype that shoots for the stars and is ignored by most of their fellow group members than find themselves an authentic group that actually lives up to its own claims about itself.
The SBC’s Hype Machine.
When Russell Moore gained the presidency of the ERLC in 2013, he ascended to the leadership of a group that was chock-full of hype about itself and its mission.
The ERLC is dedicated to engaging the culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ and speaking to issues in the public square for the protection of religious liberty and human flourishing. Our vision can be summed up in three words: kingdom, culture and mission.
Since its inception, the ERLC has been defined around a holistic vision of the kingdom of God, leading the culture to change within the church itself and then as the church addresses the world.
They define their “ministries” in ways that suggest that they know all about how to properly Jesus the Jesus-Jesus, like the first thing on the list: “Assist Churches in applying the moral and ethical teachings of the Bible to the Christian life.”
The ERLC talks a very big game about being right there to selflessly help churches and individual Christians figure out how to Jesus correctly in this increasingly-secular world.
But the actual way that Richard Land behaved as the previous leader of the ERLC tells a whole other story about what the ERLC is and what its goals actually are. It’s just a culture-warrior propaganda machine.
In truth, the ERLC exists to help Southern Baptist leaders acquire dominance over every sphere of American life. And Richard Land showed us that truth constantly in his behavior.
Oh, Dear: Russell Moore Accidentally Took That Stuff Seriously.
As I said yesterday, I don’t actually think Russell Moore is a good person. You can’t become a leader within a totalitarian political movement like the SBC without being a truly disturbing authoritarian somewhere along the way. His opinions about civil liberties and human rights mark him instantly as the very worst kind of toxic person: the kind who hurts others while thinking he’s doing great good.
But he doesn’t strike me as a hypocrite. I think he really thinks that the SBC’s hype about itself and its mission is what the SBC is really all about and what it really wants to accomplish. Yes, I think he’s made the truly dire and lamentable mistake of taking the SBC’s hype at face value.
So when he assumed leadership over the ERLC in 2013, he absolutely intended to make it the SBC’s nexus of ethics and behavior.
I can only imagine the hilarious slow dawning of comprehension that crept across the faces of Moore’s fellow leaders at the SBC as they gradually realized exactly what forces they’d set into motion by putting Russell Moore in charge of the ERLC.
I think they expected him to play ball once he had solved their immediate crisis.
As we’ll see next time, however, that is the dead opposite of what he actually did.
NEXT UP: LSP! Yep, another week has wound to a close. Where on earth does the time go? Maybe we’ll find out tomorrow. Then, we’ll be talking about how evangelical leaders play ball (the fargin’ iceholes).
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