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Hi and welcome back! We’ve been talking about personal evangelism lately — that person-to-person kind of recruiting that evangelical laypeople do themselves when they’re away from church. Recently, I’ve noticed that evangelical leaders have been demanding this evangelism more and more from their flocks. And by the same token, the flocks seem to obey less and less. In their disobedience, I see signs of something very big on the horizon for evangelicalism itself — and Christianity as a whole.

one little gosling wandering off
I love that lil guy to the lower left. In a minute I wonder if she’ll yell, ‘Schuylir, GET YER FUZZY YELLOW BUTT BACK HERE!’ (Kyle Van Alstyne.)

Obedience as a Barometer of Power.

I know evangelicals like to say that money is the root of all evil. They get that idea from the Bible. But the Bible is wrong there, just as it’s wrong about a lot of stuff.

The real root of all evil is fear.

Almost every evil deed ever done in the world seems to flow from fear of one kind or another. And almost every good impulse stifled to inaction seems to come from it as well. Fear can make basically decent human beings reject their own children and fling stones at someone for loving the wrong person. Stoked and induced properly, fear can easily nullify the willpower and good intentions of any group.

Authoritarians love fear, as a general quality. It makes obedience a no-brainer — even if authoritarian leaders lack any real way to punish their underlings. Definitely that kind of power amps up the fear leaders can stoke, but even without it they can work their flocks into states of mind-numbing fear.

So the more obedient an authoritarian group is, the more power its leader holds over them and the more afraid they are of disobedience.

Why Authoritarians Lead by Fear.

When people are actively afraid, they don’t tend to think as clearly as they normally do. Their better instincts might be muffled and their rationality seems harder to summon. And they’re very likely to look to power as a solution to their problems. They’ll either want to seize it for themselves or attach themselves to someone who seems to wield the most of it.

There’s a reason why Pascal’s Wager appeals so mightily to authoritarian Christians. It suggests that people figure out which religion makes the biggest threats and join that one, just in case that one’s threats happen to be true. For the same reason, evangelicals tend to lean very heavily on threats of Hell to score the few sales they can still make nowadays.

Fear induces obedience.

Authoritarians who lead by fear explicitly tell their followers that they will only be safe if they follow orders. By contrast, authoritarians fear that disobedience will bring divine retaliation down upon their heads. 

Sacrificing Freedom for Safety.

For authoritarians, adhering to demands for extremely regimented structure and obedience induces feelings of safety. When you see evangelicals gloating about a victory (even an imaginary one) or abusing people they hate, you’re looking at people who feel safer right then than they did beforehand.

Right then, they feel like they’re on the winning team. And they know very well what happens to anyone on the losing teams — because after all, they’re the ones administering the abuse.

Only the winning team is safe from abuse.

Of course, even then, only the most powerful people on the winning team can ever feel close to completely safe.

So evangelicals’ overall goal tends to be joining the winning team, then amassing as much personal power as they can within it.

(That’s why you find such amazing motherlodes of drama even in the smallest, least consequential little subgroups within even small churches. For where two or three gather in Jesus’ name, there mind-blowing drama is in the midst of them.)

But Now, Lost Power.

In a lot of ways, then, this breathtaking new period of decline in Christianity has to be an evangelical’s absolute worst nightmare. All of the structures and processes I just described are coming apart at the seams.

Evangelical leaders can’t do a single thing to stop it, either. They deny their own losses with their dumbest HAW HAW faces, and make stabby motions with their hands while screeching repeatedly for “angels from Africa” to fight and win their latest slapfight for them.

And yet the flocks seem to be dissolving away, while evangelicals’ overall credibility ebbs lower every day. Nobody follows these leaders’ commands, not even the most basic commands they issue — like all those demands they keep making for personal evangelism.

The younger the flocks are, the less they obey these authoritarian tin-pot tyrants.

More importantly: the younger the flocks are, the more they treasure their social connections and the less authoritarian they seem to lean.

So they may indeed initially burn through a lot of their existing relationships thanks to personal evangelism attempts. Eventually, they’ll realize that real encounters never ever look the way their leaders say they will.

In response, they’ll do what I eventually did when I was evangelical and yes, what countless other evangelicals have done as well: they’ll stop doing evangelizing unless they’re sure it won’t backfire on them, like if their targets actually request a sales pitch. Otherwise, they’ll just try to be chill about religion — or go with Jesus Aura evangelism.

The Tribal Boundary Marker.

That might be an issue, of course, since there’s nothing about evangelicalism that would appeal to most people.

Evangelicals don’t look different from anybody else. They certainly don’t behave differently, unless we mean to say they behave worse than those outside their tribe. Though they use a lot of jargon (“Christianese”), they don’t speak a unique, insider-only language that no outsiders can possibly learn. Their tribe only seems to hurt others, lie constantly, and grab for way more than its share.

Despite that reality, evangelicals ache to achieve a sort of ethereal separation from what they scornfully call the world. They want to glow with a bright-blazing aura of Jesus Power that dazzles the eyes of filthy casuals — and makes heathens want to know more about what makes them so, I dunno, different I guess. Their Bibles tell them that this is what TRUE CHRISTIANS™ should be like, and what outsiders should think of them.

Unfortunately, nobody thinks of them that way because they really aren’t like that.

So when evangelicals do conduct personal evangelism, in a lot of ways they’re laying down a boundary marker around their tribe. They’re setting up an us vs. them demarcation, telling their targets that they must join the tribe to be safe, and savagely attacking their many enemies as inferior, terrible people.

And the flocks are way less willing than they used to be to do any of this. 

The Telling Demand.

In that light, it’s very telling that this is where evangelical leaders have decided to stomp their widdle feet the hardest, isn’t it?

They could have demanded that evangelicals start following their own behavioral rules. Or they could have slammed down hard on tithing. Or even divorce, or premarital sex. Their flocks break all of their rules with a ferocious dedication that suggests that a mission statement is in play here.

But no, evangelical leaders settled on insisting the flocks get out onto the sales floor. That’s the one act that would bind the flocks closer to them, yes, but it’s also the one act that they think demonstrates once and for all the separateness of evangelicals from the world. It’s a demand that reveals just how completely fragmented evangelical leaders’ power has become.

To me, it’s even more telling, perhaps, that this is where the flocks once-and-for-all stand their ground and refuse to cooperate.

Evangelical leaders tried to play authoritarian chicken with the flocks, and the flocks won.

Y’all, that’s a good sign. It means evangelical followers are way less willing to destroy their relationships with people outside their tribe just on the say-so of their leaders. And that means they fear those leaders a lot less than they used to, and find fewer rewards in unthinking, reflexive obedience. That’s all good news.

We’re all in this thing together, and I’d really like all hands to be on deck for what’s coming next.

NEXT UP: LSP! And then, we’ll check out an interesting bit of Christianese inspired by today’s research. See you tomorrow!

A Last Note:

It’s interesting to me that evangelical Christians don’t try to demonstrate how different/superior they are by being way better people than non-members could ever be. I mean, that’s one of the main tangible benefits they promise to converts. I think the same about their dumb marriage rules that they insist couples must follow or they’re doomed to conflict and divorce. If they consistently achieved those two goals, I’d be absolutely astonished. I don’t think I’d automatically call their rules divine in nature, no. But I’d definitely wonder what they’d figured out that the rest of us hadn’t.

But they’re not better people. Their marriages look absolutely dismal. Whoops.

I guess it’s always easier to add something to a behavioral roster than it is to substantively change an existing behavior. Not even Jesus can make terrible people into good people. That said, he seems very good at making halfway decent people into terrible people. Whoops again.

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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,...