Hi and welcome back! As I look back at the carnage of our recent book review of The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, I’m struck by something its author, Ronald J. Sider, does to give himself a tiny little ray of hope for the future. It’s something we’ve seen evangelicals do constantly, too: gatekeeping exactly who qualifies as evangelical at all. If they can tighten their definition enough, then suddenly it looks like they’re doing great! So today, let me show you what gatekeeping is, why so many Christians do it, and why it actually backfires on them.
(Related posts about TRUE CHRISTIANITY™: They’re All Genuine Christians; Proving My Non-Religion; In Search of the TRUE CHRISTIANS™; Joshua Harris and the TRUE CHRISTIANS™; The No True Scotsman of Atheism (As Christians Understand It).)
Gatekeeping is an attempt to define who belongs to a particular group — and who doesn’t belong at all. Often, the gatekeepers seek to exclude people they don’t like. And also often, the gatekeepers don’t actually have the right to do anything like that.
When some male video-game players began attacking and insulting so-called “fake gamer girls” some years back, that was a prime example of gatekeeping (as one humorous post describes). A great many music fans try to do the same thing. Myself, I’ve been the target of gatekeeping in tabletop gaming, comic-book collecting, and in every other hobby and interest under the sun — except the Society for Creative Anachronism, now that I think about it.
Gatekeeping happens when some dillweeds decide to rip away someone else’s label to make themselves feel superior. Denying labels to others gives them a little thrill of power. It makes them feel like they’re finally in the Cool Kids’ Club.
And evangelical Christianity was made for this reindeer game, let me tell you!
There exist so so so so so many opportunities to play this one, too! I joke about them always trying to win these lil pickup games of More Hardcore Than Thou, but this goes way further. Instead of only trying to out-Jesus everyone else, they declare that the losers aren’t even really Christian at all.
Gatekeeping Opportunities Galore.
If you can’t tell, Christian gatekeeping amuses me in a dark kinda way. It’s such a uniquely hateful form of disrespect and emotional violence, and it’s done to and by members of a religion commanded to love and cherish everyone. Indeed, very little speaks to the true empty, shriveled, cowardly, control-lusting, malicious, blackened heart of this religion like gatekeeping does.
And yet Christians can’t resist doing it, all up and down the line. They just can’t resist creating some quirky lil definition of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™, measuring everyone in the religion by it, and then ripping the label away from people who make their newly-defined religion look bad.
The more restrictive someone’s definition of Christianity is, the more people they can exclude from it, too. That means that evangelicals tend to do it the most often, and about the most topics. For example, here’s a Creationist sniffing disdainfully while gatekeeping someone who rejects that pseudoscience:
It’s not just individual Christians deciding to rip the label away from their fellow Christians, of course. Professional Christians do it all the time.
Why Christians Gatekeep.
Christians gatekeep for a couple of very compelling reasons (to them at least).
First, it allows them to distance themselves from other Christians they perceive as damaging their brand.
Are we speaking against a really awful Christian practice, like atrocity apologetics? Oh, the Christians doing that aren’t real Christians, so obviously we can’t actually link their behavior to the religion itself. Are we discussing the 80%+ of evangelicals who support Donald Trump to the teeth? Oh, they’re not TRUE CHRISTIANS™, who all reject Trump and all that he stands for! Or are we discussing all the Christians leaving the religion lately? They’re just nominal or cultural Christians, because obvi the true-blue dedicated ones would never ever ever leave.
Second, though, it allows them to make truth claims about their religion that they couldn’t otherwise.
That’s where we’re hanging out today.
See, if a study comes out declaring that evangelicals have a high divorce rate, that’s really embarrassing. Evangelical leaders know that a high divorce rate in their flocks contradicts all their claims about how WUNNERFUL evangelical marriages are compared to ickie heathen marriages.
So they just tighten their definition of evangelical. Now, suddenly, any evangelical who gets divorced wasn’t a proper evangelical at all. They don’t count, and neither do their divorces! TRUE CHRISTIANS™ don’t divorce, and now their tightened definition supports that claim!
Hooray Team Jesus!
Sure, it’s super-dishonest and sketchy, but I don’t know anybody outside of evangelicalism who’d be surprised by that — not nowadays.
“Just Saying You Are Christian” vs. TRUE CHRISTIANITY™.
When a book called The Divorce Reality came out, it ruffled a lot of evangelical feathers by revealing the truth about their tribe’s astronomical divorce rate. The guy who wrote it, Donald Hughes, told evangelicals that “just being born again is not a rabbit’s foot” when it came to their chances of divorce. As he put it:
“In the churches, people have a superstitious view that Christianity will keep them from divorce, but they are subject to the same problems as everyone else, and they include a lack of relationship skills.” [source]
And the tribe went crazy trying to discredit him and negate his findings. One of the tribe’s leaders, Tom Ellis, works for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), specifically on their Council on the Family. So he’s extremely motivated to maintain the tribe’s markedly-wackadoodle teachings about How to Marriage the Jesus Way. Here’s what he had to say about Hughes’ assertions:
“Since the bulk of our nation considers itself Christian, I would not be surprised with the similarities between the ratios of the nation at large and the ratios among those who would call themselves Christians,” Ellis said. “What we have discovered, however, is this: born-again Christian couples who marry … in the church after having received premarital counseling … and attend church regularly and pray daily together, that the divorce rate is approximately one divorce out of nearly 39,000.
“We believe that there is something more to being a Christian,” Ellis said. “Just saying you are Christian is not going to guarantee that your marriage is going to stay together.” [source]
Ah, okay. So all those people who say they’re evangelical and get divorced? They weren’t Jesus-ing correctly. And he knows that because..?
Because shut up, that’s why.
Gatekeeping for Numbers.
In the book we just finished reviewing, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, we find similar gatekeeping. In fact, the author, Ronald J. Sider, claims that his gatekeeping effort represents the only “ray of hope” evangelicals have. Most of his last chapter concerns itself with explaining why evangelicals totally should gatekeep. As he puts it (p. 126):
The picture we reviewed from the data in Chapter 1 is bleak and devastating. Fortunately, when pollsters make more careful distinctions between nominal Christians and devout believers, there is evidence that deeply committed Christians do live differently.
For a while after this bit, Sider explains different methods of measuring TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ in Christians.
Comically, one group he praises especially highly has what I can only call a scale of sainthood. It produces “saints” and “super-saints.” (See endnote for a potentially-chilling observation.)
Mostly, he seems to agree with how Barna Group defines TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. I can see why. They’re one of the biggest evangelical-leaning survey houses out there. Indeed, they pander endlessly to evangelicals. As a direct result of that pandering, their research is some of the very least trustworthy out there. But again, who outside of evangelicalism is even surprised by that fact these days?
Without this very careful delineation of who is in and out of the pool, he cannot arrive at his so-called “ray of hope.” That’s why he does it.
The Gatekeeping Tautology.
Amazingly, once a motivated liar-for-Jesus carefully defines a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ as someone who claims to adhere to evangelical rules, suddenly everyone who fits the definition is apparently following the rules!
It’s outrageously dishonest as well as an example of complete moral cowardice.
Gatekeeping evangelicals point to that Remnant of apparent rules-followers as PROOF YES PROOF that (as Ambots like to say) the system works, as long as you work the system. Oh, but all those evangelicals who act out and don’t follow the rules? Well, obviously they don’t fit the definition of a true-blue evangelical, especially since that definition now specifically includes rule-following!
Hooray Team Jesus!
Why the Tautology Exists.
Since our motivated liar-for-Jesus can always find evangelicals who claim to follow their tribe’s rules, that lets their entire broken system off the hook from critical examination. It’s not a total failure. Look at all the people who fit into the definition just fine! Sure, there aren’t many, but they’re proof that the system works great!
In any other system, such a tiny number of success stories would rightly constitute an utter condemnation of its effectiveness. Any system with such a failure rate would rightly be laughed off the stage of public opinion.
The masters of these systems can count on their indoctrinated flocks to blame failures on the people trying to make the system work, not (as they should) the system itself for not being able to reliably deliver on its promises.
When you see a very high failure rate in any system, that’s a big red flag. Whatever this system’s salespeople claim it can do, it can’t.
When you see those many failures blamed on people working the system incorrectly, that’s a whole parade’s worth of red flags.
The Invention of Lying.
In the 2009 movie The Invention of Lying, its creators present us with a world where literally nobody lies. Nobody even knows how to lie, or that lying is even possible. Then one day someone figures out how to do it — and he begins using dishonesty for personal gain at others’ expense.
The Invention of Lying (2009)
Evangelical leaders and survey-makers live in that same sort of bizarro land.
We already know that the way evangelicals see themselves differs dramatically from how others see them. A complete examination of their total lack of self-awareness could fill many books, and every so often someone makes a new stab at it (like here).
In their world, the way evangelicals answer surveys actually represents how they live, how they conduct their observances, and what they really believe. Nobody ever double-checks this stuff. Ever. Well, almost never. Every so often, we get a hilarious takedown of some evangelical claim like this excellent critical examination of self-reported church attendance rates.
Just as nutrition and health researchers have learned to be very careful with self-reported dietary intake and exercise logs, religion researchers would do well to be even more careful with Christians’ self-reported adherence levels.
But if Christian leaders did that, then they wouldn’t have that lil remnant to cling to as PROOF YES PROOF that their broken system actually totally works.
The Problem Doesn’t End With Self-Reporting Bias.
Of course, Christian gatekeepers don’t actually possess the right or the ability to bestow titles on anybody — or to revoke them. They not only don’t penalize fakers for faking, they don’t even possess the ability to penalize anyone in the first place.
And that means that evangelicals’ fretting begins and ends with gatekeeping — and gloating over their lil remnant claiming to follow the rules. They do not seem overly concerned with calling out the fakey-fake false Christians warming their pews and semi-contributing tithes. They neither throw out those fakers nor do much to reform them. In fact, these gatekeepers only respond to that legions of fakers diluting their rarified TRUE CHRISTIAN™ ranks when someone points out the tribe’s overwhelming number of hypocrites. Otherwise, they’re quite willing to endure all these hypocrites’ company (and money, and volunteer work, and votes).
To gain these benefits, gatekeepers don’t mention their quirky lil re-definition to the dwindling number of recruits they win. They don’t tell them that in order to be recognized as an official evangelical, these are the rules they’ll need to follow — and that if they disobey those rules in a way that embarrasses the tribe, then they will be disavowed immediately as fakers.
So ultimately, gatekeeping represents an exercise in hair-splitting and goalpost-moving. It’s an antiprocess shield Christians utilize to avoid engaging constructively with Christianity’s central problems and dealbreakers. The moment Christians deploy this strategy, they can forget about actually solving or even acknowledging the contradiction hypocrisy represents to their claims.
Really, gatekeepers desperately hope to distract everyone from these living contradictions to their claims.
And Now, a 180 That’ll Give You Whiplash.
What’s really hilarious about gatekeepers is that they play a double game here, also desperately hoping nobody will notice.
When they need to distance themselves from their many, many hypocrites and embarrassments and contradictions, they gatekeep until their numbers shrink to nothing. At that point, they proudly bellow and beat their chests about being part of the Remnant.
But when they need to zinger someone about how totally true Christianity is because lookit all their dominance, suddenly it’s EVERYONE IN THE POOL!
In fact, one oblivious Christian trying hard to evangelize me last week managed to perform his own 180 in the space of one tweet!
Oh, okay. So Christianity is totes for realsies valid because of muh overseas revival, but also it is infested with tons of fakers and hypocrites abound who aren’t even actual Christians at all.
BTW, what do you wanna bet that most of those totally-for-realsies Chinese converts aren’t what King Him would consider TRUE CHRISTIANS™ either, if push came to shove? My hunch is that almost none of them would qualify. But when this hypocrite needs to push through a nice Appeal to Popularity logical fallacy, he’s happy to reach for an imaginary revival.
The Dealbreakers That Gatekeeping Reveals.
First and foremost, all these gatekeeping efforts reveal Christians’ inability even to agree about anything.
Nobody in Christianity has the authority to create or push through any one supreme definition for anything. Naturally, that free-for-all creates a brand-management nightmare.
Second, gatekeeping reveals just what a hopeless, inconsistent mess Christians’ source document really is.
Weirdly enough, despite having a real live god living inside their heads, somehow Christians’ arguments only multiply and grow more hostile.
Third, gatekeeping reveals Christians’ abusiveness and control-lust.
Gatekeepers punish dissenters by trying to rip away their right to the label they share. Christians use gatekeeping as a way to control and belittle others, to distance themselves from the problematic members of the tribe while still enjoying the benefits of that affiliation, and of course to negate dissenters, as countless TRUE CHRISTIANS™ have tried to do to me. None of what I describe constitutes love, of course. But very little love has ever resided in Christianity, and even less can be found in evangelicalism.
The Only Way to Win is Not to Play At All.
Ultimately, any Christian gatekeeper you encounter is part of the religion’s overall problem, not its solution.
If Christians had any sense, they’d stop gatekeeping immediately. But they enjoy it too much — and gain enough rewards from doing it — that they won’t stop any time soon. All the forces I’ve described that allow Christian gatekeepers to operate also prevent more sensible Christians from stopping them.
Besides, it’s a lot easier for Christians to gatekeep their labels than to do anything about all these hypocrites and bad actors apparently running roughshod within those labels. If they can’t control the hypocrites wrecking their image, then they will go for broke trying to control those who notice those hypocrites.
Gee, it’s too bad there’s not some omnipotent, loving, super-involved and engaged divinity on their side that they can ask to do something to help out here. I mean, at least if he could clarify his expectations and desires a bit, that’d be nice. Then they could write down that clarification and make sure every Christian alive gets a copy of it, so they’re all on the same page!
NEXT UP: Pastoral restoration — what a dog-and-pony show! I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow. See you then!
Not So Comically: Not so comically, he asserts that these alternative scales of measuring piety totally discover that super-duper-saint evangelical men “have lower rates of domestic abuse than others.” It’s downright chilling to imagine what really goes on behind closed doors in such households. The most pious and religiously-observant men I knew in Christianity also tended to be the most aggressive, entitled, and violent, and to have the lowest frustration tolerances when compared to other men. Even worse, it is painfully easy for such men to trick others into thinking they’re good and decent human beings. I cringe to imagine all the women finding out the real truth after getting entangled for life with one of these oh-so-TRUE CHRISTIAN™ men.
Oh well. I guess that’s not Sider’s problem, any more than it was the problem of that gal who wanted couples to marry without knowing each other well! He’s got an agenda, and he’ll push it through no matter how many miserable marriages he helps usher into being in the process. (Back to the post!)
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The Definition of a TRUE CHRISTIAN™: 1) believes the same basic stuff the judging Christian does; 2) hasn’t been caught doing anything the judging Christian thinks is completely unacceptable; and 3) hasn’t left the tribe yet.