a wreck of a ship for a wreck of a system
Reading Time: 8 minutes Ben Cliff)
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, I showed you the Matt Gaetz scandal cloud. He’s the Congressman who just got outed as a womanizing creep and possible sex trafficker of underage girls. The more we find out, the worse this guy looks. One thing I noticed quickly was that nobody on Capitol Hill really seemed all that surprised that his time in the sun finally arrived. Nobody should be surprised at all about this whole thing. After all, Matt Gaetz is an evangelical in a deeply dysfunctional religio-political tribe. Thus, he speaks the language of power in broken systems. Today, let me decode that language to show you how absolutely unsurprising his behavior really is.

a wreck of a ship for a wreck of a system
(Ben Cliff)

How Evangelicalism Became a Broken System.

When I use the term “broken system,” I refer to a social system that cannot and will not ever achieve its own stated goals. Instead, groups sprouting from this system tend to exist only to gratify their leaders’ desires. And often, that gratification involves them gaining and wielding great power over their followers. Power represents both the goal and the entire point of playing for those within a broken system.

Broken systems are almost always authoritarian. Of course, not all authoritarian groups are broken. (The American military springs to mind here. Though aspects of it are quite dysfunctional, mostly its leaders seem sincere in achieving their stated goals.) But most people won’t voluntarily stick around a broken system unless forced to do so, and that’s where authoritarianism comes in handy.

It’s important to remember that a broken system isn’t necessarily one doomed to quick failure. Some broken systems lurch along for decades and even centuries before dissolving apart.

It’s crystal-clear to me that the American Republican Party has become a broken system. It probably happened  around the time of Civil Rights protests. These protests enraged evangelicals and birthed the Southern Strategy. The party’s leaders sacrificed whatever ideals they might have possessed for greater power. They accepted stone-cold racists into their ranks and told them that their racism was A-OK. They did it, of course, because they needed those racists’ votes.

And they got them.

From then on, though, they had a tiger by the tail. Associating religion so closely with politics cheapened both. As religious groups aligned themselves more and more closely with conservative politics, it became harder and harder for either to achieve their stated goals. Their actual behavior reflected a whole set of covert goals. And covert goals are the hallmark of a broken system.

Matt Gaetz: Speaking the Language of Broken Systems.

Republicans are now forced to cater and pander to right-wing Christian wingnuts (to sing for their supper, in a very painful way). Thus, they had no defense whatsoever against Donald Trump in the mid-2010s.

Credit where it’s due: Donald Trump has a conman’s innate spidey-sense of the weak points of his victims. He knew them. Oh yes, he knew exactly how to manipulate the wingnuts of the party. He played them all like fiddles. Even in his defeat, we know that an even worse conman will come along to manipulate evangelical wingnuts even worse than Trump ever dreamed of doing.

Enter Matt Gaetz. He can only dream of becoming as skilled as Trump at manipulating evangelicals, but bless his cotton socks, he does his best.

It’s painfully easy to game a broken system. I’m sure Matt Gaetz figured that out quickly. Evangelicals rely heavily on performative piety as a substitute for genuine good character. They tend to care more about appearances and bluster than about genuinely good behavior. And they put a great deal of stock in rank and position (they consider both a sign of divine favor). When combined with the good fortune of demographic dominance, a smooth-talking conman can worm his way into the very highest levels of power in such broken systems.

But our newly-risen conman stays there only if he speaks the language of power.

And Matt Gaetz could.

How Broken Systems Assign Power.

First, broken systems select poor leaders based on facades and demographics. 

Broken systems tend to select their leaders very poorly. Mostly, they just look for demographic and ideological lockstep. When presented with someone who looks like their Dear Leaders (a white man presenting as cishet, notably), they tend to fall into line with that person, especially if he parrots their favorite talking points back at them and tells them they are the very most correct-est and well-favored-est of all people.

Obviously, nepotism and cronyism figure prominently in this selection process. It’s a lead-pipe cinch that the newest generation of lackluster apologists (like Sean McDowell) wouldn’t have careers at all if their daddies weren’t big names. Lacking a famous daddy, an aspiring leader can just suck up to the right people (did Ed Stetzer’s ears just get warm?). Heck, you can track a Christian leader’s rise in social circles by just tracking the other leaders endorsing their work.

Of course, if they lack a famous parent or the right leader to suck up to, an aspiring leader can go for broke on pandering.

So it’s very easy for a bad-faith actor to achieve great power in these groups. Dysfunctional people ache to be told they’re right and good. Anyone who tells them that will have their attention.

However they get there, once leaders get there they stay there. The system allows for no street-legal way to eject them once they’re ensconced in power.

This is why nobody ejected Matt Gaetz from any position he attained. He’s a crude, disgusting hypocrite. But he served his own leaders’ interests and his audiences loved him, so nobody who could lifted a finger to rein him in.

Power Protects Its Own.

In broken systems, power protects its own. 

Once our conman has gotten into power, he may expect to stay there forever. His fellow power-holders will ensure that. They’ll cover for him, endorse his products, and make any excuses necessary for him. If everything goes to pieces anyway, they’ll engage in farcical “restoration” dances with him to get him back into power. When they have children who want to get in on the grift, their fellow leaders may be counted on to help those kids out.

Of course, our conman must do the same for the other people in the leadership circle. It’s a small price to pay, I’m sure.

The masters of broken systems don’t structure their groups in ways that allow for any leaders to be questioned, much less removed. They tie a group member’s level of virtue to their allegiance to the group’s leaders, and the leaders to the group’s overall stated goals and self-image.

Thus, the group perceives any questioning of their leader or criticism of their group as an attack on themselves. And they react accordingly.

This is why Matt Gaetz didn’t worry about showing his fellow Congressmen nude pics of his various conquests/victims. He knew they’d protect him. And for years, they did.

The Group Matters Most.

Third, broken systems train members to care more about their group’s welfare than their own (or that of their leaders’ victims). 

So, so often I read accounts of church leaders who didn’t raise an outcry about an assault scandal because they didn’t want to tarnish their religion’s reputation (more). Or leaders who didn’t call police to report predators in their midst because they feared what others would think of their group if the scandal got out.

That’s why we had to make actual laws forcing Christian leaders to report sex abuse to the authorities, then seriously penalize those leaders if they didn’t. Cuz y’all, their imaginary friend Jesus sure wasn’t leading them to do the right thing there. Christianity, being a broken system, does not lead any of its adherents to do the right thing just because it’s the right thing to do. Hell, it doesn’t even lead adherents to do the right thing out of fears of displeasing Jesus. Christians must be made to do the right thing, and then penalized if they don’t.

But Christians leaders like to pretend that their imaginary friend totally makes their groups run just fine without such rules. When scandals erupt in their groups anyway, they try hard to suppress this wrongdoing. Scandals prove that their talking points about themselves are simply wrong.

More importantly, hard rules about what Christian leaders can and can’t do would inevitably impact themselves — and the power they’ve built up over the years. Such oversight cannot be allowed.

So Matt Gaetz could count on his fellow Republicans to keep mum about his predatory behavior. They wanted to protect the party more than they wanted to protect the women around this asshat.

We see the same protective behavior in almost every scandal-rocked evangelical church in America.

The Point of Power is USING IT.

You know how we say that cruelty is the point in broken systems? Well, power represents the wh0le reason why people join and engage with broken systems. Their personality flaws render them incapable of competing in more functional systems. It’s only in dysfunctional systems — like evangelical Christianity — that they can achieve their dreams. They need the cronyism and shroud of secrecy that broken systems provide to do the awful stuff they enjoy.

The whole point of gaining power in broken systems is to be controlled by the fewest number of people while controlling the most people possible. From the littlest old lady who rules the choir with an iron fist to the big-wheel donor family throwing a fit if a visitor unwittingly sits in “their” church pew to the highest-rollin’ megachurch pastor who expects limousine service everywhere he goes, those in broken systems jockey for whatever they can get within their social circles.

Once they get that power, of course, it doesn’t count if they’re not using it. And that means abusing others. It’s why we constantly hear about Christians abusing waitstaff and other low-wage workers. They do it because they can, but more importantly they do it because it’s how they reassure themselves that they have it.

Dysfunctional groups see not using power as a sign of weakness. If other people in their own or other dysfunctional groups see them not using power, they will go on the attack.

One of the most potent ways that a powerful person in a broken system can show off their power is to openly break their group’s stated rules. That’s why Matt Gaetz chose sexual predation as his method of acting out, though I’ve no doubt he broke other rules. His group is all about those sex rules. But here he is, flouting them!

Who’s gonna stop him? Who’s even gonna expose him for doing it?

Nobody in his group, that’s who. 

Seriously. This. Matt Gaetz Scandal. Was Always…

…Absolutely INEVITABLE.

Matt Gaetz actually got outed because the feds were investigating a corrupt buddy of his, Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg. Gaetz’ name turned up entangled in Greenberg’s scandals.

It didn’t happen because Republicans wanted to do the right thing. Nor did it happen because evangelicals wanted to do the right thing. Indeed, how many hundreds if not thousands of Republicans and evangelicals knew exactly what Matt Gaetz was doing, and said absolutely nothing? It must be a large number indeed, and yet it doesn’t seem like this hypocrite worried overmuch about the exposure of his misdeeds.

Nor does it seem like many of his hypocritical comrades-in-arms worry much either.

And they don’t need to worry.

Christian authoritarians can’t help but sprout scandals everywhere they go, like flowers blooming under the footsteps of fairies. Scandals aren’t just a byproduct of their worldview and social structure. They are absolutely inevitable, a result of broken systems’ uneven division of power and their true goal of gaining power and using it. Any group bearing these two flaws is going to sprout scandals like fairy-flowers.

Because they can’t come to grips with those flaws, much less correct them, Christians can’t stop scandals from happening nonstop. Instead, they’re doing everything they can to avoid having to adopt common-sense objective rules that protect the many people their Dear Leaders want to abuse.

And so nothing will change — unless and until Christian followers demand better of their leaders and hold them truly accountable for their hypocrisy.

So basically, nothing will change.

NEXT UP: We dive into churchless believers. See you tomorrow!

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(Last thoughts: LOL. As I write this and finish up my edits, a new story about some fresh new scandal of Matt Gaetz’ floats across my recommendations.)

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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