Hi and welcome back! Whew! After a week of discussing Russell Moore and his two leaked letters, we come now to the final entry — and the takeaway. Russell Moore has already jumped ship from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). He’s bunked down for now at, of all things, an Acts 29 church whose leaders have questionable alliances. I’m guessing he thinks he’s found the magical church that practices his preferred flavor of Jesus-Flavored Authoritarian Misogyny (JFAM) without also suffering from all the scandals he saw at the SBC. But he’s wrong. Authoritarianism offers Christians like Russell Moore a lot of marketing hype, but it’s impossible for authoritarian churches to live up to that hype.
(Related posts about Russell Moore: He’s No Hero; SBC Sexism; SBC Racism; The Letters’ Provenance and Named Names; Refusing to Play Ball; Don’t Ever Believe the Hype; 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. Lastly, here are links to the leaked February 2020 letter and May 2021 letter.)
Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Grease Fire of Authoritarianism.
Long, long ago, I became a Southern Baptist. At 16, I converted into it from Catholicism.
At the time, evangelicalism made a lot of sense to me. It offered me rules, structure, and a clear set of guidelines to govern just about every single situation. Such black-and-white thinking made so much sense to me, a child growing up in a very broken, chaotic, sometimes-violent, dysfunctional family situation.
The youth group contained many hundreds of kids from toddler- to high-school-age. This megachurch couldn’t even fit them all, so the older ones met at a rented-out elementary school across the street from the church. Members bragged that soon they’d be purchasing a closed-down supermarket next door to turn into a youth center with a roller-skating rink.
(Hey. It was the 1980s. We loved roller skating rinks back then.)
I saw and heard a lot during those youth group meetings that shocked me. My peers were absolute hypocrites! But when we trooped back across the street to attend the actual Sunday services each week, the pastor shocked me even more. He had a laser focus on emptying his congregants’ wallets as quickly and as ruthlessly as he could.
At some point, I finally got disgusted and left. Nobody asked after me.
Shortly afterward, my friend Angela invited me to her own church. It was Pentecostal, and she said they were doing an important sermon series. (It was about the Rapture.)
I was blown away by her church. These guys got downright rowdy. And they seemed to be absolutely dedicated and committed to their beliefs.
Impressed, I joined them.
Ahh, I thought. Finally.
I’d finally found TRUE CHRISTIANS™ who actually lived out their faith!
Yeah, that didn’t last long. In reality, I’d leaped from the frying pan of Christianity straight into its grease fire.
And From There, Almost Into the Corium.
A few years later, when I was Pentecostal, my then-husband Biff and I almost got sucked into a cult — in Waco, no less, and not long before that whole David Koresh thing hit the news in 1993.
I wrote about it in more detail here, early on in the blog’s history. In essence, this weird guy came from the cult to recruit at my church in Houston. And oh boy, the single and newlywed guys in my church ate up what he was selling! He offered this perfect, idyllic vision of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ to us. He knew all the right buzzwords (especially “the cloud has moved,” a reference to a story from Exodus that my tribe took as meaning that Christians needed to follow where the Holy Spirit led).
Something about the guy utterly creeped me out, so I nixed the idea of moving to his cult compound in Waco. But his vision still appealed to me. I ached for that vision to be my real life.
I’d always felt that there was some group somewhere of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ who believed what I believed, and yet who lived out the faith in a serious way. In my heart of hearts, I was sure that if I could just find these Christians, everything would be okay again. I’d be home.
It was such a powerful fantasy. Only some vestige of common sense pulled me back from the brink that time. But even afterward, I still harbored this sad little dream that one day, one day, oh, one day, I’d find these Christians.
I had not yet learned that authoritarianism itself precludes sincerity or faithfulness in Christianity. Individual Christians might cultivate these traits, but there is no way to have a whole group of them reliably doing the same thing. Sooner or later, a bad-faith actor gets into that group — and wrecks it, often before it’s even really gotten off the ground.
It’s weird that I kinda had that figured out at 22, but Russell Moore still doesn’t know it.
Maybe the woman who could have told him so left his flavor of Christianity out of disgust long ago.
Russell Moore Thinks He Can Have Christian Authoritarianism Without Scandals.
Likewise, Russell Moore has left the SBC’s authoritarian superstructure to land in a similarly authoritarian church in a smaller network. He has to know that his new church, which belongs to Acts 29, follows exactly the same doctrines as the SBC — there’s not a glimmer of light between them. They’re not only ferociously authoritarian Calvinists but also deeply sexist, with entrenched systems in place to prevent women from rising too far in leadership.
His particular chosen Acts 29 church, Immanuel Nashville, has the usual plethora of pastors and sub-pastors on its staff. And at least a few of those staffers are super-cozy with C.J. Mahaney, the leader of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM). SGM is a repulsively misogynistic fundagelical group. Chrissy Stroop outlined it well recently:
According to numerous former members of SGM churches, they had a widespread pattern of covering up child sexual abuse, with its leaders discouraging the parents of victims from contacting the authorities, and instead urging them to forgive their abusers and to reconcile within the church.
And Moore’s new church’s pastors are friends and professional peers of the leader of SGM. Oh, yeah, that’s a bad look. If Moore thinks he’s leaped from the frying pan like I did, he may soon find that he’s landed in a similar grease fire.
You just can’t have authoritarianism in your Christianity without opening the door to really disgusting scandals. Whatever the SBC was doing that so offended Russell Moore’s holy nostrils, I guarantee that Acts 29 and SGM — and all like-minded churches — are doing it too, and maybe even worse.
The Hype Machine in Authoritarianism.
“Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” — William Goldman
No no, Jesus can totally heal your pain! — Various Christians selling something
Most fundagelicals are authoritarian wingnuts. No offense. I know some of them are very well-educated in their religion’s talking points and all. But their worldview is simply that of a wingnut: someone whose beliefs do not tether to reality.
And once someone’s beliefs stop tethering to reality at any point, that person opens the door to a proliferation of similarly untethered beliefs.
Add authoritarianism to that mix, and the problems will just keep coming nonstop. Any authoritarian leader who can speak forcefully enough and offers the right promises can gain a huge audience — and that audience will keep clinging to those promises, long past the time anybody sensible would have packed up and left.
To be an authoritarian wingnut is to care a great deal about marketing promises — but to possess no real way to critically assess those claims. Just imagine a toddler leaning forward so far she’s on tiptoe, her little faced screwed up red, and finally pointing at you and bursting out, “BUT YOU SAID!” That’s authoritarianism in a nutshell, when a promise isn’t honored.
And I know the feel. The sheer number of promises — and their sheer scope — can sound just overwhelming.
Authoritarian Christianity promises so very, very much. By the time its recruits realize that none of those promises are true, they’re hooked into the system and scared to leave. Only the powerful find anything close to those promises in these groups.
A Brief Rundown of Why Authoritarianism = Scandals.
I’ve written about this before, but it’s been a while. So please allow me to offer a brief rundown of exactly why we keep finding so many scandals within authoritarianism, especially when it’s religion-flavored:
- Authoritarians care much more about performances and appearances than reality. “Fake it till you make it.”
- Leaders get promoted mainly through carefully-cultivated network connections.
- Thus, abusers easily slide into positions of power through performative piety and astute networking.
- Followers learn to obey their leaders without question. They also learn to curry favor with their leaders and attack other followers’ power-bases. (See endnote.) Followers can only advance in these groups through power games — at least, up to the hard stops of race or gender.
- Leaders protect and aid each other through cover-ups, praise/endorsements, professional opportunities and courtesies, and other such means.
- Followers see their leaders as imbued with divine blessings and the right to rule. They trust their leaders completely and tend to victim-blame. These traits provide abusers with a target-rich environment.
- When any demographic is singled out as undeserving of power, their counterparts — holding all leadership powers — will consider that power imbalance a license to take advantage of them. As noted, abusive leaders can count on their fellow leaders to protect them from fallout.
- Even if any of the group’s followers speak up or try to change anything, they have no power within the system — and will only be viciously attacked for their attempts.
- Because the group’s members are completely and absolutely focused on these power-games, nobody’s able to work on the actual stated goals of the group.
Abuse is the natural result of any group operating along these lines. Anything in this list would be a red flag by itself. Together, it’s a recipe for church-based abuse.
Authoritarian Christians’ groups become, in a very real way, the only way they can imagine getting what they were promised. So they feel they must protect their group — and play its reindeer games of power. It’s a self-perpetuating, if quite dysfunctional cycle.
Russell Moore in the Land of Authoritarianism.
It’s almost quaint to imagine Russell Moore fleeing the hypocrisy-addled SBC for, of all things, an Acts 29 church. Does he seriously think these guys have finally perfected the formula for Jesus-Flavored Authoritarian Misogyny (JFAM)?
Cuz I guarantee they haven’t.
No authoritarian Christians have.
Perfect JFAM is just a hype promise. That promise impresses marks up and down the aisle, but there’s no way any such groups can actually achieve that pipe dream.
I wonder how long it’ll take Russell Moore to hear about an abuse scandal at his new church or at some similar Acts 29 church? And how long it’ll be after that before he writes nasty vagueposting letters to be leaked about it all? I mean, he let abuse and racism victims languish for years at the SBC.
I mean really, we might not hear about Acts 29’s hypocrisy till Russell Moore has long retired — unless, of course, something hits the headlines first.
NEXT UP: LSP! See you tomorrow!
Regarding the currying of favor: A while ago, we listened to a podcast by onetime-SBC leader Thom Rainer. In it, he talked about the difficulties of church revitalization. It was just this absolutely mind-blowing admission of nonstop hypocrisy in his brand of authoritarianism. Among other things, Rainer talked a lot about how church members do their best to “groom” new pastors to gain power within the church. If I remember correctly, Rainer chuckled about how the new pastor might not even be fully moved into his new home before his future congregants begin dropping by to get on his good side. They start grooming pastors as quickly as they can — it’s vitally important that they get there first, before their church frenemies can arrive. Thus, the arrival of a new pastor can shake up an entire authoritarian church’s factions.
And Thom Rainer didn’t seem to have a lot of trouble at all with this apparently-common situation. Like he was just laughing about it. His main advice went to young, inexperienced pastors to be on the alert for this grooming.
Now think on this, and about the upcoming SBC president vote. You can bet SBC faction leaders are already courting their favored candidate, and probably even their enemy faction’s favorite just in case. (Back to the post!)
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