Hello and welcome back! Last time we met up, we talked about yet another big abuse scandal erupting now in evangelical Christianity. Combined with the scandal erupting around Willow Creek, it’s had me thinking lately about how Christians keep thinking they can have really authoritarian groups–just without scandals. They can’t. Authoritarianism leads to scandals. That’s just the way it is. Authoritarian Christianity, in particular, leads to scandals. And today, I’ll show you why.
(Though fundagelicals are the usual fans of authoritarianism, bear in mind that any Christian group can be that way. I’ve seen progressive Christian groups practicing that model, as well as of course Catholics. Here, I’ll be calling them all simply “authoritarians.” We label ’em as they behave, not by what they claim to practice.)
Hallmarks of Authoritarianism.
Authoritarianism is a system that gives enormous–even total–power to a group’s leaders while stripping it away from followers.
In authoritarian groups, whatever that leader says is LAW. Followers get taught from the get-go that obedience is the chiefest virtue of their group. Their leaders expect complete and total obedience from them in all matters. More than that, even, authoritarian leaders expect followers to agree with every single idea they have–and to respond enthusiastically to everything they say or demand.
Followers possess next to no rights in authoritarian groups. They enjoy very little freedom. Their every thought gets policed and judged by both their leaders and their fellow group members–who are always alert for opportunities to destroy their peers so they can get ahead a little bit in the group’s power structure.
Indeed, power represents the goal for almost everyone in the group–barring those few poor souls who join because they falsely think the group offers security in a topsy-turvy world or safety from confusion and harm.
Most of us are pretty familiar with authoritarian leaders and their working philosophy of my way or the highway. But these leaders make a living on the backs of many, many followers who fall into their orbit and escape with (usually) great effort and long-lasting emotional damage. These power-hungry leaders couldn’t get far without that support. Everything they do focuses on keeping those followers in line and filling the group’s coffers.
(Bob Altemeyer wrote an excellent–and free–book about authoritarians. His book focuses a lot more on the followers than the leaders. Definitely check it out if you’re curious about this topic. It’s really good.)
The Problem Starts At the Top and In the Beginning.
At its core, Christianity is pure authoritarianism: an omnimax deity created everything and owns everything. He receives worship from the tiny little humans who are nothing and have nothing except what he grants them.
Even in liberal Christian churches, followers worship this tyrant, ask him for help, give him thanks for stuff he had nothing to do with, and consider him a rescuer and savior. This big huge being reaches down to his human creations, who reach up to him. He’s a nicer tyrant than the one more authoritarian Christians worship, but tyranny is still tyranny.
This religion simply isn’t egalitarian by any means–not even when Christians contort themselves into knots to try to make it so. Instead, Christianity revolves around lines of power. With few exceptions–like the Quakers perhaps–Christian followers cluster around leaders, then proudly refer to themselves as sheep and those leaders as shepherds. (It’s like they don’t know why shepherds keep sheep in the first place.)
Even the New Testament outlines a distinctly feudal society in its cosmology, with a king (deity) on top of the ladder of power, followed by his priests, followed by petty officers and then–way down far–the laity themselves, who work to support all of it. The Gospels acknowledge the eternal presence of the poor–by ignoring their needs because y’all, JESUS IS HERE NOW and requires attention and lavish gifts from his followers.
Becoming a Leader in Authoritarianism.
Authoritarian leaders most value obedience and lockstep agreement in opinions. It’s so hard for them to allow others to have any measure of power that they choose lower-level leaders in a way that’d look incomprehensible to anyone running a real and successful business, or managing a large volunteer force: through testing candidates’ obedience and agreement.
In authoritarian groups, leaders select lower-level leaders by looking at demographic traits first: race, age, appearance, orientation, gender, etc. Candidates not fitting the demographics for leadership get struck out of the running right off–no matter how qualified they might be.
After considering those traits, authoritarians next move on to the candidates’ affiliations: their lines of friendship, who their mentors are/were, and what other groups they’ve worked with. Obviously, authoritarian leaders advance friends’ interests long before those of strangers.
The results of these considerations: a classic good ole boys network, incestuous lines of power, and inner circles that circle the wagons whenever any threats arise to any of them. It’s so easy to fool authoritarian leaders, if one is so inclined. And many do. All it takes is cozying up to the right people and working one’s way up the ranks.
In many ways, authoritarians’ approach to leadership selection opens the door wide to abusers, especially narcissistic ones who can even more easily trick authoritarians. One Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leader, Russell Moore, has flat-out admitted that his authoritarian tribe absolutely can’t spot abusers ahead of time.
His career arc would mystify anybody who doesn’t understand how authoritarian groups operate. To those who do, it makes perfect sense.
When we examine his past, we discover his history entwines with pretty much all the big names involved in fundagelicalism–like James MacDonald, Paige Patterson, and more. And he’s never met a culture war or fundagelical talking point he didn’t immediately embrace.
He got his first high-level gig at LifeWay, the SBC’s version of a research arm, despite having no qualifications whatsoever to conduct (or interpret) real research. (He likely got it from connections he made at earlier assistant-pastoring and teaching gigs). At LifeWay, he learned to navigate the byzantine Southern Baptist network of alliances, obligations, and feuds.
Then, Stetzer parlayed that experience into a very cushy gig at Wheaton, a huge, big-name fundagelical college. These days, he works to refine and direct large-scale evangelism efforts. This, despite having had no success whatsoever in increasing recruitment for his denomination (or even developing any good ideas that actually worked to achieve that goal).
Sure, Stetzer constantly finds himself rocked by scandals involving his big damn heroes. He writes movingly about his anguish over these occasions.
However, he has never once allowed a scandal to bring him to the point of questioning his indoctrination or his authoritarian streak. As long as he maintains that stance, he’ll be useful to his masters.
Once Leaders Get Installed, They Stay There.
In 2008, I first publicly criticized Southwestern for the way certain faculty members were (repeatedly) registering disagreement with the results of our research. That day, several SBC leaders told me it was my last day as an SBC employee. As one son of an SBC entity head told me, “Nobody criticizes Paige Patterson and keeps their job.”
Authoritarian leaders know that their qualification for leadership is flimsy, to say the least. The ones committing wrongdoing know it would hurt their careers if they’re exposed.
But the chances of getting exposed are minimal, in authoritarian groups.
Once one of the group’s leaders gets exposed for incompetence or malfeasance, the rest won’t be far behind. So the last thing any of these leaders want is for the spotlight to shine upon any of them. It’s far too easy for that spotlight to swing across the rest of them!
Thus, authoritarian leaders protect their own fellow leaders above and beyond every other consideration.
They hide evidence of wrongdoing or just ignore it if it’s brought to them. They punish those who bring that evidence to light. If an outcry threatens to erupt around an abuse scandal, they scuttle the wrongdoer to another location and keep the whole situation under wraps.
Power protects its own. And it does so ruthlessly.
Followers Groomed For Obedience.
“My son, do not take lightly the discipline of the Lord, and do not lose heart when He rebukes you. For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and He chastises everyone He receives as a son.” Endure suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?
—Hebrews 12, setting up abuse in Christianity forevermore
This inability to spot abusers ahead of time should worry Christians.
Authoritarian systems exist to groom victims into complying with the demands of their leaders. Those leaders only get what they want if the followers give it to them, after all!
So followers learn that obedience is the most important offering they can possibly make to their groups. They try to fit themselves in with the opinions of their leaders and conform to the group’s expectations. In the doing, they efface and negate themselves. Many work themselves to the bone volunteering. Many others annoy their friends and loved ones with demands for money, time, even membership with their groups. When they must take time to rest, or they must reject a demand for any reason, they feel guilty and ashamed–which is exactly what their leaders want them to feel.
When an authoritarian leader does something terrible to authoritarian followers, their indoctrination tells them to blame themselves first–not the leader. Often, the leader frames that terrible deed as a loving one, one intended for their edification or correction, and aren’t they lucky to have a leader who loves them so much? Even Jesus does it! Umbrella diagrams! Tough love!
And the group offers no solace or protection from that cruelty.
It’s grotesque, how these groups groom followers to be victimized. Once you see the process in action and realize what it is, you can’t ever un-see it again.
The Center of It All Doesn’t Actually Exist.
Everything I’ve described here depends, utterly, upon Jesus to power it to success. Many Christians even point to their religion’s dominance as an indication that a divine presence simply must have been involved with it.
And if these authoritarian groups actually functioned well, that’d be really remarkable. If, against all indications, these groups served their members without harming them on the regular, that’d be something that’d make anybody sit up and take notice.
Maybe that’s why the Christians in these groups lie so profusely about how good they are. They know that if we really knew what goes on behind their closed doors, we’d run for the hills–more than we already do.
Because these groups don’t serve members well. They don’t function well. They’re hugely dysfunctional, and more often than not they harm the people paying the leaders’ paychecks.
In fact, these groups operate exactly as I’d expect any authoritarian group to operate. No gods are involved with them–at least, no good and decent gods worth worshiping. Maybe a trickster god helps them be all that they can dysfunctionally be.
(When I deconverted, I spent a brief while dizzied at that very notion.)
Without a real god undergirding their groups, spurring the leaders on toward kindness and ensuring that things run harmoniously despite authoritarians’ wide-open door to abusers and conjobs, authoritarian Christian groups fall prey to all the same problems that hit secular authoritarian groups.
Let me rephrase that.
There’s no difference whatsoever between Christian authoritarian groups and secular authoritarian groups.
The same exact problems afflict both. They both experience the same tendencies toward abuse and overreach. And they both attract the exact same kinds of leaders and followers who seek the same exact benefits for themselves.
That similarity stands as a singular indictment of the entire religion. It falsely promises rebirth and renewal, but it provides neither.
Jesus commanded Christians to be known by their love. He wanted his followers to be special–unique, even–in the world. In a terrible way, that may be the only prophecy attributed to him that ever actually came true. We do know Christians by their “love” — at least, by the redefined ersatz version of it they practice and inflict on others.
Having Their Authoritarian Cake and Eating It Too.
So there’s absolutely no way that Christians can practice authoritarianism in their groups and not have it result in scandals and heartbreak for members.
Their entire system depends utterly on these group leaders’ benevolence. But they’re incompetent at choosing good group leaders. They can’t even effectively assess an applicant’s qualifications for service.
Eventually, someone malignant and malevolent snakes their way into power in authoritarian groups. And the results speak for themselves: pain heaped upon the group members who can least protect themselves.
When those leaders inevitably foul up by harming others in a way that can’t be silenced or ignored, they can count on their fellow leaders to protect them at the expense of the people harmed–so that the other leaders’ shaky foundations for leadership never get questioned and the group’s credibility doesn’t suffer.
Whatever happens, those leaders will always protect their power and their group’s credibility.
An Overhaul We’ll Never See.
Without a complete overhaul of Christianity, without Christians themselves completely re-thinking how they come by their leaders, there’s just not a way to fix any of this. They’ll never find the magical fix for this dealbreaker. I don’t think they even want to fix it. Fixing these scandals means ending authoritarianism as a group structure. Authoritarian Christians won’t do that. Not only that, they’ll accuse demons of making other Christians reject authoritarian groups.
But they’ll continue to think that they can totally design an authoritarian group and somehow escape scandals. There’ll always be more authoritarian nutjobs who can’t find power in any other way than by getting into Christian leadership, and there’ll always be authoritarian followers who’ll cluster around these leaders and think their group is the best thing since sliced bread.
They’ll continue to try their hardest to ignore the harm those leaders cause, too, until they just can’t anymore–or until a bigger leader wants someone else in the scandal-causing leader’s position.
At that point, they have a long-established pattern for dealing with things: cry lots, promise big changes, wait till people forget about it, and then proceed as if nothing ever happened.
NEXT UP: The roadmap doesn’t help anybody get from Point A to Point B. But that’s not really its purpose. Join us next time as we look at what purposes Christians’ life instructions actually serve.
See you soon!
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