When we look at the balance of news coming out about Christianity, one fact seems absolutely inescapable: the religion in general is starting to lose its privileged position in American culture. But for some reason, many Christians still act like they’re totally astonished and blindsided when they are confronted with this fact. Today I want to examine this tendency–because it shows us something important about what’s going on in right-wing Christian culture.
The National Day of Hypocrisy.
As we’ve been talking about lately, the National Day of Prayer (NDP) belongs to right-wing Christians. It was orchestrated by them as a naked power-grab from the beginning, and it is meant to get them back the power they’ve lost over the years.
They’re perfectly aware at some level that they are losing power, which we can tell because they’ve gotten more desperate over the years with this made-up holiday. (Well, I reckon they’re all made up at some point, but this one is especially fake to me.) Evangelical churn is starting to alarm even the biggest names in the religion, after all. It seems inevitable that Christians who are concerned about losing influence will escalate their frantic efforts. It’s a way of making themselves seem bigger than they are, like a cat that arches its back and brushes out its fur in response to a threat.
And Christians use occasions like the NDP to gauge how much influence they still have.
Shirley Dobson, the wife of big-name Christian James Dobson and the leader of the NDP Task Force till next year, said in that Religion News Service piece,
Was it not shocking to the nation when on June 26, 2015, the very definition and meaning of marriage that has endured for 5,000 years in every civilization on Earth was redefined, weakened and undermined?
I thought I’d take a stab at answering Ms. Dobson, since I’m very helpful that way:
No, nobody who actually understands the situation was shocked at all.
Only fundagelicals were shocked.
And there’s a reason why they keep acting shocked when they lose one of their little manufactured showdowns.
A Familiar Pattern.
Those Christians were shocked because of a particular defect in their culture that makes them totally unable to recognize signals and symptoms that they don’t like, that emphasizes a misplaced trust in ideology when reality gets in the way, and that can’t bear even the slightest amount of pushback or criticism.
They are engaging in a pattern of dysfunction that transcends religion.
Not long ago, I read a fascinating blog series by Issendai called “Down the Rabbit Hole: the World of Estranged Parents’ Forums.” We’ve talked about it off and on, but I wanted to cover one of its elements in greater detail here because I think it’s very important in understanding why Christians never seem to learn from their failures.
Issendai noticed that there are two distinct groups of parents who actively participate in these forums, and they can be differentiated easily by whether or not they accept their own possible role in their estrangement from their children.
One group is largely aware of what caused the estrangement. They’re willing to accept and work on any problems they have in order to accomplish a two-sided, mutually-beneficial relationship with their kids–or at least to understand what happened and heal if that isn’t possible. They tend not to last long at these forums; they stay for a bit and then leave to hopefully find resources that better address their needs.
The other group of parents, though, simply want the validation they get from like-minded people. They might have had quite a lot to do with their own estrangements, but deny that idea to the skies. While trampling on their children’s privacy, making false accusations of child abuse to the authorities to disrupt their children’s lives, and luridly imagining how awesome it’d be to physically assault their children, these parents insist up and down that they have nooooo idea why their kids have “really” cut ties. In their eyes, they’ve done no wrong at all, and so their children are wrong to ask them to change anything about their behavior. The estrangement itself is always someone else’s fault, never their own; they are such fine, upstanding, devoted, loving parents that nobody rational would ever be able to find fault with them.
So when Issendai saw a parent insisting that he or she had no idea what could possibly have caused their estrangement from their children, she knew that she was looking at an abusive parent who belonged in the second group.
The “support” network this second set of parents finds on their forums does not question or criticize anything their tribemates do or say. Far from it! They’re all suffering the same delusions, so they’re all contemplating, fantasizing about, or carrying out the same abusive actions. As a group, they tend to totally forget about stuff they themselves reported doing and saying, and they distort events and leave out very important details in their anecdotes. They always paint themselves as the misunderstood, put-upon victims in their strangely warped anecdotes. They create narratives on the fly that suit whatever response they want to elicit that day from their friends online–friends who won’t ever fail to provide that desired response and who can be counted upon to never remember the previous version of events, much less ask about why the stories have changed.
And such parents can react explosively when anybody does dare to criticize anything they’ve done–as one parent did in Issendai’s research. Facts shift and change, and members are expected to avoid challenging or questioning anyone else’s story. The parents on these forums take it as a personal slight and affront when anybody questions them–because to them, “support” means total and constant affirmation and agreement with everything they do, ever, forever.
Parents like that don’t actually want reconciliation with their kids. They want dominance. They want their former unilateral and unequivocal power over their children to be restored. They want to be adored and worshiped–and most of all obeyed. They want to live out their personal conceptualization of parenthood again, unfettered by little details like that conceptualization being emotionally abusive and toxic to their children.
They don’t want reconciliation on any other terms, and even if they can be induced to try pursuing a more two-sided, mutually beneficial relationship with their kids, they have such an all-or-nothing mentality about relationships that they themselves will often back out of the tentative reconciliation that they claim to want more than life itself.
They may want that reconciliation, yes, but something is in the way that is even more compelling: their fear over losing their status. Even if that status is largely imaginary and certainly not anything a loving, compassionate person should ever even want, they’ve been taught to fear the loss of it.
Their fears reflect above all a deep and profound insecurity about being at the mercy of those who were once under their thumb. They fear being laughed at by those they feel should be honoring them. Of being the victims of malicious power plays by those they view as inferior to themselves. Of being manipulated by those who are meant to be manipulated by them. Of losing control of those they view as their divinely-mandated subordinates. Of becoming the lesser in a relationship where they should be the greater.
And yes, Issendai noticed that most of the folks at these forums are Christian.
I’m sure that won’t come as a huge surprise to anybody who’s ever tangled with “Christian love” from these failed ambassadors. I suspect, further, that everything I’ve written here sounds painfully familiar to a lot of ex-Christians.
Which Came First: The Thug or the Theology?
One could argue all day long about which came first, the abusive behavior or the religious affiliation. Based on my experience and what I’ve seen, I’d say that the theology draws to itself folks who suffer the kind of dysfunction that makes right-wing Christianity especially look very attractive, and then shines them on to become even more dysfunctional by giving them permission to act that way toward others, indulging their delusions and fantasies, and convincing them that they are in the right and it’s the whole world that is wrong. For people who tend toward narcissism anyway and who deeply resent their loss of status, it is a powerfully seductive message.
Issendai identified a number of traits that seemed to come together to create the strangely insular, reality-denying world of those forums.
All of the traits listed will seem strikingly familiar to anybody who’s ever spent a lot of time around right-wing Christians. The parents on that forum tend to come from families that were, themselves, abusive and authoritarian. They tend to be “authoritarian followers,” in other words the sort of people who gravitate toward very authoritarian leaders and systems.
And they tend to be very resistant to criticism. As Issendai puts it, this resistance manifests as a “pattern of deflecting, minimizing, denying, or sometimes even blacking out anything perceived as critical.”
And when I saw that description, a lot of things fell into place for me.
When someone believes something that isn’t true, reality can be a cruel and crushing series of body blows. The more extreme the belief, the more often the believer is confronted with contradictions to that belief, the more insistent the believer’s tribe is about setting up a showdown between the belief and reality, and the greater the penalties seem to be for walking away from that showdown in the wrong direction.
If belief is to be maintained in the face of varied and constant contradictions, a believer must evolve and learn a number of techniques from their tribe.
For a while, the believer might be able to reconcile the conflicting concepts. They can compartmentalize them, setting each idea into little separate mental boxes like I did about Creationism years ago. Sometimes that’s sufficient, though the practice can give rise to a very stressful psychological condition called cognitive dissonance.
They can hand-wave away reality with techniques like thought stopping that simply stifle the disturbing contradictions they’re faced with.
They can simply mentally rewrite the painful reality into a whole different story, since our memory is one of the least reliable ways possible of knowing what really happened in any situation. Left becomes right, up becomes down, and why of course Christians always supported Civil Rights for minorities and always hated abortion, yup yup, of course, you betcha.
They can go on the offensive, using the time-honored technique called DARVO: “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.” Using this technique, people who are really criticism-averse can insist that whatever happened either didn’t happen at all, or else it did but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the other person says it was. Then they can go on the attack by painting the accuser as a mean, evil meaniepie who just wanted to be all mean to them, and paint themselves as the poor widdle victim–who is of course blameless and entirely undeserving of any criticism.
When an entire culture is doing this sort of thing, then the few people who might speak up about abuse they’ve suffered or seen will quickly learn to shut up and disappear into the background to avoid being trampled by the rest of the reality-denying tribe.
A Case Study.
Right-wing Christians have lost some big battles lately, but arguably none of those recent losses have been as big as their culture war against LGBTQ people.
They have been throwing a massive temper-tantrum over the matter for years. They acted like they were completely sure that “Jesus” would magically strong-arm our nation into agreeing with them. They used their
Big Special Day As Pretty Pretty Princesses National Day of Prayer as a measurement of their own cultural power, and were counting on the results of the day to demonstrate their fitness to rule the rest of America just as if they were some Old Testament prophet calling down fire from the sky so that all the heathens would see and finally understand the divine wrath they tempted by protecting LGBTQ people from the abuse of TRUE CHRISTIANS™.
What they wanted–a reversal of LGBTQ advances and the stripping-away of the tenuous rights that group had already won access to–wasn’t unreasonable to request in their belief system. It was certainly something a real live god should have been able to do. It was totally something that their conceptualization of “God” actively wanted to do as well.
Even judging by the super-long list of requirements modern Christians have for determining whether or not a prayer will be answered in the affirmative, they did everything their list contained.
James Dobson has been whining for years about LGBTQ rights and painting LGBTQ people as the boogeymen that will destroy the country and world and everything if TRUE CHRISTIANS™ like him aren’t allowed to harass and persecute them (in Jesus’ name amen of course). For years, he’s been using the NDP as a platform from which to spout hate speech and smears against those his tribe has decided are its dread enemy of the day.
And his god simply has not come through.
Gay people can still get married and trans people look like they are well on their way to one day being able to use public bathrooms without fear of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ abusing them.
Mr. Dobson was flabbergasted by his god’s curious refusal to perform on command back in 2012. He recited a long list of the efforts his bigots-for-Jesus had made to try to talk “God” into not letting Barack Obama get elected, and ended with this plaintive little admission: “the Lord said no”.
Well, more to the point, “the Lord” didn’t say a thing. As usual.
Mr. Dobson tried his best to spin-doctor his god’s curious silence. Obviously the problem is not that he doesn’t exist, oh no no! And obviously the problem isn’t that his tribe is asking for something that is totally antithetical to anything a god of love and mercy would ever want to do. No, Mr. Dobson, like his tribe, takes for granted that he wants what his god wants (and I’m sure that’s totally true–for a reason).
But he immediately and totally forgot that his god doesn’t seem interested in rolling back people’s rights. That wasn’t part of his ideology and this divine silence contradicts his worldview, so he promptly forgot all about it and pretended that it hadn’t happened.
To perceive reality clearly is to have to deal with it somehow. Dysfunctional people have an arsenal of tactics and techniques at their disposal to keep themselves from having to do that. If they can avoid seeing reality at all, then they don’t ever have to worry about ignoring it or twisting it.
So when Shirley Dobson acts totally astonished that the United States decided to ignore her tribe’s strident smear campaigns and fearmongering, don’t wonder that she somehow avoided seeing a near-endless litany of court cases before Obergefell or that she escaped knowing about all the polls that show that Americans are getting on board with LGBTQ rights–and that we’re increasingly viewing her tribe’s behavior as grotesque bullying. Don’t marvel that she’s shocked about something that pretty much everyone outside her tribe knew was coming years ago.
Being able to see uncomfortable truths–to cope with criticism–to graciously accept feedback even if it isn’t fun to hear–is a necessary first step in learning to adapt to a changing landscape. But fundagelicals can’t allow themselves to do that for a variety of reasons, which is a big part of why their religion isn’t going to reverse its decline anytime soon.
The challenge for ex-Christians and others is to ensure that we don’t fall into the same mental traps. We’ve got some other stuff coming up before it, but we’re circling back around to this subject soon.
See you next week, when we talk about one of the ways that ex-Christians have to adjust to painful new realities.