Home Life Power in American Evangelicalism (i.e., why I’ve given up)

Power in American Evangelicalism (i.e., why I’ve given up)

Published on April 6, 2014, by in Life.

Earlier this week when Jeremiah and I were talking again about World Vision, I told him I felt guilty for not being more upset on behalf of the children overseas who will suffer because of evangelicals’ obsession with homosexuality.  It seems everyone has been eager to discuss the final count and discuss how evil their former sponsors are.  But I feel numb. Jeremiah told me this probably just goes to show how cynical I already was towards evangelicalism—that even this is not a surprise to me—and I think he is right.

What has phased me, though, is further—and I think irrefutable—evidence of the sort of twisted power dynamics which pollute evangelical culture and its institutions.  In a nutshell, you gain power in evangelicalism through (1) saying the right things/otherwise keeping up appearances, (2) shady (often dictatorial) politics, and (3) using money and networking to your advantage.  All in all, it seems like a pretty corrupt, disgusting system if you ask me.

I’ve been making these sorts of observations for years:

  • Conservatives took over the SBC by force: taking over boards, systematically disenfranchises moderate churches, etc. (#2 & #3).
  • Evangelical colleges and seminaries keep rewriting doctrinal statements to push out certain faculty, typically in response to pressure from donors (#1, #2, & #3)
  • Emotionally abusive spouses and parents are totally under the radar at most churches, as long as they seem like “a really nice guy [or lady] that loves the Lord!” at church, and may even take on leadership roles (small group leading, being a deacon or elder, pastoring, missionary, etc.) while their families suffer (#1).
  • You can plagiarize a book as long as you say you’re sorry (#1)—and no, we’re not just talking about Mark Driscoll here.  I know of another, which was fixed before publication.  I cried when I found out.  I was so angered by this Christian leader’s dishonesty and the fact that he would inevitably get away with it because his books sell well (#3).
  • The teens and young adults encouraged to pursue ministry are the ones who have all the right answers—including appearing “teachable” (#1).  Straying from your mentors’ views or instructions may cause you to lose your position, and therefore also those who would “endorse” you for ministry in the future.  This continues to apply once you are in an “entry level” ministry position.  Your career is potentially at stake, so you basically can’t make decisions for yourself unless you’re already top dog (#2).
  • Evangelicals love to point out other people’s sins.  But if you are the person pointing out the wrong person’s sin or the wrong sort of sin, or maybe even just if you are the wrong person to point it out, you will be silenced, sometimes forcefully (#2).  So you better keep your mouth shut and play along (#1).  (This applies to so many things, but I’ve especially seen it when people try to address concerns wish racism, sexism, abuse, etc.)
  • World Vision said that government dollars did not dictate their decisions in any way… but clearly, evangelical dollars do (#2 & #3).

I’m sure there are other—some probably better—examples of these sorts of problems, and without more objective research I may not be able to convince you of any of this.  And that’s fine.  I don’t need to convince you; I’m only reporting on what I’ve seen.  But if you’ve seen it, you know what I mean.

For years I wanted to think this was just the dark side of evangelicalism.  I still believe there are individual evangelicals, individual evangelical churches and organizations, etc. which are not dominated by these disturbing trends.  But I have recently stopped hoping that evangelicalism could be changed for the better in almost any realm for any extended period of time.  There will be pockets of progress, but I believe these lights will always be extinguished by the thorough corruption of the organizations and institutions which hold the power to shape evangelicalism—the major denominations, many non-profits, the “voices” that get airtime, etc.  Even organizations which I believe do net good like World Vision are clearly subject to these forces.  They cannot make their own decisions.  They are owned by those who will stop at nothing to get their way.

That is why I have lost hope for evangelicalism.  Not for individual evangelicals but for evangelicalism.  Evangelicalism cannot be saved.  I cannot change it.  Even we—working together—cannot change it.  And the reason we cannot is that the way to power in this culture is a path we would never feel comfortable taking.  And those who have already taken it will stop at nothing to maintain their dominance.  There is no room for anyone who thinks differently.  Machiavellian thinking permits any sort of violent power grab that is “for truth.”    And the money and networks that control things now are not going to make room for anyone else at the table.  If your book makes money, it will be published, even if your theology is crap or your own personal ethics would disgust any atheist.  You can decide any policy if you ask donors to hold a board at gunpoint.  You can have an army at your command if you are one of a few charismatic leaders:  Just upload an impassioned YouTube sermon or an angry tweet.  This movement is not changing because these people will not let it.  It is absolutely fruitless to try.

Some friends have seemed a bit disturbed by the fact that I’m “done” with evangelicalism.  These sorts of declarations make people anxious.  Hell, they make me anxious.  But many of these same friends are absolutely on the same page as I am with regards to the SBC/CBF split, and I think that means we both recognize that some things are impossible to save.  And I think evangelicalism has reached that point.  It does not mean that evangelicalism didn’t once have the potential to go in a different direction or that it is fair for “them” to get a name you liked or the organizations you were a part of.  But you know what?  At some point, it is not worth fighting.

If you still have hope, stay in the fight.  By all means, make evangelicalism better.  You have my full support.  But I am weary.  I feel pushed to the margins of evangelicalism and do not know that I will ever again have a voice for change.  In the meantime, I feel the need to remove myself from an environment which has—for a few years now—felt toxic to my faith.  I need to experience God somewhere else, because I do not see much of him here.  I need a place where I feel comfortable raising my son.  I need a place where people are interested in learning and growing and questioning and do not think they are the only ones who know God or that they will ever know him so perfectly that they could not need to reexamine an issue.  I need a community that welcomes me, not one which declares me to be outside the bounds of their club, if not outside the bounds of orthodoxy.

I understand religious identity is very personal and often takes a great deal of thinking to change, and this is ok.  If you are staying, I wish you well and hope we will remain allies, even as we work in different “neighborhoods” of Christianity.  And if you’re coming with me, I’m glad.  I could use a few friends on this journey!  I would love to hear more about where you’re at right now, if you’re willing to share.

2 Responses

  1. Robert Solomon

    About time you woke up. Evangelicalism has sold out quite some time ago. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. You must be cautious. It is now all about power, not enlightenment. It is not spreading the word, it is spreading influence.

  2. JL

    I gave up on church about four years ago, largely because of your third bullet, a strong desire for gender equality, and finding myself a theological outsider in places that didn’t disappoint when it came to abuse tolerance and equality. I have, and still do, feel guilt about this, mainly as a parent. On the other hand, I don’t want my two daughters to experience the pain that I and others went through because of church. I’m so sorry to read about the frustration you, and so many others, have been feeling.
    I think some of the issues you mentioned, particularly when it comes to money or power grabs, would be true of any large group of people (and are not specific to evangelicals). My cynicism makes me less of a joiner, so it’s no surprise that I’m not part of a religious community. But even though I have no hope, it’s sad to see hope die in someone else. May letting go be freeing and healing for you!

© Jeremiah and Ashleigh Bailey 2012