Why Christian hypocrites describe their darkest deeds as ‘sin’

Here’s the link to this article.

It’s no accident that evangelical abusers keep referring to their dark deeds as ‘sin.’

Avatar photoby CAPTAIN CASSIDY

NOV 28, 2022

Why Christian hypocrites describe their darkest deeds as 'sin'


The sin script may have gotten seriously rolling in the late 1980s. Since then, it’s been honed razor-sharp. It helps evangelical leaders who are mired in scandal to keep their jobs—and their followers’ trust and love. But it sure doesn’t help any of the people victimized by these leaders.

Reading Time: 12 MINUTES

When abusive evangelical pastor Christian Watts tried to downplay his grooming of a teenager decades earlier, he described his predation as ‘my past sin.’ That’s a time-honored tactic for people caught in his exact circumstances. Let’s take a closer look at this tactic to see why it works so well in evangelical culture.

Those who are without sin, cast the first stone

In the Bible, a famous passage describes Jesus’ defusing of a very sensitive situation. Jewish leaders in Jerusalem asked him to adjudicate the case of a woman caught committing adultery. By Jewish law, the community was now compelled to stone her to death. (That means throwing rocks at her until she died. God of love, everybody!) But the city leaders wanted to “test” Jesus by seeing how he’d handle the situation.

Instead of answering them, Jesus knelt and wrote in the ground with his finger. The story does not relate what he wrote. But when they pressed him, he finally told them something that’s so famous that even non-Christians usually know it:

“Let him who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her.”John 8:7

Apparently, that suggestion so embarrassed the city leaders that they left the scene. Finally, only Jesus was left with the woman. And he told her he wasn’t going to condemn her. Instead, he released her, telling her to “go and sin no more.”

We never learn anything else about the woman. She simply drops out of the story.

Christians love to quote that one line from it, though, especially when defending one of their own who has been caught doing something illegal or distasteful.

Not too illegal or distasteful, of course. If one of the flock does something completely beyond the pale, that person becomes a fake Christian. The rest of the flock strips the label of “Christian” from them just like the Skeksis strip the Chamberlain’s clothes from him after he loses the duel in The Dark Crystal, and for the same reasons.

However, it takes a lot to move an evangelical pastor across that line.

What evangelicals mean by ‘sin’

In Christianese, the word sin does a lot of heavy lifting. First and foremost, it means the commission of any deed, word, or thought that offends Jesus.

Second, it means any deed, word, or thought that didn’t happen but needed to, thus offending Jesus. You’ll often hear this second meaning expressed as “missing the mark,” an allusion to 1 Timothy 1:6. In this verse, evangelicals learn that “mark” means a shooting target. And their god, of course, is the one who sets the target up for them to hit. When people talk about “sins of omission,” this is what they mean.

You might notice that sin has nothing to do with hurting other people, however. Sin only concerns evangelicals insofar as it offends their god. His opinion is the only one that matters to them.

As a result of this focus, sins are often completely victimless. Consensual sex between two adults who are not married is utterly sinful. Even if they marry, if they are of the same sex then it’s still sinful. Almost all evangelicals regard masturbation as sinful as well.

And because Jesus’ opinion is the only one that truly matters to them, evangelical abusers tend to be curiously callous toward their victims—just like their god.

Because victims get swept aside in the rush to seek Jesus’ forgiveness, evangelicals tend only to focus on that forgiveness above all. Thankfully for them, Jesus is quick to forgive literally anything. Once he forgives, he forgets. And so must everyone else, or they risk Jesus’ wrath for remembering what he has already forgotten.

Most importantly, evangelicals believe that all sins are equal in Jesus’ eyes.

I could not design a better system for shielding abusers and perpetuating abuse—not even if I had ten years, a million dollars, and a mission statement etched in gold above my throne.

How abusers use sin to minimize predatory behavior

On November 2nd, Christian Watts wrote a Facebook post to his followers. It read in part:

I know these past several weeks have been difficult and I am so sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced as a result of my past sin.From a screengrab of Christian Watts’ November 2nd post

His “past sin,” of course, was grooming a 13-year-old in the youth group he led as a married Southern Baptist youth pastor, then initiating sex with her once she turned 16. This abuse lasted until she left town for college. To my knowledge, he’s never apologized to his victim. He insists that because it was technically legal at the time for him to have sex with a 16-year-old, he’s done nothing really wrong. But here he is apologizing to his congregation for having sinned.

They’d already forgiven him, though, if their own comments to his earlier statements are anything to go by. One even specifically referred to the stone-throwing story from the Gospels.

And why wouldn’t they fully support him? He’d invoked the S-word. They’ve been primed since birth to respond exactly like this. Evangelical leaders have taught them for decades how to react to their leaders’ confessions of sin.

The template for excusing dark deeds with sin

They’ve been at it since at least 1988, when televangelist Jimmy Swaggart famously confessed to sin after being photographed with a sex worker. At the time, he said:

“I do not plan in any way to whitewash my sin or call it a mistake,” he told his tearful but apparently forgiving congregation. “I call it a sin.”The Crimson, 1988

If confessions exactly like his weren’t already a template, they sure became so afterward.

After Ted Haggard got exposed for drug-fueled sexcapades with another man, he drew upon the sin template to write a 2013 blog post criticizing evangelicals’ focus on “image management and damage control”:

My sin never made me suicidal, but widespread church reaction to me did. [. . .]

Jesus has been faithful to all of us in the midst of our pain, our suffering, and our disappointments. Why don’t we tell that? Every one of us have had sin horribly intrude in our lives after being saved and filled with the Holy Spirit, and God is faithfully healing us or has healed us. Why don’t we tell that?“Suicide, Evangelicalism, and Sorrow,” Ted Haggard’s blog, 2013

He’s ostensibly talking about two children of major evangelical figures who had recently died by suicide. But he can’t help but link the parents’ anguish and their children’s own shortcomings to his own sin, meaning the drug-fueled sexcapades. He’s got something to say on that score:

Everyone I’ve mentioned here has fallen because of obvious sin. But I did not mention the proud, envious, gluttonous, angry, greedy, blamers and scrutinizers in the body of Christ who have equally fallen but their sins are acceptable in our culture so they do not even realize their sin or need for repentance. Why? They are too busy with the sins of others.“Suicide, Evangelicalism, and Sorrow,” Ted Haggard’s blog, 2013

And that, he insists, is what actually “stimulates sin,” especially in evangelicals.

Very quickly, evangelicals learned to accept this template

Haggard’s comments are filled with Christians who agree completely with him:

JohnR: We are all sinners, it makes no difference what the sin is, it’s still sin, and we will continue to sin until we all meet at Jesus’ feet.

Eric Cowley: Our Lord Jesus said, he that has not sinned cast the first stone. I have friends in the ministry who have committed adultery and I will not judge them as it is by the grace of God we go. I am thankful you bring up the point that what is the difference between sexual sin and other sins.

laurakthompson: Pastor Ted could easily have disappeared from public life after his tragedy. Goodness knows that there were enough people who wanted him to do just that. But his message of hope for the hurting, grace for the sinners (read: every single one of us), and restoration for the fallen is so powerful and true, I am thankful he chose to heed the voice of God instead of the voice of the Pharisees.

Yolie Parsons: We are ALL sinners saved by grace by a loving God. Why are we surprise when somebody sins? Why don’ we have each other’s back?

Scott Helsel: Three and a half years ago my wife and i left a church that we planted because of my sin. We had been married 17 years and I hid my unfaithfulness from early in our marriage. . . I know that it was my inability to face my fears of exposure and my intense need to be pleasing in the sight of man that kept me in hiding.Various comments to Ted Haggard’s blog post

They’ve learned well.

Just call it sin, and watch the criticism fade!

In December 2016, Clayton Jennings decided to issue a confession of sin. The handsome, puppy-dog-eyed evangelist and author’s timing was impeccable. At the time, six different women were accusing him of manipulating them into “sexual behavior.” One even claimed he told her to take a morning-after pill after they’d had sex, because “his entire ministry would be ruined if [she] were to get pregnant.” Once he’d gotten what he wanted from these women, he ghosted them with claims that he was dying or had to tend to a sick relative.

These are devastating claims, but Jennings used the usual sin script to get out of them:

“I never claimed to be perfect and I never said I was sinless. Presenting you with a fake facade of greatness is never why I got in this,” he said in the video. “I want you to know this: I’ve sinned—a lot.”

“I could tell you stories of my past sin, but I wouldn’t know when to stop.”“Promiscuous Preacher Caught in Sex Scandal Aims for New Year Comeback Despite Elders’ Counsel.” Reprinted at Bishop Accountability. Originally from Christian News Network, December 30, 2016.

At the time, he attended his dad’s church. That church’s elders strongly urged Jennings to take a break from ministry for a while to focus on “repentance,” which is the process of getting forgiveness-and-forgetting from Jesus. Jennings chose to ignore this good advice. Instead, he scooted across to another church that had offered him a ministry position despite the scandal. In relaying that news, Jennings wrote in an email:

“I understand that being a public figure comes with attacks from people and the press. I also understand that I am guilty of certain sins in the past that I wish I could take back. Thankfully, God forgives and forgets, even when others try to hold it over your head and gossip/lie about it.”“Promiscuous Preacher Caught in Sex Scandal Aims for New Year Comeback Despite Elders’ Counsel.” Reprinted at Bishop Accountability. Originally from Christian News Network, December 30, 2016.

Like jeez, why was everyone still talking about him preying on young women? That was, like, months ago!

But I’m not sure he’s been doing much since then. He has a very sparse Facebook presence and a YouTube channel containing some old “spoken word” evangelical poetry of his. If he holds any public-facing ministry positions, I haven’t found anything about it.

Maybe his 2019 arrest for assault against a woman might have something to do with his radio silence.

All across the Christ-o-sphere, sin abounds

In May this year (2022), an Indiana pastor named John Lowe II resigned his position at New Life Christian Church and World Outreach. Twenty years earlier, he told his congregation, he’d “committed adultery.” He left out exactly how, though. He took a 16-year-old girl’s virginity on his office floor after apparently grooming her for a while. Once it began in earnest, the sexual abuse continued for many years, according to her husband. It was witnessed at least once by her brother.

My personal guess is that Lowe realized the jig was up and he was about to be exposed. So he chose to proactively resign. To do it, he used Jimmy Swaggart’s sin script, telling his congregation:

“I committed adultery. It was nearly 20 years ago. It continued far too long. It involved one person, and there has been no other nor any other situations of unbecoming conduct for the last 20 years. I will not use the Bible to defend, deflect, protect my past sin. I have no defense. I committed adultery,” Lowe said without sharing any specifics.Christian Post, May 2022

But he didn’t commit adultery, as that Christian Post article points out. He committed an actual crime against a child. In Indiana, the age of consent is 16, yes. But if an adult “in a position of supervision or trust” engages in any kind of sexual activity with someone that old, that’s a crime. Unfortunately, because of how long ago it happened, he probably won’t ever face justice for abusing that girl.

But this time, the sin script went pear-shaped

After Lowe finished his statement, the victim and her husband came to the microphone to set the record straight. To the church’s credit, they overwhelmingly supported the victim.

Once the victim and her husband had finished revealing exactly what Lowe had done to her, Lowe went back to the microphone to try to sweet-talk the congregation into not throwing stones at him:

Lowe took the microphone and confirmed that he began having sex with the victim when she was a teenager.

“You should have went to prison,” a voice shouted back at him.

“It was wrong. … I can’t make it right,” Lowe said. “All I can do is ask your forgiveness. … I’m doing what the biblical process is. I am stepping down, stepping aside. … I deeply hurt them, I deeply hurt you. I ask you to forgive me.”Christian Post, May 2022

Incredible! But I don’t think they were having it. The church’s website is now completely dismantled. I think they took it offline a few days after the Christian Post story ran. And I can see why. At the end of May, a protest sprang up outside the church. On June 1st, we learned that the state police were looking into the situation. The rest of the church’s leaders decided to call off services for a few weeks, but I wonder if they’ll ever reconvene.

It’s refreshing to see an evangelical church take abuse seriously.

What’s happening when an evangelical leader uses the sin script

When an evangelical leader reaches for the tribe’s sin script, it’s not being done accidentally. These leaders know exactly how this script manipulates the flocks’ minds and hearts.

First, it zings them with the entire force of their indoctrination. They only know one punishment for sin, after all: Hell. Only Jesus’ forgiveness-and-forgetting prevents this penalty from landing on their own heads.

Further, all sins are considered equal to Jesus. When I was just a little Catholic girl, my aunt-the-nun taught me that even if I’d been the only human ever born, my sins would have been enough to make Jesus need to die for them.

At the time, I was mightily dubious. I mean, I was eight years old. I knew that I hadn’t ever done anything that bad. But my aunt insisted. Just being born meant inheriting the full weight of humans’ sins against Jesus.

Later, in evangelicalism, I heard exactly the same teachings. All sin made Jesus sad and unhappy with us. And everybody sinned.

It’s not hard to find evangelicals trying to amend this shoddy teaching. Even Billy Graham’s site tries, bless its cotton socks. But for the sin script to work, that’s how it must be. The person using it needs their audience to put their offenses on the same scale as the sins they themselves commit/omit.

And a quick yank of the leash before anyone thinks twice

The idea of Jesus’ forgiveness always looms large in these scripts, too. It must. Once Jesus has forgiven a sin, he forgets it. It’s washed away by his blood, as the macabre evangelical saying goes. So refusing to forgive a sinner, or refusing to forget about the sin, becomes sinful in and of itself. It’s like slapping Jesus in the face.

That’s why Clayton Jennings specifically referred to how Jesus “forgives and forgets.” He contrasted that sublime state to how sinful evangelicals refused to do that. Instead, they were “holding it over [his] head.” They were “gossiping/lying” about what he’d done.

You’ll look in vain for any explanation of exactly what such critics are gossiping or lying about. Same for Christian Watts, who claimed that a news site’s article about him contained “gross inaccuracies.” He’s never specified what wasn’t accurate. Somehow, that info never seems to make it into an abuser’s defiant statements. But he, too, praised Christians who “see [him] through the eyes of Jesus.”

It’s also why John Lowe specifically invoked “the biblical process” for confessing his sins to his congregation. He wasn’t really following it at all, but that’s not the point. By yanking his congregation’s attention to the Bible (probably Matthew 18, which contains a set of instructions beloved of evangelical abusers), Lowe hoped to jump-start their obedience to their indoctrination. Thankfully, it did not work.

When one’s myths revere the forgiven, forgiveness becomes mandatory

For centuries, Christians have thrilled to stories of sweeping personality changes induced by Jesus’ forgiveness. They love hearing about the guy who made the song “Amazing Grace,” even if their mythology differs from reality in some key respects. The point, they think, is that Jesus totally changes people who put their faith in him. Even if that offer contains a lot of asterisked terms and conditions, and even though it fails to happen more often than not, they still take it as a canonical belief.

That’s why so many of Christian Watts’ congregation referred to this myth in their replies to his social media posts. One replied, “Obviously the publication doesn’t understand God’s redemptive and restorative power.” Another thought that Watts’ past had better prepared him to be a better leader for their church. Their meaning is clear: Jesus had clearly forgiven-and-forgotten what their pastor did. They felt that he’d learned from his sinful past. And they refused to throw stones at him.

But it wasn’t their stones that Watts should have feared.

It was those of his victim.

Why sin is such an evil concept

Christian Watts’ congregation had nothing to forgive him for doing.

Neither did Jesus.

The person he’d really offended was his victim.

Only her forgiveness has ever mattered here.

And even if she ever forgives him, evangelicals still have a moral duty to keep abusers out of ministry positions. No matter what this guy claims to have learned through his abuse of her, no matter what divine grace he claims to feel after appealing to Jesus for forgiveness, he has permanently disqualified himself from ministry forever. He needs to find something to do that will keep him well away from future victims for the rest of his life. He needs to begin a new career in, I dunno, drain cleaning.

[Note: That’s what Watts has actually been doing lately for money.]

By cutting his victim out of his entire sin narrative, Christian Watts—like his fellow predatory evangelical peers—was able to forgive-and-forget the harm he’d done to her. As long as he kept that abuse secret, it might as well not have happened at all.

Even after the news reached the public, he tried to use the evangelical sin script to avoid repercussions for his decision to abuse a child. He tried to minimize what he did. To manipulate his flock into embracing him and keeping him firmly ensconced in his pulpit.

I’ve never heard a single word from him or his congregation about the person he abused. I’ve looked. Nobody has expressed a single word of concern for her or her well-being. She might as well be a character from a morality play starring Christian Watts as Everyman. When all that happened to her is Sin, then the solution is just more Jesus-ing for her and her abuser both.

We need to pay attention when evangelicals ascribe their criminal, predatory, hypocritical, and most execrable behavior as sin. They always do it for a reason.

The Role of the Bible in Destroying Faith

Here’s the link to this article.

By David Madison at 5/12/2023

Deceptive translators don’t want readers to see the problems 

There has been a meme floating about on the Internet: “If you ever feel worthless, remember, there are people with theology degrees.” These degrees are granted by a huge variety of religious schools, ranging from fundamentalist Protestant to Vatican-loyal Catholic. So among those holding these degrees—what else would we expect?—there is substantial disagreement regarding what god is like, how he/she/it expects people to behave, how he/she/it wants to be worshipped. This is one of the reasons Christianity has splintered into thousands of quarreling brands.

This confusion and strife can be traced to many sources (e.g., personality conflicts, egos, desire for power and control), but the Bible must take a large share of the blame. It is a deeply flawed document that shows no evidence whatever of divine inspiration: it contains so many contradictions, so much incoherence and bad theology. Thus the irony that the Bible itself—carefully read, that is—has destroyed faith for so many people. Mark Twain argued that the “best cure for Christianity is reading the Bible.” Andrew Seidel has pointed out that “the road to atheism is littered with Bibles that have been read cover to cover.”

Even a casual reading of the Bible can be shocking: “God so loved the world,” yet he got so mad at humans that he destroyed all human and animal life—except for the crowd on Noah’s boat. Jesus suggested that people should forgive seventy-times seven, yet assured his disciples that any village that did not welcome their preaching would be destroyed—and that hatred of family was a requirement for following him. This is what I mean by incoherence and bad theology. Anyone with common sense can figure it out.  

These are items that are visible on the surface, and it gets worse; a closer examination reveals deeper problems. Devout Bible scholars have been aware for a long time that this is the case, and secular scholars don’t hesitate to expose the ways—unnoticed by the laity—in which the Bible itself destroys the faith that so many hold dear. On 1 May 2023, an article written by John Loftus was published on The Secular Web: Does God Exist? A Definitive Biblical Case. This is a must read. Bookmark the link for future reference. I printed the article to go in a binder of important essays. If you can manage to get Christian family and friends to do some homework on the Bible, this piece should be included.   

Loftus invites his readers to see what is actually there in the Bible:

“What is almost always overlooked in debating the existence of the theistic god is that such a divine being has had a complex evolution over the centuries from Elohim, to Yahweh, to Jesus, and then to the god of the philosophers, without asking if the original gods had any merit…If believers really understood the Bible, they wouldn’t believe in any of these gods.”

Theologians and apologists, priests and preachers, have worked so hard over the centuries to clean up the god(s) that we find in the Bible, so that the faith today—that so many people are comfortable embracing—has a noble, positive flavor. If only the devout would bother to think carefully about their most common, cherished Bible texts. For example: “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Just what is god’s name? An easy answer would be, “Well, Jesus, of course.” But before Jesus, what was it? As Loftus mentions, one of them was Elohim, but pious translators sense their god having a name might make it look like he was just one of many of the pagan gods. And that was exactly the case, as Loftus notes: “When we take the Bible seriously, we discover a significant but unsuccessful cover-up about the gods that we find in the Bible, who evolved over the centuries through polytheism to henotheism to monotheism.” 

When I printed the Loftus essay, it came to twenty pages, seven of which are about Elohim—and most of this content never comes to the attention of devout laypeople. Loftus offers a careful analysis of the first two verses of Genesis 1, which are commonly translated something like this:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was without form and void, and darkness covered the surface of the abyss, and the Spirit of God was moving over the waters.”

He points out that this is a more accurate rendering:

“Elohim made the skies and dry land, beginning with land that was without form and void, with darkness covering the surface of the chaos, and the wind of Elohim hovering over the waters,” while noting that “the original grammar is a bit difficult to translate. If nothing else, consider this a slightly interpretive translation using corrected wording.”

Loftus notes seven elements of this text that are commonly misunderstood, e.g., there is nothing here about the beginning of time, or creation out of nothing. Nor is the claim by contemporary theologians that an all-powerful cosmic god did the deed. Believers want to assume this was the case, and translators cooperate in promoting this deception, i.e., “In the beginning, God…” But the text says that Elohim was the initiator of this drama. 

Just who was this Elohim? “The Hebrew word Elohim is derived from the name of the Canaanite god El, a shortened version of which is El Elyon, or ‘God Most High.’” Well, there, don’t you have the grand god Christians want? No, far from it: “El was the head of the Canaanite pantheon of gods.” Loftus quotes scholar Mark S. Smith: 

“Archaeological data in the Iron I age suggests that the Israelite culture largely overlapped with and derived from Canaanite culture… In short, Israelite culture was largely Canaanite in nature.” (The Early History of God: Yahweh and Other Deities of Ancient Israel, 2002, pp. 6-7.)

The influence of Elohim-belief is reflected in so many of the names familiar to us in the Old Testament, e.g., Bethel, Michael, Daniel, and even Israel.

Elohim the tribal deity was imagined as we would expect of ancient writers who had no understanding whatever of the Cosmos. So it is silly to read the god imagined by modern believers into the Genesis story. Loftus describes the naïveté of these ancient theologians:

“Elohim showed no awareness of dinosaurs, nor the fact that the history of evolution has shown that 99.9% of all species have gone extinct, since evolution produces a lot of dead ends on its way to producing species that survive. Imagine that! On every day in Genesis 1 the supposed creator god Elohim knows nothing about the universe! … There is no excuse for a real creator to utterly fail a basic science class…There is no excuse for a real creator to mislead his creatures about something so important, which would lead generations of scientifically literate people away from the Christian religious faith and into damnation.”

Do things get any better with the other tribal deity who plays a major role in the Old Testament, namely Yahweh? Devout folks today can be forgiven if, when asked what god’s name is, they fail to answer, Yahweh. One of the most famous—and annoying—Christian cults proudly labels itself Jehovah’s Witnesses. That is, they know god’s name, as adjusted in English translation. Ancient Hebrew was written without vowels, and some of the consonants were flexible. Hence YHWH could also be JHVH. Plug in different vowels, and it becomes Jehovah instead of Yahweh. Even so, most of the devout—outside the Witness cult—wouldn’t right way agree that god’s name is Jehovah, let alone Yahweh.

One of the reasons for this, again, is that translators are eager to cover up the tribal god’s name, as Loftus points out:

“In the Old Testament, whenever you come across ‘the Lord Our God,’ or ‘the Lord God,’ or even ‘Lord,’ Christian translators have hidden the truth behind those words. It’s ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Yahweh your god.’” It’s easy to spot this coverup in the Revised Standard Version, which renders Yahweh as LORD, i.e., all capital letters. The ancient theologians who cobbled together the Old Testament were happy to put stories about Elohim right beside stories about Yahweh, e.g. the two creation stories in Genesis. 

Loftus devotes a full eight pages in this essay to Yahweh, making quite clear that this was indeed an inferior tribal deity. He presents four aspects of Yahweh that qualify him as a moral monster, especially his behavior in the story of Job: 

“In this story Yahweh lives in a separate palace in the sky and acts like a petty narcissistic king who would treat his subjects terribly simply because he could do so, just like any other despotic Mediterranean king they knew. Job was a pawn who was tortured for the pleasure of Yahweh and other sons of Elohim. At the end Yahweh doesn’t reveal why Job suffered, just that Job wasn’t capable of understanding why, so he was faulted for demanding an answer from the Almighty.”

Loftus also describes Yahweh’s guilt in terms of genocide, slavery, and child sacrifice—and limited power. Translators should be especially ashamed of labelling this deity LORD God: far from being omnipotent, its inferior status is obvious: “The LORD was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country but could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain, because they had chariots of iron” (Judges 1:19). 

Loftus is right: “Imagine that! An all-powerful god cannot defeat men in iron chariots! What could he do against tanks and fighter jets?”

In the final pages of the essay Loftus addresses the issue of Jesus as god. He had pointed out that Yahweh was depicted as having a body (in the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden, in his meetings with Moses), but the ultimate god-in-bodily-form would have to be Jesus. But the utter moral failures of Yahweh should encourage even the devout to admit, “No, that tribal god didn’t really exist.” But Loftus notes the devastating implications for the Jesus story:

“If the embodied moral monster Yahweh doesn’t exist, then the embodied god Jesus depicted in the Gospels doesn’t exist, either, since he’s believed to be the son of Yahweh, a part of the Trinity, and in complete agreement with everything that Yahweh said and did. That should be the end of it.” 

This is not necessarily to say that Jesus as an actual historical person didn’t exist—although there are serious arguments that cause us to doubt it. But Loftus is saying that Jesus as a god is based so thoroughly on Yahweh the flawed tribal deity; hence the divine nature of Jesus can’t be taken seriously.  He also notes that Justin Martyr, “the grandfather of the entire tradition of Christian apologetics,” sought to bolster the case for divine Jesus by arguing that he was like others who came before him:

“When we say that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing new from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Zeus.” 

Loftus notes Richard Miller’s summation of Justin Martyr’s approach: “Our new hero is just like your own, except ours is awesome, whereas yours are the deceptions of demons.” (Miller, Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity, 2017)  Sounds a lot like how Christians put down other brands of Christians!

In my article here last week, I argued that core Christian beliefs are a “clumsy blend of ancient superstitions, common miracle folklore, and magical thinking.” Christian theologians have worked so hard over the centuries to overcome this huge handicap. Their god must be the best, the ultimate—he must be an omni-god: all good, all powerful, all knowing. But these arguments plunge their faith into massive incoherence. Loftus notes that the “problem of horrendous suffering renders that god-concept extremely improbable to the point of refutation” (see his anthology, God and Horrendous Suffering). Their whole endeavor—creating the god of the philosophers—is a fool’s errand: “If theists think that an omni-everything God can legitimately be based on the Bible or its theology, they are fooling themselves. They are inventing their own versions of God, just like the ancient peoples in the Bible did.”

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available. 

His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.

Revisiting Hitchens’ challenge and the value of hope

Here’s the link to this article.


APR 21, 2023

(image by Rafael Rex Felisilda from Unsplash)


Atheist Christopher Hitchens made a famous moral challenge to Christians. Let’s consider a second Christian response.

Reading Time: 6 MINUTES

Atheist Christopher Hitchens had a moral challenge for Christians: identify a moral action taken or a moral sentiment uttered by a believer that couldn’t be taken or uttered by a nonbeliever—something that only a believer could do and an atheist couldn’t. Part 1 is here.

A second apologist, this time a Catholic, also has some pushback for the Hitchens Challenge. Towards that end, he makes some nutty claims about the value of Christian hope.

Hitchens assumed—like many secular thinkers—that the only good is the good of social or material progress. An atheist can ladle soup in a soup kitchen—same as a Christian—so Christianity must not bring anything to the table….

It’s just not true that soup ladles are the sole measure of value. Catholicism, in particular, for all its good works and charity, has always rejected the idea that religion should aim for Utopia in this world or that it exists only to promote material wellbeing. “The Church is not an NGO,” as Pope Francis says frequently.

You got that right—the church is a terrible NGO! Americans give $100 billion annually to religion. The Roman Catholic Church’s annual intake worldwide must be far larger. The Catholic Church gives a lot of money to charity, but that’s only because it is huge. As a percentage of the Church’s expenses, I’m guessing that charity accounts for two percent. That’s an educated guess, but it’s just a guess because churches’ books are (unaccountably) closed (one wonders what they’re trying to hide).

With 98% overhead, they’d be the world’s most inefficient NGO.

This response sounds like, “Hitchens was right, but that’s okay because the church never claimed to produce progress.” I can accept that. (More on Christianity’s disinterest in social progress here.)

An aside on Mother (now Saint) Teresa

Back to the article: 

Perhaps this is why Hitchens hated Mother Theresa [sic] so much. (He wrote viciously about her.) He understood her mission better than many. He knew that her main goal was not social work, but mysticism. “We are misunderstood, we are misrepresented, we are misreported,” Mother Theresa said. “We are not nurses, we are not doctors, we are not teachers, we are not social workers. We are religious, we are religious, we are religious.”

That’s an embarrassing admission, that “her main goal was not social work, but mysticism,” but I appreciate the honesty. Now show me the check box that donors to Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity had to mark to acknowledge that they understand that “We are not nurses, we are not doctors, we are not teachers, we are not social workers. We are religious.”

Hundreds of millions of dollars went into this charity, and an enormous fraction—I’m guessing most of it—was because the donors assumed that they were funding healthcare.

Hitchens might have hated Mother Teresa, but that would’ve been because of the disconnect between her public image as a healer and the reality of her homes for the sick being little more than comfortable places to die. Her charity received vast donations, but Forbes reported that “only seven percent of the donation received at Missionaries of Charity was used for charity.”

The greatest thing faith brings is hope

Nope, Teresa wasn’t focused on improving life here on earth.

Mother Theresa knew (and struggled with the fact) that the greatest value of religious faith in this life is not material wellbeing, but the gift of transcendent hope. That’s something a believer can give that Hitchens can never give.

Just to be argumentative, I could see an atheist claiming transcendent hope. Imagine a story about aliens coming to free us from our mortal coils as with the Heaven’s Gate cult. An extraterrestrial technology claim is as groundless a claim as a supernatural one (though less farfetched), but that could be a transcendent hope.

The key point isn’t that it’s transcendent hope but that it’s evidence-less hope, hope that can be in anything because it needn’t have evidence to support it.

But you’re right that atheists avoid giving groundless transcendent hope. Is that a problem? Science gives reality and grounded hope. Science is what’s working on cures for disease or ways to improve food yields. Science is where improvement comes from, and that’s where atheists usually get their hope.

Note the contrast. Christianity has put all its eggs in the “gift of transcendental hope” basket. It’s not like it’s simultaneously using its own methods to solve society’s problems. Christianity is static. A thousand years of Christianity’s “transcendent hope” in a desperate society gives you a thousand years of the same desperate society, while a thousand years of science can transform that society to one that is happy and healthy, one where groundless hope is much less needed.

Christianity can still flog its claims of a beautiful afterlife, but so what? Yes, it’s a remarkable, possibly desirable claim, but so what when there’s no evidence for it? Science has nothing to offer except a continually improving reality (and mountains of evidence that it delivers).

Faith, hope, and love are precisely the formula for happiness even in the midst of material deprivation.

Not when that faith, hope, and love paper over the actual problems in society. A life that is drugged to block out a horrible reality is a wasted life. I’m in no position to criticize someone who falls back on hope to endure a desperate life, but see how it directs our attention to feeling better and away from solving problems.

This was where Karl Marx was going with his observation that religion is the opium of the people. He was complimenting religion—it helps when society is in bad shape. But in the same way that opium only addresses the symptoms of a broken leg (you should still get medical treatment), religion only addresses the symptoms of bad society (you still need to fix that society).

The research of Gregory Paul is relevant here. He not only points out that religious belief correlates with worse social metrics, he also hypothesizes that poor social conditions cause more religion (more). In other words, when you see religion embraced by some subset of society, those people have social problems that need fixing.

How to get a better society

But even if nonbelievers do good things, there is still no reason to conclude that unbelief is the best stance for advancing material and social wellbeing. [One source compellingly argued,] “Human development is best advanced by transcendent hope.”

We’re just going to hope our way to an improved society? Not going to do anything about it, just hope? That reminds me of William Lane Craig’s portrayal of life here on earth as “the cramped and narrow foyer leading to the great hall of God’s eternity.” Wow—what an empty view of the one life we can all agree that we actually have.

Instead of making do, instead of wringing our hands in despair, perhaps we should get busy trying to improve the status quo by solving problems.

The fact is that atheists don’t ladle as much soup as Catholics. It was the Catholic Church that invented the modern institutions of benevolence.

You mean modern institutions of benevolence like Social Security, Medicare, medical insurance, and modern hospitals? The Catholic Church’s small contribution to charity is appreciated, but let’s not exaggerate it. U.S. churches together contribute a few billion dollars to the problem annually while the U.S. government and other institutions devote a few trillion dollars to the problem.

You could sneer at that and say that that’s just money returning to the taxpayers or the insured who provided it in the first place. And that’s true. But it’s still citizens caring for other citizens, redistributing wealth to help the orphans and widows that Jesus cared so much about. The Church in America makes a tiny fraction of this impact.

As for atheists vs. Catholics, even if Catholics do more per capita on assuaging pain (and I’m not sure that’s the case), atheists probably focus more on the fix-society side of the problem.

[The Catholic Church invented the modern institutions of benevolence] precisely because Catholics believe in the transcendent dignity of human beings.

This is what the Hitchens Challenge addresses. There is no benevolent act that Catholics do that couldn’t be performed by an atheist.

See also: When Christianity Was in Charge, This Is What We Got.

The Hitchens Challenge, part 2

Hitchens has more. Once you’ve seen that a nonbeliever can perform the same good moral actions that a believer can, think of the reverse: think of something terrible that only a believer would do or say. Now, lots of examples come to mind.

  • Abraham being willing to sacrifice Isaac (and modern apologists defending God’s indecipherable actions)
  • The Canaanite genocide
  • “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” and witch burnings
  • “God hates fags” from Westboro Baptist Church
  • Flying a plane into a building or blowing yourself up to kill people you don’t like

Or any hateful or selfish conclusion justified by “because God (or the Bible) says” such as condemning homosexuality, blocking civil rights, limiting stem cell research, or dropping adoption services or hospital funding in protest of some law.

The article responds that, sure, religion can make people do evil things, but that’s “obviously true of secular ideology. All ideology is subject to abuse and manipulation.”

So we’re to believe that anything bad done in the name of Christianity is just an “abuse and manipulation” of Christianity and that Christianity, read correctly, doesn’t actually justify that? Who will be the judge to sift out the correct interpretations from the many incorrect ones?

The Bible is a sock puppet that can be made to justify just about anything. Let’s not pretend that there’s one objectively correct interpretation when thousands of Christian denominations squabble over the correct path.

The Hitchens Challenge remains a helpful illustration that Christianity has no moral upside (atheists can be just as moral as Christians) but has a big downside (religious belief can justify in the believer’s mind moral evil that an atheist would never imagine).

With or without religion,
you would have good people doing good things
and evil people doing evil things.
But for good people to do evil things,
that takes religion.
— Steven Weinberg

Hitchens’ Challenge: How well has it stood up?

Here’s the link to this article.


APR 04, 2023

hitchens challenge - old man with magnifying glass
(image by mari lezhava from Unsplash)


Atheist Christopher Hitchens made a famous moral challenge to Christians. Let’s consider two Christian responses.

Reading Time: 3 MINUTES

Identify a moral action taken or a moral sentiment uttered by a believer that couldn’t be taken or uttered by a nonbeliever—something that only a believer could do and an atheist couldn’t.

This was Christopher Hitchens’ famous moral challenge. He said that he had never been given a satisfactory answer.

Amy Hall from Greg Koukl’s Stand to Reason ministry thinks she is up to the challenge. Let’s take a look.

1. Hitchens misunderstands the theist’s point

[Hitchens thinks the Christian is saying] that without God, we couldn’t know right from wrong, when the actual objection is that there wouldn’t be any right or wrong.

I believe Hitchens was responding to the assumption that being a Christian provided some moral advantage. (And, according to Christianity, it does: “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin” (1 John 5:18).)

And if you want to argue that morality exists only because God put it there, that needs some evidence. You’ve provided none (more on Christians’ inability to defend the claim of objective morality here).

2. The Challenge is unanswerable

This is a clever observation: if Hitchens the atheist is the judge of the Hitchens Challenge, the Christian can’t win because he decides what is moral.

There might be certain acts that only theists would recognize as being moral. Atheists, not recognizing those acts as being good, would not attempt to do them as moral acts.

The first problem is that this undercuts another popular Christian apologetic argument. What’s wrong with Hitchens as judge—don’t you say that morality is objective? If morality is objective (defined by apologist William Lane Craig as “moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not”) and we humans can reliably access those values, Hitchens or any honest atheist would be as good a judge as anyone.

Since it is logically impossible to give an answer that will satisfy Hitchens, he may as well ask us to draw him a square circle and then declare himself the winner when we fail. In the end, his challenge is nothing but a rhetorical trick, and it should be exposed and dismissed as such. Hitchens should never get away with even asking it, let alone demanding we give him an “acceptable” answer in order to defend theism.

I’m reminded of the lawyer’s maxim, “When the facts are on your side, pound the facts. When the law is on your side, pound the law. When neither is on your side, pound the table.” There’s a lot of table pounding here along with the demand that the Challenge be dismissed as inadmissible.

The resolution is simple: insist that objective, unbiased third parties must judge this Challenge. If Christians like those from Stand to Reason believe that objective moral facts can be reliably found, they can find judges who are infallible at finding objective morality. Prove to everyone that they are reliable with public tests. Now we have judges that everyone admits are reliable, and Hall’s concern is satisfied.

As it happens, there is an answer to Hitchens’s question—one that seemed obvious to me immediately—and it illustrates perfectly the problem with the challenge. The highest moral good a person can do is to worship the living, true, sovereign God—to love Him with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength. Not only will no atheist ever do this, no atheist can do this.

That’s the pinnacle of morality? It’s an odd definition of morality that has nothing to do with doing good to living beings, but I guess Christians can define their dogma as they choose. And that’s the point: this is dogma that is specific to Christians. Our objective, unbiased third party judges would reject this. (More on how praise applied to God makes no sense here.)

Now it looks like it’s you who’s playing the rhetorical trick.

If we all share Adam’s sin, we must all have the moral wisdom of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. How then can atheists not agree with you that worship is the highest moral good?

Let’s return to the Challenge. Hitchens was simply saying that Christians can claim no moral high ground over atheists and that Christianity brings nothing moral to the table that wasn’t already part of humanity’s social interaction. God pretends to generously gives morality to humans, but, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, it was theirs all along.

Concluded in part 2 with one more Christian response.

If there is a God,
He will have to beg my forgiveness.
—  written on a wall in
Mauthausen concentration camp

More people have noticed Christianity’s decline in America

Here’s the link to this article.

The theme of that decline is still Christianity’s loss of coercive power. And the solution is still just as dark as its reacquisition.

Avatar photoby CAPTAIN CASSIDY

JAN 10, 2023

More people have noticed Christianity's decline in America | ruined church in hungary
Via Unsplash

Not long ago, some readers linked me to a piece in Grid about Christianity’s decline in America. As well, a few new books have popped up on booksellers’ shelves about the topic. These insights join credible recent research about Christianity’s ongoing decline in America. None of it’s looking good for that old-time religion, so to speak, but it does highlight one ongoing theme observers have noted for years: Without Christians somehow regaining their powers of coercion, Christianity will inevitably become irrelevant in America.

The worst part of this situation, though, is this: A lot of the worst-of-the-worst Christians are well aware of that fact.

Christianity’s decline began with a trickle of information

For years now, I’ve kept track of the incredible—and astonishingly swift—decline of Christianity’s cultural power, membership, and credibility in America. Since the mid-2000s, Christians have been in freefall on all three counts.

If someone had told me when I was Pentecostal, in the 1980s and 1990s, that this would one day happen, I’d have simply assumed this decline to be part of the Endtimes prophesied in the Bible. But if I’d heard such a prediction in the early 2000s, I’d have thought it was simply impossible.

Yet here we are.

When I began writing about religion in the early 2010s, I noticed a few signs of what was coming. Pastors were complaining more often about falling attendance on Sundays and blaming it on the strangest things: a lack of parking, the rise of youth sports leagues that played that day, etc. Youth pastors, in particular, were starting to talk about a sharp rise in the number of young Christians who were abandoning the faith as soon as they got free of their parents’ control.

As well, the few surveys and studies I could find on this subject all indicated that a sea change was coming for Christianity. None of this research offered Christian leaders any hope of surviving that change with their cultural power, membership numbers, or credibility intact.

Nowadays, we’re surrounded by this research. An unthinkable number of churches from every flavor of Christianity are closing each year. Once-powerful denominations are sliding more in membership and credibility with every passing year. No relief is in sight, no matter what Christian leaders propose to end their slump. Kids entering college this year might not even remember a time when Christianity wasn’t in decline.

Well, now we have a few more experts weighing in on that decline.

Pew Research recently modeled Christianity’s decline

In September 2022, Pew Research offered up a three-part model of Christianity’s potential future in America. For their model, they envisioned three different scenarios. These scenarios involved Americans’ rate of religious switching. For our purposes, that term means Christians changing their flavor of Christianity—or entering or leaving the religion itself.

If no more switching occurs by 2070, only about 54% of Americans would still consider themselves Christian. However, if switching continues to occur at the rate it does now, 46% of our population will profess Christianity. And if disaffiliation continues to rise, then 35-39% of Americans will be Christian. Here’s their graph:

Via Pew Research Center

These scenarios may still be a little optimistic. None of the declines charted match the steep, unparalleled decline noted prior to 2020. Still, they’ve got good reasons for modeling their numbers this way. For now, I’m content to bow to their almost-certain-to-be superior statistical understanding while also waiting with a sly smile to see if the real results bring about a revision to the model.

If there is one thing that Christianity’s decline has taught observers, it is that we should be careful about underestimating it. It is happening so much faster and more completely than anything we ever dared to dream might happen.

Where we are now, I once did not expect us to be until decades after my death.

Two recent books that each highlight different aspects of Christianity’s decline

Lately, two books on the topic of Christianity’s decline have hit booksellers’ shelves and sites. A large Catholic site, NCR Online, recently reviewed both of them.

Brian D. McLaren’s book, Do I Stay Christian? A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned, came out in May 2022. It offers its audience two major sections. One devotes itself to answering “yes” to its titular question, the other “no.” The book has generally high ratings from readers on Amazon.

Its author used to be a major voice in evangelical leadership. But he began to break from lockstep around 2010 or 2011. He’s still Christian, but more emergent than evangelical these days.

(Emergent Christianity is a movement within more liberal, progressive Christian flavors. In its heyday in the mid-2010s, evangelicals seriously ranked it right up there next to Communism and Islam as threats to their dominance.)

Of interest to observers of Christianity’s decline are McLaren’s criticisms of how American Christianity has failed Christians and America alike. He criticizes Christian leaders for substituting strict orthodoxy and checklists of doctrinal beliefs over charity and compassion for others. This criticism is 100% on point, and it happens for a very good reason: it’s a lot easier to justify oneself that way when one doesn’t want to do all that boring stuff Jesus explicitly told his followers to do.

In addition, McLaren points out that all the horrific stuff that Christians have done over the centuries was stuff they could all easily justify in the exact same way that Christians justify their behavior today: with Bible verses galore, wordplay, and redefinitions of common words like “love” and “respect.”

Focusing on fixing the present to get to the future

Bob Smietana’s book, Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why It Matters, came out in August 2022. Smietana is a Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist who focuses on religious matters. He used to be the senior editor of Christianity Today. These days, his work can be reliably found at Religion News Service.

Instead of offering advice to doubting Christians, Smietana instead focuses on what McLaren calls “the failed project” of American Christianity. He tracks more recent developments in the religion, including the deep hypocrisy, scandals, and abuses of its biggest names, as well as the shocking failure of American Christians overall to even bother pretending that they take their Savior’s commands even a little seriously.

Smietana believes that Christians need to reject the lies their leaders have told them about the past, realign themselves with the truth about their religion’s flaws, and fix their most glaring issues. If they can’t, he warns, then they absolutely will not be able to attract new generations to their churches.

An interesting takeaway from these two books

It’s interesting that NCR Online’s takeaway from these two books revolves around the deep need for American Catholics to reinvent their communities and institute changes in how they do church, to borrow the evangelical Christianese:

What lies ahead is speculative, but it involves change both institutionally and personally. Any change, however, will rest on the foundation that proceeds from an honest assessment of what is. And that assessment is the most valuable contribution by McClaren and Smietana. The inconvenient truths won’t disappear because we ignore them.

Yes. Because as we all know, if there is one eternal truth about American Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, is that its leaders and members alike are eager and willing to carefully examine themselves for errors, to fully own their mistakes, then to dismantle those mistakes, and finally to build a whole new group paradigm that looks ahead to the future.

Oh wait. Actually, the reverse is true.

In truth, Christians’ absolute unwillingness to do a single bit of that is exactly why nobody credible gives them a single chance in hell, if you’ll pardon the pun, of returning to their former dominance.

What Grid gets correct about Christianity’s decline: “Why now?”

Other countries that were once dominated by Christians began secularizing decades ago. What Americans are seeing now happened in those other countries in the 1990s or so. We’ve always lagged behind Europe and the UK by decades in these religious trends.

Another Christian writer, Stephen Bullivant, has tried to answer the question of why American Christianity has taken so long to hit its big decline. He’s a Catholic educator who’s just published his own book, Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America, in December 2022.

(He also published Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II, in 2019. As you might guess from the subtitle, he is not a fan of those reforms at all. Like many Catholic hardliners, he may blame Catholicism’s steep declines in membership and credibility on them.)

In Nonverts, Bullivant points out that America may have lagged behind other secularizing countries because of how patriotism got indelibly linked with intense Christian faith. To be atheistic, to criticize Christians’ stranglehold on government and culture for any reason, was to implicitly declare oneself a traitor—and even the enemy of all that was good. In particular, Americans linked communism, which was their big enemy during the Cold War, to atheism.

This is correct. It fits in with all the reading I’ve done of Christians during this period of time.

What Grid completely misses about Christianity’s decline: How that link got established, why, and by whom

As each new generation got further and further away from the Cold War and its moral panics, Bullivant asserts, the less the people within it felt forced to adopt and display Christianity as a way of demonstrating their patriotism and social acceptability. Their culture provided more room not only to question Christianity, but to carve out a life entirely free of it.

The discussion in Grid makes this progress sound like it all happened accidentally, almost incidentally.

In truth, Christian leaders worked with conservative Republican politicians to engineer the Red Scare. They created this moral panic deliberately, and they did so with one goal in mind: to return power to themselves that had been steadily ebbing away for years.

Particularly after World War II, Christian leaders lamented their lack of power and authority over Americans. I own a book written around that time frequently referencing that complaint, As We Were: Family Life in America 1850-1900 (printed in 1946; author Bellamy Partridge, with copious images from Otto Bettmann, and yes, it’s the Bettmann Archives fellow).

As We Were captures the roots of the Red Scare. Its author was a rural lawyer who despised the trends of his time, but not enough to reject a lucrative offer from Hollywood to adapt his bestselling book Country Lawyer for film. Unfortunately, America’s entry into WWII stymied the project. Perhaps losing it gave him time enough to write a book lamenting Americans’ increasing distance from the gauzy religious sentimentality and intense nostalgia he peddled instead.

Clearly, many American Christians agreed with him.

One of the Christian leaders who came to prominence in those same days, Billy Graham, became a powerful voice for decades by asserting the imagined links between faith, American-style democracy, and patriotism. The high-level politicians he advised, like Dwight Eisenhower, came to “evoke faith as a weapon against communism, just as Graham had done.”

In this environment of hypercharged Christian nationalism, anything less than devoted faith became an implicit declaration of treason.

And quite a few Christians liked it that way.

How American Christians kept their cultural dominance for decades after WWII

Even now, America contains many communities that never knew the Cold War ended. In these mostly-evangelical communities, Christians dominate at all levels of society: legal, cultural, legislative, you name it.

In these Christian-dominated communities, Christians control what schoolchildren in taxpayer-funded schools learn (and more importantly, don’t learn) and read (or more importantly, do not read). If their state happens to have laws against what they’re doing, or if their desired courses of action violate big swathes of federal law, they simply ignore those obstacles.

In these communities, dissenters do not ever dare to raise their voices against the Christians oppressing them.

The penalties for open dissent are simply too much to bear: vandalism and property theft/destruction, threats of violence and occasionally actual violence, loss of livelihood and income, perhaps the loss of one’s home, and more. Those penalties are guaranteed to fall upon the heads of not only the transgressor but also the transgressor’s entire family and their friends.

When you hear about some Christian-dominated community’s shocking overreach, remember one thing above all:

This is how these communities usually worked in the past almost everywhere. They only stopped if someone with more power than they had forced them to stop. If these obstacles were ever removed, they’d instantly revert back to their former behavior.

Even now, when Christians decide to start intensely-Christian communities that are run by Christian-centric rules, more often than not we soon hear about the abuses and scandals erupting out of those communities.

The fly in the Vaseline: the rise of the consumer internet

So nothing about Christians’ dominance of post-WWII America was accidental or incidental. It was, rather, the result of stoking endless and deliberate moral panics and allowing conservative politicians to purchase their votes through cheap, tawdry pandering. After achieving their desired results, guarding their dominance was as simple as allowing local Christian communities to stomp on anyone who dared reveal that they were anything less than true-blue, gung-ho Christians.

When I first ran across a 1959 evangelical-written book about evangelism, its overly-simplistic suggestions seemed completely surreal. In fact, I’d gotten my hands on a 1981 edition of the book. It still bore no resemblance whatsoever to personal evangelism in the mid-to-late 1980s. Absolutely nothing its author suggested worked then. In all likelihood, those suggestions have worked less and less well since then.

But I hadn’t quite reckoned with exactly how oppressive Christianity was in 1959. Even in the early 1980s, Christians hadn’t yet come to terms with their diminishing power. Its author had never really dealt with people who had no reason at all to buy his product. (The product is always active membership in the evangelist’s group.) More importantly, he’d never dealt with people who had very little fear of what these ambassadors of the Prince of Peace and Lord of Love would do to them if they refused the so-called “good news.”

His head would have exploded like that guy on Scanners if a time-traveler had told him about the rise of the consumer internet.

Very quickly, the internet connected people. It also gave them spaces to build communities of their own that entirely lacked Christian control and oversight. In those spaces, doubting Christians could network with other doubters and find answers. Often, these were not the hand-waving “Sunday School answers” that their church leaders gave—or approved. When these Christians deconverted, their online communities provided them with space to deconstruct their beliefs and discuss their frustrations.

For countless ex-Christians, they still do.

Why Christianity’s decline won’t be ending any time soon

Bullivant recognizes the power of the internet in destroying Christian control over America, at least. He also understands that even if churches realign themselves with modern American values and mores, that won’t bring people back to their groups. He just doesn’t seem to connect the dots as to why a realignment won’t work, any more than NCR Online grasps why realignment won’t ever happen, ever, and really can’t.

Christian groups are like any other group. People join them and stick around because they find membership meaningful and rewarding. When membership stops feeling that way, they look around for another similar group to join. Or increasingly, they leave and don’t bother seeking another like that.

And for decades, Christian leaders were happy to market their groups in exactly this way. They were happy to evangelize along similar lines: Join us, obey us, and you will get rewards beyond your wildest dreams in both this life and the next.

Unfortunately, people don’t often join Christian groups to do real work, challenge themselves, or deny themselves stuff they really want. Instead, they align themselves with flavors of the religion that mostly already agree with their worldview and ambitions, then make peace with or work around the rest.

In Divided by Faith, we find this hefty dose of wisdom:

If we accept the oftentimes reasonable proposition that most people seek the greatest benefit for the least cost, thy will seek meaning and belonging with the least change possible. Thus, if they can go to either the Church of Meaning and Belonging, or the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging, most people choose the former. It provides benefit for less cost. Prophetic voices calling for the end of group division and inequality, to the extent that this requires sacrifice or threatens group cohesion, are perfectly free to exist, but they are ghettoized.Divided by Faith, quoted by vialogue

And that about covers flybys. If churches realign too much, then whatever meaning and belonging their remaining congregants derive from membership will end. But they will never be assured of drawing back those who’ve already rejected them.

Evangelicals, in particular, have been indoctrinated for decades to believe that any such realignment is nothing more than evil compromise, and they will reject and trample anyone suggesting it.

Summary: How it started vs. how it’s going now

In the social chaos occurring after World War II, American Christian leaders got handed an unimaginable prize: dominance.

Of course, what they did with this prize is exactly what similar Christians have always done with it: they immediately began using it and pushed it to its utter limits for as long as they possibly could, stopping only when forced to stop by forces greater than themselves.

“Jesus” has never stopped Christians from abusing their power. But laws enforcing individual freedom of religion and America’s status as a secular country certainly have done a lot to make it safer and safer for dissenters to reject Christian overreach.

At first, it was dangerous to do that. But Christians’ ability to retaliate drops with every new target that enters their arena. Before too long, only the highest-profile dissenters needed to fear that retaliation—and those still trapped in the few remaining pockets of Christian dominance.

Americans find ourselves now in a situation that is completely unprecedented. Our government is dominated by Christians, evangelicals in particular. Our government’s religious makeup looks less and less like the face of America itself.

Culturally speaking, Christianity has little power in America. Americans don’t care what this or that Christian leader thinks about much of anything. Christians’ credibility is at an all-time low, along with their membership numbers.

But that’s not where the real power lives.

Power is the key to Christian dominance, and it always was

The real power lives in the government. At local, state, and federal levels, its three branches (executive, legislative, judicial) tend to be completely swamped by people seeking Christians’ approval.

Here’s one example of what I mean. In 2015, a high school football coach had a habit of showboating his religion after games by praying ostentatiously. The school district rightly told him to cut that out. In response, the coach sued them. His lawsuit got all the way to the Supreme Court. This summer, we discovered that the highest court in our land is equally full of approving fellow Christians who somehow don’t see how coercive that coach’s behavior was, nor what message it sent to the children in that taxpayer-funded school.

The coach was sublimely unconcerned about Jesus’ direct command to his followers to avoid ever praying in public. (In fact, Jesus said in the verse preceding that one that public prayer was something that only hypocrites did so they could get the approval of other people. I guess the Bible isn’t always wrong, because that’s always seemed like the coach’s motivation.)

Sure, very few of that coach’s players, their families, and their allies will think fondly of control-hungry, power-grabby Christians forever after.

But do you honestly think that coach or his Christian pals care about that?

Christianity’s decline is about power

No, they absolutely don’t. If they cared what people thought of their childish and hypocritical antics, they wouldn’t do that stuff in the first place.

What they care about is power. A high school football coach in a small town likes to swan around at the 50-yard-line after games, staring earnestly and worshipfully at his idol-football as he kneels in prayer to it. In a very real way, he’s thumbing his nose at all the people he knows don’t like what he’s doing. He’s expressing his sense of dominance over his critics.

Yes, I’m comparing these power-hungry Christians to catcallers. It’s not about worshiping Jesus or putting him first in their lives, any more than catcallers just want to vocalize their appreciation of women’s attractiveness. It’s about power.

It always was. It always will be.

Some years ago, I wondered if American Christian leaders recognized lost coercive power as the reason for their decline. Now, I don’t wonder at all. I know they’re aware of it, simply because their strategies all seem to center around regaining that power specifically. They expect that once they have it again, they’ll be able to trample dissenters back into silence, if not back into the pews themselves.

Hey, it worked during the Red Scare!

And if you don’t believe me, check out this video and the commentary around it. (Archive link to video.)

Yes, they know.

If lost coercive power caused American Christianity’s decline, then it sure doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out that the fix involves getting it back.

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Why evangelicals got so excited about the Asbury Revival

Here’s the link to this article.

Evangelicals love revivals like kids love cake and ice cream. But the recent Asbury Revival was even more special than usual.

Avatar photoby CAPTAIN CASSIDY

MAR 08, 2023

evangelicals excited about asbury revival | revival in motion
Via Unsplash

Reading Time: 9 MINUTES

Evangelicals recently celebrated the emergence of what they have come to call the Asbury Revival. Outsiders to their culture might not understand the sheer significance of this event, nor understand why they go to such lengths to participate in it and events like it. It helps to know that revival as a concept is integral to their self-image. To understand evangelicals better, let’s examine the concept of revival in evangelical culture.

Joy unspeakable and full of glory

A church in the smack middle of a revival thrums with excitement and anticipation. This is the ancient joy of fundamentalism, the catharsis and ecstasy that offsets all of its burdensome rules and choking authoritarian yokes.

Every person there knows that at some point in the service, things are gonna get rowdy. The pastor, for his part (and it is almost always “his”), probably just hopes he’ll get through his sermon before the chaos breaks out.

Because it always will.

A church in revival is a group operating in synergy, each person’s eagerness and anticipation bouncing off the next, until all that emotional energy just explodes. People visit, sometimes from miles away, to see if they can rub off just a little of that feeling for themselves. Many stay and become members, at least for a little while.

I’ve been there—and if you’re into that kind of thing it is definitely a lot of fun. At the time, I thought only Jesus could possibly have made that feeling—that environment—possible. Since then, I’ve felt that way in many other situations, all of them completely non-Christian. And I’ve learned that many cultures and religions have their own ways of letting loose that look strikingly similar.

Yes, I know better now.

But as a fundamentalist teenager, wow, it was impossible for me to imagine a revival being purely earthly in nature. It just seemed impossible that humans could work themselves up to that level of excitement. Nobody around me at the time told me otherwise.

Situation Report: The Asbury Revival

Asbury University is a small, private Christian college in Wilmore, Kentucky. Though officially nondenominational, its catalog defines the school as broadly evangelical. It has about 1800 students and costs about $16,000 per semester to attend. Its financial aid page claims that every single one of its students gets financial aid or grants. Asbury aligns itself with the Wesleyan-Holiness movement, a style of Jesus-ing that entails the observance of very strict behavioral rules. It also imposes a dress code that sounds similar to Pentecostals’ holiness standards. This movement also explicitly rejects Calvinism.

Asbury University claims a long tradition of hosting revivals. After its establishment in 1890, the school enjoyed its first revival in 1905. The most recent occurred in 2006 and lasted for four days, apparently. So perhaps they felt they were a bit overdue.

Starting around February 8, 2023, students at Asbury University began experiencing a huge surge of piety and devotion during a chapel service. When the service ended, instead of going to class, they stayed to Jesus some more. In fact, according to one Fox News article, they “refused to leave” the chapel. Refused.

Soon, the school’s president sent a message out to the student body to invite them to join these students. After that, the news quickly picked up steam on social media, particularly on TikTok. Evangelicals quickly designated this event the Asbury Revival.

Before long, many thousands of people flocked to Asbury University’s chapel to join the worshipers there. Most appeared to be Gen Z, which makes this gathering huge news for a whole lot of reasons.

By February 20, the sheer number of eager evangelical tourists had begun to overwhelm the facilities of the small school and its small town alike. The school began seeking to move their worshipers off-campus, a decision that seems to have wrecked the movement’s momentum. By the 24th, it was largely finished. That’s also when we found out that an unvaccinated student had attended the Asbury Revival on the 18th while infected with measles, making this event a potential disease superspreader.

Revivals and Great Awakenings are the real goals here

In evangelicalism, a revival is a huge burst of devotional activity that results in many conversions to the church(es) hosting the event. One major past revival was the Azusa Street Revival of 1906.

When this burst of activity lasts for a very long time and results in tons of conversions, then it’s called a Great Awakening. America has had a few Great Awakenings. Its first began in the 1730s and lasted about 10 years. The Second Great Awakening ran from about 1790-1840. Officially, a third one ran from roughly the 1850s to the 1900s. However, evangelicals haven’t quite decided if they like calling it that. Some scholars even think there’s been a fourth one, which ran from the 1960s to early 1970s, roughly during the Jesus Movement. (Personally, I agree. That movement changed evangelicalism forever—and not for the better.)

That said, you can easily find evangelicals openly pining for a “Third Great Awakening.” For ages now, they’ve been certain that it’s coming any day now. Even mere revivals are growing rarer and rarer.

But sometimes evangelicals must settle for these

Most often, the burst of activity does not result in a lot of conversions at all. Instead, it just gets existing evangelicals very excited. They call these a renewal, a blessing, or a refreshing (or sometimes even an outpouring) since that’s how their participants feel.

None of these terms are strictly official. Often, you’ll also find overlap and blurring definitions.

The Toronto Blessing of the mid-1990s, for example, got called a blessing because very few people outside of evangelicalism even knew it was happening. Fewer still converted. However, it completely rocked the evangelical world. Similarly, I’ve seen evangelicals call the Lakeland Revival of 2008 a blessing for the same reasons. Generally speaking, if normies have no clue it’s happening and few new people join up, then it’s not really a revival or an awakening.

Refreshings and renewals don’t tend to get names. They’re fairly mild compared to the other events. However, evangelicals still like to hear about them.

How evangelicals view all of these events

Back when I saw my first revival, these were largely fundamentalist events. Evangelicals had their own version of it, of course, but theirs didn’t come anywhere near that level of rowdiness. Since then, evangelicals and fundamentalists have fused together—imperfectly, perhaps, with a seam that splits and zigzags here and there, but still. So the Asbury Revival, like others of its nature, looks almost identical to what I saw back in the 1980s and 1990s. For our purposes, then, I’ll simply refer to revival-loving Protestants as evangelicals.

Evangelicals believe that their god sparks all of these events and keeps them going as long as it pleases him to do so. But Jesus only pours out his magic pixie dust if those involved with the beginning of the event are obedient to him and properly devoted and fervent in their worship.

Also, even though all of these events work to strengthen Jesus’ churches and his followers’ faith, they must ask him very very intently—often for a while, as well—to grant them a revival. Sometimes, he just doesn’t feel like cooperating.

Whatever the event turns to be—revival, awakening, refreshing, blessing, renewal, whatevs—evangelicals can look forward to a rousing, rowdy good time there. Many feature frenetic dancing, musical performances of all kinds, testimony-giving and -hearing, hopping around, speaking in tongues, racing up and down the aisles of chairs or pews, singing, baptisms, and even miracles galore.

Evangelicals are drawn to revivals for the same reason that they love miracles, bombastic testimonies, and exorcisms. All of these, they feel, demonstrate the veracity of their overall religious claims. As one Free Methodist Bishop put it, the Asbury Revival couldn’t possibly have sparked to life on its own because the chapel’s worship team and preacher were “unremarkable.”

Not with a bang but a whimper, ends the Asbury Revival

Sara Weissman, writing for Inside Higher Edspeculates that the largely Gen Z attendees of the Asbury Revival might have been seeking a release from the last few years of tumult and fear. In addition, young evangelicals in particular might have loved feeling something they mistakenly perceived as authentically, genuinely divine in their faith system, just as my young Gen X crowd did back in the 1980s.

On February 25, Paul Prather, writing for Religion Unpluggedeven wondered if the Asbury Revival could “last 100 years like the Moravian Revival in Germany.” He quickly hedged that bet by pointing out:

Whenever a spiritual visitation such as this arrives, you just never know. That’s part of the excitement.Paul Prather

Alas for Prather and like-minded evangelicals, eventually Asbury University had to offload its revival. It, and its hometown, were getting overwhelmed. Christian leaders in the area swooped in on the action, particularly Nick Hall of a ministry called Pulse. (For a while now, he’s been trying hard to kickstart a revival for Gen Z.)

Like most bursts of catharsis and ecstasy, though, this one expended itself and then petered out.

Of course, none of this has stopped yet another bunch of pandering evangelicals from claiming that the revival is totally linked to their own for-profit endeavor. On February 21, the director of Jesus Revolution said that “there’s a divine hand on the timing” of his movie’s release, since it came out right at the end of the revival. Unfortunately for him, apparently Jesus couldn’t do much about the bowdlerized story’s glaring flaws.

Not all evangelicals agree on the Asbury Revival

And now that the event is over, evangelicals have begun playing another of their favorite games: arguing about it.

One evangelical blogger, Samuel Sey, criticizes the Asbury Revival on several grounds. Sey’s post is a good example of what I’m seeing in evangelical writing these days. To start, he’s concerned that the evangelicals who like the Asbury Revival are attacking those who doubt it was really a revival at all. It contains a number of accusations of infighting about the status of the event.

And an argument can definitely be made there. I’ve heard nothing of the event continuing elsewhere around the area after the school ended their hosting of it. Nor have I heard about any great wave of conversions as a result of it. That lends credence to the argument that what happened at Asbury wasn’t technically a real revival—as powerful as the experience no doubt was for many participants.

Moreover, Sey thinks Asbury University’s leaders and teachers aren’t Jesus-ing correctly at all, and that the revival’s preachers didn’t present “the gospel” correctly or often enough.

(The gospel, when written with a lowercase g, means the evangelical recruitment pitch: Psychically apologize to Jesus and swear eternal to him, or he will torture your ghost forever after you die.)

Those accusations are equally common in evangelicalism. For years now, evangelicals have engaged in an endless game of More Hardcore Than Thou. But Sey adds a very interesting criticism near the end of his post that speaks to evangelicals’ possible motivations in flocking to that little Kentucky town:

It’s concerning, however, that so many of us are seemingly bored by ordinary worship at a local church that produces extraordinary change in one soul. [. . .]

After centuries of Christianity influencing our culture, many of us have now accepted that not only do we live in a post-Christian culture—we live in an anti-Christian culture.Samuel Sey

I think he’s onto something here.

Revivals come and go, come and go

For almost two decades now, evangelicals have been in decline. Perhaps for even longer, they have been asking their god for a really big revival. When I was fundamentalist myself, my church regularly prayed for our god to send us a revival. We scheduled revival weeks, hoping that they’d turn into the real thing. And because of the nature of groups explicitly seeking emotional release, that is generally what happened. I’ve even got a photo of one I attended around 1988:

revival 1988, lost like tears in rain
Pentecostal revival service I attended, probably around 1988. And yes, the spacing on the words above the dais is wonky. That always bothered me.

Everything that Asbury University claims about their revival happened at this one, right down to the claims of magic healing. But this older revival also saw many dozens of new people join the churches that participated.

In fact, I learned a few years ago that at the time I took this photo, two of the men sitting in front of the choir were dealing behind the scenes with a very serious sex abuse accusation against a youth minister in the denomination. And somehow, Jesus still poured out his magic pixie dust upon that revival.

Something something not a TAME lion something something, eh?

Mostly, though, they just dwindle back to baseline

By now, even the internet has forgotten that this 1988-ish revival ever took place. Almost all of the people who joined during it eventually drifted out again. Indeed, Pentecostals got hit with the same decline that everyone in the Christ-o-sphere began facing after the mid-2000s. And somehow, Jesus has seemed completely disinterested in changing anything for his followers. (He seemed similarly disinterested in 2014, when a bunch of his most devoted followers decided to sorta-kinda hunger strike to end equal marriage!)

When Asbury’s situation made the news, evangelicals thought that maybe their god had answered their prayers at last—and that maybe their decline had finally reached its bottom.

That’s doubtful at this point.

The event at Asbury, be it a revival or a refreshing or a blessing or an outpouring or whatever else evangelicals eventually decide to call it, certainly might shore up the faith of a few Gen Z evangelicals who might otherwise have left their churches.

On the other hand, it’s a lot easier for those young evangelicals than it was for Gen X to find out how common these sorts of experiences are around the world, in situations and venues as varied as music, dance, film, drugs, and religion, and through recorded human history. And once they find out that revivals aren’t the only way to fly, so to speak, then they may feel rather deceived, as I once did, to hear evangelical leaders try to claim that revivals are the only real deal catharsis-and-ecstasy source in the universe.

If there’s anything this life has taught me, it’s this: Anyone who tries to claim a monopoly on any aspect of the human experience is trying to sell you something that isn’t good for you.

Guessing why his religion is declining, a Christian clings to a beloved fantasy

Here’s the link to this article.

Christians keep missing this key component to their religion’s decline.

Avatar photoby CAPTAIN CASSIDY

MAY 15, 2023

A Christian's guess about Christianity's decline is only partly correct | 'It was once a beautiful house'
Via Unsplash


Yet another Christian has offered up his ideas about fixing Christianity’s decline. And as usual, he’s missed the most important reason for that decline.

Reading Time: 13 MINUTES

A recent Medium piece about Christianity’s decline has been making the rounds on social media. In it, a Christian makes three assertions about his religion’s decline. Two are partially correct. But the last reflects a beloved but completely untrue myth that Christians almost universally embrace. Let’s examine each of these assertions to find an answer to Christianity’s decline that makes a lot more sense.

Christians love to speculate about what’s causing Christianity’s decline

For almost ten years now, Christians have been aware that their religion is in a solid decline. Many even understand that no reputable researcher has given Christians a chance of ever regaining their cultural dominance.

But none of them really want to engage with the real reason for their decline. That’d be too painful. (We will explore that real reason shortly.) Instead, they make up more comfortable reasons that they think explain Christianity’s steady decline.

These guesses will always center on Christians who are somehow Jesus-ing incorrectly. They will never touch on fundamental problems within the religion, its overall ideology, or its adherents. It’s a blame game, nothing more, a rationalization that keeps Christians’ minds from getting too close to the truth.

It reminds me of something Buttercup does in the book version of The Princess Bride. A beautiful Countess visiting Buttercup’s family farm begins staring amorously at Westley as he does his chores. And Westley looks back at her. This bothers Buttercup enormously, but then she decides that the Countess was simply infatuated with Westley’s perfect teeth. Yes, that’s it, the impossibly gorgeous and wealthy Countess simply felt attracted to Westley because of his teeth!

That idea comforts Buttercup for a few minutes—until she remembers that nobody stares at anybody like that because of their teeth. That’s when she gives herself up to anguish over the idea of losing her Farm Boy to the Countess.

That’s what Christians are doing, except they haven’t had that realization yet that none of their guesses actually explains Christianity’s decline. It’s just a bandage they’re slapping over a painful truth to keep from seeing it for a little while longer.

Ten years ago, I thought they might still have time to fix things. But now, I no longer think so. They’re not even at the stage of accurately describing the reasons for their decline, much less finding real solutions to it.

Our latest set of guesses comes to us from Dan Foster over at Medium. I’d never heard of him before, but he’s apparently associated somehow with a pay-to-play online group called Backyard Church. It specifically seeks what I call churchless believers—Christians who still identify as such, but who have abandoned their church memberships for various reasons.

Assertion #1: Government favoritism is causing Christianity’s decline

“When churches start to cozy up to the state,” writers Foster,

they can get lost in the sauce of politics and forget about their mission to spread the good news, love God and love others, and serve the poor and unfortunate. Instead, the focus shifts from being all about love and kindness to being all about power and privilege. State-funded churches end up losing their soul and driving away those who actually have some spiritual integrity.

What is worse, when the church starts to throw its weight around and force its conservative beliefs on people who aren’t interested, it just causes resentment. Consider the church’s appalling treatment of the LGBTIQ+ community as an example.Dan Foster, Medium

He also cites research that supports the hypothesis that when a government shows favoritism to a religion, that religion goes into decline. Indeed, we’ve seen this happen in Europe for decades now. It also seems like the harder the Christian Right tries to usurp and hijack the American government, the harder they alienate not only existing Christians but potential new recruits as well.

Of course, politicization works in the opposite direction as well. I’ve heard about pastors who openly, vocally support liberal political causes and subsequently alienate followers who are either more conservative or don’t like the notion of politics mixing with their observance of religion. Indeed, that’s the entire basis of the classic 1969 book The Gathering Storm in the Churches by Jeffrey K. Hadden. It examines how pastors across Christianity dealt with the Civil Rights Movement, and how their congregations responded. (Spoiler alert: Congregations usually were not enthused at all.)

The truth about government favoritism

However, Foster is only half correct. Christianity has almost entirely lost its ability to hurt dissenters, heretics, and apostates. Their leaders also once had the power to force everyone to join and support churches, but they’ve lost that power in recent decades. In past centuries when Christians still had that power, nobody could have called Christianity a declining religion. It grew, and it grew precisely because nobody had a choice about joining and supporting Christian churches.

This religion gained power and cultural dominance through such coercion. The moment Christian leaders gained that kind of temporal power over other people’s lives, they began using it. They kept using it until governments wrested it away from them. And they still dream of getting it back again. Jesus has never, ever stopped Christian zealots from seeking power—or misusing it.

It was literally only in the past 50 years or so that people were finally free to reject Christianity—and only in the past 20ish years that anyone could safely raise the alarm about predatory, hypocritical Christians.

Coercion is the key element here that Foster can’t perceive. Government favoritism in an atmosphere of purely voluntary affiliation contributes to religious decline, not favoritism in and of itself.

Assertion #2: The Christian Right is causing Christianity’s decline by being completely repulsive

Here, Foster sees evangelicals’ literal idolization of Donald Trump as a major tipping point in Christianity’s decline:

Meanwhile, in the United States, conservative Christians have become involved in politics, fighting tooth and nail to uphold their precious “Christian values” and take America back for God. The only problem is that as Christianity has become more politicized, the country has actually experienced a decline in Christian belief, ironically achieving the very opposite of what these so-called Christians want to achieve.

Enter Donald Trump.

In the Evangelical world, whether or not a person was a good political candidate was dependent not on their policies but on their profession of faith — even if the content of their character was at odds with that profession of faith. They merely had to hold up a Bible and stand in front of a church, and they would get the Evangelical vote, much to the chagrin of those looking on. Yes, the more Christian nationalists with the Republican Party push their agenda for a “Christian” nation, the more Christianity is despised, and the less likely they are to ever obtain that which they seek. What is more, they will destroy the church in the process.Dan Foster, Medium

We’ve also already seen him mention the Christian Right’s bigotry as a turnoff to many Americans. Elsewhere in the essay, he discusses the distasteful way that these extremists seek to drown out competing religions:

Some Christians believe that their faith is declining because there are too many other religions being given equal footing. And when they feel threatened by those pesky minority religious groups, they turn to the state for help to implement laws and principles that protect their so-called “Christian values.”

And if that’s not enough, they can resort to trying to keep people of other faiths out of their countries altogether.Dan Foster, Medium

It’s very clear that Foster does not approve at all of any of this behavior or these political goals.

The truth about repulsive Republicans

Here, again, though, he is only half correct. This charge is true only because Christians have lost their former powers of coercion. Not only do people more easily and quickly find out about the hypocrisy and cruelty of the Christian Right, but we can talk about it in public spaces without fearing the vicious retaliation of “Christian love” or fears of our government’s retaliation. The most these control-hungry Christians can do to their critics, especially online, is whine about feeling totally persecuted fer jus’ bein’ KRISchin.

All too many Christian leaders are repulsive, hypocritical, and cruel. They always have been. Study the history of Christianity, and you’ll soon find endless uncomfortable essays about pederasty and other forms of hypocrisy. Jesus has never held back Christians’ hands from the innocent. And this degeneracy appears to have been an open secret among Catholic laity, with priests frequently showing up in secular stories about extramarital affairs and deceit. Thanks to Catholic leaders’ powers of coercion, however, people could only safely raise even the hint of an accusation in roundabout ways.

Until shockingly recently, it didn’t matter how Christians or their leaders behaved. Nobody would find out, and it wouldn’t matter even if anybody did. Nobody was allowed to reject them on the basis of their behavior—or for any other reason.

In an atmosphere of voluntary affiliation, though, Christians’ behavior matters a lot more. And now that their behavior actually matters, they steadfastly refuse to behave in ways that reflect their own stated beliefs. It obviously bothers them a lot that people reject them because of their hypocrisy, yes. But instead of cleaning up their behavior, they instead try to shame and police the boundaries of those who rightly reject them on that basis. Ironically, these attempts only confirm that people are right to reject them.

Assertion #3: Christianity’s rise occurred because Jesus grew it the right way

These past few decades, Christians’ recruitment attempts fail more and more often. Often, they even fail spectacularly—like when the Southern Baptist Convention’s leader asked for a solid one million baptisms for 2006. They only bagged about 360k baptisms that year. Worse, that number represents a slight drop for them.

So naturally, Christians see their recruitment failures and wonder how their lack of success squares with their belief about their religion’s early growth. They wonder what they’re doing that is so different from what the earliest Christians did.

That belief is a beloved and nearly-universally-embraced myth in Christianity. It leads them to glaringly incorrect conclusions that spark flawed plans in turn.

Illustrating this chain of errors, Foster writes:

One thing is certain. Jesus Christ was not interested in political power, or he could have had it. He arrived in human history precisely at the right moment to lead an uprising against the rule of his Roman conquerors. [. . .]

Yet, he did not.

The movement that he started required no armies, governments, or rulers to champion its cause. It can be practiced with or without the approval of any state and, therefore, can never be legislated out of existence. Neither is it threatened by those who believe different things. It is the movement of the human heart that takes place when one resolves to simply love God and love others.Dan Foster, Medium

To fix Christianity’s decline, then, Foster asserts that compassionate, loving Christians must start recruiting like Jesus did.

Combined with disavowing the Christian Right, this plan will end Christianity’s decline.

Tra-la! It’s that easy! Amazing how no Christian has ever thought of this idea before, isn’t it?

(Incidentally, Jesus may well have been seeking exactly that uprising. He just expected it to happen through divine aid, not through mortal war-making. This paper offers a tantalizing possible explanation for his absolutely bizarre behavior at the Mount of Olives, as described in the Gospel of Luke. (Archive))

The truth about Christianity’s apparent early explosive growth

Unfortunately for Foster and the many, many Christians who think like him, their belief about Christianity’s early growth is completely untrue. It’s not even half true. It just isn’t true at all.

For their religion’s first few centuries, Christian evangelists struggled hard to make and keep converts. They squabbled constantly among themselves, too. We see hints of these troubles even in the New Testament itself.

These people left our churches, but they never really belonged with us; otherwise they would have stayed with us. When they left, it proved that they did not belong with us. [1 John 2:19, New Living Translation]

Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons. [1 Timothy 4:1, New Living Translation]

Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following. [Acts 20:30, New Living Translation]

I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. For some members of Chloe’s household have told me about your quarrels, my dear brothers and sisters. [1 Corinthians 1:10-11, New Living Translation; this time, the fight involved how individual Christians described themselves as followers of particular leaders like Paul, Peter, Apollos, or others, rather than just as followers of “Jesus”]

But I will keep on doing what I am doing, in order to undercut those who want an opportunity to be regarded as our equals in the things of which they boast. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. [2 Corinthians 11:12-13, Berean Standard Bible]

I am amazed how quickly you are deserting the One who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is not even a gospel. Evidently some people are troubling you and trying to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be under a curse! [Galatians 1:6-8, Berean Standard Bible]

Even that question [of circumcision] came up only because of some so-called believers there—false ones, really—who were secretly brought in. They sneaked in to spy on us and take away the freedom we have in Christ Jesus. They wanted to enslave us and force us to follow their Jewish regulations. [Galatians 2:4, New Living Translation]

Even Jesus talks about the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13: If a farmer sows his seeds on barren, shallow, or rocky soil, then they can’t produce a crop. Even in 85 CE when this book is thought to have been written, its writer already knew that most people who heard “the good news” rejected it.

For that matter, the Book of Acts (generally thought to have been written around 80-90 CE as well, though it might have been written decades later) records early Christians lying to their communal groups (Acts 5) and the earliest evangelists having to deal with a sarcastic slave-girl who mocked them for days (Acts 16). This is the reality of Christian groups and evangelism today, in the same atmosphere of voluntary affiliation.

In the few surviving early extra-biblical accounts describing Christians, we see serious criticisms leveled against them as wellThese criticisms cover the usual ground that modern Americans are used to seeing in the headlines: hypocrisy, sexual predation, cruelty, and more.

In recent years, some Christians themselves have refuted the entire concept of explosive early growth. In reality, Christianity grew about as quickly then as it grows nowadays. One can easily understand why, too. For those early decades and centuries, as they do nowadays, Christian leaders operated without coercive power.

Temporal power changed the entire game for the struggling early religion

Things didn’t really turn around for Christianity until big-name Roman rulers began using the religion like a political football. When the right horse won the right race, those rulers began to grant Christian leaders more and more temporal power. And once Christian leaders gained that power, they began to use it to its fullest extent. They used this power both to provide enough cover to themselves to act in flagrantly hypocritical ways, and to coerce other people into joining and supporting their religion.

And they didn’t stop until someone more powerful made them stop.

Christians love to imagine that Jesus had some magically delicious means of recruitment that worked wonderfully well, and that he perfectly set up his new religion. In other words, their religion began on the right foot. Over time, they believe, the passage of time and sinful maneuvering and politics (and possibly demons) have corrupted Christianity. So they have fantasized for decades that if they can only get back to that gauzy notion of Original Christianity, then they can set everything back to rights!

Except none of that is true. Jesus was so meaningless to the Jewish and Roman writers of his time that not one single contemporaneous document exists from the years 30-40 CE to tell us about a single thing that he or his followers did. His offshoot of Judaism took a long time to find root and become its own branch of the tree, and it struggled the entire time with exactly the same squabbles, power grabs, and backbiting we can see in almost every single church in the world.

(By the way: Go ahead and look for any such account. I did exactly that as a Pentecostal in college and recently again through my First-Century Fridays series. You won’t find even one contemporary account about Jesus or his followers written during those critical years of 30-40 CE. Incidentally, that discovery was a serious blow to my faith back then.)

The real key to Christianity’s decline

I get what Dan Foster’s trying to do here. He wants a Christianity that’s way better than anything these extremists are pushing. He wants a religion that grows, yes, but one that grows for the right reasons. He’s not even saying anything new or weird or different in his essay that his religion’s adherents and observers haven’t seen a thousand times already. So I’m not mad at him or trying to pick on him. He means well, and I’d certainly like to see more Christians practicing his best-case form of the religion that focuses on charity, loving community, service, and mercy.

He just doesn’t understand that Christianity itself does not have much appeal. It promises divine help that doesn’t ever manifest, a system of morality and ethics that somehow utterly fails to reliably produce decent human beings, groups that aren’t worth the price of admission, and a whole series of untrue claims that believers must embrace to belong to the religion. Almost the only difference between Foster’s form of Christianity and that of the repulsive Republicans he criticizes is exactly which untrue claims they each think believers must embrace to earn the title of “Christian.”

(Did you catch his attempt to invalidate his tribalistic enemies’ use of their shared label of Christian? “So-called Christians,” he called them. Of course, they’d try to do the exact same thing to him. It’s really too bad that they don’t have a universal membership guide that could unequivocally tell them what a Christian must believe and do to be considered a Christian. If they had such a thing, they could make sure every member had it. It’d be so grand!)

In centuries past, Christianity always suffered from that same lack of intrinsic appeal. Big growth always required an artificial external factor that forced consumers to purchase it. That factor was coercive power.

Loss of coercion is the key to Christianity’s decline. It’s not happening because of Republican repulsiveness, nor its lack of proper Jesus-ification, nor even the erosion of America’s wall of separation between church and state. All of those qualities existed in many countries for centuries, but Christianity wasn’t declining then. It only began to decline once it became safer for people to reject affiliation with the religion.

The trend of decline that we’re seeing now would have been over decades ago if evangelicals hadn’t engineered a series of moral panics aimed at gaining them more cultural and political power. But they only delayed the inevitable.

Unfortunately, I strongly suspect that control-hungry Christians have finally begun to understand this point.

Christianity’s growth had nothing to do with Jesus, and its decline has nothing to do with a lack of correct Jesus-ing

Ten years ago, I didn’t think the Christian Right yet understood the importance of coercive powers. But since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, I think they have begun to figure it out. They’ve all but given up the fight to regain cultural dominance. Their few attempts to grab for relevance are cringey and obviously driven by self-interest. Instead, they are fighting to keep and grow political dominance.

With political dominance, they can certainly maintain their feeling of having control over others. They’ll feel safe in their Ignorant Tight-Asses Club authoritarian enclaves, thanks to Big Daddy Government protecting them. (The only moral Big Daddy Government is their Big Daddy Government, after all.)

As well, they can certainly try very hard to enshrine their rights-violating, spirit-crushing social rules into law—and then enforce them even against people who aren’t even members of their religion. I’m sure getting some anti-blasphemy laws into place would be among their first priorities.

And that’s all bad news. Nobody sensible, not even Christians, wants to see evangelicals or hardline Catholics get their dreamed-of theocracy. If human history is anything to go by, we know that a Christian theocracy in America would look more like the Republic of Gilead from The Handmaid’s Tale than any sort of Happy Jesus Fun Christian Land of authoritarian Christians’ dreams. It is of utmost importance that we continue to slap down their grabby little hands at every single sign of religious overreach.

But to reverse Christianity’s decline, political dominance needs to Christians regaining the powers of coercion that Christians once held. Just gaining political dominance itself is a half-measure if people can still vote with their feet and their wallets.

Unless Christians regain their lost ability to force everyone to join and support their churches, nothing will reverse their decline. That decline will eventually bottom out, of course. The number of Christians will settle at its natural point of market appeal. Growth past that point is very unlikely, though, without coercive powers re-entering the picture. 

Trust in pastors is dropping, and Southern Baptists think they know why

Here’s the link to this article.

When The Big Problem Here is that people don’t know enough pastors, not that those pastors cause countless scandals, you’ve got a much bigger problem on your hands than a lack of trust.

Avatar photoby CAPTAIN CASSIDY

FEB 07, 2023

Trust in pastors is dropping, and Southern Baptists think they know why | holding up a mask | scandals
Via Unsplash

Reading Time: 10 MINUTES

Yet again, Gallup surveys show that Americans’ trust in clergy, including pastors, is eroding. In fact, that erosion has hit record levels for the second year in a row. Barely a third of Americans trust pastors any further than they can throw them. And Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaders think they know why. Yes, it’s so simple! People just don’t know any pastors personally, and so all they have to go on is the constant news of pastors’ scandals!

But this explanation actually causes them more problems than they think. It’s a signal flare in the sky to all beholding it: This is not a trustworthy organization at all.

Gallup delivers devastating news about pastors and religion in general

The survey itself came out a couple of weeks ago. In it, Gallup asked Americans how much they trust people in various professions. Nurses came out on top, followed by medical doctors, pharmacists, and high school teachers. On the bottom, we find (in declining order) car salespeople, members of Congress, and telemarketers.

Of course, the survey also reflects evangelicals’ beloved culture wars. A distinct political divide exists in respondents’ answers. Republicans rated fact-based professions (nurses, teachers, doctors, pharmacists, journalists) much lower, and authoritarian figures (police officers, clergy, bankers, business executives) higher than their Democratic counterparts did. It’s quite an interesting survey.

Of interest, clergy people hit a historic low in these polls last year. Only 36% of respondents thought they had “high ethical standards.” It was the lowest that the clergy had ever been rated. But this year, respondents beat that figure: 34% thought that.

This drop in confidence goes along with a general drop in Americans’ trust in organized religion as a whole. In 2021, 37% of Gallup’s respondents thought churches were very trustworthy. In 2022, only 31% thought that. Last year, Aaron Earls (the same writer who brings us our OP, or original post, of the day) examined this situation for the SBC’s official website, Baptist Press.

In short, these polls measure a catastrophic drop in trust since about the early 2000s. Clergy and churches have gone from soaring trust levels in the 60% and 70% range in the 1970s to barely squeaking past the 30% mark now.

And Earls is sure that he knows why.

The Big Problem Here isn’t pastors!

When I talk about “The Big Problem Here,” I’m poking fun at dysfunctional authoritarians’ longstanding habit of deciding that all of their problems hinge on one particular thing that has nothing to do with anything. They can’t even tackle that chosen scapegoat problem with any meaningful strategies, because—again—it doesn’t impact anything about their situation. So they tilt at this one windmill for a while, then abandon the entire project once their followers move on to new concerns.

(Related: Who’s Your OneBless Every HomeCome meet the SBC’s EVANGELISM TASK FORCE.)

In this case, Earls has decided that The Big Problem Here is simple:

Thanks to declining church membership and attendance rates, fewer Americans personally know any pastors. Thus, when they hear about pastoral scandals on the news, they don’t have that mitigating knowledge to offset the shock of the scandals. As he puts it:

Downward trends in church attendance accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. With more Americans staying home each Sunday, fewer personally know a local church pastor. The lack of individual knowledge means more people associate pastors as a whole with the scandals surrounding individual church leaders.Aaron Earls, Baptist Press

Gosh, it’s just so simple!

Oh wait.

In reality, this assessment makes the SBC look much worse.

How Christians’ trust in pastors helps scandals fester in dark places

Long, long ago I ran across an interesting article from Christianity Today. Posted in 2000, it concerned the leaders of Willow Creek Community Church. Specifically, it covered “the man behind the megachurch,” Gilbert Bilezikian.

As I read the article, I was absolutely shocked by the way that the writer completely missed a number of creepy red flags about this guy. She wrote this paragraph without perceiving anything weird going on at all:

Walking the halls of Willow Creek with Bilezikian is like walking through a shopping mall with a movie star. People stare, and he can’t complete a sentence without someone waving and calling, “Hey, Dr. B.!” Women of 83 and girls of 6 rush up to him, knowing he will kiss their hand and compliment their ravishing beauty.Lauren Winner, Christianity Today, November 2000

One of Willow Creek’s teaching pastors at the time, John Ortberg, had the following to say of Bilezikian:

“Women at Willow Creek fall in love with him all the time,” Ortberg says. “He has legions of female followers. He manages to be thoroughly egalitarian and thoroughly French at the same time.”Lauren Winner, Christianity Today, November 2000

Ortberg said that. The writer put that quote into her article. Neither she nor Ortberg detected anything weird going on there at all.

Eventually, Bilezikian would fall to scandal. In fact, it’d turn out that he’d been sexually preying upon female Willow Creek members since at least the 1980s. Eventually, the lead pastor of Willow Creek, Bill Hybels, would also fall due to his own long history of preying upon women.

As for Ortberg, he eventually became the lead pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. And he lost his job in 2020 due to scandal as well: He allowed one of his sons to work around children even though that son had confessed to having compulsive thoughts about committing pedophilia.

(In retrospect, it sounds like the son may have suffered from a recognized form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Thankfully, an investigation has turned up no actual child abuse, though those investigators did criticize Menlo Park’s child-protection policies. Of course, allowing someone like that to work around children is a shockingly bad judgment call.)

Americans’ trust in pastors was egregiously misplaced with all of these guys. And they all took full advantage of that trust.

Trust only allows predators all to operate unfettered and without fear through churches’ fields full of prey. Those predators know they will always have evangelicals defending them from any and all consequences of their actions.

Misplaced trust shields predatory pastors

Even when pastors finally get caught preying upon others, misplaced trust shields them from any consequences. In 2015, Geronimo Aguilar, or “Pastor G,” went to trial for sexually abusing two young girls in his youth group in the 1990s. (He’d been staying with their family temporarily, and her parents interrupted him in mid-rape.)

(Related: Rape culture and Pastor G.)

It turned out that these weren’t his only two victims. Four women in total accused him of abusing them. His wife even testified about his extramarital affairs with church staff, a board member’s wife, and even family members. And one woman testified that he’d paid for her abortion after he impregnated her.

If you’re wondering how his church took these shocking accusations, you shouldn’t.

They closed ranks around him. His uncle wondered aloud if one of his victims was a “hartlet” (I think he means harlot) who had led him on.

WRIC, 2015. It appears that he’s accusing an 11- or 13-year-old girl of leading a grown man down the primrose path.

At the time, I saw numerous members of Pastor G’s church loudly protesting his innocence. But thankfully, the court system did its job and sentenced him to 40 years in prison.

Jesus did nothing to help this guy’s victims. He didn’t stop the predator in that church. And all the trust the congregation gave their pastor only allowed him to operate freely.

Misplaced trust makes Christians say “Oh no, my pastor would never do that!” It grants pastors a shield they do not deserve.

Aaron Earls, in his OP about eroded trust in pastors, laments the dropping of that shield. He’s sad that this undeserved cover is being removed, allowing light to shine at last in those dark places.

The biggest accountability cheerleaders in the world completely lack it in their own leadership ranks

It’d be ironic, if I didn’t know them like I do, to know that evangelicals are possibly the biggest cheerleaders in the world for accountability—and yet entirely lack it in their leadership ranks.

That’s why the public is well-served by not giving them their trust.

In many of the other professions that Gallup measures, like the medical field and even to a much lesser extent journalism, nobody enjoys much undeserved trust. Accountability is baked into the system at all levels. Often, laws address infractions of a profession’s code of ethics. Though violations of the profession’s rules do occur, the rulebreakers get caught.

If medical staff blab about patients’ treatment and diagnoses, they stand in violation of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996). And our government strongly punishes these infractions. Journalists who invent or embellish stories can lose their jobs and their standing in the profession. All kinds of laws govern bankers and military people at all levels.

Various laws also govern police officers’ conduct, though they are often poorly-enforcedScandals abound within this entire profession. In some areas, distrust of law enforcement is so profound that the law has to allow for drivers not wanting to stop in isolated areas when pulled over.

Spotty, often-ineffective enforcement is what leads to lax accountability.

Lax accountability, in turn, is what makes an authoritarian group become dysfunctional.

However, evangelicals don’t just have spotty, often-ineffective enforcement.

They often have none at all.

Nobody watches the churches’ watchers

All too often, church leaders operate with almost complete impunity. Though church boards often try to rein in the worst overreaches from pastors, all too often pastors game that system by packing their church boards with yes-men (as Mark Driscoll did—and when his board finally found its voice, he quit rather than submit to them). Church members fear exposing a pastor’s misdeeds because they know they might be blamed for provoking their own victimization—and they fear tarnishing their church’s (and their religion’s) reputation and credibility.

In really authoritarian churches, pastors institute church discipline, featuring membership covenants. These are BDSM-style contracts that Christians must sign in order to be considered full members of their churches. They spell out penalties for various infractions of the church leaders’ rules. But they almost never include provisions for appeals, much less any tangible, meaningful rules that church leaders themselves must follow, much less penalties for infractions of those rules. Instead, it’s the church members who must submit to discipleship.

I wish Christians would stop being completely shocked when yet another discipleship-pushing church turns out to be horrifically abusive. If I operated a list of Evangelical Things No Longer Considered Weird, like we see in Chuck Shepherd’s long-running “News of the Weird” column, this situation would have qualified almost from the beginning of my own writing.

Why evangelicals don’t rein in their pastors

Worse, authoritarian evangelical leaders exist in a system that considers rule-following to be what the powerless must do. The powerful don’t have to follow their group’s rules. A symbol of power in their group is having very few people able to rein someone in. The fewer people who can rein you in, the more power you hold. In turn, the more people you can order around, the more power you hold.

In fact, the powerless in their groups admire the powerful for flaunting often openly-transgressive behavior. That’s a big part of why evangelicals glommed so hard onto Donald Trump in 2016. Every transgression he committed in office only made evangelicals love him more.

The goal of the powerless is, therefore, to become powerful so they don’t have to follow so many rules and answer to fewer superiors about their behavior. To become powerful, they curry favor with those more powerful than themselves—while preventing the upward rise of others seeking the same goal. The results of all this jockeying can be seen in almost every single evangelical church in America.

Evangelicals’ entire social system revolves around power: who holds it, who wields it, who grants it, and who guards it. In such an environment, ethics and morality take a far distant millionth place in priorities.

A former big-name SBC leader, Thom Rainer, perfectly (if unwittingly) described evangelicals’ power obsession in a podcast he did a few years ago. He discussed how church members often begin grooming pastors to be on their side from the moment one begins moving into the neighborhood. In addition, big church donors often use their money to control pastors’ decisions and behavior. If they succeed, the pastor favors them in church squabbles and grants them plum volunteer (and maybe even paid staff) roles.

If this grooming fails to get the groomers what they want, Rainer asserts, the groomers seek to drive the new pastor out so they can get another one who will hopefully be more amenable to their blatant attempts to curry favor.

Look up the ladder of power, and multiply this jockeying with each successive rung to the top.

People are right not to trust leaders in a dysfunctional authoritarian system

And so now, we come full circle back to this OP from Aaron Earls on the SBC’s official website. That means that Earls’ writing is stamped with the SBC’s approval. It represents what the SBC as a whole wants its members to know and think and feel. Though he’s discussing a source that deals only with Christianity and clergy as a whole (meaning all flavors of churches and all kinds of clergy), he specifically zeroes in on pastors, and he clearly means evangelical pastors at that.

In his OP, Earls tells us that The Big Problem Here is that not enough Americans personally know any pastors. He asserts that this lack of mitigating personal knowledge is what makes scandals seem so shocking. He implies that if Americans only personally knew more pastors, we’d know that these scandals are far from indicative of evangelicalism as a whole.

But what would happen if more Americans chose to get acquainted with more pastors?

Would this rise in pastoral acquaintanceship lead to pastors’ scandals becoming less frequent or shocking? Would pastors become somehow truly accountable for their behavior?

No and no. It wouldn’t change evangelicals’ piss-poor accountability structures. It wouldn’t change evangelicals’ obsession with power. All it would do is potentially cloud Americans’ perceptions and lead to them granting all evangelical pastors the regard they hold for one or two pastors. And if those pastoral acquaintances turn out to be predators, that knowledge sure won’t boost their normie acquaintances’ opinions of pastors in general. It’ll just make normies realize anew that pastors can easily hide a lot of wrongdoing very easily from a whole lot of people.

That’s exactly what happened to one person who personally knew a pastor named Paul Dyal, who was charged last year with capital sexual battery of a victim aged 11 or under. The abuse had begun decades earlier. A fellow pastor of his, Jerry Mullaly, had this to say about the charges:

“He was always a polite man. Always outgoing. Always wanted to help someone in need,” Mullaly said. “Never did any kind of red flags come up. But I’ll say this — you never know who’s sitting beside you.”Robert Grant, Action News Jax

And evangelicals in particular really don’t “know who’s sitting beside” them.

For the most part, it looks like a whole bunch of Americans already know all of this. So no, they don’t actually need to get to know any pastors.

When your strategy involves anything but addressing your group’s scandals

But this conclusion that Earls draws is perfectly safe, speaking in terms of the utterly-dysfunctional evangelical system.

He is not suggesting any meaningful changes to their social system. Nor is he suggesting that evangelical leaders create and submit to real accountability practices.

Instead, he’s complaining that The Big Problem Here is that normies just don’t know pastors well enough. That takes the entire onus of resolution off of evangelical leaders and their dysfunctional social system. Then, this non-solution shoves the obligation for fixing this situation onto people who, as we just discovered, do not owe those leaders even one moment of their time.

Until evangelicals decide to recreate their system to bake accountability into it at all levels, they do not deserve even one iota of anyone’s trust.

YouTube video
Wayne’s World (1992)

Alas, that will never happen. Entirely too many evangelicals like things as they are right now. The system as it is now works just fine for entirely too many evangelicals. Meaningful changes would only dilute the power that evangelical pastors hold.

If you ever see that happen, then maybe it’ll be a little safer to trust these folks. But they’re nowhere near that point, as Aaron Earls and the SBC have so generously demonstrated for us this week.

How Southern Baptist pastor Heath Lambert is leaving nothing to chance

Here’s the link to this article.

Gosh, how could it ever backfire for this pastor to demand his members undergo a culture-war loyalty test? So many ways

Avatar photoby CAPTAIN CASSIDY

FEB 09, 2023

how pastor heath lambert is leaving nothing to chance
Via Unsplash


Heath Lambert came out of nowhere, relatively speaking, to become the pastor of a huge, historic, influential SBC church.

Recently he’s made news by demanding his congregation sign an agreement with a “biblical sexuality” statement that is extremely bigoted, misogynistic, and transphobic.

We trace Lambert’s rise to power and examine what factors might have made him decide to pull this stunt.

Reading Time: 14 MINUTES

As time goes on, religion researchers are discovering all kinds of things about evangelicals’ culture wars—which is to say, their constant attempts to strong-arm popular culture into line with their demands. We now know that if pastors take any specific side in those culture wars, they can alienate church members with differing opinions. But one evangelical pastor with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Heath Lambert, has decided to put the pedal to the evangelical-decline metal by demanding his congregation sign official loyalty tests about the culture wars.

This stunt didn’t come out of nowhere, however. Let’s trace the genealogy of this decision—and see where its genetic line will likely end.

This is the rabbit hole that never ends; it just goes on and on, my friends…

Before beginning deep dives like this one, I like to find out a little background information about the person at its center. I usually present this information in a section titled something like “Everyone, meet This Person.” For me, it’s a way to gain a larger perspective about a story.

Boy oh boy was this background-info gathering sesh ever different, though.

At the end, or at least where I decided I really had to stop now, I felt like Calvin after his dad gave in to his demand for the same bedtime story for the billionth time in a row:

From Calvin and Hobbes

No, I was not expecting in the least to find myself falling down an endless rabbit hole when I began researching this story. It just never ended!

The upshot of these dozens of tabs open on my browser: Heath Lambert is the perfect ur-example of a scheming evangelical culture warrior. Scheming and culture wars are part of his emotional DNA. I want you to know why this decision of his was so incredibly boneheaded—and yet so perfectly in character for the exact type of evangelical he is, as well as the type of evangelicals he wants to impress by making it.

Everyone, meet Heath Lambert: A veteran of the culture wars

According to his church’s bio blurb, Heath Lambert arose from the evangelical muck around 2009 with a PhD in biblical counseling and systematic theology. Biblical counseling is not secular counseling with Jesus frosting. It is completely different, with completely different objectives and methods.

He got this degree from something he calls “Southern Seminary.” While that name can refer to three different schools, it most likely refers to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). SBTS is an SBC-affiliated school. Online, I see numerous other references to “Southern Seminary” that all mean SBTS. Incidentally, our old pal Al Mohler runs it.

The newly-hatched Lambert hit the ground running. According to another bio from the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC), around this time he worked as an associate professor at SBTS. He taught biblical counseling.

In 2011, he published the first of many books about this topic, The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams. (“Adams” refers to the founder of the “biblical counseling” movement, Jay Adams.) In 2012, Lambert explained his take on biblical counseling over at The Gospel Coalition (TGC, a very Calvinist and hardline evangelical group). To anyone with a bit of background in real psychology, it is absolutely alarming stuff.

Lambert appears to have joined ACBC fairly early on. That 2012 post doesn’t even say he’s a member yet. But once he joined ACBC, he clearly rose up the ranks quickly. A 2014 blog post calls him the ACBC Executive Director. Not bad for just a few short years of professional life and, at most, two years at ACBC!

Though he doesn’t tend to talk much about it, Lambert is a very strict, hardline Calvinist, as well as a biblical literalist and inerrantist. This crowd also really likes church discipline, which puts church leaders in complete control of congregants’ personal lives.

Heath Lambert: The ACBC years

Once firmly ensconced in the leadership of ACBC, Lambert wrote constantly about what he saw as the future of biblical counseling. Around 2017, he arrogantly offered up what he called “95 Theses for an Authentic Commitment to Counseling.”

Mostly, his “95 theses” consist of endless Bible verses meant to prop up his erroneous assumption that the Bible must be both the end-all be-all resource for counselors and entirely sufficient to solve all psychological problems. Moreover (he tells us in #23), any other kind of counseling besides biblical counseling is doomed to fail through a lack of Jesus Power. Then he completely misunderstands his burden of proof in #40, which is a defiant-sounding CHECKMATE, ATHEISTS if I ever saw one.

(Related: Things the Bible doesn’t talk about, like PTSD.)

But he also made sure to get his organization into the news. In 2015, ACBC ran a conference about homosexuality with all the usual hallmarks of the evangelical culture wars. Protestors picketed the conference, getting ACBC splashed onto news sites everywhere.

(Related: Anatomy of doublespeak: That ACBC conference.)

ACBC made the news again in 2018, when Lambert (then the “outgoing” leader) decided to move its conference from the campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary over the Paige Patterson scandal. Hey, even a broken clock tells the correct time twice a day.

Around the same time, Wartburg Watch had a whole lot to say in criticism of ACBC’s brand of counseling (archive). Among many, many other problems, they accused ACBC of inadequate education and certification, poorly-educated leaders, misogyny, and serious issues with confidentiality. The 2014 blog post I mentioned confirms all of these issues and more besides.

Heath Lambert and his bigger ambitions

But Heath Lambert had bigger ambitions than just leading the ACBC, it seems. That’s where First Baptist Church in Jacksonville (FBCJ), a huge SBC church, enters the chat.

From 1982 to 2006, Jerry Vines was FBCJ’s lead pastor. SBC watchers might recognize him as one of the primary movers-and-shakers of the SBC’s Conservative Resurgence. In fact, he was the president of the SBC from 1988-1989, at the very height of that fight.

The Conservative Resurgence was nothing less than an evangelical schism. A small handful of conspirators got angry about what they saw as the SBC’s drift into liberalism (particularly around the lightning-rod topic of women pastors). They decided to bring the SBC back to its ultra-conservative roots.

Vines’ election was part of the conspirators’ scheme. The president of the SBC appoints a whole lot of people to a whole lot of posts. The conspirators knew that if they could get their man in the top spot for a certain number of consecutive years, they would win the schism through simple numbers. By Vines’ second election, his side’s victory was assured.

Vines retired in 2006. Afterward, FBCJ elected Mac Brunson to be their new pastor.

Sometime around 2015, Mac Brunson hired Heath Lambert as an associate pastor. Soon after, Brunson resigned with no explanation whatsoever.

That left Heath Lambert as the new lead pastor of FBCJ in 2017. He quit ACBC the next year, so now FBCJ was his only job.

Alas for him, by then FBCJ’s membership—and income—had been dwindling for years.

FBCJ’s chaotic recent history before Heath Lambert…

Under its first pastors and then Vines, FBCJ enjoyed a bunch of great boom years. But by Brunson’s ascension, those days were long past. Worse, its enrolled members clearly did very little for the church. Even by the SBC’s lackadaisical attendance standards, its membership barely ever bothered to show up for Sunday services.

The percentage and number of butts in pews (BIPs, and no, that’s not an official SBC term) are a direct indicator of a church’s financial health and its cultural power in a community, as well as the church’s status in evangelicalism generally. And the SBC knows it. Every year for their Annual Report, the mother ship asks member churches to do a headcount of actual attendees. Though the pandemic obviously has thrown these counts into chaos, these headcounts generally reveal that about a third of their enrolled members can be found in church on any given Sunday.

In 2014, FBCJ had 28,000 enrolled members and 3k attendance on average. That’s a 10.7% attendance rate. Still, thanks to their leadership and overall size, FBCJ was a powerful force in the denomination.

(A few weeks after Brunson resigned from FBCJ, he began his new gig as the pastor of the considerably smaller Valleydale Church in Birmingham, AL. As of this writing, he’s still there. It appears to be SBC.)

By the time Heath Lambert took control of FBCJ, the church had an absolutely humongous facility with ten sprawling city blocks of land around it. However, they couldn’t afford its upkeep at all with their 3200-ish members, and they were sliding deeper and deeper into debt.

One of Lambert’s first moves as pastor involved trying to “jolt [FBCJ] back to life with a loan” and sell off about 90% of its property. The pandemic completely destroyed those sales plans, unfortunately. As of 2021, Lambert seems to be slowly gathering money to get some renovations going.

…And its equally troubling history

If you’re wondering if a scandal was involved with Brunson’s resignation from FBCJ, you probably should. This guy was entirely too sanctimonious about adultery.

But I have other—and far more potent—reasons to wonder about just why he left FBCJ without explanation.

As a start, FBCJ shows up in the massive 2022 abuse report that the SBC commissioned to deal with its huge sex abuse crisis. On page 145, we read this testimony:

Tiffany Thigpen grew up in a Christian home, and her family attended First Baptist Church Jacksonville (FBC-Jax). Ms. Thigpen was committed to her church and committed to going into ministry. During Ms. Thigpen’s high school years, Darrell Gilyard, a mentee of Pastor Jerry Vines and Paige Patterson, preached at FBC-Jax. [. . .] Mr. Gilyard groomed Ms. Thigpen with late-night phone calls and promises of a summer job in Texas. In the spring of 1991, after a revival meeting at FBC-JAX, Mr. Gilyard attacked Ms. Thigpen and attempted to rape her. Ms. Thigpen fought to get away from him and was able to escape. She was terrified and traumatized. Ms. Thigpen and her mother went to Dr. Vines to tell him about the attack. Dr. Vines was dismissive of her report and told Ms. Thigpen that it would be embarrassing for her if others knew about it.2022 SBC abuse report, p. 145

I’m sure it wasn’t fun for Heath Lambert to have to respond to this report. But he tried hard to communicate the policy changes that had occurred after Vines’ pastorship. Then, he offered the reporter this exceedingly odd disclaimer:

Lambert did add that Gilyard isn’t affiliated with the First Baptist Church.Action News Jax

Wait, what?

The FBCJ-Gilyard connection

That statement caught my attention in a major way.

Nobody had said anything about Gilyard’s current affiliation. Rather, he was preaching there at the time of the attack in 1991. So why go to such pains to stress a lack of current affiliation?

Well, I sure found out why: Darrell Gilyard and FBCJ go way, way back. Heath Lambert clearly knows how far back, too.

In fact, 44 women in Jacksonville (among others outside the city) have accused Gilyard of what the report euphemistically calls “inappropriate conduct.” And this conduct appears to have been an open secret among FBCJ and SBC leadership at the time.

The super-secret SBC-maintained database of pastoral predators contains quite a few links and leads to Gilyard’s crimes. Two solid gobsmacking pages of the database are devoted to him alone (pp 73-74). At the end of his two-page database entry, we learn that the SBC’s top leaders knew that Jerry Vines stood accused of knowing all about the situation but doing nothing to protect women from Gilyard. (This is the possible blog post the database mentions, but it might also be this one.)

In fact, Vines helped Gilyard escape consequences. For a while beforehand, he’d taken quite an interest in Gilyard’s career. Along with Paige Patterson, Vines gave the young preacher considerable help in getting established in his profession.

In addition, that secret database reveals (on page 56) another criminal lurking at FBCJ, Stephen Edmonds. In 2002, Edmonds was the church’s youth minister and one of its deacons. Numerous victims accused him of child sexual abuse. Eventually, he was sentenced to a year in prison and five years’ probation, then listed on the state’s sex offender registry. This happened under Vines’ leadership.

As well, FBCJ’s leadership, particularly under Brunson, has been credibly accused of all kinds of other misconduct, mostly financial but occasionally touching upon the silencing of critics (archive).

Heath Lambert didn’t choose FBCJ by accident

Goodness gracious, Heath Lambert inherited quite an impressive mess with FBCJ, didn’t he? But I can see why he was willing to shoulder such a burden. His ascension to this church’s pastorship was not some wacky, divinely-orchestrated series of impossible coincidences.

Though FBCJ was struggling mightily hard for a number of reasons, it was still quite a plum for the picking. It’s a historic church with an impressive pedigree of leadership, an undeniably powerful role in SBC politics for decades, and loads of potential for rebounding despite its past debilitating debt and downturned attendance and fortunes. I’m sure Lambert didn’t see any way he could lose with those conditions.

Wartburg Watch thinks that hardline Calvinists have been looking for struggling churches that fit this general description for a long time. Their goal, apparently, is steeplejacking. The term means a local, single-church version of the Conservative Resurgence itself. Once these Calvinists achieve leadership roles within a struggling-but-paid-for nice church, they set about making it a new hub of hardline Calvinism. Anyone who doesn’t like the new shift gets driven away. I’ll let them explain the process:

The SBC has been involved in the revitalization of older churches. Let me translate that for you. One of the most difficult things about starting a new church plant is trying to find and rent facilities. There are many within the leadership which urge SBC Baptist preacher types to find a church facility that is already bought and paid for.

Last year I received a call from church in the Boston area. Twenty Calvinist young folks arrived at their church and began to join committees, etc. They were attempting to get themselves elected to position of leadership in the church. Why might that be? This church was an historical church with paid for facilities. I explained to the pastor what was likely happening. Those 20 young church revitalizers were given the boot.Wartburg Watch (archive)

That does seem to fit exactly how Heath Lambert came to power.

Well, he’s found a new way to court the attention of his fellow Calvinists:

He’s set forth a loyalty test for his congregation.

Heath Lambert and his new loyalty test

Last year around October, according to his church’s FAQ, Heath Lambert decided to force his remaining church members to sign a statement about “biblical sexuality.” The church apparently “overwhelmingly approved” the idea. They appear to have rolled it out in January.

Anyone in the membership who chooses not to sign the document by March 19, 2023 will be stripped of membership. If they wish to become members again of the church, they will need to follow its procedures for any prospective new member. These include “attending the membership class, meeting with a pastor, and being voted on by the congregation.” I’m guessing that signing the statement will be a mandatory part of that onboarding process.

So what does this statement say about “biblical sexuality”?

Biblical, when used by evangelicals as an adjective for anything, just means a culture-war-enabling interpretation of the noun being modified. So biblical marriage means marriage reserved for straight cisgender couples seeking opposite-sex-only marriage, and then idealized-1950s-style strict gender roles and constant childbearing afterward. Biblical parenting means beating children and raising them in a very authoritarian mannerBiblical counseling means extremely Jesus-y fake counseling that seeks to eradicate sin in a client’s life, while laying no particular care upon confidentiality.

Thus, biblical sexuality means the only kind of sexuality that evangelical culture warriors approve of humans having. No LGBT orientations or identities are allowed. Sex may occur only within a straights-and-cisgender-only, opposite-sex marriage. And constant, unending disapproval must be expressed at anyone who goes off-script.

How Heath Lambert’s loyalty test came about

In part, the statement reads:

As a member of First Baptist Church, I believe that God creates people in his image as either male or female, and that this creation is a fixed matter of human biology, not individual choice. I believe marriage is instituted by God, not government, is between one man and one woman, and is the only context for sexual desire and expression.Baptist Press

It’s not anything new for SBC leaders, particularly hardline Calvinist ones. But Heath Lambert feels that this statement is absolutely necessary now. As he explained recently:

We believe [that] in a sexually confused culture, it is important for our church to be united and to be clear about a matter like this which is a closely held religious conviction held by every member in our congregation.Heath Lambert for Baptist Press

Of course, the decision to run this loyalty test was not solely made out of a desire to be super-Jesus-y, nor to make absolutely sure that the church’s culture-war enemies and victims know exactly how much its members hate them.

It’s actually way more pragmatic than that. You see, the Jacksonville City Council recently passed an ordinance that includes better protections for LGBT people.

They gave religious organizations an exemption from those rules. However, it appears that Lambert is desperately worried that unless his church makes adamantly clear that they’re bigoted and transphobic as a core part of their religious identity, the exemptions might not apply to them. Lambert even told his church so in a YouTube video from September:

Protecting our church legally means that we must do everything possible to communicate that our biblical beliefs about gender are a core conviction, absolutely central to who we are as a church of Jesus Christ.Heath Lambert, YouTube video quoted in Baptist Press

My suspicion here is that Heath Lambert has become aware that some of his congregants have and love LGBT people in their families, and he wants to head off lawsuits from those congregants.

That the statement also serves as a loyalty test is probably just an added bonus to Lambert. By mid-March, he’ll know exactly which congregants are loyal to him—and which ones he must drive away.

The rumblings of dissent grow louder for Heath Lambert

Though Heath Lambert claims that the only opposition he’s received to his loyalty test have come from outside FBCJ, it’s very easy to find church members expressing profound disagreement with the statement. Someone even posted the letter that one household, possibly theirs, received:

Via Reddit

As well, FBCJ hosted some kind of open-mic forum at the end of January for people to discuss their opinions about the loyalty test. During that forum, a woman who identified herself as “queer” described an FBCJ member family in her acquaintance that had told her they’d decided to stop attending the church because of this new requirement. I doubt they’re the only ones.

To me, it sounds like very few dissenters dare to openly discuss their opinions. Instead, they take to sites online or go through intermediaries who have nothing to lose. Considering how authoritarians tend to respond to dissent, such decisions are completely understandable.

How Heath Lambert’s church likely shakes out in the culture wars

FBCJ is already seriously dwindling in membership. Before the pandemic, they reported about 3200 members. If the pandemic did to them what it’s done to other evangelical churches, they’ve likely lost a good third of their members in the past couple of years. (That’s only a general estimate, of course. I’ve heard of some churches facing considerably greater losses, some up in the 75%-80% nosebleed ranges.) And if the average applies to FBCJ, that means they’re hovering around 2000 members now.

According to a 2023 Pew Research report, a good 15% or so of white evangelicals in America don’t buy into biblical sexuality regarding gender identity. About a third of them think the United States is either accepting enough or needs to become more accepting of trans people. Almost a third don’t consider their religion much or at all when coming to their opinions about LGBT people. So that’s potentially 400-1000 pre-pandemic FBCJ members who aren’t in lockstep there.

When it comes to equal marriage, Pew Research found even more dissent in the flocks. Almost a third of evangelicals “strongly favor/favor” same-sex marriage. This finding might mean that almost a thousand congregants at FBCJ’s previous membership level are fine with equal marriage.

If I’m right and they’re sitting at around 2000 members, Heath Lambert might potentially be facing about 600 culture-war traitors hiding in his hallowed pews.

What those dissenters are likely to do

Authoritarian leaders love to demand loyalty tests of their followers. It sets their followers off-base and makes them feel ill at ease. It makes followers try extra-hard to please their leaders, too.

But these tests can backfire for pastors. When they take a stand about any political matter, anyone on the other side becomes alienated. Without a way for pastors to force their followers to stick around, this alienation can quickly lead to dissenters leaving the church for a better political fit. It doesn’t even seem to matter which side the pastor takes. All that matters is that some congregants don’t agree with it.

Heath Lambert thinks that by demanding this loyalty test from his congregation, he will end with a smaller congregation that is intensely loyal to him. That’s unlikely. Whoever remains will be extra-aware that their pastor feels very comfortable with making extremely personal demands of them.

I expect at least some of those dissenters to sign the agreement anyway. After all, how is their disloyalty to be exposed? If they’re careful, it’s unlikely that King Heath or his lickspittle informants and lackeys will ever find out about it.

For those who have a crisis of conscience about dishonestly signing it, they may well drift away. Many may contrive the usual excuses for doing so: They’re just so busy lately, or they’re moving, or whatever else. Or they’ll just leave and not talk to anyone about it.

The possible real target of this stunt

Whatever happens, though, this demand is perfectly within Heath Lambert’s character. It bears the hallmarks of both his ambition and his overarching control-lust.

Also whatever happens, hardliner Calvinists will be very impressed by his demand for a loyalty test. And their esteem might well be the key to understanding Heath Lambert’s thought processes.

This entire situation might be a signal flare meant to catch the eye of those outranking him in the tribe. In the past, I’ve seen hardline Calvinists do very similar things to get attention from their thought leaders.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this stunt is part of a plan to get elected to the SBC’s presidency—if not this summer, then next. If I’m right, then it doesn’t matter at all how many people Heath Lambert loses over his demand. What matters is that his side’s leaders are impressed enough by it to push him higher up the ladder of power.

And thus, this story perfectly illustrates exactly why evangelicals, and the SBC in particular, are in a freefall decline with no end in sight.

How Christians reframe prayer to sound exciting and effective

For decades, Christians have lamented their inability to pray regularly. And for decades, they’ve tried dishonest reframing to make prayer sound infinitely more exciting and effective than it really is.

Avatar photoby CAPTAIN CASSIDY

JAN 20, 2023


Reading Time: 7 MINUTES

If there’s one universal complaint I’ve heard from Christians, one monolithic sore spot that seems to affect almost all of them, it is their inability to establish prayer habits. Even the most fervent and gung-ho of them willingly admit that their prayer lives are lacking.

But instead of stressing the real-world good of cultivating such a habit, Christians tend to try to drill down harder on the imaginary aspects of what they’re doing.

Prayer 101

Religious people call the process of talking to their god(s) prayer. Christians almost universally believe that prayer works all kinds of miracles. Their Bible commands them to pray without ceasing. In the gospels, Jesus is often seen praying and admonishing his followers to pray.

In the modern day, Christians believe that their god actually listens to their prayers. Many even believe that he responds to them in some way: giving them comfort, answering their questions, telling them what to do next, and more. They’ve even defined different kinds of prayer:

  • Praise and adoration
  • Petition (asking for stuff)
  • Intercession (asking for stuff still, but for someone else)
  • Confession (apologizing for stuff so they don’t go to Hell)
  • Thanksgiving (for the stuff they think their god did for them)

In times of great stress, Christians learn that they should pray for help and comfort. (I recently saw The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). One hostage character prayed almost the entire way through the movie. This wasn’t particularly played for laughs.)

But Christians also learn that they should pray all the rest of the time too, and to cultivate what they call a prayer life. Their leaders teach them that prayer is a sublime and fulfilling experience—a sort of red Bat-Phone call straight to Heaven.

And the problem: Christians tend to neglect prayer

Despite centuries of consistent education on this topic, Christians don’t pray much at all. A 2021 Pew Research survey found that the number of Christians claiming to pray daily fell from 58% in 2007 to 45% in 2021. Meanwhile, the number of people saying they seldom or never pray rose from 18% in 2007 to 32% in 2021. Those are some serious shifts!

I use the word “claiming” up there on purpose. I’m pretty sure that Christians not only vastly inflate how much prayer they do, but that they also count any kind of prayer as prayer. That means quick blessings over their meals, ritualistic requests for divine protection before they start driving anywhere, or the brief little prayers they say over social media entreaties. These are simple magical invocations, no different from Wiccans saying “so mote it be.” And they’re certainly not what Christian leaders mean when they talk about cultivating a prayer life.

I can absolutely assure you that 45% of Americans are not actually getting on their knees in their war room to pray for hours on end for Republicans to win the next election and Aunt Nancy’s Stage IV cancer to go into spontaneous remission—much less to tell Jesus for hours at a time how wonderful he is.

Even in the most fervent evangelical circles, it’s always perfectly safe to lament one’s neglect of prayer. Usually, this confession prompts everyone listening to nod along in chagrined silence.

The stakes for neglecting prayer

One evangelical site, The Gospel Coalition (TGC), understands exactly what the stakes are here:

It’s shameful but true. Christians have long struggled to exercise their most astounding privilege: permission to approach the throne of grace and talk to God, communicating with the One who makes and rules the world, who creates and redeems, who loves with an everlasting love that has overcome the power of sin, death, and the Devil. Though such a privilege takes our breath away when rightly understood, it is all-too-often neglected, taken for granted, and performed as if what we profess about God isn’t true.The Gospel Coalition

That last bit is the most telling: “performed as if what we profess about God isn’t true.”

Whatever Christians say they believe about prayer, their actual behavior reveals the truth. They’re well aware that prayer doesn’t actually spark miracles, get them tangible help in their lives, or offer them any gods standing by to take their calls—much less waiting on pins and needles to respond to them.

But their writer shoots himself in the foot by making a testable truth claim about the results of regular long-form prayer:

Imagine what would happen if we inched our way closer to prayer without ceasing. Imagine if we cultivated the faith, godly discipline, and habit of communicating with God as if he really were with us all the time, ruling our lives and our world in the way Scripture says.The Gospel Coalition

If only. But he’s right about one thing:

We must imagine this result, because there really aren’t any real-world examples he can point out to us.

Why Christians spend so little time on prayer, according to Christians

There’s no shortage of guesses in the Christ-o-sphere about why Christians have such a problem with prayer. One pastor begins his list of guesses with the usual confession:

Over the years I have been amazed at the paltry desire I’ve felt to pray. I am especially aware of this aversion just prior to the times that I’ve specifically set aside to pray, whether in private or with others.Daniel Henderson

His guesses about why this is the case include demons and Bad Christians™, of course:

  1. “The independence of the flesh.” (In Christianese, the flesh means the material world, our bodies, and our very human desires and motivations.)
  2. “The relentless attack of the enemy.” (In Christianese, the enemy always means demons. They are—as Umberto Eco once defined fascism so well—both enormously powerful and ridiculously weak.)
  3. “The busyness of our modern lives.” (He name-drops Charles Spurgeon, who gaslit evangelicals for decades to come by defining prayer as “a saving of time.”)
  4. “The unpleasant memory of previous experiences.” (He goes on to explain that anyone who turns Christians off to prayer meetings is just a Bad Christian™ who has forgotten what Original First-Century Christianity is all about.)

Overall, his guesses can be found repeated all throughout the Christ-o-sphere. TGC adds an interesting new guess in their own post: “Surely,” he asserts, “this has a great deal to do with our lack of understanding about the nature of prayer.” (Even his own cited sources don’t come close to supporting that guess!)

The solution: Reframing prayer as exciting!

As you might have noticed already, Christians have a couple of different strategies for dealing with this lack of prayer in their ranks. TGC’s writer thought that the solution was simply (re-)telling Christians what he thinks the Bible says about prayer.

(Here, I’ll note only this: My last real act as a Christian, besides one last agonized prayer, was studying what the Bible says about prayer. That’s when I finally understood that it looks nothing like how Christians describe it, and nothing like reality either. Just like that, one of the most important taps feeding my faith pool turned off.)

But most Christians go another route. They try to make prayer sound incredibly exciting, rewarding, and magically effective. In other words, they reframe prayer. We’ve already seen one such attempt in the quotes I’ve offered above.

There’s nothing wrong with reframing, as long as the results are still true and accurate. It can be a healthy way to get past a problem. Sometimes people just need another way to look at a situation. When it’s done to manipulate, though, and it describes something that isn’t true or accurate, then there’s a lot wrong with it. Then, it becomes gaslighting.

In this case, Christians already know that prayer is boring, unrewarding, and the opposite of effective. They’ve done enough prayer to know! They’ve watched themselves do it!

Reframing in action

In 2019, a Calvinist evangelical, Derek Rishmawy, tried hard to reframe prayer:

There are many reasons I don’t pray: distraction, busyness, or the sense that I should be doing something. These are all terrible, of course, but I think the saddest reason is simply boredom. If you’ve grown up in church or simply acclimatized to the secular air we breathe, prayer can appear as small potatoes. It’s something good you know you’re supposed to do because God, like your Great Aunt Suzy, would like you to call more often. But there is little urgency or anticipation.

How much would change, I wonder, if we looked to the story of Moses and the burning bush as our paradigm for prayer?Derek Rishmawy, Christianity Today

He ends with a crescendo of reframed enthusiasm:

Certainly, there is no place for lethargy or boredom. To pray is to enter the Temple, the high and exalted place, where the Holy One dwells in majestic light (Isa. 57:15). It is to call on the name of Yahweh, the fear of Israel (Isa. 8:13).

Considering the One we are praying to, there should be an exhilarating rush of adrenaline and a quickening of the pulse when we take God’s name on our lips. [. . .] Prayer is nothing less than an intimate encounter with the voice from the Flame.Derek Rishmawy, Christianity Today

Impressive, eh? But I wonder how well this reframing attempt worked for him. Does he still find it difficult to find time to pray, even after positioning prayer in this impossibly grandiose way? I bet he does, because back in my Pentecostal days decades ago, my crowd did the exact same thing. And yet we still had trouble finding time to pray.

When the reframing attempt draws a picture that the target knows isn’t true, then it becomes dishonest. The Bible can talk about burning bushes all it wants. Any Christian who’s done more than a few prayer sessions knows perfectly well that it doesn’t feel even a little like “an intimate encounter with the voice from the Flame.” That Bible story describes an encounter that looks like the polar opposite of prayer.

Christians’ dishonest reframing attempts might even backfire by making their targets curious, as I once was, about what the Bible really says about prayer.

When rubber meets the road, Christians vote with their time

We make time for that which is important to us. If we say we know something is terribly important, but we don’t make time for it, that should tip us off about our real priorities.

Sure, we do this all the time with stuff we know is actually good for us. Right now, gym members are likely still dealing with the “resolutioners” who flood their facilities every January. In a few more weeks, most of those folks will be gone.

Exercise is important. It’s one of the best ways humans have to stay happy, healthy, and long-lived. In the moment of exercising, our bodies release all kinds of feel-good chemicals. We’re meant to be active. Our bodies suffer greatly when we’re not. And yet somehow our busy lives get in the way of doing the thing.

The difference between exercise and prayer should be obvious, however. One is a proven-effective activity with observable results. The other has never been shown to do anything that Christians frequently claim it does.

One activity similar to prayer, meditation, appears to have real benefits for those practicing it. Practiced in a similar way, prayer might accomplish similar benefits. But I doubt Christians would ever officially adopt that style of prayer, even if they evolve singly, Christian by Christian, informal redefinitions that inch closer to the truth of the matter (as I also did).

By now, Christians have developed a cultural view of prayer that is both impossibly lofty and completely removed from even their own reality. Nothing else will please most of them. So dishonest reframing it is and shall be forevermore!

Christians will keep dishonestly reframing prayer to try to motivate themselves to do it more often, and they will still keep having trouble finding time to pray. Truly, there’s nothing new under the sun.