Maintaining Personal Myth Through Irrational Loyalty
For years we were baffled by the “Angry Pastor” phenomena. Little did we know, it may have been a foreshadow of an emerging national mania.
Three years ago I was asked to write an article on the neo-authoritarian pastor phenomena in the American church. The purpose was not to deride those often-angry hip mega-pastors, but to try and explain the attraction, specifically their gravitational pull on young, urban, educated adults in progressive cities like Seattle.
The article was published by Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal. It was not my best work but if you want to read it in its entirety, you can find it HERE.
Over the last decade plus, many of us have been baffled by the angry-pastor way of church. Authoritarianism is generally hard for me to swallow in any form, but when that tyrannical ethos is laced with misogyny and hate-rhetoric, it becomes almost impossible to imagine why so many are drawn in, like a moth to a bug-zapper.
When I say “drawn in,” I am talking about many of my dear, dear friends. The Christianity Today article follows my friend Derek, who I have known, loved, respected and walked with over a decade and a half. Derek is razor shrewd and yet, in a desperation to “save” his faith, he traded his critical mind for a pastor who would unwaveringly tell him what to believe.
In the article, I postulate that these urban hipsters and professionals, did not have a community problem, an ecclesial problem or even a theological problem… what they had was an epistemological problem:
I believe that so much of this is happening because young evangelicals are exhausted. They are wearied by a church that claims intellectual supremacy and yet delivers lazy logic, sectarian divisions, and a paradigmatic shelf-life of about 50 years (the approximate time it takes a denomination or emotionally charged religious movement to die).
Religion gave smart people, like Derek, an epistemological vessel that could no longer hold their faith. And to many, it felt like they were left with only two options:
One: reject religion completely and thus lose the metanarrative around which they had structured their lives.
Or Two: sacrifice the most precious thing they have left, their freedom (at least their freedom to think) and give their unswerving allegiance to an autocrat who would tell them what to believe and how to believe it… even if it meant enduring an endless barrage of misogyny, ridicule and hate-rhetoric.
Strangely, they were putting their faith in a pastor…. To embody a faith that they, deep inside, were no longer sure was true.
I would try to talk to these friends about the abusive language/systems they were accepting from their angry-pastor but they refused to hear it. Like a middle-schooler in love with the class-bully, their moral objectivity was gone.
If you listened closely enough, you could almost hear their soul crying out, “I am tired of a world where I can’t know what is true, I will give up my freedom and my values if someone will just tell me what to believe.”
. . . . .
So, this brings us to the second half of today’s discussion: Angry Politician.
It has been three years since that article was written and today we have a similar (and from my perspective equally baffling) circumstance in American politics.
Untold millions are flocking to candidates that unashamedly berate their constituency and flaunt hate language (anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, etc.) and all the while, these millions hypnotically vote their approval time and time again, “Thank you, sir. May I have another.” (It is also worth noting that evangelicals might be the most influential block of votes potentially sending Angry Politician to Washington.)
Why? Why has such a wave of support been mobilized?
I am afraid that deep inside, many believe they have only two options.
One: they would have to reject the myth of America they were given, a myth that has come to define them, a myth that insists that their citizenship makes them the ultimate winners, and a myth that promises prosperity and dominance over the rest of the world.
Or Two: Accept a living, breathing, walking promise that the myth is still true. Accept a person who proves the myth worked and it might just work for them as well… even if that means they have to simultaneously kill so much of what makes the American story great: Plurality, freedom of religious expression (even for Muslims), a homeland for the immigrant, equality for all regardless of gender, class or culture (Galatians 3:28) and so on.
Strangely, they are putting their faith in a politician…. To embody a myth that they, deep inside, are no longer sure is true.
How is this possible? How has a group of citizens, if they had been surveyed just 5 years ago, and asked if they would support this particular Angry Politician for president, they would have shot milk out of their nose in hysterical denial.
And yet here we are.
Like Derek and church, I believe that many of my fellow Americans are desperate. And so, they are willing to give up much of what is most precious to them: their autonomy, their kindness, their generosity and hospitality. Why?
Just like church, the promises of the American story no longer holds water, no longer holds hope. And like the tyrannies that pepper human history, they are now willing to stomach abusive speech, endless hyperbole and minority scapegoating to have someone who promises to have all the answers; someone who promises to always win, someone who “proves” the myth.
. . . . .
Ironically (an irony you will soon see), I was asked to finish that now 3-year old article with some epistemological hope. If not absolute submission to an autocrat (wherein we summarily swallow values and solutions that we would otherwise reject), then where might we find the sensation of “truth” again?
The vision I offered was surprisingly found in the story of the church.
The church functioned in the very center of God’s will at two points: at her beginning and at her end. The church’s beginning is clear, an unprecedented festival of supernatural multiculturalism:
Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs … (Acts 2:9-11).
And the church’s ending is clear as well:
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb … (Revelation 7:9)
I know that my blindness is most insidious when I surround myself with people who are just like me: spend like me, read like me, vote like me, worship like me, etc. If I surround myself with people just like me, we will probably all have the same blind spots. We will tend to adopt self-serving beliefs. That is one danger of a ghettoized religion built on affinity structures or a ghettoized society that hides behind high walls. However, in the company of the other, there is real hope that my prejudices and arrogances might come to light.
What greater indication of transcendent truth than when diverse voices collaborate: Global South and Global North, rich and poor, urban and rural, marginalized and mainstream.
This vision of hope, rooted in the story of the church and reaffirmed time and again throughout human history, is under specific attack from our autocrat de jour, who promises to wall away diverse voices from our already fragile society.
What say you?