The Enduring Appeal of Creepy Christianity
The desire for certainty in an uncertain world yields terrible results.
By David French
National Review Online
Speaking broadly, there are two great, competing temptations that tug at the Christian Church. Both of them are based on the fear of man.
The first is the one that the theologically orthodox discuss and battle the most: the temptation to forsake Christian doctrine to seek the approval of a hostile culture. This is the old argument that the world would embrace the Church if only the Church were more like the world. It is embraced by much of Mainline Protestantism, and it’s the path to religious extinction. In the effort to appeal to the world, the Church becomes the world, and the logic for its distinct existence disappears. Thus the rapid decline of denomination after denomination that has decided to essentially merge with America’s secular culture.
The second temptation is one that attracts the theologically orthodox: the temptation to run toward a form of hyper-legalism as a firewall to protect your family from the sins of the world. Mothers and fathers are desperate for a way to guarantee that their children will grow up to love the Lord. They want to build high walls against sin, so they seek to create distinct communities that are free of the world’s filth and moral compromise.
This second temptation is pernicious. Theologically, it fundamentally denies a very uncomfortable scriptural truth: that this side of heaven we can’t eliminate uncertainty or temptation. We “see through a glass darkly.” We simply don’t have all the answers — for raising children, for sustaining a successful marriage, for thriving in our careers, or for responding to sickness and adversity.
The scriptural response to this fundamental uncertainty is unsatisfying to some. Faith, hope, and love are vague concepts. The Bible doesn’t have a clear, specific prescription for every life challenge. But rather than seeking God prayerfully and with deep humility and reverence, we want answers, now. And thus we gravitate to those people who purport to offer more than the Bible.
Read this book to discover how, by nursing, regulating their babies’ sleep patterns, and teaching their obedient young children how to silently express their desires through hand signals, you can help prepare them for happy, godly lives. Read that book to discover that if you control every aspect of your child’s education and dating lives, they’ll learn more, avoid sin, and launch into lifelong, happy marriages. Watch this sermon to discover the formula for health and wealth.
This is the world of Roy Moore, the world of conventions and meetings where religious speakers and leaders purport to unlock the secrets not just of the Bible but also of our history and Constitution. Just as pastor-champions and teacher-heroes can lead the people to righteousness, it implies, righteous politicians can restore the nation to greatness.
To be sure, millions of Christians attend these events, watch these pastors, or read these books and emerge relatively unscathed. They have the wisdom to take the good, leave the bad, and not trust any person so completely. Spend much time in Christian circles, however, and you see the families (and sometimes entire churches) that slip away. They start to feel a sense of holy superiority: Everyone else is compromising, everyone else is lukewarm, except them. Self-righteousness insulates them from accountability and self-reflection.
From books and sermons come movements, and movements turn into quasi-cults, almost always with a powerful man at the top. He can pack mega-churches (and sometimes arenas) with acolytes. His words are treated almost like scripture. Parents trust him. Dads model their lives after him. Children are taught to follow his teachings.
But here’s the problem: No matter how many legalistic rules you layer on top of scripture, these men are still men. Worse, they’re men living unbiblical lives. They’ve denied the reality of uncertainty, and they’ve consciously forsaken Solomon’s counsel in Ecclesiastes:
Do not be overrighteous,
neither be over wise —
why destroy yourself?
Do not be overwicked,
and do not be a fool —
why die before your time?
It is good to grasp the one
and not let go of the other.
Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.
Full of false pride and foolish arrogance, they push their flock to the edges of community life. They glory in their extremism, calling it “righteousness” and “holiness.” But for all their rules and all their self-proclaimed righteousness, these men are still susceptible to temptation. Women, especially young women, taught to trust and even revere them become targets for exploitation and abuse. A powerful Christian can have an almost Weinstein-like hold over the young women in his orbit. He starts to act entitled. He becomes an aggressor — then, a predator.
I’ve seen it happen so many times that by now I almost expect scandal when the popular, legalistic figure rides into town. My childhood church’s most charismatic pastor — an arrogant man who claimed to hit “home runs” when he preached from the pulpit — ran off with another man’s wife. Bill Gothard, a giant (for a time) in the Christian home-schooling movement — a person who created in essence a second set of scriptures to teach Christian families how to raise godly children — now faces dozens of claims of sexual misconduct from young women, including rape allegations. Doug Phillips, another powerful man in the home-schooling movement, resigned from his ministry after confessing to an inappropriate relationship with a nanny.
There are few predators worse than these powerful Christian men, the patriarchs of a creepy form of Christianity that isolates its followers from the world, often abuses women behind the closed doors and high walls of its extremist communities, and then places immense pressure on those women to remain silent. After all, if they speak up, it’s not just a man who falls but an entire way of life.
Christians — especially the most politically engaged Christians — have been so often mocked and attacked by a secular culture that despises not just the Church’s excesses but also the central messages of the Bible that we are reflexively defensive. When scandalous accusations come, we don’t want “our side” to look bad. We want Hollywood to be the home of the predators, and ours the home of the righteous. But there is no “our side.” There is only Christ’s side, and He taught us clearly that there will be good and evil within the Church. The ancient enemy attacks God’s people from without and from within. The good seed and the bad seed grow up together. There is no perfect community.
This is where faith has to trump politics. Defending predators in the Church — or going the extra mile to grant them the benefit of the doubt — for the sake of protecting a political advantage carries with it great costs. The church is already defined in the eyes of a hostile secular culture more by its quest for power than its faithfulness to scripture.
More importantly, this is where faith has to trump fear and uncertainty. We have to understand that there is no way around dependence on God. There is no formula for child-rearing. There is no foolproof guide to a happy marriage. No man can tell you how to secure your health or lead you to wealth. There is no community anyone can build that can protect its members from sin or temptation, and the utopian impulse itself can crack open the door to hell.
Roy Moore’s world is a world built on fear. It’s a world that glories in its extremes. It’s a world that’s destined for ruin, and before it goes down, it will consume and damage the most vulnerable among us — unless we end the cult of the Christian celebrity and the quest for certainty first.