Does Conservative Theology Empower Abuse?

Here are three things that I believe are true and that are important for honest people to admit:

  1. It is a moral travesty when religious people or organizations use their beliefs, influence, or infrastructure to hurt, control, or manipulate other people.
  2. Theologically conservative organizations have been guilty of doing this, many times, often with disastrous, multi-generational consequences.
  3. For people who believe in things like inerrancy, the exclusivity of Christ, and the necessity of the local church, the costs of using the faith in this sinful, abusive way are exponentially higher, and thus, it is a greater tragedy when it is those people who engage in it.

All these points are, I believe, completely true. You won’t find me denying any of them. As someone who was raised in theologically conservative evangelicalism, I don’t think there’s any question that all three points are correct, and further, that theologically conservative evangelicals like me should be in the business of confessing them and working accordingly.

But here’s something I’ve noticed. I’ve noticed that, for what feels like a growing number of younger professing Christians (whether they use the word evangelical or not), there seems to be a 4th statement that holds a lot of weight with them. You could put it something like this:

4. Because theologically conservative institutions and people have been guilty of this abuse, it follows that theologically conservative doctrine empowers and facilitates such abuse.

I completely reject this statement for many reasons, most of which would probably be easy to guess for readers of this blog. But what’s interesting to me is that this 4th statement is, for a lot of young religion writers, so self-evident and so important to their worldview that to deny it amounts to nothing less than an instinctive valuing of theology and ideas over human beings at best, and at worst, an ambition to likewise abuse, control, or manipulate others with our religion. Arguing with this 4th statement is almost always construed to be really arguing with the first 3. The only reason (they say) that someone would dispute statement 4 is because they’re really living in denial of statements 1-3. Either you don’t really believe that theologically conservative churches or institutions have hurt others (in which case, you’re simply in denial of reality), or else you don’t believe that such hurting actually matters.

There’s a lot going on here in this dynamic. Part of it is understandable. If you’ve been hurt by theologically conservative churches or people, it’s not hard for a reasonable person to understand why the theology you encountered in those settings might seem endemic to what you suffered. But is that the only reason this dynamic endures? I don’t think so. I think something else is happening as well, and it’s something rooted not in authentic experience, but in an ideology-driven, nakedly political equivalence.

Here’s a strong example of what I’m talking about:

https://twitter.com/d_l_mayfield/status/877246876340199424

If you read through the thread for the context, you’ll discover that what’s being talked about is a missionary who abused children, and was (allegedly) protected from exposure by people and institutions connected to his mission. Mayfield’s “main” takeaway from the story is that fundamentalism–by which she means the conservative theology of both the missionary and the people who protected him–is inherently abusive. The implication is that if the missionary or the institutions over him weren’t fundamentalist, if they weren’t all aligned together on a particular side of the doctrinal scales, such a cover up would either have not happened or else not happened to the extent that it did.

Mayfield is hardly the only representative of this belief. Almost anytime there is a scandal involving theologically conservative evangelicals, a reliable group of voices tend to make the same point, either explicitly naming Calvinism, or fundamentalism, or complementarianism, etc etc. The message is always the same: These incidents happen because people are victimized by traditionalist theologies or churches.

What’s going on here? After all, the notion seems logically faulty on its face. The Roman Catholic Church is hardly a bastion of “fundamentalism,” yet it endured one of the most widespread abuse scandals in modern history. The vast majority of abuse cover-ups do not occur within the context of any religious community, and the common factors shared by such scandals are almost always more related to power structures and financial control than to worldview. You have to assume that progressive evangelicals like Mayfield who lay such harm at the feet of fundamentalism know this. So why make the connection at all?

One theory: Attributing endemic abusiveness to theology is a handy way of avoiding doctrinal arguments, and of marginalizing theological opponents.

After all, if fundamentalism empowers and enables abuse, if it’s the theology of choice for those who want to coerce and harm others, why on earth would you need to spend time figuring out if the Bible really says what the fundies claim it says? Why waste precious seconds thinking about what’s true when you can know for certain that those who believe opposite of you do so for nefarious, ulterior motives?

This is precisely what I mean when I talk of things like “polarization.” The essential characterizing of polarization is not that people disagree with each other. It’s that they use such disagreement as the grounds for attributing the worst possible motivations to those on the other side. You don’t need to be told how often this happens in politics. But it happens a lot in theology as well, and especially in a culture that increasingly prioritizes personal narrative and “my story” as the only authoritative touchstones for knowledge and truth.

Engaging both Scripture and the world honestly means allowing for two things. First, all human beings are sinful and, apart from preventative grace and normal means of restraint, all of us tend to seek our own good at the expense of others. This is a Christian doctrine, not a challenge to it. The idea that people in our theological, political, or social tribes are somehow less prone to this tendency, or the idea that those outside our tribes are more prone or are somehow inevitably given to it, are both heretical ideas. There is no hint in Scripture that people who know the truth are automatically more holy because of it. In fact, Jesus taught something close to the opposite.

But a second thing is also true. Objective truth is real, and human beings who behave wretchedly are not automatically wrong about everything they believe because of it. “The people who believe this hurt me” is not, in fact, an actual evidence against an idea. It’s only evidence against a person. We all live beneath our  best ideals, and this fact does not actually mean our ideals are false. This is why “fundamentalism empowers abuse” is not only wrong, but deeply deceptive. It implies that a theology’s truth claims are irrelevant compared to how its practitioners behave. It’s true that the world knows we are Christ’s because of our love, but that doesn’t mean the world will know who Christ is because of it. There are realities above and beyond our daily obedience of them.

Again, the three statements I laid out at the beginning are totally true, and I believe them. We have to humbly accept our own failures, and those of our tribe. But statement #4, while increasingly popular in a “post-evangelical” age, is not honest thinking. It may engender a lot of empathy in a narrative-oriented age, but its fruit is merely polarization and shoddy thinking.

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