Hi and welcome back! I’ve been thinking lately about self-interest in evangelicalism, and how it shapes evangelicals’ criticisms of themselves. Whenever we encounter any evangelical who is criticizing Christianity at all, especially if it’s really good news for Team Secularism, watch for their own potential self-interest to show — and be very careful indeed in taking their criticisms as the truth. Today, I’ll show you how evangelical self-interest governs those criticisms — and the solutions that accompany them.
Gosh, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Says Self-Interest.
At first, this June op-ed’s title in USA Today looks so incredibly good-natured and useful:
Christians, let’s stop fighting each other and serve our neighbors in need instead
Aww, that sounds sweet, doesn’t it now? Doesn’t it just?
I talked about this op-ed briefly here, but I want to examine it in more detail now. It comes to us from Chris Palusky, but we won’t learn who he is until the end. His subtitle for the post runs as follows:
I can’t help thinking that there may be a correlation between Christians’ infighting and the fact that fewer people want to be associated with us.
Uh oh. This infighting, Palusky tells us, might just be affecting sales! This is a disaster, folks!
He begins in the usual way, with a story. That’s the new trend in opinion posts and blogs, nowadays. It’s supposed to grab the ol’ heartstrings. In this story, he’s touring “a local Bethany Christian Services location” with “an influential evangelical pastor in Northern California.” He uses “our” in relation to this charity, but otherwise we don’t know what his connection is with the place.
At one point, he asks this unnamed pastor,
“How can we help Christians move forward in unity for the sake of the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, despite our many differences?”
Storytime ends there.
Bad News for the Big Russian (Sycophants).
From there, Chris Palusky launches into a description of all the differences that exist between Christians and Christian flavors in the United States. Then, he cites a recent Barna Group report called “The Changing State of the Church” that made some dismal predictions for Christians — and evangelicals in particular.
He also cites that March 2021 Gallup report about how church membership has fallen below 50% for the first time since forever in America. And a LifeWay Research survey from 2017 that discovered that 66% of young adult Americans said they stopped attending church for at least a year after reaching 18. My goodness, he even reached for evangelical pastor Andy Stanley’s cringey five-point listicle from 2018 about why people totally leave church.
(We talked about Stanley’s listicle here.)
Are you noticing a trend in his sources?
Yes. All are sympathetic to evangelicalism if not completely untrustworthy due to their affiliation with it. That includes Gallup, though as we see in this 2004 Christianity Today post, evangelicals try hard to muddy those waters. (Here’s the MoveOn ad referenced by Christianity Today, btw.)
The Big Problem Here: Chris Palusky Edition.
Chris Palusky draws this much on outside sources because he’s about to offer readers what I like to call “The Big Problem Here.”
The Big Problem Here represents the biggest problem within Christianity. It is causing all of their other problems. Thus, it needs to be tackled immediately and decisively.
It seems like every Christian (especially within evangelicalism, which tends to be authoritarian) has an idea of their religion’s Big Problem Here. And as we’ll see, they all have a very particular reason for leaning into the problem that they’ve decided is the biggest problem of all.
Indeed, Chris Palusky soon tells us about The Big Problem Here in his opinion:
I am emphasizing that Christians are too often known for what we’re against, rather than what we’re for. Too often we celebrate division to show we practice the purest form of Christianity.
And that, he informs us through several more paragraphs of Bible verses, is just not really Jesus-y at all.
See, Christians’ infighting and misbehavior is causing their sales metrics to tank.
I can all but hear Chris Palusky imagining the response from his readers, just like the writer of Acts almost-certainly imagined it in Acts 2:37:
Friends and brethren, what shall we do?
Self-Interest: Why Evangelicals Lie About Their Tribe.
This op-ed by Chris Palusky isn’t anything weird in right-wing Christianity.
People outside the tribe are used to evangelicals lying-for-Jesus about the state of their tribe and its inner workings and underbelly. We know that evangelicals like to erect Potemkin village facades across the sad, dismal reality of evangelical society. And from there, we know that they pretend to be all happy-clappy. This act they perform dutifully, all in hopes of luring in unwary marks as recruits (and maybe convincing Jesus to magically make their performance their reality, as I once did).
Their pretense of happiness through correct Jesus-ing becomes, in a very real sense, a sales pitch in and of itself — just as multi-level marketing scheme (MLM) victims pretend to be wealthy and fulfilled through their scam of choice.
(Hey: it worked on them, right? Both groups’ recruiters can’t even imagine a talking point that worked on themselves NOT working on their own marks.)
Only the most desperate and most authoritarian of marks would ever want to join a group as rampantly hypocritical, dysfunctional, and abusive as evangelicalism is.
Even I knew that, back when I was Christian. And I’ve seen countless other Christians allude to the same truth. Evangelicals in particular know that if outsiders knew the real truth about them, they’d never join up.
What’s worse, they’re quite right.
Self-Interest: Why Evangelicals Attack Truth-Tellers.
Because evangelicals are so focused on making sales, nobody is allowed to talk about what really happens in evangelicalism. Ever.
That’s why Christianity Today viciously attacked MoveOn’s criticism of Gallup’s methodology and bias. It’s why Christians try so hard to silence critics online — as we saw just yesterday with our drive-by. This topic also reminds me powerfully of how evangelicals reacted to a Christian trying to tell them the truth about apologetics.
The truth cannot be tolerated.
So when we encounter an evangelical talking about any of the bad stuff going on in evangelicalism, like we saw here, the temptation is very powerful to take these utterances as the truth — and to regard the people sharing this stuff as brave whistleblowers.
Often, however, this information is not the truth — any more than evangelicals’ other declarations of happiness and harmony are. But like those lies, the ones evangelicals tell in their criticisms fulfill an important function as well. Thus, the tribe allows it. They allow it grudgingly and often incompletely, but still.
Because of all the dishonesty going on in evangelicalism, there’s a risk we run in taking evangelicals’ own criticisms of evangelicalism too seriously.
We often forget to ask why these criticisms get made, and how the critic might be benefiting from sharing this information. If they come from someone in leadership or from a demographic evangelicals feel deserve their deference, chances are very low that we’ll be hearing the full truth from them.
Self-Interest Revealed With the Solution to The Big Problem Here.
In this case, Chris Palusky soon tells us what he thinks the solution is to The Big Problem Here that he’s identified:
Unify around core commands
Just imagine if we Christians were primarily known for these action items: loving God, loving our neighbor, and serving orphans and widows. I’m optimistic enough to believe Christians across denominations, with different doctrinal beliefs, can unify around these commands.
And to him, that means joining a charity to do the kind of charity work that evangelicals approve of doing:
The need is great. Think what a great revival could break out if we focused more on loving God and caring for the most vulnerable.
At the end of our conversation, the [unnamed but powerful] pastor and I agreed that serving vulnerable children could be a unique opportunity to bring the big “C” church together.
He ends his post with a warning to anybody who might still doubt his diagnosis and solution:
The world is watching us. For the sake of our Christian witness in a challenging culture, I hope for a day when Christians can unify around loving God, loving our neighbor and serving the vulnerable.
And now, we finally find out exactly who Chris Palusky:
Chris Palusky is president and CEO of Bethany Christian Services.
Ohhh, okay. Now everything becomes clear.
Dude operates a charity that absolutely depends on donations and volunteers from the community. I’m guessing he’s always short on both.
For all I know, Bethany Christian Services might actually be a great charity. It might give real no-strings-attached help to people who need it, instead of making demands for its victims to listen to sermons and do chores to earn a single sad, iffy sandwich (as happened to a friend of mine).
But when all someone has in their toolbox is a power drill, everything in sight starts looking like drywall to them.
Self-interest may have played a major role in Chris Palusky’s opinion-formation process, and it sure seems to play a role in both his diagnosis of The Big Problem Here and the solution to that problem.
Why Evangelicals Don’t Recognize Self-Interest.
So now we come to a central question:
Why do evangelicals tolerate criticism when it comes from a place of obvious self-interest?
After all, isn’t it beyond obvious to them that evangelicals with a product to sell always seem to find time to weigh in on any topic at any opportunity if it might help them sell more of that product?
In a word: no.
In more words: Evangelicals get trained very young not to notice self-interest (or conflicts of interest). They also don’t recognize that a sales pitch is, in fact, a sales pitch, nor that an evangelical trying to sell them something is, in fact, a salesperson above all. They never learn to critically analyze the claims made by any evangelical with something to sell.
Part of the problem they’re having is that most of their salespeople operate businesses they call ministries. I mean, I’m sure they follow ministry rules. Indeed, I’m not saying they don’t. Instead, I’m saying that most ministry leaders wouldn’t be operating their ministries if they weren’t at least making a decent living from it.
But terminology like that clouds the waters for their customers. They don’t recognize stuff like “ministry appeals” and “love offering requests” as blatant sales pitches issued by what are essentially Jesus-flavored business owners who want their money. So they won’t bring any critical-thinking skills they might still possess to bear in evaluating these sales pitches and claims. It wouldn’t occur to them that a minister might misstate or exaggerate anything to benefit from the flocks’ trust.
Self-Interest: Why Evangelicals Permit Criticism From Evangelical Salespeople.
I’ve noticed that there’s a very careful arithmetic that evangelicals perform when encountering criticisms of evangelicalism.
The source of criticism must be someone in a position and demographic that evangelicals defer to. Compare and contrast with how evangelicals react when the critic is, say, a woman. They’ll dismiss criticisms out of hand if the person offering it isn’t powerful. (That’s why all that “change Christianity from within” rah-rah is nothing but cruel.)
The criticism must be very carefully worded. It can’t make evangelicals feel offended in the slightest. It can’t tackle any aspect of evangelicalism that evangelicals like — like their beloved sexism, classism, and racism. They are very easily offended, and once that happens they simply shut down. They won’t process any further information from that source.
The criticism must invoke an ideal that evangelicals will completely agree with. In Chris Palusky’s post, he pointed to the kinds of charity that evangelicals will approve of doing. He used Bible verses to bolster his case. There’ll still be evangelicals whose cruelty has ramped up so far that they’ll get offended at any suggestion that they donate to or perform any charity for anybody, sure. But most of them will agree in the main.
The critic must offer a solution to the problem described. If the critic offers no solution, evangelicals will leap upon that immediately as a reason to negate the criticism offered.
Though actually, evangelicals will take any opportunity to dismiss any criticism that doesn’t follow this format.
And Now, the Solution to The Big Problem Here.
That solution must be a fairly easy, simple add-on to whatever evangelicals are already doing. The critic’s solution must be as carefully worded as the criticism. It must involve add-on behaviors that won’t require much effort. Evangelicals won’t tolerate any suggestion of, say, voting to increase the scope and funding of their community’s social safety net, thus necessitating less demand for charity in the first place. But sending a small donation to a charity is easy and simple to do. They’ll be okay with that. Just don’t start talking about taking meaningful steps to prevent sex abuse.
The solution suggested must involve steps that evangelicals generally agree are sufficiently Jesus-y. Charity, for example, is generally an agreed-upon ideal for the tribe. They like to think of themselves as generous and compassionate, even though they aren’t — except to very narrow, exacting categories of people.
And the solution must promise to fix all the problems evangelicals face. If they will send money, then they’ll fix evangelicals’ flagging recruitment numbers. If they will buy a huckster’s discipleship seminar, they’ll fix their churches’ churn rate.
This accepted criticism-and-solution format allows evangelical hucksters an incredible amount of leeway. It’s almost like evangelical leaders developed this flow deliberately, though it probably happened organically as authoritarians shaped their own culture.
Either way, you just can’t ever un-see self-interest once you start noticing it. You’ll also soon notice that almost none of these criticisms-and-solution declarations are done by purely disinterested recorders and those with nothing to gain.
Watch for Self-Interest in ANY Evangelical Endeavor.
Every evangelical with a ministry thinks their ministry completely fixes The Big Problem Here that they’ve diagnosed. These ministers all make a lot of claims about their ministry’s products, too.
And they know very well that their audiences won’t ever critically analyze a single one of those claims.
Any time you see any evangelical leaders diagnose The Big Problem Here and offer solutions to it, I suggest we look to see what they might gain with their audiences’ buy-in.
See if you can recognize familiar names in any of their work: guest stars, dropped celebrity names, etc.
(Cuz y’all, there’s a reason why Chris Palusky didn’t name the powerful evangelical pastor in his story beyond a hint about his location. He desperately wants that boost to his authority and credibility, but either that pastor has been thoroughly disgraced (cough*John Ortberg*cough) or didn’t give him permission to use his name for publicity (ooh, maybe…?). So he had to play coy. Just trust him: a big-name pastor totes approves of his grand solution!)
Chances are, you’ll discover that these evangelical critics make a lot of claims without offering supporting evidence for those claims, use questionable, biased sources to prop up their conclusions and solutions, and then make up for any threadbare spots with friends from the evangelical crony network, Christianese, and Bible verses.
Truly accurate criticisms get rejected. Solutions involving systemic and meaningful improvements get rejected. Evangelicals have repeatedly demonstrated that they will only accept the format I’ve described here.
If that format just happens to favor those with rampant self-interest, well, obviously that’s just how Jesus likes things best.
NEXT UP: An unsurprising arrest for Dr. Dino. We may finally be finding an entry point for my planned series on Anger in Evangelical Men, who knows? See you tomorrow!
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