What Makes the Church Uniquely Corruptible

I’ve known one (almost certain) murderer in my life, and he was a missionary. I won’t go into the details here–the case was never subject to any legal system, and therefore there is no way to prove it–but it was widely assumed in my circles that he was indeed guilty of that crime.

It’s not surprising to me that a missionary could be a murderer, not at all. I have seen and heard and been privy to multiple cases of Missionaries Behaving Badly. Nor is it surprising to me when a wad of cash is found in a mega-church’s walls or when an independent investigation finds a massive, decades’ long cover up of hundreds of cases of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches or when those same investigators find that a former SBC President–someone whose name is very familiar to me as a big booster of missions–sexually assaulted a woman or that a large, well-known evangelical camp covered up multiple cases of sexual abuse or that a prominent evangelical university did the same or that a famous evangelist abused multiple women all around the world….the list goes on and on and gets longer it seems by the day.

Nor is it particularly surprising to me that upwards of 70 percent of white evangelicals apparently will follow one of the most corrupt, amoral, narcissistic political leaders I’ve ever witnessed to the very gates of hell. I am a student of African dictatorships, by the way, and I can tell you the only thing they have over Donald Trump are fewer institutional restraints. That is a key point, by the way.

No, the only thing that surprises me is evangelicals’ continued self-delusion. They still don’t seem to realize that, yes, they, too, are human, and even with Jesus living in their hearts, they can be fallible and wrong and abusive and even criminal. It’s because of their faith, in fact, that they trust themselves, their leaders, their institutions, and their fellow Christians far too easily. As a result, I honestly think they are uniquely susceptible to the kind of corrupt leadership and power networks that plague humankind.

Political scientist Brian Klaas’s book Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How it Changes Us does not deal much with religious cultures and institutions, but it certainly has a lot of lessons for the American church. If it would be open to learning from a secular source, of course. Which I find it usually isn’t, another point of vulnerability.

After reading the book, it dawned on me that white evangelicalism is basically designed to elevate the worst people, and frankly, it’s by God’s grace that we don’t have more abuse in the church. Or that he hasn’t just smitten all of us with lightning already.

Let’s go through the key weaknesses, applying Klaas’s findings.

Evangelical spaces have extremely homogeneous accountability mechanisms and leadership pools. Hey everybody, meet Patriarchy! It’s a fun, easy, “biblically-ordained” way of excluding half the population from any kind of leadership or oversight position! And it works about as well as you’d imagine! Add to that a massive lack of racial diversity in most religious organizations, and you have yourself a recipe for more corruption. As Klaas demonstrates, birds of a feather in fact do flock together, and in a flock of same-feathered birds, they will be far less likely to hold each other accountable. Multiple studies have shown that including women in leadership and incorporating other kinds of diversity bolsters accountability. Studies have also shown that women are far less corrupt leaders, but it’s not because women are more moral than men (Really? Are you sure?). It’s because it’s historically been much harder for women to get and keep power, and women are more often surrounded by people not like themselves and therefore are held more accountable.

In addition to having internal racial and gender homogeneity, white evangelical culture is increasingly culturally insular and even hostile to the outside world. There’s a view that not only are secular folks less moral, secular “wisdom” has nothing to teach the people of the Book (which is why there probably won’t be a Brian Klaas book club in many evangelical spaces). These days, evangelicals not only keep to themselves in their churches, they have their own schools, universities, books, music, movies, health insurance companies, counseling centers, etc. Evangelicals love to solicit other Christian businesses and professionals (look for the fish on the sign!) Growing up evangelical, I did not have a single close non-Christian friend until graduate school. There is also increasing hostility to secular scientific, medical, legal, historical views among evangelicals (see their response to the COVID pandemic, climate change, critical race theory, etc).

But looking at Klaas’s arguments, as well as recent events, it’s clear that the church would benefit from outside, unbiased accountability. It’s no wonder that the SBC required a professional, secular consultancy to finally begin to deal with its sexual abuse problem. Likewise, the church has too rarely involved the justice system as a check (and even now, evangelicals are crying foul at the Justice Department’s involvement in the SBC case). One of the big issues I observed on the mission field regarding accountability was that it was entirely too easy for offenders to slip through the gaps between American and foreign legal systems. That likely murderer I knew? He was whisked out of the country just as the local police–who frankly lacked the skill and integrity themselves to properly investigate and charge him–grew suspicious, and the mission board did nothing further to seek accountability after his return to the US.

Bottom line is, insular, homogeneous communities are notoriously bad at accountability, and it’s hard to get more insular and homogeneous of a community outside a full blown cult than white evangelicalism.

Secondly, evangelicals tend to be predisposed to follow the worst people. As Klaas demonstrates in his book (as do American politics) human beings in general can be really piss-poor judges of character and leadership. Klaas roots it in evolutionary biology. In past, more brutal times, people looked to the biggest, strongest, most ruthless people to lead them as a defense mechanism. In our more civilized era, we are still too often attracted to such people and too often willingly choose them, especially in contexts in which a tribalist mentality dominates. We want the most ball-busting, rule-bending, mean-tweet-sending leaders so our tribe will win, not the most enlightened leaders who will guard the common good and maintain fairness. In my long experience with Kenya, I have always marveled at how such lovely people, even when given more democracy, continue to put terrible leaders in power. The answer has sadly come down in large part to tribe. Now in America, increasing tribalism means our leaders are increasingly awful.

There are literally no more tribal people in America than white evangelicals. As I mentioned, they continue to build ever-higher walls around themselves, and they are ever more convinced they are living in apocalyptic times that require them to win at all costs. And how do you win? Well, these days it unfortunately seems more are choosing a subversion of normal democratic practices and, at times, even violence. But in more apolitical, more purely religious terms, it’s all about the numbers. How many souls you can win, how many churches you can plant, how many books you can publish. In other words, you need some pretty expert salespeople if American Christianity is to survive. And thus, the charismatic, dynamic megachurch pastor was born. Evangelicals are drawn to the people who can win the most souls.

Now, not all megachurch pastors are corrupt narcissists. Some of them are lovely people. But the setting and format–where thousands of people are literally hanging on your every word, where you believe you are literally saving the world for God–is certainly attractive to a narcissist. And, if you enter evangelical stardom a humble servant, you’re not likely to stay that way, as Klaas also demonstrates. He shows that, while it’s hard to definitively prove it, most evidence shows that power IS corrupting, especially as it promotes selfishness over empathy, removes the powerful from the ordinary and well out of reach of accountability. You don’t have to be a megachurch pastor to enjoy the star treatment, either. Even the pastor of a small flock might be susceptible, due to the spiritual authority–which carries far more weight than worldly power–inherent in the role. Missionaries are also susceptible, both because of the unquestioned adulation evangelicals tend to give them, but also due to the elevated position they often enjoy in the cultures in which they serve.

Ultimately, though, the flock gets the leaders and role models they want. And evangelicals want heroes, winners, crusaders, warriors, and other super-human archetypes to lead them so they can claim victory over the secular culture.

In addition, in an age of waning relevance and dominance–when many of their own children are walking away–evangelicals crave certainty above all. Once again, the salesmen/holy warrior types have the edge. They ooze confidence in their own rightness and in that of their evangelical world view. There is very little doubt or introspection that is going on here, either in the leader himself or in the community he represents. We humans in general love leaders who charge confidently into the breach. “Show us certainty in the face of uncertainty and we’re sold,” writes Klaas. For evangelicals, who believe that the souls of all humanity and the very future of the world are dependent on their rightness, certainty carries even more of a premium.

In a related point, evangelical culture offers narcissistic leaders a ready-made, grab-n-go toolbox of manipulation. Klaas actually discusses religion in the context of pre-modern accountability. Believing an omniscient, omnipresent, wrathful God was watching you at all times and could smite you at any moment provided some good restraint at a time before the rule of law. But Klaas doesn’t really get into what history has also proven, that religion is also a highly effective way to control other people and accumulate power. It’s honestly so easy to deceive and manipulate highly religious people because their code is already cracked. They give it to you right up front, in a neat little book in many cases! So convenient. Their highly certain, rigid belief system is discouraging of critical thought and questioning. It’s also full of shibboleths, cultural practices, programs of belief and political opinion, and litmus tests that can be wielded like weapons by narcissists to assure followers they are God’s chosen people and to discredit those who don’t go along. There’s a wrathful, omnipotent God waiting to smite folks, alright, but he’s on OUR side!

Patriarchy is one such religious nuclear weapon, as it reinforces hierarchy writ large and effectively and preemptively keeps the likely victims of such systems in their place. As demonstrated in the SBC abuse crisis and attacks on female leaders like Beth Moore, if you couch the abuse of power in terms of God-ordained leadership or calling, if you carpet bomb everyone with simplistically-interpreted Bible verses, if you label critics as heretics, if you use the right language, if you hitch your wagon to some higher cause–the SBC loves to use The Missionaries as an excuse for the lack of transparency–you can get away with almost anything.

Lastly, evangelicalism typically scrutinizes the wrong people. Klaas demonstrates how many organizations misguidedly save the their most stringent accountability mechanisms for people whose behavior matters the least in real terms. For example, you might have a company surveilling their line employees use of email while the CEO embezzles money with impunity. Writ large and more metaphorically, this is exactly what evangelicalism does. It is obsessed with the sins of “the world,” what everyone “out there” is up to. For example, the relationships and families of consenting gay folks or the bathroom usage of marginalized trans folks. Within the church, the Eye of Sauron is on the attire of women, or whether or not their roles are properly submissive. Meanwhile, the call is coming from inside the house. If the evangelical church goes the way of the dodo, it won’t be because of “the homosexual agenda” or leggings-clad women. It will be because the church abused power and joined forces with those who do and did too little to police itself and too rarely contemplated its own sins.

And ultimately, that is what makes ANY of us corruptible. It’s when we think we aren’t. That’s one thing Christianity–REAL Christianity, not this absurd nonsense that most evangelicals are doling out–has going for it. The love and grace of Christ should allow us to look honestly at ourselves, full-on, not in self-hatred or abject guilt, but with wisdom, awareness, and honesty. And to look at others with empathy, compassion, and respect. Our worst fear should not be that we fail to win. Our worst fear should be that we fail to love. And the leaders we choose should live and serve and work out of that frightful thought.

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