Compassionate Christian authoritarianism: The leftist utopia the right thinks will save the church

The compassionate part only serves to make authoritarianism more palatable

Published August 12, 2023 8:00AM (EDT)

Trump supporters pray as they await the arrival of President Donald Trump at Latrobe Airport on September 3, 2020 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
Trump supporters pray as they await the arrival of President Donald Trump at Latrobe Airport on September 3, 2020 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Last week, The Atlantic published a plan to reverse Christianity's decline in popularity. But there is a problem with what Christian author Jake Meador proposes: is that it is the same old conservative Christian patriarchy that caused the decline — only in disguise.

Meador starts by observing:

"Nearly everyone I grew up with in my childhood church in Lincoln, Nebraska, is no longer Christian."

I also spent most of my life in Lincoln, and I also know a lot of people there who are no longer Christian. Judging by our mutual friends on Facebook, some of the ex-Christians Meador knows are the same people that I know. I wonder if he talked to any of them about why they left Christianity?

Rather than draw on the experiences of any of those actual people, Meador writes about the hypothetical experiences of a couple of "composite characters" from a forthcoming Christian book called "The Great Dechurching." These composite people are busy with childcare, work, or friendships that take up their Sunday mornings. Yet, they want to attend church, Meador assures us. Because the book isn't out yet, we can't examine the social science that this assurance is supposedly based on. We must accept on faith that "a typical evangelical dechurcher" is someone who would be going to church if they could. Meador appears to assume that, aside from a few victims of abuse, people don't have a problem with church itself. They simply cannot find the time to attend.

This isn't a new idea. Back in 2000, the book "Bowling Alone" documented a reduction in in-person community involvement of all kinds – bowling leagues, churches, labor unions, etc. – starting in the US in the 1960s. The pressures of work and childcare are one explanation that the book found for this decline. It is no surprise that, like other community organizations, churches continue to get squeezed out of the public's dwindling free time. The fact that this is happening to Christianity in particular is not newsworthy.

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But, the simple inability to schedule time in a church pew doesn't explain why Meador's childhood friends rejected the Christian religion entirely. They could have kept the faith in their hearts and homes, but they apparently didn't. For someone who wants to forestall Christianity's decline, Meador says remarkably little about why these people left.

To his credit, Meador does acknowledge that abuse survivors have an understandable reason to leave religion. "Numerous victims of abuse in church environments can identify a moment when they lost the ability to believe, when they almost felt their faith draining out of them," he writes.

Conservative Christians already control the state's social safety net. They choose to let the needy suffer. They are not going to suddenly build a well-functioning safety net — much less a Marxist utopia — if their religion takes even more power over people's lives.

Abuse does explain a disturbing share of deconversions. In 2021, the Nebraska attorney general uncovered credible allegations of the sexual abuse of hundreds of children in the state, and speculated that many more were abused but not discovered because of a cover-up in which "those in authority chose to place the reputation of the church above the protection of the children."

Still, victims of abuse aren't numerous enough to explain the mass outflow of people from Christianity. Meador can comprehend an acute crisis of faith following the betrayal of abuse. He's also aware that many people give up belief less dramatically, "less like jumping off a cliff and more like driving down a slope." Yet he puts forth no idea of their motivations to stop believing.

However, the reasons people leave religion have been investigated.

In a cross-cultural survey in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality published in 2022, people most often explained that they outgrew religion intellectually, or that they rejected it because of problems like sex abuse scandals, hypocrisy, and hatefulness toward particular social groups. Similarly, in an online survey by Baptist News Global, the most popular initial reason for leaving American Christianity was the religion's mistreatment of LGBTQ people. Other common explanations were the bad behavior of believers, the religion's lack of intellectual coherence, Christianity's obsession with politics, and its maltreatment of women.

Speaking with the ex-Christians in my social group in Lincoln, I've heard these same explanations many times. Yet I have never spoken to anyone who attributed their deconversion simply to their busy schedule. Nor do the surveys record this as a common reason.

The sexism and homophobia that often drive people away from the religion are the very reasons that Christianity appeals to Meador. In its mission statement, Meador's blog is "committed to Nicean orthodoxy as well as the orthodox teachings of Scripture and the church concerning sex and gender." He is a "complementarian," a Christianese word for sacred sexism. Like the "separate but equal" regime of the Jim Crow South, complementarians pretend to regard men and women as equal while also saying (and doing) things that plainly treat women as inferior. His blog is full of typical reactionary material on gender, pining for the days "when our country still knew what marriage was and what men and women are" and opposing divorce.

To justify these beliefs, conservative Christians sometimes claim their paternalism protects women and children. But it does not. In July, a 26-year-old man in Lincoln was charged with posing as a 17-year-old high school student using a fake birth certificate and other "incredibly well-crafted, fraudulent documents." Zachary Scheich faces two counts of sexual assault and one count of sex trafficking of a minor, having allegedly solicited sex from school children as young as 13. Scheich is a pastor's son. His father, Jeff Scheich, preaches at Christ Lincoln, a multi-campus conservative church that excludes women from leadership. Pastor Jeff advocates for "conversion therapy" of gay people; his denomination regards gay relationships as "intrinsically sinful."

I do not blame Jeff Scheich for the allegations against his son; this situation would be a nightmare for any parent. Instead, I bring up these events as a demonstration that moralizing against gay people and women does not work to keep vulnerable people safer. Someone raised with these conservative sexual beliefs may go on to commit horrific acts. This example is not particularly unusual — it just happened to be the example that occurred in Lincoln during the same week that Meador published in The Atlantic. Consider it a snapshot of the dysfunctional Christianity that Meador calls us to embrace.

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Rather than fix the prejudices that plague Christianity or address the abuse that he acknowledges but quickly discards, Meador has another suggestion:

"A healthy church can be a safety net in the harsh American economy by offering its members material assistance in times of need: meals after a baby is born, money for rent after a layoff. Perhaps more important, it reminds people that their identity is not in their job or how much money they make; they are children of God, loved and protected and infinitely valuable."

As his ideal of this safety-net church, Meador picks a small Bruderhof religious commune in New York where, he writes, "members do not have privately held property but share their property and money." The Bruderhof movement prohibits divorce, same-sex relationships, and all sex outside marriage. I'm sure the enforcement of these rules is simplified when the rule-makers have total control over all property. Laws against divorce were historically easy to enforce before women could have independent finances.

He writes that churches are in decline because they "aren't asking nearly enough" from people. Meador wants Christianity to become a full-immersion experience. He imagines this ideal church lovingly caring for people's needs — and incidentally exercising considerable financial and social control over people's lives.

He tries to make it sound cozy: 

"What is more needed in our time than a community marked by sincere love, sharing what they have from each according to their ability and to each according to their need, eating together regularly, generously serving neighbors, and living lives of quiet virtue and prayer?"

Of course, "each according to their ability and to each according to their need" is a famous saying of Karl Marx. Meador's anti-capitalist feelings come through when he complains about how work takes people away from church. What he doesn't say in The Atlantic – but does say on his blog – is that he's also opposed to capitalism because it causes women to work outside the home. He says paid labor is "hostile to life, care, and the design of women's bodies" because it gives women something to do other than bear and raise children. The utopia he appears to want is actually a misogynist dystopia.

I don't think I need to explain that Marxism is pretty unpopular in Nebraska. The state's conservative Christian voters are conditioned to use the words "socialism" and "cultural Marxism" as the ultimate insults for anything that seems progressive or tolerant. The power structure they elect is extremely capitalist and brutally Christian. Nebraska's governor, Jim Pillen, is an agribusiness multimillionaire who thinks transgender people represent "Lucifer at its finest."

In May, Pillen vetoed millions of dollars of social safety net spending from the state's already "austere" Republican-drafted budget. This includes cuts to Medicaid, rural housing assistance, a gun safety study, child welfare spending, and reductions to a program to provide court-appointed advocates for children who suffer abuse.

Hence, conservative Christians already control the state's social safety net. They choose to let the needy suffer. They are not going to suddenly build a well-functioning safety net — much less a Marxist utopia — if their religion takes even more power over people's lives. Much the same is true in all red US states: they each have a highly Christian government that hates taking care of people's needs.

Meador proposes a seemingly-compassionate Christian authoritarianism. The compassionate portion of his proposal will never be implemented. It can only serve to make authoritarianism more palatable. It only appears compassionate if you overlook its sexism and homophobia. To be charitable to Meador, perhaps he does not realize that no real-world conservative Christians will ever follow his advice. Nonetheless, he proposes a false bargain: cede power to conservative Christianity, and in return, get a promise of a social safety net that Christianity will never deliver.

I'm not sure why The Atlantic chose a sexually conservative Marxist to represent the future of American Christianity. But they're not alone; in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the New York Times ran an essay by a conservative Christian woman who argued that outlawing abortion will help to bring about a compassionate, feminist Christian society that truly cares about women and children. But her proposal has the same problem as Meador's: powerful conservative Christians have never actually shown a willingness to create the compassionate policy that she suggests.

These authors are promoting nothing more than the Christian patriarchy that Republicans on the religious right have long promoted; they've just decorated it with leftist ideas like Marxism and feminism. Their musings are as substantial as a late-night bull session in a college dorm room. Their only proposal to reverse the decline of Christianity is to do even more of the stuff that drove people away.

By John Skiles Skinner

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Christianity Commentary Jake Meador Religion Russell Moore