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Why Christians Bond With Corrupt Leaders
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Why Christians Bond With Corrupt Leaders

When we drink the water, we sometimes forget its true source.

One of my favorite things I do in my professional life is appear once a month on the Holy Post podcast. The podcast was founded by Phil Vischer (creator of the legendary VeggieTales franchise) and Skye Jethani, and my once-per-month appearances are called “French Fridays.” I always enjoy the conversation, but this month’s edition is particularly good, and definitely not because of me. It’s because of Skye. 

We were talking broadly about the Christian community’s persistent connection to corrupt leaders (inspired by this remarkable Vanity Fair profile of Jerry Falwell Jr.), and Skye used a brilliant biblical analogy, one that explains both God’s mercy and our very human tendency and temptation to bond with the wrong people.

The story comes from the book of Numbers, Chapter 20. As a bit of background, the people of Israel, led by Moses, were in a wilderness with no water, and the people were angry at Moses. God then gave Moses explicit instructions: “Speak to the rock while [the people] watch, and it will yield its water.” 

But Moses, angry at the rebellion against him, revised God’s instructions. He gathers the people and says, “Listen, you rebels! Must we bring water out of this rock for you?” Then Moses struck the rock with his staff. 

Moses defied God. Yet here’s the fascinating part. The water came out anyway. The people drank. Their livestock drank. They were saved from thirst.

Moses, however, wasn’t spared from the consequences of his disobedience. God barred Moses from ultimately entering the promised land—a severe and painful sanction for the great prophet who led his people out of Egyptian bondage.

Now, what does this have to do with men like Jerry Falwell, Ravi Zacharias, Mark Driscoll, or Joe White (leader of Kanakuk Kamp) or any of the Christian leaders—great and small—who’ve been shown to be corrupt or who’ve failed in profound and harmful ways? I’m certainly not putting Moses in their category. 

Instead, the analogy is simply this—members of the communities and institutions they lead can often genuinely benefit from their ministries. They’re like the people of Israel drinking the water, even when the water springs forth from a disobedient spirit or a prideful heart. 

Suppose you’re one of the countless thousands of students who went to Liberty after its Falwell-led financial rescue, and that you emerged with strengthened faith and deep friendships. Or perhaps you remember a dark night of the soul when you doubted whether God was real, and a Ravi Zacharias YouTube video rekindled your faith. Or perhaps you’re a young man who listened to Mark Driscoll’s tough talk, and it inspired you to grow up and become a better husband and father. 

As for a camp like Kanakuk? I believe those folks who say they look back at their time there as some of the most joyful and impactful days of their lives. 

But here’s the reality: We often fail to distinguish between God’s love and mercy for us and God’s approval or favor or endorsement of the man or woman who built the institution or delivered the message. 

God loved the people of Israel—the very people he’d rescued from slavery—and he wanted them to drink water. He didn’t want them to die of thirst. But Moses still had to face the consequences for his disobedience, and God’s consequences, though painful, were just. 

It’s the most human thing in the world, however, to bond with the person whom we believe was instrumental in transforming (and sometimes even saving) our lives. Note how Moses says words we often hear from those who magnify their own power and influence: “Must we bring water out of this rock for you?” But was Moses bringing the water? Or was God? 

The origin point of genuine rescue and meaningful life change is always clear. The book of James declares, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” (Emphasis added.) 

Yet it’s very easy to attribute to man what comes from God—or to place loyalty to any particular man as a special instrument of God. We have our favorite writers, our favorite speakers, and our favorite musicians. I know I do. Read or listen to me for any length of time and you’ll start to see a pattern of Tim Keller, Russell Moore, and Beth Moore references, C.S. Lewis quotes, or music from a pretty small universe of (awesome) artists. 

But I try to remind myself that while I can and should be grateful to each of these individuals for their courage or insight or wisdom or integrity, I know the ultimate source of each of these attributes. That’s where my real gratitude lies.

Now let’s filter that natural inclination to trust or follow people whom God in His mercy has used to bless our lives through our fallen nature and our fallen times. At the risk of oversimplification, I tend to see the same roughly three-step pattern repeat itself time and time again.

Step one is already outlined. It’s the leap from receiving a benefit or blessing through a person to granting them excessive appreciation or loyalty. A sure sign of excessive loyalty is extending trust to a man or a woman in a way that you wouldn’t extend it to anyone else.

One of the most remarkable and deeply distressing aspects of both the Falwell and Zacharias scandals is the extent to which the leaders lived with a permission structure that the ministries didn’t grant to others. Falwell openly lived a life that violated the so-called “Liberty Way.” If he’d been a student, he’d have been suspended many times over.

Zacharias was permitted to retain his personal technology and refuse investigators access to it in the midst of an investigation into profound sexual misconduct. Imagine a lower-level employee exhibiting such defiance. 

The Kanakuk story is one of the most infuriating and heartbreaking stories I’ve ever read (let alone reported). Thanks to the protection of senior leadership, a charismatic sexual super-predator operated at the camp and in the Kanakuk community for years in spite of waving red flag after red flag, including multiple reports of inappropriate nude activity with children. Senior leaders still haven’t been held accountable for their breathtaking and catastrophic recklessness. 

Step two is when the personal becomes tribal. The leader becomes an avatar, a representative of us and our community. The difference from step one can be subtle, but it’s still profound. It’s the turn from saying, “I have loyalty because I’m grateful to this man” to “I have loyalty because he represents me.” 

This temptation is particularly profound when Christians feel (and are constantly told) that they’re under cultural siege. A savvy, corrupt man can exploit the resulting reflexive defensiveness with the greatest of ease. “When they’re coming after me, they’re really coming after you.”

It is in fact the case that many Christians face criticism not because they’re corrupt but because they are culturally and theologically out of step with powerful people and powerful institutions. I’ve spent more than 30 years of my life defending people of faith from attacks on their liberty that are rooted not in any real misconduct by my Christian or Jewish or Muslim clients but rather in profound hostility to their underlying beliefs. 

That’s not the sole reason for critique from the outside world, of course, but the sense of unfair attack is pervasive nonetheless.

A siege mentality leads to step three: the refusal to hear criticism from the outside and crediting critique only from the inside. In part because of my three-decade experience defending religious believers, I’ve been prone to make exactly that mistake. Other people saw who Mark Driscoll was well before I did. Other people saw who Ravi Zacharias was well before I did. I often considered the source of criticism (hostile media, angry bloggers) before I considered the substance of criticism. 

That’s on me, and I regret it deeply.

But then here’s where step three gets most insidious. In a sufficiently tribal environment, all criticism ultimately becomes “outside” criticism. If secular media critiques Christians, then that’s of course outside. If an Evangelical critiques Christians—even a theologically orthodox Evangelical who has been part of American Christian culture his or her entire life—then that’s betrayal. And traitors are the ultimate outsiders. 

You see that pattern again and again. As I outlined in my story about Zacharias, the treatment of my friend Ruth Malhotra, the ultimate insider as the ministry’s public relations manager, was brutal once she started asking hard questions about Zacharias’s conduct. And our story about Kanakuk contained this truly haunting bit of evidence:

In deposition testimony and in a memorandum from counsel, a Kanakuk mother told the story of an additional disturbing incident. Her daughter, a young Kanakuk camper, told her mother that she saw Newman intimately touching a young male camper. She told her mother, “Pete is gay, he likes boys my age.” She added, “They aren’t who you think they are.” The mother called the camp and reported her daughter’s story. 

The mother testified she got a call from a camp representative who said the camp had completed its investigation, had talked to Newman, and invited her to talk to Newman as well. Then the conversation took a strange turn. The camp representative also allegedly expressed concern over whether the daughter who reported Newman’s conduct “had a heart for Christ” and said, “she’s just not athletic enough for our program.”

Talk to virtually any victim of abuse within the church. From the moment they report misconduct, they almost always experience deep alienation, suspicion, and even outright anger. They’re immediately cast “outside.”

So we have our answer to the question that’s asked time and time again: “How did this go on so long?” We give man credit for God’s work, we start to see ourselves in that man’s tribe, and we wall ourselves off from all the outsiders (and cast insiders to the outside) when they do or say anything that could disrupt the deep bond between man and movement.

Christians are not the only community that’s vulnerable to these temptations. I’m describing not just a religious process, but a deeply human process. Every single step I’ve outlined above is perfectly normal and—especially in the moment—can seem not just rational, but imperative.

It’s a constant pattern in partisan politics, for example. It can be extremely difficult to get partisans to hold their side to the same rules they apply to opponents. I can remember being infuriated (heck, I’m still not really over it) at Democrats’ incredibly vigorous defense of Bill Clinton in the face of documented, heinous allegations of mistreatment of women. 

And partisans of all stripes are often allergic even to true statements if they come from the “wrong” sources. I highly recommend reading Ruy Texiera’s outstanding essay called “The Fox News Fallacy.” The fallacy is “the idea that if Fox News (substitute here the conservative bête noire of your choice if you prefer) criticizes the Democrats for X then there must be absolutely nothing to X and the job of Democrats is to assert that loudly and often.”

Christians are not a special, better class of person. We’re normal people, but we’re normal people to whom God has delivered a high moral call. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, is one of the most profoundly challenging declarations of moral purpose ever uttered. Thank God for His remarkable grace, because I fail to achieve that standard every day. But the call still remains. 

My brilliant colleague Jonah Goldberg often talks about the distinction between an understandable phenomenon and a justifiable one. An explanation is not the same thing as a justification. We have to be aware of and confront many of our natural inclinations and temptations. That’s the first step to changing a culture that has bonded all too many well-meaning men and women to leaders who do not merit their trust. 

One more thing …

Good Faith had its first guest! If you’re Evangelical or Evangelical-curious, and you listen to podcasts at all, chances are you’ve either listened to or heard about Mike Cosper’s outstanding podcast chronicling the rise and fall of Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church. 

We brought Mike to our pod not to rehash the story but to discuss the lessons learned, and to explore why the story so obviously touched so many people’s lives and hearts, including those who’ve never even heard of Mars Hill or Mark Driscoll.

It was a great conversation, and Mike is a great guest. You can listen (and comment) at The Dispatch, or you can listen and subscribe at Apple Podcasts and everywhere else podcasts are found. 

One last thing …

Let’s try something completely different and fun. Imagine you hear a cool song in a video game. Then imagine you google the lyrics and find out that they’re the Lord’s Prayer in Swahili. Then imagine you hear an incredible South African choir perform that same song. That’s “Baba Yetu,” a song written for a video game that glorifies God. Will wonders never cease?

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.