Too Much Faith Following the Wrong Leader
My friend and fellow Ordinary Times contributor Michael Siegel posed the question to me while we were editing his excellent Yom Kippur piece: “You rarely mention it, but I get the feeling that faith is important to you as well. I hope you’ll write something on that subject at some point.” I considered this seriously, as it is something I think of often anyway. My friend, writing partner, and long-time editor both at OT and before, Em Carpenter, inevitably cajoles me to write on faith when she gets the frequent “I don’t know what to write about” whine from me.
The thing is, I already do.
It’s in everything I write, everything I tweet, everything I think and ruminate and pontificate about when it comes to current events, politics, and the culture at large. Even if I do not label a certain piece with a religious or faith-based heading, the thinking and principles of what I believe are the girders holding up whatever else I am doing. Faith is one of the filters I, like many other folks, view the world through. Twenty years of studying religion and theology not just because I like it, but also academically, hasn’t moved me too awfully far from the faith of my fathers. Or at least their faith since dad’s side of the family wound up on team non-Catholic of the Catholic-Protestant split the family went through at the start of the 20th century for reasons no one seems to remember. What is known is that the Youngstown, OH contingent goes to mass and still spells our shared last name differently to this very day while the West Virginia clan enjoys a more laissez faire approach to religion that is heavy on the pot luck and easy on the rituals our Catholic cousins. My own faith journey is mostly failures, a few successes, and a whole lot of falling short in the middle that mostly instructs me to mind my own business about trying to tell anyone else how they go about their spiritual matters. Such things are between a person and their God, and if either of those two ask my input I’m happy to help out. Otherwise I practice my right to worship how I see fit, and do my utmost to make sure everyone else has the same.
Faith is important enough to me to utilize it in the best way I possibly can at this stage of my life and journey: constantly, without talking about it very much. Think of it as walk softly and carry a big spiritual stick, but the stick is called discernment and is used just as much to ward off people who claim to be of faith as those who are openly against faith.
Which is why when I read things like this, that filter of faith starts catching some things that it tells me shouldn’t pass through without further scrutinization.
There’s a void in evangelical culture. Scholars have discussed Evangelicals’ attraction to strongmen and their attempts to make men fulfill their God-given gender role, but Evangelicals currently lack the leaders needed to defend their values and help men be manly. Focus on the Family, Promise Keepers, and the more recent Young, Restless, and Reformed (YRR) movement have all attempted to revive traditional masculinity among young evangelical men.
Strongmen—like President Trump— embody traditional masculinity. They also act to spread it among their followers. Evangelicalism has lacked the patriarch it needs to direct the lives of its young men ever since YRR’s most prominent pastor, Mark Driscoll, fell from grace. But then Jordan Peterson came along.
Where to even begin with that.
With all due respect to the authors, there are several premises there that become an interlaced mess of bad assumptions right off the bat. But to be fair, I’m probably not the target audience since while I am restless, I’m not Reformed, and despite my best efforts I am now too old to die young. I dislike the term “evangelical” even though under the traditional definition of the term, I is one. Mostly, I couldn’t care less what Jordan Peterson thinks about anything, and have yet to find anything profound from him that comes anywhere close to matching the drooling adoration some folks seem to have for him telling them stuff they should already know. When it comes to modern discussion on “masculinity” I hate to break it to the folks who spend tons of time on the interwebs debating it, but being a “man’s man” or “manly man” or whatever silly wording you want to use for the bare minimum of social conduct and interpersonal skills you are going with, such effort is a lot like defining leadership or jazz: if it has to be explained to you, chances are you aren’t going to understand, much less appreciate it or apply it to your life, anyway.
Actually, as you were…I know exactly where to begin with that.
The problem here isn’t current flavor of the moment Peterson, who carved out a following among people desperate to follow someone like him, or people who followed Mark Driscoll till his abuse of staff scandal, or folks who follow and support President Trump. It’s that folks think their belief system always requires conformity to a figurehead, and absent one they prioritize finding a new one over working on themselves.
Whether it is Evangelicals chasing after the hot new thing in Christianty, or politicos latching on to the shiny new object running for office, or the ideologues drilling down on their issue of choice, playing follow the leader instead of discerning the times is a dangerous business. Following the wrong leader is a universal human problem.
That is not to say leadership isn’t important. Leadership is vastly important, and the old adage that everything rises and falls on leadership is undoubtedly true. So is having the ability to follow a leader who knows things, can manage things, and has proper authority over you. There is a reason why, when someone arrives at basic training in the military, the very first things they are instructed on are where to stand, how to stand, how to get in line, how to follow the leader of the line, and the orders of those leaders. It’s important to have some good order and discipline to whatever enterprise you are about.
And therein lies the dangers — and the opening — for the Driscolls and Petersens and Trumps of the world. Many among us, whether they would admit it or not, would rather just take the orders and follow along with someone who says the things they want to hear, or fits into their current perception of the correct grouping, or seems like a really nice herd of people to graze through life with. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, as humans are made with a natural desire for a social structure and belief system to function in.
Which is why that faith filter becomes important to me. Not everyone who claims to have the same faith, beliefs, and ideas as I hold dear, does. The folks who get uber excited by the folks who are great on YouTube and TV talking head shows might want to sit down for this part — not all of them have your best interest at heart. In fact, most of them couldn’t care less. Faith helps me be healthily cynical when one of those “strongmen” shows up and starts espousing buzzword flavored nonsense, or worse, things that are so common sense basic that people who find it profound are revealing more about themselves for thinking it so than than their new-found sensei’s supposed mastery of life.
That sort of following the leader, blindly on assumptions based on feelings of the devotee instead of discerning the methods and intentions of the leader, is the kind that leads to trouble, leads to defending the leader because they have become a proxy for the self, and leads to an inability to see anything that might disturb the peace and tranquility of staying in line. Slapping a religious or political label on something does not a thing make, and just because you think a leader is doing something good because it sounds good doesn’t make it so.
That faith filter is a good reminder of my own failings, my own frailties, my own hypocrisies, and that every leader is a human being with the exact same issues. Reminding ourselves of things higher than human authority, longer lasting than human memory, and bigger than the temporal issue of the moment is a good way to keep the tunnel vision from leading right into an oncoming train, instead of the hoped for light at the end. Especially when some of our leaders, both secular and religious, like to use faith to try to shine on the masses to their needs, not so much ours.
There is nothing wrong with follow the leader, as society to an extent is built upon it to function correctly. But pick your leader carefully, and know when to step away from the line that is only following the leader because they are “the leader.” Especially if the leader feels the need to constantly remind you that they are the leader, and how important their leadership is, and how badly you need them. The leader who needs to constantly remind you that they are in charge, isn’t, and is telling themselves that for their benefit more than you. It’s one of the early warning signs that should be heeded that a leader isn’t all they are purporting to be, a blinking light telling you that something isn’t right. Believe them.
Otherwise you wind up in a place where you are discussing culture and politics from the wilderness with no one but fellow acolytes around to hear you, having no idea how you marched into the middle of no man’s land in the first place.
Because then, you are truly lost.