The cult of the Greater Cause

Trigger warning: child sexual abuse in Christian communities; clergy child abuse and cover-up.

A painted red brick wall with "CULT -->" written on it in black. There are torn pieces of a white flyer on the right side of the image.

Photo Credit: kevin dooley, cc

In working on an update on the lawsuit against Sovereign Grace Ministries, I came across a post by a pastor criticizing Reformed leaders who have defended C.J. Mahaney (SGM’s president until a few months ago). Thad Norvell, writing for GRACE – an organization working to improve evangelical response to child sex abuse and support survivors of abuse in evangelical contexts – argues that Mahaney’s defenders have prioritized being “right” and having influence over ministering to those who need it most.

Obviously, Novell and I are coming from pretty different perspectives and belief systems. But on this point he’s absolutely right. Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, and other Reformed leaders who have made a point of praising C.J.’s “integrity” as a pastor are very obviously concerned with protecting not only his power and reputation, but theirs as well. They claim they are on the side of victims. But when faced with people who have taken the risky step of coming forward with accounts of horrifying abuse and pastoral complicity in covering it up, they refuse to even entertain the possibility that C.J. might be at all implicated. Why? Because he’s their friend, and he’s been a “vast influence for good.” Translation: he’s visible and  powerful.

There’s more to say about that in a future piece, but for now I want to highlight a part of Novell’s post that really stuck out to me as (perhaps surprisingly) very applicable to feminist movements. Really, it’s applicable to any group that behaves or sees themselves as a larger community, movement, or cause.

I fear those public statements [by Mahaney’s defenders] reflect the private thoughts of men who, whether by will or ignorance, are clustering around the spoils of the proud when their calling is to be of a lowly spirit with the poor and oppressed. Even if Mahaney is a victim of some false accusations, his rush back to the platform and the efforts of his friends to protect his place at the head table ought to prompt some deep, Gospel-driven questions about how insulated some of these men seem to be from the thousands of sincere, Gospel-loving followers of Jesus they lead, formally and informally.

While the temptations to love being right, to yield to pride, and to tolerate or even celebrate arrogance are always lurking for the Church universal, I believe that they present some unique challenges among a group who assumes a vanguard identity (in this case the preservation and resuscitation of the true Gospel). In other words, in a movement where correcting error is a central task, these temptations loom large. And, when they are indulged, they easily can be mistaken for virtue and become almost self-sustaining.

The cycle goes like this: The urgency of the cause reinforces the importance of being right, which further fuels the notion that the most important people in the cause are those most skilled at being right in front of the most people. And if that is true, then those people must be protected and kept on stage at almost any cost. Question them without an air-tight case of disqualifying sin, and you risk being sacrificed for the greater cause.

Sound familiar? It does to me, particularly given the growing chorus of visible feminists and other prominent women who have been speaking to up against intersectionality – the idea that we need to take differences in identity, social position, experience, etc., into account in how we discuss and address oppression. There seems to be increasing consensus in certain pockets of feminism that raising concerns about lack of intersectionality in our analysis or activism is divisive, impractical, even just an empty trend. (As Flavia Dozdan points out, this sneering at intersectionality as “voguish” completely erases the important work of Black feminists Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, and other feminists of color in developing intersectional theory over decades.)

Let me put it in more concrete terms. When feminists raised objections that Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In has limited applications for working women (e.g., this great critique by Carolyn Edgar), that its arguments are in fact detrimental to many working women – especially women who are of color and/or working class – they were criticized by several media feminists as attacking a fellow feminist for being prominent and successful. Some white feminists told Black women that we should accept The Onion’s racist, misogynist, violent “joke” at Rihanna’s expense as serving a “greater purpose.” When popular cis feminists like Caitlin Moran and Suzanne Moore use dehumanizing, even violent transphobic language, trans women don’t get the support they should from supposed advocates of gender equality (cf leftytgirl’s post on this). Instead, they’re told not to get too angry, not to be too loud, because “feminism isn’t mainstream” and it hurts the cause if feminists disagree with each other too strongly in public.

In short, whenever visible feminist women are told by women with less visibility that their work is doing harm in some way, we’re told our job is to protect the influence of these more prominent women, to preserve their positions at all costs, no matter how much they step on others to achieve or maintain those positions. Because of the cause. Because feminism is fragile and in danger. Strangely, “the cause” doesn’t seem to obligate these same women to risk anything for the cause of defending less visible women. It makes one ask who this sort of feminism is for, exactly.

I’ve written about this before, how this notion that the most important thing is being on the right team sustains a culture that’s primarily oriented towards the needs and wants of those with the most power  – i.e., abuse culture. The same attitude that leads some feminists to tell women we should take racism, transphobia, classism, and other oppressions – which are forms of abuse  – sitting down because they come from professing feminists or people these feminists identify with? Is the same attitude that leads to people in power – whether it’s prominent feminists or pastors – choosing not to see signs of abuse because acknowledging them would cost them some of their reputation or influence.