Is Evangelicalism Imploding?

The Netflix documentary, The Family, demonstrates the way in which the name “Jesus” has been deployed as a Master Signifier (an empty marker holding ideology together) by one of the most prominent Christian organizations. The documentary hints at a conspiracy but what it demonstrates is the replacement of doctrine and specific teaching (the organization produces its own version of the Bible, entitled Jesus, consisting only of the Gospels) with ideology. Doug Coe, the primary force behind the Family or Fellowship, understood that the work of “Jesus” was most effectively done the “more you can make your organization invisible.” Invisibility and plasticity (a willingness to welcome everyone with power into the fellowship) has made of “prayer” and “Jesus” the all-inclusive tent which has not only included every sitting president dating back to Dwight Eisenhower (all have attended the National Prayer Breakfast) but has included operatives from Russia (e.g. Marina Butina, the Russian woman who pleaded guilty last year to acting as an illegal foreign agent), genocidal dictators, Muslim potentates, as well as being connected to the crushing of organized labor domestically, and an international effort to promote “family values” (an anti-gay/lesbian agenda).  

The invisible center to the Family may be the factor which the documentary misrepresents. That is, we keep watching the documentary expecting there to be some final disclosure, some secret essence, some “it” factor to the Family. As with every ideology, there is nothing at the center other than the presumption that there is some essence which escapes full disclosure. It is the function of ideology which Jeff Sharlet (the author of the books on which the documentary is based and the central voice in the film) describes but fails to name.  In his description, the organization revolves around “Jesus” as an empty center but mainly functions as an organization of political power. The agenda of the group is to connect with, among others, “financiers and industrialists, congressmen, television industry, news industry, state governments, seminaries and churches, junior executives.” Power and influence will cover a multitude of sins – most visible in the organization’s endorsement (anointing) of Donald Trump. As the group previously demonstrated with Mark Sanford (the governor and congressman who went missing for 6 days and later admitted he was with his girlfriend) once the group decides God has chosen you, most anything goes (Sanford was persuaded by the Family not to resign and is now considering a run for president).

The film, like the Trump presidency, is a demonstration of the manner in which conservative American Christianity coalesces around an absence. Evangelicalism, with its focus on future heavenly rewards, imputed or theoretical righteousness, penal substitution, and faith devoid of works, presents the perfect empty vessel. The ethics of the meek and lowly Jesus is as disconnected from the Family’s pursuit of power as sexual purity is from Jimmy Swaggart or nonviolence from Jerry Falwell Jr. or identity with the poor from Joel Osteen.  A religion with an empty center reveals its structuring principle by what it pursues. Power, sex, money, represent the object of desire (objet petit a or the impossible object of desire), which indicates ideology reigns in place of the anti-ideology of the faith of Christ; which is not to say those in the Family understand ideology anymore than Jimmy can understand illicit sexual desire, or Jerry can understand violence and power, or Joel can understand love of money.

The Family, like the evangelicalism from which it springs, reproduces forms of idolatrous religion because it is of the same mold (nothing is made an absolute something). The presumption of a fundamental antagonism (whether between foreigners and citizens, liberals and conservatives, heterosexuals and homosexuals) means definition by opposition or by what it is not. The Family, as with evangelicalism, takes as one of its primary tenets the opposition to illicit sexual pleasure (gay/lesbian sex). Think here of Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, and the endless line of hell fire preachers condemning the lurid sex of the sinners – a sex that clearly structures their own desire. The gay/lesbian is representative of the intolerable sin in evangelicalism – the unobtainable object structuring desire. The Family has journeyed over land and sea (Mt. 23:15) to promote their anti-gay agenda in Romania and Africa.  

Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, focused on condemning homosexuality in his preaching while having a homosexual affair. When confronted with the inconsistency by Larry King, Haggard explained that Christianity is a “belief system” (not “a way,” an ethic, or set of practices) which not only takes into account but is marked by the expectation of sin: “You know Larry . . . Jesus says ‘I came for the unrighteous, not for the righteous . . .’ So as soon as I became worldwide unrighteous I knew Jesus had come for me.”[1] In this understanding, belief is one step removed from identity. The faith of Christ makes no room for desire (a way of life which takes account of embodiment) while allowing desire to implicitly structure the religion. In this sense, Donald Trump is the ideal representative of evangelicalism in that he puts on full display the transgressive pleasures his followers can vicariously enjoy. A brief but telling scene in the documentary has Pat Robertson smiling with delight as he describes the sexual exploits of “God’s anointed,” Donald Trump.

Perhaps one of the key figures demonstrating the inherent antagonism in evangelicalism and in the Family is Mark Siljander, whom I interviewed (here). Congressman Siljander made the mistake of identifying too closely with purported Family values, of welcoming everyone to the table. He describes his shift from fundamentalism to “common sense American values” and a growing appreciation for common ground with Muslims. The Family was always willing to meet with and associate with anyone in power – Doug Coe proved this in accompanying Siljander to meet Muammar Gaddafi. Siljander began to study the Koran and to restudy the New Testament, but while working to embrace Muslim leaders and declared “war criminals” in the Middle East, Dick Cheney and the Bush administration were fueling the war on terror. American religion had a new enemy.

 Siljander is one of those good (naïve?) souls who miss the inherent distance created in ideology between belief and practice. Overidentification with ideology exposes its absurdity. Like the soldier that identifies too closely with the rhetoric of boot camp – the ridiculous obscenity of “kill, kill, kill” repeated outside of bootcamp is exposed by one who misses the necessary irony. Like the patriot that too obscenely identifies with love of country (I once heard a Japanese minister describe the atomic blast over Hiroshima as the light sent from God – the obscene side of America as a Christian nation), Siljander exposed the limits of the Family version of the gospel by affirming it too strongly.

His realization that Muslims also follow Jesus and worship God came at an inopportune time. His work with “war criminals” or the new enemies of the American establishment during the “War on Terror” meant his efforts for peace were now “ties with terrorists.” As Ted Haggard explains to one of his gay lover victims, “You know what, Grant, you can become a man of God and you can have a little bit of fun on the side.”[2] Siljander missed the slippage of the ideology of “common sense American” religion and (through a seemingly contrived set of circumstances) ended up serving a year in jail due to the manipulations of those in power. The religion which primarily espouses power on the one hand cannot do without its enemies on the other.

Where the real-world engagement of Christ’s ethics, his challenge of the principalities and powers, his overcoming of death, is not put into place ideology is at work – enforcing the law, denying the desired illicit pleasure to others, oppressing in the name of freedom, creating identity by what it opposes. The Family simply illustrates the ideological nature of evangelicalism and perhaps is one more sign of its implosion.


[1] David E. Fitch, The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology (Theopolitical Visions) (p. 96). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

3 thoughts on “Is Evangelicalism Imploding?”

  1. Two outcomes of this. 1. Many conservatives are duped by the rhetoric ” the lesser of two evils.” 2. The old adage, ” power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I, for one, am through with the mindset that holds to an ideology that abandons the teachings and practices of Jesus.

    1. Good points: 1. The “lesser of two evils” seems to simply restate Paul’s formula describing sin: sinning to cause grace to abound or doing evil to establish the good. 2. Ideology always involves a wielding of power – so that to be able to follow Jesus involves a necessary recognition of how we distance ourselves from his teaching.