(RNS) — “I’m leaving Christianity. I’m done.”
I’ve heard this from friends, relatives, readers of my books, members of my congregation and from surprising numbers of clergy. When I ask them why they’re leaving, their reasons vary, but this reason ranks near the top: “I can’t take the institutionalism.”
By “institutionalism,” they mean that a certain kind of religious professional has driven them away. I call them religious company men: those more loyal to the institution and officials in the hierarchy above them than they are to their neighbors, including their parishioners.
The 13 million-member Southern Baptist Convention has a strong network of these loyal company men, and they did a cannonball into the headlines.
A third-party investigation into Southern Baptist sexual abuse released a report on May 22 that found that church executives “closely guarded information about abuse allegations and lawsuits … and were singularly focused on avoiding liability.” Consequently, “survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored.”
In short, too many Southern Baptist executives behaved exactly as too many Roman Catholic bishops did in recent decades. When Catholics told the hierarchy that their clergy were committing sexual abuse, the leaders were more concerned about damage to “the brand” than they were damage to the victims.
Faith communities are by nature networks of minds working under a shared influence. For good or ill they operate in league with our bias toward belonging. We often entrust the leaders of our in-group with the passcodes to very sensitive regions of our brains.
Sex is a powerful way to gain and wield control over someone who has a need to belong. It is a weapon to shame, intimidate, scapegoat and vilify others. Both religion and sex, it turns out, are about trust … who we trust with our brains and bodies, who we trust with our souls.
It’s important to distinguish between vital spiritual leaders who, to the best of their ability, use their access only for the common good, and loyal Christian company men, whose loyalties are inherently divided and whose interests are consistently conflicted.
To the latter category belong a Catholic bishop or cardinal who makes decisions out of loyalty to his fellow clergy at the expense of children in his church who are being sexually abused by some of those clergy. A pastor who does not speak out on behalf of Black, Indigenous or other people of color for fear of major donors who consider any talk of racism and injustice to be “left-wing.” Board members of a Christian organization who do not properly investigate allegations of sexual misconduct for fear that bad press will result in a drop in donations.
This week, many in the Southern Baptist community are sorting through who, if anyone, can be trusted, and how to tell the trustworthy from the company men.
If you are part of a religious system that derives its invisible power from unidirectional loyalty to those above you, you should also be asking these questions for yourself. You may wake up one day to discover that you have been betrayed by a religious company man (or woman) — or have become one yourself.
We need to coin a new Latin phrase for our religious lives: Caveat fidelis, “Let the believer beware.”
(Brian McLaren is a bestselling author and activist, teacher at the Center for Action and Contemplation and an Auburn Senior Fellow. His latest book is “Do I Stay Christian?” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)