How Moral Immaturity is Taking Over Evangelicalism

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Authoritarianism has become a major characteristic of white American evangelicalism. We hear story after story of how leadership in major evangelical institutions has shifted to be more conservative, bullying professors and pastors to leave their jobs if they do not agree to the conservative views of the leadership – a stance that is stridently anti-gay, anti-women, anti-science, pro-gun, pro-war, and pro-torture. Let’s pause on that last one. Evangelicals are more likely than any other religious group to support torture.

That makes me ashamed to be an evangelical. I am not alone in this. There are a great many evangelicals who feel that this type of “evangelicalism” represents the very opposite of what they believe in, the very opposite of the values of Jesus. Many of us have felt compelled to leave the church, out of moral protest, and what we feel we are leaving is a toxic and abusive environment. That’s why when a church gets a fog machine and lights we still don’t want to come back. What’s needed is a moral overhaul, not a better entertainment system.

While the rest of society is moving forward, evangelicals are behind on pretty much every moral issue of our day. Not in a passive way, but actively opposing that moral progress. We are seeing major movements in our society towards reducing violence, towards civil liberties for all people, towards caring for the needs of the disadvantaged, towards human rights, and the largest group who is actively engaged in fighting to stop this moral progress on every front is evangelicalism.

So we basically have two evangelicalisms. One is the evangelicalism that I grew to love. It was an evangelicalism focused on cultivating a relationship with a loving God, on knowing “the father heart of God.” It was where I learned about grace, and how being unconditionally loved opens your heart to love others with that same kind of open hearted grace and compassion. It as an evangelicalism where you sang with all your heart, with hands stretched high to the heavens out of gratitude for that love. An evangelicalism where you wanted to share this good news with the whole world. It was an evangelicalism that I associated with joy, deep friendships, and abundant life. Maybe that’s an evangelicalism you knew, too.

Then there is the evangelicalism that people associate with being intolerant, judgmental, angry, sexist, homophobic, and Islamophobic. It is an evangelicalism characterized by fear and hostility, which then responds with authoritarian violence and coercion. That’s why it supports police brutality, pushes for laws with harsh criminal punishment as well as laws that restrict civil rights, endorses torture, and cheers when politicians promise to indiscriminately carpet bomb their enemies. As much as I wish I could bury my head in the sand and insist that this ugly and immoral evangelicalism is not the “real” evangelicalism, it is very real, and very much a major force in our world with great political and economic influence, not to mention popular support – not a majority thankfully, but a significant and very vocal and engaged minority.

Why do people support it? Because of fear. Feeling threatened leads to hostility. This is characteristic of low level moral development. A child, when it does not get what it wants, will go to whining, hitting, and screaming. That child will justify their actions saying things like “that’s not fair!” This all comes naturally to children, it comes “pre-installed” so to speak. It’s cooperating, being social, and resolving conflict that they need to learn. When a person does not learn this, and retains the simplistic black-and-white, us-vs-them-thinking characteristic of a child, this is moral immaturity. It is a low-level morality that has been stagnated or retarded. Unlike children, morally immature adults are not cute. They can also do a lot more damage than a little child can, especially when they are in positions of power – morally immature pastors, politicians, and CEOs.

Being a morally immature adult is of course not exclusive to evangelicalism, to Christianity or even to religion. There are lots of morally immature angry black-and-white-thinking atheists, just as there are loving, thoughtful, compassionate, morally mature atheists. There are also thoughtful, compassionate, morally mature evangelicals. I hope I can count myself in their number. But as a morally mature evangelical, I do think it is important to recognize that my beloved evangelical faith can and does act to give religious cover, providing justification and sanctification to morally immature people.

Indeed, morally immature evangelicalism typically wraps itself in scriptural justifications, and claims to represent orthodoxy and tradition. It claims to represent the good, and genuinely believes that it does. That’s why Hollywood’s negative portrayals of religious conservatives miss the mark when they paint them as just plain mean “bad guy” characters. Moral immaturity is sincerely trying to be good, but does so in a way that hurts others. That’s what immaturity looks like. The key difference between maturity and immaturity is that maturity is complex and social. Children therefore need to learn to develop into social beings, learning empathy and the skills to maintain relationships – as do morally immature adults.

Likewise, a morally immature evangelical is not always angry and judgmental. The complex reality is that they can be deeply loving in certain situations, while being angry and hostile in others. Just like a child can be wonderfully loving... right before they throw a fit. As any parent knows well, children can be little angels, and little monsters. They are both. That is, again, characteristic of immaturity.

It’s understandable why immature evangelicals react as they do with hostility, but we do them a disservice when we let their aggressive and hurtful behavior take cover, saying their hurtful actions are due to being “passionate” or having “zeal.” The Apostle Paul knew about that kind of “zeal” first hand, but came to regard that very zeal as his greatest sin. When Paul repented, he was not repenting of breaking a commandment. He boldly claimed, in this regard, that he was “faultless” (Philippians 3:6). Yet he nevertheless came to regard himself as “the greatest of all sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15) precisely because of the harm resulting from his religious zeal.

Those of us who are morally mature evangelicals need to know how to articulate what a morally mature faith looks like in action, drawing from those same scriptures and traditions, in order to demonstrate that one does not have to choose between a morally immature faith or rejecting one’s faith altogether.

Moral immaturity is not focused on the self, but on the in-group. It is not me-focused, but rather it is us-focused. It is us-versus-them, whoever that perceived “other” is. In contrast, Jesus continually taught people to expand that circle, saying that the way we treat those who we regard as “the least” is how we treat our Lord, teaching us to care for the beggar, the outsider, the stranger... even going so far as to tell us to love our enemies. This is the very height of moral maturity, which is focused on growing ever more social, focused on the ministry of reconciliation, the mending of broken relationships.

It is only when you begin to practice this that you learn that the tools of moral immaturity – the tools of yelling and hitting, of coercion and force, building higher walls and dropping more bombs – are simply ineffective when our goal is to make for peace and work to reconcile. Those who are immature cannot see this. To the morally immature, true strength, the strength to compromise, forgive, and work together is regarded as weakness. They gravitate towards authoritarian leaders who they see as strong and bold. But those who are mature can see that this “strength” in fact reflects an utter ineptitude in regards to solving problems, working with others, and resolving conflicts. We have a word to describe a morally immature person who has grown big: They are a bully. Being a bully is not strong or admirable or brave or moral.

The more we become versed in the way of reconciliation, the more we see how ill-equipped the means of moral immaturity is at achieving this. It only knows how to build walls, not how to build bridges. That’s why it’s so important that those of us Christians who support nonviolence do not simply regard it as a statement about what we won’t do, about where we draw the line, about what is forbidden. This is often where the conversation stops. But it needs to go beyond what we won’t do. Nonviolence also needs to be about how we actively work to make things right, how we act to resolve conflict and mend relationships. For example, it’s one thing to say you are against adultery. Big deal, pretty much everyone is. It’s quite another thing, however, to be able to provide a couple with the relational tools to walk the difficult path beyond betrayal, and towards re-building trust together. Forgiveness is not simply about overlooking a wrong, it is about learning how to reconcile. Learning how to do that is what moral maturity is all about.

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At 8:09 PM, Blogger StillThinking said...

This is one of the results of segregated church and xenophobia: this indicates a fear of the loss of control.

At 9:55 PM, Blogger Owen said...

I've left the evangelical name behind me .. I don't like the association as it is

At 6:08 AM, Blogger SteveO said...

This was oh so good, making me yearn for a body of people who think this way. Even more insidious are the politically shrewd who manipulate behind the scenes, "They smile in your face, all the time they want to take your place, they're back stabbers." Even though they don't exhibit blatant immaturity, it's still an act of aggression.

At 9:26 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes there's a long history of that within evangelicalism. It's related to the idea of starting new branches of Protestantism, but rather than branching off into Methodists and Baptists etc, in the late 20th century Evangelicals started speaking of being a "free" or "non-denominational" church, then that shifted to speaking about a "relationship with God not religion" and calling oneself a "follower of Jesus" rather than a Christian, and so on.

The danger is of course that when we disassociate ourselves from the more morally immature (and frankly embarrassing) members of our group, we give the impression that our church is different from what it actually is. It becomes a kind of "marketing strategy" where instead of facing the problem and working to solve it on the inside we do "damage control" so we appear good to the outside.

So I totally relate to what you say, and am pretty much in the same boat. But these are the questions I ask myself.

At 10:03 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes, David Gushee speaks of "white American evangelicalism" in order to differentiate it from other types of evangelicalism in the world.

At 10:08 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Can you say more? Maybe an example?

At 8:41 PM, Anonymous Howard said...

Hi Derek ... I think there are deep theological issues involved here. For instance: is it that much of a leap from believing in eternal conscious torment to believing that torture can be justified? ... And doesn't a lot of this have to do with the character of God as He is portrayed in many evangelical churches: unyielding, unchanging, wrathful? If you worship a God who acts like an authoritarian are you more likely to embrace authoritarianism? In my mind, these are scary questions.

At 9:42 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes, that's true. Augustine in fact made that exact argument when he advocated torturing the Donatists. That paved the way for the Inquisition which employed the same logic. It reflects a very sick understanding of God that is rooted in fear not love, and the fruits of what worshiping that "god" speak all one needs to know.

That is not God. God is love. God is Jesus.

At 10:12 AM, Blogger Brettany Renee Blatchley said...

It was nice to see these things articulated, things that I have encountered personally through the years:

I did not grow-up in the church, so when I came to Christ as a young adult, it was very much as a morally-sensitive skeptic. It was Jesus that I saw in people that brought me into relationship with Him, and I followed these people into a conservative branch of the Church. I had a dim, but growing awareness of many of the issues discussed in this article, yet I *somehow* allowed some of this toxicity to poison my own soul...

...This really came to a head when God helped me realize that *I* am one of those people so many in the Church have been taught to hate. Soon after, I was traumatically "othered" by the Church quite like my parents had been when my twin died in infancy.

Much of the conservative, Evangelical branch of the church is violently against people like me. I am thrice-excommunicated, labeled "exceptionally evil" and "profoundly perverted." Why? Because I am a winsome person who dared to become herself: a woman of transgender experience. Much like the man born blind in John 9, God has chosen to heal me through the *scandal* of my gender affirmation. He did this to display His power, grace and mercy; it has been (and is) a faith exercise for me, yet not *only* me: but everyone that I meet...

...God has chosen for me to be one plank in His bridge between the Christian and Transgender communities. I am a paradox to my fellow believers who cannot believe that I have a vibrant, spirit-filled, loving relationship with Christ - yet they see Jesus in me. I am paradox to my beloved fellow trans folk, who cannot believe that I am in-love-with a God whom they are told despises us to tortuous destruction - yet they see Jesus in me also. Together with my spouse of nearly 27 years, God is glorified as people see us working through our impossibilities, and they (often) decide to let God work in their impossibilities also.

So, now, I step-back-into some of the mess that I was expelled-from/exited, as a catalyst, an agent of God's provocative love. I connect with congregations as "just" an ordinary Christian woman, but because I live "simply open," the fact that I am a woman of transgender experience becomes apparent in God's timing and way. Then the people with whom I have built a relationship of mutual-vulnerability, are faced with their traditionally-hostile views and the warm, compassionate, godly woman they have come to know. Some people double-down and express hatred, whilst others prayerfully rethink what they thought they knew and come to embrace my complexity; in this faith-excercise, no-one is left unchanged.

I share all this because I think it is acts like this (within each individual's life-context) that God can use to help His more rigid and timid children forward in Christlikeness.

Active Vulnerability says "I will risk being hurt in order that I may be a blessing in your life."

Abandon yourself to God (who has your back) and when in doubt, do the kind thing.

Blessings & Joy!!


PS) While I have been rejected by many believers, I have been warmly embraced by many other believers. (Yet not only me, but also my spouse who has suffered nearly as much for staying with me through all this.) Throughout these transitional years, I have grown closer to Jesus, falling-into-love with Him, even as my attachment to the "local church" has waned. Currently, we are *blessed* to be a serving part of a local Presbyterian congregation in whom we see Christ abundantly.

At 11:51 AM, Anonymous Paul S. said...

Derek, I'm not sure that moral immaturity is the cause for the shift in Christian culture. I recently finished an excellent book called, One Nation Under God, by Kevin M. Kruse. The book traces the evolution of the movement you describe from its start as a movement to combat the New Deal social welfare policies of the 1930s. It was and is a political as much as a religious movement to get out the vote around issues like abortion, "handouts" for the poor, prayer in schools, immigration policies and gay rights. It's funded by some very wealthy interests and its churches are also large (or aspire to be) and relatively wealthy. Intolerance and self-righteousness sell as well in 21st Century America as they did in first Century Jerusalem.

Truly following Jesus is hard and doesn't sell well with those who provide financial support most churches. How many churches actually preach what Jesus taught about money and wealth? How many churches actually practice loving thy neighbor when your neighbor comes from the other side of the tracks? That kind of preaching isn't popular in most congregations and won't bring in the donations from wealthy church members needed to send the pastor's kids to college or fix the church roof.

Recently I was trying to recruit people to read with first graders in the elementary school of our small Texas town. More than 80 percent of school's kids qualify for free or reduced price lunch and the median household income in our town is about $26K, which is half the US average. We have 75 kids who are reading below grade level and there are four of us volunteering an hour a week to read with them. I wrote a letter to the local paper describing the need and citing Luke 10:27 and the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I also wrote to the pastors of the six largest evangelical and main line churches in the community asking that the need be announced in their church bulletins. Only the Episcopal Church agreed to help. The others ignored repeated requests for help. We still have four reading buddies.

Several months ago, an elementary school student wanted to pray at the school's flagpole. Her teacher wouldn't let her leave her classroom to do that and wouldn't leave the class to accompany her. Her mother wrote about the incident on Facebook and it was shared more than 60K times. A week or two later, several hundred people showed up at the school to pray at the flagpole. We're also putting In God We Trust on our town's police cars. I'm sure Jesus is shaking his head at all this.

What's going to change the situation? You need to keep writing (I've read Disarming Scripture and Healing the Gospel several times) and the "walking with Jesus" preachers need to keep preaching. The early Christians grew the faith by living the love of Jesus and it can happen again.

At 12:24 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

Hi Derek- very apropos article for the current climate we find ourselves in politically & religiously. I would like to see you do a few posts tackling something you mentioned in this post. Many conservative evangelicals think & feel they are following Christ, seeking truth & being loving in the positions/actions they take. Certain interpretations are very deep-rooted which go back centuries. One example I know is that many hold firmly to antihomosexual views because of the language used by Paul & in the OT. I would like to see you take on the places where Jesus can appear to be black/white and judgmental in His teaching and how to bridge the gap more. Hopefully some with conservative views that you speak of read your blog. Thanks for always challenging us to work through issues and not settle for the status quo.

At 7:22 PM, Anonymous Terrillu said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. If you haven't watched/listened to them yet, I recommend Tim Jennings' "God and Your Church" seminar on free DVD or streamed at The second part is on The Seven Levels of Moral Decision Making and includes thoughts on authoritarianism in people and the Church.

At 8:53 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

" I'm not sure that moral immaturity is the cause for the shift in Christian culture. I recently finished an excellent book called, One Nation Under God, by Kevin M. Kruse"

Paul S,

Couldn't it be both? If people seeking power want to easily manipulate the masses, what better means than to keep them at a submissive, fear-based, childish state of development? That's what Marx referred to as the "opiate of the masses"

At 9:21 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Tim's a great guy, and a friend. Here's a link to that video.

At 9:56 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Thanks for sharing that. It's a very powerful and beautiful testimony. As I read, what occurred to me is that what you are doing is evangelizing. Not the yucky kind of evangelism where you hand someone a tract that tells them to turn or burn, but the kind of evangelism that is done by letting people see the love in you, and having that love work to transform their heart. That kind of evangelism is beautiful, and it works with everyone... it works to convert the hard-hearted atheist, and it works to convert the hard-hearted fundamentalist Christian too, because it cuts past all our ideology and goes straight to the heart. I find it kind of awesome, in terms of poetic justice, that the one's who have reminded the evangelical church how evangelism actually works are our LGBT brothers and sisters.

Your story also really hammered home for me how important it is for all of us that we learn to accept that we are loved, and that there is nothing we could do to make God love us more (or less). We are, right now, loved by God. Next to that, everything else is secondary. Without that, nothing else works, and when we have that, everything else falls in line. I wish we could all learn that.

At 8:53 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


The main thing is to learn to read like Jesus does, which is characterized by faithful questioning rather than by unquestioning obedience. When we read Jesus with "unquestioning obedience" we read in a way that is contra to his approach to scripture. In other words, it is not enough to simply have an alternate approach to certain texts (like the ones you mention as sounding "black and white") but more broadly to have a completely different approach to how we read scripture that is not characterized by black and white law-based thinking (which is characteristic of low level moral development), but rather to approach it in a nuanced and thinking way, which is characteristic of the high moral development that is characteristic of Jesus.

At 11:28 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Beautiful, simply beautiful.
This is how the Kingdom works.
Thank you.

At 1:16 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

Derek- entirely agree with you. I just wanted to bring out points of contention which hardline conservative believers would have and since they don't appear to show up here in comments I wanted to see your responses to their interpretation of Jesus where He comes off being black/white. For instance, Jesus says those who are not with Him are against Him. In Hebrews it says Jesus is the only mediator between God & man. In Revelation it says those whose names are written in the Lambs Book of Life will be with Him and those who don't will not. I have one person in my circles who believes hell is the result of God being just because of His perfect holiness, so without Jesus providing His salvation, all would be lost. I would just like to see you expand on responding to these points ina more extended way so as to engage in conversation where the rubber meets the road with those who believe this way. On a side note, you mentioned contra, why not iran?? Lol I have been watching the eighties on cnn so couldnt resist :D

At 7:37 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

What an article! Thanks for taking the time to write it.

At 9:59 AM, Blogger theFlakes said...

Great article again.

I left Fundamentalism for Atheism due to Fundamentalism's self-contradictory nature. It is a dogma built on quicksand. With my personality type it did a lot of damage to me that I still struggle with and why I will not let my kids go to any "conservative" church. There just isn't room there for someone with an incessantly questioning personality. And, especially when you are a very naturally trusting person that incessantly questions, that is a recipe for mental and emotional anguish. I always thought that because my elders were, well, older they must know more than I. It was a very painful realization that they either never looked into these questions or just avoided them out of fear, dismissing them, well because they have to be wrong for them to be right.

I'm still unsure if there is a God but I do believe in enemy love, reconciliation, and forgiveness. These are the hard answers we so desperately need, of that I have no doubt. But with all that said I still can have a very visceral reaction to anything I see as motivated by Fundamentalist dogma and I don't want to. Most of my extended family is lost in this dark "hard questions and answers avoiding" thinking. I have a hard time with relationships to begin with so this just piles on. So, I get trapped in that us vs. them thinking too often.

Are there any books out there or anything else you can recommend for working through this to a better degree? I'm sure I'm not the only one who struggles with this, so hoping this can help others as well.

At 8:24 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


What I hear you saying is that you find yourself triggered when interacting with extended family who are fundamentalist, and as a result you find yourself responding in a way that is defensive and reactive and "othering."

It helps me to understand that this emotional response is something physiological. When we get triggered it's the brain's way of reacting to a perceived threat. In this case the threat is emotional. That physiological response literally shuts off the pre-frontal cortex which is the seat of our social and moral brain. Being triggered like that is likely a response to bad experiences.

The question is, how can we recover from that? How can we re-wire our brain to not be reactive like that? How can we rise above it, feeling sovereign and secure in who we are and what we believe in and value? The good news is we can re-wire our brains... it's called neuroplasticity.

What really helps in this is having another person who you can work through this with. It needs to be someone who is comfortable with where you are at -- which is complex. You describe yourself as an atheist, yet you also believe in Jesus-y stuff like "enemy love, reconciliation, and forgiveness." That's a combo that will make fundy-Christians and fundy-atheists uncomfortable. So what you need is someone, maybe a Christian, maybe not, who can embrace who you are in all its complex totality, and help you work through that without feeling a need to convert you (either to Christianity or to secularism).

What you need to do is process things, working through the places you got hurt, delineating and clarifying where you now stand and what you believe, where you differ and what you may still share in common. This needs to be done in an accepting and safe environment. The goal is to not be so enmeshed with the old you, which leads to you being quickly sucked into feeling bad and triggered when you around your fundy-family, but instead learning to be secure and sovereign in who you are.

Maybe you have a friend or spouse who can help you do that. You might even consider finding a good therapist who can help you do that (my wife is a therapist, so I may be a little biased there, but they can do a world of good).

At 8:42 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


The trouble is one needs to begin with certain assumptions. If a person is beginning with morally underdeveloped assumptions, then I can't discuss specific passages before we are on the same page, and beginning with morally mature assumptions.

When one speaks to a child who is, due to their developmental level, unable to understand certain complex realities of life, one simply cannot communicate certain things. They are simply not capable of understanding it. Similarly, a person who is a "hardline conservative believer" is equally unable to hear until they can grow into a more mature and developed way of thinking.

I wish there was a shortcut around that, but there simply isn't. Can't build the house without first laying the foundation.

Now, if you said that you wanted to work through those sort of things, that would be very different. Then we could have an open conversation about that, digging into the details of how we can understand these passages... But it would need to be seeking to understand for yourself. It won't necessarily translate into something you can use to convince a "hardline conservative believer" friend, for precisely the reasons I outlined above.

At 7:31 PM, Blogger Gordon Hackman said...

When you say that the rest of society is progressing morally, I'm curious where you are getting the standard for what counts as moral progress? Can you unpack that some more?


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