The Cost of Craving Power

A cautionary tale.

Once upon a time, there was a group of Christians who found themselves in the wilderness. I will call them This Group. And in the wilderness, that place of deprivation and longing, The Tempter is extremely powerful.

Prior to being in the wilderness, This Group lived in the villages, just like other Christians and everyone else. They won some culture battles and they lost some skirmishes. In a democracy, experiencing both winning and losing is in the nature of things.

Sixty years before the present, This Group hated politics. But when they lost the right to treat Black Americans as unequal, at the voting booths and in the schools, they joined the political fray to protect a way of life. Then when they witnessed rebellions in the streets over racism and protests against a devastating war, they rose up to become law-and-order super patriots.

When women claimed the right for control of their own bodies, and some other groups of Christians championed that right—along with support for racial equality and the end of the unjust war and of American claims to innocence—This Group roided themselves up into culture warriors.

Quote from Henri Nouwen which says, "What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life."For nearly 30 years, This Group’s political power grew and grew. They stoked a movement. They built legions of institutions, with loads of money, purposed to influence everything from homeschooling curriculum to local elections to candidates for federal judgeships. And they were wildly successful. They tasted the strong drink of being in power. They loved the feeling.

But then along came a new regime, led for the first time in history by a Black man. Although he was a Christian, he was not of their brand, and they refused to think of him as other than Other. The new regime leader paid less attention to this group than any regime for the previous 30 years. The leader supported legislation that affirmed civil rights for persons who identify as LGBTQ+. This action, along with many others, plus the feeling of rejection, incensed This Group.

In a few short years, This Group of Christians imagined they were sitting in sackcloth and ashes in the wilderness. They longed for a return to their previous privileged position and to taste power again.

Remember, The Tempter is most powerful in the wilderness. Each time in history some group of Christians sought more power to rule, they found an eager ear in the wilderness.

This Group of Christians had experienced the wiles of The Tempter before, in previous (and shorter) visits to the wilderness.

Once The Tempter said to the leaders: “I will give you tremendous wealth, I will build for you the biggest churches the U.S. has ever seen. I’ll increase your market share. You will become the new mainline.” The leaders liked what they heard, but were, of course, suspicious.

“Why? What’s the catch? What do you want from our success?”

“Nothing, not now. Maybe later, you’ll find some way to thank me.”

The leaders took that deal, a deal premised upon a confusion between faithfulness and numbers. But, oh, the numbers were the envy of many other Christians and the darling of media and social surveyors looking for what “true believers” think and do.

“Not now, but maybe later, you’ll find some way to thank me.”

So, it came to pass after about seven years of sackcloth and ashes and fearing their movement to preserve a patriarchal, white-dominated, Christian way of life that The Tempter came to influential men in This Group of Christians.

“It is time for me to receive my thanks, but I’m going to give you even more to thank me for. I know someone who is an ideal candidate who will lead a regime that will forever put you in power. You will never again suffer in the wilderness. You’ll be defended by federal judges, in the halls of Congress, in the most powerful office in the land. You’ll once again be able to live the lives you want to live, free from an intrusive government, free from immoral relationships. You’ll love the ‘two-eyes-for-an-eye’ standard of justice this leader will exact on all your enemies. He will do all your dirty work. You will dominate the morality of everything from the courts to the culture to family values policy more completely than you ever have before.”

The leaders of This Group were feeling a bit tipsy but still had their wits about them enough to ask, “And what does all this cost us?”

“Ah, well,” The Tempter chuckled. “Here is the trade-off. You can’t have all this power without giving up something, right? If you but give up your principles, if you but sacrifice your integrity, if you forget about character and simply look at the results you want, you will have the power to spread your religion and conquer all others. None of your secular, liberal, or false-religion enemies will ever threaten you and yours again. I can give you a greater good in exchange for these lesser goods. If you want out of this wilderness and a guarantee from me that you’ll never return here, take the deal. Drink the power.”

The leaders of This Group talked. For the sake of the power to protect and advance their story about Christianity and the nation, their sense of who belongs and who does not, and their moral order, they took the deal.

“You won’t regret it,” The Tempter said to them. “I give you my word. And, I might have neglected to say: this deal will cost everyone who calls themselves Christian a little something. Reputation. Integrity. Soul. But I know you’ll love your new abode. Now, let’s drink that power.”

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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