Musings of an Ethnomusicologist on Unrelated Topics

Trump’s 81%: The Rise of Authoritarianism in Evangelical Culture

Two years ago, I experienced an off-putting event.

I was slated to give a paper on the evangelical church movement I study in Seattle at a conference hosted by Fuller Theological Seminary’s Seattle campus. Mars Hill, the church I study, was in the middle of a highly public series of scandals at the time, and Mark Driscoll, the church’s charismatic founding pastor, had recently announced his resignation.

A week in advance of the conference, I received an e-mail from the organizers that, in sensitivity to the scandals and upheaval, my paper panel would be abruptly cancelled. They believed that any criticism of the church would seem like unfair provocation. Because scholarly culture does not generally function this way (the academic world may have its exclusions and orthodoxies, but preserving the right to represent academic work, regardless of the winds of the present era, stands as paramount), I was outraged and, frankly, shocked that my colleagues’ and my work–based in years of careful research conducted months and years in advance of the unraveling–would be suppressed at the whim of protecting the remains of this church’s sullied reputation.

In fact, this looked an awful lot like censorship.

The censorship would continue, growing personal. I wrote a post on my private Facebook wall about the incident, using fairly general terms, but explaining the incident as an aberration to the expected conduct of an academic conference. In response, I received a private message from the conference organizer–newly a Facebook friend–asking that I take the post down. I did not.

The panel was later reinstated (though half the contributing members refused to participate on the grounds of unprofessionalism). Yet this incident, though fairly minor, shook me. This was the first time the highly controlling culture inherent in American evangelicalism would come to touch my work.

In my research, I have seen outsized versions of this same thing at Mars Hill. Mars Hill produced, especially at the end, a culture that had little tolerance for dissent and critique, especially of its leaders. Average people were disempowered from shaping church culture in all kinds of ways, not least of all due to an ecclesial structure that minimized and eventually shut out their input and participation. In sixteen years, their founding “bottom-up” church governance model would consolidate twice. Initially, in 2007, it consolidated from a near 30-member elder board to a small “executive board” that could overturn any elder board decision. The church would consolidate leadership again in 2012, leaving only 3 people with any legal power or organizational oversight.

Member power was managed on the discursive level, as well. Leaders defined member criticism of leadership as ‘divisive rhetoric,’ sharply censoring it and asking it be kept ‘between individuals’ under veil of secrecy. From the pulpit, leaders even discouraged congregants from discussing the scandals with friends or writing about church issues on social media. If critique did get out, this was evidence of satanic forces at work to divide the church and compromise its mission. To paraphrase Mark Driscoll, either you “got on the bus, or got run over” by it.

‘Unity’ was thus achieved by coercion and intimidation. Often enough, critique and dissent led to retributive excommunication and shunning. For instance, in the very public incident of Mars Hill’s initial leadership consolidation in 2007 (which established a small board of directors who could usurp any decision-making by the larger elder board), the two pastors who voiced public dissent were kicked out of the church, the story spun internally to benefit church leadership and malign the dissenters. The day he fired these two men, Driscoll preached a sermon on submission, framing dissent as sin. Leaders encouraged members to shun these men and their families, and the families report that their whole social universe collapsed in the wake of this event. This is a well-documented abusive incident. And this was one of many.

These actions were also broadly supported by many–though certainly not all–of Mars Hill’s members and subordinate leaders who ranged from parroting the official line to remaining invested in the sinking ship. Some secretly dissenting leaders (who I talked to personally) thought they might be able to use their inside institutional knowledge and perceived power to patch the holes, only to find themselves thoroughly powerless when facing down a structure that had systematically divested them of any real, effective power.


I don’t know the degree to which Mars Hill is typical, so–dear reader–I invite you to read this through the communities in which you might be a part. The “evangelical church” is a broad and varied phenomenon, weaving in and out of denominational structures. Henceforth, I will speak generally of the majority-white, American, non-denominational evangelical church, with all of this consolidated under the term “evangelical” (with all the problems therein), from the vantage point of Mars Hill going forward, but know that such generalities may not hold in all circumstances.


This week, Donald Trump stands as President Elect, and is already using his platform to malign dissenters who speak out against him and his growing band of cronies. For instance, a few days ago, VP-elect Pence attended the play Hamilton where he faced a statement of concern by the actors and was booed by the audience. In response, Trump took to Twitter to call for the theater to be a “safe space,” demanding the actors apologize. He is bringing critique to Alec Baldwin who satirized Trump on Saturday Night Live. Meanwhile, Trump is running rough-shod over democratic and discursive norms, bringing his children to state meetings, refusing to divest of his business interests, and maligning the press–all through the lens of the most virulent racism, nativism, and misogyny we’ve seen in a public figure in my lifetime.

My concern for the growing influence of Trump is augmented by the fact that I’ve seen all of this before–the marriage between outsized power, secrecy, shut down of free speech, consolidation of power, and reduction of citizen participation–in American evangelicalism. Indeed, I see the stories in my experience ‘in the fold’ of the evangelical church as portending the rise of Trump, whose strong authoritarian streak seems not at all to alarm American evangelicals who overwhelmingly supported him–81 % of white evangelicals saw him as the “lesser of two evils,” with many rejoicing in his rise.

So this leads me to believe that evangelicalism has normalized authoritarian leadership structures that may well lead us like sheep to the slaughter into the undoing of American democracy.

We ought to see these parallels as indicators of evangelical Americans’ likely continued support of Trump, should he and his regime slowly reshape American institutional structures in the image of these churches: that of autocratic fascism. Given the typical reach of evangelical pastors’ ecclesial power, evangelicals have grown used to conditions where the average person holds little or no real institutional power, and where little or no real oversight constraining leaders’ power exists.

Some might say that church leadership has always functioned like this. While many figures have abused their office in the past, institutional church structures did include checks on leader power, either from above (the Catholic Church, Episcopal Church, etc…) or below (the Presbyterians and Congregationalists, etc…). Presbyterian polity, for example, is a prototype of American constitutional democracy. The latest chapter in American church history has seen a rise of an entrepreneurial church model where few checks and balances exist, or can be easily dismantled by the ruling few.

Evangelicals are thus not positioned well to recognize, much less question or critique, expansion of Presidential power. The norms of non-denominational evangelical culture lead me to believe the average white Christian will follow Trump into autocracy, even waving a flag as he out and out demolishes democratic principles like free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, Presidential term limits, the intertwining of his business success and exercise of governmental power, and the increased dynastic role of his children in the affairs of both sectors. They are accustomed to these dynamics, usually learning them as theological orthodoxies.

It isn’t helped that the white evangelical church is built on deeply-held, operationally foundational implicit and explicit racism, religious supremacy, and misogyny (that undergirds its two key positions to restrict abortion and LGBTQ rights) that limit congregants’ engagement in solidarity movements and caring for the needs of the most vulnerable. That is a post for another day.

But I think authoritarianism in the evangelical church is among the most troubling, and most foundational, of its attributes. Given that the evangelical church is among the most powerful voting blocks in American society, this should give us pause.


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This entry was posted on November 23, 2016 by .
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