Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Jeff Sharlet on Ditto Boys: Laying Bare the Ideology of Male-Bonded Obedience in New Religious Movements Like the Fellowship and Opus Dei

In the excerpt from his letter to Pope Francis on "new evangelization" that I featured yesterday, Matthew Fox maintains that many of the cultic "lay" movements within Catholicism today that are spearheading the "new evangelization" aren't about proclaiming the gospel at all. Groups such as Opus Dei and the Legion of Christ substitute for the gospel, Fox argues, a "theology" of christofascist authoritarianism that boils the entire Christian faith down into a bare command to obey--to obey the highest authority figure in one's group, which is, for Catholics, the pope.

Fox tells Pope Francis that the rise of these movements in the Catholic church--they were actively promoted by Popes John Paul II and Benedict, and now exert enormous influence on the Catholic church--is truly scary, for "instead of preaching a balance of male and female, and justice for women, and justice toward the earth and her creatures, and the need for economic and social justice," they talk only about obedience, a term that looms nowhere so large in the Christian scriptures as it does in their christofascist ideology. The groups are devoid of any real theology, Fox observes, and of any perceptible rooting in the gospels and classic Catholic spirituality. They have substituted for theology and such historical rootedness bald obedience to the commands of authority figures.

It's interesting to read Fox's analysis side by side with Jeff Sharlet's riveting account of what goes on inside the Family or Fellowship, about which Sharlet is an expert. Sharlet's essay appeared in Killing the Buddha recently, and has been  published at Salon as well.

Sharlet notes that the Fellowship extends its power by forming "cells" that are secretive (the Fellowship "works best when it's clandestine," one member tells him), cozily connected to the top political and socioeconomic leaders of American society, and male-exclusive (the cells are supposed to be "just men and Jesus," another member tells him). The bonding and cell formation that cement the ties by which the Fellowship does its work begin at colleges like Westmont. "Just men and Jesus" rubbing shoulders with other "just men and money and power" types at the top of the socioeconomic ladder . . . . 

Sharlet interviews Dr. Ronald Enroth, a sociologist at Westmont who is a specialist on cults, or, as he tells Sharlet we're now expected to call such groups, "new religious movements." His work on the "new religious movements" within American evangelicalism has led him gradually to focus on what he sees as a spiritually abusive strain running through some sectors of evangelicalism, which is especially prominent in "new religious movements" like the Fellowship. This strain can have particularly pernicious effects on the lives of those connected to such movements (and on the lives the movements touch) because it's not easy to detect. It's not apparent on the surface, where the religious movement in question may appear very non-cultish, exceptionally ordinary.

But there's the following as a dominant motif of these movements, Enroth maintains--they inculcate "learned helplessness" in their adherents through an overriding emphasis on obedience:

But common to cults, “new religious movements” gone sour, and old church communities turned abusive, is an emphasis on submission and obedience, what one informant called “learned helplessness,” stumbling upon a common psychological term for a condition of perceived powerlessness that can lead to depression and mental illness.

Enroth specifies the characteristics of spiritually abusive religious movements in a list that, for Sharlet, recalls how the Fellowship operates--and for me, it evokes thoughts of the leading Catholic "new religious movements," Opus Dei and the Legion of Christ:

—an emphasis on amorphous “attitudinal sins,” especially “rebelliousness”; 
—suppression of dissent; 
—no institutional checks and balances; 
—an aversion to publicity; 
—a perception of persecution, the notion that outsiders can never understand; 
—a recruitment strategy that, in the beginning at least, denies that there’s anything to which to belong.

Groups like the Fellowship or Opus Dei manage to wield enormous influence on an entire culture via their connections to the top political and economic leaders of that culture precisely because they are invisible, because there's not "anything to which to belong"--while they are rigidly organized through an ideology of absolute obedience that glues their male-bonded cells together in a completely cohesive way.

Sharlet also interviews Dr. Shirley Mullen, Westmont's provost, who has been concerned about the Fellowship's ongoing attempts to use Westmont as a feeder college for its movement, and who finds that, in critical respects, the Fellowship has developed precisely in reaction to the rise of women's rights and the feminist movement. Mullen tells Sharlet,

[T]he Fellowship seems to have very distinct roles for men and women. I would say it this way. As a woman who grew up in a faith context, it never would have occurred to me to ask how I could be a woman for God. I wanted to be a person for God. The Fellowship emphasizes brotherhood. It emphasizes discipleship. It seems to leave women out. Its reading of scripture is selective; it leaves women in a supportive role. Not as actors, but as people who nurture the actors.

And then she states:

I would see the Fellowship as, in part, a response to feminism. Particularly in its claim to ahistoricity. It does not seem to be interested in history. It is not interested in theological language. There is a fine line between accountability and manipulation, and it is not interested in that distinction. It is not interested in ‘Christianity.’ Doctrine, they say, divides. Theology divides. What they claim, in fact, is innocence. They are innocent of doctrine, of theology, of ideas. They say, ‘We’re just followers of Jesus. But the historian in me says, ‘You can’t be just anything.’ They say just Jesus. [They say] ‘Christ’ is a theological term. To me, this is a resistance to clarification. Being just a follower of Jesus doesn’t provide a basis for a moral ethic. Just a follower of Jesus needn’t be concerned with social justice. It leaves everything underdetermined—and that’s what makes it so marketable. There is nothing intrinsic to it. It is not intrinsically conservative. It is not intrinsically anything. It is what the followers are. It is outside of history. A tradition always critiques itself. If you can’t critique the tradition, you can’t critique anything. There is no context for questioning anything. 

To which Sharlet replies: "That's Jesus plus nothing, isn't it?" And Mullen responds: "Yes. The emphasis is on nothing." 

An insight to which Sharlet adds the following thought-provoking meditation at the end of his essay: the emphasis on Jesus plus nothing in new religious movements like the Fellowship, with their male-exclusive organizational structure and the lack of either sound theological grounding or critical historical awareness to inform their notion of Jesus, permits such groups to imagine that Jesus is themselves. Jesus is powerful men commanding others to obey. Jesus is powerful men commanding obedience writ large. 

An understanding of the founder of Christianity that, in the words of Ben Patterson, Westmont's chaplain, whom Sharlet also interviewed, "doesn't mean crap" . . . . 

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