One reason the Restore Stephen Baldwin nonsense bothers me so much is that it gets to something that bothers me to the marrow about religious culture, and it’s this: that religious people have a weakness for disguising ordinary crappy human behavior with a spiritual mask, thus granting it legitimacy.
Stephen Baldwin’s bankruptcy cannot, therefore, be a matter of a spendthrift celebrity who wanted a lifestyle he couldn’t afford, and who didn’t pay his taxes. Rather, his suffering has to be seen by some as a matter of “spiritual warfare,” thus disarming people from within the Christian community from dealing with the situation as it really is. I am reminded of three incidents from my own experience, one benign, the other malicious, the third downright evil.

In the first, I once received a fundraising letter from an Evangelical couple who were living overseas conducting a mission to supermodels. I’m not kidding: they really felt called to share the Gospel with the fashion industry, and cast a net among their circle of friends, family and acquaintances to fund their European fashion-industry lifestyle. They framed this as a missionary activity, when it was plain to me that they really, really loved living like fashionista hangers-on, and were working the best angle they knew how to keep it going. Mind you, I don’t think they were being cynical. I think they really had convinced themselves that Jesus loves supermodels too (as indeed He does), and that somebody needed to be there backstage at the shows to tell them that.
In the second, I knew of a case in which a woman worked at a small religious institution where she was mistreated by the management. The circumstances around her firing were so heartless as to beggar description. After she was told she was being let go, she began to cry, and the two top executives stood up, and said, “Let’s pray together.” Without going into detail, I can tell you that this was a case in which the leadership of this organization coated its awful behavior in drippy piety, to conceal from themselves their true motive. At least that’s what I concluded.
In the third, a Catholic bishop told a married woman who had come to him complaining of a priest who had used information he gathered in the confessional to compel her to have a sexual affair with him that if she made a big deal of it, he would ruin her reputation because, as she (and her psychiatrist, who was there) told me he put it, “I have to protect the people of God.” I would bet my paycheck that he really believed that’s what he was doing, the bishop.
Understand, what I find so interesting about this is not that religious people act badly and try to conceal it from the world with a mask of piety. That happens all the time. What gets to me is how some religious folks manage to conceal their true motives and actions from themselves with the pious mask, i.e., by spiritualizing everything. This helps explain why, as a Texas friend with painful experience in this field crudely puts it, “Nobody’ll screw you like a brother in Christ.”
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