I have never been in a cult, but I have been in groups that have some cult characteristics. I am thinking about this because I just finished a novel, The Innocent. I would give it a 3-4 stars, not one of my stellar reads. It is a story about a group of Christian cult survivors going back to rescue a young girl. The story gave me the creeps (which is a good thing as the author intended to do so) because of the men who had been elevated to prophet status, thus infallible. For example, one of the prophets often called adolescent girls into his private office to scold them for “disappointing Jesus” but having them sit on his lap and him rubbing their butts as he quoted verses to them. To make clear that this touch was inappropriate, he fathered children by some of the young girls.
The heroization (my word for the process of making someone a hero) of people is the cornerstone of most cults. In the cases where my group was toying with being a cult, leaders were heroized. They were bestowed with such accolades as “man of god,” or “godly man” or “a man after God’s own heart.” We were encouraged to emulate them.
Soon, with such a cloud of delusion, the shortcomings of such a person fade from the radiance of our self-imposed hero worship. Like when one of these godly men had an affair with a college girl and we were told to pretend it wasn’t happening. My departure from evangelicalism started with this issue of heroization.
I have many stories of people leaving a variety of religious groups, evangelicalism, the Catholic Church, and etc. after their heroes have fallen. I bet it is one of the most common reason for people leaving the church, given them the false expectation of a prefect leader. The point of this article isn’t to make a political statement. However, I do want to pivot and point out how I see this playing out within the political realm, as just a side bar to this topic.
While I did fall into the heroization process within evangelicalism, I don’t think I’ve ever done it in the political realm. Yes, I was a Republican for years. I (falsely) thought Reagan was a good president. Now, I can say he had some good skills, did some good things . . . and did some bad things to our country. I voted for both Bush’s. I think the father was a smarter man than the son and probably rank him higher. Junior, I think was a decent and kind man, but just not very smart. He caused the unnecessary deaths of over a million people (Iraqi war) but did so out of ignorance, not evil intent. Unfortunately, the results are the same.
I think Obama was the right man for America at the time. He was smart (smarter than Bush) and I think he had the best interest for America. He stood up well in spite of the demonization of him by the right (mostly because he was black. I don’t think they like people of color over there). But I don’t see him as my hero. I see him as a hero to many, especially people of color. Maybe Obama was missing the ability to connect with common people, which Bush excelled at. I still get chills when I hear George Bush Jr speaking in the megaphone at the Twin Towers ruins.
While I think Joe Biden is certainly not my hero, but he’s a decent man and at this point in history, the is the way out of the hateful, chaotic, dishonest state America has been reduced to.
But then there is Trump. His base has a level of allegiance that I find unhealthy, maybe as creepy as the prophets in The Innocent. I have many friends and probably my entire birth family (we are from the south) are strong Trump devotees. But this is what I find as odd, they see no flaws in this man, the same man that 60%+ of Americans see as profoundly flawed and a con man. We see him coning people with a fake patriotism and a fake devotion to God. I’ve had many conversations with Trump supporters and they become very defensive if you suggest that Trump is not perfect in every way.
I will have to vote for Biden for a thousand reasons, but I could name 5-10 things about him I don’t like. I check everything he says, just like I do with Trump, to see if it is true. I heard Biden say something the other day that I don’t believe is accurate. That doesn’t threaten me. Trump says or tweets a hundred words everyday that are (easy to prove) factual lies. His followers believe everything that he says without critical thinking. Things like hydroxychloroquine cures COVID, Antifa is behind the BLM and are a violent group, global warming isn’t real, COVID will soon go away, and I could go on and on. If Biden said any of those things, I wouldn’t believe it, because it isn’t true.
So this brings me to the point I want to make, discernment about heroization. When is it good, when is it bad?
There are two groups who I think are most vulnerable to hero worship. Okay, maybe three. One is in the area of sports. But most sports heroes are loved and looked up to for their skill in that sport. Most of the time we don’t look up to them for moral direction, except for kids. They might, so that’s why sports stars should try to be good role models.
Heroism pointed to one trait, like which most common in sports, is reasonable and probably healthy. If I make Stephen Curry my hero for his dribbling and shooting abilities, that’s okay. But if I see him as near perfection in all areas, I’m in trouble. I will call the former, trait-centric heroism and the later, comprehensive or blanket heroism. Fortunately, blanket heroism is not that common in sports.
The second area is more vulnerable to blanket heroism and that is in business. When someone is earning a million dollars a year, others within that business my see him or her as their star, with no flaws. Those people are eventually disappointed when their star fails, such as going bankrupt or you find out they were making a million dollars a year because they were ripping off someone. Read the book or watch the movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, and you will see this type of blanket heroization in business.
Lastly, blanket heroism is most vulnerable within religion. It is because most of these religious affiliations falsely believe that when you are part of that sect, you are better than everyone else, and you have a path of (sanctification) that can render someone perfect. That’s what we meant by “Godly.” Of course that is a lie. So then, disappointment comes and so many are hurt. I’ve seen it over and over.
The problem with blanket heroism is that eventually that hero disappoints you . . . or leads you further and further away from reality in order for you to remain loyal. If reality shows that they are infallible, yet you believe that they’re not, you really have no choice but to give them up or live in the hero’s prescribed delusion.
The problem with blanket heroism is that eventually that hero disappoints you . . . or leads you further and further away from reality in order for you to remain loyal.
The latest example of this is Jerry Falwell Junior. Here is what we know for sure. Jerry Falwell Junior and his wife visited the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. A pool boy there, Giancarlo Granda, became close friends with the couple, vacationing with them. Then Falwell loaned Granda 1.8 million dollars to invest in a “gay-friendly” hotel. I only mention the later because in his public life, Jerry has opposed homosexual relationships ferociously.
The deal went sour and Granda was threatening the Falwells with a lawsuit. He also claimed to have photos of Mrs. Falwell naked, which he took when they had sex in front of her husband, and by his wishes. We know that Donald Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen got involved and was able to get the photos destroyed. Soon afterwards, Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed Trump for president (this was 2015) and it is rumored, this part not proven, that it was a quid pro quo, Jerry saying, get rid of the photos and I will endorse Trump and get the evangelicals to follow suit. At this time, before his endorsement, the evangelical community was behind Ted Cruz, which made more sense. Falwell’s endorsement may have been what won the election for Trump.
One of the reasons I’m so critical of evangelical mischief, isn’t because I “hate God” as someone recently accused me of. But because I love the real God, the Jesus of history. So it frustrates me when these phonies are raised up as Christian heroes and then when they fall, thousands become disillusioned. Didn’t Jesus hate the phonies of his day?
We can look up to people, friends, pastors, leaders, politicians, and etc. and appreciate their positive traits. But when we assign on to them as being above the herd in their righteousness, that’s when we are asking for real trouble. I’m really concerned that’s what has happened to the Trump followers. They cannot (psychologically) see his faults. They cannot appreciate his deceptions. I’ll vote for Biden as the best choice for America, but I see his faults and he is a good man, but not my blanket hero.
Because of my personal experience, I am also leery when I hear Christians raise certain pastors, writers, or leaders too much. Francis Schaeffer is my Christian hero, but he was full of faults . . . and oddly, his faults (because they are a lot like mine, like a temper) makes me like him more because I know he’s was human.