The Intervention that Failed

I have a friend who is going through a tough time.  Her sister is an alcoholic, and she and the rest of the family are trying to get the sister into treatment.  I am very fortunate that I have never experienced alcoholism or addiction in my family or friends, so I have no direct experience of what my friend is going through.  But in listening to my friend talk about the difficulties she and her family were having, I was struck by the parallels with something that I have experience with--mental illness.

The biggest difficulty in talking with people who are in the grip of mental illness is that you can't rationally convince them that what they are doing is illogical or self-destructive.  That's because, as I have said before, the nature of mental illness is that it creates a filter through which everything is seen and experienced.  You can't convince people that what they are doing is illogical, because as seen through their distorted lens, everything they are doing is perfectly logical.  "I'm not crazy," they will say, or at least think, "you're the crazy one."

The only way you can get through to people who are looking through the world through a distorted lens is to shatter that lens, or at least crack it.  That's the idea, it seems to me, behind an intervention.  The confrontational nature of an intervention is designed to be a kind of shock therapy--if you throw rocks at the glass, maybe the glass will crack, and then the person will see that the glass is actually there.

But the glass is often pretty strong, stronger than the rocks that you can throw at it.  Often times, the only rock that is big enough to crack the glass is the hard-wired fear that all of us have of dying.  In my own life, the one time that I considered (in an inchoate way) taking my own life was an immediate shock to the system, one that in many ways I needed to move me from complete denial about my depression to action to get help.  In the addiction context, you hear a similar thing--people talk about how they need to "bottom out," in the form of some life-threatening set of consequences, before they seek help.  And even that instinctual fear of death is not enough in some cases to break the glass--which is why these are truly life-threatening conditions.

Why do I bring this up?  I bring it up because I think that this paradigm--the paradigm of addiction--is the proper way to understand what we saw on Saturday in Lynchburg, Virginia, and it is the proper way to understand what is going on in American Christianity in 2017.  In Lynchburg on Saturday, President Donald Trump spoke to the graduating class of Liberty University, a Southern Baptist college best known for being the brainchild of the Falwells--first father, and now son.  I am sure it is not the case that everyone who graduated on Saturday from Liberty was thrilled with Trump's presence, but in the main the reception he received was very warm.  And Jerry Falwell, Jr. was unrestrained with his praise, both in introducing Trump and in the aftermath.

As it was happening, I was following along with the reaction on Twitter.  What struck me about the reaction was how grounded in rationality all of the responses were.  It was things like "how can an  institution like Liberty which purports to stand for 'family values' praise the man who talked about grabbing women in the pussy?" and "how can you reconcile (as Falwell did) praising Trump for bombing Muslims with the teachings of Jesus?"

That sort of response, while perfectly reasonable on the merits, is beside the point.  It is beside the point because conservative Christianity has an addiction, and it is deep in its disease right now.  The line of argument that the commentators on Twitter were taking is very much like trying to rationally explain to an alcoholic why it is in his or her best interest to stop drinking.  They can't hear you, because their addiction is distorting their thinking to the point that it doesn't seem like it is in their best interest to stop drinking, or to turn away from someone like Trump.

If American conservative Christianity is addicted, what is its drug of choice?  The answer was on display in Lynchburg--Christendom.  Conservative Christianity is addicted to having a dominant, even hegemonic, place in the culture, one where they are able to dictate the terms of how people think and act (at least publicly).  It is an addiction to being in charge, to being powerful, to being folks that you must take seriously, to being folks that others need to take into account when making decisions.  The addiction has its origin, I am convinced, in a theology of Empire, but whatever its source it is at the heart of why the folks at Liberty were so enraptured by Trump.  "You are right, your values are what made this country great, you are important, you and I together are going to make sure that your ways are the ways that matter in the country."  Trump's speech was the equivalent of filling a syringe full of the most potent narcotic and mainlining it.  The folks at Liberty got their fix, in spades.

If you think about conservative Christianity (and, for the record, that group includes conservative Catholics and other non-evangelical Christians, who are just as addicted to the drug of Christendom as the evangelicals) as being addicted to Christendom, you can begin to understand why they are so anxious and why they are so willing to look for a Messiah like Trump.  If their drug of choice is cultural dominance, it has become clear that their supply is in jeopardy.  Fifty or a hundred years ago, supply was no prevalent that no one really needed to worry about going without--it was in the water, you might say.  But that supply is being cut down; as more and more people either drop out of Christianity altogether, or adopt non Christendom-oriented versions of Christianity, they are no longer able to rely on the constant fix of cultural dominance.  They could no longer unilaterally dictate the terms of the culture, as seen through a myriad of things but perhaps most clearly with regard to sex and gender.  Conservative Christians were beginning to feel the first signs of withdrawal, which is both physically and psychologically debilitating.  And so they turned to a pusher who promised them that he would guarantee their supply.   He's lying to them, of course; drug dealers are not known for their honesty.  But the promise of a guaranteed supply makes them believe even the obvious lies of someone like Trump.

In many ways, the 2016 Presidential election can be seen as an intervention that failed.  Many people, me included, looked at Trump and thought "surely this guy will be enough to break through to people.  Surely this guy will be enough to show people how destructive all of this is."  In doing so, we wildly underestimated the power of the disease that had its claws in them.  Our rocks were not nearly big enough to crack the glass.  The problem is that they have not hit bottom yet, not even close.  Trump will keep them on the hook, giving them just enough supply to keep them going, but not too much so that they never become comfortable.  They will dance to his tune for a while yet.

No, the only way now is to cut off their supply, and take away their pushers.  That's a dangerous course of action--withdrawal can be fatal.  And they will fight with every bit of strength they have to protect their supply.  But I think it is clear now that they need to hit bottom before there is even a chance of them seeking help.  And, if their disease is allowed to continue unchecked, especially in this new manic form, they may take the rest of us down with them.

May God have mercy on them.  May God have mercy on us all.

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