Monday, July 30, 2007

The hypocrisy of Christian leaders as a social construction

In March, ABC's newshow, 20/20, ran a story about a Southern California pastor, K.C. Price, and it showed a film clip of Price saying:

"I live in a 25-room mansion, I have my own $6-million yacht, I have my own private jet and I have my own helicopter and I have seven luxury automobiles."

Sounds terrible, doesn't it. Yet another instance of Christian leaders gone bad! Why, Diane Sawyer even expressed shock that a preacher would have this kind of wealth.

There's only one problem... it's not true. Price prefaced this statement by saying he was hypothetically "quoting a hypothetical person with great material wealth who failed to follow a righteous path."

So, 20/20 was dead wrong; they've issued retractions, and now they are being sued. (Story from the LA Times).

This raises an interesting issue: Why does the media so frequently portray Christian leaders as hypocrites?

One reason is that it's interesting.
A fundamental motivation for the media is increasing viewership, so any story that would broadly appeal will be prominently featured. This is why they carry endless stories about Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan.

It's also why we think crime is always getting worse when in fact it has mostly gotten better over the past two decades--murder and crime makes for a good story.

It's also why so many people think that flying in commercial airlines is so dangerous. As I understand it, it's safer than driving, but plane wrecks make good copy.

Stories about the many, many Christian leaders acting like Christians would be boring. Instead, let's find the stories of leaders doing wrong.

Another reason is a different standard of wrong-doing.

Is it newsworthy for a man separated from his wife to with another women? Not unless its Jim Baker, then it's front-page material.

Is it right for a man to hire a ? No, but it probably won't be nationwide, interrupt-this-program-bring-you-breaking-news important unless its Ted Haggard.

Is it wrong for a CEO to have an extravagant house? No way... we would normally celebrate it, unless of course it's KC Price. (At least what we think he has, according to 20/20).

This constitutes a form of status offense. Things that are acceptable, or at least not a big deal, for most people are grievous offenses for Christian leaders.

As such, the media disproportionately emphasizes Christian leaders as hypocrites when in fact I would imagine they are among the most ually chaste, financially prudent and overall moral people in society.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting an anti-religious bias, per se, rather this is how the media works. It's the same reason that the media so often portrays blacks as criminals and Muslims as terrorists.


carson said...

Bradley, another excellent, thought-provoking post!

Some further thoughts:
From the LA Times article, it is clear that 20/20 did misquote Price. At the same time, Rev. Price does own two Bentleys and a mansion.

Now, is he a hypocrite? Well, the LA Times summarizes his ministry accordingly: "Over three decades, Price built his ministry in part on the idea that followers can reach economic prosperity by living a faith-based life."

It sounds like he is living in accordance with his preaching. He claims to have a lot of faith, he preaches that if you have a lot of faith, you will enjoy the good life, and he has the possessions requisite for ‘the good life.’

Still, this is a jarring message to hear and lifestyle to see from a Christian pastor. Why? Because I don’t believe that Christianity teaches that having lots of faith will lead us to have lots of money (at least, lots of money that we should spend on ourselves).

Two further questions:
1. What might we learn about his character from seeing his reaction to being falsely portrayed? Admittedly 20/20 treated him wrongly--and they've also apologized. In the LA Times article we see anger, a lawsuit and vengeful remarks about 20/20. To what degree does this reaction make the Christian message attractive? Or demonstrate that his life is somehow markedly different than others?

2. In what ways do 20/20 programs and other media sources help keep Christians honest? Does the church benefit from this honest reporting? Would it somehow be better off if these examples were kept quiet? Or is it the disproportional treatment that is the primary injustice? How does the Bible invite us to respond when our good deeds are ignored and our bad deeds are made public?

I write this as a fellow struggler. I know full well that I sometimes spend more money on myself than I should and have more possessions than I need. And, when attacked, I am also tempted to respond with revenge rather than forgiveness. I admit that it is hard to be faithful to my own standards or what I consider to be the standards of the Bible. So, in no way do I wish to adopt a holier-than-thou posture. But I do wish to think carefully about what we can learn from the recent media coverage of Rev. Price, and I think that’s a worthwhile endeavor especially because I have not yet arrived in my own attempt to live as the Bible teaches.

Knumb said...

Because so much of your blog deals with studies and percentages, I read this post in terms of relativity.

By that I mean, it hadn't occured to me that, possibly, Christian ministers "they are among the most ually chaste, financially prudent and overall moral people in society."

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Christian ministers are, on average, 10% "more moral" than society-at-large.

It is possible that they are perceived to be less moral due to higher expectations of them by society-at-large. This you explain better than I. What I wonder is if a large part of those higher expectations are due to the Christian ministers proclaiming their superior morality, thereby setting themselves up for the fall.

To oversimplify it grossly, let's say they are 10% more moral, but 20% louder about it, they'd seem 10% less moral. I know that's oversimplifying it and the relationship would not be linear, even if I am right about the concept.

Biblically, Jesus' teaching about sitting at the head of the table would apply. If you sit at the head of a table at a party, the host may ask you to move down, embarassing you. Better to sit at the end and be asked to move up.

In morality, better to say that you are a sinner and have people say "actually, you are not so bad" than to proclaim yourself as a saint and have people point out your horns.

That having been said, and not trying to be falsely humble, my fingers typing about morality is tantamount to the Chicago Cubs publishing a World Series media packet.

Dan Myers said...

I think a big part of this is the cognitive demand we have for consistency. When someone we think someone is supposed to be one way, and then we discover that they are acting differently, it's more striking. This is the same reason we make a bigger deal out of the attorney general breaking the law than the usual schmo on the street. When you add to it that many of these leaders are very publicly espousing principles and demanding that others live up to them, the inconsistency is harder to take. Anytime someone is a poster child for something, and then turns around and does the opposite, people are going to be upset. Remember a few years back when we discovered the CEO of the United Way was making something like 400,000 a year with a whole series of other benefits the organization was also paying for? Pretty inconsistent with the request for the rest of us to give until it hurts! I don't think it's Christians, per se, that are hit harder with this, but the profession of being a moral leader requires, in our minds, behavior that is consistent with that.

Brad Wright said...

Carson, you make some very good points here. Indeed if we were to evaluate Price based on the information in the article, we would probably have some of the concerns you mention.

I would qualify the comment about wealth in that in a global perspective Price and those of us without Bentleys are all silly-rich.

Brad Wright said...

John, I think that you're right that our expectations of pastors color of view of them, and that we hold them to different standards. I'm okay with this (as long as I don't have to follow the same standards ;-) but I think it's important to realize what's going on. It's not that pastors are doing particularly bad, it's just that we have very high expectations for them.

Brad Wright said...

Dan, I like the social psychological angle here, and I think you're right that this is what makes pastor-hypocrite stories so interesting. What I'm addressing here is the mistaken image that they represent the true, relative frequency of that behavior.

Dan Myers said...

I totally agree with you on that point Brad. Most pastors are darn-near poverty stricken, speaking from past and current family experiences. Just like politicians aren't statistically as bad as the ones we see on the news either, or lawyers, or whoever else gets represented on the news. The ones who are out there slogging away doing what they are supposed aren't very interesting, I'm afraid.

Jay Livingston said...

"20/20 was dead wrong; they've issued retractions, and now they are being sued."

Because of the passive voice here, we don't know who filed the suit. Presumably, it's the good reverend himself (and his lawyers), following the words of their lord as written in the book of Matthew, "whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, tell the son of a bitch you'll see him in court. And don't forget triple damages."

Scott Kemp said...

Hopefully the damages that Rev. Price is seeking will be something like airtime so that he can address 20/20's audience...

What do you suppose the odds of that are?

What does your reaction to the statement and question above tell us about how we view big-name pastors?

Personally, I think that the real problem is that a lot of people who profess Christianity don't really have Christ as their leader.