Friday, February 12, 2021

Why Are Christian Evangelicals So Vulnerable to Authoritarian Con Artists?

Last May many Christian evangelicals mourned the loss of someone you probably never heard of: Ravi Zacharias. He had founded Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), a $36 million global ministry dedicated to something called "Christian apologetics." As Trump's former press secretary Kayleigh McEnany explained at his passing, it is a branch of theology that equips Christians with arguments that allow them to avoid having to "check your brain at the door" because it provides an intellectual foundation for everything they believe.

The fundamentalist Christian community in which I grew up was steeped in apologetics. That put us at odds with the charismatic movement, which places more emphasis on feelings and emotional expression. In the 1970s, the most well-known Christian apologist was Francis Schaeffer, who believed that an intellectual approach to faith could answer the questions of the age. Perhaps more than any modern-day theologian, Schaeffer is responsible for launching the merger of religious and political identities among Christian nationalists.

While not as overtly political, those are the shoes Zacharias began to fill. In doing so, he became a beloved figure among Christian evangelicals. Speakers at his memorial service last May included former Vice President Mike Pence and Tim Tebow. Pence noted that, while Billy Graham was the greatest evangelist of the 20th century, Zacharias was the greatest apologist of this century. 

But three years prior to his death, some warning signs began to emerge indicating that Zacharias wasn't the man so many people thought he was. He was accused of misrepresenting his academic credentials and a woman alleged that he had used his mentor relationship with her to pressure her into texting him nude photos of herself. That case was eventually settled, with both sides signing non-disclosure agreements, but not until Zacharias and his organization had vehemently denied the claims. At the time, Zacharias said that he had "never engaged in any inappropriate behavior at any time" and that he had observed what became known as the "Billy Graham rule, " saying that "I have long made it my practice not to be alone with a woman other than Margie [his wife] and our daughters—not in a car, a restaurant, or anywhere else."

That was a lie. Christianity Today explained what happened after his death.

The secret of Zacharias’s abuse started to unravel the day of his funeral in May 2020. One of the massage therapists he groped, masturbated in front of, and asked for sexually explicit images watched in shock as the apologist was honored and celebrated on a livestream...

Has no one come forward? she thought. No one?

She worried about other women who might be out there, hurting...

The woman googled “Ravi Zacharias sex scandal” and found the blog RaviWatch, run by Steve Baughman, an atheist who had been tracking and reporting on Zacharias’s “fishy claims” since 2015. Baughman blogged on Zacharias’s false statements about academic credentials, the sexting allegations, and the subsequent lawsuit. When the woman read about what happened to Lori Anne Thompson, she recognized what had happened to that woman was what had happened to her.

As far as she could tell, this atheist blogger was the only one who cared that Zacharias had sexually abused people and gotten away with it. She reached out to Baughman and then eventually spoke to Christianity Today about Zacharias’s spas, the women who worked there, and the abuse that happened behind closed doors.

As a result of those allegations, RZIM hired a law firm to investigate the claims. On Thursday, they released a damning report.

A 12-page report released Thursday by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) confirms abuse by Zacharias at day spas he owned in Atlanta and uncovers five additional victims in the US, as well as evidence of sexual abuse in Thailand, India, and Malaysia.

Even a limited review of Zacharias’s old devices revealed contacts for more than 200 massage therapists in the US and Asia and hundreds of images of young women, including some that showed the women naked. Zacharias solicited and received photos until a few months before his death in May 2020 at age 74.

Zacharias used tens of thousands of dollars of ministry funds dedicated to a “humanitarian effort” to pay four massage therapists, providing them housing, schooling, and monthly support for extended periods of time, according to investigators.

One woman told the investigators that “after he arranged for the ministry to provide her with financial support, he required sex from her.” She called it rape.

She said Zacharias “made her pray with him to thank God for the ‘opportunity’ they both received” and, as with other victims, “called her his ‘reward’ for living a life of service to God,” the report says. Zacharias warned the woman—a fellow believer—if she ever spoke out against him, she would be responsible for millions of souls lost when his reputation was damaged.
Zacharias now joins a long list of Christian leaders and pastors who have engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior and abuse. As documented by the Houston Chronicle, that kind of behavior isn't limited to the Catholic Church, but runs rampant in Protestant churches as well. 

Reading the stories about Zacharias, several things surfaced to explain the pattern. As you can see from what he told a victim in the quote above,  Zacharias viewed these sexual exploits as a reward for his service to God. In other words, he exhibited a form of sociopathy that assumed he was somehow "special" and that the morals he preached about didn't apply to him. 

According to the recently released report, Zacharias not only lied, but went to great lengths to hide his behavior.
The investigation confirmed that Zacharias lied about not being alone with a woman other than his wife or daughters. He also maintained multiple phones at all times, kept them on a different wireless plan than RZIM, and never used the wireless network at the office. Zacharias said this was for security, but it ensured his communication could not be monitored.

For years, that kind of subterfuge worked. That is because, as one of Zacharias's colleagues put it, "The culture of RZIM is adulation and unquestioning loyalty. You praise Ravi all the time and never hold him accountable.”

A statement from RZIM on the release of this report confirms that cult of personality.

We regret that we allowed our misplaced trust in Ravi to result in him having less oversight and accountability than would have been wise and loving. We also regret the ways that many of us have publicly extolled Ravi’s character and the impact this will have had on victims of his abuse. We now know our words have been hurtful, and that causes us deep sorrow. Moreover, in the wake of the accusations brought against Ravi by the Thompsons in 2017, we communicated our confidence in Ravi’s denial of these accusations, and others trusted Ravi because they trusted us.

Even before this story emerged, I had been thinking a lot about what makes Christian evangelicals so vulnerable to authoritarian con artists. For me, that is a deep question and I'm only beginning to scratch the surface of answering it. But I remembered a hymn we sang in church a lot while I was growing up: "Trust and Obey."

Here's the fourth verse and chorus:

But we never can prove
The delights of His love,
Until all on the altar we lay;
For the favor He shows,
And the joy He bestows,
Are for them who will trust and obey.

Trust and obey,
For there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus,
But to trust and obey.

How evangelicals hear those words is in the context of the teaching that all human beings are inherently sinful. So they must lay their own identity on the alter to trust and obey God. In practical terms, what that means is to trust and obey those they believe are speaking for God. That is how a cult of personality is born and the kind of sociopathy exhibited by Zacharias in unleashed.


  1. Somewhere far below the surface of the earth, Ted Haggard and Jim Bakker ask Ravi Zacharias how he got away with it for so long.

  2. My DEEP THOTS on the matter:

    1) American Christianity -- and in general, religion as wielded by those in power -- is about justifying the status quo, rather than improving it.

    1a) That means that American Christianity has always been weaponized to justify slavery, misogyny, bigotry, war, etc. There simply hasn't been much incentive to encourage any of the things Jesus actually talked about.

    2) But at some level, a lot of American Christians know they've become terrible people. It's obvious to the rest of us and we call them out on it. So they're kind of in a bind, where they've committed themselves to a way of thinking that they believe is necessary (both for social and theological reasons), and yet they know it is making them people who deserve to be despised.

    3) Soooo, they're super ready to listen to anyone who can, at least briefly, make their choices make sense.

    4) Extra points for anyone who can make them think that non-believers are even more terrible than they are. It used to be enough to accuse pro-choice people of being baby-killers, but eventually that stopped being sufficient, and so they had to come up with nutty theories involving child trafficking and pizza.

    1. Later arriving immigrants organized around their churches, and used that to build political power and acceptance. Hence St. Patty's Day parades (Irish) and Columbus Day (Italian). In many places, the churches supported miners organizing unions--though not everywhere and in all cases. But those leaders can also get drunk on power. Think Nuns on a Bus vs. Council of Bishops.
      Houses of worship in Black communities can also be forces for good, though have a tougher fight against racism.
      Then there are the "revival meetings", mega-churches and variations on Prosperity Gospel.....
      I have particular contempt for people sucking money out of communities in the name of religion. At least if a church is local, the donations are more likely to stay local.

  3. Bob Altermeyer writes that nearly half of the parents he surveyed who had been raised as Protestant fundamentalists had left those denominations, but the fundamentalist denominations had compensated for these loses by conversions.[1] The most commonly cited reason for leaving is observing the hypocrisy of fundamentalists.[2]

    I suspect there is some truth in your idea that the “trust and obey” message leads fundamentalists to blindly follow their leaders, but that much of the time the cause and effect is the other way around. People who aren't natural authoritarian followers tend to spot enough hypocrisy among the fundamentalists and leave (or don't join in the first place). The people who stay are the ones whose personalities make them vulnerable to authoritarian con artists.

    [1] The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer (available for free on the web), page 129
    [2] ibid., page 132

  4. creepy. There is certainly enough obedience and creepiness in the Catholic tradition--but I don't recall that song. I'll just stick with Sister Act.


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