As a number of my former students have gone on to study social sciences in Scotland in particular, please forgive me for retelling a crude old Scottish joke that I was reminded of lately. Please forgive me as well for any mistakes I make in approximating the classical form of the joke:
An old Scotsman was sitting at a bar, well into his cups, bemoaning the unfairness of life. “Y’know,” he says to whomever might be listening, “I’ve probably pulled more fish out of the sea than any two of these blokes in here, but nobody calls me ‘McDuff the fisherman’.” He takes a sip on his whiskey and goes on, “I fought in the royal marines and have medals for bravery in combat, but nobody calls me ‘McDuff the marine’.” Another sip. “Give me a bagpipe and I can play you any tune these hills have ever heard, just as loud and sweet and pure as you could ever hope to hear, but no on calls me ‘McDuff the piper’.” Then with quivering lip and a repressed tear he says, “But ye shag just one lousy sheep…”
This basically explains what sociologists mean when they talk about someone having a “master status.” Whatever other virtues and vices a particular person may have, if there is one particular distinction which overshadows all others, which prevent the other things about him or her from being recognized as important, that becomes the person’s master status. Regardless of what else he does in life, Paul McCartney will always be primarily known as “the ex-Beatle.” Regardless of the genius he demonstrated in other areas, Ted Kaczynski will always be known by most simply as “the Unabomber.” Regardless of what artistic and philosophical contributions he may have to offer to the world in his own right, Frank Schaeffer (the fifth) will always be known to most people who have ever heard of him as Francis Schaeffer’s renegade son.
The thing that reminded me of this joke and this state of affairs is the story of Geronimo Aguilar that has been making the rounds this past week. “Pastor G,” as he is said to be known among his friends and admirers, for whatever else his virtues and accomplishments in life, will be known according to the combined master statuses of “megachurch pastor” and “sexual predator,” and he stands a good chance of going back to prison for the rest of his life on that latter account. This isn’t a unique combination of master statuses; they almost seem to go together in the public imagination as readily as “Catholic priest” and “child molester”. Needless to say, the vast majority of megachurch pastors are not sexual predators, and the vast majority of sexual predators are not clergymen of any sort; just like the vast majority of Catholic priests are not child molesters, and visa-versa. But the overlap is familiar enough where it brings a cynical grin to many a skeptic’s face.
It doesn’t really help that the individual in question looks far more like a porn star than a preacher. With his shaved head, is conspicuously muscular build, his exposed tattoos and his close cropped goatee, one could easily stereotype based on appearances that having his way with women would be a significant part of his life. But then again, reaching out to the unchurched and those caught in cycles of self-destructive behavior in a thoroughly street-credible way might explain most of that image. Or then again, it might not.
Other aspects of the image portrayed in the coverage of this event fit squarely within the stereotype of American evangelical megachurch culture though: acres of retired school busses used by the church to bring in kids from the community to be evangelized; a headquarters composed of a set of strip-mall-style buildings just off a major freeway; an Israeli flag flying next to the stars and stripes on the church roof; a luxurious colonial styled “parsonage” for their leader in the suburbs; a combination of admiration, jealousy and suspicion expressed by outside “community leaders”…
I must also say, however, that frankly the reporting on this scandal is riddled with inconsistencies. To start with it claims in one place that Aguilar started this “ministry” in 2003 (ten years ago by my math), but then he is quoted as saying in his resignations speech that “Serving you all and leading this church have been the best twelve years of my life.” Then that mathematical mismatch is further complicated by the accusation that a girl whose family joined into the church in question when she was 5 years old was seduced by Aguilar just after she turned 18. Something here just doesn’t add up. That seems just to reinforce the message that none of us really know enough to judge, but with such a juicy gossip topic at hand that lack of actual knowledge about the situation isn’t going to slow things down much.
Without rattling off a series of names of guilty parties in such matters, why is it that so many men in high positions of spiritual leadership have such a hard time keeping their pants zipped at strategic moments then? And beyond the question of finding it hard to resist temptation when presented with adoring fans who want them sexually, why is it that so many seem to be prone to using their influence to pressure others (usually women, but not always) into physical intimacy? I can’t claim to know too much about this from personal experience or from having such leaders confide in me directly, but I have been close enough to such cultures to make some valid conjectures about the matter.
My primary point would be that this is really not based on an Elmer Gantry narrative, at least not as a general rule. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Sinclair Lewis’s character, Gantry is an “elegant drunk” who becomes a fundamentalist preacher just for the thrills and sensual benefits the job has to offer, while never really taking the message to heart or constraining himself to live according to it. This character has really set the standard for condemnation of religious hucksters ever since. The problem is, it doesn’t really connect with what makes corrupt religious leaders tick. Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, had as difficult a time controlling his erotic urges as any religious leader ever, but that makes him neither a huckster nor even a hypocrite –– just one more screwed up human being who was doing his best to leave the world a better place while somewhat carelessly appreciating what life had to offer in the brief time he had it.
The core of the issue, as I see it at least, involves the interaction between the top three ways of searching for happiness in life: control, confidence and connection. (See my “Kristian’s Ethics” series starting here for further explanation of the terms.) Depending on the individual in question, some powerful preachers are essentially motivated by the thrill of being able to have a major impact on the lives of others; other preachers, more by being able to change the world –– put a ding in the universe, as Steve Jobs used to say –– in what they consider to be a positive way; still others, more for that satisfying mystical sense of being deeply connected with God, the universe, and people around them. All of these things can be related to a requirement of having mastery over one’s sexual urges, but all of them also relate to basic forms of satisfaction in life that can have a very sexual element to them. Let me unpack that a bit for you.
Especially those preachers who are in conversion-oriented churches and denominations, when they’re good at what they do –– getting people to make significant changes in their lifestyles and religious affiliations –– they get a certain thrill in the “win” that each convert represents. It is the same sort of thrill that a good litigating lawyer gets from presenting a successful closing argument; that a politician gets from winning a hard-fought election; that a salesman gets from closing a big deal. To deny that much good can come from people having such motivations at times is foolish. Obviously seeking such a thrill can cause people to do some particularly admirable and some particularly disgusting things morally. The danger is that an addiction to the sort of thrill that comes with being able to control people in this sort of way can have the effect of reducing the leader’s moral judgment as to which types of “wins” are morally justified and which are not. Take that far enough and seduction becomes just one more form of victorious control over others to feed that habit.
The sense of confidence in one’s moral value can function in much the same way. When someone is particularly good at problem solving, conflict resolution and social reform, that too brings its own addictive high. It isn’t necessarily about being able to get people to do what they want so much as being able to establish a vision for how things should ideally be and to bring that vision to pass. It starts with wanting to see people getting their thrills from being among believers singing worship choruses rather than being drunk in a pub singing karaoke or high on heroin in some ghetto shooting gallery. Being able to give people hope of better things, make society a safer place, setting up organizations that reduce suffering and increase the peace… all make us feel better about ourselves in a very satisfying way. Part of how that works is also being gracious about allowing some people to do nice things for you in return, so that they too can feel good about themselves as part of the exchange. And when it comes to doing simple things to make each other happy, sexual tensions are often not far below the surface.
Then there is the sensation of feeling deeply connected with others. In some very basic ways the ecstasy of religious euphoria can affect the brain in much the same way as chemical “E” –– “the love drug.” When you start to really feel that you are part of others and others are part of you, and we’re all part of something much bigger than all of us, hugs and kisses between participants become very free and natural. From there the temptation to allow the physical and emotional closeness to keep building becomes very powerful at times. Some are better at keeping this on a Platonic, brother and sister level than others.
So from the perspective of these three forms of satisfaction being intensively in play, it is not terribly surprising that so many religious leaders end up getting caught in embarrassing moral situations. This doesn’t justify their indiscretions, and certainly not their predatory practices, but it might explain how they tend to slip into such so easily at times. From this perspective the Catholic practice of clerical celibacy –– keeping the whole possibility of sexual intimacy off the table once and for all for all of their professional promoters of spiritual love –– might not be as crazy as it sounds to many outsiders. Then again, that clearly has not been a foolproof solution either. The best we can do, I imagine, is to remain on our guard in terms of which trusted individuals might be hoping for what extra forms of satisfaction at times; and to bear in mind what we want our master statuses to be, and how our various actions might end up affecting them. I still believe that control, confidence and connection are the greatest factors to be developed in having a satisfying life, but I also believe that we need a certain amount of mastery over where they might lead us.
The idea of the master status is that you have one status which takes over everything about your life to one extent or another. It is not that you have a status which causes you to be recognized as a master; it is that the status itself is master and you end up becoming its slave or prisoner. Some statuses make better masters than other. Some we have more control over than others. So as much as it is within your power, choose your potential master status carefully.