When I was a little kid, my dad was a Baptist youth minister and briefly a sandlot baseball coach. He swore he didn’t organize his league just to evangelize the neighborhood urchins. That’s probably true; he loved baseball and was always the “fun dad,” patient with kids and delighted to work with them.
But he loved “bringing people to Jesus” even more.
The city park behind our house was always full of kids messing around on shaggy ball diamonds. I was a nascent little gay boy who loved reading more than forcing my clumsy body to play sports. But I was a baseball fanatic with shoeboxes crammed with trading cards. I spent hours on my bedroom floor staring into the eyes of Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Jose Concepcion and other Cincinnati Reds greats.
Did I realize I loved those cards because the men were so hot? No, I treasured them for a forbidden thrill I didn’t have words for.
So even though PLAYING sports made me nervous as hell, with Dad as coach, I felt safe enough to give it a go. I had a blast! Dad’s sand league soon went down in flames, but I loved it while it lasted.
He kept practices and games fun rather than super competitive, and he always ended with a short Bible story and prayer.
I can hear you all saying “Aha! That explains down in flames. People didn’t want some preacher-coach filling their kids’ heads with religion!”
Nope, guys, wrong era.
This was a 1970s working-class industrial town in Ohio. The sexual revolution had barely touched us, Vietnam War protesters got chased off, and people flocked to the train station to cheer Nixon’s whistle-stop speeches. Religious devotion was ordinary and expected. Nobody objected to prayer.
Dad’s religious ideas did destroy the league, though.
Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?
This will sound weird to those not old enough to remember the 70s, but appropriate hair length led to Dad’s downfall and the end of my short sandlot career.
Dad didn’t know it, but he was about to illustrate how the concept of Christian authoritarianism often clashes with spirituality and evangelism.
Paul’s passage became dogma: boys without whitewalls over their ears were going to hell.
For quick background, hairstyles for American men began to change in the 1960s. Norman Rockwell whitewalls on boys gave way to floppy bangs and over-the-ear locks inspired by the Beatles and other pop sensations. Old people often grumbled, and some institutions enforced reactionary rules, but complaints were mostly typical of cyclical-fashion criticism — not very heated.
Dad was a freshly minted minister, the ink from his Bible college correspondence certificate still wet in its frame. His job was to grow the church by reaching out to high school and college students. The kids he ministered to adored him. He was young, hip, and full of Christian passion and Christ-like kindness.
He didn’t preach sermons at his youth services, he told exciting stories from the Bible and brought them forward to the modern era. He didn’t lecture on the dangers of alcohol and drugs, he threw parties at the church to give kids fun alternatives. One Halloween, he even turned our basement into a haunted house.
But if marijuana and beer topped the list of Baptist sins, “long hair” on men was right up there. The reasons are complex, but it was a huge religious deal. Preachers often railed against new hairstyles by quoting from Paul’s first letter to the proto-Christians of Corinth. “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?”
Preachers ignored or didn’t understand that Paul was actually writing about women covering their heads during religious gatherings, counseling the far-off congregation that it’s better to follow harmless social convention than create needless strife.
For Evangelicals in the 1970s, Paul’s passage became dogma about hair length: boys without whitewalls over their ears were going to hell.
That’s a message neighborhood parents wouldn’t stand for. They were cool with Bible stories and prayer. They were happy a local dad was urging kids not to drink and smoke. But most of our neighbors were Catholic, and Catholics of that era weren’t down with Paul’s barbering advice.
Right up through the 1970s, most major American denominations defended racist segregation as theologically mandated or at least permitted.
One night, a guy sporting a shaggy Sonny Bono coif came over to the house yelling at Dad to “mind your own damn business and stay the hell out my kid’s haircut.” Dad got stubborn, Sonny Bono got more stubborn, and the argument that spread across the neighborhood spelled the end of Dad’s coaching career.
What is Christian authoritarianism?
I didn’t write up this ancient anecdote because conservative Christians still try to enforce hair length for boys, though at least in Texas they sometimes still do, hurting transgender kids in the process.
I didn’t even write it up to talk about religious misogyny, homophobia, and sexism, though those subjects deserve examination. I’m writing about Christian authoritarianism, a subject appearing often in the news these days as the US culture wars blaze on, fueled by an increasingly conservative Supreme Court.
My dad ran afoul of it without even knowing the term, which doesn’t mean quite what it sounds like. It doesn’t exactly refer to Christian institutions exercising political power to impose religious standards on society, though it can and does lead to that.
It is not theocracy, though aspiring theocrats almost always subscribe to Christian authoritarian concepts.
Christian authoritarianism is one of two competing faith streams inside Christianity itself. When theologians talk about it, they debate the very essence of what it means to be a Christian.
Christian authoritarianism centers on codes of conduct
Author and United Methodist minister William Alberts wrote in Counter Punch last year that while “Christianity and authoritarianism are commonly believed to be at opposite ends of the democratic-autocratic continuum,” authoritarianism is currently baked into much Christian thinking — unsupported by scripture and working against evangelism:
Yes, many Christians do good with-and-for others, inspired by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount’s emphasis on mercy and forgiveness and peacemaking (Matthew 5: 1–10), his teaching that doing to others as you would have then do to you is the bottom line of religion (Matthew 7L 12), and his saying that the greatest commandments are to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself. (Matthew 22: 36–40)
However, many other Christians use The Bible to stress belief in the uniqueness of Jesus himself, not in the universal “Blessed are the peacemakers”-ethic of humanness he taught. For these Christians, first and foremost, Christianity is about right biblical belief, not just democratic behavior. Fundamental here is Jesus’ exclusivity as the only Son of God and savior of the world (John 14: 6), not the inclusivity underlying his story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25–37).
When hearts are right, boys’ hair is short and they kiss girls
These two competing themes lived strongly in Dad. Kindness inspired by the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Samaritan motivated him to charity and evangelism, but codes of conduct he believed were handed down by God worked against his better angels.
When parents decided they didn’t want their kids playing in his league, his evangelism suffered.
It’s easy to laugh today about hairstyles, because of course (we say to ourselves) the Bible is not a barbering manual. Whoever dreamed up those hair rules just made a mistake about what the Bible meant. But that’s the point of Dr. Albert’s warning about authoritarianism. What may seem silly or unacceptable today illustrates why authoritarian impulses must be avoided.
He references a paper by civil rights leader Rev. Gilbert Caldwell titled “White Privilege Cloaked in ‘Traditionalism’ Is Harming the UMC” to connect the Christian authoritarianism of racism and homophobia.
Caldwell observes that “White traditionalists in 1972 realized they could no longer use the Bible to justify the segregation of blacks … [but] same-gender loving persons and their ‘practice of homosexuality’ provided them the opportunity to continue to discriminate, not because of race but because of sexual orientation.”
Caldwell raises a point that makes many Christians today intensely uncomfortable: right up through the 1970s, most major American denominations defended racist segregation as theologically mandated or at least permitted.
He poses a question many Christians experience as equally uncomfortable. Why, if we now admit we were wrong about racism, are we so willing to embrace authoritarian ideas about LGBTQ people?
Alberts proposes that the problem isn’t the right interpretation of Biblical codes of conduct, but the authoritarian impulse to enforce them in the first place. He suggests the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament evangelists contain little to no authoritarianism, and that Christians today should focus on the principles of charity, love, neighborliness, and salvation actually found in the texts.
That’s what Paul seemed to be saying to the Corinthians: if local customs dictate women wear veils and men are barbered in certain ways, then go ahead and do what causes the least strife, because these things are superficial.
He certainly wasn’t saying, “Persuade little kids to have certain hair styles,” or “don’t let let loving same-sex couples worship with you,” or “don’t let Black people attend your churches or go to school with your children.”
Christian authoritarianism threatens American values
As Katherine Stewart opined in the New York Times on Monday, conservative Christians have allied with Donald Trump, seeking to exercise political power to enforce their own values on the general public.
Opinion | Trump or No Trump, Religious Authoritarianism Is Here to Stay
Their unlikely ally may have lost the White House, but Christian nationalists still plan to win the war. By Ms. Stewart…
Trump owes his 2016 success to Christian support, and while he lost his bid for re-election, conservative Christians have not lost their taste for power. Nor will they simply disband institutions like the Alliance Defending Freedom that have grown powerful over the last four years. The Southern Poverty Law Center warns that authoritarian-minded Christian organizations that promote anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant, and racist policy are proliferating at unprecedented rates.
While it’s easy to dismiss these groups as extremist, it’s critical to understand that their motivations are the same as my dad’s in the 1970s.
Their beliefs are sincere. They understand Christianity to mean, at least in part, enforcing Biblical codes of conduct as they understand them. That’s Christian authoritarianism, and it’s dangerous.
We Americans live in a plural society where all sorts of people hold all kinds of views about moral conduct. Some of us are spiritual, some of us are religious, and some of us are agnostic or atheist. Christian authoritarianism is incompatible with our ideals of mutual tolerance, respect, and neighborliness.
Perhaps more importantly, authoritarianism is incompatible with Christian ideals of love and evangelism. You can’t try to force behavior on people or they’ll quit your team, just like all those boys did all those years ago.
Oh, as for me?
I don’t consider myself a Christian anymore. I fell in love with one of those baseball-playing boys, a wondrous and life-altering event that set me on a path leading far away from Christianity.
Who knows what might have happened if I’d been met with love instead of a set of rule books.
James Finn is a Cincinnati Reds fan, former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.