No one is really surprised that Doug Phillips had an affair and is stepping down from Vision Forum Ministries. And no one is really surprised at his statement–it’s the same slightly pompous and affected tone adopted by any politician caught in the spotlight of a scandal.
But what really fascinates me is first, the similarities between Doug’s statement to the statement put out by CJ Mahaney when he first stepped down from SGM in the aftermath of Brent’s “documents,” and secondly, how very differently these stories are playing out.
The SGM “scandal” [read: cruel abuses of power over minors and parishioners and unrepentance when confronted] and the Doug Philips “scandal” [read: yet-unspecified abuses of power and unrepentance when confronted] are playing out very differently and will continue to do so. And in the end, I suspect that Doug Phillips will be a ruined man, and his sins will be the lesser, while CJ’s sins will be the more substantial and detrimental, and he will never quite be brought to justice for how he abused his position of authority.
There are two reasons why:
1) Doug Phillips and his followers practice intellectual integrity (because they are Reformed) in a way that SGM and CJ Mahaney never did or could (because they were never truly of the Reformed tradition)
2) Doug Phillips and his movement relies on youth in leadership to sustain its momentum.
The first reason is going to be most clearly seen in the comparison between how Brent Detwiler was treated by his old friends when he, following the accountability system that these men and CJ had put in place, confronted CJ about his abuses of power. These guys had a system in place. Brent was the historian and the enforcer personality, and like the good dutiful type-A personality that he is, he believed that the other men in the group believed in the system just as much as they said they did. He trusted them to hold CJ to his own rules, and to help him enforce these rules by preestablished corrective actions.
But these men, for whatever reasons they had, did not put the rules above the man, and followed the whims of CJ rather than the system that they’d put in place. And in doing so, they unleashed a tireless foe in Brent, who has been aggressive and honest in his years of working against the corruption in SGM. To his detriment, I may add, as he’s lost everything because of it. And CJ is fine. Happily pastoring in Nashville and still invited to speaking gigs and lauded by the other “reformed big dogs.”
Contrast that with the snippets of insight into what’s going on in the world of Vision Forum, compiled in a post on Homeschoolers Anonymous. Vision Forum (which is the core of a larger social group of Christian Reconstructionists that spreads into lots of interesting places, if you ever want to Wikipedia link hop). It looks like the guys in Vision Forum value the system like Brent probably wishes SGM leaders did. They are grieving on Facebook after confronting Doug Phillips and getting cold responses (which is, essentially, what the SGM gents were worried about), and are severing ties with Doug as quickly as they can. It’s speculated that the fallout from all of this is that he may lose his house and his business before new year’s.
Why such a difference in group response? I think the answer lies in the values embedded in these two groups’ internal discourses, and may be further reduced to a theological difference. SGM was “essentially charismatic and reformed” at the time all that political drama went down between Brent and CJ. SGM was courting the attention of folks like Piper and Dever, but still enjoyed being unique, retaining that status by still being “charismatic.” SGM worked because it saw itself as a special snowflake church group–we can’t be a denomination because nobody is like us! We’re CHARISMATIC and REFORMED. The Presbyterians will love us for our sermons, the Baptists for our music, and the non-denominational groups will love how we pray and raise our hands during worship.
Contrast that with Vision Forum, which prided itself on changing every part of culture through Christian alternatives to every part of culture. Politics? We got ’em. Films? Sure thing. American Girl dolls? Try our Titanic doll. Books? Our hardback vintage ones are better and the heroes are more relatable for homeschoolers.
But more than just that, Vision Forum is the brainchild of Christian Reconstructionism, which is, in a bastardized summation, Reformed thinking + white dominionism reduced down to racist, sexist culture-change moonshine. [If you need a better summary, let me know and I’ll find one. I don’t have the emotional resilience today to take Reconstructionism very seriously.] The point of it seems to be that culture must be 100% fixed to match OT “Biblical” standards, and I mean that — if you dig deep enough, you start finding that their leaders wrote treatises endorsing stoning of rebellious children and race-based slavery. And these guys are speaking at YOUR local homeschool convention.
My point, however, is this: they are highly rational. They believe theology can and should be systematized. They believe that science, done right, will prove creationism. They believe in the ideology not because it fixed their need for a religious addiction (which is my theory about SGM), but because they needed rational fundamentalism more deeply than they needed to be human.
And so, when the system says Doug is wrong, Doug has to go. [Whereas, when SGM’s system suggested that CJ was wrong, the system had to go.]
The second reason is a little more simple than the first. Doug and his crew were out to change the culture, comfort be damned. CJ and his crew were out to lead a group of people and keep themselves financially stable — they didn’t quickly bring fresh blood into the inner circle. But like a shrewed ideologue, Doug Phillips relied on the energy and naïveté of youth to make his movement thrive. His agenda was political — he didn’t need to protect his inner circle so much as he needed cheap labor and innocent energy. These kids (like Bradrick) were raised to be culture warriors, and they believe in the system (which brings me back to my first point).
I guess all that I’m trying to say here is: if you’re going to run a cult and get away with it, make sure people love you more than your ideas. And don’t sleep around or blackmail people. Your sheeple don’t like it much.