Seeing like a church
Recent research in political science helps us understand the American Church's priorities
From the outside, the American Evangelical church’s priorities can seem fairly confusing. Why does bad language seem more taboo than global poverty? In a world full of violence, inequality, and bigotry, why is there so much focus on consensual sex? How can a tradition that believes in total depravity struggle to deal with the idea of systemic injustice?
This is, in many ways, a story of institutions. Certainly there are individuals with the wrong priorities, but it’s not too hard to find conservative Christians with the right ones. How does one set of values get written into the fabric of institutions while others are pushed aside? What are the overarching forces that lead churches to agendas so misaligned with Christ’s?
I think some of the recent political science literature on country formation can shed light on this kind of question, and potentially some paths to a solution. The key idea, made famous by James C Scott’s Seeing Like a State1, is that scalable institutions naturally find themselves invested in what Scott calls “legibility.”
The idea goes something like this: suppose you’re in charge of a government, and you’d like to raise some taxes. If you only have a handful of subjects, you presumably know each one personally and can work out how much each person can pay on a case-by-case basis.
But suppose you have a thousand subjects. Now you can’t expect to know each person’s situation personally, so if you want to maximize tax revenue you need an objective way to determine how much money.
To implement an income tax, you need a way of keeping track of how much money people have made. To implement a land tax, you need a clear account of who owns what land, and preferably you’d like the land to come in nice square parcels that are easy for you to measure. Even if you want to tax everybody equally, you need some sort of census to know who your subjects are and a way to keep track of who’s already paid!
In short, you need to make society legible — that is, you want to make the world into something objective, something you can measure, something you can feed into the sort of bureaucracy it takes to run a large country.
“Everyone give what you can” is illegible, because there’s no way for the administration to see whether or not you’ve complied. “Give 23% of your gross income” is much more legible, particularly if your company reports your salary to the government.
This is more than just an interesting theory. It’s a mechanism you can see play out in the success and failures of groups trying to administer power. Take the example of Congolese militias, detailed in Raul Sanchez De La Sierra’s recent Stationary Bandits paper.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo has a variety of armed groups that serve state-like functions (often collecting taxes in their regions of influence, in return for defense from other armed groups.) One way these groups raise revenue is by capturing the land surrounding a mine, and charging miners a tax on any precious metals they obtain.
Sanchez de la Sierra notes that militias are much more successful at establishing state functions around coltan mines than gold mines. Why? Because coltan mining is legible.
Fifty dollars worth of gold weighs maybe a couple of grams. If I come through your militia’s checkpoint and tell you I didn’t find any gold today, you have no way of knowing whether or not I’ve hidden some in my shoe, or in a pouch in my stomach, or even just between my fingers. Since gold deposits tend to be quite spread out (think riverbeds), you have no way of keeping track of how much gold leaves your land.
On the other hand, fifty dollars worth of coltan weighs about five pounds. If I try to hide a football-sized chunk of rock in my shoe, you’re probably going to notice, and you can ask (or force) me to pay a small tax. If you set the tax correctly and provide security in return, I will keep coming back and you will keep making money.
And this is exactly what we see in the Congo. Militias govern the regions surrounding coltan mines, where materials are legible enough to administer taxes. This doesn’t work around gold mines, so militias instead capture the villages where mining materials are bought and gold is spent. You can predict a lot of state behavior by assuming government-like actors always try to maximize legibility.
So what does any of this have to do with churches?
Like most institutions, churches are incentivized to grow. In some sense, this is just the Great Commission — Jesus commands us to make disciples, and the easiest way to bring someone along on your faith journey is to invite them to church. There are also more logistical incentives: large churches make more money, can support more ministries, and have an easier time finding volunteers.
When churches grow, there become really good reasons to have the sorts of policies you can write down. A group of ten people might be able to sort out responsibilities somewhat casually. But if I’m voting for a deacon in a church of a thousand people, there’s a good chance I don’t know all of the candidates particularly well. As a result, it’s perfectly reasonable for me to ask for a set of baseline qualifications that I can be assured every candidate has achieved.
But if you try to write down legible qualifications, you quickly run into trouble. I want a pastor who’s committed to racial justice and fighting poverty, as the gospel demands. But these are things you learn by knowing a person, not the sort of “rule” you can define legibly enough to use as an administrative criterion! Are you going to pick a specific number and say every leader has to give 3.7% of their income to the poor? If you say you care about poverty and I say your actions don’t show it, by what process is this disagreement going to be resolved?
On the other hand, there are plenty of qualifications you might not care about, but are extremely legible. There might not be good reasons to restrict leadership to men, but an all-male elder board is relatively easy to implement. Gay sex might not be high on the list of things Jesus cares about, but rules against it are relatively unambiguous. So even if your church is full of people with lots of different views, the necessity of legibility systematically changes what kind of rules can be instated and which remain merely aspirational.
The same is true for so-called “church discipline”. It’s bad for pastors to have total control to discipline whoever they like — as John MacArthur’s unconscionable abuses of power have demonstrated.
So if your church wants to “enforce church discipline” without risking pastoral abuse, you have little choice but to stick to legible offenses.
Some serious offenses are (to some extent) legible: if a church member is harassing another church member or making them feel unsafe, this is a really big deal, and a church is fully capable of and justified in taking action.
But lots of offenses aren’t. Just like “giving enough to the poor” and “caring about racial justice” are legible, there are lots of categories of spiritually abusive and deeply sinful behavior that can’t be turned into ironclad rules. If you’re church isn’t LGBT-affirming, it’s hard to imagine writing a clear rule about hateful behavior towards your gay members.
As a result, even if every single decision is completely reasonable, this kind of dynamic shifts the church’s focus to sins that can be made legible, rather than the sins that are most prevalent or most damaging. Sex outside of marriage? Legible. Saying “G*d damn it"? Legible. Fundamentally failing to love your neighbor? Illegible.
(I was involved in a strange case like this, where a leader said lots of horrible racist things to me, and he ended up getting in trouble for being rude to me in how he expressed them and had to promise to phrase them more kindly next time.)
These same incentives start to influence both preaching and counseling. My last therapist was able to help me after weeks of meeting, once she understood my issues well enough to give real, personalized help.
But when we ask pastors to meet with lots of people and very quickly offer advice that they know will be taken as gospel, we’re forcing them to come up with advice they can give without this level of personal knowledge. In other words, we force them to come up with legible advice, the sort that can apply to lots of different people. So we create incentives to avoid difficult, deeply contextual questions like “what do I owe to the poor in my community?,” and instead stick with either simple, universal questions like “should I pray more?” or vague platitudes.
In a similar vein, lots of biblical ethics is difficult. Loving the marginalized around you requires listening, deep humility, and a lot of creative brainpower in the “okay, so what are we actually going to do?” step. If you’re in a group of ten people you trust, you can speak what’s on your mind, being honest about what you’re thinking and accepting feedback when you misstep. If you’re speaking to a group of a thousand, this kind of direct interaction stops being possible, and the chance you might be wrong and hurt somebody creates a lot more pressure to produce a legible “fact” instead of imaginatively thinking through something difficult. Once again, the incentives point away from the most genuine parts of the Christian journey.
It’s perhaps helpful to know that this problem isn’t new. People have always picked and chosen the most legible parts of their religion, and the bible testifies to that explicitly. Thus in Amos we find the prophet yelling at a church that’s really good at “worship” but isn’t doing anything to help the poor:
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
And similarly you have Jesus calling out the religious leadership of his day for their (very public) devotion to the legible parts of faith, while ignoring the main point of love for the marginalized:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
Indeed, if you read the Sermon on the Mount carefully, you’ll notice that almost everything Jesus says is about taking legible rules and expanding them to fundamentally illegible lengths!
So far we’ve seen that 1) institutions (including churches) are incentivized to focus on legibility, and 2) this is bad. In the rest of this post, I want to give just a handful of ideas for what we can do about this.
The first is a matter of awareness. This sort of systemic problem often persists not because people like the system, but because they aren’t really paying attention to the problem, at least not enough to fix it. If you can recognize the ways that your life or church or mind are subtly focusing on legibility, you can bring attention to them, and you can think of ways to encourage Jesus’s sort of creative love in your own community.
A second is to recognize that institutions respond to incentives, to an even greater degree than people do. Churches that respond to incentives will grow, while churches that don’t will shrink. As a result, the only way to respond to misaligned incentives is to create new ones. If everybody left churches that had become too focused on legibility, or that didn’t care for the poor, or that mistreated women, then the institutional church would (almost by definition) become much less legible and much more holy. Leaving is a drastic and painful step, so it’s worth thinking through smaller ways to change the incentives in our own daily lives.
Finally, I think there’s a role for creative thinking in making legible versions of important values. For example, “pastors shouldn’t be creepy towards their flock” is a pretty fundamental fact, but one that’s hard to make legible. So the Christian anti-sexual abuse movement has started by trying to get churches to adopt smaller but easier-to-enforce values — for example, nobody who’s admitted to or been convicted of sexual abuse should serve in a leadership position.
This doesn’t mean we stop at the legible version (“not hiring pastors who have assaulted children” is really the lowest possible bar), but it’s a way to push against the overwhelming tide of the forces of legibility in a way that can genuinely make the world a better place.
Note: the thumbnail icon for this post was produced by Craiyon.
Full disclosure: I feel like I need to cite this book because I can trace my thinking about this topic back to discussions I’ve had about it, but I haven’t actually read the book in its entirety.