Evangelical Christians are fond of saying they are "in the world, but not of the world."
The phrase is based on an account of a prayer Jesus Christ spoke the night before he was crucified, according to the Gospel of John, and the way it is used today it usually means we live here, but our minds and goals are on a different level than most people.
But the latest scandal to rock the evangelical community reaffirms that many Christians today are immersed in the world, particularly celebrity and politics.
The situation involves the Duggar family of Arkansas featured in the reality show 19 Kids and Counting on the laughably named cable network The Learning Channel. The network and the family got a cold dose of real reality when it was revealed this month that eldest son Josh Duggar molested several young girls when he was a teenager, including some of his younger sisters.
Since the story broke, TLC has pulled the show from its lineup and its future is unknown. Duggar has resigned his post directing the lobbying arm of the Family Research Council, a socially conservative group that advocates against gay rights, abortion and divorce, to name a few things. Last week, several news outlets mined up accounts of Duggar and members of his family criticizing homosexuality as leading to ... wait for it ... child molestation.
But Duggar and the family have enjoyed support from figures such as former Arkansas Governor, Fox News host and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who said, "No one needs to defend Josh's actions as a teenager, but the fact that he confessed his sins to those he harmed, sought help, and has gone forward to live a responsible and circumspect life as an adult is testament to his family's authenticity and humility."
As many have noted, there is an unsettling "trust us, we handled it," tone in the explanations for how Josh Duggar's crimes were addressed, there are serious questions about the veracity of the accounts they gave authorities, and there's a lot of effort being put into saving face.
God only knows what the reality is here.
But once again, we have people who gained fame based at least in part on their public practice of faith who we now see haven't quite walked their talk — sexual purity is a big thing in the Duggars' brand of Christianity.
Yes, everyone has their shortcomings. But you have to wonder how many times contemporary evangelicals have to go through this before they stop pinning their adoration on people who have little qualification to be religious leaders other than that they got a TV show on basic cable.
This year, it's the Duggars. Last year, it was the Robertson clan of Duck Dynasty fame who became darlings of the Christian right, and still are in many eyes, although patriarch Phil Robertson has given many people pause with his graphic denouncements of atheism and homosexuality.
A few years ago, it was actor and director Mel Gibson who became the darling of Christians of many stripes with his cinematic recount of the crucifixion, The Passion of the Christ.
But then rumblings of anti-Semitism came into stark relief when his anti-Jewish rantings were caught on police tape while he was being arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.
It is understandable that Christians kind of swoon when they find celebrities and powerful people who seem to embrace their faith. There is a sort of affirmation in knowing that someone of power and influence shares your beliefs. And then there develops a temptation to seek fame through faith.
As a Christian, I always think I am getting into tricky territory questioning the motivations of people who say they are doing something to share their faith. But it's fair to say most of us who have spent time around Christian popular culture have met people motivated to be the next celebrity evangelist or Christian rock star. Just last week, I got a name-dropping news release from a publicist for a person being promoted as a minister to the Hollywood stars.
Yes, it can be good to have influential people sharing your message. But when does celebrity become the motivating factor? A few months ago, I was listening to an interview with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's son, Jay, on Marc Maron's podcast, and it was clear that from his perspective, pursuit of very worldly goals — fame and money — were the downfall of his parents' ministry.
Christian musician Steve Taylor wrote quite a bit about the intersection of faith and fame. In one song, I Just Wanna Know, he sang, "Folks play follow the leader, but who's the leader going to obey? Does his head get big when the toes get tapping?"
The Duggars are just the latest cautionary tale that Christians need to watch it when their faith gets intertwined with celebrity culture. But the sad situation is further evidence that many 21st-century evangelicals aren't being careful. They're diving in.