The Problem of Atheist Pastors

Well, yes, that would be a problem, wouldn’t it? And apparently it’s more of a problem than you’d think it would be (by which I mean, not a problem at all in this universe outside of John Updike novels). Rod Dreher has the thoroughly depressing details of a study of pastors who don’t believe in God but still work as pastors.

Here’s a statement they attribute to “Wes,” the pastor of a Methodist congregation:

“I will be the first to admit that I see Christianity as a means to an end, not as an end unto itself. And the end is very basically, a kind of liberal, democratic values. So I will use Christianity sometimes against itself to try to lead people to that point. But there’s so much within the Christian tradition that itself influenced the development of those liberal values, you know. They didn’t arise through secular means. They came out of some religious stuff. …I could couch all that in very secular language. If we were in a college setting, I would. But we’re in a religious setting, so I use the religious language.”

So he’s using faith to surreptitiously lead people to embrace a set of political and cultural beliefs. As bad as that is, it’s not uncommon among pastors. But here’s the deeply unconscionable thing about Wes, in the report’s words: “Although he thinks that religion will be around a long time, he sees that part of his role is to help make his job obsolete.”
Got that? He’s a pastor who is living a lie in a secret attempt to destroy religious faith in the lives of his congregation, who trust him to be their shepherd. I cannot tell you how despicable I find that — though perhaps it says something about the quality of faith among his flock that their pastor doesn’t believe in God, and they can’t tell.

If fate had taken a different turn, these guys would’ve been swampland real estate salesmen. They’re very casual about feeding people a line that they don’t believe themselves, and they don’t even have pure motives for doing that.

The study seems interesting, and Dreher searches it for an explanation of this phenomenon, but I don’t think it reveals anything new about clergy or the state of modern Christianity.  It’s just another validation of what human nature is.  Pastors are people, and people are riddled with doubt and fear and selfishness.  True faith and self-sacrifice are rare things, and we should be thankful when we find them.