Dancing with demagogues: How preachers, presidents and prosecutors manipulate fear


This post was written a couple of months back when Paige Patterson’s fall from grace was making headlines, Donald Trump was fomenting a war of words with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and an award-winning podcast was exposing the egregious sins of Mississippi prosecutor Doug Evans.  Patterson, Trump and Evans, I argue, share a troubling propensity.

What is Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary going to do with the stained glass portraits of Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler now that the fathers of the “conservative resurgence” have fallen from grace?

The allegations against Pressler have been piling up for decades, but things got a whole lot more serious in April when “In separate court affidavits filed this month,” the Houston Chronicle reported, “two men say Paul Pressler molested or solicited them for sex in a pair of incidents that span nearly 40 years. Those accusations were filed as part of a lawsuit filed last year by another man who says he was regularly raped by Pressler.”

By the time the Southern Baptist Convention met in Dallas in mid-June, Southwestern Seminary’s firingof Paige Patterson was at issue. Patterson had been accused of counseling women that wifely submission requires staying in physically abusive marriages.

A motion to punish the trustees responsible for Patterson’s dismissal went down in flames after a seminary trustee revealed that Patterson had repeatedly refused to respond publicly to the accusations against him. The seminary president wouldn’t even meet with his own trustees. And when the board made Patterson president emeritus with permission to live out his days on campus with his full salary, Patterson asserted that his golden parachute was illegal.

In late May, Al Mohler, president of Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, published a blog post with an alarming title: “The Wrath of God Poured out—The Humiliation of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

“The church must make every appropriate call to law enforcement,” Mohler said, “and recognize the rightful God-ordained responsibility of civil government to protect, to investigate, and to prosecute.”

The operative word in that last sentence is “prosecute.” Mohler is suggesting that the issues at hand have legal as well as moral implications and might have to be resolved in a courtroom.

Pressler and Patterson are widely hailed as the architects of the “conservative resurgence” in the SBC. Together, they barnstormed across 15 southern states, sometimes delivering 50 jeremiads in a single week. Liberal professors and seminary presidents, they told the faithful, simply didn’t believe the Bible.

The fight in the SBC was really about the challenge of the civil rights movement and the proper role of women. Pressler and Patterson knew they would lose if they made these issues front and center, so they defended the inerrancy of scripture.

The strategy worked beautifully because most Southern Baptists grew up in an ecclesiastical bubble where serious talk about the sacred book was verboten. Step outside that bubble and you see men like Pressler and Patterson for who they are.  They are demagogues who will say whatever it takes to win. It’s so obvious you want to laugh . . . or cry.

But the bubble blinds us to the dangers of demagoguery until, in the fullness of time, the foundation crumbles and the walls come tumbling down. Even then, it’s hard to admit the truth. When you are addicted to pretty lies, you will do anything for the next fix.

But it isn’t just religious people who are tempted to dance with demagogues. It’s a truism that politicians lie to us. We might not vote for them if they didn’t. But the mendacity of Donald J. Trump is unprecedented. And his powers of persuasion are mystifying.

Prior to his trip to the G-7 conference in Quebec, 94 percent of Americans held a positive view of Canada; now it’s down to 66 percent. And God knows how far my native land has fallen in the estimation of Trump’s political base.

We’ve all heard the infamous quip: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters.” This may not be hyperbole. Trump’s appeal is baffling, even to Trump.

The 45th president follows the Pressler-Patterson formula. Keep telling people that they’ve been right all along and you will be buried in boundless gratitude.

The folks who fell for Pressler and Patterson in the 1980s are the same folks who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. They all live in the same bubble.

Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, sticks his head outside the bubble just often enough to be repelled by the man who would be king. But because Moore doesn’t speak for the Southern Baptist majority, Trump brushed him aside with a single tweet: “Russell Moore is truly a terrible representative of Evangelicals and all of the good they stand for. A nasty guy with no heart!”

If you want to know why so many of your neighbors are willing to dance with demagogues, consider what happens when these people step outside their bubble.  They hear Rachel Maddow sharing her deep suspicions about Donald Trump’s connection to the Russian mob. They hear feminists accuse them of pimping the patriarchy. People of color denounce their white privilege. The home of the brave and the land of the free is dismissed as a pathologically racist, patriarchal, imperialistic, militaristic and homophobic hate factory. Capitalism is nothing but a poverty-making machine. And then Colin Kaepernick takes a knee during the national anthem.

So they duck back under their bubble, flip on Fox News and cheer lustily every time Trump promises to Make America Great Again.

And it isn’t just preachers and politicians who are tempted to play the demagogue; I’ve seen prosecutors do it too.

In the summer of 1996, four people were murdered, execution style, in a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi. Doug Evans, the recently-elected district attorney, fingered a young, black gospel singer named Curtis Flowers for the crime. The evidence was weak and circumstantial, but there was lots of it. Cookie Hallmon, a career criminal who has testified in four separate trials that Curtis confessed to the crime when the two men shared a cell, provided the state with its only piece of direct evidence.

In my experience, it takes topflight legal representation and the sustained attention of major media to turn a case like this around. To that end, I have spent the past decade investigating and blogging about the case. Curtis has had excellent legal representation for years, but media attention has been spotty at best.

And then I got a call from Madeleine Baran with American Public Media’s In the Dark podcast.  After spending two full days in my living room peppering me with questions, Madeleine’s team spent a full year camped out in central Mississippi, digging through musty old court records and interviewing everyone who is even tangentially associated with the Flowers case.

They even talked to Cookie Hallmon, the state’s star witness.

Hallmon admits that he is a career criminal who used his testimony against Flowers as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Over, and over and over. The last time Hallmon was back on the streets, he murdered three people, including his girlfriend and her mother. Now, like Flowers, Hallmon is languishing in Parchman prison – the difference being that Cookie is in for life while Curtis has a date with the needle.

Reached by the In the Dark team on a contraband cell phone, Hallmon chuckled derisively when asked about his trial testimony. “As for him tellin’ me he killed some people, hell no, he ain’t never told me that,” Hallmon admitted without a flicker of remorse. “That was a lie. I don’t know nothin’ about this shit. It was all make believe.”

Reached for comment, Evans assured reporters that when Hallmon testified in court he was telling the truth.

“I found myself shouting at my phone just now, listening to Doug Evans” a British reader of my blog told me last week after listening to In the Dark. “It’s devastating and infuriating. The disregard for someone’s life I just can’t understand.”

To understand Evans, you have to understand what was going on in Granada, Mississippi, his home town, circa 1966, and how that agonizing saga has impacted subsequent events. The In the Dark team combed through all five courthouses in Evans’ district and found that, in the hundreds of trials he has prosecuted since his election in 1992, Evans has been almost five times as likely to strike black people from the jury pool as he has white people.

Evans likes to work with bubble people. Like Paige Patterson and Donald Trump, DA Evans gets convictions by telling white juries what they want, expect and demand to believe.

It’s a dance. The demagogue needs the bubble people and the bubble people need the demagogue. From the outside it all looks like madness, while inside the bubble everything seems sensible, inevitable and right.

But what happens when the bubble breaks?


3 thoughts on “Dancing with demagogues: How preachers, presidents and prosecutors manipulate fear

  1. Alan. Who are the two people in the illustration at the top of your post, the one on the right appears to be female but your text talks about 2 male proponents of the SBC.

    Regards, Carl

  2. While I detest Trump’s personality, his tendency to exaggerate and be hostile and vindictive, here comes the but. He is on to something legitimate. After World War II, our country benevolently entered into one sided trade deals to help economies damaged by war get back on their feet. Our politicians, enjoying the glow of prestige, allowed it to continue to this day. What happened? It is a fact. Jobs go where the money goes. Economy and jobs in industrial states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan were gutted. Jobs moved to other countries. We buy about $500 billion a year from China while they buy only about $140 billion from us. Trump, a business man who understands money, tapped into the misery and anger. He is not exaggerating much when he claims we rebuilt China. One sided trade deals have been an indirect form of foreign aid no longer justified. Reality eventually intrudes on theories.

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