The Patheos Series on The Future of Evangelicalism

I was pleased to be asked to write an entry in Patheos’ series on The Future of Evangelicalism. My piece is called The Fragmentation of Evangelicalism and you can read it here.

If you just want the bottom line, here is my conclusion.

The next decade of evangelical life will be hotly contested within the group we’d consider as convictional Christians. The question, as Baylor theologian Roger Olson wrote this month, is whether the evangelical tent is large enough to handle the discussions and differences.

It would serve evangelicals well in the coming decade to return to David Bebbington’sdefinitional criteria for evangelicalism: high regard for scripture, the importance of Christ’s death on the cross, the need for conversion, and the need to share God’s Good News.

If evangelicalism can focus on affirming these core principles, even while disagreeing on broader issues, its impact on society will be substantial. If evangelicalism can’t build a big enough tent around those central pillars, it will mire in conflict and fade into irrelevance.

“Racism as a Visceral Experience”: Ta-nehisi Coates’ New Book

This is one of the greatest sociological paradoxes: what we call race is an imaginary social construction and at the same time one of the most powerful forces shaping American lives.

Geneticists tell us that the commonalities of individual DNA run extremely high, that the characteristics we use to distinguish what we call race are widely distributive phenomenon. In short, race does not exist as a biological marker.

Race certainly exists as a social marker. It matters in a wide range of social dynamics, from criminal justice to schooling to employment to lifespan. Those social dynamics can be seen in differential rates of educational completion, of median income, of incarceration. Such data is readily available to anyone who will look.

The statistics depend on what we sociologists call The Ecological Fallacy — extrapolating from aggregated data to make sense of individual behavior. They call us to look for policy solutions without understanding how those social dynamics play out on the ground.

In May of 2014, Ta-nehisi Coates wrote a masterful work in The Atlantic laying out The Case for Reparations. In that 15,000 word article, he described the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, housing policy, criminal justice policy, and much more. His work has been supplemented by a host of others, especially since the Baltimore protests, that illustrate the imbedded nature of inequality into our taken-for-granted life in America.

Now Coates has supplemented that structural work with a very personal view in his new book, Between the World and Me. Written as testimony to his then-15-year-old son Samori, it describes how Coates attempted to navigate the terrain of race in America. The title refers to the gulf that exists between the world he saw on television — of boys trading baseball cards and playing with cars in nice suburban houses — with his own reality growing up.

The book appropriately uncovers that fictions of race. I am, as he frequently writes, one-who-thinks-I-am-white. But Coates reminds me regularly that I am not. I am a member of the species homo-sapien and the fact that I have less melatonin than others does not change my connection to them.

To exert privilege based on race I must pretend that race exists in an ontological sense. The structural inequality that is present in society requires us to regularly affirm that fiction.

There is a further sense in which Coates’ book spoke to me. While my fiction of thinking-I-am-white requires me to play cognitive games, the reality of being black is experienced in the body as well as the mind. He writes:

But all our phrasing— race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy— serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.

This bodily reality of one’s social location is daunting. Coates writes of how to behave on his boyhood streets of Baltimore with tough kids, of how to hold his body in school to show acquiescence, of how to protect his body against authority figures, of how to experience discipline in his home. All of them impact, limit, and threaten to harm the body. Such a visceral reality is as far removed from my experience as those baseball card traders Coates saw on commercials were from his.

The reality of real bodily risk as historical fact and always potential present is what drew Coates to Malcom for inspiration. The “arc of the moral universe is long and bends toward justice” doesn’t work for Coates. In part, this may be as result of his atheism which makes such grand hope just too idealistic. But as he said on Charlie Rose shortly before the book was released, it is also because everyone who fought for that justice died. Their bodies were broken and destroyed.

This is the story of Eric Garner, of Michael Brown, of Tayvon Martin, and so many many more. It is true that their deaths have raised social consciousness but change is slow. A man was shot to death in Cincinnati as I write this. He failed to stop for a traffic infraction (he was missing his front license plate) which ended in him being shot in the head as he fled. He had been in trouble with the law but the fact that his body was so easily put at risk is a key part of the story. This is why the police buying the Charleston shooter a burger before booking is so outrageous or why pictures of Texas bikers sitting on the curb is so jarring.

Social commentators may find it tempting to write of cultural dynamics, of family disruption, of black-on-black crime. But such arguments fail to address the basic fact that these dynamics of culture, family, and violence happen in other segments of society without death being such a likely outcome. They fail to consider how Coates himself is the product of educated, intact families, striving for economic success. They fail to address how Coates’ Howard University friend Prince Jones, the middle class son of a radiologist, could be shot dead at a traffic stop. If a highly articulate born-again leader like Prince would be seen as a body to be disposed of, what hope is there for a kid from Baltimore or Ferguson? What can Coates offer Samori except to learn to watch himself? Here’s his advice near the end of the book.

Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world. But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness. Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious. And you are here now, and you must live— and there is so much out there to live for, not just in someone else’s country, but in your own home.

I’ll be honest — this was a difficult read. It reminded me of how insulated and isolated my life is. But also of how I follow a Jesus who identified with those in need. Who worked for justice and righteousness bodily, including the sacrifice of his life at the whim of those in authority. Of how I should follow that path but so often fall short.

I do not experience the bodily threat that Ta-Nehisi Coates so well articulates in this book. But I need to be reminded of it. To put myself in that place where I’m aware of risk of harm.

Twitter seems to be in a state over the issue of #Blacklivesmatter or if we should say #Alllivesmatter. What Coates points out to me is that #Eachlifematters. Anything that puts that at risk must be confronted, especially by those of us who think we are white.

Religious Liberty in Christian Universities: Responding to the ERLC list

The past few days have certainly been ones for lists. First Kevin DeYoung posts 40 questions for those support same-sex marriage. Then several others post 40 questions for those opposed. Then there are lists of responses to both sets of questions. These are not likely to change many minds.

For those following such discussions, I’d call your attention to two sources of great interest to me. First, Harold Heie has launched another Respectful Conversation; this one on Christian Faithfulness and Human Sexuality. If it is like the past two years’ series on Politics and Evangelical Futures (respectively), it should be worth bookmarking. Another source I’ve found very enlightening comes from Southern Nazarene church historian/theologian Tim Crutcher. He’s been unpacking a very interesting series titled “A Rose By Any Other Name: A Radical Moderate Approach to Marriage” on the church’s response to same-sex marriage (the first post is here and you can click through to parts two and three).

ERLCMy purpose in this post, however, is to engage an argument put forward by Phillip Bethancourt, Executive Vice President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. A former administrator at Southern Seminary, he addressed The Top 10 Religious Liberty Threats for Christian Higher Education. I don’t know Dr. Betancourt but I know the ERLC has done some good work. Their president Russell Moore has been exemplary as a voice of reason in recent months and my friend Karen Swallow Prior is a Fellow at ERLC.

Bethancourt’s ten points are similar to many I have read in recent years and especially since the Obergefell decision on same-sex marriage (e.g., this summary in Inside Higher Ed). I want to address his concerns carefully because they are important issues.

In some cases, I think his points are one-sided and that the challenges are even more complex than he suggests. In other cases, there is a danger of wolf-whistling. In still others, his facts are not quite right. I’ll address his arguments one by one.

1. Accreditation Issues: He raises concerns that the regional accrediting associations will come after Christian Universities.  I addressed some of this worry in a post I wrote on Gordon College, which he uses as an example. In fact, he says that the Northeast Association launched “a probe” of Gordon after last summer’s letter to President Obama from their president (and others). The NEASC clearly stated in March that the request asking Gordon to review their policy was a routine response to being in the news and not an issue of institutional accreditation. As I wrote, institutional identity is central to accrediting bodies and they are likely to protect it. In addition some accreditors actually come from Christian institutions — I just learned that one of the VPs of the Northwest Commission is the former VPAA at Seattle Pacific University. I’m sure he’s not alone among the accrediting regions.

2. Tax-Exempt Status: Much of this concern stems from an exchange between Justice Alito and Solicitor General Virrilli dealing with the 1983 Bob Jones decision removing tax exempt status from the university because of its ban on interracial dating. If Christian institutions ban homosexual behavior on campus, won’t they face the same scenario? Many people have grabbed hold of this interchange, but I don’t think the comparison with Bob Jones holds. Randall Balmer’s analysis shows that the BJU tax case was directly related to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. President Nixon had ordered the IRS denied tax exemption to schools that segregated in light of the Act’s designation of race as a protected class in federal law. Sexual Orientation isn’t a federally protected class (although it is in some states). Furthermore, nothing in Obergefell deals with discrimination against LGBTQ individuals but instead focuses on state licensure of marriages.

3. Financial Issues: Bethancourt focuses on two precarious situations at the federal level. What if religious schools no longer have access to pell grants or subsidized loans? Financial issues are the largest challenge to Christian institutions whether that’s seen as a religious freedom issue or not. But the notion that federal changes would come about removing by Christian schools’ access seems both politically and legally unlikely. The Supreme Court struck down laws banning same-sex consensual behavior in 2003 in the Lawrence decision. If that were determinative for Christian institutions, we would have already seen such restrictions suggested at the policy level. There are larger financial implications of same-sex policies at Christian schools. The largest may be a potential loss of students from a generation more amenable to SSM. For institutions that are heavily tuition dependent, not addressing sexual orientation could present a real long-term problem.

4. Donor Issues: He argues that loss of tax exemption (#2) would lessen charitable giving. More important, there is a risk that donors might be shamed for giving to institutions portrayed as discriminatory. This is a potential risk, but not necessarily a large one. Most CCCU donors are small gifts or life estates. It also is quite plausible that a more open and affirming Christian university would find itself the darling of Gen-X alums who are more progressive and have some measure of disposable income.

5. External Relations Issues: This is my primary point of agreement with Bethancourt. Christian Universities are increasingly finding themselves caught in an untenable situation. One the one hand are traditionalist supporters and denominational groups who expect fidelity to past positions. On the other are younger alums (like the OneWheaton group) who are advocating for changes to university policy. Both constituent groups are critical and figuring out how to engage both is going to be increasingly difficult. This isn’t really a religious freedom issue but it is important nonetheless.

6. Student Issues: This section deals with issues of student lifestyle restrictions. How can schools prohibit homosexual behavior? Again, these are issues already raised in Lawrence. These require schools to look closely at their lifestyle policies to make sure they are properly connected to institutional identity. It’s worth noting that Baylor announced an adjustment to their policy last week changing their prohibition to premarital sex without singling out homosexual behavior. Other schools will likely quickly follow suit. Bethancourt also discusses issues with married students and student housing. This is one area with direct Obergefell impact. As I suggested in my earlier post on the impending court decision, if students are legally married by the state, this is one accommodation Christian Institutions might make. An alternative strategy is to privatize apartments near campus so that they are no longer college housing (which impacts the financial issues in #3).

7. Community Issues: In this section, Bethancourt correctly acknowledges that local media will not carefully nuance the college’s position. Not knowing the rationale for the traditional position, media and community figures might take the most negative view, impacting town-gown relationships. He uses Gordon College’s issues with the Lynn school district as an example of not being able to place student teachers. Two points here. First, Lynn is not GC’s “local school district” but is about 15 miles away. Second, there have been some early indications that Lynn overreached. This is a good reminder that the tensions between religious freedom and non-discrimination ordinances will require a lot of back and forth as we figure out the right balance.

8. Recruiting and Retention Issues: In this section, he raises a host of issues that involve student attitudes, faculty recruiting, and institutional reputation. He frames the concerns around the institution’s ability to not accept gay students and concerns of faculty worrying about long-term career issues. I would argue that we have long been accepting gay students (knowingly or unknowingly). This is why the handbook issues in #6 are important. It is also true that the millennial generation is far more likely to be supportive of SSM. It may be much harder to recruit those students to schools that do not address this important questions. When it comes to faculty issues, most faculty already face career choices about Christian schools and the assumptions made about them as candidates for other positions. I’m not sure that issues of same-sex marriage change that.

9. Employment Issues: This combines very real concerns about hiring faculty and staff with those of graduates having a hard time being hired because of the stance of the school. The second of these is a restatement of #7 and again is true to the same extent small Christian colleges already face. It’s possible that employers now hiring Christian college graduates might change their policy in light of Obergefell, but it’s hard to imagine this is a large number. The primary issue Betancourt raises here is about hiring faculty and staff. This is the most important issue on his list and is the one most directly impacted by the Supreme Court decision. It is the most urgent matter for Christian Institutions to carefully engage.

10. Doctrinal Issues: Bethancourt concludes by suggesting that schools solidify their institutional statements of faith. Again, he links this to the Supreme Court decision and I’d argue that this is not something impacted by Obergefell. He suggests that schools without a clear doctrinal statement are at greater risk of institutional crisis. Again, I would suggest an alternative. Wesleyan, Pietist, and Pentecostal institutions — more focused on experience, discipleship, and the leading of the Spirit — might actually be better positioned to avoid crisis that those institutions driven by doctrinal statements.

Here is how Bethancourt closes his article:

For those who are invested in the future of Christian higher education, these are the top 10 areas where schools face religious liberty threats. Granted, all of these issues may not materialize—and certainly not all at the same school. But they are the areas with the most potential for risk.

As Christian colleges and seminaries look to the future, they must think through their strategy in each of these 10 categories to determine how they will overcome the religious liberty risks created by the recent Supreme Court marriage ruling.

I appreciate what he has attempted to do in this piece. Even though I think many of the points require more nuance, these are important issues (although not all are impacted by the recent decision).

At the same time, struggling over perceived threats to religious liberty seems a limited strategy for moving forward. My Wesleyanism is showing, but I’m far more encouraged by what happens in interpersonal engagement. While I was working on this post, I came across this story in the Washington Post. It reports on the new friendship between Robert Vander Plaats, founder of Iowa’s Family Leader (a conservative evangelical organization) and Donna Red Wing, founder of the One Iowa LGBT advocacy organization.

But when they ran into each other on the day the Supreme Court declared that same-sex couples could marry anywhere in the country, crossing paths between dueling interviews at a local TV station studio, they locked eyes.

And then they hugged.

It gives me reason for great hope. The next few years will be messy as we work through these various issues. But we are still confident that God is in control and the Spirit is working. That is what allows staunch opponents to find themselves in a hug.

Seeing the Big Picture

I watched Wednesday night’s horrific events at Emmanuel AME unfold on twitter. From 9PM to 1AM, I sat here trying to process what I was seeing as details emerged. Among a variety of voices, three seemed to be speaking to me the most: Austin Channing, Anthea Butler, and Joshua DuBois (twitter handles @austinchanning, @AntheaButler, @joshuadubois respectively).

What I read ran the gamut of emotions; anger, loss, betrayal, pain, disorientation. It was important for me to experience all of that as it unfolded without trying to put things into quick categories of cause and effect. As a white man, I needed to simply see these murders through the eyes of those struggling to process.

As it turns out, all three of them wrote very thoughtful and important pieces in the days that followed. Austin Channing shared her unedited reactions on her blog on Thursday morning. In the Washington Post, Anthea Butler asked why we struggled over using the word “terrorist” to describe the shooter (a question the Department of Justice picked up Friday afternoon). Joshua DuBois posted an excellent and important piece on Friday in The Daily Beast (after doing a fabulous job on Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show).

One of the other consistent themes on my twitter feed was a critique of the media and pundits. Why wasn’t this breaking news on the cable stations from 9:00? When the coverage did start, why did commentators immediately go to mental illness and lone wolf? Why was there such an unwillingness to use the phrase Hate Crime?

Hate Crime showed up in air quotes in many publications. Even NPR used the phrase “what many are calling a Hate Crime” late Thursday afternoon. This in spite of the fact that the Charleston police started using the term Hate Crime in their briefings Wednesday night. (I’m not even going to address the ludicrous claim that it was an attack against people of faith in direct contradiction to the killer’s own words!)

This got me thinking about the power of narrative. Is there a larger story people are responding to or a series of isolated and perhaps unrelated events?

seurat-jatte-dots-microdetaConsider the picture on the left. Let’s suppose each dot represents an event related to issues of race in America in the past year. There was that one event that involved Michael Brown (let’s make that the green in the upper left). There was the Freddie Gray death (the pink spot). And so on.

Each event can be seen as independent of the rest and people can focus energies on what that particular officer did or how that teen behaved or why those people burned the CVS. We polarize our views on these questions and somehow consider the situation unresolvable because each group has their talking points.

But there was something else I noticed on the twitter feed Wednesday night and after. People were asking, “how can this happen again?” They weren’t looking at Charleston as a horrific one-time tragedy but as the next instance in a long series of tragedies.

They were wrestling against the broader narrative. The one we don’t like to talk about because it’s harder than pointing fingers at bad cops or black-on-black crime or the rest.

The picture on the right is my attempt to illustrate the difference.

It’s Suerat’s La Grand Jete (Sunday in the Park). If Sueratyou know your art history, you know this painting is famous for the introduction of pointillism: the creation of an image from a series of very small brush strokes.

Consider this simple listing of events since last August:

Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 11.24.55 AM copy

To keep my metaphor going, the list above is just a summary of what’s happening in the foreground where the dog is. When I step back and look at the larger picture, a narrative become clear. These events happen on an ever more frequent basis and show signs of moving farther and farther away from direct threat situations. There is a context here that seems to clearly say: Blacks are seen as a threat by the broader society and they are aware of that precarious status.

The comments of the Emmanuel killer bear witness to that narrative: “you rape our women and are taking over our country“.

The story we should be discussing is this one of ongoing marginalization and degradation of Blacks in America.

The curious thing about our refusal to build these narratives is that we do it all the time in other circumstances. The “War on Christmas” narrative requires taking isolated events by individual actors and imagining some grand conspiracy fostered by those in the media who won’t call out the War or those in academe who ridicule people of faith. Never mind that these are also rare and disconnected.

Or the absolutely silly attempt to somehow connect Rachel Dolezal’s passing for black with Caitlyn Jenner’s transgender story. This is like suggesting that the images in Seurat’s Grande Jete are part of the same picture as Monet because they both have water lilies. Or that Seurat and Van Gogh are really pursuing the same style.

The truth is that cable news and the internet love narrative. They create them all the time.

They repeat statements (or don’t critique them) from politicians and pundits saying “who knows why the killer acted?”. But we do know – it’s part of the picture. Then just aren’t looking.

So why not tell the story of race in America? Why not look for the linkages between public policy, mass incarceration, economic disruption, law enforcement strategy, a “Southern strategy”, residential segregation, and educational discrimination?

The big picture is easy to see if we step back and look at it. It just takes some intentionality and a willingness to live in the midst of the realities expressed by our Black brothers and sisters.

It’s a matter of will.

Random Religion Reflections on a Wednesday

A number of things have caught my attention over the last few days. I’ve been trying to figure out how to tie them together in a nice coherent essay, but I can’t get there. So rather than spend a week crafting this post, I decided it was prudent to write some general reflections:

1. What role can congregations play in mitigating what Bill Bishop called The Big Sort?

One of the principle sociological processes of the 21st century is our tendency to stay in lifestyle enclaves. In suburban rings, these show up as gated communities (whether real or imagined). In inner-cities, they look like ghettos (in the technical and historical sense of the term). This separation has significant consequences for social policy.

This weekend, my friend Scott Emery posted a Washington Post article by Emily Badger (If you care about urban policy at all, follow Emily on twitter at @emilymbadger). Her article, titled “How our cars, our neighborhoods, and our schools are pulling us apart” summarizes work done by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone as well as other works. The byproduct of such separation is a lessening in interaction even with those in our neighborhoods and a general sense of distrust of people in general.

I shared the piece on Facebook with this question: “What would it take for the local congregation to be one place that counters this trend?” What if our churches were the places where people interacted with those different than themselves, shared meals, and actually shared lives?

I was thinking of a research project I conducted in the early 90s. I had hypothesized that congregations played a key role in linking various voluntary associations within a community. I examined the social networks within three congregations as well as their associational memberships. I found limited support for my hypothesis, in part because I focused on bonding capital (friendship) instead of bridging capital (information flow and problem solving). I completely ignored Grannovetter’s “Strength of Weak Ties” that I’ve written about.

If we put a priority on both bonding and bridging capital in the local congregation, we’d do a great deal to counter the dynamics we’re seeing in the news. Local churches could be key sources of revitalizing communities while living out the call as the Body of Christ.

Emily Badger wrote another story about how the gentrification of urban areas can be a good thing if it means expanding jobs and services to previously isolated inner cities.  If millennials are disproportionately moving to cities and inner suburbs, their local congregations might be key to transformation. That is, if they don’t all settle for non-church community.

2. Attendance Still Matters

This was a theme I explored a couple of weeks back when I analyzed the 2007 Pew Religious Landscape study. In that post, I argued that you cannot really understand what it happening in evangelical and mainline religion by looking at membership apart from attendance. There are lots of folks who claim religious identification who rarely go to church and they shouldn’t be part of our calculations of what’s changing (or not) in the religious world. For example, the data on “church switchers” needs to take into consideration that 1 in 5 of those claiming a childhood faith rarely if ever went to church.

With the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention happening this week, there was news of a continuing membership decline. The SBC has lost 800,000 members since 2003. Trevin Wax wrote a nice analysis for Religion News Service exploring factors contributing to this change. He identifies four issues: the rise of nondenominationalism, lower birthrates, changes in attendance, and lessened outreach. It’s the third one that got my attention:

Several years ago, Southern Baptists began a conversation on membership and church discipline. After a resolution was passed encouraging pastors to be more accurate in reporting, many churches cleaned up their rolls as a way of moving toward “meaningful membership.”

To put this another way, it’s not just mainline churches who had “cultural Christians” — people who claimed religious identification but didn’t attend. This is significant to the whole “church decline” argument. If what we’re seeing is a shift away from casual membership, this is good for congregations. But it also means that what we used to see as the dominance of religion in society may have been substantially overstated.

3. Belonging is Prior to Believing.

There are many who would argue this the other way around, that right belief is a condition for belonging. But I think that’s bad social psychology. We have a desire to be accepted for who we are and to work through our differences as a condition of remaining in a group. If we are not allowed to be ourselves and to ask legitimate questions we have, there are serious social costs that result which play out in a number of ways. I wonder how many church conflicts, power struggles, gossip sessions, and fights over music style are really about identity more than content.

David Hayward shared this cartoon yesterday. He explained that this venn diagram describes his relationship to the church. But I find it has a deeper meaning.

If the left circle is who I am, then a small slice of me is allowed at church. Conversely, much of the work of the church has little impact on how I live my life. I’d label the overlap (which he labels “complicated”) as authentic identity.

Consider the lessons shared in this piece from Leadership Journal yesterday. Oneya Fennel Okuwobi explained the steps involved in building a truly multi-ethnic congregation: 1) Take time to listen; 2) Empathize with Outsiders; and 3) Going beyond a veneer of peace. These aren’t just lessons for dealing with ethnic or racial diversity — they are the steps toward true community.

The desire for community is not simply a millennial preference (although they may be less likely to hang around in its absence). This was the dominant theme in Church Refugees — those Done With Church simply couldn’t find the resources to keep going in the face of such denial of identity.

4. Rethinking Congregational Life

This is the central theme I wanted to weave together but I realized that I really need help from people who are involved in ministry on a week to week basis. But it seems to me that if we wanted our congregations to be places that people invested in, that impacted their communities, and that made belonging central, we’d do some things differently.

Perhaps we need to recognize the small group ministries are an admission that people aren’t at home in the congregation. They go to church and they “do life” in their groups. Why is this? What would it look like for us to do life on Sunday (making Hayward’s overlap a little bigger)?

Two of the schools I’ve worked at have had cohort based degree programs for adults. When you go to commencement and hear people speak of their experience, you find that their loyalty resides with Group 23 and not with the institution. Have we done the same thing in the local church?

I’ve been looking over some recent books by disaffected millennials. In seeing where they struggled with congregational life, we might gain insights into the questions we need to pursue (even if I’m not ready for answers yet). In Erin Lane’s excellent Lessons in Belonging, she shares some concrete ideas.

a. Identify peoples’ gifts (my edit: not in terms of what the church needs done but what gives them fulfillment — it’s called Asset Based Community Development)

b. Create safe space for sharing one’s life, maybe by limiting conversation to just a few minutes without judgment

c. Have everyone wear name tags at church (and make enough time for real conversation and not just a handshake)

d. Have set aside times where people share their faith journey

e. Be genuinely interested in those with views different than our own (including those outside the church).

I’d love to see these ideas blended into the actual worship service and not simply things around the edges. What if the sermon was in two parts — a presentation by the pastor, a reflection from a member, and a response from the pastor? What if people’s journeys were a regular part of conversation? (I have gone to church with people for years and not known what they did for a living before they retired or how many kids they have.)

We could have congregations that filled the void in our communities small and large. But to do so requires us to question our practices for this post-Christian society.

I saw a story today about a speech Nadia Bolz-Weber gave to the UCC in Massachusetts. Here’s an excerpt:

Bolz-Weber said people shouldn’t take the Pew Research Center surveys showing fewer people are attending church to mean that they don’t care about Christianity anymore.

That would be like saying because there are no phone booths, no one cares about talking on the phone anymore, or because there are no more Blockbuster stores, no one cares about being able to watch movies at home, she said.

So what does it mean for local congregations like mine to rethink how we do what we do in the same way cellphones and Netflix have changed their respective dynamics? I don’t have answers worked out but I think I’m headed toward some possible answers.

Christian Universities After the Supreme Court Decision on Same Sex Marriage

Three disclaimers before I dive in: 1) This blog has always been my own thinking and in no way represents the positions or policies of any of the institutions I’ve served; 2) I am not arguing for or against same-sex marriage from religious grounds; 3) my attempts here are simply to explore the political and ethical responses Christian Universities may need to consider if the Supreme Court expands same-sex marriage rights nationally.

Sometime in the next three weeks, the Supreme Court will hand down a key decision on marriage in America. There are actually four separate cases being considered, organized around two questions:

Issue: 1) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex? 2) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state? (

The first question involves the Michigan definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. The plaintiffs argue that this violates the 14th amendment rights of equal treatment because they are gay. The second question stems from Tennessee’s position that they wouldn’t recognize same-sex marriages authorized in other states.

I listened to the oral arguments in April (available here and here). None of the attorneys arguing made an airtight case and faced significant questioning and some skepticism from the Justices, especially on issue one. It seems to me that the Justices correctly wrestled with what I’d call the “legacy question” — can the court simply adopt a new definition of marriage when, as many argued, such an idea as same-sex marriage wasn’t recognized by any governmental authority prior to this century. They rejected attempts to tie marriage to procreation or to link same-sex rights to civil rights 50 years earlier. But it seemed like the legacy issue remained — they did not want to be known as the Court that changed marriage forever.

The second question, the one about recognition, seemed easier for the Justices to see their way through. There is a long history of jurisprudence on recognizing state sovereignty as it affects those who move from one state to another. Key questions to me involved how states accept varying definitions of the age of marriage and don’t differentiate just because the woman was “underage” according to the new state. Since 1823, the Court has consistently held the right of free movement and limited the ability of states to supersede the rights of their neighboring states.

This is a long introduction, but it’s important to set the stage for what I think is going to happen. After hearing the arguments, it suddenly dawned on me that the Court’s most pragmatic solution is to side with Michigan on question one (affirming the vote of the people) while siding with the plaintiffs in Tennessee (requiring states to recognize same-sex marriages from other states). The practical impact of this would be to enable same-sex couples to marry in affirming states and then move back to their home state to live. In essence, the second question nullifies the first until such time that states with same-sex marriage bans vote to overturn them (which, if polling data is correct, is likely to happen within a couple of elections).

So if I’m right (and I’m pretty sure about question two), Christian Universities will find themselves struggling to know how to respond.

One option is to claim a religious exemption by demonstrating that support of one-man, one-woman marriage is central to their operation. I’m not sure that will survive legal challenge, especially as many Christian institutions have made space for divorce and remarriage. Besides, this is an argument about employees more than about students. Making the “essential” argument would be difficult, force the institution into dogmatic language inconsistent with its key ethos, and open the door to claims of hypocrisy or homophobia.

If Christian Universities take the chance to seriously engage the question, what are the issues that need attention?

1. I think the key issue is to draw a bright line around marriage. When it comes to student behavior, there should be clear proscriptions against premarital sex. There is no need to separate same-sex behavior as a special class of activity. If a student is married, sexual behavior is permitted — otherwise not. Yes, this raises the possibility that a same-sex couple attending the university is engaging in sexual behavior but we can allow state law to take precedence in this matter. On a pragmatic note, with the number of commuters and non-traditional students in our institutions, it’s impossible to even know who is in a same-sex marriage. (Unless we were to make that a question on the admission application, which would face significant legal challenge.)

2. Students will want an institutional space for conversations about sexual orientation. One of the interesting developments over the weekend involved the Madeleine L’Engle’s family foundation giving $5,000 to OneWheaton, an unofficial group of current and former Wheaton students who are gay or gay allied. The money will be used to offset costs of a conference this fall. Of particular note, however, is that the gift was unsolicited. This was an attempt by an outside group (well connected within evangelical circles) to have an impact. In his story for Religion News Service, Jonathan Merritt quoted L’Engle’s grandaughter who chairs the foundation:

My grandmother had a long and deep relationship with Wheaton College and its English Department, and she was enriched by some of the vigorous debates she had with faculty and students there. I believe that the kinds of conversations OneWheaton is seeking to have reflect where she would be if she were still here.

I fully expect other groups to follow the L’Engle foundation’s lead in years to come. Such action will strengthen the voice of the One college groups. Rather than see these as competing yet unofficial voices within the institution, Christian Universities will be well suited to find ways of making them official parts of their student organization universe.

This will lead to a third issue.

3. Christian Universities will need to affirm that there are legitimate differences of opinion within the Christians making up their community. This includes faculty, staff, students, trustees, parents, and alumni. This doesn’t mean that Christian Universities have to abandon their commitment to biblical authority. But it does require them to acknowledge that there are community members who are in complete agreement with institutional mission, confess as Christians, and see loving others (regardless of their position on same-sex marriage) as an expression of both. We will need to avoid the temptation to “explain away” the difference of opinion on sexuality by casting those who are affirming same-sex orientation and relationship (or, at least, not condemning) as somehow “not Christian”. This was what drew WorldVision to their short-lived action last year.

This week’s news of Tony Campolo and David Neff is an illustration in point. They both said that it was time for the evangelical church to move toward affirming same-sex relationships. On the one hand, Campolo’s move wasn’t surprising — he’s been heading this direction for years with help from his wife Peggy. Neff, the former editor of Christianity Today, seemed to catch more people by surprise; so much so that the current editor wrote a response that included the following:

We at CT are sorry when fellow evangelicals modify their views to accord with the current secular thinking on this matter. And we’ll continue to be sorry, because over the next many years, there will be other evangelicals who similarly reverse themselves on sexual ethics (emphasis mine).

This notion that evangelicals don’t reach difficult positions on their own is going to be hard to sustain. Far better to engage the serious discussion among colleagues in Christ. The implication given here is that “real evangelicals” know where they stand yet folks like Campolo and Neff have only been interested in aligning with secular thinking.

The diversity of thought on this issue is real. As the Public Religion Research Institute found last year, 43% of millennial evangelicals support same-sex marriage. When we consider the correlation between educational level and support of same-sex marriage, I’d imagine the data for Christian University students to be closer to 50% in favor and 50% opposed. This is a legitimate starting place for our conversations. Data has also consistently shown that an unwillingness to address these questions is one of the prime factors in millennial drain from the church. Consider this quote from the PRRI study:

“There are significant generational divisions among some religious groups regarding the effect church stances on gay and lesbian issues have on young people. A majority (55%) of white evangelical Protestant Millennials believe religious groups are turning off young people because they are being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.“

I would argue that it’s not judgmentalism that is the challenge but the inability to have real conversations.

4. We need to have a real conversation about same-sex marriages

Not in the abstract but in the specific. Given the limitations of human resource law on what one can ask in an interview about a candidate’s family situation, it is quite likely that a Christian University will find out that the top candidate for that vacancy, a committed Christian with an excellent teaching and scholarly record and a love for students, happens to be legally married to another man. In fact, I think such a discovery is right around the corner.

Or, as another colleague pointed out, those two single friends on the staff will go off and get married one weekend. This is not a potential situation but one that is quite likely for a number of reasons.

There are serious EEOC legal issues here. I believe the Christian Universities can make a positive affirmation about why heterosexual marriages are the only ones they support in hiring but much more work is needed to make that case. Certainly something more robust than “we don’t believe in that”. There is likely a clear educational case that makes such a hiring distinction essential to the ability of the institution to accomplish its goals but that must be clearly specified. Otherwise, the governmental intrusion on religious institutions that many evangelicals fear may actually come about.

My thinking on these matters has been strongly influenced by the work of John Inazu. John is a law professor at Washington University Saint Louis. He has a book coming out on his topic of Confident Pluralism. Here is an extended excerpt from the introduction he shared on twitter:

Confident Pluralism takes both confidence and pluralism seriously. Confidence without pluralism misses the reality of politics. It suppresses difference, sometimes violently. Pluralism without confidence misses the reality of people. It ignores or trivializes our stark differences for the sake of feigned agreement and false unity. Confident Pluralism allows genuine difference to coexist without suppressing or minimizing our firmly held convictions. We can embrace pluralism precisely because we are confident in our own beliefs, and in the groups and institutions that sustain them.

This confidence in our own convictions reinforces our differences and increases the risk of friction. For this reason, Confident Pluralism differs from a number of other proposals that seek consensus across difference, including various strands of Rawlsian liberalism and, before that, mid-twentieth century liberalism. It comes much closer to law professor Abner Greene’s claim that consensus proposals seek a “false solace” in attempting to overcome difference and “we do better by recognizing difference as something we can’t get past.” Confident Pluralism does not suppress or ignore conflict—it invites it.

At the same time, Confident Pluralism recognizes that we have better and worse ways to live out our own confidence and to negotiate the pluralism around us. Confident Pluralism should not be misread as the rejection of any consensus at all—it is not an invitation to anarchy. Like any serious proposal of how to live together in society, it draws upon certain shared resources and aspirations. We retain some modest unity in our diversity (emphasis his).

Whatever the Supreme Court determines in the next few weeks, we in Christian Universities will need to work our way through what it means to exhibit Confident Pluralism. We will regularly interact with those who do not share our values (including some in our own institutions).

But we need to do the hard work of really focusing on key issues, explaining those issues to any interested parties, and distinguishing the essential elements from those that are simply differences.

The future of Christian Higher education depends on our ability to engage this task.

On Maintaining Ideological Purity: Thomas Sowell, Ferguson, Baltimore, and McKinney

SowellI used to have a lot of respect for Thomas Sowell. I didn’t agree with him but I felt he was consistent with the framework of his economic argument.

My social media feed has been directing me to articles Sowell wrote for the National Review Online that speak to the unrest in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere over the past ten months. When I carefully read those articles, I don’t see argument based on conservative economic principles. What I see is distortion and misrepresentation of the circumstances on the ground in service of a dominant ideology.

It seems that maintaining ideological purity in the face of difficult social situations requires cherry picking and reinterpreting circumstances. This saddens me for two reasons: it fails to advance needed conversations as a society and it shows what extreme partisanship does to academics.

The positions Sowell espouses are supported by some isolated statistics which gives them the air of academic strength. But they are far too careless with details, as just a little research would show.

Consider the article titled The “Disparate Impact” Racket written in March after the Department of Justice released their reports on Ferguson.  The first report showed that there was no evidence that Michael Brown had been shot in the back or had his hands raised when shot. While that report didn’t “clear” Darren Wilson, it did show that original eyewitness testimony had been wrong (and there has been interesting commentary from social psychologists why this happens in bystander testimony). If you know a little about criminal justice, this isn’t surprising.

Why, then, is it necessary to ascribe negative motives to what is essentially a cognition problem? Sowell writes:

The bottom line is that all this hard evidence, and more, shows what a complete lie was behind all the stories of Michael Brown’s being shot in the back or while raising his hands in surrender. Yet that lie was repeated, and dramatized in demonstrations and riots, from coast to coast, as well as in the media and even in the halls of Congress.

Sowell’s choice of the word LIE acribes something duplicitous in those concerned with the shooting. It also detracts the reader’s attention from the tragedy of the shooting to the “hands up don’t shoot” claim. As if finding that the latter was false means that the former is as well.

The second report from the Department of Justice was about the actions of the Ferguson authorities in terms of “disparate intent” — the ways that traffic stops and minor arrests were a source of the frustrations underlying the protests in Ferguson.

Like many other uses of “disparate impact” statistics, the Justice Department’s evidence against the Ferguson police department consists of numbers showing that the percentage of people stopped by police or fined in court who are black is larger than the percentage of blacks in the local population.

The implicit assumption is that without “discriminatory intent,” these statistics would reflect the percentages of people in the population. But no matter how plausible that outcome might seem on the surface, it is seldom found in real life, and those who use this standard are seldom, if ever, asked to produce hard evidence that it is factually correct, as distinct from politically correct.

The DOJ report focused on the ways in which Ferguson used traffic stops, warrants, and fines to operate the city budget. This relied disproportionately on those who had the most difficulty making it to court, paying fines, keeping their car up to date on license and inspections. Sowell’s use of air quotes around disparate impact serves to minimize and even ridicule the claims.

While on the road this weekend, we listened to a Ferguson town hall meeting hosted by NPR’s Michel Martin two weeks after the Brown shooting.  It was clear from the comments and questions that three issues were central to the audience: disparate impact, leaving Brown’s body on the ground for 4.5 hours, and why the mayor didn’t take responsibility for the escalation from law enforcement (which, he claimed, was not from Ferguson officers).

I don’t expect Sowell to adopt an anti-Ferguson demeanor or start attaching #blacklivesmatter to every tweet. But I think it is reasonable to expect him to deal with the substance of the issues in Ferguson and not dismiss them. You can still make your claims about cultural impact without denying structural factors.

In this post-Baltimore piece last month titled The Inconvenient Truth About Ghetto Communities Social Breakdown, Sowell begins in the same place he was two month earlier:

Among the many painful ironies in the current racial turmoil is that communities scattered across the country were disrupted by riots and looting because of the demonstrable lie that Michael Brown was shot in the back by a white policeman in Missouri — but there was not nearly as much turmoil created by the demonstrable fact that a fleeing black man was shot dead by a white policeman in South Carolina.

Again, to represent issues in Baltimore as riots and not protests (followed by vandalism) is to mis-tell the story. And it’s not clear how the Brown shooting was related or that everything was about the act of shooting. The issues remain about ongoing structural discrimination.

But Sowell recasts the concerns about ongoing structural discrimination as a “legacy of slavery”:

The “legacy of slavery” argument is not just an excuse for inexcusable behavior in the ghettos. In a larger sense, it is an evasion of responsibility for the disastrous consequences of the prevailing social vision of our times, and the political policies based on that vision, over the past half century.

Anyone who is serious about evidence need only compare black communities as they evolved in the first 100 years after slavery with black communities as they evolved in the first 50 years after the explosive growth of the welfare state, beginning in the 1960s.

To sustain this argument, we need to ignore all of the post-Baltimore stories that focused on covenant agreements in 1910 up to subprime loans in 2005. The structural discrimination concern isn’t about feeling bad over slavery but about ongoing issues in the fabric of society itself. We need to ignore the data suggesting that blacks paid $16,000 more than whites for equivalent mortgages during the housing crisis.

We must also ignore the work of Michelle Alexander and Heather Thompson, who have been demonstrating the structural contributions to our heavily incarcerated society that limits job prospects, damages family structures, and impacts our politics. On the road trip I listened to a speech Michelle gave summarizing The New Jim Crow. I also listened to a lecture from Heather Thompson on how incarceration impacts voting practice. (Shocking finding: incarcerated inmates are counted in the census figures and impact district lines based on where they are incarcerated while they are barred from voting in the place where they actually live.)

Furthermore, to blame the welfare state as an alternative to institutional racism requires a standard slight of hand move: that racism existed in past days but the welfare state was expected to fix this.

I don’t know why this is a standard conservative pundit move. As a sociologist, I expect that the injustices within the society will get written into the bureaucratic rules of our institutional structures. Therefore, the structural inequality evidenced in housing and criminal justice will also be evident in welfare and food stamp policies. A more robust vision of the forces we’re up against is necessary if we are to make progress.

This month, in a piece titled The Steep Cost of Politicians Scapegoating the Police Sowell offers up a defense of law enforcement:

Baltimore is now paying the price for irresponsible words and actions, not only by young thugs in the streets, but also by its mayor and the state prosecutor, both of whom threw the police to the wolves, in order to curry favor with local voters.

He argues that black leaders, including the justice department, have been drumming up angst. The result, he claims, is “anti-police mob rampages from coast to coast that the media sanitize as ‘protests’.”

He goes on to argue that the Department of Justice “presume the police to be guilty…even after grand juries have gone over all the facts and acquitted the police.” First of all, he must be talking about Ferguson because there was a grand jury indictment in both Baltimore and South Carolina. Second, grand juries don’t acquit — they decide not to charge. It’s an important distinction.

This isn’t nitpicking. It’s central to the argument. An academic, even writing in partisan press, has a responsibility for nuance and care in looking at the complexities involved. Public figures should play a role in illumining the key questions before us as a society.

Unless they are being partisan figures first and foremost. I can agree with Sowell on this point, one he’d do well to revisit:

Racial demagoguery gains votes for politicians, money for race-hustling lawyers, and a combination of money, power, and notoriety for armies of professional activists, ideologues, and shakedown artists.

In light of yesterday’s events in McKinney, Texas, we simply can’t afford such one-sided refusal to deal with real issues confronting us in racially contested society. It’s possible to argue that this “wasn’t about race” but only if you can ignore the sight of the police having African-American kids sit on the grass and be treated as suspects while everyone else milled around. To focus on the alleged wrongdoing of some does not excuse the behavior that followed — which brings us back to the source of the protest and media outrage.

To be fair, I haven’t seen Sowell write anything yet about McKinney. But I’m not optimistic.

It’s not about “the lie” that someone intentionally did something.  It’s about the ways the aftermath illustrated that something is clearly wrong. Demagoguery only makes things worse.