I was in Canada when the news of Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson broke on my media feed. I was aware of the rough outlines of the story, thanks to updates and retweets by many friends on twitter. I haven’t actually watched any mainstream media coverage as it tends to make me pull my hair out. So my information comes inductively from the internet, primarily from progressive and POC friends. Other voices seemed silent.
I’m not the only one to notice this pattern. Yesterday, my friend Ryan Thomas Neace wrote “From One Middle-Class White Person to Another: Why We Struggle to Get It.” He talks of the isolation we have from those different than ourselves. More importantly, he describes the differing realities the issues of race and class construct in American Society:
As a middle-class, white person, the fact that I have to try to imagine what it would’ve been like if a police officer rolled through my neighborhood and shot me or one of my teenage friends is telling in itself. It means I do not have a frame of reference or standard of comparison from which I can draw to construct Mike Brown’s story in my own life.
As Ryan argues, we’re far more likely to expect Officer Friendly to come visit our classrooms than to see an Officer as Potential Threat.
As I reflected on Ryan’s post, I found myself thinking of Alan Noble’s Atlantic article on Evangelical Persecution. Alan’s thoughts are further elaborated in an interview he gave with American Baptist Press (along with others). It’s evident that American Christians do not know persecution when compared with Christians in other countries like Iraq. (By the way, we should be as concerned about Shia on Sunni violence as we are Isis on Christian — we don’t just root for our team when it comes to justice.)
Still, the persecution mythology is alive in many quarters. A little bit of internet research finds cases where local police departments come and arrest pastors “in front of terrified church congregants”. The story explains that the arrests were staged and that the pastors were arrested for “defending the faith”. They would then be put on trial and have to prove they were REAL Christians. Add to this the fear that the state would FORCE pastors to marry same-sex couples. Or that THEY want to take away our rights to worship as we please. Then there are all the isolated stories of uninformed school teachers or principals who put limits on student expression or the local zoning commission who interferes with a house church.
In all these cases, it is secular authorities set against the religious faithful. The religious faithful must remain true to God regardless of circumstances and in spite of the fact that they no longer believe in the legitimacy of the state apparatus.
To pick up Ryan’s question, “we fail to get it” on one level because we have to try to imagine scenarios where we’re oppressed by officials of the state. But for those worried about religious persecution from secularism, we have imagined it all too well.
The people protesting in Ferguson have been living the imagined persecution scenario for a long time.
They know what it’s like to be arbitrarily picked out and subject to intrusive questioning with an assumption of “guilty until we determine otherwise”. This is the reality behind Driving While Black, New York’s Stop and Frisk practice, differential drug sentencing, and the like. Not for everyone, of course. But for enough friends and relatives for everyone to have the knowledge of the possibility.
I have never seen a line like this. But folks in the protests in Ferguson received training in how to stand non-provocatively. Not all got the message. Some isolated shots were fired. Stores were looted. But the overwhelming majority of protestors in Ferguson did none of those things. They stood for justice. The expressed their rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. They cleaned up storefronts that had been damaged the night before.
They did these things precisely because they have doubts about the legitimacy and altruism of the police force and the state government. They know that the scales are tipped against them and that self-control is essential when confronting that imbalance.
A year ago, the Pew Research Center did a study of attitudes toward institutional arenas when it came to issues of race. Blacks and Whites in urban, suburban, and rural areas were asked if certain institutions were less fair toward Blacks than Whites. Institutional arenas were from police, courts, work, stores, schools, health care, and voting. The chart below summarizes the perceptions across all institutional arenas (scores range from zero institutions discriminating to seven).
Only 1 in 10 urban Blacks thought there was no institutional discrimination compared to nearly half of all suburban Whites.
This, as Ryan observes, is what we don’t get. For us, the institutions work as intended. For “them”, they cannot begin with such assumptions — the world is just too dangerous.
We like to imagine scenarios that have the state calling us out for our faith as a badge of our faithfulness. The citizens of Ferguson know too well that the state calls people out regardless of their motives or their faith but because of their race, class, and neighborhood.
Too often, the coverage of events like Ferguson seems to be looking for ways of justifying the legitimacy of the state’s action. That’s why news sources post troubling photos (check out the hashtag #IfIWasGunnedDown to see how this happens) and use words like “thugs” to make sure that we have good cops acting against bad actors.
As I was finishing this post, Christena Cleveland added this remarkable piece: The Cross and The Molotov Cocktail. Here’s a paragraph that puts the Pew data in its visceral context:
As someone who has walked alongside black men, witnessed their suffering firsthand, lamented with them and fought for justice with them, I can see why black men who have lived under the oppressive boot of society for their entire lives would decide to stop turning the other cheek, to refuse to see the police as anything other than the Red Coats, and to reject “respectability.”
If we were to face serious persecution as evangelicals (as unlikely as that is in our contemporary environment), you can be sure that there wouldn’t be pictures of happy families accompanying the roundups. You can be sure that we would be called names and marginalized in hundreds of ways. It is certain that we’d have little recourse against the power of the state with all of its hardware and assumed legitimacy.
Maybe we need to identify with the protestors in Ferguson to see what it means to stand for justice.
This is not a post about abortion. It’s really about the way in which evangelicals often frame their arguments and the ways in which those can become reductionistic and oversimplified. Too often, our rhetoric suggests that we’re focused on Monty Hall’s Let’s Make a Deal: Is the answer behind Door #1 or Door #2?
I’ve been somewhat disconnected from the internet while on vacation, but I’ve still seen this pattern play out when checking Facebook or Twitter. In response to the suicide death of Robin Williams this week, blogger Matt Walsh argued that we shouldn’t focus so much on tragedy or depression but on the fact that Robin Williams made a choice to kill himself. I’m pleased that much of the Christian blogosphere quickly called out such a callous claim (including some quite conservative voices). I don’t need to add my name to the list, but Walsh’s argument struck a chord.
We see similar arguments made when evangelicals discuss the complicated issue of transgendered persons. Critics who haven’t looked into the psychology and physiology of the transgendered community will talk of people who have “chosen” to be a certain gender, sometimes with a suspicion that the individual will someday “choose” to switch back.
Or take Ann Coulter’s reprehensible article about missionary doctors who contracted the Ebola virus while trying to treat infected populations. They made a “choice” to go to a part of the world where disease was more prevalent so they are responsible for any illness they incur.
Read evangelical articles about homosexuality and there will be those arguing that gay people have simply “chosen” a lifestyle and they could be helped to choose the normative one. The apologies of groups like Exodus Road have helped to combat this thinking but it’s still fairly prevalent. This BBC interview with Christian musician and theology student Vicky Beeching (who recently announced she was gay) contrasts with the choice language of Scott Lively (I have to grant Scott’s point that the set-up piece before the exchange made an actual conversation impossible).
I’m sure there are some people who will treat the situation of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO as a case where he “chose” a behavior that resulted in his death. It’s hard to get those folks to accept notions of power imbalances, latent racism, or profiling because each case involves an individual who “chose”.
Even the abortion argument is based on assumptions that a woman “chooses” to have an abortion. This is why abortion protestors stand outside clinics yelling about the poor “choice” she is making.
Why is it that evangelicals are more likely to see things in dichotomous terms? Why are ideas of structural inequality or biochemical factors or impinging contingencies of life so hard to grapple with?
As Scot McKnight and many others have observed, it is in part due to a soteriological focus. Much of evangelicalism has been shaped more by wanting people to “make a decision for Jesus” than to “take up a cross and follow”. We’re better at Manichean spiritual warfare language imagery than powers and principalities. If I’ve made a decision for Christ I’m in the heaven-bound set and not in the hell-bent set.
There’s also a linkage between rugged individualism and our thoughts about decision making. Rational Choice theory enjoyed favor in both criminology and the sociology of religion. Building from an economic metaphor, the idea is that people make choices based on perceived costs and benefits. The is the basis behind deterrence theory and was a dominant explanation for why people switch denominations. The problem is that far fewer of our choices are rationally considered door #1 or door #2 situations. Life is more complicated than that.
Maybe it’s time for evangelicals to worry less about simple choices and think more about navigating complexity. What happens if we begin our conversations understanding that the work is a difficult place?
Nate Silver’s The Signal and The Noise has some great chapters about Bayesian Probability. When you make a decision tree outlining all the factors that impinge on a particular action, you get a better sense of what’s going on than looking at a simple coin flip.
Of course Robin Williams made a choice to take his life. But there were a variety of factors that influenced the yes/no choice he made. The question we should be asking about Robin Williams’ suicide, along with those of the sons of Rick Warren and Ergun Caner, is “what combination of factors made this choice seem like the only one possible?”
When we look at a transgendered acquaintance, we have to consider the complexity of circumstances leading up to the conclusion that one is “in the wrong body”. This is not a lifestyle preference but the result of years of struggle. (Does anyone really think people go through sex reassignment surgery to see what it’s like?)
When a black man becomes the victim of police extremism, we have to ask why this keeps happening. Why are there circumstances where the response is so disproportionate? What leads to police suspicion or fear, to black men being singled out, to a culture of distrust?
When a Christian comes out as gay, we have to look at the pain involved in years and years of struggle. This is not a decision that is made lightly by anyone. In most cases, it’s not a “decision” at all.
We need a more robust understanding of both the human condition and of the Kingdom God is building around us. There really aren’t two doors that people are choosing between. It’s a spider-web of forces that impinge on their reality. That spider-web is part of the reality of God’s now-and-not-yet Kingdom.
It calls us to offer to others the very Grace we’ve received. As one social media friend reminded us, this is the story of the seventh and eighth chapters of Romans. Paul recognized the complexity in our lives (as do we all) and we should extend that possibility to others as well.
In another place Paul said that there is another way that depends on faith, hope, and charity. And the greatest of these is charity.
This has been the summer of religious tensions. While issues within the American evangelical church and the broader society pale in comparison to what is happening in Iraq and the Middle East, the balance between perceptions of religious identity markers and shared cultural experiences has been hard to find. From closely held businesses with religious beliefs to colleges requesting exemptions from federal directives to appellate courts ruling voter approved marriage initiatives unconstitutional, it seems that we find ourselves in “all or nothing” battles. [Disclaimer: my employer was one of the colleges requesting exemptions.]
Commentators are fond of characterizing this period in the worst possible light, seeing a secular society punishing Christian organizations for their beliefs in honor of “political correctness”. As Alan Noble observed, such claims of persecution are hard to align with the facts. Furthermore, those who are on the other side of distinctions do so by caricaturing the position of the other side. The religious community presumes that government officials are anti-religious. Secularists characterize the religious as closed minded, backward, and homophobic.
Things are not that clear. It is less that the various parties are opposed to the other’s agenda and more that they are pursuing differing goods. James K. A. Smith wrote that there may be “cracks in the secular worldview”. I think he has a point. But there are also “cracks in the evangelical worldview”. In both cases, there needs to be a stance other than defensiveness and presumption of attack. Each party things they are in the right defending themselves against incursion. Colleges fear they will be forced to engage in certain practices. Secularists fear that religious groups will gain special rights to not be part of the common society.
The dynamics of a pluralistic post-Christian culture will require us to find a way to avoid such dichotomous approaches. Somehow, we have to find mechanisms for simultaneously celebrating religious identity while affirming human flourishing wherever it is found. These are not zero sum options. What we have are predictable tensions between particularized values (of, say, a college or wedding photographer or Campus Pride advocate) with generalized values (democracy, equal rights, due process, non-discrimination).
In thinking of these tensions, I remembered the first time I heard Theda Skocpol speak. It was in the late 1980s and there was a conference at Northwestern celebrating William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged. My wife had just read the book for a graduate class so I called the folks running the meeting to see if we could crash. Once we agreed to skip the banquet, we got to hear what turned out to be a invitation-only meeting of some really big names in the study of inequality. As part of that dialogue, Theda Skocpol, professor of government and sociology at Harvard, spoke on “targeting within universalism” (I”ll refer to it as TWU). She argued that one solid approach to social policy is to pursue economic stability for all but target particular populations where the situation was more dire. (It was fascinating to see the impact of Skocpol’s ideas play out in the policies of the Clinton Administration.) Here’s a description as the strategy was described by a Canadian health agency:
Targeting within universalism is an approach that blends aspects of universal and targeted interventions in order to close the gap between the most and least healthy, and reduce disparities along the socio-economic gradient. With this approach, public health can modify and orient interventions and services to meet the needs of the entire population while addressing the additional needs of population groups that experience marginalization.
I think we can utilize Skocpol’s TWU approach in thinking about how religious groups function within secular society. This approach posits the generalized values first and then sorts out the particularized values within that context. The two sets of values aren’t set in opposition but are more “nested” one within the other. Taking this approach requires us to drop the oppositional language about “the other” and to see ourselves as pursuing the common good. We establish the generalized/universal value and then make the particular/target adjustment within that.
Let me use a recent illustration. Back in early July, a group of evangelical leaders wrote President Obama requesting that his coming executive order on federal contractors include robust protections for religious groups. In short, there was no opposition to an executive order banning discrimination against LGBTQ employees, but the religious groups working as social service providers should be able to hire according to their faith convictions. (The President did not grant the exemption in the executive order).
One of the signatories was Gordon College president D. Michael Lindsey. To be fair, he wasn’t asking for an exemption for Gordon (in spite of piles of news coverage to the contrary). But his presence on the letter was taken to be a signal that Gordon intended to discriminate against homosexuals. While Gordon isn’t a federal contractor (even if its students receive federal aid), it was seen as violating commonly shared values. Concerns were raised that such a perception could hurt its students and employees (this expression by Jonathan Fitzgerald is particularly good). Others saw this as a natural right on an institution to protect its mission against an aggressive society (this post in The Federalist claiming that “since some powerful people don’t share those ideals they’re set to destroy Gordon College” is particularly egregious and wrong on some key points of fact).
Subsequent stories about Gordon document how the Salem courthouse will no longer rent to the College (because they have clear non-discrimination language in their charter). The regional accrediting body said it would examine Gordon’s case (but they do that anytime a school is in the news). The question remains: does Gordon reflect broader social values or is it seeking to prioritize particularized values over general ones?
If we followed TWU, a school like Gordon would begin by affirming that it is opposed to discrimination in any form. It must be very careful about statements made about the LGBTQ community and not demean it in any way. The first move is to affirm that in modern society we don’t cotton to any form of exclusion. Not on race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identification, national origin, or even religion.
It is after the universal value has been affirmed that we can talk about accommodation. Within a commitment to non-discrimination, how might a religious institution maintain its mission? One can argue that there is a particularized value in hiring Christian faculty, for example, without presuming that non-Christians are demonic. The particularized value would be stated in terms of the positive value necessary to accomplish certain goals (like creating a community that takes Christian faith seriously as a core piece of the educational process). The broader society should be open to such affirmation as a means of understanding how the school functions (which discounts all those who simply write silly comments about academic freedom).If the generalized value is being affirmed, then the particularized value can be affirmed. (And government agencies should guard against forcing the religious group into extreme positions to make their claim).
I think TWU could allow me to make a similar case to the LGBTQ community on how they could celebrate universalism and then couch their special position within that. It can also give guidance to how we resolve issues of rape culture on college campuses (“all women are safe” is the universal value).
Yesterday morning, while thinking about this post, I had breakfast with the president of Warner Pacific College (where I served from 1995 to 2006). What I heard from president Andrea Cook was exactly the TWU approach. It was an affirmation to love the community first and to pursue institutional uniqueness within that context. As she admitted, it’s hard and we don’t have good models for how to move forward. But it seemed exactly on the money as a strategy for evangelical cultural engagement. I came away more encouraged than I’ve been in months about how the evangelical church can move beyond the culture wars.
The Hobby Lobby decision may mark a rhetorical turning point in the interface between religious rights and individual rights. For decades we have been focused on one part of the Pledge of Allegiance (“One nation, under God”). But now I think our social imagination has shifted to the latter phrase (“with Liberty and Justice for All”). Then we’ve individualized that last phrase, so that the focus is on each person’s liberty and justice. Trying to navigate the space between various people’s individuality leads to the conflicts that seem never ending across the internet and media.
As is usually the case on this blog, this thesis came to me due to the contradictions inherent in a number of things I saw on social media. This morning I read a post on The Gospel Coalition blog titled “They Know Not What They Do” written by Greg Forster. He argues that it’s plausible to argue that secularists who oppose religious rights are misunderstanding basic issues about religion and society. He writes:
Such ignorance almost certainly does play some role, but that cannot be the whole story. Given his defective understanding of what religion is—and, for that matter, what a business is—the secularist genuinely doesn’t understand why the owners of a company would feel their consciences were at stake in the company’s actions.
His concluding lessons are fairly optimistic but took some turns to get there. But it was the quote that caught my attention. The “secularists” I read after Hobby Lobby understood that the Greens had issues of conscience. But they also were thinking of the impact of that decision of conscience on other individuals. They were calculating potential harm done to others in the process and found that unacceptable.
My friend David Fitch posted an 2013 article from the New York Times titled “Generation LGBTQIA” (which for some reason was in the Fashion and Style section). It told the story of how the LGBT label became inadequate because it didn’t include enough possibilities to cover each person’s experience. (Q is for Queer, I stands for Intersex and A stands for Ally). The implication is that each personal expression of sexuality and/or affinity must be affirmed as an expression of true individuality.
Still, the alphabet soup of L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. may be difficult to sustain. “In the next 10 or 20 years, the various categories heaped under the umbrella of L.G.B.T. will become quite quotidian [mundane],” Professor Halberstam said.
I read an interesting piece by Derek Rishmawy titled “I Used to Believe X for Reason Y…and the Failure of Intellectual Imagination.” He suggests that our focus on personal story can sometimes lead to overgeneralization and ad hoc conclusions. He says we need conversation with those others to protect us from logical error. Derek was writing primarily about young evangelicals telling conversion stories away from what they used to believe. As much as I think story is really, really, important I’ve always argued that story is only the beginning of dialogue and not an end in itself. But I readily acknowledge that in the broader society we have a tendency to speak only from personal experience and validate that over others’ experiences.
Sociologically, I want to place the impetus for all of the above on the prioritization of individualism within western society. It’s been nearly 30 years since Habits of the Heart documented the damage that rampant individualism does to community. Over those three decades, what Durkheim called “the cult of the individual” has only grown stronger. As Durkheim predicted, this is a result of increasing diversity and changing bases for social solidarity.
I use Michael Sandel’s Justice in one of my fall classes. Today’s social media had me thinking of his chapter on Libertarianism. Sandel says that Libertarians oppose three things:
1. No Paternalism. Libertarians oppose laws to protect people from harming themselves…
2. No Morals Legislation. Libertarians oppose using the coercive force of law to promote notions of virtue or to express the moral convictions of the majority…
3. No Redistribution of Income or Wealth. The libertarian theory of rights rules out any law that requires some people to help others, including taxation for redistribution of wealth…(60)
In the midst of pondering how we shifted to the last phrase of the pledge of allegiance, about liberty and justice, the whole libertarian thrust came clearer to me. All these years of celebrating individualism in politics, movies, reality television, social media, the blogosphere (hello?), and education (especially higher ed) have taken a toll. It seems to me that we are less interested in liberty and justice for all as we are in liberty and justice for each person.
And that’s an untenable situation. There will be winners and losers. There will be some liberties that are sacrificed for others. Some people cannot pursue their liberties without infringing someone else’s.
Also today, Tobin Grant posted some very interesting data on the changing role of religion in society. He analyzed five different measures of religion in American life that Gallup has tracked over the years: religious identity, church attendance, membership, religion’s importance in life, and religion’s relevance for today. All five of these show a dramatic decline. Then he statistically combines them into one measure and shows that change. My initial impression was that I’d tell my stats students that the truncated Y axis makes the decline look more dramatic than it really is. After all, it’s only a drop from 78% to 69% over 20 years.
But then I got to thinking that there may be something more happening. Perhaps there’s some tipping point below which religion is no longer the “one nation, under God” factor (more Durkheim). Maybe once we have 30% of the country thinking that religion is okay if that’s what you choose, then all we have are competing individual values.
Finally today, I came across an article written after the Hobby Lobby and Wheaton decisions by Winifred Fallers Sullivan, Professor and Chair of Religious Studies and affiliate professor of law at Indiana University. In her piece, “The impossibility of religious freedom” she writes provocatively about the nature of religious freedom in legal terms as recognized by courts. It’s a detailed argument, outlining the importance of religion regardless of its broader acceptability. She calls out liberal critics of the court decisions. Of the justices, she writes:
Their common refusal, together with that of their predecessors, to acknowledge the impossibility of fairly delimiting what counts as religion has produced a thicket of circumlocutions and fictions that cannot, when all is said and done, obscure the absence of any compelling logic to support the laws that purport to protect religious freedom today.
So what do we do? Somehow we have to find a way to recast our argument in ways that speak to common values. That can affirm the multiplicity of voices and interests present in the society. Religion will be one of those voices but perhaps not a dominant voice, at least not one with a language the broader culture is prepared to hear. So when we evangelicals make our claims for privilege, we’ll have to do so in ways that transcend our unique group interests and speak to the broad range of expressions within the society.
Somehow, we’ve got to find our way back to that “Indivisible” which connects the “one nation” to the “liberty and justice for all”.
It’s not often that I find myself pondering a crisis in evangelicalism when it suddenly explodes in front of me. Yesterday I interviewed Jim Henderson from Seattle on his perceptions of what’s been going on with Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill. I was interested in exploring it as an illustration of the tensions between what I’ve called Industry Evangelicalism and Identity Evangelicalism. Having read of the recent uproar among former Mars Hill congregants (who had started a Facebook page called “We are Not Anonymous”) and their planned protests this Sunday, I wanted something of an informed view to help me make sense of what’s happening.
We talked about a wide range of things: the tendency to imbue celebrity pastors with extra authority, the sharp distinctions between inside and outside culture, feelings of persecution, special rights for Christian institutions, music, and the weather in the Northwest.
I had first become aware of questions at Mars Hill when I read Ruth Graham’s story in Slate about a young man who had been effectively shunned from the congregation. Based on that article, it made me wonder what dynamics were operating in the multi-site organization. That was followed by stories of PR stunts, insensitive tweets that launched twitter wars, the plagiarism charges, and the whole question of the New York Times bestseller that wasn’t. As things have unfolded, Mark Driscoll took some time to reflect and committed to take a break from social media. There have been further stories about the Mars Hill Global Fund and a lingering sense that things may be coming unravelled the more folks tried to maintain the Industry structure.
And then there was today. Today the Not Anonymous folks released a 140 page screed that Mark Driscoll had written in 2000. Granted, he was younger then. But the tirades and harsh tones and misogyny are overwhelming. I only made it through the first page when I’d decided I’d had enough.
Driscoll had written under the pseudonym William Wallace II. In case you forgot, the original William Wallace was a Scottish warlord leading fights against the power of the English state. The picture to the left is Mel Gibson at his blue-faced angriest from Braveheart. I’m struck with Driscoll’s use of William Wallace and what that suggests about this combative form of evangelicalism.
First, Braveheart is a celebration of the Great Man version of leadership. In this model, a charismatic leader is able to mobilize people into doing things the leader believes need to be done. But there is a dark side to this style. Success at leading requires exaggerating the leader’s capabilities while diminishing everyone else’s autonomy. I didn’t know at the time Braveheart came out but it became clear later that the way William Wallace was played was really indicative of Mel Gibson’s ego and personal style. The movie was organized around Gibson and told from that central narrative. Similarly, Driscoll’s angry rants and dismissive tweets serve an organizational style dependent upon that same kind of leadership. As the caption shows, I got the picture of Angry Wallace from a business week article on “Why Self-Awareness is Crucial for Entrepreneurs“. The Facebook quiz on Emotional Intelligence would be really helpful for church planters to make sure that leadership doesn’t come at the cost of shunning others.
Second, the notion of culture wars endorses strong and aggressive stances. Some who offered sympathy for Driscoll suggested that there were elements of Seattle culture or the emergent church movement that he was standing against. It becomes necessary to overplay one’s hand in order to hold off the encroaching forces. That is supported by a belief that history is on one’s side. But our supposed battle with the cultural forces of court decisions or voter referenda or other things that prioritize shared social values over privileged Christian values is not at all like battling against the English at Stirling. We’re not dealing with occupying forces. We’re dealing with our neighbors, friends, and family. It is important to maintain relationship (a point made in this wonderful set of interviews that Jim Henderson did with Ira Glass from This American Life shared on Josh Brahm’s website today.)
Third, while William Wallace/Mel Gibson famously shouts “You can take our lives but you canna take our Freedom“, he doesn’t win. He is drawn and quartered. He gets disembowled. True, his last word is “Freedom” but that didn’t make it come about. His actions lead to a movement that brings about a free Scotland. But Scotland is still part of Great Britain. At the end of the day, the sacrifice of William Wallace may cause more damage than was worth it (I really did like the movie, but it’s not real life.) Mark Driscoll may represent the most aggressive arm of evangelical culture wars but in the long run he will make it that much harder for Christians who are attempting to find a path forward in a Post-Christian culture.
I’m reluctant to even use the concept of “collateral damage” in light of Gaza/Israel, Malaysian flight #17, and Central American minors seeking refuge in the US. Each of those cases has seen suffering by innocents as a byproduct of actions of others seeking some larger political, regional, or economic agenda. We feel so helpless precisely because there is such a vast remove between the broader political issue and the immediate suffering experienced by so many.
And yet it’s the right image. In following the various backs-and-forths since the Hobby Lobby decision was handed down three weeks ago, it’s clear that various parties are pursuing their own opportunity for advantage. But the parties never actually come in contact. Instead, they talk past each other making worst-case-scenario assumptions about intent, goals, and potential outcomes. In the midst of all this argument, real people are often lost both figuratively and literally. Reductionist arguments are made from egregious straw-man (person) examples used without context. Emotions of anger, resentment, fear, threat, are all played out in an attempt to get a particular result in favor of one side or the other.
Christian colleges and universities have seen themselves in opposition to secularizing forces of the broader society, under threat from an anti-religious public and subject to a perceived overreach by institutional entities. Those outside the Christian college orbit see groups attempting to stand in the way of progress, who desire special privilege in light of the small-d democratic social contract, and who are using religion to hide their pathologies.
These warring factions (although not monolithic and largely unnamed) shape the ways in which issues are addressed. Or more correctly, not addressed. Because the issues that are posed are largely exaggerations of serious questions that would benefit from a fruitful conversation. If the serious questions were addressed, perhaps we’d get somewhere. Instead, there’s too much posturing and positioning.
In pondering the collateral damage done by culture war battles, I found myself thinking back to the board game of Stratego. I don’t remember if I actually had a version or played a friend’s and just always wanted one, but the format stuck with me. It’s a simple version of a strategy game. Two armies set up on a board, like in Battleship. The goal is to protect your flag while gaining the other player’s flag. It’s got a clear military hierarchy: high level leaders are precious, lower level are expendable in pursuit of the cause. It has spies to identify what the other side might be doing. And it has bombs placed at strategic points (hence the name) to protect the flag, the leaders, or to misrepresent where they were.
For those who were homeschooled or are too young to know the games of my youth, here is the Wikipedia description.
Stratego is a strategy board game for two players on a 10×10 square board. Each player controls 40 pieces representing individual officers and soldiers in an army. The objective of the game is to find and capture the opponent’s Flag, or to capture so many enemy pieces that the opponent cannot make any further moves. Players cannot see the ranks of one another’s pieces, so disinformation and discovery are important facets to gameplay.
A quick review of news reports over the past three weeks shows concerns about George Fox gaining a Title IX exemption to deny a transgendered student housing in a campus apartment with friends , Gordon president Michael Lindsey creating something of a firestorm by signing a letter asking the Obama administration to retain the Bush-era exemption to a non-discrimination executive order (which wasn’t in the final order), Wheaton College gaining a temporary injunction from the Supreme Court stating that even filing the form for religious exemption to the contraception mandate, and four members of the Bryan board of trustees resigning because they can’t support the president. There have been articles written about Christian schools not deserving accreditation, about the Bowdoin College non-discrimination policy for student organizations, ongoing issues about faith and science, and an atheist prayer in the New York town council.
The Stratego game has three key elements that are appropriate for understanding our inadequate dialogues over religion and pluralism in a post-Christendom era. First, as the Wikipedia entry explains, disinformation is crucial to the game. The whole point is to hide the flag where the opponent cannot find it and misdirect the opponent’s investigation. Second, spies are expendable pieces designed to expose the positions of the opposing side (even though they are destroyed in the process).Third, the flag is usually protected by bombs. When the opposing player comes across the bomb, he is destroyed (unless he’s a miner).
In my Stratego metaphor, the flag represents the true mission of the institution. Each college has a unique role shaped by its history, its personnel decisions, and its core values. For Christian colleges, this latter piece is often deeply informed by their theological perspective (regardless of the denominational affiliations of their students and faculty). But the core mission is educational, not theological. For example, here is the Gordon College mission statement:
Gordon College strives to graduate men and women distinguished by intellectual maturity and Christian character, committed to lives of service and prepared for leadership worldwide.
By way of contrast, here’s the mission statement from the University of Michigan:
The mission of the University of Michigan is to serve the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge, art, and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.
Since the U of M is a comprehensive research university, it has the preamble about applying knowledge. But its focus on students as leaders and citizens sounds an awful lot like Gordon’s desire for graduates who are intellectually mature, who are faithful Christians, and who will provide leadership and service. We should see each other as complimentary institutions and not sources of suspicion. So why the animosity that showed up in comments like the Conns?
I’d suggest that its because Christian colleges have focused so much of their rhetoric on the Christian character component of their mission. I fully agree that this is one of our reasons for existence but only as an integral part of the rest of the academic preparation of the university. I remember attending a regional CCCU leadership meeting a number of years ago where we were encouraged to “keep the main thing the main thing“. In other words, to make sure Jesus was at the center of what we were doing.
I certainly can’t argue with keeping Christ as our defining characteristic but that often seems to set up an unnecessary antagonism toward other schools where religious faith is not central. In my institution of Spring Arbor, we talk of how our commitment to Jesus Christ is our perspective for learning. There’s a subtle difference here between education being framed within Christian perspective and defense of specific faith positions (the distinction between education and indoctrination).
A perennial conversation in the Christian colleges where I’ve served has been around vision. What does it mean for us to produce leaders who are faithful Christians committed to service? Why would we do A and not B? How does that relate to our academic program, our student life philosophy, or our pedagogy?
When we hide our flag out of fear of what others will think, or because we’ve held to past traditions and don’t want to start down slippery slopes, we take away our strongest point and we open ourselves up to critique from outside. One of the pieces of collateral damage from Gordon getting caught up in the controversy over the Executive Order letter is that it allowed critics to denounce Gordon College as something that Gordon College has never been: an arch-conservative institution feeding bigotry and backward thinking. If anything, Gordon has a reputation for being one of the more forward thinking institutions in the CCCU.
The second element of my Stratego metaphor deals with the role of the spies. In the game, the spy can be used to expose the other player’s weakness. When a spy comes across another piece, the piece must be exposed as a major, colonel, or whatever. If the other piece is the flag, the game is over. Spies are useful to test assumptions about positions. Christian colleges may pick the most egregious example from someone denouncing Christian higher ed and use that as the example of “what things have come to”. Critics of Christian colleges find an extreme case (I’m often guilty of feeding this by posting something of the latest overreach by a conservative institution) and attacking the entire Christian college enterprise. The example the use is far from the median response. Most colleges aren’t under attack nor are most attempting to purge moderate thinkers.
But the spies’ stories feed a larger narrative. They add ammunition to previously held assumptions or fears. The fact that the Wheaton exemption fell directly on the heels of the Hobby Lobby decision which was followed two days later by the Executive Order letter fed a fear that was often stated as “and so it begins”. Furthermore, the narratives are so conflicted that any hope of mutual understanding is dashed. Yesterday, Inside Higher Ed featured an audio segment on the very issues I’ve been addressing. In addition to two IHE representatives, they had Shapri LoMaglio (government relations specialist with the CCCU) and Shane Windmeyer (of LGBTQ advocacy group Campus Pride). Not only did the two specialists talk past each other (what a surprise!) but IHE made little attempt to find common ground or to correct misinformation (like why colleges aren’t federal contractors or why financial aid goes to students and not institutions).
Thirdly, there are the bombs. So many bombs. We surround our hidden mission with all these other elements. Student behavior covenants (which aren’t bad things), positions on a historical Adam, belief in certain theories of atonement, questions about same sex marriage (or sexuality more generally) attitudes toward the roles of women in leadership, Touch one of those bombs and you’re at great risk. The bomb goes off and people are damaged. Faculty members pursuing academic inquiry. Students with honest questions. Parents who want their students to be those informed Christian citizens the mission calls for. Trustees who are trying to understand how the mission plays out in a changing world.
I’ve written much about the millennial generation and the questions they bring. I’ve suggested that they will not long avoid the bombs we’ve erected to protect our institutions. There is a near consensus in the literature than today’s students are tired of the bombs. They want to engage the broader culture. That’s what we said our mission was all about. To continue down the road we’ve been on is to drive away the very students we want as leaders for the future. We all wind up as collateral damage as a result.
So what do we do to avoid continual Culture War battles? First, don’t play the game. Stratego sets up opponents as zero-sum combatants in 18th century military settings. We are far more agile today. We build alliances across disparate groups, try to find common values even though we have different backgrounds, and try to find ways to embrace a pluralistic culture without losing our identity.
We can do that if we shift our focus from the bombs to the flag. We can talk about why we do what we do and talk less about what we don’t do. We can articulate what motivates us and not what we’re against (and if we’re motivated by what we’re against we should get out of education!).
In short, we need to remove the bombs, stop any misrepresentation of others, and make our mission clear. By way of my analogy, it means starting the Stratego game saying “my flag is right here.”
There is promise in such a strategy even with regard to divisive issues like same-sex marriage. Consider these two posts both written by Christian legal scholars. John Inazu, law professor at Washington University, wrote an insightful analysis for Christianity Today. He concludes:
Advocacy for Christian witness must itself demonstrate Christian witness. In this way, our present circumstances provide new opportunities to embody tolerance, humility, and patience. And, of course, we have at our disposal not only these aspirations but also the virtues that shape our lives: faith, hope, and love.
This morning, Whitworth professor Julia Stronks wrote this piece in Inside Higher Ed. As a legal expert teaching at a Christian College in one of the same-sex marriage states (enacted by popular vote), she has a unique perspective.
The Supreme Court says it will not get into deciding what is and is not legitimate religious belief but I think that faith-based institutions that want exemptions from law should at a minimum be required to spell out who they say they are. And they should be required to be consistent. I do not care for behavior covenants at schools, colleges or nonprofits, but I think a democracy can make room for them. However, if an employee is fired for violating a behavioral covenant that excludes homosexuality, employees that violate other parts of the covenant should likewise be fired. Transparency and consistency of treatment are very important.
I am encouraged by these legal analyses. They both suggest that pluralism isn’t an enemy of Christian faith. That we could be clear about who we are and what we are trying to do. By avoiding bomb-throwing, we can participate in encouraging the very leaders we will need to sort through the complexities of religious identity in a society that no longer privileges religious views by default.
I was pleased this weekend to see that my friend Alan Noble had an article posted in The Atlantic titled “Is Evangelical Morality Still Acceptable in America?” It’s a very interesting piece that speaks to the complications of religious identity in a changing society. It does a good job of diagnosing the tensions surrounding Hobby Lobby v. Burwell or various issues related to legalities of same-sex marriage. But I found myself wanting to engage a bit more and explore the options facing evangelicalism in a postmodern society. So I asked Alan if he was willing to engage in dialogue on my blog (instead of simply writing inflammatory comments on the article like those who won’t engage his basic points). Thankfully, he was willing to engage.
Alan is assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University starting this fall. He is managing editor and c0-creator of Christ and Pop Culture and a prolific critic of popular culture. He fights a never ending battle against conservative extremist memes, commenting on sites in an attempt to show a conservative voice that isn’t irrational. He recently earned a PhD in English from Baylor University, writing on “manifestations of transcendence in twentieth century American fiction”. He and his wife have two adorable children (almost as cute as my granddaughter).
Alan’s argument is well crafted. After summarizing a variety of pieces challenging evangelicals, he rightly identifies the central challenge:
Behind all of these charges is the suspicion that evangelicals are simply refusing to accept contemporary American mores; they are privileging their faith over the moral spirit of the age. But for many evangelicals, these beliefs are not actually a sign of retreat from public life. Instead, there is a fear that in an increasingly secularized society, there will be less tolerance for people who wish to act upon their deeply held religious beliefs, except in narrowly defined, privatized spaces. This is a fundamentally American concern: Will I have the right to serve God as I believe I am obligated to?
This fear isn’t just personal. As laws on issues like same-sex marriage and contraception have changed, there’s a growing fear that public policy will become more and more in conflict with evangelical morality. This, according to many conservative Christians, is what these tensions are about: being legally required to perform acts that you sincerely and deeply believe are immoral.
He argues that a focus on autonomous individualism has shifted moral conversation to issues of rights. This shift to rights is difficult for some evangelicals as they fee forced to violate their own sense of obedience to God in order to participate in modern society. He attempts to speak to the diversity present in evangelicalism that is missed by those responding only to extremism.
If the evangelical worldview is deemed invalid in the public sphere, then the public sphere loses the value of being public. American discourse will be marked by paranoid conformity, rather than principled and earnest disagreement. And our ability to prophetically speak to one another and to our nation’s troubles will be restrained.
The right framework here is one of pluralism: the ability of many different kinds of people to live out their faith in public with and among those who deeply disagree with them. This is no easy challenge; it’s painful and ugly and hard. But the alternative to is a thin, univocal culture, one in which the only disagreements we have are trivial. And that would be a shame.
That’s the summary. Now for the dialogue:
John: Evangelicalism has a long history of trying to separate from culture. It’s part of why the institutions we teach at were created. That sentiment of separatism has persisted in the evangelical subculture. We have our own schools, publishers, music groups, movies, and internet favorites. That insularity keeps us talking to each other without engaging the broader culture. It also feeds a suspicion of those “outside”. So our attempt at remaining separate has created a situation where we are cut off from larger social debates and afraid of those having them. Would you agree? How might we overcome this isolation in the pluralism you suggest?
Alan: Yes, I think that’s right to some degree. Evangelicals have long had their own subculture and it has led in many cases to isolationism and a failure to love our neighbor properly because we simply don’t understand our neighbor. That said, I also believe that evangelicalism is not much different in this regard than any other major subculture in the US. With the disintegration of local communities, interest-based subcultures are what we are left with, whether it is extreme sports, online gaming, DYI home improvement, or evangelicalism. So, I think this is a part of a larger problem we have in the US of dialogue in a nation without unifying, deep institutions and ideologies.
And not all this separation is bad. I’m excited at the prospect of being able to pray with my students at OBU. The separation that a Christian university provides allows me to explore a vision of faith as integral to the whole of life that a “secular” institution simply could not allow me. There’s value in both kinds of institutions. Where I believe we get into trouble is when we cease to value evangelical culture for its unique positive contributions and we begin to think of it as merely an alternative culture to flee to. And that is where we can start moving out of isolationism, by seeing that the purpose of these evangelical institutions and cultural works is not to offer an escape from the world, but to model a better way for the world and to minister to us more fully as humans.
John: In my own response to the Hobby Lobby decision, I pondered how we define religious belief. In addition to core tenets from the Apostle’s Creed, evangelicals hold a variety of second-level positions as central to religious belief. It’s not same-sex marriage per se, it’s how a position on scripture is tied up with that topic. So giving ground isn’t a matter of civil discourse but abandoning a belief in “God’s Word”. This is a very difficult position to maintain in pluralistic exchange because casual observers are aware of other situations where we accommodate shifts from what scriptural authority would suggest (e.g., Divorce). Do you think we need to narrow our claims of religious privilege in order to engage the critical issues of the day?
Alan: So much of the discussion surrounding the Hobby Lobby case has dealt with the legal and social aspects, that I think evangelicals have often skipped over the theological assumptions. And I understand this leap. I do not believe Hobby Lobby should be legally required to cover contraceptives which they are convinced cause abortions (particularly because, as the SCOTUS ruled, there are likely other ways to cover those contraceptives which don’t create this religious conflict). But theologically and scientifically, I’m not convinced, yet, that Hobby Lobby is morally culpable if they are forced to pay. The impulse for many evangelicals is to merely defend Hobby Lobby because we are concerned about religious liberties being restrained. But we need to also have this hard theological conversation about the idea of culpability in this situation. Ethical training needs to be more a part of our discipleship. Because issues like the contraceptive mandate are complex, and evangelicals need to be able to tackle them fairly and carefully. Doing so, I believe, will help us sort out the problems you raise: our double standards on things like divorce and greed and other less popular sins. I don’t think we need to narrow our claims of religious rights, but I do think we need to be able to articulate what our rights are and why a particular issue matters in a way that is winsome and understandable to the world.
John: In spite of Citizens United and Hobby Lobby, the conflating of personal belief and business practice seems problematic. There is a way for Christian bakeries (whatever that really means) to make cakes that are not seen as endorsements. In fact, making cakes may be a means to engage in dialogue regarding moral behavior (if it can be done in non-combative terms). If God can instruct Hosea to marry a prostitute, maybe wedding cakes are a symbol of prophetic witness. Can one make a consistent claim not to do business with those who fall outside Biblical mandates?
Alan: It’s important to note that in these various cases where Christian businesses have refused to provide a service for a gay wedding, the issue, as I understand it, is not that the costumer is a sinner. The issue is that they are being asked to do a creative act to celebrate something (a wedding) which they believe is fundamentally immoral. I suppose this is the same problem Christian copywriters face: can I create something with the explicit purpose of promoting some thing which I know to be sin? If I’m an Anabaptist ad designer, can I design an ad for a fighter jet, or does it make me morally culpable?
To some extent, for private businesses, these questions are easy to deal with. Photographers, for example, can already legally turn down jobs which they are not comfortable with, even for moral reasons. If a photographer refuses to shoot a pornographic scene because she believes that the act itself is immoral, she is within her rights. The difference here is that in same-sex weddings, the moral objection is related to the costumers’ sexual orientation.
Please understand that my point here is to explain the reasoning of these evangelical business owners. I quite understand that for the same-sex couples who are facing this discrimination (I mean that in a literal, non-pejorative sense), it is experienced as personal rejection based on sexual orientation. I understand their frustration and objections, as much as I can, at least. But to answer your question about how evangelicals should do business and why some are refusing to, I needed to present their perspective.
As for using these opportunities as prophetic moments, while I think that is a positive and Kingdom oriented approach, I have grave doubts that same-sex couples in this situations would be open to having a moral dialogue about their behavior. But perhaps I’m mistaken.
John: One of the challenges arising from the first three points is that evangelicals haven’t been good at using civil means to pursue their ends. Some have used courts and legislatures to keep mosques from establishing or banning Sharia law. Now we worry about the civil authorities stepping in and mandating contraception coverage or non-discrimination and we cry foul. I found the recent “letter about the executive order” to be troubling. I understand the intent of the proponents, but it is seen by those outside as a request to stay outside the social contract impacting the rest of society. How do we respect beliefs and play well with others?
Alan: Love them. Desire the best for them. Work towards that good while knowing that you cannot force anyone to be righteous. You can’t even force yourself to be righteous. It is through Christ that we are saved. That Gospel reality can allow us to live with this tension, to live in a world filled with sinners like ourselves who will act in ways we believe are foolish or wrong or silly or deeply immoral. It will keep us from the self-righteousness that turns love for neighbor into abuse of neighbor. And also from the self-absorption which turns tolerance for our neighbor into indifference.
I’m sorry that’s all vague, but it’s a big question, and an important one. Thanks for asking me to do this.
Thanks, Alan, for your willingness to engage the questions. There’s much to consider in this back-and forth. We may have to do this again. I invite others to engage as well.
But you are God’s chosen and special people. You are a group of royal priests and a holy nation. God has brought you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Now you must tell all the wonderful things he has done. The Scriptures say, “Once you were nobody. Now you are God’s people. At one time no one had mercy on you. Now God has treated you with kindness.” 1 Peter 2:9-10
I am not a biblical scholar or theologian. I’m a sociologically oriented social psychologist who studies evangelicalism. And yet even I can notice that there something profound in this passage from First Peter.+
We are a priesthood.+
It doesn’t say, “you will be lead by a priesthood“. The Levitical set-aside was replaced by a remarkably open democratic vision: you all are royal priests. You must testify as to what he has done. Because you are God’s people.+
Too much of our discourse is caught up in various version of celebrity pundits: television commentators, religious bloggers, celebrity pastors, leaders of special interest groups (religious or political), politicians. What binds many of these together is that they deal in certainty. They know where their go-to positions are and will defend those against the go-to positions of opponents. My twitter feed is full of people aligning behind one position or another.+
But you are God’s people. All of you. And you will tell your story. The story that you tell is far less likely to deal in certainty. It is likely to deal in messiness precisely because everyday life is messy.
Read the rest along with some fine work from my AC colleagues at http://www.antiochsession.com/2014/07/14/having-faith-in-the-priesthood-of-believers/
I spent a good part of yesterday doing one of my favorite things: trying to read the tea leaves on the emerging trends in evangelicalism. (Because of this, I turned on the soccer game about 22 minutes late which meant I missed the match!). It was an interesting day. I read a little of Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism and considered his take on Western Cultural Captivity. I watched a great discussion on Ed Stetzer’s The Exchange featuring Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Jonathan Merritt, and Trevin Wax. I watched Brandan Robertson’s talk at the Wild Goose Festival on his journey through Moody Bible and evangelical subculture. I finished the day watching Andy Gill’s Skype interview with Peter Enns (which lets you look at Peter close-up for 30 minutes and see his Yankee pennants in the background).
There was a lot to process in here. Questions about what constitutes evangelicalism and according to whose criteria (Bebbington had better be getting royalties for each time his quadrilateral gets trotted out). Seeing Jonathan Merritt using John Wesley’s method to explain religious change. Sensing the tensions between tradition as we’ve understood it and contemporary realities (thankfully, no one referenced “slippery slopes”). Issues of scriptural authority, church attendance, and, of course, millennials.
Not everyone agreed. But what characterized the discussions was a spirt of grace and compassion. Something that is too often missing in religious discussions.
It made me think of the lead male characters in Les Miserables. Jean Valjean’s life is re-formed through an encounter with unwarranted favor. He lives his life to extend that to others at great personal cost. Inspector Javert is committed to the Law. In fact, the superstructure of his mindset is organized around it (check out the lyrics to Stars).
There are many versions of what happens to evangelicalism over the next decade or so. Some are optimistic, thinking that pragmatism may win out as it has on other forces of social change in the church. Some are ready to give up evangelicalism as representing a past social form so intertwined with culture wars and political parties that there’s no hope.
I tend to see a celebration of gracious faith from all sectors of the Christian church. That means that our old dividing lines may not be meaningful anymore. Dropping labels of evangelical vs. mainline vs. Catholic would be a good place to start. There’s been far too much finger pointing and facile explanation given (I’m amazed at how often we talk of mainline decline or rote ritual even today). We should be offering grace to all those who faithfully strive to follow Christ.
John Armstrong rightly expressed concern yesterday over comments (never read comments!) to an article about charismatic leaders meeting with Pope Francis. The quest for order and law on the part of the commenters was telling. As Ed Stetzer observed, the focus on our ideas and practices as litmus test issues “obscures the gospel”
It must be admitted that there are Javerts on the progressive side as well. Too many of the comments I read on Facebook and Twitter seem utterly dismissive of traditionalists (who seem utterly dismissive of progressives). Still, if grace is our motto we need to take another look at our practice and open ourselves up to alternative views.
A few weeks ago, I watched the movie Einstein and Eddington starring Andy Serkis (not in motion capture) and David Tennant, respectively. Eddington is a physicist who is intrigued with Einstein’s work and sets out to prove the General Theory of Relativity via a solar eclipse. (I ran across a great quote while researching Eddington. An interviewer said that there couldn’t be more than three people who understood Einstein. Eddington replied, “who’s the other one?”). In the movie adaptation, Relativity is a threat because it undermines the whole of Newtonian structure, which was seen as a means of demonstrating order in the universe. This is even related to the gassing of British Troops at Ypres (which the screenwriter asserts, must have happened for a reason). The tension between the advances promoted by Eddington (a Quaker) and the established Newtonian order was fascinating.
I thought of this again the other day when reading Randall Balmer’s book on Jimmy Carter. Looking back on Carter’s loss of the White House, Ballmer suggests that Carter could have done more to reach out to establishment evangelicals. He had been given a list of possible cabinet candidates by Pat Robertson that got lost and wasn’t remade. The religion advisor Robert Maddox (a Southern Baptist at the time) came too late in the term. It made me wonder if Carter could have maintained alliances, even though he was more progressive, if he’d found ways of sharing his Christian commonalities with those who went before.
In this regard, I’ve been fascinated by the series Peter Enns has been running lately about Biblical Scholars and their “AHA” moments about the Bible. He’s now done six of them (here’s the most recent). In every case, the scholar has great regard for the church of origin and the importance placed on scripture even though questions led each to deep Biblical scholarship.
I’m reminded of a book on Culture Wars that Robert Wuthnow wrote in the late 1980s. After looking at the chasm then separating the conservative and mainline (this was problematic even then) he suggests that it was evangelical academics who stood in the gap and could bridge the chasm. They could affirm the heart of the conservatives while offering the insight of the progressives. Perhaps, he suggested, there was a way forward.
At the close of his interview with Andy Gill, Pete Enns talked of the importance of humility, both spiritual and academic. It was important to maintain that grace when dealing with the social changes around us.
The future of a vibrant Christian faith in this country lies not in battles over orthodoxy or symbols. It is not about who won which political race or court battle. It is about offering the grace necessary to really hear each other, to serve as the midwives who will bring forth whatever next phase of Church the Spirit is birthing.
Last week I devoted myself to Randall Balmer’s new book, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. I was drawn to it after reading Randall’s piece last month in Politico about how the Bob Jones tax exemption decision was the trigger that prompted evangelical political activism. So when I got an Amazon gift card for Father’s Day, I knew what to get.
It turns out that Randall and I graduated from high school in the same year. When he described the tumultuous factors impacting his teen years (the assassinations of RFK and MLK, the War in Vietnam, Watergate and Nixon’s Resignation) I completely identified. Those were my events too. For both of us there were also family and religious changes, but being in your early twenties when “one of our own” ran for the highest office in the land was certainly attention getting. We came of age at a time when a progressive voice in evangelicalism was being rediscovered after decades of post-social-gospel quiet. Not that everyone around us was progressive, but there were voices talking about inequality, justice, racism, and faith. Heady stuff for historians and sociologists.
Ballmer’s take on Jimmy Carter is fascinating. He keeps President Carter’s faith and his quest to follow Jesus at the center of the story. There are other players as well. The aforementioned Bob Jones case appears as a pivot point in turning evangelicals away from Carter between 1976 and 1980. Not that most folks were concerned about that specifically, but it was a lever used by people like Paul Weyrich who saw an opportunity to mobilize evangelicals (he wasn’t one) for conservative causes. Then there are the evangelical leaders like Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Phyllis Schlaffly who used their positions to undermine the President’s goals, hopes, and dreams. Bordering on opportunism, they saw nothing of distorting views (Schlaffly), making up anecdotes (Falwell), or being generally two-faced (Graham) if it suited their larger cause.
Set against all this positioning and opportunism is the story of a man who sought consistency in his moral life and tried to govern following that light. He was shaped by his interactions around race in rural Georgia, three very strong women (his progressive mother, his evangelist sister, and his wife), and his ambition to be of service in the world. Not that he always got that right. There is the gubernatorial campaign that betrayed his principles on race (for which he publicly apologized after his election). There is the Playboy interview given during the presidential run (right sentiments but evangelicals saw it as not maintaining separation from evil).
But time and again the story returns to his Baptist upbringing, the importance of congregational autonomy and separation of church and state (key Baptist principles at the time), and his own conversion at the leading of his sister Ruth. This isn’t a faith that is compartmentalized but one that is thought through carefully. There is a linkage between Carter’s commitments to Human Rights, to equality for women, to concern for the Palestinians as well as the Israelis, and what he believes Christ has called us to. It’s not a separationist evangelicalism that sees politics, government, and society as tainted. It’s a progressive view that believes that a person acting from a moral core, who works hard, who is smart, and who can effectively communicate those values can make a difference in the lives of many. Not because he’s special (though he knew he was) but because his Christian duty compelled him.
Ballmer’s title comes from his thesis that Carter redeemed American society from the sins of the Watergate era. He allowed us to move on (although Reagan gets the credit for “morning in America”) and to believe in possibilities again. But a variety of factors outside the president’s control (OPEC, Iranian Hostages, USSR invasion of Afghanistan, Inflation) hampered his attempts at moral suasion. There were clearly naive mistakes made by what was called “the Georgia mafia”. He could have reached out to evangelical leadership earlier than he did. And there the already mentioned forces that combined to favor Ronald Reagan as the darling of evangelicals (although he wasn’t one — while Jimmy Carter regularly taught Sunday School, many Sunday Schools of the day would not have allowed the divorced Reagan to have such a leadership role).
Randall quotes Emory President James Laney, who said that Carter “was the first president to use the White House as a stepping stone“. Carter’s post-presidential career has now spanned 24 years, three years longer than his political life from Board of Education to President of the United State of America. If anything, his moral voice has gotten stronger and more consistent. People don’t always agree with him but he continues to act on his Christian convictions.
There are some minor quibbles I could raise. Some phrases and stories get repeated a little too often. I would have liked a little more on policy initiatives. But the thrust of the story is about morality, faith, and following Jesus. Not just for the benefit of evangelicals but to pursue the common good, the shalom of God.
Balmer includes the “Crisis of Confidence” speech from July 1979, often called the “malaise” speech even though the word doesn’t appear. Carter had worked slavishly on the speech. What was supposed to be a speech about energy started with reflections on the American character. At the time, I thought he’d made a mistake by not being a presidential cheerleader (something his successor did to an extreme). But re-reading the speech 35 years later, I wish he’d left off the energy stuff. It was a six point policy statement about conservation, oil supplies, renewable resources, and the like.
But the opening of the speech (the first five pages in the appendix) are profound and speak to our moral needs today. He calls for us to have faith in each other. One that calls forth a faith and moral direction that benefits all Americans. It’s a message that we need desperately to hear in our churches, on our cable channels, and in legislative halls across the country.
We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.
All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves…
Looking back, the Sunday School teacher from Plains always keeps his moral center and keeps testifying to us about what it means to follow Jesus.