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Deconstructing Choice, Culture, and Structure: Campus Sexual Assault, Ferguson, and Staten Island

As I’ve followed the news over recent weeks and seen it dissected in social media, I’ve become aware of the way in which we continually shift our understandings of circumstances. Some people see everything as a matter of individual choice and want to mete out “just desserts” to the offender (for example, “if you don’t want to get shot, obey the police”). Others like to make cultural arguments that focus on a deficit of values as the driving force (for example, “it’s the absence of father figures in the black community that is to blame”). Still fewer want to couch the argument in terms of the more sociological structural dynamics of power and inequality (for example, “there has been a systematic school to prison pipeline that traps urban young men”).

Two observations arise from this. First, people in options one and three don’t seem to be able to talk to each other. I have seen countless Facebook treads where someone tries to articulate option three and a friend (hopefully still a friend) takes offense that we are either excusing individual behavior or calling the speaker a racist. Second, we’re not consistent in the application of the options across situations. I’ve seen social media posts from people blaming Ferguson on the cultural dynamics of inadequate socialization (fathers again) who simultaneously think the campus sexual assault is a matter of poor choices by isolated individuals (both the man and the woman) and that notion of a broader “rape culture” is a media creation (looking at you, George Will!).

The sociological reality is that these three levels of analysis are interdependent. I’m not a fan of Talcott Parsons, but this was the insight of his first major work, The Structure of Social Action (1939). He attempted to show how voluntary choice was shaped by cultural values as well as by the structures of society (his later work focused only on the latter). Choosing to focus on one aspect of the broader system didn’t negate the impacts of the others.

There are individual level choices that distinguish between those who break the law and those who don’t. I was reminded Wes Mooreof this recently, when a Facebook friend commented on The Other Wes Moore. That book tells the story about two kids named Wes Moore who grew up in Baltimore. One becomes a Rhodes Scholar and the other is serving a life sentence in prison. But change a couple of “inflection points” and their situations reverse. If the author hadn’t moved in with his aunt, he would have stayed on the street and bad things would likely result. If the “other Wes” had been able to stay with the job corps, he might not have fallen back in with his brother.

There are also cultural factors in play. Certain tropes are held up in society as models of success, masculinity, or prestige.Die Hard For example, in Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and his colleagues argued that the “hard-boiled detective” was the prototypic character in American Rugged Individualism. Culture is much more complex than that, but it will serve as an indicator for now. If John McClane is an image of what it means to solve problems, it’s not hard to understand how this translates into militarized police strategy or “enhanced interrogation techniques” (read “torture”).

Finally, we have larger structural variables, primarily associated with issues of economics, power, and institutional control. In general, these structural inequities arise not from someone’s conspiratorial decisions but because of “natural” change over time. The patterns we see there are the result of actions taken and not taken over literally decades.

Consider for example this report the Pew Research Center FT_14.12.11_wealthGap2released yesterday on wealth inequality (wealth is a measure of total net worth — assets minus liabilities — and far more critical to inequality than simple income). The Pew folks were trying to show how racial/ethnic differences played out in post-financial crisis statistics. But what caught my attention was that the “most equitable” measure of white to black or hispanic net wealth favored whites by a factor of six. There are all kinds of historic and contemporary reasons for these differences: owning rather than renting, savings rates, retirement plans, incarceration rates, residential segregation, and so on. The fact is that the middle white household (that’s the median) is in a far better position than the middle black or hispanic household.

These three types of variables — individual, cultural, and structural — all come into play in our contemporary discussions. I’ll try to illustrate using campus sexual assault and the situations in Ferguson and Staten Island. One could make a similar argument around the release of the terrorism report, but I’ll save that for another day.

College Rape Culture: The last couple of weeks showed us something of the complexity of the issues involved in responding to issues of sexual assault. Rolling Stone published a harrowing first person account of how Jackie had been gang-raped by some fraternity members at the University of Virginia. The president of UVA (a sociologist, by the way) suspended all UVA fraternity events, because she wanted an exploration of the cultural dynamics that made such events possible. Over the last ten days, the Washington Post investigated Rolling Stone’s reporting techniques (or lack thereof) that called the original story into question and caused RS to apologize. As a result, many have decided that Jackie must have made up her story (read her roommate’s statement that disputes that claim).

But to understand and respond to campus rape culture, we have to pay far more attention to variables beyond the individual level (here’s an excellent piece that appeared in Christianity Today this week). At the cultural level, the allure of a party culture is primary. One can find lots of concerned stories about binge drinking on college campuses, but our concerns can quickly be contrasted with our common social expectations. Let’s look again at media tropes to get a glimpseAnimal House of the value set that sets the context for an incident. Show the picture to the right to just about anyone over 15 and they’ll recognize the kingpin of Delta Tau Chi. Images of toga parties, hook-ups, and outrageous behavior will quickly come to mind. That’s not to suggest that all of Greek life looks like Animal House — I knew some guys at “Farm House” at Purdue and it was one of the most straight-laced, studious group of guys you could fine — but nobody makes movies about a group of fraternity brothers living together, pursuing their studies, and forming community.

It’s not just party expectations that are involved. The status of women in the broader society is another part of the story. The differential power structures that can result in male entitlement runs throughout our thinking about rape culture. First, the woman is at a disadvantage when going to the party. Second, how we respond to her story of assault is conditioned by assumptions of personal responsibility (for her, not for them). Third, we seem overly worried about men being “wrongfully accused” — why is it so hard to believe that an overly masculine social setting, fueled by alcohol and hormones, would be seriously vulnerable to abusive behavior?

The higher the patriarchy in the culture, the harder it is to respond to sexual assault. Consider the GRACE report on assault at Bob Jones University that was released on Thursday. One of the most telling pieces of the 300+ page report is in this graph (highlight is mine):

Bob Jones report

Over half the respondents in the sample felt “blamed and disparaged” after reporting their sexual assault with another quarter reporting an indifferent response. This is institutional in character, as the recommendations section of the report makes clear.

It’s true that campus sexual assault happens because of bad actors. But that’s an incomplete story without considering our cultural expectations of campus social life and the larger issues of sexism and access to power within the institution and the broader society.

Ferguson and Staten Island: Much has been written about the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, so I’ll skim the surface a little bit. From the individual level, we can think about how Brown and Garner got into the situation they were in. They bear personal responsibility for their choices but the choices weren’t unusual — it was the response that was unusual. Other teens shoplift. Other adults traffic in black market goods. It doesn’t result in death. They aren’t seen as threatening figures that must be subdued by authorities. If we stay at the individual level we are left with unanswerable questions, why were these men different? What was in the minds of the officers who respond? We’re left to build post-hoc explanations of what they were thinking or what actions potentially meant.

The cultural level informs the individual choices. Consider the two pictures to the left. One of these is Gangstersfrom the film Menace II Society and shows a young gang of black men. The other is Denzell Washington in American Gangster (the story of a heroin kingpin). I’d argue that law enforcement would think very differently about the guys on the left than the guy on the right. It’s intriguing to think about how a Denzell figure might be more of a “menace to society” but we’ll approve of his fine clothes and family values. It doesn’t take much imagination to recognize how John McClane would respond to the young toughs — because our movies and television are full of those images.

The drug connection takes us to the societal level. The economic instability mentioned above makes the underground drug industry a rational response to lack of opportunity. This was one of the primary insights of Robert Merton’s strain theory of deviance, which arose out of Parson’s analysis.

The “other” Wes Moore starts as a drug lookout at a young age because it allowed him access to a nice stereo and good shoes when there were few other opportunities (and his brother was already connected). For all of those who question “what about black on black crime?”, we should be asking “why is the drug trade a major avenue to economic advancement, even though it is fraught with intergroup violence?” and “what can we do to develop real economic opportunities in the inner city?”

Context

The answer to these questions is tied up in the history of segregation, denial of opportunity, school inequality, social policy, and a host of other issues at the structural level. We can talk all day about the individual motivations or cultural expectations but until we begin to address the structural concerns we will continue to be frustrated as a society.

What Worries You? The Hiding Place and Ebola

PRRI

Last week, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released their American Values Survey. They collected data on about 4,500 subjects. One of the questions focused on the tensions present in the religion clauses in the First Amendment. In what we call a “forced choice” question respondents were asked “What Worries You More?” with two options: Government Interference in Religion or Special Rights given to religious groups. When they presented the data, they provided data for all respondents and then examined the impact of different religious affiliation. Their publication included the following bar chart.

PRRI RelRight away, I noticed the contrast between responses of the total sample and those of the White Evangelical subgroup. As you can see, the sample overall split exactly evenly at 46% for each option (with a small number saying both or refusing to answer). The results for white evangelicals were very different. It wasn’t possible to really explore the data with simple percentages, so I wrote the PRRI folks for subgroup sizes. I am grateful for the quick cooperation of Dan Cox, research director at PRRI who gave me the data.

Turns out that there were just under 900 white evangelicals in the survey choosing one of the two options or about 21% of the total sample. The sample sizes let me compare the responses of White Evangelicals to everyone else in the sample.

What I found was exactly what my statistical instincts told me about the initial data.

As the chart at the top of this post shows, while evangelicals are concerned about government interference by more than two to one (I left out the “both” and “no answer” options), a majority of the rest of the sample is more worried about religious groups gaining special privilege. The latter data may be a response to the Hobby Lobby decision or recent news about Title IX exemptions at Christian Colleges. If you put the contrast in the chart into a two-by-two table and run the statistics, the data is wildly statistically significant.

But the data is also aligning with what we see in the media. The end of the week saw a story break about Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place being banned from a Charter School in Southern California. The director ostensibly removed the book from the “state-authorized lending shelves” because she believed there was a ban on “sectarian materials”. At least that’s the story told by the Pacific Justice Institute, a religious rights group. Alan Noble wrote this follow-up explaining that things were not as nefarious as first suggested, and that the Charter School issue had more to do with the nature of the “library” and what books can be purchased with state funds (as opposed to private donations). Even this explanation remains suspect to those who raised the concern (read the two updates in this story to see how suspicion wins over attempts at explanation, however unclear.)

This is completely consistent with the PRRI data on how white evangelicals see the “What Worries You?” question.

Consider two other examples from recent news. On Saturday, the site Raw Story re-released a story from last month. Right Wing Watch reported on remarks made by religious broadcaster Rick Wiles in which Wiles said “Ebola could solve America’s problems with atheism, homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, pornography, and abortion.” Or consider the reaction last week in Arvada, Colorado to a conservative school board promoted a social studies curriculum that promoted “partriotism, respect for authority, and free enterprise”. Students launched a protest, which included a twitter hashtag (#JeffcoSchoolBoardHistory) of fake history accounts (e.g., “Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is a great American story of capitalism and savory meat products.“).

I don’t think I’m stretching the facts to argue that these two examples fit the “religious groups worry me” side of the equation.

But there’s still a puzzle here. Why are we so eager to grab a bad news story out of the mix and run with it? Is a Charter School in California indicative of major cultural shifts (the Cal State/InterVarsity issue was far more important). Is a random religious broadcaster I’d never heard of someone who speaks for evangelicals? (Given the number of hours broadcaster have to fill, it’s almost guaranteed that something outrageous will spill out over the airwaves.)

I can think of at least three reasons why folks are so willing to gravitate toward these examples: the data narrative, specialized organizations, and group dynamics.

1. There is a sense in which the data listed above serves as both an independent variable and a dependent variable. In other words, the belief that either government or religious groups are a source of concern shapes what one looks for in terms of news. The fear of government infringement or religious particularism encourages one to be on the lookout for examples. Examples that probably don’t deserve to be on anyone’s radar. At the same time, finding those examples and sharing them in social media solidifies the separation shown in the chart above. Every indicator, however isolated, is another case of “I told you so”.

2. These stories don’t occur on their own. Groups like the Pacific Justice Institute exist to be on the lookout for infringement examples and to push back on those. People are employed to do this and spread the word to others. Similarly, Raw Story and Right Wing Watch (along with the Southern Poverty Law Center) are established to watch out for outrageous actions on the conservative side. When we subsequently become outraged and share stories on social media, we are doing exactly what those organizations hoped would happen.

3. My Spirituality, Faith, and Justice class is reading Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ. As I’ve written before, this is an excellent application of social psychological research to issues confronting the Body of Christ. Early in the book, Christena titles a section “We Are Unique; They Are the Same“. Because we have contact with people like us, we’re aware of the great degree of diversity of thought present in our groups. Because we don’t have contact with others, we find we can easily categorize them. So I can read a comment from a religious broadcaster and immediately dismiss him as being a fringe voice that doesn’t represent evangelicals I know (even those I disagree with). But someone outside the evangelical fold will see him as representative (or fear that he is). If I don’t know public educators, I can easily dismiss them as all being secularists who are engaged in Christianaphobia. But even secular educators often jump the gun and might be rebuked by their secular colleagues.

We do not have to play into the dichotomies represented in the PRRI data. But it will require a much more developed sense of general patterns and outliers. It will require a willingness to give people the benefit of the doubt before hitting “Share” on Facebook. It will require actually thinking of others as well-intentioned, even if misguided.

It will require us to listen to the other and learn something.

 

My Proposal for a Bigot Moratorium

It’s been six weeks since Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri. The intervening weeks have told us much about issues of race in America, little of it good. Media coverage of the protests were mixed at best and not able to get to real grievances (perhaps because the media wound up in the middle of the story for awhile). Autopsies were performed, eyewitness testimony was reviewed, and a grand jury has been established. For a variety of reasons common to situations like Ferguson, it’s fairly unlikely that there will be any outcome that will satisfy those following the story.

I keep following the stories. They are heartbreaking on many levels. They’ve also provided excellent teaching material. I opened my Spirituality, Faith, and Justice class two weeks ago reflecting on Ferguson. I divided the story into three levels: the shooting, the protests, and the larger structural backdrop.

Freedom RidersThis past week we celebrated Constitution Day at Spring Arbor by showing the documentary Freedom Riders (you can watch the whole thing on the PBS website here). It’s the story of a group of students: black and white, male and female, who decided to ride interstate buses (Greyhound and Trailways) into the deep south in 1961. My American History colleague Mark Edwards debriefed the film and talked about the significance of the 14th amendment extending the bill of rights to the state (as well as guaranteeing due process) regardless of race, gender, or religion. I talked about the Bill of Rights and how aspects of the Ferguson situation appeared to infringe on at least half of those 10 amendments (first, fourth, fifth, sixth, and eighth).

But the movie underscored something I’ve been pondering for awhile: our focus on individual racism continually distracts us from institutional racism.

The Riders were going in to the South specifically to engage in civil disobedience against Jim Crow laws. At the time, bus station waiting areas were segregated with clear signage stipulating white waiting areas from colored waiting areas. A Supreme Court decision declared segregated buses unconstitutional but the decision had been ignored in the south. The riders would also sit in restaurants with blacks and whites at the same table. Their task was to expose the institutional racism that was rampant in the deep South.

When they get to Anniston, AL, one of the buses is surrounded by an angry mob who then firebomb the bus. The other bus gets to Birmingham and there is a violent attack with men and women beaten with fists, bats, and chains. The anger and racial animosity from the attackers is overwhelming. The media is outraged (there’s a remarkable newsreel from Russia condemning America complicity) and the Kennedy administration reluctantly gets involved.

After the violence, the original bus riders return home. But they are replaced by a new group from Nashville. Their story is even more fascinating as they are first trapped in a church in Montgomery, and then are arrested in Jackson, MS and immediately put into prison. More and more people come to Jackson just to be arrested and imprisoned to point out the lack of legal recourse and thereby force change.

The most vivid images are those of angry bigots and self-serving political figures “protecting their culture”. It’s harder to see the legal system that was bent to protect their interests.

Which brings me back to Ferguson. As I have written, we seem to fixate on the motives of individuals. Was Officer Wilson reasonably responding or singling out Michael Brown? Was Brown a thug who didn’t respect authority? Can you trust the eyewitnesses? Are the prosecutor’s motives in question?

This is also the dynamic when we interact about Ferguson on social media. Share the Facebook post raising questions about the distance between Wilson and Brown or the video of the construction workers, and there’s a chance your grandmother will post on your wall that Wilson acted honorably and you should be ashamed of suggesting he was a racist.

Then you get the standard meme of someone misquoting Martin Luther King’s Dream speech by suggesting that we should all just judge people on the content of their character. Or the person who asks the inevitable black-on-black crime question. Or the one who starts talking about challenges in black families.

Point out that these are the wrong questions and the speaker will act like you’ve called them a bigot. They will get defensive and shift blame to something else. And if you push back, you’ll get a response that they aren’t racist but simply refuse to be politically correct.

So I have a proposal. Nobody is a racist or a bigot for the next five years.

Ask any question you want. Make any statement you want. I will not raise doubts about your commitment to racial harmony. I won’t police your language or tell you that I don’t appreciate your joke. Have at it.

You aren’t a racist — at least until 2019.

But it’s not a completely free pass…

For the next five years we will only talk about institutional racism.

We will talk about the kinds of structural inequities that Ta-Nehisi Coates described in The Case For Reparations. We will talk about Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and the impact of non-representative incarceration. We will talk about the issues of educational quality raised in the sociological study The Long Shadow (that I just started) which shows the barriers to advancement experienced by a sample of school children in Baltimore as they grow to adulthood. We will talk of political representation and equal opportunity to cast ballots in elections. We will talk about differential enforcement of laws and police departments treating neighborhoods as militarized zones. We will talk about a shifting economy that leaves behind segments of the population. We will talk about the linkages between suburbanization and urban decline. We will talk about government programs that do harm to black communities in the guise of providing assistance. We will talk about gangs and drugs and the challenge of local neighborhoods.

As I’ve written before, King’s Dream speech has a tremendous laundry list of institutional wrongs. It was only as those were addressed that we get to the children holding hands and singing Free at Last.

Like the Freedom Riders, we need to pay attention to the important things: legal structures, legitimated practices, economic incentives and disincentives. Maybe if we pay attention to these issues for five years we can begin to make some change without seeking to charge people with prejudice or bigotry. Maybe, just maybe, if those folks really understand the difference institutional racism makes, they will be less likely to hold on to their judgmental attitudes.

 

 

 

 

 

“Evangelical Morality” in a Pluralistic Age: A Dialogue with Alan Noble

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 Alan NobleChrist 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.

 

 

Truthiness, Belief, and Story: Reflections on Hobby Lobby Decision

I wanted to wait to comment on the Supreme Court decision regarding Hobby Lobby (Burwell v Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.) until I had a chance to review the actual decision after returning from my weekend in Chicago (a delightful Choral Festival at Fourth Presbyterian). In many ways, the outcome was fairly predictable given the Court’s prior position in Citizens United. Having granted bill of rights protections to corporations, it was likely that the conservative majority would be consistent. [In spite of some of what I’ve read, this wasn’t a First Amendment case on free expression but relied instead on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993.]

Supreme CourtWhen I saw tweets that Justice Alito had written for the majority, it was also clear how the argument would be structured. Others have observed the sharp distinctions between the arguments of the majority and the dissent. It was almost as if they heard two different cases since their rhetorical focus seemed so different. As I did a summary read on the decision yesterday, I came away with three critical reflections.

 1. The Central Claim was one of Truthiness

Stephen Colbert introduced the idea of “truthiness” the night he launched his satirical news show. His point was the facts didn’t matter because he depended on his gut to tell him what was true. It was the Merriam Webster “word of the year” for 2006, beating out the word “google”. If something feels a certain way, then that’s what matters.

At the heart of the dispute over the contraceptive mandate is a concern over four forms of contraceptives that the plaintiffs “believed” caused abortions. The mandate is actually in implementation language written by the HHS in response to amendment to the Affordable Care Act dealing with women’s preventative health. [The dissent makes clear than a religious exemption amendment failed during the ACA debate.] As the case was moving its way through the courts, I kept waiting for someone to address the central belief. There are many news reports that attempt to explore the claim that the four types (mainly IUDs and “morning after pills”) cause abortion rather than preventing ovulation. While not conclusive, my reading of the science leans toward the ovulation argument, but I’m not a definitive source. It seemed to me that someone would need to address this along the way.

I was quietly stunned in reading the oral arguments that both sides emphasized that the plaintiffs “sincerely believed” that the methods caused abortions which was a violation of their religious beliefs. But nobody addressed the scientific claim. I remember reading that social science data on young girls and dolls was an important part of the Brown v. Board deliberation, so it seemed appropriate.

This is important because Justice Alito based part of his support on the idea that there were less restrictive options available. The federal government could pay for those disputed contraceptive methods. But one can’t do so without addressing the science. If it turns out that these methods are, in fact, abortifacients, the Hyde Amendment and the Stupak amendment to the ACA would preclude any federal funds being used.  It’s stunning that Alito would suggest such a strategy unless he believed the science was on the ovulation side. [He does argue that the government has a legitimate interest in providing all 20 forms of contraception.]

2. The Nature of Belief

There are volumes written in theology, sociology, psychology, and philosophy on the nature of belief. The RFRA was written to protect a religious group from laws that infringe on their first amendment protections. The Wikipedia description quotes the act as follows: “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”

The Hobby Lobby argument is that their belief that “life begins at conception” is a religious belief and that the mandate infringes on that belief with regard to the four contested contraception methods. Personally, I struggle with the application of language on “free exercise” of religion with a particular moral belief. There is a big difference between Native American peyote practice (the case behind the RFRA) and a specific belief.

There are Christians firmly committed to Young Earth Creationism or that women should not have authority over men. Do these positions constitute the central place of religious belief? It’s not the same as being at risk for believing that Christ is the Son of God and Redeemer. For a society that seems to adopt a smorgasbord approach to religious belief [the Catholic Bishops just accepted the fact that 95% of Catholics disagree with the official position on birth control], how do we navigate if every set of beliefs is privileged by law?

3. Whose Story?

The Court determined that “closely held corporations” were protected by the RFRA. In other words, corporations that form around family enterprises (but not publicly traded companies) could have religious positions that must be considered. But as many have observed, Hobby Lobby as a company doesn’t appear to be organized around religious ends (except for being closed on Sunday). Many have pointed out that there are practices the company engages in that are hard to characterize as “Christian” (e.g., Jonathan Merritt’s piece in The Week).

But the court’s argument seems to be that the values of the Green family extend to the rest of the corporation. This strikes me as problematic on a number of levels. We often attempt to distinguish one’s personal commitments from one’s corporate stance. This was the argument made around the Chick-fil-a CEO last year. But if one’s beliefs and story extend over all else, then how do we make decisions?

This struck me the other night when I was watching Rising Star on ABC. I don’t normally watch these music competition shows, butRising Star a choir member’s niece was on when I was in Chicago so we all watched it together. What struck me was that the judges seemed less focused on musical ability or technique as on the back story. So the baseball pitcher who was blinded by a hit ball could now try to sing. The focus was on how much he’d overcome and what dedication he showed. People were commended on how they “brought it”, overcame nerves, or how their stories touched the judges.

There’s a parallel in a focus on stories that show dedication, sincerity, and Christian commitment within the political sphere. The argument becomes about the ways in which the Greens live out their commitments of faith. But our stories are part of what got us to the current point of discussion not the be-all-and-end-all. And we need to figure out how our stories intersect with the stories of others.

All of the justices were privileging story but they were privileging different stories. The majority focused on the Greens and the dissent focused on female employees of Hobby Lobby.

At the end of the day, I can affirm Hobby Lobby’s interest in pursuing legal remedies available to them but I keep thinking that there was a stronger opportunity for a faith witness in not insisting on their way.

These reflections can no doubt be challenged and I may modify my own thinking over time. For now, it seems like a decision that left a lot unexplored. We will no doubt be revisiting this case and others like it in the future.

Doing Unto You Before You Do Unto Me

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been trying to explore some sociological dynamics of evangelical structure. I offered a summary of that argument in my presentation at the Wesley conference in Idaho. I’ve been doing a lot with wall metaphors: both in terms of how we construct isolating barriers and how we might tear them down.

Since I got back from Idaho, I’ve been pondering another implication of the wall metaphor. I think it helps explain the Industry Evangelicalism patterns I’ve been writing about. It also may explain a lot about how we do discourse within contemporary society. Whenever I get one of these ideas in my head, it feels like I’m constantly reading stuff on Facebook and Twitter that connect to the current hypothesis. The may be mistaken interpretation on my part, but it might just allow for a more careful unpacking of the social psychology at play within our varied group identities.

The picture above is Lego’s King’s Castle Siege. It illustrates how battlements were created to protect townspeople and nobles against the onslaughts of outsiders. But here’s what I notice: the construction of defensive positions actually allow offensive actions to be taken against the marauders. The rhetoric of defense is such that it winds up justifying first-strike capabilities.

This was true because the actual damage from a siege doesn’t involve battle but rather starvation. The point of the siege isn’t necessarily to overrun the walls but to cut off supply lines and isolate the kingdom. This results in two driving dynamics: demonizing the enemy and acting first before they gain a foothold on the walls.

Once the battlements are built, the kingdom is isolated from potential enemies. That brings safety but also allows one to imagine the worst possible motives of those enemies. Social psychologists refer to this as “fundamental attribution error” — I know my motives but yours are suspect. In fact, it’s likely that I’m imputing my darkest motives onto you because that’s how I imagine what you’d do if successful. This imputation then justifies any action I might decide to take because your imagined attack would be so much worse than my actual actions.

As I said, there are lots of other illustrations in social media of how this plays out. Alan Noble wrote this on Facebook today:

Theory: when someone becomes the face/ symbol/leader/figure of a radical movement which perceives itself to be oppressed, that person has very strong incentives to becoming increasingly radical in language, rhetoric, and position. To the point of absurdity.

He had a particular example in mind (Richard Dawkins) but one could easily put other players in the same position. In fact, Alan has previously done some wonderful work calling out the exaggerations of Todd Starnes and others who delight in cherry-picking isolated infringements on religion as illustrations of “what the world is coming to”. In a recent twitter exchange with Laura Ortberg Turner, I reflected on the linkage between persecution and prosecution — that somehow people will be arrested for their religious convictions. As I write this, Westboro Baptist minister Fred Phelps is near death. His particular form of striking aggressively to stop the visigoths approaching the gates has become legend (even though Christians have seen this as too extreme).

We see the same thing in the political realm. Jon Stewart’s continued takedown of Fox News imputing the worst possible motives to food stamp recipients shows the same pattern. One must imagine the takers and then strike out against them. But the motives imputed only characterize a tiny percentage of those affected.

Joshua Dubois, author of The President’s Devotional, wrote a fascinating piece today about Dr. Ben Carlson. Joshua describes the important role model Dr. Carlson provided for young black men for a generation and how that got transformed into a voice that justified outrageous comment in support of partisan position. It’s an example of how staying inside the battlements provides self-justifying rationales but at the price of the potential positive impact on all those outside the walls.

In Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland devotes early chapters to how easy it is for us to demonize out-groups and describes the rich (and depressing) social psychological experimental research that illustrates the tendency. As I wrote in the tearing down walls piece, she ends her book with solid insights on how to reverse those patterns.

As I was working on this post, Frederich Buechner (or at least the people that run his Facebook page) posted this quote from Brian McClaren’s 2012 book.

Yes, something good still shines from the heart of our religions – a saving drive toward peace, goodness, self-control, integrity, charity, beauty, duty. And something shadowy struggles to overcome that luminosity – a hostile drive, dangerous, resilient, and deeply ingrained, a black hole in our identity that needs an enemy to help us know who we are and how good we are.

My point is that building battlements has certain predictable results. Once we’ve got the walls, we begin to imagine who might be lingering outside. We worry about what they might do. Then we act to prevent them from doing that thing we imagined. We’re self-justified in the process — just imagine what might have happened had we done nothing!

But we imagined the impending attack. It kept us behind the parapets. It stopped us from engaging with those different than ourselves. That’s true whether it’s conservatives in the walls afraid of what liberals might do or liberals worried about conservative rhetorical attacks. It’s true whether we’re conservative/fundamentalist evangelicals imagining what will be on The Cosmos tonight or the scientific community worried about creationist legislators.

This week Christ & Pop Culture had a piece by Bradford William Davis titled “Why We Argue Like Jerks“. He points out that we don’t like asking good questions, that we do not seek to understand, and that we don’t like risking being wrong. In short, we fail to deal with the other as he/she really is but instead how we imagine him/her to be. We do battle in our imaginations, feeling victorious because we once again held our imagined foe at bay.

Maybe it’s the building of battlements (great for ages 7-12!) that’s the real problem. If we didn’t have battlements, we wouldn’t fear the siege. We wouldn’t imagine the enemy over the hill. We wouldn’t imagine the awful things they intended. We wouldn’t demonize them and look for means of attack (defensively, of course).

We might just get that Golden Rule right.

 

For God’s Sake, Tell The Truth!

imdb.com

imdb.com

Between the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections and the summer before the 2012 presidential election, I maintained a blog on politics and media called the ninth commandment. It explored the nature of civil discourse and questioned why it had become culturally acceptable to lie as a means of argument. In my first post in that blog, I wondered why we paid attention to anything Politifact scored below “mostly true“. In my ideal world, once a statement is debunked it should be retired from circulation.

Recent events have me returning to this theme. It’s not just political figures using social media to denounce the president as they were heading to the State of the Union. It’s evangelical leaders looking for reasons to be offended by the broader culture. It’s progressive evangelicals who caricature other christians, questioning their motives or intelligence or biases. It’s conservative christians attacking other christians just for asking challenging questions.

Many, including me, have opined on the Duck Dynasty controversy where Phil Robertson got in trouble with A&E for his comments about homosexuality in a GQ interview. A&E banned him, then reinstated him (after enjoying a week of press), and now things are kind of back where they were albeit with reduced ratings for DD.

But what gets my attention is not Robertson’s beliefs about how homosexuality fits his “biblical worldview” (see Micah Murray’s interesting analysis here). I have no problem with him arguing that he can’t reconcile scripture and modern social changes. The problem comes when he knowingly links homosexuality with bestiality. In spite of his backwoods image, he must know that this is patently false. So why does he say it? Furthermore, why do evangelicals jump on the bandwagon to defend a patently false statement?

Alan Noble (PhD!) has done a masterful job of deconstructing claims certain media segments put forth of anti-Christian bias (see an example here). For his efforts at gathering what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story“, he got chastised in comments from other evangelical Christians for not following Matthew 18 in confronting a brother in Christian love. But why is it acceptable for evangelical Christians (even if they are Fox News commentators) to misrepresent the real story? And why do other evangelical Christians swarm to the defense of the misrepresentation?

This week, Rachel Held Evans tried to address the complexity of the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, best characterized by the Hobby Lobby case. Hobby Lobby and others claim that being required to have insurance policies that provide contraceptive coverage to their employees is a violation of religious freedom. They object, as a story in Christianity Today puts it, “to the mandate’s requirement that employers provide employees with emergency contraceptives that many evangelicals consider to be abortifacients (emphasis mine).” This sentence is telling — a factual question is couched in the phrase “many evangelicals consider”. It takes a scientific question and guards it in a shell of religious belief. Curiously, Christianity Today had written this piece last April that primarily answers the scientific question at least about one of the emergency medications (see also here and here for similar stories from other sources). So why isn’t that in every piece of reporting they do? Why is the “many evangelicals believe” reference the go-to point?

For trying to address these questions, Rachel became the subject of this piece in First Things, published by the Institute for Religion and Public Life. The third paragraph begins, “Readers may be surprised to learn that Evans identifies herself as a pro-life Christian.” The story continues to let the readers know that this cannot be the case according to their definitions. Failing to address the honest questions Rachel had asked, it was far easier to dismiss her points as insufficiently adherent to the party line. This required argument by extremes, putting words in Rachel’s mouth, and asserting motives they cannot possible know. These are evangelical and Catholic writers responding to an honest piece written by another evangelical writer. Once they opened the door, then less kind distortions and mendacious remarks would follow: many of these also from evangelicals. Rachel shared on twitter just some of the names she was called in comments or tweets (don’t know what her questions had to do with witchcraft!).

Disagreement on policy is legitimate. Defamation is not. Looking at evidence and its policy implications can result in civil discussion (as Rachel and Karen Swallow Prior demonstrated in a long twitter discussion last night). Distorting positions and mis-stating the evidence is not. As Rachel cogently posted yesterday: “Christians: If all truth is God’s truth, then tell it. Tell the truth. Don’t lie about science or history to promote your ideology.”

Here’s one more example in the making. A surprising piece on the internet recently said that a song written by evangelical Joni Eareckson Tada was nominated for the best song Oscar. It is the title song from the movie Alone, But Not Alone. It was a surprising nomination because it’s a small production that nobody had ever heard of (details here). As the story explains, the nomination was withdrawn because of accusations of undue influence by the promoter. Many people in coming days will treat the story as an infringement on religious values, as Christianity Today points out. But even the CT story seems to offer a retelling of the story in favor of the value argument. The headline asks “What Message did the Academy Send?“. The implication, supported by the people quoted in the opening paragraphs, is that this is another example of Christians being shunned by Hollywood. But this is not the case. As the film studies experts who have solid evangelical credential point out, this is a simple example of someone breaking the rules. To characterize is as anything else is simply untrue.

Why is there such a strong tendency for Christians to grab partial truths or outright lies and use them to argue with others? In part, it may be due to a belief that we can’t engage in civil conversations that express our values without compromise. We don’t want compromise because that devalues our long-held positions.

I worry that it has much more to do with the fact that we’re afraid. We’re afraid that our positions won’t stand up to scrutiny in civil discourse.

We’re afraid that our past overstatements, misstatements, and misrepresentations will be exposed and the Christian church will be damaged as a result. This is a completely rational fear. We know that we’ve often violated that ninth commandment and don’t really know how to repent and ask forgiveness.

What I can say for sure is that holding to party lines and calling out dissenters weakens the witness of the church. Zack Hunt made that point extremely well in this post yesterday. He cogently writes:

We’ve been asked for a reason for the hope that is in us, but instead of incarnating that hope through acts of love for those in need, we offer compassionless rhetoric and a sales pitch. And so people leave and search for hope elsewhere.

We are working to be the Body of Christ in society, to be the first fruits of the Kingdom that is here and yet not arrived. How we go about that is critically important, not simply as expressions of our character and discipleship, but to the very mission of Christ’s Church.

So for God’s sake, if not for yours, Tell the Truth.

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