[My August submission to the American Evangelicals dialogue at http://www.respectfulconversation.net. This month’s topic is on Morality.]
We like to draw lines in the sand. It shows that we’re serious. We have expectations. Beside, we argue, didn’t Dean Kelley say that conservative churches grow because they place expectations on their members? Shouldn’t we be avoiding Bonheoffer’s “cheap grace”?
There’s a big problem with sand. It doesn’t stay where you left it.
The wind blows across the dune and leaves no track of your footprints. The waves come into shore and obliterate the nice trench you just dug. Over time, water saturates the sand so that it turns to slush and the sandcastle falls down.
What then do we do with our lines in the sand? One option is to reinforce them. After drawing the line, we can build little Maginot lines to make sure the trench doesn’t collapse. A second option is to build little zones of protection around the line. We won’t actually deal with the moral challenge of the line, but will substitute other moral positions. A third option is to adopt the lines of those around us. Another option is to stop drawing lines altogether. Since they can’t be maintained, why even bother?
Exploring the questions of morality within evangelical culture is difficult because there are a host of prior questions that are unexplored. In the early 1980s, I presented data on Christian college students’ behaviors in areas like alcohol, drugs, and premarital sex (and other stuff as well). The first question was “Why are these the important measures? What about poverty, race, the arms race?” I really didn’t have a good answer beyond “That’s not what the sponsors asked about”. What I should have said was, “Much of evangelical discussion on morality is individual and pietistic. We may not like it, but there it is.”
It’s hard to draw lines in the sand in meaningful ways. In its early days, my denomination couched its moral stands (alcohol, circuses, and the like) as “Guides and Helps for Holy Living.” Twenty years later, the same section of the denominational standards was called “General and Special Rules”, the violation of which constituted “peril to your soul and the witness of the church.”
Here is a sociological question I’ve pondered throughout my career: How does a voluntary association like a religious organization pursue conformity to moral expectations?
If the organization is voluntary, then one has little risk of being forced out. Not so the situation of a state church with a monopoly on access to the means of grace, where failure to adhere meant denial of religious participation.
If one is ruled “out of compliance” in a local congregation, what is the penalty? Leaving this congregation for another than doesn’t hold out the same requirements? Giving up on religious practice in favor of a privatized spirituality?
It is with these lenses that I come to the question of evangelical morality. I suggest that there are some modern moral questions around which the evangelical church has built Maginot lines: abortion, homosexuality, creation (becomes a moral issue because “evolutionists” are seen as denying all morality). We are unable to examine these questions because we have built an infrastructure around the line in the sand. We can’t even get close to the real line.
There are other modern questions of morality that take the second form I suggested: creating demilitarized zones around the line, so we never run the risk of crossing over. Here I’m thinking of attitudes toward premarital sex. We’ve created entire subcultures about purity pledges and modesty norms to keep us far away from the real question. There are some remarkable things being written by young evangelicals right now about the damage created by these demilitarized zones. Purity pledges and modesty norms put great pressure on young women to keep their menfolk away from the line in the sand.
The third image I had of the sand involved outside forces (like the surf) crashing over the line. This relates to the primacy of individual morality over social morality. We can’t talk about broad issues like inequality, racism, the environment, immigration, the common good – moral questions all. The broader cultural and political dynamics have overrun our biblical and spiritual sensibilities. This is how “social justice” gets a bad name in political discourse.
Finally, the line just gets absorbed into the surrounding sand. For too long, evangelical morality had an identity component: “we’re not like them”. So dancing was out, as was social drinking, divorce, premarital sex, pornography, and so on. But the supposed separatism quickly gave way to an understanding of diverse social patterns. We met people who drank socially. We found that those folks in second marriages were pretty cool. The identity separation was overrun. That’s why Ron Sider can write such a scathing book in The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, documenting that the gaps between evangelical Christian behavior and that of the rest of society is distressingly small.
So, to use a phrase evangelicals have liked a lot over the years, “How Should We Then Live?” What is the basis for Christian morality in this diverse, busy, loud, postmodern age?
First, what it is not: it is not about identity politics from any perspective. It is not about being forced to hold a certain position of morality because that’s what our folks believe. It is certainly not about “liking” some random picture on Facebook.
We need morality framed in the discipleship of Christian community. We struggle together with questions in their complexity. We have to talk about sexual abstinence as a goal for young people while still recognizing the power of biology. We need to talk about the appropriate role of alcohol (that goes beyond the requirement of beer companies to tag “drink responsibly” at the end of the wild party commercial). We need to talk about the complexities of same-sex relationships. We need to consider what Justice looks like in a world of such inequality.
The scriptures provide us with guidance of general principle here but not specific answers. They suggest that the answer is “somewhere in that general direction” without drawing the line in the sand. We listen to the leading of the Spirit as we honestly strive together to engage in Holy Living.
The internet has been ringing this week with echoes of Rachel Held Evans CNN piece on millenials and faith (it’s getting almost as much play as Reza Aslan’s Fox Interview!). But millenials recognize that we live in a complex world. One in which simple answers that sell books in Christian bookstores won’t address.
I believe the evangelical church has much to offer the broader culture in terms of a human morality that is based in community and looking for the greater good. Doing so will require us to engage those different than ourselves in honesty and humility. It will call us to listen more than speak. It will mean that we have to tolerate ambiguity in a complex world. It will mean leaning toward shades of gray and not seeing things as black and white. It will mean being Christlike.