“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.

 

 

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