Tag: Same-sex marriage

Christian Universities After the Supreme Court Decision on Same Sex Marriage

en.wikipedia.org
en.wikipedia.org

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

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

Issue: 1) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex? 2) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state? (http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/obergefell-v-hodges/)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This will lead to a third issue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Back: Religion in 2015

December 2015

I spent some time looking over what I’d posted on this blog over the past 12 months in anticipation of one of those “best of” posts everyone is doing. I did learn how much the three themes of evangelicalism, higher education, and sociological theory showed up on the blog and how some of each were among my most viewed posts.

Then I thought about doing one of those “most important stories of 2014” especially after reading this post from Christianity Today. It asked four figures to list their pick for “best news” of 2014 that would shape evangelical life. Their responses were relations between evangelicals and Catholics (Geoff Tunnicliffe), WorldVision abandoning their same-sex marriage policy (Eric Teetsel), Ebola doctors and We are N awareness (Sarah Pulliam Bailey), and persecution breaking the reins of prosperity gospel (Russell Moore).

While I don’t have major quibbles with most of these (I have a hard time with the WorldVision thing), I immediately wondered what else was missing. What would others have responded? How would they articulate their choice? What sort of factors played into their perspective of what constituted “best news”?

Rather than adding my retrospective on what was important, which has the kind of safety found in Newsroom scripts retelling events long past, I thought I’d stick my neck out and write next year’s retrospective a year early. So, following in the tradition of Edward Bellamy, I pretended it was December 2015 and I could reflect on the major change stories in religion (especially American religion as it’s what I know best).

In no particular order, here’s my list:

1. The Rise of the Dones: While much of the focus in recent years has been on why millennials have fallen away from church in somewhat large numbers, this was the year when the evangelical church really woke up to those previously faithful members who just stopped participating. This was captured in research by Josh Packard and colleagues. These are individuals who are theologically orthodox and would show up as highly religious on a number of survey questions, but simply don’t attend church much anymore. They’ve heard it before and are pursuing other avenues for spiritual fulfillment. This group helps explain the significant gap between religious identification and church attendance in America as well as the increasing financial challenges for local congregations.

2. Pope Francis make life more difficult for Evangelicals:  His Holiness continued the housecleaning begun late in 2014, shaking up the internal organization of the Vatican and calling those in leadership not to see themselves as better than others in their flocks. This included some extremely strong words about the embrace of materialism and what sociologists call “conspicuous consumption”. Suddenly, the evangelical pastor asking for heightened levels of loyalty, a huge staff, lots of speaking opportunities, and large houses wound up in stark contrast to public images of what it means to be truly Christian. In addition, the pope’s openness to dialogue on the role of women, treatment of those outside the faith, and embrace of science made it increasingly difficult to take hard-line stances on social issues (even where simply quoting scripture worked in the past) unless one was willing to denounce an immensely popular spiritual leader as being an accommodationist.

3. Concerns over Race in America bridged theological barriers: As 2014 ended with sharp divisions on issues of race, it was religious figures from across the theological spectrum who began to seriously address the key questions. Prior separations between Calvinists and Arminians, between millennial bloggers and evangelical figureheads, between mainliners and evangelicals began to break down, at least for a time. There was a strong sentiment from African-American conservatives and young white progressives that one’s station in society shouldn’t be dictated by race and class. There was a dramatic increase in the number of voices willing to admit that something was wrong and that we needed intense theological and sociological conversations. This change put the evangelical church in the center of significant social change based not simply on secular values but imbued with a strong vision of God’s Kingdom at work.

4. Legalization of Same-Sex Marriage allowed real dialogue within denominations on marriage: With more states taking steps to institutionalize same-sex marriage on purely secular grounds, it created the situation where denominational groups could no longer treat the topic as an abstract proposition. Increasingly, people within local congregations were in same-sex marriages recognized by the state (and their employers). Churches held fast to self-determination on marriages within the church and there remain stark differences on the role of married, sexually active, gay clergy. But the societal shifts allow for real dialogue within major denominational groupings. While the year ended without any particular working consensus, earlier concerns about schism seemed to be avoided. One of the interesting positive outcomes of the shift was a real discussion about the role of family, commitment, fidelity, and affirmation of the image of God in all that had been sorely missed in “traditional family” discussions.

5. The splintering of the Evangelical voting block: As the pre-primary campaigns began to take shape in mid-2015 in anticipation of the 2016 presidential election, the old value-voters block of conservative evangelicals didn’t materialize to the extent that it had in the previous three presidential cycles. This was a result of three factors: more millennials involved in the political process, the inability of leading presidential candidates to speak to evangelical theological concerns, and shifts in major political issues from social concerns to economic concerns. Issues of abortion and treatment of the elderly were still highly valued, but other issues of immigration, family policy, minimum wage, and the social contract showed significant diversity of thought even among evangelicals. Candidates could no longer simply depend upon Christian voters guides carrying the day.

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Some of this may be simply pie-in-the-sky thinking on my part. On the other hand, all five of my scenarios are based on a reasonable sociological reading of things already in play in late 2014. I invite you to tag this and come back to it in twelve months — I’m sure I will.

Collateral Damage: Christian Colleges and Culture Wars

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.

source: Amazon.com
source: Amazon.com

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.

Tearing Down Walls

berlin-wall-tearing-downMy previous post explored the challenges of the Tower of Babel. Drawing upon the work of Brent Strawn, who argued that the motivation for the tower-builders was a combination of pride and fear, I suggested that contemporary issues within evangelicalism represent walled enclaves created for the same two reasons.

I had hoped to get this post up earlier, but was held up by two factors. First, I wanted to finish Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ, so that I could apply her lessons about overcoming social psychological barriers to intergroup interactions. Second, MY BOOK CAME OUT. So I was a little distracted.

In this post, I want to take my argument from the last one a little farther. I ended that piece echoing Reagan’s call to “tear down those walls”. Now I want to explore how we might do that.

Christena’s book, while speaking to issues of multi-cultural worship, looks much more deeply at issues of divisions across groups. These may be racial or ethnic groups. They may be separations between evangelicals or mainliners. They may be divisions between one group of evangelicals and another group of evangelicals (the central theme of my twitter feed lately). They may be separations among groups of high school kids (all the other divisions may simply be grown-up high school antics!).

It is not simply a critique of the “homogeneous church principle”, although that is there. It’s really an examination of why that principle works so well. The truth is that it depends entirely upon what we social psychologists consider to be errors in classification. These errors encourage us to overvalue those like us and undervalue those who are different.

After introducing the problems created by division, Christena works her way through dozens of Disunitysocial psychological studies. While these don’t deal directly with contemporary religious groups (that research needs to be done!), they are informative just the same. She shows how groups misjudge those outside the group by assuming that “they’re all alike” (while recognizing individuality within our groups). She writes of the tendency for groups to exaggerate their own abilities or orthodoxy (the Gold Standard effect).  She shows how group interactions impact our sense of identity, introducing great concepts of BIRG (Basking In Reflected Glory) and CORF (Cutting Off Reflected Failure). There is a chapter on cultural conflict, which suggests that competition over cultural dynamics results in fear and ambiguity (always a problem in social psychology).

In a myriad of ways, social psychological processes solidify the very walls that I wrote about in the previous post. And it is easy to see both pride and fear present throughout her argument.

She closes the book with solid recommendations on how to begin the hard work of bridging the barriers we create. First, she suggests that cross-cultural contact is essential. Individuals from different groups that can connect around common interests can find more similarity that they might expect. Second, leaders are critical in providing an understanding of why we need to bridge our separations. Key to this process is giving a biblical and theological foundation that shifts our focus to common identity issues. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is an excellent guide for where we find identity. Third, a commitment to justice for all parties is essential and will require privileged groups to go the second mile (that’s part of the definition of privilege). Finally, Christians need to embrace the interdependence Paul describes in his body imagery in Romans and Corinthians. We simply cannot operate without each other.

Cover

I also deal with issues of community in my book, though mine is not as research grounded as Christena’s. I argue that we must see our differences as the issues that provide strength. But drawing heavily on Scott Peck, I acknowledge that confronting those differences is painful and stress producing. It gets worse before it gets better, sometimes lots worse. But the other side of what he calls Chaos is Emptiness. In Parker Palmer’s words, we quit trying to fix each other. We don’t brush our differences aside but we make them the raw material for new discovery. We are not alone in this process: the Holy Spirit is working in our midst to allow us to see from another’s perspective. Only when we stop the fighting do we discover what commonality and community mean.

Bonhoeffer says that we cannot MAKE community happen. It is a gift from God. While he was talking about living in the monastery with Christian brothers, the general point still holds. We can find ways of living with difference that don’t require the construction and maintenance of walls.

What does this look like in real life? How do we avoid being driven by pride and fear? What can we do so that every issue isn’t a test between my group (upon which my identity rests) and your group (which is threatening that identity)? How can I focus on our commonalities rather than our differences?

For most of the past two weeks, my social media streams have been dominated by laws proposed in Kansas and Arizona regarding businesses and service to same-sex couples. If I reflect on the various stories (many of which were very well done), they still fell victim to the kinds of issues Christena discusses. One side sees a threat to religious freedom. Another group sees bigotry and bias. Other groups call out hypocrisy in selective enforcement.

But none of these dealt with the full range of the issues. First, it’s interesting that in both states the legislation did not become law. Maybe it would be best for us not to fight about the prospects of something happening until it was actually happening. Second, it’s important to acknowledge that civilly recognized same-sex marriages are uncomfortable for some people as they work through their own thought processes. Third, recent data shows that knowing same-sex couples significantly changes viewpoints toward marriage equality. So there is something about seeing the other as a real person instead of a stereotype that changes things. Fourth, it is important that we listen to the Holy Spirit to recognize the Image of God in the other; whether than other is the bakery owner or the couple buying the wedding cake.

At the end of the day, bridging walls comes because our trust in Almighty God is greater than our trust in our own Brickmasons.