The Media, Evangelicals, and Me: On Being a Pessimist in a Progressive Age

The conservative evangelical world has confronted stories over the past two weeks of defectors and would-be defectors to the traditional view of marriage. Hillsong, the mega-mega church from Australia who are re-colonizing the West with their church plants, found themselves under the spotlight precisely by trying to avoid it. Conservatives denounced them, led by one-time Mere-O writer Andrew Walker, and they promptly came out and said that Saint Paul was right, guys, and everything is A-OK. Then Jonathan Merritt wrote a story on David Gushee’s change of heart that was sent around with trumpets and fanfare.

I was mildly critical of both Andrew and Jonathan’s pieces for related but slightly different reasons. I’d like to say one or two more things about my reasons here, not to reopen old wounds but because I think there’s something to learn. And by that I mean I have something to learn, because the Good Lord knows I’m implicated in what I’m about to say.

I was once asked by a reporter whether I thought the “young evangelicals” were going to give up the bigotry of their parents. After I finished laughing, I promptly rejected the question and provide a different one of my own. The poor reporter (probably) wasn’t malicious, but she didn’t have many theological categories either. We talked for an hour…and exactly three of my sentences appeared in print.

I tell that story only to highlight one fact about the press, which by now is well known: many of its members simply don’t “get religion.” Just two days ago, a major news organization published a story that would be laughable, except it isn’t: it’s sad, and media theological ignorance does genuine harm to the cause of Christ.

I say this because I can see at least some decent reasons why a minister of the Gospel might opt to filibuster when the local newspaper reporter asks for his views on sex. The newspaper is not the political authority that Paul preaches to, no matter how much we like to speak of “popular opinion” in juridical terms. The pastor would not be pronouncing the Gospel in unmediated fashion to the world: he’s speaking to a reporter who may or may not faithfully present his views. And neither is the newspaper column the pulpit, which is where the central political and theological (verbal) announcement of the church occurs. He cannot prevent the reporter from listening to his sermons, nor should he try. But he is under no obligation to invite their attention, nor should he feel any compulsion to answer their questions. The Church should proceed on these issues in its own way and time, and that way and time is not that of the press.

Hillsong, of course, brought the media down upon their head and then tried to squirm through their uncomfortable questions, which strikes me as an obvious case of wanting to have their cake and eat it too. But it is the conservative response that interests me most, and the quickness by which people like Walker concluded that Hillsong was simply preparing to change their position. Alan Jacobs, in a more measured fashion, also pointed out that these “journeys” institutions are on only lead to one spot. The point is well made, and I sympathize with it. After all, it has history and statistics on its side—look at those United Methodists and Episcopalians, after all!—and who wants to argue with those?

Except Christians, anyway. Christians want to argue with history and statistics and all the other tools that give off the impression the “journey” inevitably leads away from orthodoxy. I understand (and share!) the skepticism about Hillsong and the concern they will become unorthodox to maintain their buildings and their crowds. But such a skepticism cannot be the first or final word, nor should it pervade our response to their wanderings. Any counsel or response we offer must be saturated in hope, which means we cannot consign people to a path before they have walked it. No institution is on a journey toward a more conservative outlook—yet. They might be, though, if at the moment of hesitation conservatives would walk along side them. Hillsong or any other organization may have a grand reversal, just as there may yet be a glorious revival.

For the one who is not against us is for us.” That word from the Gospel is not the only word our Savior gives to help us understand how we might relate to those outside the faith, but it is a word which deserves its place. Our Lord goes on to say that anyone who gives us a cup of water because we belong to Christ “will by no means lose his reward.” But the question for conservatives runs the opposite direction: If Hillsong or anyone else who gets weak-kneed on marriage “belongs to Christ,” will we offer them a cup of water or shake the dust from our feet? If they never belonged to Christ, then there is no reason to respond at all: they are who we thought they were, we might say, and go on our way.

Pulling the denunciation trigger quickly is an obvious path toward ensuring the clarifying press release is written, which is the only evidence many conservatives need to show the denunciatory strategy “works.” But the effort will ultimately come to nothing as long as it reinforces the rotten idea that the only movement possible is away from orthodoxy, not toward it. Denunciations and warnings have their place, just as the Bible’s warning passages have a serious place in the life of the church. But those do not come with the overtones of an inevitable apostasy, the way the conservative response to Hillsong did.

Walker’s post was aptly titled a “Church in Exile,” a mentality that unnecessarily hastens the exit of those on the fringes precisely because being a beleaguered minority becomes a necessary part of its self-consciousness. (The language of “faithful minority”, which Russell Moore has deployed at points, has the same kind of effect.) A church in exile will have more of an interest in “shoring up the faithful” than winning converts, precisely because it views its relationship to the surrounding world in necessarily oppositional terms. Yet it paradoxically seems to be proceeding by drawing the lines so narrowly around the “faithful” such that no church or institution who hesitates can have a place. The unintended casualties in such an environment are those who have hesitations and doubts about the traditional view: the stakes on this issue are unquestionably high, but if conservatives decide to greet every organization that seems to waffle with the swift word of warning I suspect they may find themselves much lonelier much faster than they need be.

“Breaking: Leading Evangelical Ethicist Wakes Up Thinking That the Gospel and Gay Marriage are Not Compatible, Just Like Yesterday.”

Besides being much too long, that’s not the kind of headline we’re going to see from the press anytime soon, at least not unaccompanied by a story filled with derision. And that is understandable: It is only news when someone of influences changes their mind. The news exists to tell us things we don’t know, not things we already do.

But therein lies a deep problem for how Christians should think of the media’s involvement in the debates within the church. For Augustine, curiosity is a vice which is marked in part by the aspiration for novelty: it seeks to comprehend that which was previously unknown. Our modern news obsession and the chatter (like this!) which accompanies it are structured by what the ancients considered an intellectual disease. The widespread interest in the “young evangelicals” (or now, “millennial Christians”)—of which I have been one of the main partakers of—is itself simply a part of the pervasively progressive assumptions which underly our media pursuits. There is no story if the young evangelicals are just like the old ones. The media culture depends upon the world being different than it is now, and so they endlessly look for such changes and so help bring them into being.

In that sense, stories about Gushee and Hillsong don’t have the kind of neutrality that newspaper people claim for them. It’s important to understand my point, as I’m not suggesting anything about the intentions of their writers. No journalist worth their salt deliberately sets an agenda that way. But the ‘newsworthiness’ of such accounts depends upon and deepens our fixation with whether evangelicals will stay orthodox on the question of marriage, and as such it has a formative effect as much as it responds to a “market demand.” If the underlying presuppositions of our media diet changed, Gushee’s shift would evoke more of a shrug: it’s not a story if Gushee had gone from being a just warrior to a pacifist, for instance, or vice versa (I don’t actually know his position on the question). We care not just about Gushee changing his mind, but changing his mind in this way because of the pervasive unsettledness on the question of marriage. But the media makes us care, too, in their selection and foregrounding of the accounts that they present.

It’s by no means clear to me that this media fixation is healthy for the life of the church, or for our roles within it. It is clear to me that evangelicals have a nasty case of it; our lack of interest in denominational and other institutional structures gives media stories an undue influence. In a weird way, conservative evangelicals fighting proxy-battles for orthodoxy through the media must undermine their own congregationalist ecclesiology, as bloggers claim for themselves the responsibility of shepherds for abstracted flocks which will never meet together, and challenge the authoritative guidance of local church pastors (like Hillsong’s) who have been entrusted by God for the care of their people. And they undermine their own conservative temperament, prescribing for every religious institution a path that pays no heed to how the particularities of time and space might determine the right course. Paradoxically, it’s just in those particular institutions where the long, plodding work of persuasion and discernment on these issues needs to happen. That Hillsong felt compelled to publicly respond with their clarification is, on this score, as troubling as their original statement itself.

Perhaps most troublingly, letting the news cycle determine our debates encourages a widespread hastiness to ‘set the narrative’ and, crassly, capture those retweets. Conservative evangelicals like me who have long mocked being ‘relevant’ are often the first people with a word about the controversy of the day. James 1:19 can mean many things, but at a minimum it seems to mean that we should be slow to speak (there’s your fancy exegesis for those who are scoring at home). The news cycle waits for no one, though, and so we hastily draw our conclusions before all the facts are even in.

I suspect that this media fixation and our curiosity for the ‘new’ breeds a kind of sympathy with progressive intuitions. The media’s interest in ‘novelty’ invariably brings more extreme forms of life into the foreground. The growing interest in polyamory at places like The Atlantic seems to be part of this trajectory: talking about gay unions is so 2000s, after all. The main counterexamples to my thesis, though, are those conservatives who themselves changed their minds, like Rosaria Butterfield. Her astonishing rise is a bit like an oasis in the desert: evangelicals rushed to her story out of a kind of desperation to counter a narrative that seems so pervasive around them. Matthew Schmitz’s account has a similar feeling. But such stories are indications of how deeply saturated by novelty our minds have become. The good news is good precisely because as news it is as old as the universe itself. At the end of the day, orthodoxy is going to be (as C.S. Lewis called it) the “same old thing.”

In a world where progressive impulses dominate, pessimism has an invaluable social role. The optimistic attitude toward ‘change’ is built into the progressive temperament, which loads the dice in its favor and then claims that the game is not rigged at all. (Roger Scruton’s book defending this thesis is the best on the subject.) The effect of this is that people who raise cautions or worries get cast as ‘curmudgeons’ or ‘cranky,’ which is the easiest and fastest way for progressives to delegitimize their critics. Casting those who disagree as “old” is not a mark of respect, even though it should be. It is instead a capitulation to the very culture of youth which flows from the same diseased fixation on the ‘new.’

I have myself been so characterized recently, and I understand well the dynamics that produce the charge. The easiest suggestion is that I am, in fact, becoming a curmudgeon and a crank in my middle age. And that may be right. Those I have disagreed with would probably be happy to so write me off: it is easy to ignore cranks, even when they provide reasons for their objections (which, whatever else my many failures might be, I have always sought to do).

But even if it is true, I am glad to be old ‘before my time’, for I do not view age as the enemy but as the friend of wisdom. I am increasingly pessimistic about the world, which means the triumphalism and rallying charges of ‘courage’ that my conservative friends have sounded ring hollow to me, and it means that my progressive friends who are joyfully ushering in the next phase of history are no more attractive. (You may feel free to characterize me as full of hubris at this point; I won’t deny it, and almost certainly confess it.) I am pessimistic about the quality of my own efforts this past decade to affect any meaningful change, and I am similarly pessimistic of most everyone else’s. I am pessimistic about the evangelical culture’s hurried, frenetic, passion-driven life, and pessimistic that we will discover the deep wellsprings of quiet, unmoving confidence for when we need it most. I am a pessimist in a world where pessimism is one of the only available sins.

But I have hope, and while my pessimism takes hold my hope grows stronger yet. I once heard Oliver O’Donovan suggest that at the start of the 20th century no one could have predicted that one of the great works of the Spirit would involve a faithful, hitherto unknown Anglican nurse introducing hospice care into the world. And likewise few of us may have eyes to see the great work of God that lies ahead of us. The great crisis of marriage which is now in its final stages (it’s final stages, mind you, not its first) may precipitate the renewal of the church. The explosion of singleness may move evangelicals to recover the witness of celibacy (as, indeed, I’m told ERLC emphasized in their conference this week). The escape from our bodiliness that our culture is awash in may awaken the deepest commitments to the flesh of our Savior in us. The exhaustion from our media-info-tainment diets may deepen our longing for the permanent things and the quiet stillness of prayer. In all this, and in so many more ways which are not now known to us, the Lord may come and renew our world. And the great number of evangelicals who are currently waffling and hesitating on the matter of marriage may awaken once again too, and find themselves on the side of the right. I have no confidence that this will happen: I am increasingly pessimistic about our efforts to bring it about. But I have a growing hope that this or much more may yet come to be.

A final, brief, and personal word: the above reflects my own failures and sins as much or more as it does any of my disagreements. If you wish to find places or ways that I have myself been complicit in the very mentality which I examine here, you will not have to look very far or very long ago (some may say yesterday, even!). My path through this world has been uneven: it has been marked by petty vices and failures, which I have no need to confess here. They are known well enough to myself, to God, and to those who have suffered them. But the one grace I have long thought God has given me was the willingness and strength to plumb those petty sins near to the bottom, to discover within them a path toward becoming more securely wise rather than a path toward my destruction. I have always found it easier to write from my failures, and to urge others away from them with as much grace as I can have.

The simplest explanation for the above is that I simply have a critical spirit with a heart that revels in controversies. That conclusion is not far from the truth, though not nearly so close as people might think. I have always felt free to say what I think, and received my most formative education in an environment where blunt disagreement was a sign of respect. I have never felt the impulse to join the team-mentality that pervades the conservative evangelical world (and which I have oft criticized before), and have been happy to dissent when I have thought dissenting needed to be done. I have always been more inclined to criticize when the format is limited: I save my substantive, positive proposals for the places where I can work them out in full. None of this fits very well in an environment where ‘nice’ is the currency of the day and fawning praise must precede and accompany every disagreement.

But still, you will find places that I count as failures. This post itself might be read as one, in its own way. The paradox which I face, and which I cannot escape, is that in bearing the message I engage in the same vices. The messenger is, in this case, highly unsuited for the task he discerns necessary. Such are, perhaps, the deepest and most profound sources for my pessimism. I am what’s wrong with the world, and I always have been. But so also my hope: the glory and the grace that are not of my own provide assurance and hope that despite all my worst efforts to the contrary, all things will one day be well.

 

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The Mark Driscoll School of Leadership

For months now, I’ve been wanting to write something about the Mark Driscoll saga, but I’ve never quite found the words.

I wanted to argue that some of the charges of plagiarism were overblown, but I didn’t want to come off as blindly defending one of my “tribe.”

I wanted to explain why using ResultSource to game the New York Times bestseller list seemed like a permissible marketing practice to me, but I didn’t want to defend something that Driscoll, himself, had since disavowed.

I wanted to shame those dredging up decade-old anonymous message board posts (that had since been repented of) as disqualifying Driscoll from ministry, but I didn’t want to whitewash what were sinfully intemperate statements.

I wanted to question who had appointed Warren Throckmorton as the Grand Inquisitor into Driscoll’s malfeasance, but I didn’t want to come off as defensively attacking the messenger heralding Driscoll’s downfall.

I wanted to chide the Acts 29 leadership team for removing Driscoll under a “totality of the circumstances” test borrowed from Supreme Court jurisprudence and not found within scripture or church confession, but I didn’t want to speak for fear that I was unaware of some truly damning action that justified their decision.

But then I read a description of his actions that crystallized the issue for me.

Before he was deposed, Driscoll had a reputation internally for acting like a tyrant. He regularly belittled people, swore at them, and pressured them until they reached their breaking point. In the pursuit of greatness he cast aside politeness and empathy. His verbal abuse never stopped. From one reported about a half-hour “public humiliation” Driscoll doled out on his staff:

“Can anyone tell me what this initiative was supposed to do?” Having received a satisfactory answer, he continued, “So why the f–k doesn’t it do that?”

“You’ve tarnished Mars Hill’s reputation,” he told them. “You should hate each other for having let each other down.”

One journalist describes Driscolls’ rough treatment of underlings:

He would praise and inspire them, often in very creative ways, but he would also resort to intimidating, goading, berating, belittling, and even humiliating them… When he was Bad Mark, he didn’t seem to care about the severe damage he caused to egos or emotions… suddenly and unexpectedly, he would look at something they were working on say that it “sucked,” it was “shit.”

We all knew that Driscoll was nicknamed the cussing pastor, but these behaviors are truly reprehensible. His abuse needed to be stopped.

Just one thing, though, before we rush to judgment. Those lines were not written about Driscoll. Those are the abusive workplace patterns of Steve Jobs.

Leading Like Jobs

Mark Driscoll is not the first chief executive who has been known for dressing down his subordinates. Steve Jobs didn’t allow personal niceties or corporate inertia to prevent him from focusing on turning out the best possible product on schedule. He would upbraid partner companies for falling behind schedule. He offered to hire people with abrasive faint praise like, “Everything you’ve ever done in your life is shit so why don’t you come work for me.” He fired people on the spot in front of their teams for failure to get a program up to snuff. Continue reading

The Evangelical Roots of the Benedict Option

In 1948 the Bible Presbyterian Church, a quasi-fundamentalist evangelical denomination, sent a 36-year-old pastor and his family to Europe to check on the state of the church after World War II. The family settled in Switzerland and worked mostly in child evangelism before coming back to the United States in the early 1950s on furlough. They returned in 1955 and settled down in a village called Huemoz, a small Swiss village about one mile up into the Swiss Alps near Lausanne. At that time their oldest daughter began attending university and would bring her friends back home with her to visit on weekends.

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Lent, Individualism, and Christian Piety–An Email Conversation

common objects of love o'donovanRecently my friend and occasional Mere O contributor Alastair Roberts exchanged a few emails about Lent that then turned toward a broader discussion of Christian piety and individualism. The exchange is shared below. I’ve slightly indented Alastair’s responses in order to make it a bit more clear where my part ends and his begins. (And if you missed Keith’s post from a few weeks back, do go and read that too.)

Alastair – I’ll kick things off.

My best guess as to why we’re seeing more evangelicals embracing Lent is that many of us have a reasonable desire to embrace a type of Christian piety with roots in the historical church. Many of us grew up with a piety which was often disconnected from historical church practices, particularly on matters related to liturgy, the sacraments, the church year, and so on. At the church I grew up in we had the Eucharist once a quarter. The largest church here in Lincoln, meanwhile, has one baptism service a year.

I suspect–or I hope–that more and more younger evangelicals are coming to see the lack of historical roots in our piety as a problem and so they are trying to do something about it–hence, Lent (amongst other things).

But it seems like there’s two main problems with this. The first is that most of us haven’t taken the time to adequately understand the role that Lent plays within Catholic or Orthodox piety, nor have we stopped to ask whether a similar role even exists in evangelical piety. I think Lent is far less problematic for evangelicals than, say, praying to saints. But unless we try to understand the particular thing Lent accomplishes in the piety of other traditions we run the risk of sloppily importing a practice into evangelical piety that actually doesn’t work in evangelical piety–and may even undermine it.

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The Evangelical War on Contraception

If you haven’t heard, evangelicals are currently campaigning against contraception.

Oh, you haven’t? Well, I can’t blame you. After all, it was only two years ago when a evangelical theologian seriously proposed that churches should give out contraception to single Christians because that supposedly reduces abortions and evangelical attendees responded with a collective, “Um, sure, why not?!”

But since then, we’ve all followed along as Hobby Lobby and others have sued the government for imposing requirements that they include certain drugs in their insurance plans that Hobby Lobby contests have an abortifacient effect. The case is fundamentally about the religious liberties of corporations and their owners, but I suppose we can all be forgiven for overlooking that since the trouble is the “HHS contraception mandate.” Look, the name! They’re objecting! War on contraception! See how easy this whole business is?

Now, I have to confess to feeling the tiniest bit of cheer at the news that evangelicals are thinking hard about contraception, even if the evidence for it is a tad thin. If all of these confusions prompt a more serious and sober evaluation of its use, then so much the better.

But such evaluation needs to happen on different, more properly moral terms than the pragmatic and consequentialist modes of reasoning that are endemic within the evangelical world. We ought to think about what contraception is and what it does within a marriage, what sort of mindset and form of life it engenders, what type of commitments are embedded within the practice and within the communities where it prevails.

Even if particular forms of contraception are licit, they ought not be adopted unreflectively. These matters are far too important for assumptions, yet how many evangelical engagement counseling programs involve careful, deliberate consideration of the questions involved? “The church never talks about [x]” is a sure sign that the church talks plenty about [x] and whoever utters that just isn’t paying attention. But for many evangelicals contraception remains the unquestioned option—and in some cases, unquestionable—option. I’ve heard prominent evangelicals start their defenses of public funding for contraception by saying, “Well, I’m an evangelical, so that means I’m okay with some forms of contraception.” Well, then. That settles it.

Now, among the internet’s response to Hobby Lobby it’s been popular for young evangelicals to run about saying that contraception reduces abortion, so obviously we ought to support more access to it as a social policy. Rachel Held Evans is the latest exponent of the view, but Jonathan Merritt and I have been around it on Twitter as well. The argument sounds awfully nice to the happy, half-informed, pragmatically minded, pro-life evangelical’s ears: we’re against abortion, contraception means less of it, let’s all go have cake.

But there are troubles with this sort of reasoning. (I mean, you know what else would reduce abortions? Killing people. It’s foolproof. ) The study that has become the go-to source on the question simply isn’t as watertight as it seems in the headlines and news reports. And Michael New’s commentary doesn’t even mention that at least some of the IUDs that were handed out have an abortificient effect. Even Planned Parenthood acknowledges that IUDs sometimes have a post-conception effect: that is, if life begins at conception then they are abortifacients.

But it’s easier to find a study that proves the point and call it a day, so let’s call to the stand one of our own. Now, if you think that increased access to contraception would reduce abortions, then it would make sense that better access to emergency contraception would do the same. Only it turns out that’s (maybe) not the case. While sales of Plan B doubled in 2006, and then again between 2007-2009 because laws changed to allow pharmacies to sell it without a prescription, abortions and pregnancies stayed the same in the places where access laws were passed.* Why? Well, the authors muse, “[emergency contraception] may induce a behavioral response that leads to more sexual encounters, and hence, more pregnancies.” Given the rates of birth and the size of the population, it doesn’t take that many more people statistically to have sex more often to keep the pregnancy rate the same. (As to what this means for America’s falling birth rate, well, draw your own conclusions.)

But here’s the real kicker: emergency contraception dropped in price and became easier to access when the pharmacy replaced emergency rooms as the point of sale, but reports of sexual assaults decreased as well. The authors are appropriately cautious, saying that the evidence is “suggestive.” But it makes some intuitive sense: nurses and doctors get trained to ask about such things, while pharmacists do not. The authors suggest that to “mitigate this impact, new policies may be necessary to encourage crime reporting by sexual assault victims that visit pharmacies.”

'Hobby Lobby in Macedonia, Ohio' photo (c) 2013, Nicholas Eckhart - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

If you think they’re protesting contraception, you’re doing it wrong.

Now, is it fair to extrapolate beyond the fact that emergency contraception doesn’t decrease abortions to other forms of contraception? It’s not a straightforward deduction, by any means. But then that’s just my point: the soft consequentialism that stands beneath the social sciences is far less useful for thinking through these things than it seems, and far more potent in the hands of news commentators and writers than it should be. At its best, social science is a discipline that digs up lagging indicators, a kind of empirical history. But the casual observers of culture that make up the commentariat don’t have the discipline even to wait for the academic cycle of evaluation to do its work. What’s that? There’s a study that says the hook up culture doesn’t exist. Now we know!

I could go on, but at this point I feel obliged to simply turn the microphone over to Helen Rittlemeyer, whose excellent essay on the social sciences is germane to all this. A teaser, so you can hear what good prose sounds like, but go read the whole thing:

Lesser pundits and journalists parrot academic studies as if they were unimpeachable, even when the resulting headlines are as absurd as “Racial Inequal­ity Costs GDP $1.9 Trillion,” “Feminists Have Better Sex Lives,” or (my favorite, courtesy of Yahoo! News) “Holy Water May Be Harmful to Your Health, Study Finds.” Even Ross Douthat, generally reputed as a moralist, can be caught buttressing with social­ scientific evidence a claim as uncontroversial as that serious downsides attend being a pothead: Excessive marijuana use, he reports, “can limit educational attainment, and with it economic mobility.” The im­pression left by these sorts of citations is not rigor so much as lack of confidence in one’s assertions, and persuasion, like seduction and stand­up comedy, is 90 percent confidence.

*Author’s note:  Thanks to a commenter, I’ve edited this sentence for clarity. 

Hobby Lobby and China’s Abortion Policy

In the ongoing public dispute over whether Hobby Lobby is justified in its resistance to the so-called “contraception mandate,” the reductio ad China has been one of the more effective rhetorical moves that liberals have made. Rachel Held Evans has deployed it a number of times on Twitter, and Daily Kos has a version of it as well. The rhetorical point is an easy one to make, if only because it seems so intuitive and straightforward: Because Hobby Lobby does business with China, and China has forced abortions, they are inconsistent for objecting to the now-infamous HHS mandate on grounds that it would involve them in practices they find morally repugnant.

How might Hobby Lobby’s rejoinder go?

'Hobby Lobby' photo (c) 2011, Ken Teegardin - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

 

 

 

 

 

The first thing to notice is that the analogy only goes forward if it is true that “doing business”—a phrase so ambiguous that it’s basically useless—with China means providing material support for abortions, or support for the government’s decision to create conditions where forced abortions occur. If people can “do business” with China without supporting the policy or contributing material support for the abortions that occur, then the charge of inconsistency would fall apart or we’d have to get back to talking about whether compliance with the HHS mandate is sufficiently morally problematic as to give business owners legitimate grounds to object to it.

Construed broadly, however, the notion “doing business” with China means either of the conditions above may have the rather nasty consequence of implicating *anyone* who has ever bought a Chinese made product in providing material support for abortions. That may be acceptable to some people, but it initially seems to me too rigid of a criterion. One way around that would be to say that our involvement with “China” as consumers from Hobby Lobby (or any other business) is for some reason less culpable than the businesses who purchase those products there. But that ignores the fact that businesses purchase Chinese products because (surprise!) people in the States buy them. If the standard for material cooperation in a country’s practices is going to be a vague “doing business,” then it may mean we are all implicated as much as Hobby Lobby is.

In fact, if we attend for a second to the various relationships at work then it becomes clear why the *reductio ad China* is nothing more than a bit of sophistry. Hobby Lobby’s contention is that by purchasing insurances that provide free abortificients they are materially cooperating in the use of those abortificients by their employees. If Hobby Lobby were to pay their employees ten dollars more per week, the question of material cooperation drops away, as the financial compensation would not include morally repugnant benefits. But their relationship to abortions in China is mediated both by the businesses that they purchase products from and the government that has the one-child policy. Whereas their money funds the purchase of abortificients for their employees directly—even if the employee must request them—it funds abortions in China only in a very tangential and indirect way.

Which is to say, the analogy gets its rhetorical energy precisely by leaving out the very distinctions that reasonable moral reflection about how to move through the world depends upon. Using “China” (among other terms!) without discriminating between the government per se and their policy, Chinese businesses, the people who are employed at those business, Chinese society shortcuts any meaningful moral analysis.

But let’s just focus on Hobby Lobby’s relationship to the respective governments. As Bethany Persons rightly noted, Hobby Lobby engages in voluntary contracts in China with other businesses, contracts that the government presumably has some interest in allowing to continue precisely because of the financial benefits for the Chinese people. The non-coercive character of the relationship means that the form of negotiation is one of persuasion: Hobby Lobby cannot change the Chinese policy, except by leveraging their business status within the country for good. The only problem, though, is that Hobby Lobby is relatively insignificant to China on its own, which is why the main responsibility for such negotiations and pressure falls to the American government. Because of the overlap of our economies, both China and the United States have interests in each other’s nations, which makes it harder to critique each other but not—as President Bush showed—impossible.

Their relationship to the HHS mandate obviously lacks that voluntary character. From Hobby Lobby’s standpoint, there are two intertwined wrongs: abortificients are being used, and the United States government is compelling them to purchase insurance that pays for them. Even if we granted that Hobby Lobby is inconsistent in their pro-life practices for shopping in China, that would not annul the second wrong.  Nor would it account for the fact that as an American business owned by American citizens, Hobby Lobby and their owners may have special obligations to pursue the right within their own country first and foremost.  Nor does it acknowledge that Hobby Lobby has legal recourse to pursue righting the second wrong that it lacks with the Chinese government. But it is just that coercive stand by the government that we ought be troubled by: A government that forces its people to commit what they consider to be grave moral wrongs upon penalty is a government with little concern for the welfare of its own people.

There may be good reasons to think Hobby Lobby is morally wrong to press its case against the government, but the fact that they purchase products in China is simply not among them.

Are Millennials Joining High Church Traditions?

high church protestantism

You can reject the faddishness and superficiality of contemporary evangelicalism without rejecting evangelicalism itself.

Gracy Olmstead has written the latest edition of an article that is in danger of becoming a meme amongst traditionalist conservatives: Millennial Christians are, apparently, converting to high church traditions en masse. Rebecca Van DoodewaardJeremy Tate, and Scot McKnight have also discussed this issue recently so it’s hardly a new story. There’s two things that need to be raised every time this article is written and, as best I can tell, none of them are discussed at any length in any of the pieces I’ve found.

First, there isn’t a ton of data showing how many people actually are converting to Catholicism or Orthodoxy or Anglicanism out of more evangelical backgrounds. (And we probably shouldn’t be including Anglicanism with Orthodoxy or Catholicism anyway, but that’s an entirely separate discussion.) Here’s the data we do have: Data from February of 2011 from the Pew Forum found that 9% of all Americans are former Catholics whereas only 7% of Americans are ex-Protestants. Of that 9% that have left Catholicism, 5% converted to Protestantism.

While it’s fair for members of high church traditions to point out that many of the converts to Protestantism are less engaged to begin with, while converts to Catholicism tend to be more noteworthy (Scott Hahn, Francis Beckwith, Jason Stellman, etc.), that doesn’t change the fact that more people convert from Catholicism to Protestantism than vice versa—a fact that most of these stories ignore completely.

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On Joseph Bottum’s Enchantment and Public Arguments

Joseph Bottum is back to singing the “re-enchantment” song, suggesting that conservatives ought give up “preaching social ethics” because it’s “boring and it’s doomed”:

Forget the culture-wars crap. It was a fight worth having, back in the day when there was enough Christendom left to be worth defending. But such as American Christendom was, the collapse of the Mainline has brought it to an end. Start, instead, with re-enchantment: Preach the word of God in the trees and rivers. The graves giving up their dead. The angels swirling around the Throne. Existence itself figuring the Trinity, in how we live and move and have our being. Christ crucified and Christ resurrected. All the rest can follow, if God wants.

He then added this in response to Rick Garnett, an excellent Catholic pro-life lawyer who offered his own response:

Forgive me then, Rick, if I continue to propose that ordinary prayer and everyday awareness of the reality of God are more likely to find willing ears—if I preach the metaphysics of Christianity rather than the law-and-policy-betrayed social ethics of tattered old Christendom.

There’s a whiff of false dichotomy there in Bottum’s approach to these things, which Garnett picks up on as well, and an artificial universality that inevitably accompanies sweeping prolegomena of this sort.  We might all say “yes” to re-enchantment, but mysticism won’t make it very far in a courtroom.  It may be that legal changes are a rear-guard action, an attempt to stitch together a fraying social fabric and hence unlikely to hold forever. Bottum’s right that laws are neither permanent nor the dominant forces shaping culture.

But then it’s a mistake to say that the law and social questions are somehow divorced or separate from the possibility of re-enchantment, too, the way that Bottum seems to imply when he suggests that we ought pursue re-enchantment first.  The legal disputes about marriage have actually presented conservatives with their best opportunity in decades to help people get clear on intractable beauty and goodness of marital bonds.

Bottum would have us not speak of the legal case until we “preach the word of God in trees and rivers.  But why not instead preach that word within the meaning of marriage, since that’s what people are interested in sorting out these days?  The arguments in the courtroom may have to be boring.  But it seems that an enchanted imagination might see something more in the public controversies that ensue than simply a dispute about the law.  Such controversies may be providential summons to our society to rediscover the nature of a lost goodness.  The enchanted strains of the beauty of the world may be drowned out by the culture wars.  But it’s not clear why we would want to chastise the clamoring insistence that there is something important here, about this thing that drives our public debates.  We ought to have more public chattering about these things, more dialogue and disputation, even if it seems repetitive and boring.  If our “social ethics” does not contain the mysteries it needs to transform the hearts, then we ought keep pressing inward.  We were made for more, after all, and all who seek….find.

Which is to say, it is true that conservatives haven’t been particularly aesthetically minded in their public pursuits.  But to steal from another writer who knew a thing or two about an enchanted cosmos himself, if anything is worth doing it’s worth doing badly.

But that line expresses the heroic mysticism of those who advocate for traditional marriage or the pro-life causes, despite them having very little odds of “success.”   The very sort of enchantment that Bottum wants such advocates already embody, even if they so with less flair than Bottum or I might want.  We ought pursue re-enchantment. But that won’t tell us whether any particular law is just or not. A government has only one option to preserve its legitimacy, and a society only one option if it is to discover enchantment by any means other than total disintegration:  we must pursue justice without heed for the long-term consequences of our actions, consequences which we cannot control, much less reliably foresee given the massively complex set of factors at work in any situation.

Conservatives of every sort are perpetually in danger of allowing prudential concerns about retaining a “seat at the table” of cultural influence and power to crowd out their cheerful obstinance on the grounds of their principles.  It is precisely because we do not know the future and that we are not responsible for those who assail us that we can promote unpopular goods without concern for their “effectiveness” or “utility.”  Few outlooks are so opposed to Bottum’s “enchantment” project than that of consequentialism, it too can sneak into our consciousness through rather poetic means.  Maintaining a hopeful belligerence and willingness in the face of seemingly impossible conditions may be a short path toward cultural marginalization; but it’s just that sort of mystical disinterestedness in pragmatism that I think Bottum wants.  It is a belligerent affirmation that these things are worth doing for their own sake, even if we go about doing them badly.  Conservative Christians might be tempted to remind themselves that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, and so be of good heart.  But I doubt the martyrs themselves were interested in that when they climbed up on the pyre:  they were on the side of the right and were about to meet God, and what else matters?  To steal again, we ought to love effectiveness like life and drink our failures like wine.

Conservative Christians need the poetic imagination of Bottum and others; but we need to enfold it into our public argumentation about these contested questions, to see these things poetically while also considering them legislatively and legally.  Social ethics need not be sterile, and a strong dose of poetry may open up ways of putting things that the philosophers had not yet considered.  But we ought not forget that poetic, heroic lives are where enchantment properly begins.  And in the face of injustice, those who spend their lives advocating for the laws, making philosophical arguments, and doing the dry, boring work of social ethics are not engaged in a lesser task than those poets who remind us of the beauty and goodness of the world we live within.  Nor is it a less urgent task.  For we are all called to courageously and cheerfully say how the world is, in the grammars where God has placed us, with the sort of radical disinterest in our own work’s success that turns us to ask that it would be founded in prayer.

No, the GOP is Not Losing Young Christians

Monday, Matt Lewis penned the latest in a long line of the GOP is losing young Christians articles. It is actually a superior piece to many of its kind because it considers how the Christian mandate to “live at peace with all men” weighs against unchecked descent into no-holds-barred political combat. Unless care is taken, Christian politicos may become “wise as serpents, but no longer innocent as doves,” Lewis writes, “For what shall it profit a man if he should win an election, but lose his soul.”

But as poignant as that reminder is, Lewis uses it to support his thesis that “many young Christians are choosing to be conscientious objectors in the culture wars” because  they find “political involvement, no matter how pure the original motives, [to be] a corrupting force.” Appearing on Morning Joe to talk about his column, he proceded to explain that some of these disaffected folks may join the Democrats provided they “field candidates like Obama” while others will disengage from political activity altogether. Jonathan Merritt went even further writing that young Christians turned off by “the dumpster fire that is Washington D.C.” were going to make the GOP pay in the coming years.

The reality is that young evangelicals have not actually moved substantially away from the GOP during the Obama era. Indeed, I am so firmly convinced of this fact that I have no choice but to bust out a couple of homemade infographics. (Drastic measures, I know.)

First, extrapolating from the exit polls and final turnout, my first infographic shows how many white Evangelicals voted for Bush, Bush, McCain, and Romney respectively.EvVote

Just to be clear, that’s the Romney bar peaking higher than any other bar. And Obama’s much-touted Evangelical appeal does not look like much of a blip on the trendline. If you’re looking for decline or white Evangelicals abandoning the GOP, I sure don’t see it here.

This is doubly surprising because it isn’t like McCain and Romney were Evangelical dream candidates. McCain once called Evangelicals in politics “agents of intolerance” and Romney was a “Satan and Jesus are brothers” Mormon. But despite these warts, Obama has proven unable to make any significant inroads in appealing to White Evangelicals.

Yes, there are some Evangelicals who voted for Obama but there were Evangelicals who voted for Bill Clinton and Walter Mondale, too. Over time, there has been a persistent—though perhaps slowly evaporating—minority of Evangelical voters who support Democrats in presidential elections. This doesn’t prove that Obama has proven to possess any specific electoral appeal.

Measuring Young Evangelicals Against Their Peers

But the stats in my first graph are about all white Evangelicals as a whole. Isn’t it the young Christians who are being lost by the GOP?

There is an oft-quoted factoid that Obama did twice as well with young Evangelicals in 2008, than Kerry had in 2004. Here’s an infographic featuring that fact courtesy of the New York Times.

This is true, but, as they say, context is everything. We shouldn’t be looking at the young Evangelical shift in a vacuum. Bush’s narrow reelection over Kerry and Obama’s clear-cut victory over McCain were very different elections. Indeed, young people as a whole voted for Obama by a 2-to-1 margin after only narrowly going for Kerry four years before.

Thus focusing on Obama doubling Kerry’s support among young Evangelicals misses that even at the height Obamamania Evangelical young people were still much more likely to vote GOP than everyone else their age. Behold, here comes another infographic.2004-2008-compare

I’ve listed the Democrat percentage by age group in both the 2004 and 2008 election. White Evangelicals are the dark gray bars and all voters are represented in orange. Thus, the amount of orange we see represents the gap between overall support for the Democratic candidate to white Evangelical support. For example, in 2008, Obama received 32 percent from 18-29 white Evangelicals while receiving 66 percent from 18-29 year olds overall, resulting in an enormous 34-point gap.

As you can see, in both 2004 and 2008, the youngest age cohort has the biggest orange bar. That means that young Evangelicals are the most counter culturally Republican; they are the furthest to the right of the political center of gravity of their peers.

Unfortunately, I cannot update this to reflect the 2012 data. The exit poll consortium did not see fit to supply the necessary crosstabulations for religion and age. However, an election eve poll showed white Evangelical 18-29 year olds going for Romney by an overwhelming 80-15 margin while Obama ended up winning 60 percent of all 18-29 year olds. It is a pretty safe bet that those orange bars wouldn’t be any smaller.

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It isn’t that any of this is very new to the attentive Mere Orthodoxy reader. Let’s just add this data to all that has been ably said here by Messrs. Anderson, Walker, and Domenech about the political proclivities of young Evangelicals. I still think that Matt Lewis’ piece was a great volley in this conversation and hope merely that my pretty infographics serve to remind that despite all the chatter, young Evangelicals are still very reliable Republican voters.

On Authority, Tradition, and Millennial Evangelicals

Over the weekend I started reading Roger Scruton’s The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hopewhich is like everything Scruton writes: both instructive and engaging.  It was this bit, however, on the nature of authority that stood out to me as particularly interesting, especially in light of recent disputes over millennials and the church:

When it comes to our own lives, to the things that we know and in which we have acquired both understanding and competence, we take a measured view….The midwife who knows her job respects the solutions that have been proved by the generations who preceded her; she recognizes those with authority and instinctively obeys their advice.  And she does not hesitate to offer advice of her own.  She measures her own judgment against the accumulated wisdom of tradition, and if she takes a risk, because the problem before her is without a clear precedent, she is careful to measure the cost of failure and to ensure that it can be borne.”

Scruton goes on to suggest that the “scrupulous optimist,” as he calls them, are “acutely aware that we are only one among many in our field of expertise, are ready to defer to those with knowledge and experience, and are more respectful of the accumulated store of others’ knowledge than the scant addition we might make to it ourselves.  It is with an educated sense of the first-person plural that we deploy the knowledge that is our securest personal possession.”

If Scruton is right, there’s an inherent modesty required both to speak authoritatively and to discern and respond to authorities.  When Jesus speaks “as one with authority” in Matthew 7, he teaches within the context of an established and authoritative body of work, the Torah.  He illuminates various aspects in new and distinctive ways, and the whole teaching is reframed around the advent of the Messiah.  Yet his teaching is authoritative only because it comes from within a tradition, in the first place, rather than because it questions or subverts that tradition.  He’s able to wrangle with the Pharisees in the Temple at the age of twelve because he knows his stuff.  He’s done his due diligence, you might say.

Scruton keeps his example narrowed to the individual, but it’s worth expanding it and thinking generationally for a second.*  There is within the progressive temperament that is now en vogue among many “millennial Christians” the temptation to make skepticism the fundamental posture toward religious authorities.  Never mind that authorities in other disciplines, like science, are somehow immune.  The disposition does not look at our received tradition as an inheritance to be enjoyed and lived on so much as a burden that has to be subverted and deconstructed.  Progressive Christians are not interested in measuring our  judgment against the tradition; rather, the progressive temperament judges the tradition against a conception of “reason” or “experience” that is currently popular (“we now know….”).

The difference between the progressive temperament and what Scruton describes above is not simply one of emphasis, then, but one of substance.  The person who places himself under authority is necessarily more interested in the gifts they have received than the gifts they have to give–and inasmuch as they are able to speak authoritatively (and not simply popularly, which is an important difference) they will speak out of that sense of deference.  To put it bluntly, theological progressivism has to speak from a posture of pride.  The progressive question is the theological “humblebrag”:  it refuses to give the benefit of the doubt to stances that we have inherited while treating the world as a blank canvas which we then get to “create” on.  Assimilation by a surrounding culture isn’t a bug of theological progressivism so much as a feature.

The relationship between the institution that bears the tradition and the speaker is not symmetrical, then, and for the speaker, it cannot be.  That we stand on an equal plane with the institution we live within isn’t simply wrong–to the one who has been formed by the tradition, it seems…laughable.  That claim prompts a flabbergasted stammering as though someone had dared insult our wives or girlfriend.  “If you only knew,” the response can only be, just how much we have been given.  Such is the bashfulness of those in love:  in the face of a good so wonderful as a woman, as the churchthe appropriate response is penitential reverence and kneeling, rather than trumpeting our own virtues and gifts.  If Christ is to be seen there at all, if there is anything lovely, or pure, or holy, or any of the qualities that the eyes of faith detect–our entire outlook must shift and all our speaking and advocacy along with it.

But then, that will only be the response when the creeds are lived within, when they are prayed, and not simply repeated.  As Austin Farrer once put it, “No Christian deserves his dogma who does not pray them.”  Or this, also from him, after noting that Christ presents himself to be examined by the disciples in the upper room:

“On the other hand how can I question a truth like this truth?  For have I not begun to see Christ as the Lord, and does this not preclude questioning?…You might as well recommend to a husband the rational duty of suspending judgment about his wife’s fidelity until he has tested it by a sufficient number of ingenious traps and artificial maneuvers.”

“Come and see,” the exhortation is, but such sight is given only if we come reverently, soberly, and in the fear of God.  It is given when we have been chastened, when we have learned of the failures of the past and been instructed in the humility of wisdom–for “the only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”

The appropriate response to the troubles of the church, to her failures and her flaws, is to recognize what Chesterton understood when responding to the question of what is wrong with the world.  As he famously replied by way of a letter:

Dear Sirs, 

I am. 

Sincerely yours, 

Matthew Lee Anderson

*Such generational analysis has been plenty in vogue for a while within evangelicalism, and I’ve engaged in it a bunch myself. However, I note that the approach has a very limited usefulness, if any at all.  I use it here because it’s shorthand for a phenomenon in a way that lots of people recognize, but could easily be talked out of ever using the phrase again.