Evangelicals and the Search for Credibility

There’s a sort of American Christian (almost always white and middle-to-upper class) who seems to think that the American church’s biggest problem at the moment is the previous generation of the American church.

There are various sub-groups within this broader camp. The radicals, of whom Matt has written in the past, want to critique the suburban comfort of the previous generation and replace it with a Christianity focused on doing hard things and rejecting the supposedly easy life of material affluence embraced by the previous generation.

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A Brief Thought on the Benedict Option

Rod Dreher continues to do important work over at TAC writing about the Benedict Option ahead of a book he hopes to write on the topic. In one recent post, he defined it this way: “a limited, strategic withdrawal of Christians from the mainstream of American popular culture, for the sake of shoring up our understanding of what the church is, and what me must do to be the church.”

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The Limits of Dialogue: Q Ideas, Gay Marriage, and Chuck Colson

On Wednesday, Owen Strachan and Eric Teetsel offered a strong challenge to Q Ideas for hosting dialogues on questions relating to homosexuality and gay marriage with David Gushee and Matthew Vines, both of whom are affirming of gay marriage within the church. As Teetsel and Strachan put their objection:

By making their case for homosexuality on supposedly biblical grounds, Vines and Gushee sow confusion within the body of believers. The crux of the matter is this question: “Is there room within Christianity for different understandings of human sexuality?”

Now, in my previous essay on the subject, I wrote the following paragraphs about the role debate on gay marriages might play in evangelicalism:

Should Christianity Today host James Brownson on [the question of gay marriage]?  Sure, why not?  I think Brownson is wrong, and that conservative evangelicals should have the confidence to show that in our own fora. I mean, I even thought Russell Moore and the ERLC should have invited him to their big shindig on marriage for the same reason:  I have such a strong degree of confidence in the truthfulness of the traditional view that I want it side-by-side with views that are wrong. More of that, please, and the sooner the better. Will progressive thinkers persuade some people? Obviously. But conservative evangelicals have nothing to fear or lose from hearing dissenting views, and the sooner our leaders begin modeling those confident encounters, the sooner the laity will realize that the proclamation of our orthodoxy means more than preaching to the choir or rallying the faithful. 

Only:  if Christianity Today does that and then motors on with a traditional view and treats it as so serious that they exclude from leadership positions those who dissent, would it be enough for progressives?  That’s a rhetorical question, but I’d love to hear reasons from within the progressive outlook for why it would be. After all, viewing gay marriage as a “minor issue” is already a progressive Christian position. Downgrading marriage to a “disputed issue” on which “good Christians can disagree” itself claims that Scripture’s witness on this question is unclear, such that disagreement is a reasonable expectation. But it is precisely that claim which those who oppose gay marriage for theological reasons cannot adopt. We need not be Scriptural isolationists in making that claim: even if we couldn’t read the text on its own and come to the traditional view (we can), the vast and broad witness of the church confirms it. Only all of that evidence the “disputed issue” hope treats as neglible or irrelevant to the question—which is, again, a methodological move that conservatives cannot go for.

I didn’t expect another test to this method to happen quite so quickly, but here we are.  

Q IdeasTeetsel and Strachan’s question about whether there is “room within Christianity for different understandings of human sexuality” should be read much more narrowly than they actually frame it.  They’re worried about same-sex sexual activity, particularly, rather than (say) masturbation or any other potential act. I say that only because it matters to how we think about what Q is up to, and for putting in the proper context what I’m going to say now about all of this.

Three years ago Q Ideas hosted a panel discussion on handing contraception out to single people in the church, an idea that I timidly identified as a “hill to die on.” I was, to be blunt, outraged by the preposterous and obvious betrayal of Christian sexual ethics that the proposal represented. And, as with the question of gay marriage, I think the existence of a debate is a serious failure within the evangelical world. But what kind of failure, and what does it matter?  And now that the debate is upon us, how should we respond? 

Strachan and Teetsel go on to suggest that if the answer to the question of “whether there is room within Christianity for different understandings of human sexuality” is yes, then “the orthodox understanding of sex has already lost.”  But even if the answer is “no,” and the position of Vines and Gushee lies outside the bounds of orthodoxy, that does not entail the Church shouldn’t ask the question. Indeed, the existence of Gushee and Vines might mean that the Church should ask that question and in a hurrybecause by doing so, the Church might discover that the “orthodox understanding of sex” is in fact not there to be lost at all. 

Yes, I’m proposing that the Church should sometimes pursue questions that she already knows the answer to—or at least, certain leaders already know the answers to. The early church had a proclamation, that Christ is Lord, and that proclamation was suffused with the knowledge that the Lordship of the Christ required the Divinity of the Man Jesus. The orthodox answer to the questions of the heretics was, in one sense, an articulation of what she had already believed—but the debate needed to be had and the heretics had their day. Clarity on such issues is not a given: it is won through struggle and debate. The more confident we are in our knowledge, the more willing we can be to hear challenges to it. Countering the evangelical world’s capitulation on this issue by suggesting that there are some things that shouldn’t be debated yields the terrain: there are some issues we know too well to not debate, because how else will the goodness and truth of the traditional view stand out except when next to the barrenness of falsehood? 

I’ll grant that this isn’t exactly the kind of “debate” that I suspect Matthew Vines and David Gushee want within the church. Suggesting that we know the answer before we set out (in a sense—only in a sense) seems to invalidate the whole discussion, to turn “free inquiry” into a charade by assuming certain presuppositions. But that’s what living within a tradition means: it means that in receiving an inheritance, we honor those who died for it by testing it against the truth. And we dishonor them if we simply disregard their witness and claim that we’re on an epistemically neutral playing field, so that the whole business can be overturned by appealing to our “experience.” There’s an epistemic hurdle that advocates of the sexual revolution have to overcome, and the arguments for it simply aren’t there.  

But neither is the debate we are having now directly equivalent to that of the early church. Our struggle is a unique one. Evangelicals are here precisely because we haven’t known the orthodox view at all the past fifty years, not because we have known it and are now seeking clarity on it.  We are here because of a failure in ourselves, a failure to practice the very things that Strachan and Teetsel are defending. The “orthodox view of sexuality” from the past fifty years of evangelicalism hasn’t so much been tried found and wanting, as it’s been entirely left untried. Gay marriage is a lagging indicator: it’s the last of a whole host of a constellation of practices and ideas involving the nature of sexual pleasure, autonomy and control, remarriage, and any number of thoughts which evangelicals have, by and large, failed to see adequately.  

In short: evangelicals are having the debate we deserve, because we didn’t have the debates we needed. Or if we did, we settled them the wrong way.

Now, there’s an ecclesiological question here that deserves some attention. Q Ideas is a parachurch ministry, one that is confessionally oriented, but is not itself a church. How those two interact is an important question, and whether parachurch organizations can have “debates” that churches cannot have is a question entirely unaddressed by Strachan and Teetsel.

But the reality is that whether any conservative likes it or not, the debate is already upon us—and suggesting that churches and parachurch organizations have an obligation to ignore it seems like its own kind of spiritaul malpractice (to borrow a phrase).  Call it the “expulsive power of a better, more beautiful argument.” The way to get rid of bad ideas within the church is by promoting better ones, but the only way to do that charitably is by responding to those critics within the church who are saying the wrong things.  And doing that to their face, by giving them an opportunity to respond, seems at least more courageous and charitable than a unilateral sermon.  But if that’s not a “debate,” then I don’t know what is. 

Indeed, I might even go so far as to suggest that Q has a role doing these kinds of dialogues for evangelicals only because conservative evangelical churches have abdicated theirs. Evangelicals have been imitating culture for 50 years on sexual ethics: why should we be surprised that the latest manifestation of the sexual revolution has come into our own midst? Perhaps this is largely due to the outsourcing of so many functions to the parachurch because of the vaunted “thin ecclesiologies.”

But, conservative evangelicals who are worried about the “ideological orientation” of the parachurches which sprang up out of our movement could ease the burden of responding to this crisis from them by hosting those debates themselves. If such ‘conversations’ were happening in contexts where it was clear our moral convictions were not up for grabs, and we had winsome, cheerful people actually winning the arguments, then Q Ideas wouldn’t have a market. That might make Gabe Lyons sad, but something tells me he’d find other worthy things to do. 

It does, in other words, no good for conservatives to suggest that there can be “no debate” on this question. But it does a world of good for conservatives to own the debate, host it, and set the terms for it. Again, that may not seem “ideologically neutral” or like a fair fight. But no intellectual engagement ever is that fair, and the arguments for gay marriage aren’t very good. If we are afraid doing so will lose sheep….well, see above about having the debate we deserve because of broader failures within our movement. 

Or, as someone very wise once wrote: 

“In my experience, Bible-believing churches can sometimes be as unwilling to apply church discipline over matters of truth and morality as [Episcopalian] Bishop [Peter James Lee]. One politician I know boasts about his faith while voting for gay rights and against the partial-birth abortion ban. Not only is he not disciplined by his church in the name of truth, but he gets time and again to speak in the pulpit. Anything else, of course, might cause disunity.

As Pogo said, “We have just met the enemy, and he is us.” It’s all well and good for evangelicals to sit around and say “those crazy Episcopalians.” But they’re just reflecting what all of us do in lesser degrees. And Lee’s words ought to be a sobering wake-up call to us all.”

That wise person was one Chuck Colson, and he was responding to the appointment of Gene Robinson to Bishop of the Episcopalian Church USA back in 2004. Colson is sharp-worded in his criticisms of Lee, who suggested “If you must make a choice between heresy and schism, choose heresy.” But his final turn was inward, toward evangelicalism and its failures to discipline its own, because he knew that the confident proclamation of the truth could only go forward if we were unremittingly clear on where our own failures were, too. 

I’m almost universally opposed to claiming that we would know how someone would respond to today’s challenges. But we do know how people reacted to challenges in the past, and Colson’s legacy with respect to those he disagreed with is, well, complicated. In addition to the Manhattan Declaration, he also co-signed The Civility Covenant, a considerably less influential document that he teamed up with Jim Wallis on

And in April 2010, while he was still alive, his organization published a very interesting essay on Brian McLaren’s presence at…Q Ideas for a forum entitled, “Conversations on Being a Heretic.”  McLaren was only three months out from publishing A New Kind of Christianity, which proposed an old kind of liberalism—and significantly, for our purposes, also approved same-sex sexual relationships. While the essay might have lambasted Q for having McLaren, this is how the author ended it: 

As the struggle over guiding values affecting the direction of the nation have brought the American nation to a historic crossroads, so too issues are arising that affect the evangelical church today. Regular readers of the Colson Center and Worldview Church’s resources will detect a common thread of cultural critique, even criticism, of the operating ideas that influence the health of both the nation and the evangelical church. Worldview matters and in order to impact the various cultures of America in the direction of Biblical values, prevailing ideas are identified, analyzed, and faulted as necessary. This prophetic role of bringing to light aberrant beliefs is necessary for promoting Biblically sound thinking among the people of God in a spirit of civil engagement.

Let us pray that the spirit of Christian civility – the unity of God’s Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3) – will prevail at the Q conference in Chicago, and that truth spoken in love will reinforce the evangelical convictions of the faith once for all handed down to the saints. [Emphases mine.]

In fact, just go read the whole thing.  It puts the loss of civility in politics on a parallel course with orthodoxy, and defends vigorous debate while worrying about the “irreperable harm” that might be done to young believers by those who obfuscate the truth. All of which makes its conclusion the more striking. 

Now, are those Colson’s words? No. But it is the person Colson entrusted to be managing editor of his center’s website. And it has the same kind of combination of internal critique without bending the truth that made Colson such a unique and important figure in the landscape of evangelicalism.  

And, it is worth noting, the Civility Covenant was officially published in March of 2010, four months after the Manhattan Declaration was released. In fact, at the time, Colson was criticized for the Civility Covenant by at least one blogger because Colson ruled out Mormon Glenn Beck from it because he’s not an orthodox Christian but was willing to sign the document with….that heretic Brian McLaren. Who knows what Colson would do today. But the lines he had then for his activism are clearly not the lines Teetsel and Strachan are drawing now.

The conclusion of the above Colson Center essay is also very generous toward Q. The tacit suggestion is that by bringing together those who proclaim the truth and those who distort it into one place, it is the truth that has the best odds of winning and the evangelical conviction will prevail. That kind of confidence is on the wane. But it is that kind of steady certainty in the truth that we need, and which I hope Gabe Lyons and Q’s leadership can help reinstill in the evangelical world.  

Hope, Failures, and Young Evangelicals: On What I Said and Didn’t

My piece last week generated plenty of conversation, which is always gratifying. Over the past decade, writing here at Mere Orthodoxy has allowed me to work through a number of questions with others who have very different perspectives than I do.  One reason why I will never turn off the comments is that even though I can’t respond to everyone, I read all of them and learn from many of them. 

indiana-rfra-religous-freedom-lgbt-boycott-business-3Of the various critiques that were made, one in particular kept coming up, which I would like to address here. A good friend distilled the objections nicely, I thought, in an email.  This is an edited version, posted with their approval and permission:

I found it ironic, and I hope it at least gives you a good chuckle, that in article in which you state, “The eagerness by which dissenting views are being pushed out of public and any debate is being silenced may be some of the strongest evidence we have for the view’s intrinsic falsity,” is the same article in which you also link to your favorite articulation of the conservative argument that has been published…in the New York Times.

In a spirit of an open search for truth and not being afraid of competing ideas do you think CT would publish James Brownson? Matthew Vines? David Gushee?

While the Times has pretty clear editorial leanings, they at least have done more (even if you think it is too little) to publish differing opinions than any major conservative evangelical publication I’ve seen. Are expecting something more from MSNBC?

I think you are trying to peg on ideology what I think can much better be explained by psychology and sociology. You need to remember that not too long ago the cultural milieu was boycotts of companies that were too “gay friendly”, protesting shows that depicted gay characters, people remaining closeted for fear of losing their jobs and mass political movement to ensure that there were laws explicitly banning same-sex couples from marriage and a fight to block even civil unions.

Are you now surprised that there is a group of hurting and often angry people who assume that they should do unto Christians as Christians have done unto them?

I get it that you are asking for mercy, and I hope you receive it. But do you think that more people in our country might know how to be merciful if there had been more Christians demonstrating what mercy looks like?

You are asking, in essence, please be more Christian than we have been. I’m not sure that is going to work.

While you are asking for mercy, I’m watching my friends ask for it from an ostensibly “moderate” evangelical denomination and be denied. In the past few years I’ve had two good college friends, after completing seminary, leave my childhood denomination because it was made clear to them it was either leave now or be kicked out through a drawn out process. Another friend had funding cut off for his church plant.

Let’s start at the top and work our way through.  Yes, I did chuckle, because contrary to appearances I have a strong sense of irony and, I hope, of the humor associated with it. We could expand the list, too, of conservative Christians who are currently in prominent positions.  The halls of Congress are full of people who ostensibly share rough approximations of my views on the world. And the goodly number of 6000 or so conservative evangelicals are currently gathering in perfect freedom, where many of them will probably spend time chatting about the perils their freedoms face.

Conservatives on this issue have struggled with the “Chicken Little” problem for a long time, and there’s no easy way around it. If the despotism our current political and social environment is making us comfortable with is a soft one, then we shouldn’t expect itself to manifest itself quickly.

Let’s suppose the cultural situation is still murky and that conservatives still have a great deal of cultural capital and power. It’s an easy premise to grant because it is still true. To discern where things are headed, though, we’d have to look for leading indicators, as in institutions where “neutrality” or “hosting the debate” simply isn’t part of its purpose.  Like the tech sector, where Brendan Eich is curiously still unemployed. Let’s just grant that the New York Times has done a better job featuring dissenting views:  well, their business model depends upon it, and conservative Christians are often good for nothing if not a click. 

So when it comes to Douthat, he is indeed a columnist and God keep him in his perch.  But again at the peril of giving people ideas, his question about whether Princeton should go on employing Robert George is true for himself, too.  Should the New York Times be employing someone who defends manifestly bigoted accounts of the world?  There are, I suspect, lots of progressives who would argue the time is coming soon when Douthat will have to shut up about all this. How long does a token conservative get to keep their job? Perhaps more to the point, could Ross Douthat get a job there today? The academy is (ostensibly) committed to an even stronger form of intellectual freedom than our wonderful media community:  could Sherif Girgis, his coauthor, get hired at Princeton, the way Robert George did?   

It’s important to understand the structural difficulties, though, that conservatives face in making these arguments. Suppose the challenges I have described are real and that there is lots of social and institutional pressure to change one’s views about human sexuality.  In such an environment, those who have the clearheadedness to see the game afoot will almost invariably sound paranoid. Like certain doomsday prophets on Wall Street before the financial crash, they will be resoundingly mocked as people enjoy the fruits of the liberation being won. Such people are easily accused of wearing silly hats precisely because they happen to be among the few who are still sane. They are the only ones standing erect in a world bent sideways, and so be curious oddities who  will be easily dismissed as “cynics” or “curmudgeons” or “angry” or “dismissive” of those who have baked in “progress” to the cultural change. But that’s all part of the game:  if you can mock your opponents out of existence or shut them up for their offensiveness, you don’t have to go on making arguments.

Now, there is in fact a path to madness here that’s easy to see.  It might turn out that all the appelations people give someone are true, and that people’s laughter is in fact because conservatives happen to be standing on their heads. It might be that the writing we claim to see on the wall is because we’re all drunk on our own history of privilege and power, and not because there’s any fundamental change afoot. We might, in fact, be wrong—and the path above leaves no meaningful room to disconfirm the thesis, because every bit of evidence (Douthat!) against the thesis gets twisted into further proof of it. We are the mad ones, not everyone else. After all, the doomsday prophets of Wall Street are sometimes wrong, and sometimes when they are right it’s not for the reasons they claimed. 

I’ll confess that this dilemma strikes me as not having very many easy or satisfactory paths out of it. What kind of moral outlook resonates will depend considerably on a person’s intuitions and formation, and whether they are spending their adult life cultivating gratitude for those early stories or view the whole business (or a good deal of it) as rot that they need to escape.  

For my own part, I am inclined to retreat into the need for a historically rooted awareness in order to help us see well:  G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy simply contains a kind of depth and profundity about the world that few of our contemporary writers embody. He wins the argument against Nietzsche—but if you can see that and its importance, then the disputes over gay marriage seem a good deal easier to sort out and the interlocutors in them properly silly (this writer especially included).  C.S. Lewis’s universe is haunted and worth preserving—but spend too much time in it, and things today seem off-kilter. Or if they don’t, try George MacDonald. Or if that doesn’t work, keep moving backward and immerse yourself in Shakespeare, or Dante, as Rod Dreher has done. Spend enough time with great thinkers and our current social situation will feel hollow. 

Or maybe not.  Maybe this is simply my experience. Either way, there’s some legitimacy to the claim that the differences between conservatives and progressives on this question are “cosmological.”  If conservatives stammer when asked why same-sex marriage is wrong, as we more or less have for twenty years, it is partly because everything confirms the traditional view for us.  

But I should move on from this very thorny problem.   

My interlocutor also proposes that Christianity Today should publish dissenting views in the spirit of being open to new ideas.  One difficulty, of course, is that if evangelicals paid any attention at all over the past thirty years, we would notice that we are not the first ones to this debate. Only how ‘progress’ gets made is not, by and large, by advancing arguments that everyone finds persuasive, but by muddying up the waters so that everyone is confused and then proposing that the innovation is a “matter of Christian unity” that we all get along.

But very rarely do such innovators step back to consider what kind of epistemic standards should be met in order to inaugurate substantive moral revolutions. And ignoring that question leads churches into some tragically silly situations. Yes, the question goes the other direction, too, and conservatives should carefully consider how much evidence is needed to revise traditional positions. But as Christianity is a traditioned religion, there is (it seems to me) a clear “burden of proof” on progressives to demonstrate both the harm of the traditional view at its very best and clearest and most accurate, and the superiority of the progressive account. Only within our evangelical context, I suspect few progressive evangelicals have understood what they are rejecting.  

That aside, should Christianity Today host James Brownson on the issue?  Sure, why not?  I think Brownson is wrong, and that conservative evangelicals should have the confidence to show that in our own fora. I mean, I even thought Russell Moore and the ERLC should have invited him to their big shindig on marriage for the same reason:  I have such a strong degree of confidence in the truthfulness of the traditional view that I want it side-by-side with views that are wrong. More of that, please, and the sooner the better. Will progressive thinkers persuade some people? Obviously. But conservative evangelicals have nothing to fear or lose from hearing dissenting views, and the sooner our leaders begin modeling those confident encounters, the sooner the laity will realize that the proclamation of our orthodoxy means more than preaching to the choir or rallying the faithful. 

Only:  if Christianity Today does that and then motors on with a traditional view and treats it as so serious that they exclude from leadership positions those who dissent, would it be enough for progressives?  That’s a rhetorical question, but I’d love to hear reasons from within the progressive outlook for why it would be. After all, viewing gay marriage as a “minor issue” is already a progressive Christian position. Downgrading marriage to a “disputed issue” on which “good Christians can disagree” itself claims that Scripture’s witness on this question is unclear, such that disagreement is a reasonable expectation. But it is precisely that claim which those who oppose gay marriage for theological reasons cannot adopt. We need not be Scriptural isolationists in making that claim: even if we couldn’t read the text on its own and come to the traditional view (we can), the vast and broad witness of the church confirms it. Only all of that evidence the “disputed issue” hope treats as neglible or irrelevant to the question—which is, again, a methodological move that conservatives cannot go for.

After all, if the traditional teaching of the Bible is right on the matter, then same-sex sexual relationships are not the most grave sin imaginable, but they are clearly morally wrong. And given the clarity and authority of that witness, approving same-sex sexual relationships (if anything) should be enough to disqualify someone from leadership. Theological approvals of gay marriage are an old heresy (docetism) in trendy ethical clothing. Or to pick one of my favorite reductios these days, the arguments for “Biblical polygamy” are easier and more persuasive than the arguments for “biblical gay marriage.” Why should we stop at two when Solomon got to have a harem? 

None of this means that evangelicals should go around heresy-hunting. Or, rather, if we do we ought start in our own midst.  Judgment begins at the house of God. Docetism is an old and recurring problem, and one that evangelicals have teetered on affirming in subtle and hidden ways.  To pick one instance, evangelicalism’s widespread use of video sermons might embed it as a practical reality in our communities, before we even think about sex. In that sense, the growing approval of gay marriage within the evangelical world is the fruit of a rottentree: but while all of that might mean the errors of the laity are understandable and deserving of a merciful, patient, and gently-challenging welcome, none of it entails that leaders should be excused. Institutions interested in preserving particular outlooks on the world have to maintain certain standards for those in prominent positions—which is why Brendan Eich had to go. 

Paradoxically, then, the church’s doctrinal commitments require an exclusiveness that the broader political order mimics. The church’s exclusiveness is meant to preserve and secure religious liberties for all, and preserve as much space as possible for those who are not Christians to live their lives as they will. The more narrow their morals, and the more merciful their judgment on those who break them, the broader and more inclusive our political order can be. 

Which gets me on to the substance and heart of the critiques I heard, summed up well here:  “You are asking, in essence, please be more Christian than we have been. I’m not sure that is going to work.” 

I was read as “asking” as though it would “work,” but I don’t think either are quite right. I wanted to hold up the possibility, because I am a Christian and think mercy is important. My confidence level is somewhere around zero that any LGBT person would be moved by it, but since most people think my moral views are already irrational I figured I might embrace it and hope for change like a fool.  

More importantly, I am well aware of evangelicalism’s (in particular) spotted record on marriage, divorce, and sexuality. My first book addressed the sexual revolution that evangelicals underwent in the 60s and 70s, and explicitly argued that it left our movement without meaningful resources to respond to the question of homosexuality. We knew it was wrong, but lacking the internal culture that would allow us to confidently and graciously say why it was wrong, we had little to resort to but bigotry. Having embraced the sexual revolution ourselves, I argued, evangelicals had no resources left to deny its fruits.

But I also was attentive in that book to the emergence of tattos within the young evangelical world, a practice which predated the growing affirmation of gay marriage but which makes perfect sense of it. The logic of that “conversation” is exactly that of the gay marriage debate. Dispute the “proof texts,” appeal to experience, reach the marginalized…it’s all the same stuff, perhaps with a stronger emphasis on remaking our bodily life through artifice (though inasmuch as gay marriages intend to have children, even this shares the same DNA). 

And my arguments about evangelical failures has gone well beyond the body. My second book was a response to the intellectual conditions and formation within the evangelical world that make bad arguments and reasoning attractive. I think progressives question badly, and having questioned badly they end up with wrong answers.  My only point here is that I think I’m actually qualified to tell a more expansive, more thorough story about the failures of evangelicalism (and the Religious Right proper). We really did sow the wind, and we are reaping our own whirlwind. 

Why not include it? Because I wasn’t writing a book, for one, though if anyone wishes to pay me to do so I would happily consider it.  And because my recent writing where I argued against a number of prominent conservative evangelicals got into that story in its own right, and I thought those were recent enough that I didn’t need to include them. 

Most importantly, though, nothing in that backstory alters my basic point, which is that the progressive challenges to religious liberty are very real and almost certainly going to get worse. Yes, this is the world conservative evangelicals hath made (or at least helped make): let us rejoice, and be glad in it.  That’s not even sarcastic: our hope should make us glad, and our gladness should be the foundation of our energetic action in the world. But that gladness should follow on our confession of what we have done and left undone. I have told the story of the failure for a decade, in one way or the other. And having done so, I made the argument as I did. 

But that was why I framed the question as one of mercy, rather than (as Ross Douthat has proposed) that of magnanimity. The idea that the LGBT community might be magnanimous in victory presupposes an equal contest, a struggle whose nature is determined purely on democratic or judicial lines. The question of ‘mercy’, however, introduces connotations of wrongdoing: to even raise it as a possibility implicates conservatives in the crisis of our day. And why shouldn’t we be? Persuasive authority follows from practice, and if we were immune from the divorce and sexual revolutions, our moral witness might have a power that it currently lacks. 

Now, many of my young evangelical peers understand that much and have determined that the consequences of those problems are such that we ought toss the moral convictions latent within them overboard entirely. They have discovered the abuses—but they have not seen the uses of the traditional view, because it’s not clear to me they ever encountered it in the first place. Having grown up immersed in an environment which only mimicked a robustly conservative outlook, they (quite naturally) took the imitation for reality and  finding it wanting, decided it must be rot. They are like the people in Chesterton’s parable who upon discovering a lamppost proceed to tear it down, and only later begin to wonder what precisely they had discovered. Though I have often been strongly critical of my peers, my analysis has essentially not changed in the past decade: young evangelicals are naturally responding to an environment not of their own making, even if what they needed was a super-natural charity and mercy toward those who made it.

But for that, it is progressive evangelicals who will do the most to erode the religious liberty of conservatives, which is why I directed the bulk of my essay at them—rather than at the LGBT community proper. I am not surprised when nonChristians consider me irrational. But the pressure progressive Christians are putting on traditionalists provides far stronger support to the widespread claim that there is no reasonable theological objection to gay marriage. NonChristians can now demand that we become just like the progressive Christians. Having overheard that this is a “disputed issue,” the secular harms that the courts are designed to judge make religious liberty claims seem considerably less pressing. After all, “even reasonable Christians disagree about that.” Having divided the church, progressive Christians will invariably join with the State to suppress it, under the facile notion that the “inclusion” Jesus offers requires compelling people to break their consciences. Which is to say, rather than defend us as Christians, progressives are more likely to ally themselves with their non-Christian colleagues the major religious liberty questions facing us. And people wonder why conservative evangelicals have more in common these days with conservative Catholics than liberal Episcopalians…

But my real fear is that in all this I sound too dour. My aim was to clarify the stakes and expose the faultlines within the evangelical world. One reason to read old books is that they stretch our historical imaginations much further than they otherwise might naturally go: and the farther we go back in history, the further into the future we might dare to look. It’s a five-hundred year renewal project I’m on, and in that story, our current crisis looks rather pathetic.  We’re the people who only had enough virtue to face soft despotism, after all.  Our grandparents fought the Nazi’s. The shallowness of the hostilities before us is the perfect judgment on the triviality of our idols, which engender sin, yes, but also a rampant aimlessness that makes us too small to consider “great objects.”  We are “hollow men,” as Eliot put it.

And so we have little reason for bluster, lots of cause for repentance, but even more grounds for hearty cheer.  The challenges before us are no greater than those which we deserve, and so we may yet find the path toward overcoming them.  But even if we don’t, we are not losing anything–because it’s not clear we ever gained what we had thought.   Or, as Eliot aptly put it: 

“If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause, because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that it will triumph.”

The failure of our current moment means the death of optimism: but it was bound to die anyway, and what can take its place besides hope?  And here is our great refuge, our joy, our yes and Amen. It is already dawn:  he is Risen indeed, and in such moments of great darkness the light is so much the brighter.  It is hope that moves me to remind people of mercy, not confidence, because in confessing our own failures we acknowledge a standard by which we will be judged.

Or perhaps I should close with Chesterton, as I so often have done:

When the test of triumph is men’s test of everything, they never endure long enough to triumph at all. As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is a mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength at all. Like all the Christian virtues, it is as unreasonable as it is indispensable.

The Politics of the Christmas Truce

On December 24, 1914 a group of German soldiers near the western front along the border between France and Belgium set down their guns and began scavenging in the space behind their trench in search of trees. Due to what was by now four months of non-stop shelling the region looked more like the moon than anything on the earth. Most every living thing in the area, human beings very much included, had been devastated by the guns of August–which had become the guns of September, October, and November and would carry on for four more years, though no one at the time knew that.

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Naive Young Evangelicals and the Illiberal DNA of the Gay Rights Movement

Gov. Mike Pence

Photo: Charlie Nye, The Indianapolis Star, via USA Today

Now that our “insane national freak-out” about Indiana’s religious liberty bill has subsided a little, it’s worth stepping back to reflect on what happened and what the drama might mean for religious conservatives.  Ross Douthat said nearly everything that needs to be said in his two posts; I note up front that I agree with his substantive analysis of the law completely, and am inclined to agree with him on the question of making cakes. 

Where to begin?  Perhaps with “the hypotheticals,” which many progressives deployed to create anxiety that Indiana’s RFRA would usher in anarchy or weave any number of discriminatory practices into our social fabric. Though it was written in the middle of Arizona’s scrum, Jonathan Merritt’s post at The Atlantic is a fine example:  Merritt warns conservative evangelicals that protections for discrimination could be used by a Unitarian cake-maker against conservative evangelicals.  

Some writers mocked the progressive use of such hypotheticals, but I think we should take them seriously.  Like all such argumentative tactics, hypotheticals can function in one of two ways:  they can be predictive of “slippery slopes” that could become more plausible if a particular law is passed, or they can be attempts to find some limiting principle that would apply regardless of the social conditions. I take it that in religious liberty conversations, progressives are generally deploying such hypotheticals in the second way. 

And that’s exciting. It’s great that progressives are suddenly interested in using reductios to find limiting principles to particular legislative decisions. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that we were told deploying hypotheticals was merely fear-mongering. Back when we were still talking about whether gay people could marry, conservatives argued that if the courts expanded marriage they would have no fundamental basis for limiting the institution to couples. Even if polygamy never comes about, there would be no principled basis for preventing it. That concern was resoundingly dismissed; only now we’re supposed to take such hypotheticals Very Seriously.

Two asides, though, before moving on:  First, even if framed as predictions, the polygamy reductio is much more plausible than those offered in the past two weeks. Given that our great corporate overlords are comfortable deploying polyamory in advertisements, will anyone be very surprised in a decade when the polygamy cases start working their way through the courts? Second, the search for limiting principles in RFRA cases is impossible, since it is a guideline that the courts adopt, which means it proceeds essentially case-by-case. But still, conservatives shouldn’t oppose the use of such hypotheticals per se in order to identify the underlying principles and limits of the law. 

Still, limiting principles are a knife that cut both ways. Douthat’s list of questions for progressives pursuing LGBT rights is worth re-reading at this point, even if it risks, you know, giving people ideas.

Let’s pick one that might affect many of our readers more than others:  the question of whether religious colleges and universities like Biola, or Liberty, or Wheaton, or any others that maintain sexual behavior standards for students and faculty that prohibit same-sex sexual activity should lose their tax-exempt status. At first blush, this scenario seems too fanciful to be meaningfully predictive. As an anonymous commentator suggested to Rod Dreher, the tax-exempt status of such institutions is “too deeply embedded in American thought and law to be at serious risk right now.” 

But the obvious rejoinder is that twenty years ago, the concept of marriage being limited to one man and one woman was too deeply embedded in American law and culture for anyone to think it was at serious risk. Everyone expects the Supreme Court to definitively bring that restriction to an end in June. Even if the question is only one of principle, and not a prediction, it still deserves an answer from those who are sympathetic to the LGBT cause:  why shouldn’t Christian institutions of higher learning lose their tax exempt status and their federal funding (via student aid)?  For most institutions, losing both would be a death blow: but if our progressive friends are serious about ending an intrinsically and structurally discriminatory regime of sexual mores (on their view), wouldn’t they have every reason to pursue such measures?

Now, that may be an unpleasant scenario for those who went to such religious institutions and have fond memories of them. It may even be distasteful to those with unhappy memories and who think such schools should change their policies and doctrines. But there is a wide gap between disliking the fact that the pursuit of LGBT rights makes some people mean (as the unfortunate pizza owners discovered) and providing principled reasons for why, given the logic that the LGBT cause has used to advance its own rights and that sympathizers have adopted, such restrictions and prohibitions should not be pursued. 

Such are the stakes of the great dispute that is upon us about how gay rights can co-exist with religious liberty. Which is why it’s curious to read libertarian writers like David Harsyani or Conor Friedersdorf or Ben Domenech seem surprised by the pervasiveness of the conflict. Friedersdorf thinks that it is only a “faction” of gay marriage proponents that want to exclude those who have objections (religious or otherwise) from meaningful participation in public life. But while he’s right Julian Sanchez persuasively argues our current situation with respect to gay rights is nothing like Jim Crow, the LGBT community has made all of its legal and political gains the past twenty years by arguing that those who object are motivated by animus or bigotry. The one lesson that everyone in the gay marriage dispute should agree on is that the law has a pedagogical function: having been told (now) by the Supreme Court that objectors are motivated by animus, our society is simply starting to believe it. What else would we expect?  It is precisely what conservatives have been arguing about the institution for the past twenty years, and on this they have once again been vindicated. 

Or consider this otherwise excellent article by Kirsten Powers, whom I enjoy reading and admire a great deal for her unabashed willingness to say precisely what she thinks. She chastizes the LGBT community for being sore winners—but that framing of what’s happening presupposes that having won, the LGBT community would shift the basis and terms of the arguments which had gotten them there. It’s not like the advancement of the LGBT cause was built on the presupposition that those who oppose gay marriage are misguided but otherwise okay people. The LGBT movement, by and large, really believes its own (silly) rhetoric about being on the “right side of history,” and damned if they won’t let a regressive business owner or two get in the way of bringing that history about. They aren’t being “sore winners”: they’re simply in the process of working out the terms of the case they have so successfully made.  

Now, perhaps this description of the “LGBT movement” is too broad and not helpful. And maybe it doesn’t describe the very nice gay couple down the block. There are, no doubt, countless very normal LGBT individuals who don’t have an interest in pressing the conclusions of the movement which gained them cultural esteem quite as far as we’re seeing. And good on ‘em for it. But it’s far too simplistic of an account of the world to ignore the activists and how the rhetoric and arguments have come from the top of the LGBT world. And if we look there, well, such activists aren’t exactly bashful about what their aims are. Friedersdorf may be right that it’s only a “faction” that is interested in removing conservative Christians from the public square, but that “faction” has a good deal of clout. It was a New York Times writer, after all, who suggested that society should “stamp out” views like those I hold.  But given the premises at work in the gay rights movement, that’s an entirely reasonable and understandable position to hold. 

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There is no room for naivety about our current cultural crisis. Only within the evangelical world naivety is the dominant problem. Young evangelicals who are increasingly sympathetic to their cause want to make nice with gay marriage while supporting religious liberty, but until we are given arguments for how they can coexist given our current legal and political history, we have no more reason to think that is possible than that we could unwind marriage from politics altogether (which is the ultimate libertarian fantasyland). The people who are now shouting about “religion-based bigotry” may be outliers now, but if Frank Bruni has his way they’ll be the future of the movement. After all, Rachel Held Evans thinks that conservatives have blood on their hands.  If that’s not sufficient reason to do whatever it takes to eradicate such views, I don’t know what is.

So while it’s nice that Jonathan Merritt recognizes Bruni’s “strong-arm tactics” are “deeply troubling,” a careful reader will observe that he does not object to Bruni’s construal of the backwardness of religious conservatives. In fact, Merritt’s main argument against Bruni is that he’s going to embolden conservative evangelicals by framing them as persecuted. Apparently Merritt thinks its better to be nice to us so that none of us say anything, ever. With friends like these

Now, I don’t know where Merritt lines up on the substantive question of gay marriage. And I suspect he’d be “troubled” by the suggestion that religious colleges and universities should lose their tax-exempt status. I do know, however, one young evangelical who has a high-level position at one of America’s pre-eminent evangelical magazines who thinks they should because they are a sign of the church’s mistaken “privilege.”  And Relevant Magazine seems like they want to avoid the subject altogether (“Leadership!”) while we all engage in a group hug. 

But other young evangelicals who substantively affirm gay rights and think that the church needs to be reformed along the lines Bruni suggests should come clean on which of Douthat’s list they repudiate, and more importantly, why. If we adopt the Supreme Court’s position that the only motivation for objecting to same-sex sexual behaviors is animus, what philosophical or theoretical basis is there to not take such a cultural claim to its conclusions?  If we think, with Rachel Held Evans, that the dominant Christian theological tradition is substantively no different in its social harms than any secular or philosophical repudiation of same-sex relationships, then why should we leave any social space (much less ecclesiastical space!) for those who disagree?

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It is possible to think of religious liberty as only accidentally or tangentially related to the questions of gay marriage, as an unfortunate causalty of a pre-existing culture wars that conservatives reached for as a last ditch measure because they had lost every other dispute. And there’s some validity to that story.  But the conflict with religious liberty is a structural feature of our current pursuit of gay rights, not a bug. An anti-liberal approach toward dissenting views is part of the DNA of the logic of the current gay rights argument. As long as the pursuit of “equality” continues to go forward on the terms it has, religious liberties for non-affirming communities and believers will necessarily be constrained and the opportunities for such believers (who are known to be so) to participate at the highest levels of our society will be cut off. 

 That claim needs some defending.  So lets give it a go.  Imagine, for a moment, that cultural conservatives are right that the family which begins within the union of a man and a woman is a morally unique institution, irreplacable in its role in society and inimitable in its shape by other voluntary associations of free adults, such as gay unions.  It’s hard to think such backward, retrograde thoughts, I know, but give it a sporting try.  Now, consider how pervasive sex is in society and in our human experience. Discover, if you can, some corner of our lived experience that sexual desire does not have some bearing on, either as a present reality or as a dark, forbidden possibility. Consider the effects one’s family has on one’s own outlook on the world, and the liberties we afford to families for the formation of the respective characters of the individuals who compose them.

Then grant this simple premise:  that humans are fundamentally and inescapably truth-telling beings, and that falsehoods require an elaborate and complex support structure if they are to take hold and endure for a long period of time.  A child might believe that Santa Claus is real and get on with the world just fine. But as they grow older, the kinds of backflips, self-deceptions, and tricks they would have to go through in order to maintain such a belief would be dazzling.

Now, momentarily return to that peculiar and strange thought that same-sex sexual relationships, whatever other goods have, lack particular features which make heterosexual relationships morally unique. Given human sexuality’s clear importance, and given humanity’s truth-telling nature, what kind of artifice would need to be in place to support and sustain such a deception within a society over a long period of time? What kind of intervention into the course of normal human affairs would a society have to undertake in order to obscure the morally relevant differences between those forms of sexual behavior that can generate children and those that cannot?  What kind of construct would we have to build in order to maintain the premise that all consenting erotic associations are equal, that the union of the lives of two adults (even where children are introduced via the tragedy beneath adoption or through the artifice of technology) is of the same kind as those families where a man and a woman’s love and life together introduces a third member into the community who bears witness, within their very bodies, of the love of that mother and father for each other and for no one else in a way that removing children from their biological parentage necessarily diminishes? And once this structure is built, would it have the structural integrity to allow for meaningful and public dissent? Or would it be so fragile, because false, that it had to “stamp out” competing accounts of the world? 

Erasing or obscuring the moral uniqueness of the traditional nuclear family unit—if there is one would require, dare I say, both an extensive and elaborate artifice that attempted to reconfigure not simply the family, but all those institutions which the family has some bearing upon.  Maintaining such a support would require the most powerful and influential institutions in American life, of which there are currently (by way of hypothesis) three:  entertainment, business, and the government.  And as long as those dominant institutions established such an outlook on the world, any remaining institutions would come under significant pressure to reform themselves accordingly.  

In other words, as Seana Sugrue argued once, same-sex marriage will lead to a soft-despotism because it has to. Conservatives have sometimes said that marriage is a “pre-political institution,” and they are right to say so. The possible introduction of a child into a marriage by way of procreation introduces asymmetrical ties and obligations that are deeper than the wills of the two individuals. But inasmuch as same-sex marriage attempts to imitate such ties (and use technology or adoption to replicate the family), it is a political institution in the most broad sense. And so the promotion of same sex marriage will inevitably engender the remaking of the whole of society, which families are a microcosm of. To think that it would ever otherwise be is to misunderstand the family’s unique role in human life in the first place, and to adopt the very premise that gay marriage needs in order to be plausible.  The libertarian claim that gay marriage and religious liberty can coexist is a fantasy, which libertarians can hold on to because they start from a standpoint that misconstrues the very nature of the family.

Now, it is doubtlessly the case that conservatives have sometimes defended and promoted certain illiberal laws, like sodomy laws, which gay marriage supporters have effectively turned against us in support of their own cause. I am opposed to such laws, for a variety of reasons, but one of which is that by creating an overly legalized context for the preservation of sexual norms, they tacitly transfer authority for such maintenance to the government. This potentially creates a false confidence in the stability of such norms, and threatens to displace the first and primary defender of sexual norms, namely the Church, as well as the family itself and all the non-governmental spheres of civil society. While such laws once enjoyed wide support, they were also overly morally restrictive and intrusive. Such overreaches have proved enormously costly to our own position in the world since the gay community has effectively and powerfully used them to portray themselves (with some legitimacy) as a persecuted minority. 

But as my friend Erick Erickson has said repeatedly, “You will be made to care.”  Because in the same-sex marriage regime, dissenters threaten to overturn the apple cart. The eagerness by which dissenting views are being pushed out of public and any debate is being silenced may be some of the strongest evidence we have for the view’s intrinsic falsity. 

Except.  Except.  I have sometimes said that the central question facing our society is whether there can be mercy in the gay marriage debate. I am not the only person to ask it, nor was I the first to think of it. But it captured me the moment I first heard it, and it haunts me still. It is mercy that is at stake in our current moment. For mercy is a response to a wrong done, and I have no doubt that conservatives have in the past occasionally fallen prey to hubris in their zeal to maintain norms that they think are true. There are few more liberal qualities than mercy, for mercy is a kind of permissiveness where judgment is owed. And mercy refuses to treat the status quo as determinative: it recognizes the freedom of humanity to rise above our current state of wronging each other, a freedom which is itself constituted by the giving of mercy in the first place. Such a mercy is what Andrew Sullivan defended in the excommunication of Brendan Eich from the Church of Silicon Valley.

The surest and easiest way the LGBT community could prove me wrong would be to begin extending mercy toward those of us who are hopelessly and cheerfully lost on the wrong side of history, and to somehow convince themselves that the usefulness of the fiction for their cause that religious conservatives are intrinsically bigoted in their views has come to an end. Whether they will remains to be seen. But regardless of how implausible such a reversal seems or how the structural forces of our society are opposed to it, as long as the possibility of conversion remains I will continue to stay foolish in my hope. 

Fatigue from the Culture War That Never Was

After the recent Indiana and Arkansas controversies, it’s no surprise that we’re once again hearing about culture fatigue.

Of course, given how long this rhetoric has been hanging around, it may be worth treating it with a bit more skepticism than we often do. After all, Richard John Neuhaus was still alive and wrote a response when a major anti-culture war manifesto was published almost 10 years ago and Newsweek (of course) said the evangelical right was in disarray way back in 2008.

There is good reason, then, to be a bit more skeptical of these culture war fatigue narratives than we often are. They’re still popping up on a regular basis (see this Molly Worthen piece that alludes to fatigue published in 2012 and this more recent Ruth Graham piece) and yet for all the noise the classic culture war issues keep popping up–Chick-fil-a in 2012, Hobby Lobby in 2014, the Indiana religious freedom law this year.

That said, on an anecdotal level anyone who has spent much time amongst younger evangelicals probably understands where these continued reports of fatigue from the culture wars are coming from.

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The Work of the Church: Once more Around the “Countercultural” Question

Jonathan Leeman has done helpful work clarifying his own view and pressing against my recent series of reflections on the evangelical condition. I will put his comment in its entirety below. But I wanted to make one more go at clarifying my own take on this issue.Leeman-e1412520160937-300x300

But first, I want to highlight Jonathan’s clarification of his understanding of “holiness,” which he suggests has more overlap with mine than I allowed. As he points out, he defined it as “consecrated to,” and so emphasized that it is not primarily a matter of difference or distinction. I apologize for misconstruing his view.

Yet at the same time, I think Jonathan has misread my own position. I’m not suggesting that we should “do away” with distinctiveness as a category. Instead, I think we ought do away with it as an aim of the church or a marker of the church’s integrity. It is doubtlessly the case that the church must say “no” to the world: the question is whether in saying “no” the church frames will construe itself as an appendage of the world and as such, in a sense, subordinated to us.  It would be better to speak of worldliness as counter-ekklesia than the church as counter-cultural.  The church must remain the primary referent and her inner life securely ordered toward the first things; it may simply be the case that Jonathan and I disagree about whether our current rhetoric of “countercultural” and distinctiveness impinges this ordering.

I should clarify further, though:  I have no interest in ‘forbidding’ evangelicals from using the rhetoric of decline, as Jonathan suggests. I actually think that in certain respects we can say that society is in decline; my point has been that for evangelicals, however, we’ve long overdrawn whatever rhetorical capital that claim has. At least if we are going to behave any differently from our forebearers. (There’s an interesting question as to why despite their fragmentary institutions each generation of evangelicals seems to return to the same rhetorical spring.) And why shouldn’t we?  If we are in a decline, repeatedly reminding the world of the fact did nothing to reverse it.

But in what respects decline? The problem with such architectonic theses like the decline and “counter-cultural” rhetorics is that they are so broad that they’re practically non-falsifiable and subsequently useless. And in the case of ‘decline,’ they also demand that we choose a practically arbitrary point of reference to tell our historical narrative from. So we are “headed downhill,” it is sometimes said; but while we have not eradicated our country’s original sin, we at least don’t have separate water fountains any more. We can look back on history and say things were better; we can also look back on history and say that things were worse. And we probably should do that with the same bits of history because any society is probably getting better and worse in different respects at the same time. The Renaissance produced Shakespeare—we have indoor plumbing and widespread abortion on demand. Advantage: no one, I don’t think.

Now, I think I can say all this and be consistent in my claim that the church should prepare people for persecution. In Mark 4, Jesus identifies “persecution or tribulation” as a potential threat to the souls of those who are converted. But there the formulation does not entail that “persecution” is distinctive to a season of the church’s life, nor does the Beatitudes prepare us in that way. Instead, it treats it as the kind of clarifying “secondary quality” which the church does not order its life around, but simply acknowledges as a possibility while she goes about her business. For that business seems to be the same regardless of the conditions in which she lives: to announce the Lordship of Christ Jesus over all things, and to care for the poor, the orphan, and the widow. If the church entered a season where the visible, external persecution or tribulations were relatively benign, then perhaps that was a sign she had done her work relatively well. If that period does not last, then that is perhaps a sign that she had forgotten her fundamental tasks.

But in that latter case, it seems plausible that “decline” is a lagging indicator for the health of the church. The dissolution has already happened, and the church was complicit in it. We are simply bearing the ill-gotten fruit of it now. But then to say that we need to prepare is to read the signs wrongly: the season of preparation has long passed us by; it was back when conservative evangelicals were decrying removing prayer in schools while voraciously consuming sex manuals that further wedded them to the sexual revolution. If we saw our own period rightly, I suspect it would appear not as a time for preparation but for penitence, and our great need not courage in the face of public challenges but integrity in the light of our internal compromises. If our society has become apostate, it is lamentation and sorrow that should mark our witness as much as the rallying cries to remain steadfast, and we should see an eagerness to jettison those practices which have entangled us in the world as it now exists. It may simply be the case that Jonathan and I disagree over whether such a posture now exists among evangelicals; the eagerness to speak boldly about gay marriage in public while speaking only gingerly about contraception or in-vitro fertilization in our churches makes me think we’re not quite where we should be yet.

Jonathan also wonders about my eschatology.  I don’t think anything I’ve said commits me to a post-millennial view. I’m interested (for now) in leaving eschatology outside history and subsequently viewing every age as a hodgepodge: society is always in decline, it is always in ascent. It is always winter for the church, but also always Christmas. The principalities and powers make their war against the church, and the church carries on its business triumphing in the victory it knows has been won while waiting for its consummation. The eschaton relativizes every gain the church makes, for it orients the church’s life away from history toward the final word that shall be uttered. And it relativizes every season of “decline,” precisely because it reminds us that the path toward the end of all things is undetermined by us and unknown to us.


For those who are interested, I strongly commend this conversation that we had recently on the subject.  I say a bit more about all this there. 


Jonathan’s comment in full: 

1) I’d like to point you again to my definition of holiness. It comports with yours more than you let on. I decidedly did not define it as “set apart from.” Rather, I defined it a “consecrated to” (i.e. devoted to or given over to), a definition which works in eternity past before sin entered that world. From eternity past, the Son was consecrated to the glory of the Father, and the Father to the Son, and both to the Spirit. So the call to holiness is most fundamentally a call to be consecrated to the glory and beauty of God. Which means, yes, the notion of holiness being “set apart from” is a derivative, consequential, or “a secondary” feature, as you put it. And this further means, the church’s call to be distinct is not primarily a matter of negation (“be UNLIKE them”) but even more fundamentally a matter of affirmation (“be LIKE him”). But in the context of a fallen world, that secondary feature is an inevitable and necessary feature, unless you want to do away with the sinfulness of sin. My caution, therefore, is that in your critique of distinctiveness rhetoric, which evangelicals can surely overdo, don’t do away with it altogether. The Bible uses it, and it’s a necessary feature of the fact that there is sin in the world from which we must be set apart–individually, socially, corporately, institutionally.

2) I’m not equating distinctiveness rhetoric and declension rhetoric. The first describes the state of things. The second describes historical movement. These belong to different categories. With regard to the latter, I agree utterly that we don’t know what season it is: winter? spring? That’s precisely why the 9Marks Journal I referred to in point 1 posed the matter as a question (“Vanishing Church?”) and then provided a series of articles that emphasized hope and affirmation. That said: I maintain that, in principle, we are capable of looking backward, assessing the moral and spiritual movement of a people, and arriving at the conclusion, “Hey, things really are getting ‘worse’!” Any given diagnosis might be mistaken, but it also might be correct. And if things can get “worse,” and if we are capable of observing as much, it strikes me as strange to say that people shouldn’t say it. Your two blogs strike me as trying to forbid people from saying “Things are getting worse!” Surely things sometimes get worse, no? So I agree that we should say “Things can get better!” But why would forbid the opposite? Now, you concede that we should prepare people for persecution. It seems to me, then, that there’s some tension between what I understand your blog post is trying to do, and this same concession.

3) You write: “On my reading of such exhortations, the “world” and “this age” against which Christians are meant to stand do not necessarily and always perfectly correspond with the institutions outside the church.” Certainly I have no disagreement with that historical claim. I would still make the theologically positional and ethical claims that the church has been made the true, born-again, new-creation humanity, and therefore that it should live as this new creation humanity. And these two claims (positional and ethical) admit of both like and unlike, or continuity and discontinuity, with fallen humanity. Like: humanity. Unlike: new. And it’s within the element of “unlike” that we must maintain some room in our rhetoric for talk of distinctiveness and sometimes decline–for the “counter” in the phrase “counter-cultural.”

4) Bottom line to all this: I’m arguing for a both/and (like and unlike; separated from and separated to; ascension and declension), whereas I feel like you’re arguing for an either/or. Is that an unfair characterization?

5) Last thing: have you become post-millenneal or something analogous to it? That’s not a critique or “gotcha” question. It’s a genuine question, based on the overall argument and your last couple of paragraphs especially, esp. with the talk of the boundaries of history and what they will or won’t maintain. A friend who read this reply asked if you were an Anglican (which, of course, would be a critique. ;-) I am wondering how much of the eschaton you are willing to bring into this world and present age. Maybe you’d bring more than I would? If so, then that is where our fundamental disagreement might lie. I’m not looking to argue that point; I’m just trying to locate our disagreement. So when Jesus says in John, “You will have trouble in this world,” I take that to mean, the world, the flesh, and the devil, the principalities and powers, will conspire against the Lord and against his anointed, as well as against their people, until Christ’s second coming. Sometimes things will get a little better, sometimes a little worse–who can predict what tomorrow will bring. But the saints should expect the general opposition of these forces as those forces manifest themselves outside the membership of the church, sometimes within the membership of the church, and, frankly, yes, even daily within our hearts (old man vs new man). So unless you want to argue that “the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Christ” (Rev. 11:15) little by little in our present age, then I still don’t understand how you get around maintaining some space for both the rhetoric of distinctiveness and the occasional rhetoric of declension. Both should maintain a quieter place in the orchestra than the trumpet blasts of hope and kettle drums of confidence, but they still belong in the orchestra.

The Hope of the Church and the World: Once more on “Countercultural”

Jonathan Leeman of 9Marks left a comment on my previous post that I think worth highlighting in full. He writes:

Thanks for the post, Matthew. Many things I agree with. A couple thoughts:

(i) We tried to adopt an anti-declinist posture in this 9Marks Journal. See especially the articles by Larson, Dever, McCullough, and Kidd. So I agree with this instinct to couple the decline narrative with something which affirms.

(ii) Counter-culture (or distinctness) should not be equated with a decline narrative, per se, nor should it be treated as a matter of negation. Rather, counter-culture, to a biblical way of thinking, is a property of holiness, which I would define as being consecrated to the glory of God. Counter-culture, in the best sense, is nothing other than eyes straining to see the beauty of the glory of God, and a stomach longing for the food of the messianic table.

(iii) The formulation “integrity not distinctness” feels logically reasonable, but we can trust that the authors of Scripture had a pastoral rational for so often employing the metaphors of distinctness (salt, put off, be not conformed, two ways in Ps. 1, etc.). In other words, Scripture offers us ample precedent for the pastoral power of the language of distinctness.

(iv) The language of distinctness (as well as a decline narrative) is part of what prepares a congregation for persecution—tarring the ark, Dever calls it. And the best undershepherds prepare their churches for persecution, like the good shepherd faithfully did. Now, that work of preparation also needs to be balanced with a posture of hope and confidence, one that knows deep in the bones that Jesus wins and the church will be built. Combining this preparatory work with this posture yields hope-filled, happy people who hold onto this world with a loose grip as they await a better city, a people of whom this world is not worthy.

Bottom line: you’re right, evangelicals can overemphasize the “woe is us” declension narrative. But we can underemphasize it as well.

I appreciate the criticisms here (and the others in the comments), which have spurred my own thinking further on these matters.  It’s entirely plausible that Jonathan and I agree on the kind of rhetoric we need and are, as he indicates in his bottom line, simply accentuating different aspects of it. But let me say a bit more to clarify more where I am coming from.9marks_Journal_cover_fall_2014_amazon

First, Jonathan’s right that the “counter-culture” and decline can be conceptually unlinked. It is a historical accident that they come together for us:  a counter-culture could exist in a society where no further “decline” could seem imaginable, after all.

But I’m not convinced that the holiness of God (or the church) consists primarily in distinctness: the consecration of certain aspects of the world may make them distinct, yes but that distinctness is a secondary feature of them, not their fundamental meaning. The holiness of God is the perfection of his Being: his holiness is not diminished if there is no creation for him to be distinct from. And likewise the holiness of the church consists not properly in the church’s “set apartness” from that which she is not, but in her orientation toward the God and the subsequent perfection of her inner life. The emphasis on holiness or integrity does not foreclose the possibility of distinctness from the surrounding world, but it orders the church’s inner life toward her first and proper end—being the people who rightly worship God, and who do so now and always. Distinctness is a byproduct; it comes in its proper form not by seeking it, but by ordering ourselves toward a third thing, the person and work of Jesus.

It is true, of course, that Scripture does offer language that entails distinction:  but distinction from what and how? On my reading of such exhortations, the “world” and “this age” against which Christians are meant to stand do not necessarily and always perfectly correspond with the institutions outside the church.

Indeed, it is possible that such patterns may make their presence known even within the institutional life of the church. Judgment begins at the house of God, after all, and there is some good sense to the advice that if decline is upon us then Christians should take up a season of penitential self-reflection. Is there anything more ‘counter-cultural’ than willing self-mortification? Either way, I’d press back at Jonathan and suggest that we untether the logic of being distinct from “the world” from the sociological framings embedded within the rhetoric of being “countercultural.”  To do otherwise potentially blinds us to the real spirit of our age and our own complicity with it.

What of persecution? It may surprise readers, but I am happy to affirm that pastors should prepare their people for persecution; to do otherwise would be spiritual malpractice. The question is what form such “preparation” takes, and whether it requires a kind of formation that is different from the kind of formation which the church should always be pursuing for its people. I’d amend Jonathan’s suggestion that such preparation needs to be “balanced with” hope and confidence: there is no preparation to speak of besides one that is rooted in hope.* Hope is the grounds of the church’s good cheer. We are “saved in hope,” and if the virtue takes on a new character and meaning in times where despair runs rampant, it still must be a quality that marks out the church in every day and age.

Still, that minor adjustment aside, it’s not obvious to me that the rhetorics of decline and distinctness function the same way at all times. The early Christians, for instance, may have thought the whole world mad. But they bore no responsibility for its making, and so their martyrdom could be free from confession. Our situation is not quite the same:  if  persecution comes upon us, it will in part because of our own steps and missteps. And, like it or not, one of those missteps may have been the overuse of the very rhetoric of decline we now need in seasons where it simply did not fit.

But most pressingly, what if all of our best cultural predictions turn out to be wrong? What if we stand not on the cusp of the persecution of the church, but its purification and renewal?  What if we stand not at the beginning of winter, but in springtime, only having become so comfortable with the rhetoric of decline we have none of us eyes to see it? Shall we, in our rhetoric and our preparation, foreclose the possibility that the “counter-culture” might become the culture, that the powers of our day might yield their rebellion against the Almighty and confess with us that Jesus is Lord?

The qualifications inevitably come at this point: “Well, it’s possible, but…” On which plane does the church speak, though: on the plane of having already handed our society over to darkness, or on the plane of suspending judgment about its inevitable perdition because of the power inherent in the gospel? Is the hope which is the substance of the church’s life also the hope of…the world? My central contention about the rhetoric of decline and of being “counter-cultural” is that it presumes too much and asks too little. By keeping our affections and attentions firmly located within the boundaries of history, it appeals to and deepens a sub-theological mindset within the evangelical world, and so fails to treat the diseases it claims to diagnose.

Update:  Jonathan has responded in the comments.  It’s worth reading his thoughts in full.

Writing as though History Happened: On Being Countercultural Christians

“We live in a darkening civilization in which worldlings seek to divide Christ’s garments among them…Evangelicals…are beleaguered in China, prohibited from building churches in Saudi Arabia, arrested for distributing literature in Turkey, and no less tragic, are often vilified in the United States.”

That’s Carl Henry in his 1986 book Christian Countermoves in a Decadent Culture. 20 years ago, Christian Smith found that the energetic worries about the world that marks Henry’s quote still animated evangelicals. As Smith wrote, “American evangelicalism…is strong not because it is shielded against, but because it is—-or at least perceives itself to be—-embattled with forces that seem to oppose or threaten it.”

counter cultural ChristianityEvangelicals are still well acquainted with these themes. We are frequently reminded these days that we are about to be a church “in exile.” The Benedict Option has become our only hope. Springtime is over: winter is coming. We must be willing, as Owen Strachan writes, to “stand against cultural ideology, not with it,” if we wish to be “true heroes.”

And then there’s the claim that Christianity is “counter-cultural.” David Platt has thrown his hat in that ring, but he’s late to the party. Proving that it’s not just conservative Southern Baptists who have a stake in the term, Gabe Lyons deployed it at Q and in his widely-read book a few years ago. There are few more basic, accepted doctrines of the evangelical world than that the church should be a “counter-cultural” institution. The persistence of this sort of rhetoric may be the best evidence we have that despite evangelicalism’s diffused institutional forms, somehow a tradition of thought keeps getting passed down.

It may surprise readers to find out that I have little objection to these formulations of our state in the world today, at least in theory. I am happy to accept the sociological observation that conservative Christians are under some kind of interesting pressure these days. After all, I’ve made that argument myself. And I have spent the better part of my adult life working to strengthen the confidence of the evangelical witness, a task I only undertook because I was convinced the evangelical kids were not alright. The two books I have written may not have been (widely) read, but put together they contain diagnoses and constructive treatments for our evangelical lassitude.

But I am interested in writing as though the past happened, and that means acknowledging the limits of such ‘declinist’ discourse. I don’t begrudge my peers for looking a bit squinty-eyed at the anxious rallying cries we’re hearing about gay marriage within the church. I wager few of today’s college students know the Religious Right ever happened, and sometimes I’d like to forget about them myself. But they did. And like it or not the image—regardless of its accuracy—of the fearful evangelical leader shouting about decline still pervades our media world.

And here is the unfortunate effect: by overreacting against various non-offenses and impotently shouting about real shifts in the world that they had no real power to prevent ruined the rhetoric of ruination and decline for the rest of us. Having played the same song so often, evangelical writers—like me—invariably have a credibility gap with anyone who isn’t already convinced. Young conservative evangelicals have been placed into a relatively tricky conundrum: the misuse of narratives of decline have left us without a potentially helpful tool to overcome and resist the naivety of our peers about the social transformations afoot. But carrying on as usual gives such rallying cries the atmosphere of a winnowing, so that anyone who demures is de facto on the outside. And therein lies a path where the declinist narrative becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy: embattled and thriving, until it’s only we happy few who exist to die.

In this vein, Laura Ortberg Turner uttered her own exasperated sigh about the rhetoric of “counter-cultural,” pleading for a commitment to the centrality of love within the evangelical world. Of course, everyone in the argument is going to claim love as their grounds and motivation, even if it’s not the word that shows up most often on their blogs. And they have good reason to be wary: like it or not, the rhetoric of “love” is just as empty as that of decline and “counter-culture,” and we do face real divisions over what the boundary and shape of love must be. Liberal Protestants tried out an amorphous “love ethic” which knew little besides the hippy inclusiveness of the 1960s: situation ethics was a thing, after all, even though it is no ethics at all.

Suppose it is the case that for the past 30 years the rhetorical environment of conservative Christianity has emphasized narratives of decline with the corollary that our Christian existence was in kind of jeopardy. James Davison Hunter described the evangelical political character as being pervaded by ressentiment, or the sense that “injury—real or perceived—leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on whom they see as responsible.” Only Hunter was more sophisticated than many of his critics: ressentiment describes a political culture, not necessarily the recognized motivations of its participants.

Hunter wrote many footnotes, so I’ll not repeat his evidence here. But the tricky business about the world is that perceptions actually kind of matter, and like it or not, Hunter identified the kind of atmosphere evangelical rhetoric has been perceived as promoting. The question I have pursued in its political aspect the past decade is whether that rhetorical environment ought have any effect on how we go about our business. The answer my fellow conservative evangelicals seem to be resoundingly giving is, “Nope. Once more unto the declinist breach.”

I suppose I have my own worries that being “counter-cultural” has such rhetorical appeal. If the logic of being a counterculture becomes a part of the church’s essence on earth—and given its unexamined status within the evangelical world, it is hard to see how it has not so become—then when the Church becomes the majority, something has gone deeply wrong. But by distancing ourselves from the Christianity of our predecessors, we also do not have to acknowledge or confess their missteps. Now that we are becoming a minority, we can go on as always without recognizing our own complicity in the falsehoods embedded in the worldview we have inherited. If we are entering a winter, it may be because in our spring and summer we had already swallowed a pill that would lead to our eventual demise. Conservative evangelicals cannot decry accommodators until we have confessed the means and manner of our own predecessors accommodations. We cannot write as if history has not happened.

But the logic of being ‘counter-cultural’ also frames the church-world relationship exclusively in terms of negation, so that the affirmations become the kind of qualification which gets tacked on at the end. Only the paths of affirmation and negation don’t merely need each other, nor do they exist in some kind of yin and yang-like symmetry. The “no” might establish our distinctiveness, but then integrity and not distinctiveness is the point of the church’s moral life. (Disclosure: that formulation is my advisor’s, but it happens to be right. And so I agree, fundamentally, with Laura’s concern.) By turning our attention toward “counterculturalness,” we potentially blind ourselves to real works of good happening in the world to which we can offer our “Yes and Amen” to the glory of God (followed, if you are a good Calvinist, by the hasty reminder that all that good stuff is only dirty rags).

But I might also be so bold as to suggest that our “yes” should be the most fundamental thing about us, which means we may want to make it the loudest. The striking thing about the evangelical rhetorical environment among those who write about these matters is not that conservative Christians are necessarily wrong: it’s that the whole business sounds so cheerless. With a few exceptions, no one seems to be having much of a good time.

To give but one example, I am on record suggesting that Christians ought to respond to the charge of “bigotry” for our views on sexual morality with a hearty laugh and a, “Oh, if you only knew!” Thinking gay sex is wrong is, after all, probably the least crazy of our views. We think the guys who say they can “look but not touch” are wrong, too. And I’ll even argue that auto-eroticism is wrong. Opposing gay marriage these days is a gateway drug to a whole world of outlandish and hopelessly outdated moral conclusions which turn out to be the most sensible positions in the world. We need courage: but we also need a sense of humor, because if we don’t have that the world is not really worth fighting for.

(Somewhat surprisingly, my argument has at times been turned against me, as it allegedly demonstrates I’m nothing more than a “defeatist.” I will save you a long excursus on why taking up the question of whether Christians are ‘bigots’ is itself a losing cultural strategy. You can thank me later.)

Now, I will grant that it is a tricky thing to be cheerful about the world whilst trying to persuade others that our doom is afoot. (Note to readers: rhetoric means exaggeration, so read “doom” as “bad things that will probably be imperceptible on a wide scale for a generation or two, a la divorce”.) It is the kind of thing which I have not perfected, but have gotten somewhat better at over the years. Reading Dickens is a great help: it’s hard to be unhappy about the world whilst being perpetually amused by it. In fact, reading anything for pure entertainment is a help. The real point of the culture wars is to destroy culture, and it’s impossible to fight well if we’ve forgotten what we’re fighting for.

Nor do I think such cheer incommensurate with a real lamentation about the effects of sin: I have myself sought to suck the marrow out of my limited sorrows and found within them the wellsprings of life. But it is that kind of cheer which evangelicalism’s greatest virtue—its legitimate and real concern about the world and its inhabitants—potentially throttles. In this case, we may have to be good pagans before we can be good Christians: eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow they’re gonna come for your tax breaks.

I’d note as well that it’s this kind of cheerful disregard for things which Chesterton aptly said was the heart of courage, a virtue which we have heard much of and will doubtlessly hear more about. It cannot be quoted too often, for it is the finest thing Chesterton ever said:

“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if we will risk it on the precipice.

He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.”

And here I signal my last worry about the way the rhetoric of “countercultural” has functioned within the evangelical world. By drawing our energy out of the opposition to the world—by thriving in the embattlement—we tend to foreclose the possibility that we could win, finally and decisively, the very cultural struggle we are waging. By enshrining its status as a cultural minority, the ‘countercultural’ approach contributes to the conditions which ensure nothing changes. The culture war is self-perpetuating (and the one sound it cannot fathom is genuine laughter at its pretenses).

I remember reading a history of early Christianity during the summer after my freshman year of college. I don’t remember which one, because I am no scholar. But the astounding conclusion of the author was that it was not their love which made the early Christians such an irrepressible force. In the midst of an over-stretched empire that had grown decadent and fat off of its own success, and which had ceased to see any life beyond its own horizons, it was the hope of the early Christians that allowed them to kiss the dying, to hold their own bodies in chastity, and to turn their martyrdoms into murals.

I have never forgotten that, even while I have imperfectly lived it. The hope of the church breeds energetic action, Barth puts it, and so it should. But I fear the evangelical rhetoric of decline and persecution and marginalization and exile and all the other ways of putting things these days casts a dark shadow over our hope, making it appear less vibrant and cheerful and alive than it should be.

Such a word of hope sounds a note of peace and good will to all men, and resolutely keeps open the possibility that the conclusion of efforts here and now might be approval rather than denial. “Do what is good,” Paul tells those minority Romans, “and you will receive [the ruler’s] approval, for he is God’s servant for your good.” And of internal church matters he’ll say later that “Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.” This too has been ruined by a different strain of the evangelical world, namely those notorious health-and-wealthers. But Paul still full-throatedly leaves that possibility open, and does so without hemming and hawing about it.

Is such a transformation unlikely? Sure. But sociology is not the plane from which the Christian proclamation goes forward. Was the path for the Roman church one of suffering and martyrdom? Unquestionably. But it was the manner of their death, not merely the fact, that bore witness to the triumph of the gospel. The announcement that ‘all will be well’ is the final word which encompasses all others; in pointing toward the life wherein all will be made new, it opens up the possibility that the new could arrive here and now, in dress and visage that we may not foretell. It reminds us that the church is the culture, and the form of world that now counters it speedily passes away.