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

April 14th, 2015 | 18 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

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 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.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.