Earlier this week David Gushee continued his sad decline with a cowardly piece for Religion News Service. It’s all par for the course for progressive evangelicals like Gushee, of course, which is why I’m generally not too bothered by what they say. But even so the dishonesty in this particular piece is jarring and merits further comment.
I could quote multiple lines, but this one will suffice, to begin. In talking about those awful backwards bigots (that he used to hang out with), Gushee writes, “(Religious conservatives) are organizing legal defense efforts under the guise of religious liberty, and interpreting their plight as religious persecution.”
Let’s review what is actually happening on the ground right now, since Gushee at least apparently has not noticed: Baronelle Stutzmann has faced major lawsuits from private parties and the state of Washington after she declined to provide services that would violate her conscience for a same-sex wedding. The lawsuits could drive her out of business. The same thing has happened to Aaron and Melissa Klein, Cynthia and Robert Gifford, and Jon and Elaine Huguenin. We could go on.
In every case, we are dealing with people who have been given a choice between a) violating their conscience or b) losing a significant source of income for themselves and their family. Is this persecution on the level of what Fr. Hamel faced in France this summer? Of course not—and conservatives who suggest otherwise need to stop being ridiculous. Part of the problem we’re dealing with today is that we have over-played the persecution card in the past, which has created a boy-who-cried-wolf problem. That said, sometimes there really are wolves. And if you tell a person “I am ordering you to choose between your conscience and your livelihood,” you are persecuting them. And that is what our government is doing right now.
Of course, it’s possible that these are beliefs that ought to be persecuted. You can argue that the harm done to LGBT individuals by allowing private citizens to refuse to provide services for same-sex weddings is socially significant enough that we should legislate against such action. Thinking more expansively, if you want to argue that traditional monotheistic sex ethics are beyond the pale and shouldn’t be tolerated in society, you can make that case. But what cannot be questioned is the fact of state and federal governments forcing private American citizens to make such an unhappy choice between conscience and livelihood.
Unfortunately, Gushee and others like him stubbornly refuse to see what is already happening as well as what could happen in the near future. Instead, they consistently say that fears about persecution are unfounded and naive. They claim that we are not going through a social revolution in which basic social institutions are being radically redefined and reimagined. Rather, we are simply undergoing a natural social progression toward acceptance and inclusion (as defined by 21st century western elites and corporations).
Here’s Gushee’s opener:
Middle ground is disappearing on the question of whether LGBT persons should be treated as full equals, without any discrimination in society — and on the related question of whether religious institutions should be allowed to continue discriminating due to their doctrinal beliefs.
Note the subjects he uses in that sentence: “Middle ground is disappearing.” The subject of the sentence is a thing rather than a rational being that acts—”middle ground,” whatever that means. And whatever it is, it’s going away. But Gushee never bothers to explain why. Apparently no one is acting in Gushee’s writing on the issue. The thing is just happening: “Don’t look at me. I had nothing to do with it. Don’t look at them either. Don’t look at anyone, in fact. It was just inevitable that this would happen. Stop asking questions.”
The funny thing is how insistent Gushee is on using such an awful sentence style throughout the entire horror of an essay: “It turns out that you are either,” “Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you.” “The landscape is dramatically different (BUY MY BOOK).”
The only active people in Gushee’s sentences are those awful backwards bigots who deserve whatever they have coming. I mean that quite literally. Go back and reread the essay. When talking about society’s shifting attitude on sexual ethics, Gushee leans heavily on the passive voice and on sentences whose subject is itself a thing rather than any sort of rational being capable of action. We do not have “Gay rights advocates have done x,” or even “pro-LGBT advocates have won victory x.” Instead: “The issue has been forced.”
In Gushee’s world, no one is acting to promote a certain social agenda premised on redefining marriage and transforming sexual ethics into an exclusively consent-based system. It’s just happening like magic. Because #history.
But then note the change when he begins talking about the conservative evangelicals: Once he shifts his attention to us, his sentences suddenly become active. We are doing specific things to promote bigotry. We are lying. We are over-reacting. We are hateful. His side, meanwhile, is actually not doing anything—they’re just standing there watching history unfold. He’s so committed to this false narrative that even his sentence structure is dishonest.
For Gushee, laws passed by states and the federal government targeting religious conservatives are not the conscious choices of individuals and groups focused on promoting a new social vision for America. Rather, this is all just a passive social transformations that religious conservatives can either choose to embrace, like the enlightened converts Gushee, Evans, and Merritt already have, or choose to reject.
If they do the latter, they will be swept into the dustbin of history, not because their beliefs have been tried and found wanting but because that sublime word “progress” does all the heavy lifting for us and conjures up a magical world where only one side is actually acting and they are acting badly. So screw them. To read Gushee is to be told that we aren’t seeing a fight between two fundamentally different visions of reality with competing claims about the nature of human beings, sexuality, and family life. We’re simply seeing a fight between the inevitable forces of progress objectively understood and those backwards people who would oppose it.
The trouble here is that this completely misrepresents what is actually happening. What we are witnessing is the triumph of one understanding of reality over another. As I noted last week, market-enabled, government-backed individualism is ascendant; Christianity is in decline.
This transformation will have wide-reaching social consequences that extend well beyond the redefinition of marriage to accommodate same-sex couples and give them access to legal benefits enjoyed by married couples. Again, you can argue that this is a good thing. Many will. And that’s fine. I’d prefer it, actually. But let’s be clear on this point: We aren’t witnessing a transformation effected by an objective, impersonal force called “progress” in which entrenched social conservatives are acting to oppose it. We are witnessing a conflict between two groups with rival conceptions of reality that are incompatible on certain key points. That is the story here even though you’d never guess it from Gushee’s remarkably dishonest account.
And here’s the thing: If we’re honest about the fact of the conflict playing out in front of us, we can be honest about the stakes of the debate, which are enormous: Either we are completely autonomous, self-defining human individuals and the government has an obligation to protect our right to self-definition or we enter into a world given to us in a certain condition, shaped by certain factors outside our control, and filled with norms, rules, and laws we are powerless to change and can only submit to. Gushee’s attempts to obscure this fact do nothing to change it.
One cannot coherently affirm the goodness of natural, creational limits while rejecting one of the oldest and most widely affirmed examples of such limits. To affirm the moral licitness of same-sex acts seems to lead inevitably to affirming an understanding of reality that is out of step with Christian faith—a point Rod Dreher was making years ago.
You can side with the ancients or the revolutionaries, but you cannot do both:
For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: The solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious.
The fact that a huge number of people, including Gushee and his friends, absolutely refuse to see this point doesn’t change the facts of the debate. We either have a right to define our own concept of existence—in which case we should just be done with Christianity altogether—or we do not. There can be no attempt to pretend that our current social revolution is simply the natural progression of history happily moving toward climax as those awful, backwards bigots die off in its wake. Such claims are not only dishonest; they are cowardly.
Here’s the truly awful thing about all this: This sort of framing makes both real debate and real pluralism impossible. If we recognize the radical nature of our dispute, we might also be able to recognize ways of living together peaceably in the midst of those differences. Consider the many examples of close friends who are fierce ideological opposites. But as long as we insist on this absurd idea that one side is simply going along with history and the other is bitterly clinging to their bigoted religious beliefs, there can be no understanding of the other. And where there is no understanding, there can be no functioning polis.
In “Hamilton” when forced to choose between his long-term enemy Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, a man always scheming for a new way to be perceived as a revolutionary without ever taking the risks required of actual revolutionaries, Hamilton concludes that he must support Jefferson because “Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none.”
I suppose what I’m asking for is more Jeffersons and fewer Burrs. Alas, progressive evangelicalism seems capable of producing only the latter.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).