None of the figures presented above are martyrs. That is the first, and perhaps the most important, distinction that needs to be made. The legal and social struggle between gay rights and Christian sexual ethics is real, but whatever challenges ‘losing’ the culture means for conservative Christians, martyrdom is currently not one of them, nor is there any reason to think it will be at any point in the future. The removal of property, of access to business in the way some Christians deem fit, of the opportunity to work in one's preferred way—these are all constraints that could in fact happen. But while such limitations on our freedom may be unjust, they are not the same as the complete elimination of that freedom. And while the losses of opportunity and of income incurred by these Christians are real losses, they are qualitatively different than the loss of life and of imprisonment.
Yet the above individuals are dissidents in a struggle that is not even for religious liberty per se, but against the steadily expanding regulatory state which is exercising coercive power to compel ordinary citizens to engage in activities that they find morally objectionable. “Human Rights Commissions,” the IRS, Child Protective Services—these are all real and substantive ways that the sphere of opportunity and of authority for parents, individuals, and business owners is shrinking.
The effect of these expansions is not simply that there is more coercive power from the government being exercised on people’s lives, but that we have fewer non-governmental means of resolving our disputes—and that the government itself will increasingly be not the resolver of fundamental conflicts between citizens, but a source of and party to conflicts. When Mark Oppenheimer suggested that we should eliminate tax exemptions, his most intriguing line was that "countries that truly care about poverty don’t rely on churches to run soup kitchens." Asking the government to fill in everywhere non-profits currently exist would certainly ‘solve’ the coming legal conflict over whether the government ought allow institutions which affirm traditional sexual ethics to not pay taxes. But by further reducing the size of civil society in that way, the government itself will almost certainly find itself acting in ways that citizens have religious objections to. The sense of disaffection and alienation that this might induce should trouble us all.
Dissidents, then, rather than martyrs.
And coercion and constraint, rather than persecution.
Many conservative Christians have taken to describing the current environment as one in which they are being persecuted for their faith. Some Progressive Christians, like Rachel Held Evans, have argued strenuously against such claims, pointing out that conservative evangelicals still wield an enormous amount of influence. Donald Miller said something similar last year, albeit in a much more slapdash way. And while I think Miller and Evans distort our current moment in serious ways, they have a point that conservative Christians need to hear.
And here is the unfortunate effect: overreacting against various non-offenses and impotently shouting about real shifts in the world that [social conservatives] 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.
"First, we must take into account that we American evangelicals are actually not much persecuted here, especially compared to our many brothers and sisters across the world and across history. Neither occasional hostility by coworkers, nor derision by the media, or even the slow collapse of American civil religion constitute persecution."
But it is important to underscore just how damaging overreactions, distortions, and overblown rhetoric have been to the social conservative world. Adopting a decline narrative establishes a context where everything is further proof of the thesis, and makes social conservatives susceptible to sharing stories which reinforce their fears, regardless of their accuracy. As, you know, recently happened. Such disastrous moments destroy the credibility of social conservatives in public, and generate a reactionary skepticism about the other claims that social conservatives make. Hyperbole has a useful social role in persuasion—but only sometimes, and when the dominant public perception of a movement is that it is trading on irrational fears, that is the time to be precise.
Those critiquing the ‘evangelical persecution complex’ are right: the struggle over the shape of religious liberty simply does not entail that Christians are being persecuted for their faith, nor should Christians use such language. Deploying the government to constrain opportunities and limit meaningful life choices is a real infringement of our liberty: but ‘persecution’ is too powerful and loaded of a term to describe what is happening. Infringements on liberty (and even unjust ones) happen all the time, for lots of reasons, but an unjustified coercion and limiting by the state or society that leads to dhimmitude is not directly equivalent to the kind of systematic extirpation of religious believers as such. If it is ‘persecution,’ it is a form that is fittingly ‘soft’ for our bureaucratic state.
But then we need a different descriptor, one which communicates the real stakes without engendering hyperbolic responses or equating what Christians in America are experiencing with the sorrow and suffering of Christians around the world, both of which ‘persecution’ has done. ‘Unjustified, administrative coercion that constrains freedom’ may not sell t-shirts or raise funds, but it is more fitting to our time.
But highlighting the abuses and the hyperbole do not mean Evans and Miller are right in their presentation of the substance of our current moment. At all.
If anything, they are following in the mode of evangelical engagement that their forefathers have practiced, by selectively quoting some of the more extreme elements of their opponents in order to differentiate themselves from them and present an overly sanguine account of the world. Jonathan Merritt did something similar recently on statements about gay marriage: by conflating a number of extreme claims with some very sensible ones and treating them all as equivalent, he managed to present conservatives as a whole as attempting to whitewash their own past. But there’s an ocean between Brad Wilcox and the AFA, and if you read their sentences carefully you’ll see they are simply not the same, even though putting them in that context means they look that way. But when they adopt this rhetorical method, young evangelicals are doing what traditional evangelicals taught them to do--perpetuate the culture war for their own benefit.
Again, it is easy for progressive Christians to continue to knock down the bogeyman that pastors are going to have to ordain gay unions because conservative Christians have sometimes set it up. And when central social-conservative institutions act in ways that are unquestionably wrong, the rest of the socially conservative world rarely critiques them publicly because ‘teams’ have to present a unified front. Such recalcitrance undermines the integrity and witness of these institutions, and fuels the reaction of the next generation.
But despite the accuracy of their critique of social conservatives, neither Miller nor Evans accurately capture the social or legal dynamics work in our contemporary struggle. Consider their context: both Evans and Miller are in Tennessee. I have little doubt it is far easier to be a conservative Christian there than it is to be an openly gay person. That is almost unquestionably true in small towns in many parts of the country.
But cultures aren’t determined by what happens in small towns, and the conservative argument about the emerging social pressures is one that depends upon the proposition that cultures are transformed from the top-down, rather than through small towns. Pick an ‘elite’ institution—the academy, the law, the media, Hollywood, finance, Silicon Valley—and advancement increasingly depends upon conformity to a particular set of social views and norms.* Traditional evangelical anti-elitism fed the narrative of hostility and ‘persecution’: but young evangelicalism’s slavish coveting of ‘elite’ status has, I suspect, helped many of us want to explain away the real pressures to change our accounts of the world required to advance in those circles. But at a minimum, Evans' sweeping description ignores the many different facets of our society, and that power and influence simply is not distributed equally in every place.
But Evans also distorts the social context of this dispute in other ways. For instance, she points out that 48% of gay and lesbian Americans identify as Christians. (But do they support ending “religion based bigotry,” as one religious organization puts it?) I have no doubt that the vast majority of LGBT people simply want to live in peace with their neighbors. But the vast majority of conservative evangelicals are not culture-warriors, either, and never have been. Yet that has never stopped progressive Christians from making sweeping claims about the "religious right" and identifying ordinary believers with the claims of the religious right leadership. I think their practice is somewhat understandable: social movements have leaders, and what those leaders say matters. Only it is simply not clear that the LGBT activist community is interested in the kind of ‘live and let live’ world that Evans depicts, much as I wish they would be. Andrew Sullivan made this clear before he quit blogging. Obscuring that dynamic enables Evans to critique social conservatives, but only at the expense of consistency and accuracy.
Legally, going after the most extreme versions of the claims of social conservatives allows Evans to avoid actually providing answers to whether and how she thinks the religious claims of conservative Christians can co-exist with the existing regime of anti-discrimination laws. It is one thing to assert that extending “civil rights” to gays and lesbian individuals will make no difference to religious conservatives. It is another thing to provide reasons for thinking so, and to present the problem with any degree of accuracy. Which conservative leaders are claiming that we should be free from ‘disagreement’ on this issue, as Evans suggests? That actually gets the conservative worry exactly backward: most religious people are concerned that gay activists will not allow room for disagreement from social conservatives without constraining the spheres of their freedom.
Leave aside even what I wrote above about ‘coercion’ for a second: Evans’ rhetorical strategy of approaching this issue through sweeping generalizations conveniently allows her to avoid the serious questions that, for instance, Ross Douthat has posed. Here’s a list that I modified and expanded:
Should religious colleges that explicitly ask students and/or teachers to refrain from sex outside of marriage lose their tax-exempt status, as Bob Jones did for prohibiting interracial dating? More pertinently, what legal or constitutional rationale can you provide for your answer? If sexual orientation is an “identity” the way race is, and if sexual orientation deserves to be a ‘protected class’ in the way race is, on what basis—other than your desire to be nice—do you think the government could or should allow tax exemption in one case but not the other? Should colleges lose their ability to participate in federal financial aid?
Does Evans think that tax exemptions should exist for Christian organizations at all, or are they merely a sign of our “privileged” status in American society? Are Christian organizations unduly privileged by their tax-exempt status over, say, Islamic, Jewish, or any other religious communities? If ‘yes’, should every religious community be similarly constrained financially by the loss of tax exemptions in order to especially eliminate Christianity’s ‘privilege’? Does the government have a right to every dime of everyone's money, such that exempting certain institutions from being taxed is a special benefit or subsidy to them?
These are the kinds of serious legal and social challenges to real and substantive religious liberty that our country currently faces. Extreme fear-mongering about pastors participating in gay unions have obscured these challenges, which has allowed people like Evans to skirt the real issues by focusing on the abuses. But by beating up conservative straw men, Evans and company get to overlook the existing legal and social framework that everyone now grants will lead to serious conflicts between traditional views on sexual morality and our prevailing view. These questions are not going away. And it is simply naive on the part of young evangelicals to think that being nice will help answer them.
The one point of consensus, however, was that the flag meant something. It is not simply an inert image: on one story, it stands for racism and white supremacy by attempting to keep alive and affirm the distorted memory of institutions built on slavery. On another story, it stands for a heritage and tradition of dissent. Whatever we make of these, no one doubted that the symbol doesn’t matter—and that the act of waving such a flag was an act that expressed some kind of meaning that our society should take seriously.
Which is why the one thing we cannot say about the religious liberty challenges that are currently upon us is that they do not matter—at least not on pain of consistency. The rainbow flag, which Hands on Originals were cited for not printing on t-shirts, is not an inert symbol. It has a content and a meaning, and to those who have substantive disagreements with the morality of that movement, being compelled to print it is more akin to being compelled to print paraphernalia for the League of the South. Yes, there is significant dispute about the moral status of homosexuality: but for the Christian, trivializing the symbols as though they simply ‘do not matter’ is not an option. And for those with deep objections to same-sex sexual acts, providing the materials to celebrate them (even if those materials are not expressive directly) may be an indirect participation in them.
Similarly for weddings. There, acts and ceremonies bring the symbols of celebration to life. The direct, creative contribution of florists, bakers, and others to such ceremonies is not simply inert or neutral. We may think it morally permissible to do so as Christians; we may think it not. The one thing we are forbidden from thinking is that it is not expressive of something. And for those with deep moral convictions against such participation, the question is simple: should the force of law be deployed to coerce them to participate, any more than force of law should be deployed to compel a gay or lesbian photographer, cake maker, florist, or any other vendor to provide material for the wedding of a renowned social conservative activist or the materials for social conservative’s organizations celebrations?
In short, her claim is a canard: every case that has come to the fore has involved the unwillingness on the part of business owners to provide material, substantive, or expressive support to ceremonies or events that endorse moral views which they seriously disagree with. In nearly every case, the business owners have a history not only of serving gay and lesbian individuals, but employing them as well—without discrimination. Not only would the RFRA's provide absolutely no legal grounds for a business putting up a sign saying they would not serve gay people--none of the people who have become props for progressives have ever, in any way, come anywhere near advocating such a practice, much less engaging in it. To use that as a potential scenario creates an impression about the religious liberty cases at work that comes near bearing false witness.
At the least: such distortions are their own sort of ‘fear-mongering,’ a practice that seems to exist in an (entirely unnoticed) symbiotic relationship to the distortions that the religious right has deployed so effectively in the past. Such fear mongering cannot abide the kinds of careful distinctions that the most sophisticated conservatives have been making with respect to religious liberty and the government’s unmerited coercion of individual consciences. In that way, it trades on the same kind of lazy political rhetoric that evangelicals have been comfortable with for far too long—even if it deploys it in a way that is now opposed to traditional evangelical views.
Evans is right that Christians should serve their gay and lesbian neighbors. In the religious liberty cases at hand, however, there is ample evidence that is precisely what these Christians did—only to draw the line at serving them in an expressive capacity that they morally objected to. Their reward for this from Evans is repeated obfuscation about the stakes of their cases and their reasons for undertaking them.
Which makes one wonder under what circumstances Evans would stand with her evangelical brothers and sisters against the coercive power of the state. After all, the ‘persecution narrative’ does not entail that Baronelle Stutzman is herself engaging in the kind of illegitimate victim politics that we should all spurn: she is a dissenter against an aggressively expansive government, one which Evans seems to have allied herself with at the expense of the religious believers she purportedly claims to align with. Evans "sees [Obergefell] as a victory for religious freedom in the sense that people whose religion supports and encourages same-sex unions will no longer be prohibited from practicing that important religious value simply because some of their neighbors hold a different view." Nevermind that they were never prevented from being married in a religious format to begin with. Identifying the expansion of 'religious freedom' with the ability to participate in a civil, political ceremony is a curious understanding of the concept indeed.
Christ died at the hands of the state, and died for the sinners who put him to death. But his death was not the end of his agency, but its manifestation: he was killed by another, but willingly accepted it. He was a martyr, yes, whose body was ravaged at the hands of a government whose reach exceeded its grasp. But he was also a dissenter, who accepted and even welcomed the consequences of his refusal to live on the terms handed to him by Caesar. The life of Christ is the fountainhead and grounds of religious liberty for all people: Christ demonstrates the power of martyrdom without endorsing the idea that Christians ought climb up on the cross themselves, as some of the early Christians were tempted to do. He spent three years of his life calling others to repentance, exercising every opportunity and power the State granted him to call the State to repentance, before silently inverting the judgment of Pilate in his trial and crucifixion. In this, he demonstrates his fundamental freedom and power and the limits of the State, reminding Pilate that there are some realms which the State cannot—and ought not—reach. St. Paul would later follow in his example, and exhort us to follow his as he follow's Christ (cf. Acts 22, 25, and 1 Corinthians 11:1, among other places.)
In the same way, Christians ought exercise every means possible to shape the laws of the land to preserve the freedom of all people before yielding themselves to the judgment of the court and subverting it in their response. That may involve acknowledging and repudiating the unjust laws of our forebearers, like the criminalization of sodomy. But it would also mean articulating the limits of the coercive power of the state and standing with all people whose intimate practices are compelled in ways that their consciences do not allow. There is no reason why serving our gay and lesbian neighbors is incommensurate with the freedom of Christian business owners and individuals to not participate in any way in ceremonies or events that they have moral reservations about—at least not unless the actual reasons Christians are providing for their objections are distorted by those like Evans.
For there is one thing which we never see our Savior doing in his “service” to his neighbor: participating in and endorsing a ceremony or ritual which was actually morally impermissible according to his own ethical standards. He kept himself “unstained by the world” in this respect, which is a very different standard than Evans’ cake-baking asks of conservative Christians. It is akin to the kind of compromise one might feel in attending a meeting of the League of the South: if one strongly felt like attending entailed approval, then one clearly ought not. Slapdash encouragements to “love one’s neighbor” by simply getting over it and baking the cake forgo the work of moral deliberation and analysis from that person’s point of view, and presuppose accounts of ceremonies and symbols that our recent Confederate flag controversy shows cannot be defended.
And carrying the cloak two miles when the law mandates one has no bearing in the least on whether Christians may dispute with the State about the shape the law should actually take. If the Washington State Supreme Court rules takes Baronelle Stutzman’s case and (God forbid) decides against her, and the State of Washington then imposes a fine, then she, with the help of all God’s children, should pay double it to those who have attempted to destroy her business and her reputation.
But there is nothing in Scripture which demands she must yield her agency pre-emptively and allow the law to make the judgment prematurely. Such a refusal of her agency, in the context where such agency is possible, would have the effect of further constraining the freedom of all citizens by yielding to the state a power to which it is not entitled. By playing the dissenter, Baronelle Stutzman and others are unmasking the powers that be, demonstrating their pettiness, their expansiveness, and their relentlessness in coercing all citizens into conforming with their point of view. The message that Christ has triumphed over the State is one to which they bear witness in their free dissent from it: whether the state will go on permitting such dissent without penalty is an open question.
The evangelical witness has been severely and seriously compromised for the past thirty years by its overstatements, its hyperbolizing, its fear mongering, and its resentment-based politics. Having cried wolf for so long, it now struggles to persuade the very people who should be most firmly in its corner: her children. But those children have adopted her methods and rejected her substance, rather than seeing the truth of her current concerns despite the difficulties of her method. Rather than providing real and genuine leadership out of the moral majoritarianism of the religious right, they are keeping us within it. Progressive Christian distortions about the state of the world are the natural and inevitable rotten fruit of an evangelical environment that has poorly formed its young. The religious right birthed the young writers that she deserves.
We live in serious times. These superficially benign disputes, which might seem so trivial and outlandish to so many, bear within them principles and precedents that will have a serious and substantive effect on our freedom and character as citizens for long into the future. Evans suggests that this question is a "complex issue and [she] can see both sides." That may be true. But it is made more complex by her repeated misrepresentations of it, distortions that serve to delegitimize conservative views not simply for her young, progressive evangelical audience, but for the world more broadly. Based on her depiction of it, she has not seen the conservative "side" at all.
This, then, is the real danger to religious liberty: it is not gay individuals or even activists who will erode our liberty. Rather, it is a host of ordinary people like Evans who, having been raised in an environment dominated by the religious right, are not willing or able—I make no claim as to which—to sift through the chaff to find the kernel of wheat, to make their way through the hyperbolic rhetoric to find the truth within. Such individuals will dismiss questions about the implications of the principles they accept and advocate as 'fear mongering,' or retreat into some kind of ad hoc position that they are 'hard questions.' They are, but these are far too serious of times for those who wish to be leaders to not answer hard questions. Logic is cruel, and those who endorse arguments that entail opposition is dehumanizing must account for the public and political consequences of that view. Otherwise, by a thousand paper cuts, the sphere of freedom for our society will slowly bleed. Whatever 'privilege' Christians have in our societies, it is simply inconsistent for Evans to simultaneously exhort Christians to take up their crosses and bake the cake already while providing support and cover for the coercive power of the State which would compel them against their consciences to do so.
*The ethics policy for Atlanta clearly focuses on employment, for understandable reasons. Indeed, it exempts "single speaking engagements." A book, I can attest, is far closer in form to a speaking engagement than a job. See this brief explainer for more.
*Rod Dreher has been cataloguing examples and anonymous emails for a year now.
Update: I had meant to mention licensing, as that is a huge forthcoming issue for many Christians in a variety of issues, and I totally blanked on it until I was reminded by a friend. So I added a question on it and adjusted the numbers accordingly.
Update 2: I edited the section on Vanderbilt for clarity and accuracy.
Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.