In this post, I am not interested in discussing what the “true” teachings of Christianity are. Partially this is because I don’t think there is any such thing as “true Christianity”. I do not think there is any reason to call “true Christianity” only those fundamentalist interpretations of the faith which claim (dubiously) to just obediently defer to the Bible in all matters. I do think that there is a possible way to talk about “true religion”, and it somewhat favors morally progressive believers, but even there I am still quite opposed to progressive believers’ attempts to whitewash their religions’ histories or to pretend that their more enlightened values are sufficiently rationally consistent with the texts and institutions that they treat as sacred and divinely guided. (For a full summary of my views on these and related issues, with copious links for further reading, go here.)
All that is important for purposes of this thread is that there are arguments that fundamentalists make against the morality of homosexuality and abortion and there are arguments that progressives make for the moral acceptability of homosexuality and abortion. I do not want this thread to be a debate about which side of either issue has either the Bible or other alleged sources of Christian truth more on their side. Those are potentially interesting questions, but I think they would be a distraction from the distinct issue I want to raise and which I would like readers, especially Christians (if my atheist readers would be so kind as to pass this on to them), to focus on.
The distinct issue I want to raise is the following, let’s assume for argument’s sake that there is such a thing as True Christianity (even though I think in fact there is not). Let’s also assume that Christianity should be interpreted as condemning homosexual sex and abortion (even though I rather adamantly would prefer for moral reasons and for the safety and dignity of gay people and women that it not).
What I want to know from conservative Christians, who hold these two beliefs, which we will be assuming are true only for argument’s sake, is the following:
On what theologically consistent basis are you making opposition to homosexuality and abortion the de facto (and sometimes even the explicit) tests of true Christian belief and of minimal Christian orthodoxy when assessing others’ professions of Christian faith?
Christians have disagreed with each other over a great multitude of issues, including important moral ones, while nonetheless acknowledging each other to be legitimately Christians in some minimally sufficient sense. Typically the tests of true Christianity have been beliefs like those expressed in the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed. These beliefs were centered around questions of belief in God and the salvific work of Jesus. Schisms that fundamentally divided Christians tended to be over very specifically religious questions like whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Son in the Trinity and not just the Father, or whether humans are saved by faith alone or by faith combined with works performed by grace, or whether infants or adults were the proper subjects of baptism, etc.
These sorts of issues tended to cut to the very essence of the nature of God, of Jesus, and of salvation. They were to their core very distinctively theological issues, which many central, controversial biblical texts address. Some of these issues were of paramount importance and debate in the Christian churches since the earliest centuries of the faith’s very existence.
In contemporary times, a wide range of different conservative Protestant denominations and Catholics seem, at least publicly, to acknowledge each other as uncontroversially Christians. Many theological debates are still matters of bitter contention and abstract debate. But they seem far less frequently to be matters for fundamental schisms. Many evangelicals who explicitly base their votes on religious grounds are more willing to vote for the (wildly heterodox by traditional standards) Mormon Mitt Romney than the progressively Christian Barack Obama. American Catholic bishops offer the Eucharist to conservative politicians who explicitly defy Church moral teachings on the poor, on torture, on just war, and on divorce.
Yet those same bishops try to bully politicians who support abortion rights into submission by calling for priests to withhold the Eucharist from them. And evangelicals and Catholics alike condemn Barack Obama, liberal politicians in general, and even their morally progressive brethren as non-Christians seemingly primarily due to their positions on abortion and homosexuality.
To me, this looks like right wing political policy driving right wing theology, rather than the other way around. It looks like the Christian churches bullying the vulnerable–women demonized as “loose” and irresponsible, and a long mistreated and mistrusted sexual minority like gays–while other “sinners” whose “religious crimes” are more unambiguously denounced by Jesus (like divorcés) go with slaps on the wrist because they tend to belong to numerous and powerful demographics (e.g., heterosexual, middle aged men).
It looks to me, like these are centralized issues because of their roles in a politically constructed conservative identity. For their faith to have meaning and weight and not feel like a matter of convenience or uncontroversial moral common sense, it has to involve some costly beliefs. It has to involve some beliefs which separate believers from non-believers. There have to be some beliefs that only believers have and that only they could have because few (or no one) outside the faith would bother to have them. They have to have some beliefs which are not rationally grounded so they can be clear tests of faith, i.e., clear tests of a believer’s willingness to subordinate his intellect to the religion against his normal judgment. I think most religious people need to think of themselves as willing to believe even harsh truths lest they start to understand themselves as only engaged in self-indulgent wish-fulfillment. Being willing to think that the millions of people around them who have had abortions or gay sex are murderers and sexual deviants worthy of hell is a badge of unblinking intellectual honesty to them–rather than a sign of appallingly callous and miscalibrated moral judgment, as it is to most other modern people.
And yet in this age of utterly selfish and self-serving religiosity, the costs born that must be born by the litmus test beliefs cannot actually be expected to be ones that the powerful among the religious have to bear. So the beliefs that wind up being selected are ones that oh so conveniently disproportionally burden those at the mercy of the powerful instead. The devout middle aged, middle class, monogamously married believer is comfortably able to have sex with his spouse whenever he likes so his austere and self-righteous demand for “sexual purity” only effectively burdens the young and the unmarried.
He also can afford contraception for his wife and so they can afford to ignore Catholic teachings against it with impunity while condemning public services that provide funding for abortions for those poor people who have less access to family planning education and resources and who get pregnant more often and at the risk greater poverty for their children, who will be raised in worse funded school districts and be more likely to wind up impoverished and/or incarcerated as adults.
The average, middle class, heterosexual believer’s marriage is not threatened by the condemnation of homosexuality. The sexual indiscretions of promiscuity or adultery are simply “sins” to be sincerely repented and forgiven by Jesus. They are not proof that one is not a Christian. The gay person’s entire homosexual sex life is taken to be sinful. The gay couple’s very marriage itself is morally invalid and an indiscretion in itself. Belief in the validity of the gay person’s sexuality effectively reveals that one is not even a Christian.
So, for all the vacuous talk about “all sins being equal–adultery and homosexuality alike”, the actual costs for this belief are in practice wildly disproportionately born by the vulnerable sexual minority and not by the believers who have demographic and financial power to determine the emphases of their religion and its de facto tests of orthodoxy.
So, I think this dynamic of needing both costly, identity-marking beliefs and of needing them to be not actually very costly to those most powerful, is what is driving the contemporary conservative Christian’s obsession with making opposition to homosexuality and abortion the de facto tests of true and orthodox Christian belief.
Without getting into an argument about whether the Bible or the some supposed “theologically most consistent” interpretation of Christianity requires condemnation of homosexuality and/or abortion, what I really want to see you answer, conservative Christians, are these much narrower questions:
On what theological grounds do you conservative Christians feel justified in setting up opposition to homosexuality and abortion as the most decisive beliefs in determining the authenticity of your fellow Christians’ claims to be true believers? Why, besides the crass and self-serving political reasons I just speculated, should you be treating these two points of differences as as central to whether one is a Christian as you formerly treated only matters like belief in the divinity of Christ or the proper means of accepting God’s grace? Even if your interpretation of the Bible on these issues is correct, why should you be making issues that the Bible is virtually silent about (abortion) or only discusses peripherally and ambiguoulsy (homosexuality) into tests of sincere commitment to God and of proper understanding of the essence of your faith?
Atheist readers, if you would be kind enough to pass this challenge question on to your anti-gay, anti-abortion Christian friends and acquaintances, I would really appreciate it.