One of the complaints Christians (especially younger ones) often have with atheists is that we tend to lump them all together. It may be easy to separate evangelicals from more liberal Christians… but we don’t make much of an effort to separate “old guard” evangelicals from the ones who have a different take on many of the big social issues of the day.
Tom Krattenmaker has written about this “new breed” of Christians in a book called The Evangelicals You Don’t Know: Introducing the Next Generation of Christians (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013). It’s a fascinating look at how a new generation of evangelicals is pushing back against tradition and working to modernize the faith. (Full disclosure: I provided a blurb for the back of the book.)
Krattenmaker is also the author of Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers about the intersection of religion and sports.
In the passage below, he talks about how “old guard” evangelical Christians have hurt their own cause by pushing so hard against gay rights:
In an interview for Marcia Pally’s 2011 book The New Evangelicals, renegade evangelical pastor Greg Boyd described the thought process in these trenchant terms: “[We] may be divorced and remarried several times. We may be as greedy and unconcerned about the poor and as gluttonous as others in our culture; we may be as prone to gossip and slander and as blindly prejudiced as others…. But at least we’re not gay.”
Recent political history is replete with the tactics spawned by this model and mind-set: anti-gay marriage measures at the state and federal level, fights against special legal protection for gay people subject to bullying or discrimination, fights against requirements that agencies treat gay couples equally as candidates to be adoptive parents, rhetoric that portrays gay people as deviant and their allies as morally suspect, anti-God, and anti-American.
To attribute evangelical opposition to homosexuality as only or principally a political calculation is neither accurate nor fair. Yet there can be no denying its effectiveness in politics. As a differentiating factor and troops rallying motivator, the emphasis on homosexuality — its elevation as an issue of make-or-break importance and an evil of nearly unmatched proportions certainly helped achieve ballot-box victories in contests ranging from school boards and city councils to the U.S. Senate and White House. Its political utility helps explain why a matter that receives nowhere near top billing in the Bible came to play such a featured role in the rhetoric and on the priority lists of Christian Right organizations. Of course, if gay America had not started asserting itself, and if much of straight society had not responded by welcoming gay people into mainstream life, none of this would have happened. Christian Right strategists and organizers would not have had this particular form of social change to exploit as a wedge issue. One could ask who thrust this issue upon whom. But this was the opportunity that presented itself to politics-minded evangelicals. And seize it they did.
The strategy worked.
Until it didn’t.
By the beginning of the second decade of the new century, it has become
increasingly obvious that anti-gay tactics and rhetoric are as likely to cause PR headaches and reputation stains as they are to yield positive results. The weakness of some of the positions taken by leading Christian conservatives is being recognized, revealed, and, increasingly, called out. On the matter of laws protecting sexual minorities from bullying and discrimination, for instance, Time magazine’s Amy Sullivan correctly criticizes diehards for acting as though measures of this sort are trampling Christians’ religious freedom. “Social conservatives believe that efforts to protect gays from assault, discrimination, or bullying impinge on their religious freedom to express and act on their belief that homosexuality is an abomination,” writes Sullivan, a self-identified Baptist. “That’s stating it harshly, but it is the underlying belief…. Freedom of religious expression doesn’t give someone the right to kick the crap out of a gay kid or to verbally torment her. It doesn’t give someone the right to fire a gay employee instead of dealing with the potential discomfort of working with him.”
From my viewpoint, a no-going-back turning point showed itself around the time that President Barack Obama signed into law a bill requiring the military to scrap its infamous Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy for gays and lesbians. Now, one of the most respected institutions in American life, not to mention one of the most rugged and rigorous, was accepting out-of-the closet sexual minorities.
In the same general time frame, the Southern Poverty Law Center — a civil rights organization dedicated to advocating for threatened minorities and exposing hate groups — issued a report listing anti-gay groups whose tactics and rhetoric it deemed especially repugnant. These organizations, “most of them religiously motivated,” SPLC said in its news release, “have continued to pump out demonizing propaganda aimed at homosexuals and other sexual minorities. These groups’ influence reaches far beyond what their size would suggest, because the ‘facts’ they disseminate about homosexuality are often amplified by certain politicians, other groups, and even news organizations.” Appearing on the list were the names of several well-known groups whose leaders are frequently seen in the media. Among them, the Family Research Council, the American Family Association, and the Traditional Values Coalition. To these organizations the SPLC was now applying a label traditionally reserved for the likes of white supremacists, anti-Semitic extremists, and backwoods militias. These gay-bashing Christian Right organizations were, the SPLC said, “hate groups.”
(In announcing its list, SPLC singled out for positive notice one especially large and influential conservative Christian organization that was once known for strong anti-gay rhetoric and teachings — Focus on the Family; SPLC credited Focus for moderating its tone and, as that would suggest, made it clear it was not classifying Focus as a hate group.)
Around the same time that the military was ordered to accept openly gay
and lesbian soldiers and the SPLC issued its new hate-group list, a group called Exodus International announced a surprising decision, as if to verify that, yes indeed, a new day had arrived. Exodus had been playing a lead role in organizing an annual “Day of Truth” at American high schools, a counter protest to the “Day of Silence” campaign aimed at supporting sexual-minority students and sounding the alarm about the bullying those young people often face. Henceforth, Exodus announced, it would play no part in the day of so-called truth, and it cited a more profound biblical truth in explaining why.
“All the recent attention to bullying helped us realize that we need to equip kids to live out biblical tolerance and grace,” Exodus President Alan Chambers explained, “while treating their neighbors as they’d like to be treated, whether we agree with them or not.”
As I wrote in a USA Today column reflecting on this trifecta of sign-of-the-times developments, one could clearly sense that American culture had reached a point on gay rights similar to that moment in a football game, or an election, or a relationship, when you know it’s over even though it’s not officially over — and that this newly arrived moment was posing a decision point, a day of reckoning, for the socially conservative Christian groups that led the resistance to gay rights. Would they continue fighting to the last ditch, continue shouting the anti-gay rhetoric that was ringing false and mean to more and more Americans? Or would they ease back gracefully, change their tone and tactics, and turn their attention elsewhere?
For those choosing to fight on, the extent and nature of the cost is increasingly clear. Consider the predicament of the late Charles Colson.
Colson might not have had many liberal fans and supporters, but this Christian conservative’s work in prison ministry, and his efforts to make America a more decent and moral place, was certainly good-hearted in intent and, quite often, in effect. Yet some of his actions and rhetoric on the matter of gay rights made Colson appear just the opposite to those not on his side. Colson, for instance, described the push for same-sex marriage as “the greatest threat to religious freedom in America” — an assertion that demonizes gay people and their allies and sounds like hyperbolic nonsense to many outside the conservative Christian camp. To those not buying it, the claim seems to suggest that denying rights to gay people is somehow central to the form of religion everyone knows Colson is most concerned about: Christianity. To be fair, it’s true that in a series of worst-case scenarios — if, for example, conservative churches were forced to perform same-sex weddings or hire gay pastors, or if they faced government reprisals for anti-homosexuality preaching — we would have before us a gross violation of their First Amendment religious freedom rights. And, yes, one could speculate that gay marriage would constitute one major step down that worrisome road. But the simple fact is, few, if any, prominent gay rights advocates are pushing to abrogate congregations’ rights to hire the preachers they want to hire, believe what they want to believe, and preach what they want to preach about homosexuality. For a Christian leader to claim that his side’s religious freedom is threatened if two women get a marriage license at a government office is not a winning argument in today’s America, and it has the effect of discrediting both the maker of the claim and the religion that is invariably invoked in the process. Religious freedom does not mean you will get your way in every public policy debate.
As Colson learned, maintaining this message and stance brings a different
set of consequences in the new environment than it once did. Around the same time that the dramas around Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the SPLC hate groups list were playing out, Colson was helping lead a campaign called the Manhattan Declaration, which was mounting a vigorous defense of conservative values, including the principle that marriage should be reserved for heterosexual couples. When the campaign corralled the new technology of the day and launched an iPhone app bearing the words of their manifesto, it wasn’t long before Apple started receiving complaints. Such “hate” and “homophobia,” protesters insisted, should not be tolerated. Apple pulled the app from the virtual shelves.
Numerous other examples attest to the price conservative Christians pay when they stand hard against gays and lesbians and refuse to accept the larger society’s changing mores and growing embrace of gay people: a Christian university student booted from a school counseling program for refusing, on religious grounds, to affirm homosexuality while serving gay clients; Catholic Charities affiliates in Illinois losing state funding for refusing to abide by new rules requiring their consideration of same-sex couples as foster and adoptive parents; evangelical student groups losing their university recognition and funding for refusing to accept sexual-minority members. Different details, the same general story: if it’s gays you refuse, it’s status and acceptance you lose.
Say what you will about the fairness of these dynamics — does opposing
same-sex marriage, for instance, automatically constitute “hate”? — brouhahas like the one around the Manhattan Declaration iPhone app well illustrate the price that gay rights fighters increasingly pay as they strive to withhold rights from a certain group of Americans based on their identity. And even if they claim to harbor no enmity against homosexual people themselves — only their sin — they stand on shaky ground there, too. As more and more Americans are asking, how can you claim to respect and love people in gay relationships and then tell them with a straight face that they are not worthy, for instance, of a marriage license? “It’s impossible to tell people we love them,” says evangelical professor, author, and activist Tony Campolo, “if we deny them the basic rights we enjoy.”
As I wrote in the aforementioned USA Today column, conservative
Christian leaders are going to have to be very careful about their rhetoric and tactics going forward — careful not to continue giving the impression that being Christian is in large measure about opposing gay rights, and careful not to let the public expression of their faith become primarily associated with something that looks, sounds, and feels like hate to growing segments of the population. Fighting to the end might sound gallant, but it’s not a road to glory so much as a ticket to infamy — an infamy akin to that borne by the likes of Bull Connor, George Wallace, and other villains of civil rights history. This is not a well-chosen hill for Christians to die on.
Place yourself twenty, maybe thirty, years into the future, and imagine how students and readers of not-so-distant history might regard the antihomosexual claims made by Christian Right standard bearers like Tony Perkins and Bryan Fischer.
Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, continues to indict the advance of gay rights as a major threat to heterosexual marriage and families, and as a threat to Christians’ religious liberties. At the time of this writing, deal-sealing statistical evidence or concrete facts have yet to materialize to substantiate the scare claims about the “homosexual agenda,” as it’s frequently called. Certainly the institution of the American family has been buffeted by the high winds of rapid social change. But social scientists generally indict divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and the phenomenon of single parenthood (especially the economic disadvantages often attached to that situation) as the most direct threats to the institution of the American family and children’s healthy development. No matter. The FRC continues spewing its alarmist claims, warning its followers and donors that the gay rights movement is hell-bent on abolishing age-of-consent laws and promoting pedophilia; that gay and lesbian soldiers are more prone to sexually assaulting fellow service members; and that anti-bullying programs in schools are thinly veiled attempts to indoctrinate impressionable schoolchildren — that gays and lesbians, in sum, are out to destroy the family and the American way of life as we know them.
The face of the Mississippi-based AFA — Bryan Fischer, director of issues analysis — takes the hyperbole and the baseless demonizing to even lower lows. As the Southern Poverty Law Center reported, Fischer has enlightened us with nuggets like “[h]omosexuality gave us Adolf Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine, and six million dead Jews” and “homosexuals, as a group, are the single greatest perpetrators of hate crimes on the planet, outside the Muslim religion.”
It’s impossible to square such demonizing nonsense with the truth-telling required of Christians by their Ten Commandments, or with the love and compassion teachings of their savior. As one new-evangelical pastor observes, the incendiary rhetoric around abortion and gay rights has become “a big bass drum that is beaten so loudly nobody can hear the sweet strain of the gospel.” No wonder younger evangelicals attest to cringing when the time comes to reveal to fellow students at their universities, or coworkers at their new jobs, that they’re Christians.
Of course, ruffling some people’s feathers merits little concern if you’re convinced you’re representing the capital-T Truth, as conservative Christian organizations are quick to assert. The problem is that such a stance is increasingly difficult to maintain as society begins taking a more complex look at what the Bible says and doesn’t say about sex, and as growing ranks of unchurched Americans ask why it even matters what the Bible says on this (or any other) social issue.
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Incidentally, Krattenmaker adapted a piece from the book for the Huffington Post and wrote about his visit to the “new” Focus on the Family.
In all the talk about the “New Atheists” over the past several years, we’ve constantly pointed out that there’s really nothing “new” about it — it’s the same beliefs, just a little more popular and mainstream. The New Evangelicals, though, hold views that are strikingly different from their predecessors. The question is whether their beliefs will become the predominant way of thinking within the church. If not, the church’s popularity will no doubt continue to decline over the next decade.