Are evangelicals America’s only real moral conservatives?

Nearly a decade ago, the conservative Weekly Standard ran a very newsy story on its cover under this ominous double-decker headline:

Banned in Boston

The coming conflict between same-sex marriage and religious liberty.

The story shocked quite a few people and, behind the scenes, I know that many journalists linked to the religion beat passed it around, in part because so much of its reporting — even in the pages of a consevative magazine — centered on the complex and at times clashing legal views inside gay-rights groups.

The story opened like this:

Catholic Charities of Boston made the announcement on March 10: It was getting out of the adoption business. “We have encountered a dilemma we cannot resolve. … The issue is adoption to same-sex couples.”

It was shocking news. Catholic Charities of Boston, one of the nation’s oldest adoption agencies, had long specialized in finding good homes for hard to place kids. “Catholic Charities was always at the top of the list,” Paula Wisnewski, director of adoption for the Home for Little Wanderers, told the Boston Globe. “It’s a shame because it is certainly going to mean that fewer children from foster care are going to find permanent homes.” Marylou Sudders, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said simply, “This is a tragedy for kids.”

How did this tragedy happen?

It’s a complicated story.

Please note that this was also a Catholic story. It centered on a conflict between Catholic doctrines and a trend in American life. You can find similar stories about Orthodox Jews, if you dig deep enough. And, of course, you can find stories about conflicts linked to the life and work of evangelical Protestants, such as the owners of Hobby Lobby.

Now, let me stress that this is not a post about gay marriage and it’s not a post about religious liberty (sort of).

This is not even — as is the norm here at GetReligion — a post about a piece of mainstream news writing on a religion news or trend. Instead it’s a post pointing readers toward an Atlantic Monthly essay that, while puzzling, is must reading for people who work on the religion beat or who frequently consume religion news.

So what is so puzzling about this important article?

Things get strange right in the headline:

Is Evangelical Morality Still Acceptable in America?

And here is the opening of this essay by Alan Noble:

Is evangelical Christian morality still viable in American public life? This is the question lurking in recent debates over religious-liberty issues, from the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision to the Christian bakers who object to baking cakes for gay weddings. In discussions of these cases, objections to same-sex marriage and contraception are described as a retreat from “secular society.” And in some cases, evangelicals actually have retreated: Since the Boy Scouts of America decided to allow openly gay Scouts to participate, a “Christian” alternative has been created, giving Christian parents a “safe” space where they can send their kids. But these incidences of retreat have actually been rare. Ultimately, the idea that evangelical Christian morality is incompatible with modern life isn’t sustainable.

In The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch argued that if the evangelical church is to last long into the twenty-first century, certain parts of its moral codes have to change—American society is progressing, and if the church won’t progress with her, then it will be abandoned.

This is based on a popular conception about evangelicals: that they’re toxic.

What is so strange about this?

Well, to cut to the chase, the editors of the Atlantic seem — by running a piece framed in this way — to think that evangelical Protestants, on issues related to sex and marriage, have a unique theological and moral tradition that is separate from, let’s say, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the world of conservative Anglicanism, Orthodox Jews, traditional Buddhists, Eastern Orthodox Christians, the vast majority of Muslims, etc., etc.

Why is this an article about evangelicals, as opposed to believers in a wide range of ancient forms of faith? Why single out evangelicals?

Well, I think it’s because many journalists really do think that this whole “religious liberty” thing — scare quotes intentional — is about a segment of the population that can be pigeon-holed as, well, those evangelicals. Those folks. The strange people.

Now, if you read this article and, every time you encounter the word “evangelical,” you substitute “practicing Catholics,” or “Orthodox Jews,” or “black Pentecostals,” etc., then you will begin to get the picture.

Like in this passage:

As laws on issues like same-sex marriage and contraception have changed, there’s a growing fear that public policy will become more and more in conflict with evangelical morality. This, according to many conservative Christians, is what these tensions are about: being legally required to perform acts that you sincerely and deeply believe are immoral. Although in the past the religious right has openly advocated legislating morality in the public sphere, for most evangelicals, the recent cases do not seem to be about policing other people’s morality — the concern is about preserving the ability to be faithful to one’s own morality. By paying to cover contraceptives that interfere with “conception,” as evangelicals define it, by baking a cake or taking photographs to celebrate a same-sex wedding, some Christians believe they are facilitating a profoundly immoral act — which makes them morally culpable, as well.

Conflict with evangelical morality?

“Conception” as evangelicals define it?

Say what?

Now this is a fascinating essay and I think GetReligion readers should dig into it.

But why did the Atlantic editors think that the public issues discussed in this piece are rooted in modern evangelical Protestantism, as opposed to centuries of doctrines and traditions in a variety of faiths?

If anything, modern and postmodern evangelicals represent a tradition that — with its emphasis on individualism and congregationalism — will find it easier to evolve and change than people with ties to the early church fathers, centuries of creeds and highly detailed legal structures. What are the most ancient forms of faith around us? Evangelicalism?

Most strange. What were the editors thinking?

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • fredx2

    Part of the answer is that reporters really do seem to believe that the left wing National Catholic Reporter, or the left leaning magazine America, or Commonweal – are the authoritative voice of Catholics in America. So, they believe that the run of the mill Catholic hates the increasingly orthodox Catholic positions that the Bishops have taken. Sooooo – reporters don’t really see Catholics as a threat. They see them as temporarily misled by a misfit hierarchy.
    However, they see Evangelicals as a threat. Furthermore, reporters (and when we say “reporters” we are most often saying “Liberal Democrats”) see Evangelicals as slightly deranged for having a solid believe in God.

    • AnneG

      Right. And a lot of Catholics reporters know “don’t believe all that stuff.”

  • http://outofthedepths.blogspot.com/ steve

    It is obvious why they discuss evangelicals. Evangelicals are the most numerous and most vociferous. Now why would they refer to “Conception as Evangelicals define it” ? Well these are new opinions and interpretations that have only recently developed because the drugs and technology have only been around a few decades at most. So it is a matter of interpretation and judgement as to whether they violate centuries of tradition or not. Evangelicals, a significant group of them anyway, tend to think their view is THE Christian view. Of course, a range of views on just about any issue is represented among them.

    • tearfang

      @swallison50:disqus I agree that the ref article betrays a post modern view of religion (and perhaps reality) as a human invention infinitely pliable.

      hrm I don’t think that explains the derisive
      “Conception as Evangelicals define it” is pretty misleading. I think @fredx2:disqus fredx2 had it right. This is a contemptuous expression fed by liberal avoidance of the substance of what evangelicals believe and why. The liberal narrative is: war on women. That these moral convictions are genuine, consistent and well founded is not accepted by them. Thus the dismissive as they define it, as if they are in loon land with their definition and it wouldn’t be worth explaining their irrational reasons bc irrational can’t be explained.

      In order to say that of course, the writer has to know that many Evangelicals define conception as embryologists do at occuring at fertilization. And that American law defines pregnancy as starting when the embryo implants into the womb of the mother. And also defines contraceptives as preventing pregnancy so that treatments which prevent implantation can be called contraceptives. There is an interesting footnote in the Supreme court opinion on Hobby Lobby noting this distinction because it is critical to understanding why Hobby Lobby objected to certain forms of medication legally defined as contraception. Interestingly this really has much more to do with freedom of conscience than freedom of religion, as any information that can be gleaned from the bible as to the status of a human being after conception before implantation is vague at best. The fact that evangelicals tend to the really is a human life probably has more to do with consistency with their defining interpretive methods of the bible applied to other walks of life than anything the bible actually says.


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