Glancing at the front page of Christianity Today last night, I saw that three of the five leading headlines featured stories from the front lines of the culture wars:
Headline 1: World Vision reverses decision to hire Christians in same sex marriages.
Headline 2: Why Hobby Lobby is this year’s Supreme Court case to watch.
Headline 3: Christian college solidifies complementarian stance.
Two of those stories stem from institutions attempting to adhere to locatable verses in the Bible while the third is far more complex. The Hobby Lobby battle doesn’t invoke any explicit biblical mandate per se, rather it involves a complicated interplay between reproductive rights, personal autonomy, and religious freedom. As such I’d rather not open that can of worms in this post except to note that all three stories involve Christians being against something. These three headlines on the most popular Christian periodical in the world send an unmistakable message that a sizable portion of the Christian population defines itself by what it opposes. A minority of that population will find this whole situation deeply disgusting. And both sides will argue that their approach is the most Christian way of looking at things.
The story about Cedarville University involves a school president subjecting a previously well-respected school to retrogressively sexist policies in deference to the biblical prohibition against women teaching spiritual things to men. In the past this school has had no problem behaving like a 21st century American institution, but starting in the fall, female religion professors will only be allowed to teach female students because that’s the way the Bible says to do it. Two thousand years of cultural growth and progress erased with the stroke of a pen, along with the concomitant elimination of a few administrative positions in order to consolidate the decision-making process under the direct supervision of the president. Funny how often strict biblicism and heavy-handed authoritarianism appear in the same stories. One would almost think they are inseparable. Cedarville faculty and alumni are truly grieved by the sudden backward lurch and I can’t say that I blame them. I don’t believe the Baptist college I attended has ever allowed female Bible teachers. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the school’s endowments spell out that prohibition explicitly as a condition for continued support. When I attended, the women still had a curfew while the men did not. Chew on that for a while.
But the World Vision story hits me harder than any of the others. Much already has been written about this fiasco, and as always I’m a day or two behind writing about things because free time is scarce. But I’d like to give my reaction to this story because this one hit me in the feels. As an atheist who once struggled with the inconsistencies of my religion, I can identify with my gay friends who still consider themselves Christians but have to deal with constant judgment from the rest of their faith community. Many people I respect and appreciate had likely developed a false hope that the church might be finally starting to grow up and enter the adult world. World Vision is an institution founded for the purpose of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, and healing the sick. What more beautiful legacy could you hope for in a religious organization? Because humanitarian aid occupies the central position in World Vision’s mission (rather than sectarian theology), the leaders of the organization announced that they were going to be allowing people into their work who are in same-sex marriages. They just didn’t feel that their help should be turned away just because they were in loving, committed relationships with members of the same sex.
Many immediately welcomed this new development. Rachel Held Evans stuck her neck out a bit and rallied behind them, asking for their support because she knew that a number of churches and denominations would consider opposing gay marriage to be more important than honoring their pledges to the individual children they had promised to sponsor. Evans wants to see the Christian legacy move more towards the kind of concerns which Jesus focused on, and Jesus never said a word about homosexuality (for the record he also never addressed birth control, abortion, or the subjugation of women, either. Some would argue that he was comparatively a feminist for his time and place). I guess I could relate to that, and I found myself cheering for her and for all the other young Evangelicals whom she has come to represent for me. She speaks for a demographic that doesn’t subject all of life to the rigid ideology of Fundamentalism, and frankly I’d like to see their tribe increase. Many of my skeptic friends would be horrified to hear me say that but my contention is that religion isn’t going away anytime soon, so I’d rather encourage those forms which are more humanistic. For me, the atheist label speaks to only one question and it doesn’t say enough about who I am and what I believe. I am also a humanist, and as such I feel a kinship with anyone who can put aside sectarian differences to help make the world a better place. For a moment there, it seemed like another large group of Christians was going to do that.
But almost immediately after making this announcement to the world, this charitable organization reversed its decision because of the overwhelming disapproval of several powerful corners of Christendom. The Baptists, the Fundamentalists, the Presbyterians, and the Pentecostals all sounded off and condemned World Vision for their tolerance of same-sex relationships, saying they had forsaken the gospel itself. The urged their own churches to withdraw their monetary pledges, effectively saying they’d rather see a child starve than allow a gay couple to get married. Believe or not, many of them unscrupulously stated that exact sentiment without remorse.
This is what Christianity has been reduced to for millions around the world.
And yeah, I know to some it will seem a cheap shot for a non-Christian to “put them on blast” at a moment like this. It’s not fair, some will say, to rub this in anyone’s face because it doesn’t represent every Christian everywhere. No, clearly it doesn’t. But to them I would say, “What are you going to do about it?” If you are a Christian and you feel that it’s a misplacement of priorities to make anti-homosexuality a defining characteristic of your 21st century testimony, you should speak up about it. Make your voice heard. They’re certainly not going to listen to somebody like me. I suggest you wrestle with this issue for yourself and make up your mind, then speak up and let everyone else know what you think should define your faith. If you don’t, others will do it for you and you may not like what they do with it. I’d like to offer three additional observations/lessons from this debacle, and then I’ll leave this already worn-out discussion, so filled with legitimately raw emotions, alone.
1) Young Evangelicals underestimated how unable to change their fellow Christians truly are. Religions based on authoritative revelation cannot learn new things. You can only start a separate movement and wait for the old guard to literally die off. They take their beliefs to the grave. That means you’re probably stuck with this situation for at least the foreseeable future. How long are you willing to wait for them to come around before you quit trying to change them and go your own way?
2) Conformity, not love, is the central tenet of the Christian religion. Yeah, I used to be one, too, so I know how much a Christian would object to that statement. But that is what this moment shows the world. If you’re fond of saying that Christianity is a relationship and not a religion, look no further for a counterexample to that assertion.
3) Young Evangelicals will very soon reject the Evangelical label entirely, with more abandon, and that speaks of major trouble for these church traditions in the very near future. I’ll admit it’s hard to say with any great confidence what this will mean down the road. Every time critics of Christianity have declared its demise, it reinvents itself and survives into the next generation. What’s more, Fundamentalism doesn’t seem to go away even in the face of overwhelming contradictions and cultural disapproval. In fact, Fundamentalism seems to thrive on opposition because it feeds the persecution complex. They love feeling like the world is out to get them because it makes them feel like they matter. But instead of retreating into an irrelevant corner of society as secularists of a previous generation once thought they would, they’ve taken over the state legislatures, the judicial benches, and even some of the popular programming of multiple media platforms.
But the younger generation does not identify with the causes of the older generation. We’re seeing a disconnect that’s more dramatic than what has occurred in previous periods of history. Moments like this drive an even larger wedge between the old guard and the new. I don’t think the current leaders have any grasp of how utterly they are alienating their successors. They are in a faith-based denial about the whole thing, blindly trusting that God will reward their fanaticism with continued provision. They won’t even be around to see how completely this may be burying their style of Christianity. I guess time will tell.
For now, my main reaction is grief and sympathy for those progressive Christians who thought this moment would see a small step forward for their global community. Their hopes were shattered, and for those many Christians in same-sex relationships, this was a deep wound which will alienate many (if not most) of them from their forebears. This moment cut deep, and that pains me. I hope it will wake them up. I hope some of them will see that this isn’t just about an older generation being untrue to their religion. On the contrary, the problem is that they’re being too true to it, following their authoritative revelation exactly the way they were taught to do it. If this displeases you, please realize you are fighting against your own holy book. These people aren’t making this stuff up. They’re just doing what the Good Book says to do. Maybe it’s time to rethink that commitment once and for all.
I gave it up. I highly recommend it. Come on in, the water’s fine, I promise