I recently wrote a piece entitled “What if the Culture War Never Happened,” where I encouraged progressive evangelicals — who publicly blame the conservative Christians (largely of the prior generation) of the “culture wars” for giving Christianity a bad name and driving people away from the church — not to accept uncritically what their liberal confreres tell them about the culture wars. Too many young evangelicals, in my view, question the culture wars but never question the “culture wars,” or the very concept and the way it’s developed in liberal circles.
Some of my progressive friends challenged me to point to examples. I did not really want to call anyone out on the carpet, but it’s a reasonable request. Sometimes it’s important to speak clearly and openly. So here’s what I want to say: To be fair, this happens on both sides. But recently I’ve seen a lot of young, progressive evangelicals denouncing and caricaturing their conservative brethren for their “culture war” concerns. But by accepting the caricatures coming mostly from secular critics, legitimating and perpetuating them, they themselves — acting out of concern for the damage done to the church and its witness — are doing great harm to the church and its witness. If we truly care for the public witness of the church, then we (liberal and conservative) need to stop slandering and caricaturing the other half of the church. Don’t throw your Christian brothers and sisters under the bus. Even if you disagree with them, you can provide a coherent, charitable explanation for what “those other evangelicals” believe.
Let me start with a generic example. MissionGathering Christian Church in San Diego, responding to Amendment 1 in North Carolina, purchased a billboard strategically located alongside Billy Graham Parkway in Charlotte that says, “MissionGathering Christian Church IS SORRY for the narrow-minded, judgmental, deceptive, manipulative actions of THOSE WHO DENIED RIGHTS AND EQUALITY TO SO MANY IN THE NAME OF GOD.” Click on the image to the right for the article explaining the billboard. MissionGathering describes itself as an “Emerging” church, and their Pastor of Spiritual Formation, Alex Roller, says that the purpose of the billboard is to tell the LGBT community that “there are progressive Christians who believe in the Bible and Jesus but still support marriage equality and rights for the LGBT population.” The church (300 members), he says, was showered with praise for the billboards they rented in response to the Prop 8 fight in California. “We just want them to know,” says Roller, that “our hearts are with you.”
If that was all they wanted to say, however, they could have rented a billboard with the boards, “Our hearts are with you.” Given their beliefs on homosexuality and marriage, that would have been a fine thing to do. Yet that’s not what they did. Instead they called their fellow believers, who feel differently from them on this issue, “narrow-minded, judgmental, deceptive, [and] manipulative.” So let’s be clear what they’re doing here. (1) They’re perpetuating the worst images of conservative Christians who support traditional marriage. (2) They’re holding themselves our as a better alternative. They are the good Christians, the more Christ-like Christians, who are not judgmental — even as they’re judging sixty percent of North Carolinians, a majority of Californians, over half of Christians in the United States and the great majority of Christians around the world. In other words, (3) they’re saying “our hearts are with you” in that “we feel the same anger and scorn in our hearts as you do.”
Their intentions are honorable, but undermined by an incoherent strategy and by their deep-seated scorn for conservative Christians. They’re trying to encourage love — by being hateful (and no, I don’t think that’s too strong a word). They’re trying to encourage tolerance — but judging everyone who disagrees with them. They’re trying to improve the witness of the church — by legitimating the stereotype that the conservative half of the church is bigoted and deceitful. They hold themselves out as a better alternative — by throwing more conservative Christians under the bus.
Of course, it’s easy to argue with a billboard. So, as requested, let me give another example. Rachel Held Evans’ recent post, “How to Win a Culture War and Lose a Generation” went viral. Rachel is a fine person, and I regret that I tend to engage with her posts only when I disagree with them. I’m sure she’s deeply and thoroughly convinced she’s in the right here. But she let her anger get the better of her. Let’s look at the post, which begins thus:
When asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “antihomosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers. (The next most common negative images? : “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too involved in politics.”)
(To pause: the study says nothing of “the first word that came to their mind.” And “antihomosexual” is a catch-all term that people might check if they believe Christianity is bigoted, or merely that some Christians are bigoted, or people who simply think that Christianity opposes homosexuality. But when your anger gets the better of you, there’s no time for nuance or discernment.)
Evans goes on to say that the belief Christians are bigoted against homosexuals (in the words of David Kinnaman) is “the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity’s reputation,” and (in Evans’ words) “one of the top reasons 59 percent of young adults with a Christian background have left the church.” Then Evans points to Amendment 1 in NC and the advertisement that featured a quotation from Billy Graham:
Despite the fact that the North Carolina law already holds that marriage in the eyes of state is only between a man and a woman, an amendment was put on the ballot to permanently ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution. The initiative doesn’t appear to change anything on a practical level, (though some are saying it may have unintended negative consequences on heterosexual relationships), but seems to serve primarily as an ideological statement….an expensive, destructive, and impractical ideological statement.
Conservatives in the state […] supported the amendment, and last night it passed. Religious leaders led the charge in support of the amendment, with 93-year-old Billy Graham taking out multiple ads in publications across the state supporting the measure.
The convalescent Billy Graham likely had very little to do with the ad, but my point here is not to debate the rightness or wrongness of Amendment 1. My point is to examine the ways in which progressive Christians talk about conservative Christians. Conservative Christians have voted for these amendments consistently. Yet the reason many Christians feel differently from Evans is completely unexplained. And since (she asserts) there’s no practical reason (no reason why it might matter to give something a constitutional and not merely legal imprimatur), it must be just to spite gays. The reader is left to conclude that conservative Christians simply are, to use the terms from the beginning of the post, anti-homosexual, judgmental and hypocritical. Then Evans brings out the big guns of bold type and larger font-size:
I’ve said it a million times, and I’ll say it again…(though I’m starting to think that no one is listening):
My generation is tired of the culture wars.
We are tired of fighting, tired of vain efforts to advance the Kingdom through politics and power, tired of drawing lines in the sand, tired of being known for what we are against, not what we are for.
Evans wonders whether anyone is listening — and the post received 56,000 Facebook shares, and the comments cheer her on. If you’re selling anger and scorn against conservative Christians, the market is hot. Of course, Evans does not speak for our generation as a whole. And these are bumper-sticker arguments. I am for a family founded on the marriage of man and woman; I am for the defense of innocent human life even prior to birth. And I am not trying to advance the kingdom so much as I am trying to defend the innocent and defend social structures I consider sacred and valuable. The dead are not raised by politics, but the living can be protected and served by it. But we go on (reformatted for space):
…Amendments like these needlessly offend gays and lesbians, damage the reputation of Christians, and further alienate young adults […] from the Church.
So my question for those evangelicals leading the charge in the culture wars is this: Is it worth it? Is a political “victory” really worth losing millions more young people to cynicism regarding the Church? Is a political “victory” worth further alienating people who identify as LGBT? Is a political “victory” worth perpetuating the idea that evangelical Christians are at war with gays and lesbians? And is a political “victory” worth drowning out that quiet but persistent internal voice that asks—what if we get this wrong?
Too many Christian leaders seem to think the answer to that question is “yes,” and it’s costing them.
Because young Christians are ready for peace. We are ready to lay down our arms. We are ready to stop waging war and start washing feet.
For conservative Christians, of course, there are not merely political victories. These are matters of fundamental moral and theological import, critical to the health of individuals and societies. I believe these things matter to God because human flourishing comes when we are leading the lives we were designed and redeemed for. Sometimes the best way to wash a person’s feet is to tell him those feed are striding down a self-destructive path.
But again, the argument is beside the point. This is not really an argument but a bit of angry rhetoric. Evans never engages with how conservative Christians articulate the reasons for their actions. She never gives an explanation at all — much less a charitable one — for the things her brothers and sisters in Christ believe and do.
I understand why Rachel and her fellow progressive Christians are angry. I have many close relationships with gays and lesbians who do, indeed, find actions like Prop 8 and Amendment 1 hurtful. I do feel for them, and I genuinely wish for the sake of our relationships that I could agree with them on these issues. Evans and the MissionGathering church believe that Christians who oppose marriage equality for gays in the name of God are doing a disservice to the God they claim to serve and harming the witness of the church. I get it. But this is not the right way to respond.
This is selling anger, not offering enlightenment. Anger is not always wrong, but it’s always a dangerous substance to deal with. In its anger, posts and billboards like these lose the capacity to understand believers who disagree. They rush to judge our elders and dispense with humility or nuance. Instead of saying, “No, most conservative Christians are not hateful or deceptive. Here is where they’re coming from, but I stand with you” — they say “I am with you” because “I scorn them too.”
Does it happen on both sides? Absolutely. I cannot stand the glib, bigoted “ain’t no homos gonna make it to heaven” video that’s circulating. But one would never know, from a post like Evans’, that there are loving and thoughtful and self-sacrificial people on the conservative side of the argument who are genuinely trying to do the right thing for all people.
There is a growing genre — call it Progressive Christian Scorn Literature — about the scorn progressive Christians have for conservative evangelicals. It seems to be celebrated on the Left as a kind of righteous comeuppance for the Christian Right, and it wins the applause of the Left for the Christian Left. But it’s wrong and it needs to be called out. It’s neither winsome, nor loving, nor constructive, nor right. It will not improve our witness because it’s soaked through with bitterness and rancor. I hope that people of good heart and mind, like Evans, leave it behind.
We cannot get beyond the culture wars by simply joining one side and lobbing bombs against the other. We cannot improve the reputation of the church by throwing half of it under the bus.