I’ve been on “this side” of the religion divide for over five years, but I confess a certain curiosity with Christian circles even still. Part of it is getting to look back on a subculture that I left behind (thankfully) and see how things are progressing, or, you know, not.
But I also keep an eye out because I have friends who still walk in these circles. So it’s good to know what’s going on for their sake.
As such, I was intrigued to read Jonathan Merrit’s recent column at Religion News Service railing against Princeton Theological Seminary’s decision to rescind an honor it had planned to award to Reformed pastor Tim Keller.
Keller, if you’re not familiar with him, is the founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and (for a few months still) its senior pastor. He is also the author of The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, a work of Christian apologetics. (If you’re exceedingly curious — and patient — my friend and colleague Neil Carter has a number of posts responding to the book, and my friend Steve Shives has an entire series of videos on it.)
The award that Princeton was going to give Keller is the Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life, named for a Dutch Calvinist. While the award does not have to be granted to a Calvinist (Lord Jonathan Sacks was its 2010 recipient) but to anyone whose work “reflects the ideas and values characteristic of the Neo-Calvinist vision of religious engagement in matters of social, political and cultural significance in one or more of the ‘spheres’ of society,” Keller is sometimes characterized as a “neo-Calvinist,” so this seems like a fairly natural fit.
So what gives?
As PTS President Craig Barnes explained in an E-mail to students and faculty, a number of objections were raised to Keller receiving the award, most notably that Keller is a leader in the conservative Presbyterian Church in America, which opposes the ordination of women and LGBT rights. (PTS is actually a Presbyterian seminary but is affiliated with the more liberal Presbyterian Church (USA). If it’s feeling a bit like this to you, you’re not alone.)
Giving an award to Keller, these detractors argued, could be seen as an endorsement of the Presbyterian Church in America’s complementarian and anti-LGBT doctrines, and ultimately Barnes agreed and (apparently with the consultation of Keller himself) decided to rescind the honor, not award the Kuyper Prize at all this year, and still have Keller give the lecture that accompanies the prize.
Which brings me back to Merritt’s column.
Merritt here takes what is essentially a pro-free speech position, arguing that Keller shouldn’t have had the honor revoked even though he disagrees with Keller on these doctrines. His framing is particularly striking:
If you’re a conservative evangelical Christian who feels called to ministry, you’re welcome to attend Princeton Theological Seminary. But you’re not worthy of honor there. That’s the message sent by PTS’ president, Craig Barnes, today. […]
To be clear, PTS has the right to honor whomever they wish. They are not obligated to let Keller speak, much less grant him this award. Setting this aside, we must ask, “How does marginalizing Tim Keller make the world a better place?” And since we’re talking about a seminary, we might add, “How does it promote unity among disparate churches?” The answer to these questions is the same: It doesn’t. […]
If Christians like Tim Keller are unworthy of honor and deserve to be marginalized, American Christianity is in serious trouble. (emphases mine)
I have so many questions.
First, why would this decision (which retains the privilege of being a featured speaker) mean that conservative evangelicals are “not worthy of honor” at PTS? That phrasing implies a debasing, that PTS treats its conservative students and faculty as lesser than more liberal ones, but that is certainly not the implication of the revocation of the prize.
Second, in what universe does giving someone a platform (but not an award) constitute “marginalization”?
And third, how would giving Keller this award “promote unity among disparate churches”? The evidence is clear that offering it in the first place has already “sown discord” (to use a Biblical turn of phrase).
I would argue that there’s a very good reason that this decision has caused an uproar. Merritt quotes PTS alum Rev. Traci Smith making the case:
I’ll let others argue finer points of Rev. Keller’s theology. My personal soapbox is much less refined. It boils down to this: an institution designed to train men and women for ministry shouldn’t be awarding fancy prizes to someone who believes half the student body (or is it more than half?) has no business leading churches.
To which Merritt responds, missing the point:
I don’t know the makeup of the PTS student body or its views. Let’s assume that half of them disagree with Keller. What about the other half that holds to a traditional view of sexuality and gender? Should an institution designed to train men and women for ministry tell the conservative half (more than half?) of its student body that their theology makes them unworthy of honor?
This is the classic “both sides” approach, the accusation that “You’re doing just what you claim to despise.” But let’s be perfectly clear what is being said here: one side is saying, Awards should not be given to individuals who hold these bigoted views; the other is saying, You should not be allowed to pursue the vocation for which you are seeking a degree at this institution solely because of your gender or sexuality.
Well, let’s take a completely different scenario: Say that PTS had decided to give an award to a theologian who was affiliated with the Christian Identity movement, whose theology declares that non-whites cannot achieve salvation. If POC members of the Princeton community and their allies had managed to persuade the seminary to rescind the honor, would that constitute marginalization?
Of course not! This would be a clear line in the sand, and for good reason: Giving an award to such a person would be a signal to non-white students that the seminary values “free speech” over standing up for these students’ dignity and participation in the community.
Now take that a step further and assume a far more implausible situation where this happens and Christian Identity is one of the most dominant theological views in American Christianity, and you’d be closer to the situation that PTS and Keller have found themselves in.
The reality is that complementarianism and anti-LGBT views are incredibly common in American Christianity even now, although their popularity has been waning as evangelicals have been losing the culture war on these fronts.
Merritt acknowledges this but insists that this is a case of progressives simply switching roles:
As the cultural tides shift, the church is also transforming on these matters. As progressive Christians gain more cultural and religious influence, will they embody the Golden Rule and make space at the table for conservatives (as they once asked conservatives to do for them)? Or will they treat conservatives the way conservatives have treated them for years?
Though I wish it were not so, many will likely choose the latter. After all, conservatives haven’t cornered the market on fundamentalism.
I understand the desire for ecumenicalism, for a sort of fluffy go-along-to-get-along attitude that promotes unity. But the free speech argument here has a countervailing force: whether or not it is compatible with the full inclusion of certain groups.
Merritt is arguing that conservatives are excluded by having their viewpoints — not them personally! — marginalized, but this argument ignores the fact that it is these viewpoints that are exclusive by their very nature.
In the past, progressives were saying, “We think these people ought to be fully included in the life of the church,” and conservatives said “No” and kept them out. Now, progressives are still arguing for inclusion, conservatives are still refusing to concede the argument, and progressives finally wield enough influence to stick up for those actually marginalized groups. So the conservatives (and their defenders) get upset about the fact that they don’t get to make their exclusionary claims with the weight of cultural opinion on their side.
This is practically the same tune sung by every single privileged group that has seen their influence decrease. In fact, there was a notable instance of this just a few days ago in a piece at The Federalist by Owen Strachan entitled “The Alt-Right Is What Happens When Society Marginalizes Men.”
The thesis of Strachan’s piece is evident in this paragraph:
I do wonder, however, if the media has missed at least one true thing regarding the “alt-right.” The movement (if we can call it that) may often prove inchoate and even inarticulate, but behind the memes and coded language, there seems to be a massed sentiment. It is this: men feel left behind.
But Strachan never defends the thesis with anything like actual facts. He makes questionable biological arguments about testosterone and claims that men are “struggling,” but that’s it. He doesn’t even just argue that the feeling of being left behind is enough (perhaps he’s self-aware enough to realize how much that will sound like men’s feelings need to be coddled, which of course is a Very Unmanly thing to think). He says that men are marginalized.
This is nonsense. And it should be noted here as well that Strachan never argues for equality — he’s a complementarian like Keller, so he thinks that men have a natural, biological drive to lead (there’s that testosterone thing again). He doesn’t say directly what women should do, but the implication is clear: Get back in your place or the men will find a way to put you back there.
The kicker on this, though? Strachan is a professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary who also defended Keller just this week over the prize revocation. That does not strike me as accidental.
All of which goes back to something I’ve said before: Tolerance is not an absolute virtue. People like Merritt and Strachan want progressives to tolerate exclusionary theologies, but to tolerate them is to betray the very principles that allow marginalized groups to be a part of the community. What Merritt calls a “litmus test” is just the application of these principles. Tolerating injustice is antithetical to justice.
I get that Merritt doesn’t want to vilify Keller, that he wants to see Christians he disagrees with not as “extremists” or “bigots” or indeed hateful at all. But the lesson here for Merritt and those who want to defend this “Love the sinner, hate the sin” kind of tolerance is that “mutual goodwill” means very little when the person you claim to love is suffering under the weight of your boot.
And if someone demands that you take your boot off their neck, that isn’t marginalization.
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Screenshot via YouTube