If anything could be said to define modern evangelicals in a nutshell, it’s the term “out of touch.” During the worst of the flooding of Hurricane Harvey, a bunch of them came together in what they said was “A Coalition for Biblical Sexuality” to release something they called “the Nashville Statement.” This re-issuing of already-well-known opinions won’t surprise anybody who’s been around evangelicals for longer than three minutes. But in its release, its timing, and its true purpose, we see something important happening to Christianity as a whole–and in American culture too.
The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) met in Nashville, Tennessee in late August. They were extremely alarmed by the developments they had been seeing in their end of Christianity, and they felt that it was important to put their collective foot down to answer these oh-so-pressing questions.
One of those questions must have been what they ought to call the results of their meeting. I’m sure it wasn’t a very long-discussed question, though, because we’re talking about Christians who seriously think that anything they do or think religion-wise is “biblical,” which means that it comes straight from the Bible itself with nothing whatsoever changed, “not one jot or tittle.” (You snerk, you lose!)
So obviously they were going to use the naming convention of the previous great meetings of the Christian minds of the past.
Denny Burk is the president of the CBMW and a past dean of Boyce College, which is part of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky, all of which means he’s stuck so far up into the SBC that when they cough they smell his hair product. He’s also the guy who pompously declared that the textual diarrhea that his group ultimately devised was to be called “the Nashville Statement.” You know, just like the Nicene Creed came from the city of Nicaea and the Chalcedonian Definition came from Chalcedon. Yes, because that’s exactly what the CBMW’s statement was like. (/s)
One wonders just how hard Catholics and Orthodox Christians snerked when they saw him comparing what his group had created to those momentous councils of long ago. It just sounds so arrogant of Burk to even try to compare this statement to those other ones, but in this at least he is in good company. Protestant groups have been doing it for a while, as he points out himself.
Naturally, nobody on the team asked anyone official in Nashville if they minded their city getting dragged into this spectacularly disastrous show of the very worst elements of Christianity.
Immediately, the mayor of Nashville pushed back against the CBMW’s decision to call their statement “the Nashville Statement,” sharply chiding them with a tweet declaring that it “does not represent the inclusive values of the city & people of Nashville.” Some residents also put together what they call “the Accurate Nashville Statement” instead, which rejects the CBMW’s own statement.
So gang, please forgive me, but I ain’t calling it “the Nashville Statement.” I know it’s the official name given to it by its creators, but I agree wholly with Mayor Megan Barry on this one: I’ve hung out in Nashville enough that I know it’s not a stronghold of fundagelical bigotry-for-Jesus. The only reason her town got stuck holding the hateful-Christian bag is very likely that Nashville simply had better convention rates for groups than other neighboring towns–and “the Larry Dawg’s Starlite Motel Statement” sounded silly even by Christian standards. I will be referring to this document as “the CBMW’s statement” instead–and you’ll see why my decision turns out to be ironic in a few minutes, I suspect. (You can call it whatever you want in comments, of course. I won’t mind.)
The timing of the release of the CBMW’s statement tells us quite a lot about the people who created and signed off on it. It was released August 29, 2017, right when Texas was dealing with the worst of Hurricane Harvey’s wrath. People were crying for rescue from floods and homes were being destroyed (my own sister missed losing her house by a few feet, and that’s not an exaggeration). It has rightly been called one of the most expensive disasters that’s ever hit the United States, and that’s not even counting the destruction it’d already wreaked elsewhere.
Nobody would have faulted the CBMW for waiting a few days, especially since their grand statement literally said absolutely nothing that its creators hadn’t been saying for decades. But oh no: all those dozens of fundagelical bigots-for-Jesus couldn’t wait for things to quiet down a bit. They had this thing to say, and they didn’t care who was dying or whose livelihoods and homes were being destroyed because they were gonna say it.
There’s also the matter of this statement being issued after a year’s worth of President Donald Trump, as we’ll see in a few minutes here. But mostly it seems like it was the hurricane that bothered people.
The Real Reason.
Denny Burk, who is the president of the CBMW (itself vaguely associated with the Southern Baptist Convention group the ERLC, which hilariously bills itself as being totally concerned with ethics), reveals why he actually wanted to issue the CBMW’s statement to begin with. He says he thought that his tribe needed “to come together to produce a new statement of conviction concerning these current challenges.”
The problem is, it’s not a new statement at all. Burk is telling a lil porkie pie here!
In reality, the document is absolutely nothing but a re-statement of fundagelicalism’s culture wars against women’s rights, LGBTQ people, marriage, science, and sex. It’s stuff I was hearing in milder form as far back in 1986. And the “challenges” may well refer to the habit of fundagelical leaders of standing on the exact wrong side of history on every single social stance and lagging about 50 years behind the rest of the country on civil rights issues. No doubt it is challenging to hang onto one’s bigotry, racism, and misogyny in the face of rapid cultural progress!
But Denny Burk is upset that some people are (LE GASP!!!) calling themselves “evangelical” while still supporting women’s rights, working to end racism, and fully accepting and including LGBTQ people in their churches. He’s in a total dither over the whole thing. He thinks that it’s high time to issue a shrill warning to his tribe to hold the line on their culture-war topics.
So the CBMW’s statement is really simply their version of the Creationist Wedge Document: a blueprint for how they plan to proceed in the next few years, and what they’re going to be emphasizing.
But there’s another and darker reason for the statement to be issued:
Fundagelicals are very fond of policing the label Christian and deciding who gets to use it and who doesn’t. The CBMW’s statement attempts to seize the right for its supporters to decide who gets to call themselves Christian at all. And this power grab was recognized very well by both the tribe itself and those who oppose it. One fundagelical declared that any rejection of the statement itself constituted a “rejection of the Bible.” (It’s soooo weird that a group that loves to talk about the idolatry of non-fundagelicals commits that sin so often themselves.)
Christians also noticed quickly that that kind of wording amounts to an implicit threat of Hell for anybody who disagrees with the document’s contents, as well.
The First Problem in the Document: The Omissions.
The signatures on this travesty are all from people just like Denny Burk. That’s probably why there is not one word in the document about divorce or adultery,1 though those two things are probably way more common in Christianity (not to mention explicitly covered in the Bible itself, unlike the stuff the document talks about). The tribe that idolizes the Bible and thinks they follow its every word–except the inconvenient bits, of course–somehow decided years ago that divorce and adultery were fine, as long as powerful men were involved and the scandals involved someone of the opposite sex.
Even William Lane Craig, who is one of its signers as well as being a professional liar-for-Jesus, totally missed that glaring oversight. But we shouldn’t be surprised by such self-serving tunnel vision. He’s the guy who famously declared that in one of the big genocides the early Hebrews committed, the real victims here were the Hebrews who got commanded by their god to murder innocent women and children. He said the CBMW’s statement was “fair; it was irenic; it was clear and well-thought through,” and so his conscience was completely unbothered by the idea of signing his name to it.
Must be nice to belong to none of the groups that the statement marginalized, persecuted, denigrated and slotted for second-class citizenship, but then, most of the signers are in a similarly privileged situation. Even the few women allowed into the clubroom had to hew closely to the fundagelical party line–like Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, who is vehemently anti-feminist.
The Second: Putting the Cart Before the Fundagelicals.
Denny Burk’s group began in 1987 specifically to fight feminism. But now he thinks they have another and even more pressing problem besides mission drift in that end of the religion: evangelical churn.
As we’ve been discussing off and on for a couple of years now, evangelical churn means the rate at which evangelicals are leaving their various right-wing religious groups and not returning. And if Denny Burk’s not worried about this topic, then he’s a fool as well as a sexist bigot.
As it stands, one of the biggest drivers of evangelical churn is the treatment by right-wing Christians of marginalized groups like LGBTQ people (as well as people of color [POC] and women). Science denial is another driver of churn–as is increased politicization.
The CBMW’s statement not only does not address any of those drivers, it contributes to every one of them. There were several Creationist jabs in the document, as well as that insistence on hierarchy that marks Dominionists and racist Christians alike. Indeed, Creationism is also linked to both bigotry and misogyny, as Jonny Scaramanga deftly explains here.2Creationism also leads to a very classist mentality–it feeds into the fundagelical love of the Just World hypothesis wherein everybody gets what they deserve, meaning that people are rich and healthy because “God” blessed them. Conversely, the poor and sick deserve to be so. That exact classism might be responsible for why evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump: he was their id given form, their deepest fantasies granted a shape and voice–and the promise of untold power to finally trample their worst enemies.
The CBMW’s statement is written with the perfect fundagelical in mind, not for outsiders who’d rightly criticize the results. It’s meant to allay fundagelical fears that their various groups will be moving away from cruelty and disenfranchisement. If you’ve ever heard of authoritarian followers, that’s exactly what I’m talking about here.3 The people responsible for the CBMW’s statement are focusing on creating more hatred and exclusion in the pews, not on healing the very deep wounds and rifts in the church body caused by hatred and exclusion.
To put the matter simply, the modern world is moving further and further away from all of those ingredients–especially young people, who are more likely to reject such stances than any other age group even in fundagelical groups. It’s mystifying to see fundagelical leaders keep pushing for their followers to engage in more personal evangelism (that’s Christianese for one-on-one evangelism rather than a Christian preaching to a crowd) considering how badly they’re hobbling their salespeople by giving them an increasingly undesirable product to sell.
But you won’t find a lot of talk about evangelism in the CBMW’s statement. In fact, the Great Commission appears totally absent–along with the Great Command. They’re not even worried about the document’s impact on retention.
I’ve long accused evangelicals of not caring about all the boring stuff Jesus told Christians to do like feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and all that, but this document may well represent the exact moment when movement evangelicalism stopped caring entirely about not only that stuff but also, um, well, evangelism itself to become more of a regressive jingoistic political identity movement loosely based around the mythology of Christianity.
An Unsurprising Attack.
The CBMW’s statement is a nauseating document in every single way, coming down hard on any orientation save hetero, every gender identity except cis, and every single expression of self except the hardline kind of sexism-as-the-bonus-plan that fundagelicals like best.
In Article 1 they kick off the party by declaring that a marriage must be not only hetero but procreative, but they only mean that same-sex couples don’t qualify (you will only rarely see a fundagelical insist that marriage is off-limits to opposite-sex couples who can’t procreate, and even more rarely a bigot-for-Jesus who is aware that same-sex couples can and do have children). They insist that marriage should be “lifelong” but do not once directly address the epidemic of divorces in their tribe. No, they’re just here to attack same-sex couples, feminists, and LGBTQ folks.
But they’re also here to attack Christians who don’t have a problem with same-sex couples, feminists, and LGBTQ folks.
In this statement, the CBMW and its supporters are trying to circle the wagons around their own particular and wackadoodle definition of Christianity–and to deny that label to anybody who doesn’t agree. They’re drawing their line in the sand about what they believe, but they’re foreshadowing the misdeeds and cruelties they’re going to commit in the name of their religion against the groups they hate and marginalize, a group they are explicitly declaring to include dissenting Christians.
Several of the articles in the statement attack Christians who don’t loudly show disapproval of all the stuff fundagelicals love to hate–in effect telling readers that far from accepting that they seriously erred in allowing themselves to become so overtly hateful and nasty, they’re just getting started and can someone hold their beer so they can really do it right.
As an example, the phrase “speak the truth in love” in article 11 is unfiltered Christianese. It means to loudly and vocally harass and persecute people that the fundagelical hates, as long as it’s done with a simpering Jesus smile. “Approve” in this article, too, is a Christianese callback to the idea of condoning sin, which is what fundagelicals call not interfering with other people as they go about their business. They seriously think it’s wrong to treat all people equally and with civility and dignity.
Worse, they think their opinions should matter to the people they’re abusing and trying to control. What is really making them furious could well come down to their growing awareness of how little their opinions are starting to matter to others.
The CBMW is also demanding that Christians refuse to use the pronouns or new names that transgender people ask them to use. Likely this article came about because of growing support for doing exactly that kindness to folks who are transitioning. In a post from the Gospel Coalition’s site (and, well, every other site that fundagelicals consider valid news sources), Christians were freaking out over a notification sent to public schools recently about using correct pronouns and names–and warning teachers that refusing to do so might be a transgression of the law. Fundagelicals have decided that this courtesy amounts to the government demanding that they sin against their god.
Denny Burk himself is very proud of coming down on the side of dead-naming vulnerable and innocent transgender schoolchildren. This is a mindset directly responsible for a number of trans kids’ suicides, such as Leelah Alcorn, whose fundagelical parents could not, even in her death, refer to her as their daughter or use her chosen name. These bigots would literally rather have kids kill themselves than treat those kids (and adults for that matter) with grace, love, and compassion.
And that in a sentence defines the CBMW’s statement, really. For a group obsessed with fruit inspection, they sure have some disgustingly rotten ones.
The Glorious Response.
Most folks did not approve at all of the CBMW’s statement, any more than they’d approved of the timing of it or the name of it, and they made their displeasure crystal-clear. It’s actually beautiful to see how loudly decent people criticized it. I know Denny Burk expected controversy, but it’s hard to fathom that he thought it’d be this concerted or powerful.
As mentioned already, the actual town of Nashville was deeply unhappy about being made part of this manifesto without their consent (like fundagelicals understand consent anyway, amirite?), but the response went so much further than just Nashville. It’s like the whole country decided en masse that this was a great time to tell fundagelicals exactly how evil they are and affirm our rejection of them and their broken system.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, a progressive Christian pastor, released a counter to the CBMW’s statement that she calls the Denver Statement. In her revised statement, the Christian god affirms only love and inclusion, not bigotry or misogyny of any kind. Her vision of an endlessly loving god who refuses to be confined by mortal language will likely make fundagelicals’ heads explode, but it’s a lot closer to the kind of transcendent, loving, merciful, compassionate god that most Christians seem to carry around in their heads than it is to fundagelicals’ narrow-minded, meddling, fusty little provincial godling screeching and flailing his bloody fists at the first sign of disobedience in his ant farm. And it’s encouraging to see that so many Christians have a sense of decency and morality that far surpasses what we see in the Bible, much less what we see of those traits in the people who most idolize the Bible.
Another Christian tweeted that the CBMW’s “theology breeds death,” which I’d sure agree with, and Twitter itself erupted into similar criticisms. Of course, the CBMW itself has so completely warped and twisted the meanings of words like love and respect that they don’t understand how wrong they are or comprehend the real reason they are being criticized. The Wartburg Watch had some extremely interesting things to say about why the CBMW’s statement would not actually work out well for them, which we’ll take up next time because I’m feeling guilty about how long this post is already.
Not even all evangelicals were happy with the CBMW’s statement, however, particularly in light of their group’s overall and overwhelming support of Donald Trump. That support made the CBMW’s manifesto look a lot less like a principled stand against the encroachment of what they saw as immorality and a lot more like a self-serving attempt to grab back the power they’d already lost. It was like they were saying that immorality was fine if it suited them, but if they didn’t like it then obviously it was bad and had to be opposed. In that link, you can read about an pastor lamenting that evangelicals had “squandered” any right they ever had to tell anybody how to live after supporting Donald Trump, going on to say
It’s difficult to imagine what the authors of the statement hoped to accomplish given the cultural climate and social media realities. . . If their goal was to … open minds to biblical teaching, they miscalculated spectacularly.
(That Washington Post link, by the way, also has a hilarious picture of a bunch of fundagelicals squinching up their preacher eyebrows and mournfully, solemnly, self-importantly muttering at the ceiling around Donald Trump while crowding around him and putting their grabby, bejeweled hands on him like he’s a circus walrus that they all need to pet personally, since that’s how the magic spell works best. It’s one of the funniest Christian photos I’ve ever seen as well as perfectly illustrative of what preacher eyebrows look like.)
Why It is Epic Failure.
Denny Burk and his group, in essence, decided that it was so important that they release this statement that it didn’t matter at all that his tribemates had just faced huge backlash for supporting Donald Trump. It didn’t matter, either, that the country was in the smack middle of a natural disaster. They had the overweening arrogance to step in the middle of way more important national concerns to say, in effect, Hold on, y’all, we just want to make sure that y’all know that we are still hopelessly outdated bigots and sexists who don’t care if children kill themselves to escape our intolerance and harassment.
And the awesomest part of all about the whole incident is that the rest of us took them at their word.
The manifesto sparked a lot of dialogue about intolerance–a dialogue that left the bass-ackward fundagelicals responsible for the CBMW’s statement behind in the dust. Jen Hatmaker, an affirming Christian, spoke for thousands of other Twitter users when she called the statement’s timing “callous beyond words” as well as declaring that its “fruit” was only “suffering, rejection, shame, and despair.” I saw others decide in realtime to reject the label of evangelical because they’d finally come to grips with how tainted it was by hatred–and more than a few of them are probably going to be writing ex-timonies somewhere soon.
So that’s how the CBMW’s statement went down. It was a catastrophically poorly-timed and weirdly-written manifesto making demands that even evangelicals couldn’t universally support and then it was categorically rejected by pretty much everybody in America except the most die-hard bigots-for-Jesus.
But hey, at least its creators can take comfort in the knowledge that their misshapen brainchild might just turn out to figure prominently in the story of how evangelicals in America became totally irrelevant.
Join us next time as we do a profit/loss statement of souls with the Wartburg Watch.
1 I follow the Commandments of Coyote regarding divorce and adultery. I’m citing these two omissions in the CBMW statement purely because they think both are sinful, not because I think they are.
2 I may be cool, but I will never be as cool as the name “Jonny Scaramanga.” He writes a lot about Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) as well, and he’s the co-author of that paper we recently discussed about that topic.
3 Here is the link to Bob Altemeyer’s book, The Authoritarians. It’s a must-read for anybody seeking to understand fundagelicals and their leaders.