The tribal gatekeepers of white evangelicalism are exhausting. If there were any plausible way to argue that they were acting in good faith rather than just smarmily pursuing raw power, then perhaps they’d be worthy of more than snark. But pretending they’re behaving in good faith just requires that we ignore far too much that is far too evident.
Still, kudos to Tony Jones for patiently trying to address the purported substance of the gatekeepers’ perpetual complaint. In “Can You Be Pro-Gay and Stay Evangelical? Yes … and No” Tony looks at the way that word “evangelical” is used both as a descriptive label for a particular strain of Protestant Christianity and also as a tribal boundary in the power games of tribal warlords who want to silence all dissent by delegitimizing anyone who might question their authority. It’s a helpful, if depressingly familiar, overview of this perennial problem.
Tony’s post focuses on what I hesitate to call the most recent assertion of tribal authority by the gatekeepers — it’s a very recent story, but it’s two days old at this point, so folks like Al Mohler and Russell Moore may have already moved on to slap down some other uppity Christians who have dared to question their tribal authority on some other topic. But anyway, Tony writes about the gatekeepers’ response to a Daily Beast piece posted Sunday regarding the anti-gay legislation being considered in Arizona, Kansas and other states. The piece, “Conservative Christians Selectively Apply Biblical Teachings in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate,” is by Jonathan Merrit and Kirsten Powers.
If “evangelical” is to have any meaning or use as a descriptive term for a particular kind of Protestantism, then Merritt and Powers would clearly, obviously and easily fit that term. They are born-again American Christians whose faith is characterized by all the attributes that scholars of religion describe as evangelical. They’re not Catholic and they’re not mainline Protestant. They’re evangelicals.
Ah, but there in the Daily Beast, they have dared to say things that the gatekeepers have decreed it is forbidden for evangelicals to say. What if someone listens to them? The gatekeepers must keep that from happening, and so they rush to de-legitimize Merritt and Powers, to anathematize them, decreeing that they are outsiders, not part of the tribe, no one that good, loyal members of the tribe should ever listen to. The gatekeepers’ response is thus swift and definitive: Merritt and Powers are not evangelicals, they say, not Real, True Christians.
Here’s where Tony’s post is helpful:
Merritt and Powers are true blue evangelicals.
But we’d be naive not to acknowledge that there’s another working definition of evangelicalism at play. That’s a cultural definition, and it swirls less around theology and more around brands: Christianity Today, James Dobson, contemporary Christian music, Christian colleges, and Republican politics. Jim Wallis can jump up and down all day, screaming, “I’m an evangelical!,” and Russell Moore and Al Mohler will calmly say, “No you’re not.” Or, they might quote Jerry Falwell, who once told Jim that he was “as much an evangelical as an oak tree.”
The example of Jim Wallis is particularly useful. The gatekeepers may hate him, but despite decades of trying, they’ve never been able to expel him from the tribe. That’s because Jim has scrupulously followed the letter of the law and never strayed from the essential core of the tribal “definition” of a Real, True evangelical.
He’s a white Protestant who thinks abortion should be illegal.
And no matter how much it rankles the tribal gatekeepers that Wallis is still somehow permitted to claim the word, that means they cannot expel him from the tribe. That is the trinity — the tribal trilateral that trumps the Bebbington quadrilateral and every other attempt to define “evangelical” as a theological or ecclesial category. White. Protestant. Anti-abortion.
Tribal gatekeepers, of course, maintain a very long, ever-evolving list of other official, proper “stances” that Real, True evangelicals must affirm on a multitude of subjects. Even the slightest deviation from the official stance is severely discouraged on all of those topics, but I don’t think any of them is mandatory in quite the same way that being anti-abortion is. One can believe in evolution and an ancient universe while remaining a member in good standing of the evangelical tribe. One can dance and drink beer and remain within the tribe. One can perhaps even be (somewhat) “pro-gay” and be permitted to remain within the bounds of the tribe — although that would probably require that one also be particularly vehement in demanding the criminalization of abortion.
As a tribal signifier, abortion is distinct in two ways. First, as we just discussed, it’s an immediate, irrevocable deal-breaker in a way that nothing else is. And, second, unlike all those other tribal signifiers, it stands by itself rather than acting as a vicarious symbol expressing a particular view of the Bible. White evangelical opposition to abortion is an odd accident of history — a partisan political variable adopted about 35 years ago that did not serve as a stand-in for a particular white American hermeneutic.
That’s what all those other tribal signifiers, past and present, tend to be — short-hand substitutes for the clobber-text hermeneutic of white American Christianity. Whether it’s the currently ascendent tribal marker of being anti-gay, or if it’s the tribal marker of young-Earth creationism, or if it’s the rapidly fading tribal marker of teetotalism, all of those things weren’t so much about the things themselves, but were, rather, ways of shouting, “But what about the Bible?” They were ways of demonstrating one’s allegiance to what tribal gatekeepers called “the authority of the scriptures.”
Which is to say, the authority of the scriptures as interpreted by the tribal gatekeepers. Which is to say, ultimately, the authority of the tribal gatekeepers themselves. Because this idea of “the authority of the scriptures” isn’t really about whether or not the Bible itself is actually anti-alcohol or anti-science or anti-gay. Ultimately it’s about who is allowed to say what it is that the Bible says. It’s about who is allowed to speak and to act as though they are the voice of God.
The “evangelical left” described by David Swartz and others was permitted to remain evangelical because, despite its focus on poverty and war, it tended to preserve the clobber-text hermeneutic of white evangelicalism. Folks like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider and their contemporary, neo-monastic heirs make their fellow evangelicals nervous by applying that same hermeneutic to biblical texts on wealth and poverty and violence. And they make the tribal gatekeepers particularly nervous by appealing to the authority of the scriptures in a way that undermines the authority of those gatekeepers. But they remain loyal to that hermeneutic, and thus cannot be easily expelled from the tribe.
And in any case, they’re all still white, Protestant and anti-abortion, and that’s the bottom line.