Hot Button Issues and Theological Polarization

Over Duke’s Call & Response Blog, sociologist Mark Chaves has posted an interesting graph and some reflections on it.  American politics has become more polarized of late, and sociologists attribute that not to a change a people’s viewpoints, but to the fact that the two political parties have placed hot button issues at the center of their agendas, thus forcing the electorate to once side or another.

Chaves wondered if, in the three mainline denominations dealing with homosexuality, the same thing was happening.  And, sure enough, it is.

Chaves writes,

In short, it seems that in the Episcopal Church, the PC(USA), and the ELCA, churches that lean in the conservative direction on homosexuality may have been pushed by national developments within these denominations to declare themselves to be more theologically conservative, even though their views may not have become more conservative over the last decade. If people within a denomination now are more likely to sort themselves into congregations based on those congregations’ stand on homosexuality, this could produce fewer churches with theologically middle-of-the-road identities. If churches are forced to choose sides on an issue, people will be more likely to choose churches based on which side they are on.

This seems a very reasonable conclusion to draw.

For me, that produces some sadness.  The church in which I was reared, and then served for seven years, was a yellow church.  “We’re centrist,” I heard from the pulpit several times when I was a pastor there, “Not the mushy middle, but centered on Christ and not thrown off course by one theological topic or another.”  And yet, I know that the pastor who preached that and the one who followed him were both asked the litmus test question, “What do you think about gays?” during the interview process.

That church is, once again, searching for a senior minister.  And, if Chaves is right about there being less centrist mainline churches, I bet there are also less centrist clergy candidates from which to choose.

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  • Jesse

    This is an old thread on Wondercafe, but dealing with the same sort of thing –

    I don’t believe ‘orthodox’ or ‘conservative’ churches have a monopoly on litmus testing . . . in fact I’m almost positive that it happens right across the spectrum. I would be surprised if homosexuality wasn’t a litmus test for liberal churches as well… although they would be looking for a different result.

  • I would agree with you and say that the reason that there are less centrist clergy candidates from which to choose is because there are just less clergy candidates from which to choose because I think more and more people are feeling boxed in by these 2 or 3 issues that are taking so much of the mainline church’s attention, so they just opt out of the denomination all together and start their own church (church planting is in full bloom and I think will continue) or join non-denominational ones. now I don’t have stats to back this up, just my initial thinking.

  • At a deeper level, it’s not an ethical divide about moral realities but an epistemic divide regarding humankind’s access to truth, naive realisms manifesting as sola scriptura (e.g. whether Bible or Koran) or solum magisterium (e.g. whether scientism or religious hierarchicalism) versus critical realism.

    The more apodictic certainty invested in one’s IS, the more normative impetus given to one’s OUGHT. However, our deontology should be as tentative as our ontology is speculative? It’s an impoverished anthropology that gives rise to either the epistemic hubris of the fundamentalists (Enlightenment scientism as well as religious fideism) or the excessive epistemic humility of the radically deconstructive postmodernists. Where’s Goldilocks when you need her?

    At an even deeper level, the problem is thinking that religion has more to do with morality than recognizing & realizing our imago Dei.

    Finally, modernISM and postmodernISM dis-enchanted reality and people are desperately seeking re-enchantment vehicles, which leads to traditionalism, absolutism, authoritarianism and other foundationalisms. What’s uncanny is how all of these foundationalists don’t see the sad irony in the fact that they’re all appealing to otherwise incommensurate foundations (Bible, Koran, Authority, Methods elevated to Systems) with no way to successfully adjudicate between each others’ otherwise disparate appeals. The only thing these fundamentalistic foundationalists have in common is the tenacity with which they hold their opinions and their willingness to coerce others’ compliance.

    Re-enchantment is ours as dichotomies like natural and supernatural, immanent and transcendent, secular and sacred, material and spiritual dissolve, when we quit locating God in metaphysical gaps and searching for divine causal joints in philosophies of mind and quantum realities. In my view, it’s ALL supernatural. Of course, I might be wrong. But it’s an eminently plausible (equiplausible vis a vis competing interpretations) and existentially actionable, which is to say both extrinsically and intrinsically rewarding. How to make it more compelling? I defer to St. Francis and his ilk.

  • We are all fundamentalists. We all have our foundational presuppositions or lens through which we see the world and base our decisions and values. For some of us, our fundamentalism is a matter of “inclusiveness,” for others, “social justice” or “faithfulness to God” through adherence to a certain revelation.

    Whatever our fundamentals, these determine the course of our lives and the people with whom we affiliate. Unsurprisingly, we ALL are deeply concerned about potential friends and colleagues and to which fundamentals they adhere. Likewise, the Christian wants to know from where their pastor takes his/her marching orders – from traditionalism, multi-culturalism, political correctness or Scripture. From this perspective, one’s sexual orientation isn’t the most important issue in the world. However, it might serve as a good indicator about where a person is at on the more fundamental, harder to ascertain questions.

  • I do think it’s important for us to look over our shoulders at the nature of our various leaps – however we label them (foundations, presuppositions, fundamentals). For example, we want to distinguish between a theory of truth and a theory of knowledge. It is one thing to affirm the reality of transcendental imperatives like truth, beauty and goodness and quite another to claim unfettered access to same. It is one thing to believe we can reason from an is to an ought and quite another to claim an unproblematical inerrant description of an “is” leading to an indubitably infallible norming of an “ought.”

    This is more than a distinction between core and peripheral issues, essentials and accidentals. It is not just a compare and contrast of different approaches to hierarchical tiers of truth.

    Humankind, as a community of value-realizers, has moved slowly but inexorably in its advance of knowledge and other value-realizations, pragmatically cashing out the value of its paradigms and conceptualizations. We have recognized that descriptive science, normative philosophy, interpretive religion and evaluative culture are methodologically-autonomous even if otherwise axiologically-integral. Tremendous efficacies have flowed from such autonomy and grave inefficacies have resulted when such methods are conflated.

    Indeed, many hot button issues are good indicators. What they most indicate to me is who is more likely to be fideistically encroaching on science classrooms or who is more likely to be scientistically making superficial religious pronouncements, obverse sides of the same epistemically bankrupt coin of methodological conflations. It indicates who is more likely to come into the public square translating one’s metaphysical and religious stances into compelling moral arguments that can be understood apart from special divine revelation and who is otherwise attempting mere theocratic coercion.

    It tells me that, sometimes, the failure to successfully translate some religiously-derived moral intuitions results only from the fact that certain of those intuitions are simply indefensible, anthropologically (descriptive science) and morally (normative philosophy). It tells me that some folks are more concerned with the form of the law with no serious consideration for its substance, which is to recognize that questions of jurisprudence often get short shrift with very little concern for whether or not a law will be either enforceable or will effectively bring about its desired aim or possibly be even counterproductive.

    The crucible of human experience adjudicates between the perils and the opportunities of one epistemic outlook or another and fundamentalistic theocratic and secularistic urges, while differing in degree from place to place, are inevitably insidious and horribly pernicious.

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