My friend Jonathan Merritt and Kirsten Powers co-penned a piece on the Daily Beast titled, “Conservative Christians Selectively Apply Biblical Teachings in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate.” Their essay, written in opposition to the Arizona legislation allowing companies to refuse service to same-sex couples on religious grounds, is fair and even-handed. In fact, if anything, it’s too safe.
They simply make the point that if a wedding photographer or cake-baker refuses to supply a same-sex wedding because it is “unbiblical,” they should similarly refuse service to other “unbiblical” marriages. Like, for instance, people like me who are divorced. Or people like you who engage in unnatural sex acts.
Merritt and Powers don’t even get into the extended argument that Lydia surely sold her purple garments to non-Christians in Thyatira. Even if she’d put a fish on her business card, there weren’t enough Christians in her town to make a living if she’d exclusively catered to fellow believers.
Evangelicals have lashed out at Merritt and Powers, including Russell Moore and Albert Mohler (hereafter, Moorohler). It matters not that Merritt and Powers’s argument is so supremely superior to Moorohler’s — anyone with a modicum of intellect can see that. Merritt and Powers present an airtight argument. It’s a stupid law, as most anyone can see, and it surely isn’t defensible by any biblical argument.
But what I’m more interested in is the politics of the backlash.
Rather than admitting that the law is bad, motivated by fear, not really solving anything, and backed by one of the craziest governors in the country, Moorohler would rather dig in their heels and throw punches at Merritt and Powers. Rather than once, just once, publicly acknowledging that the Religious Right has jumped the shark, Moorohler do theological gymnastics to defend the idiotic legislation.
What’s really at stake here for Moorohler (though not for Merritt and Powers) is the definition of “evangelical.” Both Merritt and Powers have impeccable evangelical credentials, and, more importantly, they claim to be evangelical. But by the lights of Moorohler, they’re not. Why? Not because they affirm gay marriage. Not because they affirm gay ordination. Because they stand against discrimination.
I regularly equate the fight for gay rights with the fight for civil rights. It’s not a one-to-one correlation, but there are enough similarities to make the case. Conservatives regularly disagree with me, saying it’s apples and oranges. But when states attempt to enshrine discrimination in law, the parallels are all too clear.
Contra Moorohler, one’s evangelical credentials do not rise and fall on toeing the line on gay rights, or the lack thereof. Evangelicalism is a theological stance, not a political one. As Scot McKnight has repeatedly stated, quoting David Bebbington, the four marks of evangelicalism are conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. By this rubric, I’m quite sure that 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 Moorohler 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.”
If we’re honest, we can acknowledge that “evangelical” is an empty signifier. The term is up for grabs. Some (McKnight) see it as a theological category; others (Moorohler) consider it a cultural/political category. The media tends toward the latter definition since they have a tin ear for theological nuance. And, as long as the term has no agreed-upon meaning, we will be trapped in arguments of incommensurability.
So, the next time someone accuses you of not being evangelical, don’t get your undies in a bunch. Just realize that they’re using the word in a completely different way than you are.