January 25, 2018

Several years I had a long conversation over Facebook messenger with a man who identifies as both Catholic and pro-life. The topic? Abortion. I sought to convince this individual not that abortion was morally justifiable, but instead that there were more effective ways to decrease the number of abortions performed—while supporting mothers and babies—than simply banning abortion.

At one point in the conversation, I argued that decreasing the stigma placed on single mothers could play a role in reducing the number of abortions. He was genuinely horrified, and told me that he believed there wasn’t enough stigma on single mothers—that that was part of the problem. Let me ask you this—if you were single and pregnant, would you be more likely to consider getting an abortion in a society that stigmatized and isolated single mothers, or one that accepted and embraced single mothers?

The fundamental problem, of course, is that the individual I was arguing with was not motivated merely by a desire to end abortion. He was also motivated by a desire to cut down on things he considered sexual immorality. I argued that accepting and supporting single mothers would lead to more single women carrying unplanned pregnancies to term. His argument, presumably, was that stigmatizing and judging single mothers would lead to more single women not having immoral sex outside of wedlock.

His approach has a price tag. Stigmatized single mothers do not suffer alone—their children suffer too. The price tag shows up in other ways—in hastily aborted pregnancies, and, traditionally, in women forced to give up babies for adoption, to be given to “better” families. All of this price my opponent was willing to pay, if it only would mean fewer women having immoral premarital sex.

You could argue that this was really about abortion, and not about wanting to prevent women from having immoral sex, as fewer women having premarital sex would mean fewer abortions, but that ignores two things—reality, and birth control. Some women have always become pregnant out of wedlock, regardless of the stigma against single parents; trying to control the sexual behavior of millions of women is simply not realistic. Furthermore, there are ways to interrupt the connection between “immoral” sexual behavior; promoting birth control access and use is a far more reliable solution than reinstituting or increasing social shame.

Curious to what extent my opponent is typical, I came upon this argument in a 2010 article by Robert Sirico, also Catholic, published by the Acton Institute, a right-wing think tank:

In a peculiar ideological twist, some opponents of abortion are opposing cuts in aid to single mothers. Many prolifers including National Right to Life, fear that such reductions in benefits will lead to an increase in abortions. Even Henry Hyde has joined Patricia Shroeder in being skeptical of welfare reform.

If this argument persuades, it could weaken ties between the Republican party and the anti-abortion movement.

Welfare reform, first passed in 1996, was up for reauthorization in 2010, but I cannot find anything National Right to Life opposing it. Sirico’s use of the names Patricia Shroeder (famous for opposing welfare reform in 1996) and Henry Hyde (famous for the Hyde Amendment, which blocks federal funding for abortions) is not a reference not to actions of individuals (Shroeder left politics in the late 1990s and Hyde died in 2007).

Given similarity of the anti-abortion group Feminists for Life’s slogan—“women deserve better than abortion”—to the Acton Institute article’s title—“Single Mothers Deserve Better”—and the existence of a 2010 NPR spot in which Feminists for Life opposed welfare reform, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that Sirico was referring to this group’s positions (perhaps he heard the NPR spot) and not to a greater pro-welfare movement within the mainstream of the anti-abortion movement (because I can’t find one).

How does Sirico respond to the pro-welfare arguments made by Feminists for Life?

But is their concern legitimate? Should we continue to subsidize single motherhood for fear that poor mothers might otherwise terminate their pregnancies? The answer is no on both counts.

State subsidies to single mothers encourage promiscuity. The point of removing the subsidies is to restore the natural penalties of risking pregnancy outside of marriage.

A National Bureau of Economic Research study demonstrates that a lack of funds is a reason why many women do not get abortions.

How can we be sure, once welfare is cut back, that promiscuity among the poor will decline? We cannot. But there is good reason to think it will.


State subsidies to single mothers encourage promiscuity.

Consider the claim being made here—that if single mothers didn’t have access to welfare, unmarried low-income women would not have sex. I’m having trouble picturing that. In pursuit of this, Sirico calls for restoring “the natural penalties of risking pregnancy outside of marriage.” Those natural penalties included poverty, struggle, and social inclusion—and they never fell on the woman alone. They also fell on her child.

If you wanted evidence that there are pro-lifers out there who care more about controlling women’s sexual behavior than they do about children, you need look no further.

As for Sirico’s claim that many women do not get abortions due to lack of funds, let me point out that raising a child costs a lot more than having an abortion. If a woman is faced with the potential of raising a child alone with no government assistance—as Sirico argues—scraping together enough money for an abortion (borrowing from friends, etc.) becomes only more important. Sirico suggests that if we can keep women poor enough they won’t be able to scrape together that money, leaving them to raise a child in even more dire poverty.

What kind of twisted logic is this?

Sirico claims that if we get rid of welfare people will donate more to charity and the private sphere can help women in these situations. This ignores the exact moralizing he is doing here. Seeking help from such as Sirico would almost certainly mean being shamed, blamed, and mistreated.

If abortion opponents’ only concern were preventing abortions, supporting and destigmatizing single mothers would seem a natural step. Yet this is frequently not the case. This is baffling, because this piece of the puzzle seems so simple and obvious. One would think that, for abortion opponents, concern about sexual morality would take backseat to the literal murder of babies, which is after all what they argue abortion is. And yet for many—including Sirico and the man I spent so long arguing with over Facebook messenger—it does not.

Some abortion opponents, of course, argue that the solution is not a reduction of stigma but a promotion of adoption. “The pro-life movement has long promoted adoption as an alternative for single mothers facing crisis pregnancy situations, offering them a viable alternative to abortion,” reads National Right to Life’s News Today. But what of the single mother who does not want to give up her baby?

The worst part of my hours-long Facebook messenger arguments with the Catholic man who argued that single mothers should face more stigma, not less? He has two daughters. I’m reminded of a woman I counseled while volunteering at Planned Parenthood who told me that she would like to keep her baby, but that if she did her father would kick her out, and she couldn’t afford to live on her own.

I have a Patreon! Please support my writing!

November 7, 2017

Evangelicals have been working to gain political influence in a visible way since the 1970s. They made some progress under Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II, gaining considerable influence in the House in between. But in a strange twist of fate, evangelicals seem to be gaining their greatest influence yet under the presidency of a billionaire philanderer.

When Beverly LaHaye founded Concerned Women for America in 1979, the organization positioned itself as an outsider. No longer.

As Feministing reports:

Trump intends to nominate a woman named Penny Young Nance as ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues. As such, she’d be responsible for managing the State Department’s programs to fight gender-based violence and promote women and girls’ educational and economic achievement.

Here’s the problem: Penny Young Nance has made her career standing in the way of girls’ and women’s rights.

Nance is the President and CEO of Concerned Women For America (CWA), an organization whose mission statement says it “protects and promotes Biblical values and Constitutional principles” in America.

Penny Nance, CEO of Concerned Women for America, ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues. I’m not sure there’s much that better incapsulates the backwards nature of these appointments—except perhaps Betsy DeVos. Appointing a woman who had spent her career dismantling the public schools to head the Department of Education ranks right up there with appointing a woman who spent her career standing in the way of girls’ and women’s rights as ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues.

Lest you think Feministing is exaggerating, here are some specifics:

CWA opposed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, partly because it “creates new protections for homosexuals” and partly because it “encourages the dissolution of marriages.” Of course the only marriages that VAWA helps dissolve are abusive ones, but I guess Nance is more concerned with the nuclear family than the 12 million people abused by intimate partners in the United States every year.

Evangelicals like those at Concerned Women for America tend to oppose divorce even in case of abuse, valuing the intactness of the traditional family above the safety of women and children. Prominent evangelical John Piper has argued repeatedly that even an abused woman must continue being submissive to her husband (click here for Sarah Moon’s excellent treatment of Piper’s various statements).

Of course, CWA has continually claimed that they do care about preventing domestic violence. It’s just that they disagree on what prevents domestic violence. An article since removed from their website alleged that there is no proof that the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which funds rape crisis centers and hotlines and provides legal aid for survivors of domestic violence among other things, actually helps prevent domestic violence. Other CWA articles on the VAWA took on a similar theme—domestic violence is bad, but the VAWA is a waste of money, and we need to focus on policies that actually prevent domestic violence. What policies, exactly?

An analysis of the CWA website turns up a pattern. CWA invokes domestic violence when opposing same-sex marriage—claiming that domestic violence rates are higher in same-sex relationships—and when opposing abortion—calling abortion “the biggest act of domestic violence against women and children.” In fact, CWA blames no-fault divorce for higher rates of domestic violence.

Have a look at this:

The statistics are staggering. More than 40% of marriages end in divorce, and about 41% of children are born out of wedlock. That statistic is absolutely heartbreaking for the African-American community, with more than 70% of children born out of wedlock.

These statistics, and the negative consequences associated with them, are the direct result of the policies our society has supported in recent years. It is estimated that when “no-fault divorce” laws began to be passed in 1969, the divorce rates in the different states went up about 25%.

We [as a society] have promoted these policies, despite overwhelming evidence telling us that communities with a higher percent of healthy marriages enjoy many benefits, including:

1. Higher rates of physically healthy citizens

2. Higher rates of emotionally healthy citizens

3. Higher rates of educated citizens

4. Lower domestic violence rates 

How does CWA propose to protect women from domestic violence, in other words? By discontinuing gay marriage, banning abortion, and ending no fault divorce.

CWA also seeks to reduce domestic violence by promoting marriage, based on a profound misunderstanding of statistics—it is true that married couples have lower domestic violence rates than cohabitation couples, but it does not follow that if all cohabiting couples married domestic violence rates would fall accordingly—such a claim assumes that marriage is the only difference between these two groups, ignoring income, education, and the reasons a cohabiting couple has chosen not to marry. (Read more here.)

CWA actually spends very little webspace addressing domestic violence, compared with the space they devote to opposing birth control and abortion. CWA claims not to take a position on birth control, “but we draw a hard line on abortion and abortion-inducing drugs.” What are abortion-inducing drugs, pray? The IUD, the implant, and the birth control pill, among others. But let’s note something else—not taking a position on birth control means not promoting non-hormonal forms of birth control, such as condoms.

The ability to make one’s own reproductive choices has long been recognized as central to the wellbeing and empowerment of girls and women around the globe—especially in developing areas. Education is also viewed as central to empowering women and girls, as is delaying marriage. How would Nance stack up, if given the responsibility of shaping State Department priorities to take girls’ and women’s issues into account? It is unlikely that Nance would feel comfortable promoting birth control; her devotion to traditional marriage structures, though, is perhaps only more concerning.

Let’s be very clear about this: CWA does not believe in gender equality. Beverly LaHaye founded CWA to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment. Even today the organization speaks out against feminism at every turn. CWA opposed the creation of the National Museum of Women’s History, which was founded in 1996 and constructed in the 2000s. As CWA explains, “the museum’s online exhibits tout the ‘progressive era’ and feminism but do not acknowledge their ramifications, the destruction of marriage and the family.”

At this point I think we need to pause and look at the job description of the ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues. The Office of Global Women’s Issues is a division of the State Department created under Obama in 2009. According to its website:

As a policy office with a small stable of innovative programs, the office serves as a resource for U.S. diplomats in Washington and around the world. It also leads on the Department’s priorities around gender equality, including gender-based violence, women’s economic empowerment, women’s participation in peace and security, and adolescent girls.

Concerned Women for America is not pro-woman. It is pro-family. Lest you think that is a distinction without a difference, consider CWA’s promotion of banning no-fault divorce as a way to fight domestic violence.

Concerned Women for America has also had a fairly laser-like focus on the U.S. A piece published by CWA’s Beverly LaHaye Institute in 2005 argued that “juggling a demanding career and family life is frazzling and stressful” and that when women have a career it is “often at children’s expense.” In another article, Nance wrote about what she called “the feminist myth of ‘work-family’ balance.” How would this approach to women’s issues and family life translate globally?

In many areas of the world, particularly those that are less advantaged, women’s lives are filled with constant work. Their work looks different, of course—it is often labor that takes place within the home, whether domestic or paid. The Netflix series “Daughters of Destiny” provides a compelling picture of the sort of female labor common across the globe. Daughters of Destiny follows a group of poverty-stricken girls attending a school for “untouchable” children—a school designed to propel the girls into white collar careers that will enable them to raise their families and communities out of poverty. What would Nance have to say about this project?

Women’s economic empowerment does not appear on the CWA’s list of issues. Nor does gender-based violence or gender equality. What does appear on their list? Have a look:

Sanctity of Life:

CWA supports the protection of all innocent human life from conception until natural death. We also support alternatives to abortion and healing for mothers suffering from the results of abortion. [Read More]

Defense of Family:

CWA believes that marriage consists of one man and one woman. We seek to protect and support the Biblical design of marriage and the gift of children. [Read More]


CWA supports reform of public education by returning authority to parents and also accessibility to alternatives forms of education. [Read More]

Religious Liberty:

CWA supports the God-given rights of individuals in the United States and other nations to pray, worship, and express their beliefs without fear of discrimination or persecution. [Read More]

National Sovereignty:

CWA believes that neither the United Nations nor any other international organization should have authority over the United States in any area. We also believe the United States has the right and duty to protect and secure our national borders. We believe in budget restraint which embodies responsible spending, small government and a budget in which the U.S. government spends within its means and ceases to steal from future generations. [Read More]

Sexual Exploitation:

CWA endeavors to fight all pornography, obscenity, prostitution, and sex slavery. [Read More]

Support for Israel:

CWA believes that the people and nations who stand with Israel and the Jewish people will be blessed by God.  We believe that any foreign policy effort to withdraw U.S. support for Israel is in direct contradiction to America’s national interests. [Read More]

The only items on this list that could translate effectively to global women’s issues are “education” and “sexual exploitation.” But even here, when you click “read more” you find a position statement littered with Bible verses, an approach that wouldn’t translate well to many areas of the world. Furthermore, “education” has literally nothing to do with educating or empowering girls—it’s about eliminating sex education and providing parents with taxpayer funded religious schools.

Now wait. We’re not talking about Trump nominating Concerned Women for America to run the office of global women’s affairs. We’re talking about him nominating Penny Nance to run it. Sure, Penny Nance is the CEO of concerned Women for America, but perhaps she has experience outside of this organization that mitigates some of the things outlined above? Let’s take a look.

Areas of Expertise:  American Exceptionalism, Family, Sanctity of human life, Education, Health care reform, Religious liberty, Abortion, Sexual exploitation of women and children, Planned Parenthood government funding, economic issues realities, Marriage, National sovereignty, Support for Israel, Sex trafficking, Pornography,/Indecency and other cultural issues.

What does it mean that Nance has expertise in “American Exceptionalism”? Unless she’s a historian or political scientist, that’s a very odd thing to lead with. If I’m reading this right, “Health care reform” means resisting the Obamacare birth control mandate; “Planned Parenthood government funding” means trying to defund planned parenthood; and “economic issues realities” means talking about how women can’t have it all. “National sovereignty,” presumably, means taking pot shots at the U.N.

Nance graduated from Liberty University in 1988. She spent five years as Legislative Director for Concerned Women for America. During that time she ” also consulted for other non-profit organizations, including Prison Fellowship Ministries, the Center for Reclaiming America, and the Christian Music Industry” and served on the staff of Congressman Pat Swindall (R-Georgia). While her biography does not list any dates, Nance was listed as the former Legislative Director for Concerned Women for America when she went on Bill Maher’s show in 1999.

Nance indicated that she took a break from her career when she had children, and she was identified as a “suburban stay-at-home mom” when she was a guest on Fox in 2004. However, as Media Matters pointed out at the time, that wasn’t exactly fair. By 2004, Nance had founded the Kids First Coalition, served as its president, and was registered as a lobbyist for the group. In 2003, according to the organization’s website, Nance attended a world conference on sex trafficking, worked on bills relating to sex trafficking, and met with the president of the FCC.

What was the Kids First Coalition? It is unclear when exactly the group was founded and when it shut its doors, but the wayback machine first archived the group’s website in 2002 and the website was defunct after 2009. According to the organizations’ website, via the wayback machine:

Kids First Coalition will work to promote and encourage traditional families as well as to help those in crisis pregnancies or difficult circumstances. Our work as an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves will make the U.S. stronger and more caring.

Nance’s CWA biography described the Kids First Coalition as a “non-profit focused on educating … on a variety of issues related to children.” Media Matters described it as an “anti-abortion nonprofit organization.” While the group’s mission statement (above) indicates a focus on abortion via “crisis pregnancy” work, the group lobbied on issues such as the child tax credit, education, adoption, crime, pornography, and abortion. In 2003, the current issues section described Kids First Coalition action on child pornography, “decency in broadcasting”, sex trafficking, cloning, and abortion.

Nance’s work with CWA and the Kids First Coalition led to a position with the FCC, which she took in 2005:

Nance most recently served … as Special Advisor for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), where she advised the Chairman and the Commissioners on media and social issues. In this capacity, she served as a liaison and provided outreach to Congress, public interest groups, and industry leaders. Mrs. Nance’s key responsibilities centered on the protection of children, including broadcast indecency and the media task force on childhood obesity.

According to a 2005 LA Times article:

An outspoken anti-pornography advocate has been hired by the Federal Communications Commission to advise the agency on consumer issues involving the cable and broadcast industry, which has been under scrutiny for airing racy material.

Penny Nance, who previously ran the Kids First Coalition, which advocates on the issues of adoption, crime, pornography, abortion and computer safety, has been hired as a part-time advisor in the FCC’s Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis, an agency spokesman said.

Nance, a self-described religious conservative, has testified before Congress and has been interviewed on cable television about Internet child pornography.

It was during the Bush years that Nance got her position with the FCC, and during the Bush years that Nance ran the Kids First Coalition, pushing right-wing traditional family positions and focusing on abortion, sex trafficking, and child pornography. During this period she likely built upon the networking she’d done as Legislative Director for Concerned Women for America in the 1990s.

Nance became the CEO of Concerned Women for America in 2010. However, she had never really left Concerned Women for America after giving up her position as Legislative Director. Instead, she served on the organization’s board in the intervening years. Nance also now serves on President Trump’s Life Advisory Council; her biography states that she is “speaking as a modern day Esther to both the President, Vice-President and key staff.” Grammatical issues aside, it takes a serious misreading of the book of Esther to come to this conclusion.

I think it is safe to conclude, after this brief look at Nance’s career, that the beliefs and ideas promoted by the CWA are the same beliefs and ideas Nance holds.

Nance’s work on sex trafficking is the only thing she has going for her in terms of qualifying to serve as ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, but even that is undermined by her backwards and dangerous approach to domestic violence. Everything else—from her opposition to abortion and hormonal birth control to her belief that no-fault divorce should be eliminated and her focus on the importance of women being stay-at-home moms—would be a disastrous fit for an office that focuses on gender-based violence and women’s economic empowerment.

October 31, 2017

I grew up in an evangelical home in the 90s and not allowed to go trick-or-treating. While my church had a harvest fest where we were allowed to wear costumes every year, I always felt like I was missing out on something, and the vilification of trick-or-treating contributed to the frightening nature of the holiday. In this vein, I was pleased to see Christianity Today publish an article by Ed Stetzer titled Three Reasons You Should Go Trick-or-Treating. I was not as pleased, though, by the reasons Stetzer offered.

At the start of his post Stetzer acknowledges that Halloween “has sparked quite a bit of controversy in Christian circles over the years” and that the holiday’s “dark history” should concern evangelicals and impact their decisions regarding how to celebrate the holiday. Stetzer, though, says that he would argue that evangelicals should participate in trick-or-treating.

What are Stetzer’s reasons?

First, this is likely the only time all year when neighbors will flock from near and far, ring your doorbell, and want to have face-to-face interaction with you.

When guests arrive at your porch, take time to let the conversation go past celebratory exclamations of ‘trick or treat.’ Remember their names, take down their numbers, and convey your interest in being a part of their lives. This night is a once-a-year opportunity to do something so simple, yet so critical: get to know your neighbors.

Of course, you can meet your neighbors any time—but on this day, they are coming to your door.

Okay. Let’s see where this is going.

Second, you don’t have to abandon your Christian faith or confess allegiance to pagan deities in order to celebrate Halloween.

Certainly, make sure you’re careful as you select costumes for your kids and decorations for your home. Ask yourself, Does this item symbolize or support an ideology that’s incompatible with my faith? Does it represent my love for Jesus and the commitment I’ve made to follow him? If something seems to honor fear or celebrate something Satanic, parting with it is probably a good idea.

But it’s simply not true that you are participating in deeds of darkness when you dress up like a farmer and get candy from neighbors. You can be a good and fun neighbor without joining the Church of Satan.

I’d warn against requiring your children to dress as Bible characters, which I’ve known some parents to do, but okay, I’ll bite. What’s Stetzer’s third reason?

Third, you can have a missional Halloween in how you greet neighbors.

Have the best costume! Pass out the best candy!

And, most importantly, start relationships you will follow over the winter. On Halloween, do what we do: invite some neighbors over in November and December.

Be on mission.

It’s a trap! 

If Stetzer’s article convinces more evangelical parents to take their kids trick-or-treating, so much the better. But I want you to take a moment to notice what is missing from his list. Stetzer argues that engaging in trick-or-treating allows you to meet your neighbors, that going trick-or-treating doesn’t necessarily mean you’re dabbling in Satanism, and that trick-or-treating can allow evangelicals to engage with their neighbors in missional ways.

Perhaps you’re wondering why Stetzer didn’t just combine his first and third points to make one argument and move his point about costumes not always being Satanism to his intro matter. I am too. But look what’s missing: fun. Or look what else is missing: not making kids feel excluded. Letting kids engage in their culture and have the same experiences as others in their age cohort. Letting kids engage in the excitement of choosing and designing their own costumes. Even the family time spent working together on costumes and brainstorming ideas is left out of Stetzer’s accounting.

If Stetzer leaves all that out, just what does he include? Meeting neighbors. I’ll give him this one. While my kids make it down our street and off to the next pretty quickly, we generally go trick-or-treating in a party with neighbors, and the kids constantly run into other kids they know from school while we’re out. It’s a festive, communal event, though there isn’t generally time for much chatting at the door—there are other kids coming up the step and more houses to hit.

But let me ask you this—why does Stetzer encourage evangelicals to use the holiday to meet their neighbors? The answer is in his third point (which is really a reprise of his first point): to be missional. And just what does missional mean? It means “the adoption of the posture, thinking, behaviors, and practices of a missionary in order to engage others with the gospel message,” generally in one’s own culture and daily life.

In other words, the purpose of participating in Halloween is to meet the neighbors, get their phone numbers, invite them over in November or December, and form relationships with them, all with the ultimate goal of converting them to your brand of white evangelical Christianity. Slow clap, anyone?

I’ve seen Christians approach this two ways. There’s Stetzer’s approach—that Christians should get to know those around them and build relationships with them in order to evangelize them—but that’s not the only approach. There’s also another—that Christians should get to know those around them and build relationships with them because God has called them to live with love and to treat others like they would have others treat them.

This second approach can be combined with an ultimate evangelistic goal—that those they are showing love to will notice that they are different and ask why, presenting an opportunity to share the gospel—but it is not always, and even when it is, the focus is often different. Many Christians who take this approach (and these are not necessarily evangelicals) believe they are to show love and shower others with kindness not as a hook for conversion but simply because that is what God has called them to do.

Stetzer, in this post, doesn’t take this second approach. He does not tell his readers that they should use Halloween to meet their neighbors and build relationships because God has called them to do good in their neighborhood, to shower those around them with kindness, or to build supportive, positive relationships with others. No. He tells his readers that they should use Halloween to meet their neighbors to be missional. “Be on a mission,” he tells readers. Conversion is king.

When we moved to our current neighborhood, a family that lives a few doors down asked us over for dinner. They invited us into their home and into their lives. Today we do favors back and forth, swapping childcare and sharing food, setting movie nights and brunches. They made us feel welcome, wanted, and a part of this neighborhood. I’m trying to imagine how I would feel if, after all that, I were to learn that these neighbors did it all just to get to a point where they could make the sell and attempt to convert us to their religion. I would feel betrayed. Lied to. Misled.

But these neighbors aren’t evangelical. They’re Jewish, and Jews don’t proselytize. This family reached out to us, got to know us, and brought us into their lives because that is who they are, and not for any ulterior religious motive. Think for a moment what that says about evangelicals like Stetzer, for whom getting to know the neighbors is a calculated act designed to bring about conversion. Can you see why that feels off?

I suspect Stetzer would respond by pointing out that, as an evangelical Christian, he believes those who are not converted will be tortured for eternity in hell. From this perspective, a laser-like focus on conversion is the only responsible, ethical approach. But I would urge evangelicals like Stetzer to consider how this looks and feels to those on the outside, because it’s not pretty.

But hey, if it means today’s evangelical kids get to go trick-or-treating and don’t feel left out like I did, that’s something.

October 23, 2017

In his speech before the Values Voter Summit earlier this month, Trump said the following:

The American Founders invoked our Creator four times in the Declaration of Independence — four times.  (Applause.)  How times have changed.  But you know what, now they’re changing back again.  Just remember that.  (Applause.)

Benjamin Franklin reminded his colleagues at the Constitutional Convention to begin by bowing their heads in prayer.

Religious liberty is enshrined in the very first amendment of the Bill of Rights.  And we all pledge allegiance to — very, very beautifully — “one nation under God.”  (Applause.)

This is America’s heritage, a country that never forgets that we are all — all, every one of us — made by the same God in Heaven.  (Applause.)

Trump leaves out what happened after Franklin called for prayer at the Constitutional Convention. But first, let’s address why there wasn’t already prayer at the Constitutional Convention. According to Mark Weldon Whitten in an article on Americans United for the Separation of Church and State:

The Convention made a deliberate decision not to begin its proceedings with official public prayers. Since meetings of the Continental Congress had done so, and as the First Congress would create a chaplaincy and implement opening prayers in meetings of Congress, the Convention’s decision is noteworthy.

In other words, somewhere along the line the decision was made not to open the Constitutional Convention with prayer, even though opening with prayer was typical for similar bodies at the time.

While I’ve seen conservatives cite Franklin’s call for prayer many times, using it as evidence that the founding fathers were Christians who intended the United States to be a nation built on prayer, I’ve never seen these same conservatives grapple with the absence of prayer Franklin’s appeal for prayer suggests.

So, what happened next? Again according to Whitten:

During the darkest days of the Convention, Benjamin Franklin offered an eloquent motion noting the omission of prayers and recommending that they be instituted.

Time and time again I have seen apologists for Christian America assume or deceitfully insinuate that Franklin’s motion was well received and that the initiation of prayers in the Convention was the moment of breakthrough, resulting in a miraculous, God-blessed Constitution. In fact, a debate broke out over Franklin’s motion and it was never voted upon.

Franklin wrote that the Convention “except for three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary.”

In other words, the vast majority of the fifty-five delegates at the Constitutional Convention disagreed with Franklin’s proposal, and no prayer was held.

Why was Franklin’s proposal not acted on? We learn more in a paper by Louis Sirico, professor of law and legal writing. According to Sirico, Alexander Hamilton “feared the effect that adoption would have on those who were not privy to the Convention’s deliberation.” Namely, he worried that it might “lead the public to believe that the embarrassments and dissentions within the convention, had suggested this measure.” Hugh Williamson, a former minister, noted that the Convention had no funds with which to pay a minister.

The Convention ultimately adjourned without voting on Franklin’s proposal, though Franklin himself estimated, as noted above, that not more than a handful of delegates supported his proposal.

As Sirico writes:

Years later, Madison confirmed the accuracy of Franklin’s notes and mentioned three considerations that may have contributed to the failure of Franklin’s motion: its deviation from the Quaker method of worship, the differing religious convictions of the delegates, and the differing convictions of the members of the Philadelphia clergy. “The Quaker usage, never discontinued in the State & the place where the Convention held its sittings, might not have been without an influence as might also, the discord of religious opinions within the Convention, as well as among the Clergy of the Spot.”

The differences of religious opinion within the Convention and the clergy of the area are easy to understand—what is meant by the reference to the Quaker usage? Though the city had become more religiously diverse since the early 1700s, Philadelphia was originally dominated by Quakers. I am not an expert on Quaker religion, but I do know that Quakers have traditionally not had ministers or formal worship services.

Franklin’s proposal that the Convention invite a minister to open each session in prayer was not approved because (a) some feared approving such a proposal now would make the Convention look desperate; (b) there was no money to pay ministers; (c) there were religious differences among the delegates and the local clergy; and (d) the Quaker tradition still prominent in Philadelphia tended against public prayer by ministers.

Trump, in his comments, referenced Franklin’s proposal that the Constitutional Convention begin each day with prayer as part of a list of public appeals to or recognitions of God, offering it as evidence that this is a religious nation. Franklin, Trump said, “reminded his colleagues at the Constitutional Convention to begin by bowing their heads in prayer.” And that much, I suppose, is true. What is not mentioned is that Franklin’s colleagues rebuffed his proposal, and that the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention never did open with prayer.

I have a Patreon! Please support my writing!

October 21, 2017

Saturday Link Love is a feature where I collect and post links to various articles I’ve come upon over the past week. Feel free to share any interesting articles you’ve come along as well! The more the merrier.

The Danger of President Pence, on The New Yorker—“He just inhabits a different reality. It’s very difficult for him to lay aside the social agenda. He’s a zealot.”

The “Orphan” I Adopted from Uganda Already Had a Family, on CNN—“Once, someone suggested that I just not tell anyone what she had told us. Other times, I was told that it was my Christian duty to keep her and ‘raise her in the proper faith.'”

I Have Been Raped by Far Nicer Men than You, on The Root—“‘Nah, that’s just my dude Milton,’ he responded, as if this man hadn’t made himself known to me.”

The Myth of Judeo-Christian Values, on the Stonekettle Station—“There is it, Judeo-Christian values. Undefined. Unexplained. Unspecific.”

I have a Patreon! Please support my writing!

October 11, 2017

Over the past few months, I’ve been rereading some of the Bart Ehrman books on my shelf, as well as reading some new ones. Ehrman is a religious studies professor at the Chapel Hill well known for writing popular books that make scholarly understandings of the New Testament and early Christianity available to a lay audience. While reading his Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, I came upon two points that struck me as particularly interesting, and I thought I’d take a moment to share them.

The first comes in a discussion of early Christians who believed individuals must become Jewish (observing the Jewish law and being circumcised) to be Christian. This was possibly the majority view at one time, and Acts records a council that was called in Jerusalem to address this matter. In the book of Galatians, Peter writes of disagreement over this issue with Peter and James. All of this I knew. Ehrman goes a step further, though, suggesting that Matthew may have been written by a proponent of this view.

As Ehrman explains on pages 98-99:

…whereas only Paul’s account of his confrontation with Peter and the Judaizing missionaries of Galatia survives, at one time numerous positions were represented. Even though most of the others have been lost, it is possible that not all of them have been. A close reading of our surviving sources shows that one of our Gospels, at least, appears to represent an alternative point of view.

With good reason, Matthews Gospel is frequently thought of as the most “Jewish” of the Gospels of the new Testament. This account of Jesus’ life and death goes to extraordinary lengths to highlight the Jewishness of Jesus. … Time and again it quotes the Jewish Scriptures to show that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah sent from the Jewish God in fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures (cf. Matt. 1:23, 2:6, 18). Not only does Jesus fulfill the scriptures here (a pint Paul himself would have conceded); Matthew also insists, contrary to Paul, that Jesus followers must do so as well. In one of the most trenchant statements of the Gospel, found only in this Gospel in the New Testament, Jesus is recorded as saying:

Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:17-20). 

For Matthew, the entire Jewish Law needs to be kept, down to the smallest letter. The Pharisees, in fact, are blamed not for keeping the law but for not keeping it well enough. It is worth noting that in this Gospel, when a rich man comes to Jesus and asks him how to have eternal life, Jesus tells him that if he wants to live eternally he must keep the commandments (19:17).

I knew that Matthew was considered the most Jewish of the gospels. I learned in church and Bible club, growing up in an evangelical family, that Matthew wrote his gospel as part of outreach to the Jews. Paul was a missionary to the gentiles; Matthew, in contrast, laced his account with quotes from the Jewish scriptures because he was writing to other Jews. I was also aware that the passage from Matthew 5 quoted above read a bit oddly, and I found it slightly odd that Jesus told the young rich man to keep the commandments; I was taught, by way of making sense of these passages, that these were Jesus’ way of emphasizing humans’ inability to reach this standard on their own, without his sacrifice.

When I was an evangelical, I understood that the authors of different books of the New Testament had their own particular perspectives and things they wanted to emphasize. We drew the line, however, on the authors of these various books actually disagreeing with each other. I read the New Testament straight through probably twenty times, but each time I read it through I did so on the assumption that each book was inspired by God, and that they thus could not be in conflict. Any perceived contradictions or oddities were simply explained away.

Ehrman offers a different perspective. He suggests that we should not assume that the authors of these various books agreed with each other, or that their accounts can be harmonized. And here, he suggests that the book of Matthew may not merely have been intended for the Jews; instead, it may be intended for a community of Christians who believed that one must become Jewish in order to be a Christian (and we know that such communities existed). Jesus’ statements no longer need to be explained away. They suddenly make perfect sense.

Of course, Ehrman is not the first to make this suggestion. Instead, this understanding of Matthew is well known in scholarly circles.

What about the second point I wanted to share? This passage is shorter, a mere interpolation in a discussion of a group known as the Ebionites. From pages 100 and 101:

The Ebionites did not subscribe to the notion of Jesus preexistence or his virgin birth. These ideas were originally distinct from each other. The two New Testament Gospels that speak of Jesus being conceived of a virgin (Matthew and Luke) do not indicate that he existed prior to his birth, just as the New Testament books that appear to presuppose his preexistence (cf. John 1:1-3, 18; Phil. 2:5-11) never mention his virgin birth. But when all these books came to be included in the New Testament, both notions came to be affirmed simultaneously, so that Jesus was widely thought of has having been with God in eternity past (John, Paul) who became flesh (John) by being born of the Virgin Mary (Matthew and Luke).

I already knew from reading another of Ehrman’s books that the two accounts of the virgin birth—those in Matthew and Luke—are not compatible. I hadn’t stopped to think about the fact that the doctrine of the virgin birth and the doctrine of Jesus’ preexistence were separate and not naturally compatible. The pagan world, after all, had plenty of stories of mortal women who were impregnated by the gods; their children were never considered to have preexisted before their conception.

That the early Christians were very divided on who Jesus was, and ultimately on the nature of his divinity, is evident in the fact that the question of whether Jesus was the same in substance with the Father, or a lesser being, was not settled until the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Ehrman’s point that the Virgin Birth and Jesus preternatural existence do not naturally go hand in hand was something I had not considered.

I’m reminded of passage that struck me in another Ehrman book that I read recently, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. This passage discusses the evolution of early Christian understandings of Jesus; it is a bit longer than the previous sections I have quoted, but just as interesting. From pages 110-112:

One of the most striking features of several of the speeches in Acts is that they present a view of Jesus that scholars have long thought was one of the oldest, if not the oldest, Christian understanding of what it meant to call Jesus the Son of God. Eventually, of course, Christians came to think that Jesus had always been the Son of God, from eternity past, and that he came into the world only to conduct his miraculous ministry and deliver his supernatural teachings for a short while before returning to heaven whence he came. this is the view that can be found in the last of our Gospels, the Gospel of John. But this was not the earliest view of Jesus. Before anyone thought Jesus preexisted as the divine being who created the world (see John 1:1-18, for example), there were Christians who thought Jesus came into existence when he was born of a virgin and that it was because she was a virgin—and the “father” was God himself—that he was the Son of God.

This view seems to be embodied in the Gospel of Luke itself. Not a single word in Luke mentions Jesus preexisting his life on earth. Instead, his mother conceives of the Holy Spirit, and that is ho the comes into being. As the angel Gabriel tells Mary at the Annunciation, informing her of how she will bear a child: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. For that reason the one who is born of you will be called holy, the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35). Here Jesus is the Son of God because God made his mother pregnant.

At an even earlier stage of the tradition, before Christians had begun to talk about either Jesus’s persistence or his virginal conception, they (or some of them) believed that he had become the Son of God by being “adopted” by God to be his son. In this view Jesus was not metaphysically or physically the son of God. He was the son of God in a metaphorical sense, through adoption. At one point Christians thought this happened right before he entered into his public ministry. And so they told stories about what happened at the very outset, when he was baptized by John: the heavens opened up, the Spirit of God descended upon him (meaning he didn’t have the Spirit before this), and the voice from heaven declared, “You are my son. Today I have begotten you.” One should not underplay the significance of the word today in this quotation from Psalm 2. It was on the day of his baptism that Jesus became God’s son.

There were yet earlier traditions about Jesus that did not speak of him as the Son of God from eternity past or from his miraculous birth or from the time he began his ministry. In these, probably the oldest, Christian traditions, Jesus became the Son of God when God raised him from the dead. It was then that God showered special favor on the man Jesus, exalting him to heaven, and calling him his son, the messiah, the Lord. Even though this view is not precisely that of Paul, it is found in an ancient creed (that is, a pre literary tradition) that Paul quotes at the beginning of his letter to the Romans, where he speaks of Christa s God’s “son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness at his resurrection from the dead” (1:3-4). One reason for thinking that this is an ancient creed—not the formulation of Paul himself—is that Paul holds other ideas about Jesus as the Son of God and expresses them in his own words elsewhere. But he quotes this crude here, probably because he is writing this letter to get on the good side of a group of Christians, the church in Rome, who do not know Paul or what he stands for, and the creed provides a standard formulation found throughout the churches of his day. It is, in other words, a very ancient tradition that predates Paul’s writings.

More striking still, a similar tradition can be found in some of the speeches in Acts, showing that these speeches incorporate materials from the traditions about Jesus that existed long before Luke put pen to papyrus. So, For example, in a speech attributed to Paul in Acts 13 (but not really by Paul; Luke wrote the speech, incorporating easier materials), Paul is reputed to have said to a group of Jews he was evangelizing, “We proclaim to you that the good news that came to the fathers, this he has brought ot fulfillment for us their children by raising Jesus, as it is written in the second Psalm, ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you'” (Acts 13:32-33).

Note once again the word today. it was on the day of the resurrection, according to this primitive tradition that long predated Luke, that Jesus was made the Son of God. A comparable view is found in an earlier speech delivered by the apostle Peter: “Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty, that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this one whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).

In other words, the very earliest Christians believed that Jesus was adopted by God at his resurrection; later Christians believed that he was adopted by God at the beginning of his public ministry; and still later Christians believed that Jesus was the Son of God because God made his mother, Mary, pregnant. It was only after this that early Christians came to believe that Jesus preexisted his time on this earth, and, ultimately, that Jesus was of the same substance with God, an equal member of the Trinity (another belief that did not exist until later).

I know this is starting to sound like an infomercial for Ehrman, but I promise I’m not getting any kickbacks. I suppose it’s just that I’m excited to see the New Testament make sense. Everything that I ever found odd or confusing, or that I had to work to harmonize, is explained when the New Testament is approached not as an inerrant, divinely inspired collection of books but rather a collection of books written by various individuals who often disagreed, during thehard-fought early years of a new and developing religion whose theology was still in flux.

I have a Patreon! Please support my writing!

July 3, 2017

Today I’d like to look at a new LifeWay survey reported on in Christianity Today. (LifeWay is an evangelical research organization.) To start, I would like to note the survey’s seeming lack of definitions. See here, for instance:

The graph above shows responses to this question: “When sexual freedom and religious freedom conflict, which freedom do you feel is more important?” 48% of respondents said religious freedom, 24% said sexual freedom, and 28% said they weren’t sure. That high rate of unsure responses ought to signal that something is unclear about the question—and indeed it is. What would it look like for religious freedom and sexual freedom to conflict? What does “sexual freedom” even mean?

Presumably, this question is a reference to evangelicals who do not want to bake cakes for same-sex weddings. If so, however, the term “sexual freedom” seems out of place. Or is “sexual freedom” so widely defined here as to include same sex marriage, along with same-sex adoption, fertility treatments for lesbians, and possibly even trans medical services?

Sex is an important part of the human experience, and gay and lesbian (along with bisexual) identities have long been opposed as subversions of (presumably) traditional sexual mores. LifeWay’s use of this term, however, isn’t so simple. Evangelicals and others who oppose gay rights have frequently responded to portrayals of same-sex love and families by trying to make gay rights all about sex, sex, sex. In this context, an evangelical survey using “sexual freedom” as a stand-in for gay rights feels like more than just shorthand.

Then there’s this question:

Here, respondents were asked to answer the question: “In general, what do you think motivates sincere religious believers who oppose sexual freedom?” 49% said faith, 20% said hate, and 31% said not sure. Here again the high number of “not sure” respondents suggests that the question itself was perhaps not ideal—and understandably so.

You cannot neatly divide “faith” and “hate” as motivating factors for religious opposition to gay rights. My parents had religious reasons for opposing gay rights, but I also grew up watching my mother literally shudder when homosexuality was mentioned. The overriding feeling was one of disgust. Were my parents motivated by faith or by hate? They were motivated by both, but the LifeWay survey forced respondents to choose one motivation or the other. That was bad survey design—but one must wonder whether it was intentional.

Why would those at LifeWay design the survey this way? The answer likely rests in evangelical efforts to explain religious opposition to gay rights as a matter of faith, and not at all of hate. They love LGBT individuals, they insist. It’s just that the Bible states that homosexual activity is a sin. Their opposition to gay rights, they say, is about faith, not hate. On some level, though, it doesn’t matter why religious believers oppose gay rights, because the result is the same. When a lesbian couple is told they cannot adopt, it does not matter whether the decision to deny their application was based on faith or hate. The pain they experience is the same.

As I close, I want to return to the question respondents were asked to answer: “In general, what do you think motivates sincere religious believers who oppose sexual freedom?” This question makes it clear that I was not wrong in understanding “sexual freedom” as a stand-in for “gay rights.”

On first glance, there is seemingly no good reason not to use the term gay rights. On second glance, though, there is a reason—boiling gay rights down to sex, as these questions do, ups the “yuck” factor in the pews.

Excuse me while I call bullshit on the “faith” versus “hate” distinction.

Browse Our Archives