I recently posted a piece entitled, “If You’re Selling Scorn for Conservative Christians, the Market is Hot.” The essential thesis was that some progressive Christians are so angry with conservative Christians (especially the “culture warriors”) that they are accepting uncritically, legitimating, and perpetuating caricatures about their fellow believers. Genuinely concerned that the Religious Right is harming the witness of the church, progressive Christians who fulminate against the Religious Right are actually harming the witness of the church by reinforcing negative (and generally untrue) stereotypes about their fellow believers. In a world that says, “Christians are hateful, bigoted and hypocritical,” their response is not to say “that’s a caricature” but to join in: “Yes, I despise them too — but there are other Christians (tacitly: like myself) who are more enlightened.”
One of the examples I cited was a recent viral post from Rachel Held Evans, called “How to Win a Culture War and Lose a Generation.” Lest I be accused of doing something similar — of throwing fellow believers whose politics views differ from mine under the bus — I tried to be charitable and civil, and tried to imagine that Rachel were sitting across the table from me. (A pleasant prospect. I like Rachel and I’m sure we’d have some nice conversations.) As I said in the post, I think her anger simply got the better of her in this case. This does not make her a bad person. It merely makes her human. She responded in the comments and on Facebook, and I asked if I could carry on the conversation here. Here is what she wrote:
Hi Timothy, – wish I had more time this week to respond to your post in depth. You made some great points. One thing I would like to clarify, though, is that I’m really not trying “sell scorn” with my writing. I try to be thoughtful, fair, and persuasive, and I’m careful not to write in anger. I care deeply about the future of evangelicalism, and that’s why I am calling for change in this particular area. My purpose with that post was simply to make the point that legislative action against gays and lesbians is counter-productive, that young Christians are growing increasingly uncomfortable with that sort of thing. Obviously, people of goodwill can disagree, but I believe this is a position one can hold with passion, but not scorn. (Note: Also, you will notice that I’ve never referred to folks who are against gay marriage as “bigots” or “hate-filled” or anything like that. Many of the people I love most in my life are against gay marriage, and I know they are nothing like that…and so I would never make that generalization.)
This was followed up later with:
Also – and this is what’s bugging me at this late hour – you gotta know I’m getting mixed messages when you say I’m a person of “good heart and mind” who is simultaneously “selling scorn.”
A perfectly kind and fair response. I could have been clearer that when I refer to “selling scorn” I’m not commenting on Rachel’s motives, as though she is merely out to profit from writing critical blog posts but does not really believe in them. In fact, I’m quite certain she believes she’s doing the right thing, and quite certain she’s genuinely concerned for the church and its witness. I try (not always successfully) to avoid speculating on motives.
What I’m saying is that there is a booming market for this sort of thing, and it ought to give progressive Christians (and indeed all Christians) pause. Anger sells. Derision sells. Condemnation sells. Secular liberals who say “Conservative Christians just despise gays” would love nothing more than to see liberal Christians joining in the caricature and condemnation of conservative Christians. Secular conservatives who say “Those progressive Christians just want to be liked at the liberal cocktail parties” would love for conservative Christians to agree with them. But we can’t, because we have an obligation to the truth and because we have a special obligation to love our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The internet incentivizes scorn. Let me illustrate the point.
I said that I did not want to speculative on Rachel’s motives, so let’s abstract from her particular case. Motives are complicated and multifaceted things, but, even though I find it theologically implausible, let’s assume that her motives are entirely pure. Moreover, she may have felt no scorn as she wrote that post, but I hope it’s helpful for her to hear that it came across that way. (Also, I chose her as an example because the blog post went viral. To be fair, while I think she lets a drip or two of scorn for “culture warriors” or the “Religious Right” come through on occasion, there are other bloggers who serve it out by the barrel everyday. More on that tomorrow.)
Leaving particular cases aside, then, let’s imagine Blogger B. Blogger B writes a hundred posts over the course of a year and comes to see a pattern. When he writes pieces that are angry and derisive, he gets massive traffic and a lot of kudos from his fellow travelers. He can write pieces that are thoughtful and nuanced, that avoid inflammatory language, but he notices that if he just adds a little spice here and there, if he ladles on some more partisan sauce, then the traffic explodes. His fellow travelers are more likely to promote his blog posts on social networks, the post is more likely to get linked on the big websites that drive a lot of traffic for people in his political camp, and so forth. Blogger B begins to see this as not just playing into the angers and animosities of the world but as actually being “prophetic,” a reformer, the voice of a generation. He interprets the flow of traffic as a kind of sign from God that he is doing the right thing. God is bringing together a movement! God is moving this generation at last to get it right. God is giving him a platform.
Of course, Blogger B wants traffic (either for its own sake, because 99.99% of bloggers do want traffic, or because he is compensated for it, or because it expands his platform for speaking engagements and the sales of books, etc.) and so he wants to believe that writing the angry pieces (the ones that draw big traffic) is right and justified. He joins the multitudes of young Christian writers today who are clamoring to “be prophetic” by condemning how the other side or the older folks lived their faith. (Ironically, and aware of a bit of self-contradiction here, I consider this eagerness to be prophetic one of the great afflictions of the church today.) Blogger B is not a worse person than others, but he — like everyone — is a complicated creature and he has mixed motives.
The internet incentivizes scorn by rewarding his righteously angry condemnations. When you write on an already-massive platform like the NYTimes or WSJ or CNN.com, then the demands are different. It’s awful hard, however, not impossible but very hard, to build an audience from scratch unless you play into the partisan currents of the internet. I can certainly think of numerous cases where I have succumbed to the temptations personally — and perhaps a worthy followup to this post would be to explain those and use them as an illustration. (The title to this post is not aimed at any one individual, but I could certainly aim it at myself.)
The general point is that there is a great deal of scorn flying back and forth between conservative and liberal Christians today, especially online, where scorn is rewarded. This should be of great concern. We may profit from writing scorn, but the kingdom pays the cost. Scorn is corrosive. It cuts us off from fellow believers who could teach us many things. And it hardens the world’s caricatures of Christians.
My constructive recommendations for all of us would be:
- When a Christian on the Left sees conservative Christians being caricatured, he or she should (as a general rule of thumb) first of all seek to correct the caricature, and then explain why he or she differs from conservative Christians on that issue. And the same goes for the Right. We on the Right should defend progressive Christians when they are being misunderstood or unfairly maligned. We can except truly exceptional cases where a small sect believes something genuinely evil, of course. But as a general rule of thumb, we ought to defend one another against caricature, not affirm the caricature but say it only applies to those Christians.
- If you find that you cannot explain charitably why your fellow believers come to a different conclusion on this issue, then you should probably not write about the issue until you can. Christian charity and intellectual integrity really require us, I believe, to understand fully before we criticize.
- Let’s be very, very careful in how we use the internet. We may think we’re addressing only believers, but then our post goes viral and the world reads it. Or we may write something in a moment of anger that soars across the blogosphere and slanders our fellow believers. We should bear in mind that the world of online media incentivizes scorn, ridicule, exaggeration and caricature. So we should never blog angry, and we should always examine our motives.
If we can model a better conversation amongst believers than the world can find elsewhere, that will count for something.