Today I saw this piece in Religion News Service about how some evangelicals are still fighting tooth and nail against the idea of marriage equality. I was pleased to notice that younger evangelicals are starting to come around to the idea, and that groups are arising that are trying very hard to convince evangelicals to quit worrying about other people’s marriages and mind their own business. There was something in that piece that I wanted to talk about today–namely, why I think that conservative Christian organizations must drill down on bigotry at this point and why they are resisting this call to “lay down their arms,” as the piece put it so well.
Before we get started, I do want to mention that we’re talking about that type of Christian that I’ve started calling a “toxic Christian.” I’m not going to call this sort of Christian a fundagelical, because I don’t think that this thinking is exclusive to fundamentalists or evangelicals–one sees it out of extremist Catholics and Mormons and plenty of others too. I know that quite a few Christians denounce this kind of behavior and am happy to see them getting more and more vocal in their opposition to Christianist dominionism and overreach–as that RNS piece outlines. The last thing I want to do is alienate folks who are trying their best to rescue their religion from the sickness we’ll be talking about here.
With that said, I can see threads in modern Christianity that have led us to the situation in which Christians find themselves today. Christian leaders have a lot of responsibility for painting themselves into this corner. They caused this crisis that they now face and they kicked up that dust deliberately because at the time, doing so worked to gain them power and influence. But those tactics are backfiring now that their sheep have fully internalized the lessons their leaders so earnestly taught them.
And these are the lessons they’ve taught so successfully:
First, toxic Christians in general have embraced the idea that their religious ideas deserve to be enshrined into law and given government support in the public sphere. So when such a Christian opposes civil rights for some group based on religious ideology and dogma, of course that Christian will want his or her government to deny those rights even if that group’s members aren’t even part of their religion. They can’t separate their opinions about how their own lives should run from how they think society in general should run, and they genuinely think that they have a right to impose their beliefs on others and force others to live the way they think they should live (even though often these Christians cannot live that way either). They’ve been taught for years that they deserve the right to force others to live in certain ways.
Toxic Christians have been billing themselves for decades as the Designated Adults for society as a whole. Over that time, they have been aligning themselves more and more closely with the political world–and the conservative side of that political world, more specifically. They see society as becoming increasingly hedonistic and morally-lax, which they feel justifies their overreach into other people’s private lives.
I don’t see any way for their leaders to now suddenly pull back on the throttle and say they were wrong about that idea–not without seriously threatening the entire superiority complex that these Christians have built up about themselves and their place in society. They have been taught (erroneously) for years that any denial of their overreach is actually a form of persecution. When the now-disgraced EX-governor Bob McDonnell wrote in his 1989 Master’s Thesis for Regent University that he just thought it was awful how modern Americans felt that “each individual should be able to live out his sexual life in any way he chooses without interference from the state,” he clearly felt that government should not only have the right but should shoulder the obligation to referee Americans’ personal decisions regarding their own consensual private relationships–and this certainly wasn’t and isn’t a unique or unusual position for a right-wing Christian to take.
When reminded that America is a secular nation and that we’ve got this whole “Separation Clause” thing that gives Americans freedom of religion, Christians who subscribe to this teaching have dozens of flips and contortions they can perform to make their overreach seem downright patriotic. Because this belief is so incredibly self-serving, it’s hard for them to see how wrong they are and how downright damaging this stance is to their stated goals.
Second, toxic Christians have successfully taught themselves that any change whatsoever to their policies and goals is tantamount to signing up for tango lessons with Lucifer himself. It’s never a good idea to elevate rigidity into an ultimate virtue, but that’s what has happened here. “Compromise” has always been a dirty word in Christianity; one of my preacher ex’s favorite Keith Green albums was No Compromises, and here’s a quick pro-tip for any aspiring fundagelical preachers out there: just shout some variant of “I refuse to compromise!” during a sermon whenever you think things need to get rowdy right then. It’d be rare to find any Christian who thinks religious compromise is acceptable. But some of them have gotten confused about what should be compromised and what shouldn’t.
I’m totally fine with toxic Christians being just as bigoted, evil, rigid, draconian, paternalistic, cruel, and nasty as they want to be in their own private minds, homes, and Ignorant Tightass Club meetings. It’s a free country. However, they’ve got to be able to deal with the rest of us sometimes, and when mature adults with different mindsets and beliefs want to accomplish things together and live together peacefully, sometimes they’re going to have to compromise about what specific things will get done and discussed. And that’s not happening in American society right now because toxic Christians have made such discussions impossible. Any suggestion that they learn to get along with those they’re marginalizing and demonizing gets taken as a suggestion that they learn to eat babies with honey vinaigrette.
I can see why they react so poorly to suggestions of change; toxic Christians think that every single one of their tenets were given to them by no less than a god, and that their tactics were created at the direct instruction of that same god. That makes both their tenets and tactics divine and perfect. That makes any opposition to those tenets and tactics demonic and flawed. And that makes these Christians fundamentally incapable of even considering that they might be wrong about something they’re doing–not something they’re believing, mind you, because sensible people don’t try to patrol beliefs like that, but something they’re doing with regard to others outside their circled-wagons.
I’ve actually seen such Christians react with absolute bafflement about why on earth anybody would ever even oppose their grabby hands because they genuinely think that whatever it is they want is the very best thing that anybody could ever want. They have no desire to share power with anybody else–and why should they, when they think they’re totally right and doing the best possible thing out of all the options and when a god is explicitly blessing whatever they think should be done? They just want what is best for everybody–why can’t we all just see that and let them handle all those tough decisions?
Third, such Christians think that their approval is necessary for other people to function and that their comfort is all that matters in questions of other people’s rights. I’d noticed a certain amount of boundary-blurring way back when I was a Christian, but nowhere do we see that blurring in action more than we do where Christians interact with the world. When bakeries began thinking that baking cakes for wedding couples amounted to giving their stamp of approval to those weddings, that’s when this belief really got attention from outsiders, but really, it’s just a logical extension of a belief that got rolling long before equal marriage became their big fear.
Anything that makes these Christians feel awkward, uncomfortable, nervous, or icked out is obviously not okay and needs to be illegal or at least demonized. If their personal comfort is in any way threatened, then they feel perfectly free to try to stop whatever is making them feel funny. (Of course, this idea doesn’t go both ways; they recognize that outsiders aren’t at all comfortable with what they’re doing, but in that case then obviously the problem is our own and we need to convert or start using the same redefinitions they use or get exorcised or whatever so we can become more comfortable with their overreach and judgmentalism.) I really think what upsets such folks the most is that nobody really cares what they think about another person’s private decisions.
Fourth, they’ve successfully taught themselves that opposition means they’re doing something right. Any sort of pushback means that demons are upset with them and therefore they should keep doing whatever they were doing. As ways to maintain willful ignorance go, this one’s pretty effective; there’s literally no way at all for a toxic Christian to tell when he or she is being totally right, being truly hateful or nasty, or battling demons who are fighting them for someone’s soul. Christian folktales abound with urban legends of people who almost–almost!–gave up on some daunting task only to succeed at the last second and then get rewarded lavishly by their god for persevering despite the odds.
When I was Christian myself, if something went totally smoothly, then obviously that was my god’s hand on the situation directly. But if it went totally horribly, then obviously that was a test from my god. Or it was opposition from demons. Usually, something I was doing didn’t turn out super-smoothly, so usually it was the opposition thing that I saw. I believed very wholeheartedly in miracles, even if I never actually saw any definitive ones in my entire time in the religion, so usually I was right up against failure by the time I even saw it coming. I’m embarrassed now to think about just how often that happened.
Christians can’t let up just because it looks like something they’re doing is turning out absolutely disastrously. I’ve seen plenty of websites from them that insist that at the 11th hour, the whole nation will, for example, just decide that equal marriage is dumb and quit supporting it and everybody will go back to totally demonizing and oppressing LGBTQ people–and this miracle is not only requested but fully expected by those Christians. But what they can’t do is use opposition to examine the rightness of any course of action. They’ve taken self-correction clean out of the picture.
Last and most detrimentally, these Christians have been taught that the culture wars their leaders started are the most important facets to Christianity right now. Their positions on various political and legal questions–that LGBTQ people are ickie, that equal marriage is somehow magically a threat to their own marriage customs, that women shouldn’t own their bodies or have any direct control over anything that happens to those bodies, that science is demonic and education is evil, and a host of others–are, in themselves, the fight. Changing their position on one of these issues in any way means that they lose that fight.
Do you see what I mean? The position is the fight in and of itself.
That means they’d rather ride the fail train all the way to the bottom than concede that not only is public opinion moving way against them on every single one of those positions they’ve taken, but that those positions are actually costing them the power and influence these cultural battles were supposed to win for their religion. Any kind of meaningful change at this point means, in their little world at least, that their entire religion is going to be irrevocably marked and changed for the worse. Their god is so puny and their religion is so weak that neither can withstand any sort of change or course correction, even when a proposed course correction brings the religion more into line with its source materials’ stated commandments (conversion of the “lost;” loving one’s neighbor; feeding the hungry and comforting the grieving; etc.).
The important takeaway here is that Christian leaders have more or less painted themselves into a corner and left nothing whatsoever to chance. They’ve created a culture full of people who think that they should own the political process, who are convinced that the world requires their comfort and approval to carry on with anything, that they have a right to impose their beliefs on others, and that they cannot cooperate with others or change course for any reason. They’ve created this utterly rigid-thinking group of people who are categorically incapable of recognizing any difference between their religious dogma and others’ rights to believe and act as they see fit.
And now they are reaping the rewards of those earnestly-taught lessons.
So I really don’t see how evangelical Christianity is going to fix this problem very easily. Any change they make is going to involve rewrites to the lessons they’ve laboriously taught their flocks over the last few decades. Their believers have gotten really used to the privilege they learned they should have and the power they were taught was their right to wield over others. Any turnaround from that message is very likely going to totally piss off their existing pool of rigid, hateful, compromise-averse, overreach-loving, dominance-minded Christians–a pool that’s dwindling year by year, but which they simply can’t afford to lose.
But such changes aren’t guaranteed to draw them enough young evangelicals to make up for the numbers of people they will undoubtedly lose by changing. Christian leaders are neither guaranteed to keep their existing fanbase nor guaranteed to gain back the young people who have been alienated by their hateful, divisive message. If they keep to the current course, they will eventually lose most of their people though simple attrition, but if they change, they risk seeing a hemorrhage without certainty of replenishment.
I hope they manage the change anyway. I hope that they decide those nasty Christians aren’t worth keeping and I hope they do the right thing as touching the cultural wars they started. But I certainly don’t count on it happening. Christian churches are businesses just like any other, and I doubt very many of them will put themselves out of business. They’re playing a big game of “chicken” right now, hoping for some last-second miracle, but when push comes to shove, they’ll do what they must to survive–we can count on that.
It just seems so ironic to me to see them struggling with the ossification they themselves put into place when I know that Christianity’s main strength through the ages has been its chameleon-like versatility. By cutting themselves off from that strength, by refusing to even consider any change in their attitudes and tactics, toxic Christians have all but ensured their own slide into total irrelevance. It’s a bold strategy, Cotton; let’s see it pays off for them!