Today I was hit in the face yet again with the difference between loving Christians and the ones who, well, um, aren’t. I could not imagine a more effective way to illustrate the difference between the two groups than what I saw today.
For the new folks, let me start with a quick explanation. I make a meticulous delineation between what I’ve come to see as the two types of Christians: one bent on dominance, and one bent on trying to show love. The more fundamentalist and literalist the church is, the more likely it is to be part of the former group. The more liberal and progressive-minded it is, the more likely it is to contain more loving and kind Christians. Both have Bible verses backing up their stances, carefully cherry-picked and quote-mined to support whatever the Christian in question wants to believe, though in my humble opinion the nasty Christians usually have more–easy to understand given their much greater need for a cloak of authority to cover up their much-greater nastiness and overreach. It’s just their orders, it isn’t them, doncha understand, the “pronouncement from the chair,” as Mel Gibson said some years ago, nothing they can help, they have to do it that way…
That’s why a Christian’s form of Christianity tends to mirror what that person is actually like deep inside. A nasty, vindictive, control-hungry person will find and pursue a form of Christianity that allows him or her to be so–and will be encouraged by other Christians like that to become even more extreme in those ways. Someone truly loving and kind who ends up in one of those churches by accident or birth will struggle quite a bit with those doctrines and attitudes, and will probably end up leaving for a more sane and loving group–or halfheartedly adopting the behaviors that group values–or, as is more frequent nowadays, will leave the religion altogether. A nasty person who ends up in a sane, loving Christian group will probably end up leaving to find or create a group that more closely mirrors what that person’s like because loving churches feel too lukewarm.
Notice, please, that I’m not assigning labels like TRUE CHRISTIAN™ or false here. I leave that decision up to Christians, who have proven themselves eager to take on the task. As far as I’m concerned, they’re all real Christians; just some are toxic and some are loving.
Toxic Christians really, really, really do not like Christians who don’t fall into line with their vision of what Christians should be like. There is only room for one kind of Christian in their world, and you can guess which kind is the only one allowed. I wrote a year or two ago that right-wing conservative Christians at one conference lumped “emergent” Christianity, a form that focuses on social justice and inclusiveness, in with Islam and Communism as the top three threats to their religion and way of life. Not much has changed since I wrote that, I’m afraid. They are downright savage in denouncing Christians who are too nice and too loving. They have to get those people shut up and sat down immediately before they infect the others!
That’s why I often feel kinda bad for Rachel Held Evans (RHE), a noted Christian blogger, speaker, and author. She’s a good egg, as Christians go. She was an evangelical for a long time, but realized she was spending more time trying to drag her tribe kicking and screaming toward decency and love than she was actually doing stuff that she thought would advance her religion. She didn’t seem to be able to write anything that didn’t totally piss off her tribe. There may well have been a gender component to these denunciations I saw of her. So she left evangelicalism for something more mainstream, and the response of her tribe was largely to denounce her for doing that, too. Can’t win for losing, with that crowd.
The problem was–and is, really–that as someone who tours the country giving speeches and talking to other young Christians, RHE has a much better idea of what’s going on with people her age than the evangelicals denouncing her clearly do. Much better than her self-deluded brethren, she’s always had a much clearer idea of why Christians are leaving both evangelicalism in particular and Christianity as a whole, and she’s always had a much better idea of what people her age want out of church. I don’t agree 100% with her ideas or conclusions–she is still, after all, a Christian, which means she is going to be unable to see some things the way outsiders do. In one of her best posts, on CNN a couple years ago, she talked about why she thought Millennials were leaving church and I think largely covered the main problems, but didn’t seem to touch on the idea that maybe they discovered that Christianity wasn’t factually true. So please understand that I don’t think she’s touched divinely or always speaks truth or whatever; she is a product of a particular strain of Christianity. But she’s all right, overall.
So last week she wrote a piece for the Washington Post suggesting that maybe, just maybe if churches stop trying too hard to be “cool” and returned to a more traditional, liturgical form of the religion, that might draw millennials back like it had her.
And she pissed off the Religious Right again with that suggestion.
That’s what I encountered today, one of those pissed-off denunciations from a particularly self-deluded fellow named David French writing for National Review. It’s called “If You Want to Destroy Your Church, Follow Liberals’ Advice.” Shots fired, eh?
David French is, himself, quite the winner. You know you’ve hit the big time, hate and intolerance-wise, when you’ve got your own tag with Right Wing Watch, amirite? Back when Mitt Romney still thought he had a shot at the Presidency, David French started up a citizens’ group called “Evangelicals for Mitt” and denounced Newt Gingritch for being a “serial admitted adulterer” while blithely ignoring that he supported a candidate who belonged to a religion infamous for its polygamy doctrine, a religion that evangelicals have denounced loudly for believing stuff like its believers becoming gods of their own planets after death. He’s also one of those absolutely tedious hate-fueled Christians who whines about being called “a bigot” when he expresses his personal intolerance and hatred for marginalized groups (something I also wrote about a while ago) and thinks that any pushback against evangelical liars-for-Jesus means they’re actually speaking the truth and should do that more and harder because Jesus-reasons. So he’s a hell of a sweetiepie to begin with–a Fox News spouting, talking-points parroting, revisionist bigot who can’t even see the glaring blind spots in his own allegiances.
In his response, we learn what David French hates even more than gays, divorced politicians, and gun restrictions:
Using scare quotes around terms like “inclusiveness,” he rails about her “standard liberalism” (is there one? Someone should have alerted me–heavens, I’m out of the loop here) and declares dismissively that her piece is less a “theological statement” (which she never actually said she was making) and more a “progressive writer’s wish list,” scornfully saying her version of Christianity was the “Millennial hipster equivalent of listening to your albums on vinyl, because it just sounds more ‘real.'” Of course, we know that his is the truly authentic form of worship that has lasted thousands and thousands of years unchanged from the original penned document of the Bible’s final form in King James English, I suppose, straight from the mouth of Jesus. Or not.
He links RHE’s love of inclusiveness–er, sorry, scare quotes are needed, because he clearly doesn’t believe that what they’re doing is really inclusive, though he doesn’t define what he thinks it really means anywhere that I saw–“inclusiveness” to churches’ loss of membership. For a fellow who seems to pride himself on his rationality he seems curiously incapable of recognizing that correlation does not mean causation; he directly links “liberalization”–especially around sexual matters like LGBTQ acceptance and non-marital sex–of churches to their downfalls. He even manages to get in what I’m sure he at least thinks is a nice dig at President Obama by mentioning that the President’s very inclusive church–er, sorry, “inclusive” church–lost like 20% of its members right after voting to treat LGBTQ people with dignity and respect by recognizing equal marriage for all Americans.
What really upsets him is clear: oh, he really does not like LGBTQ people and he really does not like anything that falls outside his party line’s demands. Like any conspiracy theorist, he’s very good at building a case out of the wrong elements, too.
The nice thing about being a non-Christian is that I may be able to more clearly see what’s going on than either this whining bigot or Rachel Held Evans. How about this take on the matter?
Churches that sell fear and hatred sell their message better to fearful, hateful Christians like David French.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s noticed a big polarization growing in Christianity. There is a bit of a problem with being too loving and inclusive, though, and that is that there are plenty of secular groups handling that pretty well. A Christian who is very loving and inclusive might discover that church really doesn’t seem very relevant to his or her daily life. That’s the real danger of what Pope Francis called practical atheism, which means someone living a life without all the outward trappings of religion. But there’s another side to the coin, however. Not only is such a life going to look more and more like plain ole secular humanism, but it’s going to draw the ire of Christians who can’t survive unless all other Christians look like they do. Any Christian who’s tried to steer the Titanic of evangelicalism away from culture wars and toward social justice or even simple human decency knows exactly how the tribe of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ will respond: with bellyaching and loud denunciations if we’re lucky, and threats and violence if we’re not. I personally know several Christians who don’t even use the label of “Christian” anymore because of this show of Christian love, and many others who’ve disengaged from the religion to save themselves the fight.
It’s unfortunate–in my opinion at least–that these kinder, more loving denominations are the ones losing the most Christians. But it’s not surprising at all.
Fear, hate, validation, a cloak of authority to mask a tribal desire to control and judge others… churches that insist on keeping these elements in their dogma and customs will keep and attract Christians who are furious about these elements being repudiated and discarded. When a church decides to become less hateful and more loving, and people leave, that’s like the trash taking itself out. Those people will go to churches that stroke their hard-ons for fear and hate. They will leave behind a smaller congregation, but one that will be more focused on doing the stuff that Jesus reportedly told Christians to actually do: love their neighbors, forgive seventy times seven, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, comfort the wounded–and will do a far better job of it without the dross holding them back and impeding their progress.
Remember how we talked about how Christian leaders are playing to the wrong stats? That’s what this guy is doing. He’s convinced that whatever denomination happens to be winning in terms of membership must be the best denomination. That’s a common enough self-delusion, but he’s got that luxury; evangelicalism is, indeed, faring less disastrously than the liturgical mainstream Protestant churches RHE now favors, though I don’t get why he thinks it’s enjoying “strong growth.” To me it looks more like a full-fledged crisis, but then, the more extreme the Christian the less good they are at math. In reality, especially ever since last year’s World Vision brouhaha, Christians themselves are noticing that evangelicalism has hit a turning point. As far back as 2012, though, some evangelical writers have noted that their denomination was seriously losing its influence. And even before that in 2009, someone called “iMonk” wrote evangelicalism’s epitaph. World Vision was just the obvious sign of that fall from power. No, his brand of Christianity is not seeing “strong growth.” It’s just hemorrhaging a little less than the other brands are.
Christians’ concern is well-placed. According to every survey done, the question isn’t “Will Christianity collapse?” but rather “How hard will Christianity collapse and who’ll be left standing?” And a lot of the blame for that collapse lays at the feet of evangelicalism, with its love of political meddling, its deep desire to control and trample non-believers and shove its nose into other people’s private business, its blatant narcissism, its science denial, its breathtaking misogyny and abusiveness, its inhuman hatred of all who defy its grasp, and its constant demands for capitulation and deference from everybody else. Evangelicals are fast beginning to stand for all that is wrong with Christianity itself; they highlight the religion’s general failings and put into harsh spotlights all the worst aspects of modern Christians’ Biblical illiteracy and their childish, over-simplistic misunderstandings about both the Bible and love itself. And the numbers reflect people’s growing impatience with this particularly nasty strain of Christianity. The fact that young people are fleeing the sinking ship as fast as they can does not bode well. Percentage-wise, fundagelicals probably will end up owning more of the Christianity pie, which should alarm the rest of us, but it won’t be anywhere near the same size of pie.
The real key to a Christian denomination’s numbers is not LGBTQ acceptance or liberalism, nor even scare-quoted “inclusiveness.” It is how controlling, reality-denying, and intolerant the church is. If Christians like David French had any sense at all, they’d view with great alarm their assertion that churches drilling down on hatred and terror are doing much better than churches that are preaching love and kindness. It’s unfortunate that it’s far, far easier to sell hate and fear to today’s Christians than it is to sell them love.
When evangelicalism finally exhausts itself, it’ll be interesting to see if Christians like that guy will maintain the stance that numbers = correctness, or if they will leap gracefully to the next self-delusion without even realizing they ever moved–like they have with every other cultural battle they’ve lost.
Join me for Mother’s Day on Saturday!