The Loyalty Test and Ireland’s Referendum.

The Loyalty Test and Ireland’s Referendum. May 26, 2015

CONGRATULATIONS, IRELAND!!!!!

Welcome to the party, Ireland! And to the people there who are this much closer to equality and dignity under the law, my heartiest best wishes for the days to come!

The poster campaign during the referendum. (Credit: William Murphy, CC-ShareAlike license.)
The poster campaign during the referendum. (Credit: William Murphy, CC-ShareAlike license.)

If you hadn’t seen the news, Ireland recently had a big referendum about whether or not they would change their constitution to allow same-sex couples to marry. Overwhelmingly, the voters in Ireland indicated that yes, they wanted to do that (1.2M versus 700k who voted no).

This vote reveals that Ireland is heading in the same general direction the United States is with regard to LGBTQ equality. Urbanites tended to vote yes, while rural dwellers voted no; young people voted yes, while older folks voted no. The only area that actually voted no out of 43 constituencies, Roscommon-South Leitrim, was one that was not only largely rural but also older and way more religious than other constituencies in Ireland. That link even discusses one theory that the people there might have voted that way to protest what they perceived as condescension and contempt from younger and cooler groups, like those groups were looking down at them and leaving them behind for newer and less familiar ways of thinking–does that sound familiar as well? It sure does to me.

Whatever their motivation, that one constituency’s vote did not hinder progress.

I saw something after the vote that really got my attention: an interview with the Archbishop of Dublin, Ireland‘s most powerful Catholic leader. In this interview, he talks about how his religion needs a “wake-up call” so it can stem the hemorrhage of young people from its ranks.

It reminds me of that recent Ed Stetzer piece wherein this powerful Southern Baptist leader declares that “facts are our friends” while dismissing entire swathes of facts to spin-doctor the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study into a win for his team rather than what it is: a definitive measurement of the decline and eventual fall into irrelevance of his religion. You’d think by now that I’d be used to running into a Christian convinced that he or she is totally rational and has come by a delusional belief via careful, ponderous, dogged examination of facts when nothing of the sort has actually happened.

I’m sure we all sometimes hold lopsided views of ourselves and others, but religion’s just such an obviously non-rational belief to have, and faith-for-no-good-reason such a lauded and admired virtue, that it’s startling to see someone act like their beliefs are rational and have perfectly good bases in reality while other people are obviously irrational and came by their beliefs via less virtuous means like messy emotionalism. Little wonder so many Christians see themselves, then, as Magic Christians–as demonstrated in the cognitive bias naïve realism, they’re positive that if they can only find the correct information to share with a non-believer, or spin-doctor their message in exactly the correct way, then obviously anybody who cares about rationality and the truth will be just as persuaded as they themselves are. When their fallacious arguments and debunked talking points fail to inspire, then their targets can be accused of hiding from the truth and denying a slam-dunk argument–even though neither truth nor a slam-dunk argument was offered.

There’s a quaint narcissism to the mindset. If the Christian in question thinks that an argument is persuasive, then by definition it is so for everybody. They’ve divorced themselves completely from any way to test their assertions or to falsify them. When we truly hold a position we think is rational, ideally we know why we hold that position and what facts support it–as well as what facts, if discovered, would weaken it. More importantly, a truly rational position has support for itself that looks exactly the same no matter who is looking at that evidence–and that evidence is available for examination. We can test our assertions, make predictions about them that come true, and build off those assertions to make new ones. Yes, I’m talking about the scientific method; it applies to much more than chemistry class!

Christians can’t do any of that with their supernatural claims. Little wonder, then that they don’t know how to actually construct a rational argument for anything. Using college-level words, dense sentence structure, and supercilious language is a piss-poor substitute for actual rational reasoning. But we’re not going to see this mindset go away anytime soon. Christians are a product of our modern culture just like everybody else is. They know that having faith for no good reason whatsoever is actually not a good thing at all and that people should have good reasons for holding beliefs in anything–be it the sincerity of a loved one’s affections, a financial scheme’s legality, a house’s value on the market, a child’s chances of doing well in a particular school, or just how good our asses look in those jeans. They ache for the legitimacy of having a good reason to believe–all while having no way whatsoever to achieve it or to establish that they have one.

The lies that bind.

I know exactly what it feels like to be caught in that bind, because I was bound by it myself as a Christian. For all their yammering about how wonderful, important, fulfilling, and satisfying pure faith is, Christians want to have good reasons to believe in Jesus just like everybody wants good reasons to believe in anything. Unfortunately, there isn’t a way for them to have that without some serious intellectual dishonesty and distortions–much of which enters a Christian’s mental landscape via the field of apologetics.

So when Ed Stetzer declares that he’s got facts backing up his belief that the Pew Study is actually a win for his side, he shows that he’s got much more in common with the Irish Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, than he does with his fellow Protestants. Archbishop Martin, speaking after the referendum in his country, declared that his religion needs “a reality check” and needs to quit denying “the realities.” He went on to say that “We won’t begin again with a sense of renewal, with a sense of denial.”

But what are the realities of which he speaks, and what is it he thinks his religion is denying?

To the Archbishop, the main problem is indoctrination of young people. As he points out, quite a few of the people voting “Yes” in the referendum are products of a Catholic parochial education. He’s downright baffled about how someone could go through that entire educational system–all twelve years of elementary education–and still come out totally supporting equal rights for all human beings.

He says that “the big challenge” for his religion is “how we get across the message of the Church.” To him, the big problem is that his religion isn’t communicating its message thoroughly enough or correctly. If young people got that message correctly, then there’d be no dissent from that message.

Like Ed Stetzer, the Archbishop is convinced that his religion’s message is totally perfect and pure. The message cannot ever be the problem. So therefore, if someone rejects it, then that person is obviously the problem in the equation. Maybe that person is willfully denying the truth for some ulterior motive like wanting to have unapproved sex without answering to church authorities, or is unable to accept the message because of some emotional failing or shortcoming. In all cases, someone who rejects the pure, perfect message is the problem here. Thus, getting that person to accept the message will mean fixing that person’s shortcomings so it can be accepted.

I’m not sure either of these two luminaries would know reality if it gallumphed up behind them and bit them on their asses (which look remarkably good in those jeans, I swear). But they do both know, at some deeper level, what the Pew Study and the Irish Referendum mean: a serious rejection of the culture war that hardline Christianists started in the first place, and of the assumptions contained in that culture war.

Anti-LGBTQ bigotry was a fight that Christians started specifically to maintain control over society. They tried to define morality and declare, by fiat and dictate, who had it (proper cis/het Mayberry Christians, and in case you think I use that characterization as a strawman, here’s the head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission using the same term) and who did not (atheists, women desiring bodily ownership, LGBTQ folks, you name it). It wasn’t ever about strengthening marriage or making society more stable, happy, and prosperous, because if Christian leaders had really wanted to do any of that, they’d have been doing stuff that actually met those goals. No, the fight against equality for LGBTQ people was always about demonizing an out-group to make the in-group not only more powerful but more difficult to question. Just as the fight to criminalize abortion access has nothing to do with babies and everything to do with controlling women’s bodies and lives, the fight to dehumanize LGBTQ people has nothing to do with strengthening marriage or even with protecting society and everything to do with forcing adherents to make a choice between their own religion and their sense of morality and justice.

While reading the archbishop’s interview, I suddenly realized what the whole referendum–and the Protestant response to the Pew Study–reminded me of:

Middle school politics in a nutshell.

I don’t know if everybody experienced this (and I don’t know if boys do it too in quite this way to other boys), but I traveled a lot as a military brat and was the “new kid” at more schools than I care to remember. In every school, there was at least one pretty, popular girl who was also deeply and mortally insecure. She might be superficially friends with someone she viewed as a lesser human being, but there’d always be a price for that friendship and it’d always be a ludicrous, non-contextual price that fed her need for drama and power over others:

Sometimes the manipulation involved was just ridiculous and obviously self-serving:
“I’ll be friends with you if you buy that candy bar for me.”
“I’ll be your best friend if you wear pink tomorrow.”

And this manipulation took more insidious turns by deliberately limiting her victims’ freedom:
“I won’t be friends with you if you’re nice to that other girl.”
“I’ll stop talking to you if you join the Math Team.”

Most of the time I saw through these attempts to control and manipulate me and steered clear of these girls. The one or two times my desperation for friends got the better of my common sense, I quickly discovered that giving in to even one of these childish demands would immediately produce a cascade of more and more serious demands–all with higher and higher social repercussions for refusal.

Older people will see my description and know right off the bat that someone who’d say stuff like that isn’t actually offering real friendship at all, only a tenuous association that will last only as long as the dominant party is placated and pandered to. The person doing the placating and pandering may fool him- or herself into thinking that a true friendship is being cultivated, but sooner or later reality will rear its ugly head.

In the same way, the Christian bigots fanning the flames of this culture war don’t give a single shit about the people they say they’re trying to protect. What they do care about is maintaining their own privilege and dominance in society, and if they’re able to make sweeping demands of a culture–even of total outsiders–and have those demands met without backtalk, that means they’re still on top of the heap. If the rank and file mistakenly think that the culture war is about protecting families or “loving” LGBTQ people back into silence if not reformation, then so much the better–these foot soldiers will happily do the dirty work needed at ground level.

In order to buy into bigotry and misogyny, people must first buy into a host of other background teachings that Christianity pushes. Those people don’t even have to be Christians themselves, only identify with those background-level assumptions. That’s why abortion access and LGBTQ rights are culture wars for Christianity. Where people stand on these issues is a factor that demonstrates above all else just how closely people align with the general outlook and goals of the groups pushing the culture wars. The same thing happened back in middle school; in order to buy into a popular girl’s demands, I had to first buy into a bunch of background ideas: that her friendship was valuable, that she had the right to make these demands of me, that it was important to acquiesce to her demands, and so on. When I refused to bow to her demands, I was also rejecting all those other underlying assumptions–and she knew it even better than I did.

So when Christians reject their leaders’ demands to be bigots to prove their loyalty to the cause, their leaders completely and rightly understand that what is happening is a background-level rejection of the entire ideology behind those demands. I’m sure their real fear is of their own rank-and-file seeing this dissension and realizing that there is even a background-level ideology to be questioned.

Christian leaders probably thought they were on totally safe ground by embarking on a loyalty test consisting of stripping women and LGBTQ people of their rights–just as they thought they were on safe ground by making institutionalized racism a loyalty test a couple of generations previously. It probably never occurred to them that one day Christians might start thinking they don’t have a right to judge others or to control other people’s lives and bodies. But nobody will ever accuse them of learning from past mistakes. Hell, they can barely even acknowledge that past mistakes even occurred.

Even now, they’ve set up the dilemma for their followers thusly: rejecting Christian domination means approving, tacitly or explicitly, of homosexuality or of murdering babies. For a while, those boogeyman threats were all people needed to avoid any train of thought that might lead to rejection of that domination. As people learned about LGBTQ people, though, and about the monstrous indignities and injustices that come of denying women their bodily rights, and about the wholesale dishonesty and nastiness of the people and groups pushing those agendas, those boogeymen became way less powerful than they were once.

The unexpected had happened.

Christian leaders’ loyalty test, designed to strengthen in-group loyalties and ties, instead backfired by alienating and repelling their own group members as well as society at large.

They pushed too hard. Combined with a variety of high-profile scandals, their own ultra-polarized rhetoric is turning off their more moderate followers–who, while passionate about their faith, are really not thrilled to see their churches turning into self-serving, self-congratulatory hate groups. And, too, more Christians are becoming aware–thanks in part to passionate warnings like this one–of how fundagelicals have been expertly manipulated into becoming tools of what Frank Schaeffer has called the shadowy “Biblical Patriarchy Restoration Movement.” The further right and the more politicized fundagelical Christianity becomes, the more alienated and offended these more loving Christians will be and the more likely they’ll be to leave.

But Christian leaders have shot themselves in the feet at the exit door, too. They’ve successfully taught these moderate followers that if a Christian is anything less than “on fire” and totally zealous, that there is no point to worshiping at all. So these alienated, offended followers who get turned off of polarized right-wing Christianity (be it fundagelicalism or hardline Catholicism) are far more likely to turn into Nones and withdraw from overt group identification with the religion at all (if not actually deconverting) than they are to leave for more liberal or mainstream Christian groups.

At this point, though, these leaders are so invested in the culture war they started that they can’t just stop and turn around with a mea culpa! and hope everybody just forgives and forgets. They’ve identified anti-LGBTQ bigotry and misogyny as their group’s two identifying markers, and it’s much harder to untangle core group markers than it is to establish them. They’ve successfully indoctrinated their base of believers into all the underlying assumptions that go along with these culture wars. People join this kind of religion not because it’s exciting rather than boring (sorry, Matt Walsh), or because it’s thought to “preach the gospel” (that’s Christianese for “a very hardcore interpretation of the Bible that by wild coincidence happens to agree with my own”). They join because its values align with their values and it gives them permission to act the way they wanted to act anyway. If its values change and they don’t want to align with those new values, they’ll leave just like loving Christians are leaving now and for the same reason.

Even when one of these leaders does actually try to soften that hardline stance and withdraw a little from the worst aspects of their culture war, it is a delicate surgical process that cannot touch those markers’ dozens of underlying teachings and beliefs. So only the surface rhetoric changes, because otherwise they’d totally alienate their core base of current believers–which is why they come off as so bafflingly and hilariously clueless when they offer up empty, mealy-mouthed platitudes of “Christian love” for LGBTQ people, for example, when they still believe LGBTQ people are ickie subhumans who don’t deserve full civil rights. When these platitudes get rejected, they act all outraged that we’d be so unforgiving–because they can’t even see their own blind spots or hypocrisy. They don’t understand that we can tell only the surface rhetoric changed. But even if they did a total about-face on their hypocritical stances, there’s no assurance at all that the previously-alienated Christians would return; the hypocritical extremists’ leaders can see how the mainstream churches are doing, after all, and still mistakenly think it’s because of evil liberalism. That’s a chance they’re not going to be willing to take. No, they’ll remain hardcore and extremist; they’ll chase off the impure elements while retaining at least a decent-sized bloc of believers.

They can’t count on love to grow their churches, but they can count on hatred to at least keep a stagnant, even more self-congratulatory minority warming the pews.

They just don’t realize, still, how small that minority is going to be, and how utterly discredited–and how completely society is rejecting their most correctly-formulated, correctly-stated attempts at conveying their “message” of hate, overreach, and exclusion.

We ought to congratulate these Christian leaders on how superbly they’ve managed to leave absolutely nothing to chance here. They’ve painted themselves completely into a corner and there is no way whatsoever to escape their death spiral without seriously pissing off a lot of people one way or another. Their complete mastery of the no-win religious version of the Kobayashi Maru is quite impressive.

Country by country and state by state, community by community and heart by heart, love is winning.

And this time the country rejecting that message of hate was a country known worldwide for its intense religious devotion, populated by young people who’ve heard the message their entire lives from their religious leaders, and who certainly knew what that message was. And they still rejected that loyalty test, and all the assumptions that went into it. Though Christian leaders don’t appear to know what this slap in the face means, we do, and it ought to give us hope that the times, they are indeed a-changing.

We’ll be talking about apologies next time, because we’ve heard some doozies recently from both religious and non-religious people, and I hope you’ll join me.

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