I couldn’t help but notice a major shift in the tenor of how Christians are engaging with general culture in the wake of the Supreme Court case about equal marriage–and a new discussion emerging from the ashes of that decision. Today we’re going to talk about that shift and what that discussion is, and what that discussion is leading toward for them–and us.
Right-wing Christians had ached for exactly the court case coming their way with the case colloquially known as Obergefell v. Hodges. It was to be the culmination of many years of smear campaigns, lies, misinformation, and deliberate cruelty perpetrated by Christians in a baldfaced, hamfisted attempt to grab back what little power they could while their religion still had a shot of regaining its former mastery of society.
They knew, dimly, somewhere in the back of their minds, that just about every single other lawsuit like Obergefell had failed. But you see, they were praying extra-dextra super-duper hard that Jesus would magically strong-arm the Supreme Court justices into declaring that no, same-sex couples did not have the same rights to marriage that other people had. They even
held their breath till they turned blue fasted in hopes of persuading their magical bully friend that their request was important enough that he needed to get off the toilet and quit giving babies malaria and focus on their demands.*
One thing fundagelicals are really good at is belligerently clinging to a doomed cause while bellowing about how Jesus is going to totally turn that Titanic around for them because blah blah wonder-working god blah blah MEERKULS YAWL blah blah.
That is not what happened, obviously. In the words of one Christian writer, Mark Galli, “We lost this one.” He advised his readers not to “sulk” over their loss. He was one of the cooler heads; his peers were busy having “meltdowns” like the tantrum Bryan Fischer threw on Twitter comparing the court decision giving same-sex couples equal rights as opposite-sex couples to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. All in all, it was a hilarious spectacle of sour grapes and histrionics, and it gave non-Christians quite a few laughs as well as giving sane Christians cringes that could probably be heard twanging from upper orbit.
But Mark Galli was wrong.
It wasn’t just “this one” that fundagelical Christians lost.
Shortly after the Obergefell decision, a Kentucky County Clerk named Kim Davis decided to throw a wobbler for Jesus by refusing to do her job of issuing marriage licenses to each and every citizen of her area who was legally qualified to get one. She not only wanted to deny legally-eligible couples marriage licenses, but she also wanted to impede and hamper her entire office so that nobody in that entire county could issue the licenses–because the problem wasn’t ever “her conscience,” but rather her desire to be as big a hindrance as possible to people she thought Jesus hated as much as she did.
Immediately the Religious Right, no slouches in the hate department themselves, scrambled to her side. They provided legal aid, children’s choirs and praise rallies, and untold amounts of moral support to a person who categorically did not deserve that kind of adoration and praise.
At the time, I was absolutely repulsed by the grotesque display put on by the Christians who supported Ms. Davis. They were far too happy about what was, in reality, the denial of rights for people who Christians had been marginalizing and demonizing for decades. It was like watching bullies in a classroom rejoicing to the point of losing their shit because the teacher had deliberately looked the other way so they could continue to bully the smaller kids in the classroom. The sheer malice of the display never left me, nor their belligerent and buffoonish posturing and chest-thumping.
But even then, I knew that they were this over-the-top about celebrating Ms. Davis’ hate-flecked lawlessness for a reason: they knew that the world was changing, and they had to take whatever “victories” they could, where they could, because there wouldn’t be a whole lot of those “victories” to come.
Indeed, Ms. Davis’ string of losses have been part of what has turned out to be a long, long losing streak for their side. An appeals court just turned down her latest attempt to block the issuing of marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and it certainly doesn’t seem likely that any other courts are going to be terribly sympathetic to her struggles as a poor, misbegotten, misunderstood, put-upon bigot-for-Jesus.
Oh, but it gets even worse than that. Not only is Kim Davis losing her struggle to deny Americans civil rights whenever she doesn’t happen to think they deserve those rights, but her cause is starting to repel even members of her own tribe–and the country as a whole!
See, before Kim Davis and her outrageous bigotry came to light, Americans were as a whole surprisingly sympathetic to the plight of a smug, puritanical, bigot-for-Jesus who was forced by law to serve people she thought were ickie and undeserving of her exalted attention. Just a few months ago,
49 percent [of Americans surveyed] said officials with religious objections should be exempt from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples and 47 percent said they should be required to issue them. Now, just 41 percent favor an exemption and 56 percent think they should be required to issue the licenses.
Moreover, the percentage of Americans who think that it’s more important to protect “religious freedom” than it is to protect people’s real civil rights has dropped from 56% to 51%. That might not sound like a lot, but remember, we’re only talking about a few months’ difference. The real difference between those months was the emergence of bigots-for-Jesus like Kim Davis and her supporters, who are putting a real face on exactly what it means to deny Americans civil rights. This group of Christians has gone from being the most important voice in the conversation to being denied, worked around, ignored, and mocked–and it’s happening incredibly quickly.
That’s why there’s been a sudden rash of “woe is us” self-pitying talk from right-wing Christians. “Jesus Freaks Huddle for the Gaypocalypse,” trumpets a Daily Beast article that details a conference called (no shit) “Freedom 2015: National Religious Liberties Conference,” organized by bigots who are very, very angry about being “persecuted” for refusing to follow the law in their businesses, organizations, military units, and country. The conference features, apparently, “Targeted Men & Women of Faith” like the Oregon bakers who got fined for discriminatory business practices and a military guy who disobeyed a direct order from a superior to punish someone for doing something bigoted, because nothing says “targeted” like “deliberately breaking a rule and then crying about being punished for breaking it.” Mike “Pearl-Clutcher” Huckabee is showing up, as is Bobby “Stupid Is as Stupid Does” Jindal and Ted “Baby Filibuster” Cruz, all jockeying to be the ultra-right-wing Republican who can pander the hardest to all those furious, weepy fundagelicals.
This conference is a childish and petulant display of distorted anecdotes and purposefully deceptive mis-tellings of what really happened in every case, and the Christian Right is eating it up with a spoon. But outsiders are watching too, and my overwhelming question is this: do these Christians realize we can totally hear them talking?
Because we totally can.
But they don’t care who can hear them being hateful and mean. Something important is happening–and it’s so important that they aren’t even pretending anymore that their overriding goal is persuading and converting outsiders to their ranks.
They’re Catching On, Finally.
A lot of this whining and posturing is happening in response to Christians’ growing perception of the serious decline in both their religion’s membership numbers and its influence on popular culture.
The Pew report that came out earlier this year hit a huge nerve in Christian leaders–in a way that no other previous reports had. Though it said much the same things we’d heard before about America becoming a post-Christian nation, the Pew report said something that finally got Christian leaders to pay attention: Christianity is losing a lot, as in a lot a lot, of people, and there doesn’t appear to be a single damned thing they can do about it. The report outlined how fast the Nones are growing, how quickly Christianity is bleeding members, and how ineffectual Christian evangelism efforts really are in developed nations.
1. Evangelicals are bleeding slightly less, percentage-wise, than other flavors of the religion, so obviously evangelicalism is doing great! Praise Jesus!
Except it isn’t–evangelical groups are losing members too, and whatever it is gaining is happening through childbearing and cannibalizing other denominations. The SBC’s been in a self-described “baptism drought” for many years now–it’s not even keeping up with population growth in this country.
2. Churches are actually only losing nominal Christians, who don’t matter anyway. Who cares about them?
Except that’s not true either. As even some of their own number are trying to tell them, quite a few people are leaving not because they’re wanting unapproved sex or are less than enthusiastic about Jesus but because they’re disgusted and disheartened by what they’re seeing in Christian churches. Even if this excuse were true, which it is not, then it’d still be weird to see Christians gloating about all the lukewarm people in their pews who obviously think that their teachings aren’t true or relevant. That said, it is true that after evangelical groups get done with driving away the people who aren’t totally on board with evangelicalism’s simple universal message of hatred, control-lust, exclusion, shame, violence, rabid nationalism, and misogyny, what remains is a core group of deeply committed, deeply polarized people who now lack the constraints once provided by the mere presence of their wiser, more loving peers. I’m not sure it’s so awesome to crow about driving off everyone who doesn’t totally toe the party line, but then again, I’m not the one who thinks slavery is freedom and peace is war.
Then right on the heels of that Pew report came the Obergefell decision.
Christians like to start culture wars as a way of proving to themselves and others that they’re the kings of the hill. I don’t honestly know what fundagelicals especially would do with themselves if they didn’t have someone to hate and someone to fight. They need to see themselves as a beleaguered, put-upon minority of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ battling the increasingly-powerful forces of evil. The two particular culture wars they’ve focused on over the past few decades have spoken to their increasingly desperate deathgrip on American society: LGBTQ rights and women’s rights.
Christians’ battle against LGBTQ rights, exemplified by marriage equality, speaks to their attempt to be the only group allowed to define masculinity and manhood. Trying to reverse women’s rights, exemplified by abortion access rights and contraception access, use, and coverage, is a way for Christians to define femininity and womanhood. Both fights speak to Christians’ attempt to define what relationships should look like, how people should look and act, who owns whose bodies in our culture, and how Americans should have sex (and when, and with whom, and why, and how).
Those are really big concepts–and Christians, at one time, dominated the conversation we had about those ideas. But when they realized they were losing their grip on that power, they began these culture wars as a way of reasserting control.
Women who have full bodily liberties and LGBTQ people who refuse to go back into their respective closets are a threat to Christians’ entire social structure, which depends mightily on injustice, inequality, and rigid conceptualizations of gender roles and relationships. You’ve probably heard me refer to these flaws as Christianity’s “bonus plan,” because Christian leaders usually try to position these teachings as positives that will only benefit those who try to follow them. If a person or couple tries and fails to conform to these teachings, then those people are the problem rather than the teachings. Those teachings come straight from the mouth of Jesus, Christian leaders teach, so obviously they are perfect and unchanging. If the teachings feel hugely unfair, unjust, mean-spirited, abusive, one-sided, and prone to creating an environment in which predators and abusers can operate unfettered, well, that is just a product of flawed and sinful human beings trying to conform to perfect divine teachings. TRUE CHRISTIANS™ would never have trouble following fundagelical teachings or ever endure or commit abuse because of them–so by definition if abuse erupts in the life of someone trying to follow those teachings, sin’s involved somewhere.
If people stop buying into these teachings, then the ruling class will suddenly find its cushy throne threatened.
So don’t wonder or be confused about why Christians–especially right-wing Christians, who preach a more-extreme version of these flaws than other flavors of the religion do–have chosen to focus on the two culture wars that they have. They didn’t light on these topics by chance or accident. That’s why their entire “religious freedom” conference is about how awful it is that they’re not allowed to discriminate against and persecute gay people anymore–because they know that this one particular “freedom” is an indicator of how powerful and dominant fundagelicals are in modern American culture.
And they’re starting to realize that their attempt to dominate American culture has failed beyond all recovering.
More than loving one’s neighbor, more than serving the poor, more than feeding the hungry, more than even worshiping Jesus, right-wing Christianity now sees, as its mission statement, perpetuating itself and its power structure.
So when Obergefell came out, all hell broke loose.
I really think that Christians had been sure all along that once Americans found themselves teetering at the edge of the abyss, they’d back away from it and go back to fundagelical teachings again and Everything Would Go Back To The Way It Was Before, Back Before Gays and Borshun Ruined Everything. If nothing else, I think they thought Jesus Power would magically fix their self-created problem.
It’s not like Christians didn’t know well before either the Pew Report or Obergefell that they’d lost the culture war about equal marriage. Even a spokesperson for the fundagelical hate group Focus on the Family said exactly that back in May. They were late to the game, though; as far back as 2013, the SBC was suggesting that their tribe had lost the war on gay people and now needed to redouble their war on women, which still seemed (and seems) winnable.
Still, one can know something and not quite have it hit home, and that seems to be what happened with Obergefell and fundagelicals. That’s when they realized that most Americans not only reject their religion but also don’t buy into fundagelical teachings about sex, gender roles, relationships, and inequality-as-the-bonus-plan. And they are starting to throw some grade-A wobblers about this sudden realization that they are no longer the dominant voices in American culture–and that American culture itself, as a whole, is moving way past them in a way that does not seem to be salvageable.
Oh, won’t someone think of all the bigots? They have it so rough nowadays. Poor little puddies.
Step one is admitting that there’s a problem, I suppose. We’re going to talk about their two general strategies for surviving in a post-Christian America next, because of course either solution is going to involve trampling the rest of us somehow. Seeya Tuesday!
* Of course, the “traditional marriage” group here didn’t demand that their members actually stop eating or anything–a “spiritual fast” in which people only thought about not eating was acceptable, as was merely abstaining from a treasured foodstuff like chocolate. But I’m not even mad here. Fundagelicals talk a big game about “spiritual warfare,” and I view it as a good thing that they are this seriously incapable of causing themselves the slightest bit of distress or inconvenience in the name of harming others. I’d rather they lack follow-through; it tells me that not only do they not really buy into what they’re saying, but that they’re not going to do themselves or anybody any serious harm while they’re flailing around.