Bigoted Christians are well aware, by now, of the censure of the public at large regarding their culture war against LGBTQ people. The latest polling indicates that even a lot of Christians now support LGBTQ causes like equal marriage while non-affiliated people (such as atheists and Nones) overwhelmingly do. The younger the person asked and the less religious, the more likely that person is to support LGBTQ equality. As culture wars go, this one’s in the can.
And Christian bigots are none too happy about it.
This one issue has turned Christians against Christians in a way that I’ve never seen any other issue affect them. A sub-tribe of right-wing Christians has evolved to hold the culture-war torch aloft. This part of Christianity views itself as the last bastion of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ and one that is fighting for ideological supremacy. Though the religion as a whole is absolutely hemorrhaging members, these extremists are losing people at a slightly slower rate than the more-progressive branches of the religion are, so as the religion shrinks as a whole these extremists will represent a bigger and bigger wedge of the Christianity pie. But even those believers know that their religion is hurting. They need a way to make their culture war sound more acceptable if they are to have any hope of retaining their onetime dominance over others.
Enter “third way” Christianity: the fashionable new way to sell bigotry.
Preston Sprinkle is clearly trying to find a way to square himself with his tribe’s culture war in his book, People to Be Loved, so I wanted to touch on what the “third way” is, how it came about, where he differs and agrees with it, and why the idea ultimately fails before I talk more about his various suggestions for Christians and LGBTQ people.
Side A, Side B.
Most people would likely say that there are only two real ways to go on the issue of rights for any group: for or against. Either someone embraces the idea that all people deserve the exact same rights and should be treated equally in society and under the law, or else someone thinks that some groups do not deserve full rights and equal treatment on the basis of some characteristic about them.
That idea definitely applies to LGBTQ rights. A shorthand for the first viewpoint is “affirming,” meaning that the person or group accepts that LGBTQ people should have equal rights and protections and that LGBTQ people should feel free to pursue the same sorts of relationships that non-LGBTQ people do; you’ll also sometimes see Christians call this viewpoint “Side A.” The second viewpoint becomes “non-affirming,” meaning that the person or group thinks that LGBTQ people should continue to face discrimination and should not receive the same rights or pursue the same relationships that non-LGBTQ people do; as you might guess, Christians sometimes call this viewpoint “Side B.”
Alas, these non-affirming Christians are starting to figure out that their biases and prejudices are now working against their own cause. A blogger on a Christian site declared some time ago that “staggering numbers of America’s young people are rejecting the Christian faith,” and the only change since then seems to be how quickly that rejection is happening. It seems clear by now that many of the religion’s leaders are at least dimly aware that young people are rejecting primarily the obsession their elders have with policing and controlling other people’s private lives–especially the lives of LGBTQ people. One survey discovered that 70% of young people think that religious groups are “alienating young adults by being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues.”
I’m just surprised it’s that low of a percentage. Barna discovered that 91% of non-Christian young people and even 80% of young Christians saw Christians generally as “anti-homosexual,” with many thinking that Christians were hateful and contemptuous of gay and lesbian people; moreover, this was the most common perception that all young people had of Christianity. That perception is very likely why the phrase “Christians are known more for what they hate than for who they love” (and variants thereof) has gotten popular in some circles.
Another Word for It.
There’s another word for people who think that a particular group simply doesn’t merit the same rights and get the same protections as they do, all based on some characteristic, though, isn’t there?
Yes, there is.
That word is “bigots.”
At this point, as we discussed recently, anti-gay bigotry has become a signal trait of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ and is equated directly with one’s dedication to Jesus. Expressing bigoted views is, in large part, how a right-wing Christian signals to everyone else that he or she belongs to the correct tribe. Opposing anti-bigoted people and trying to halt equal rights is a big part of what these Christians do with their time. One cannot be a good and proper Christian without opposing LGBTQ rights and embracing bigotry.
Toxic Christians’ anti-gay bigotry is so important to their self-definition as TRUE CHRISTIANS™ that they can’t let it go, soften it, or redefine it in any way without being seen as compromisers–which would be the worst thing ever to people who consider fanaticism, reality-denial, self-delusion, and extremism to be positive things. Now, though, they are the equivalent of a company that manufactures buggy-whips at a time when cars are starting to become popular. They can’t retool themselves without significant risks and losses, and even if they could there’s no guarantee they’d hit upon the right formula to win back those who have left–nor that they could win back enough people to replace the outraged bigots who leave because they’re furious over the compromising liberals who would be taking over their once-secure groups.
Less progressive Christians might be indignant about these facts, even outraged, sure, but they do know that most people are not on board with their ideas. They also know that more and more people are trying to move away from bigotry and into full acceptance of other people, which means that those more-accepting people used to be part of the culture war and now are not, which means that they are leaving the bigoted tribe and moving into less-bigoted groups.
I really think that what drives toxic Christians the angriest is when their own tribemates don’t fall into line. They may cry crocodile tears over non-believers rejecting their bigotry-for-Jesus, they may have a million and one ways to dehumanize and belittle outsiders, but ultimately they know that we won’t ever support what they’re doing. When Christians themselves reject the culture war, though, that’s when the big (metaphorical) guns get pulled out–as we’ll see in our continued discussion of People to Be Loved.
Bigots are people too. And people don’t like thinking of themselves as the bad guys in any equation. Christian bigots, in particular, may feel additionally stung by the label of “bigot” because they rationalize their bigotry by saying that it’s orders from the Bible itself, which is as good as saying that their god told them to be bigots, and their god can’t possibly order anybody to do anything immoral or wrong (yes, yes, I know, he apparently commanded people to do terrible things all the time when he was younger, but this is what they think). By definition, whatever Christians think he is ordering people to do must be morally pure and virtuous. Since even they know that bigotry is bad, they struggle with reconciling the idea of it being a divine command with the reality of its badness.
These Christians are in a pickle, all right!
They can’t let go of their bigotry, but they see that this position is costing them big-time in terms of credibility, numbers, money, and influence.
What to do, what to do….
The Third Way.
A few years ago, when the costs of Christian bigotry were starting to become clear, a few enterprising Christians began trying to redeem their tribe’s tattered reputation by setting out to find a way to express bigotry without being seen as bigots.
Oh, they already had “love the sinner, hate the sin” as a way to continue being judgmental and condemning of others without being labeled as judgmental and condemning. But that shopworn old mantra doesn’t fool people quite as well as it used to, and it didn’t include an effective rationalization for being hateful anti-gay bigots. No, something different–something new–was needed here.
A few years ago I began hearing about that new and different idea. At first it was called “a third alternative” to being anti-gay or fully gay-affirming. That shortened quickly to being known as “the third way.” It was presented as the alternative to fighting tooth and nail against gay rights or else losing the idea that there is anything sinful or immoral about gay “activity,” which almost always means male-on-male sex, which in turn means anal sex. (You’ll often see Christians phrasing things this way. Nobody is actually gay in their world; instead, people do gay things or feel tempted to do them.)
This so-called third way is hard to nail down, being as it is a permission slip to be bigots without getting called out for being bigots. Usually it means Christians opposing gay rights and equality in a nicer way while among themselves “agreeing to disagree” on the topic entirely, as one pastor put it. It can take many directions, but usually means allowing LGBTQ people to attend their churches but voting against LGBTQ rights and protections when they come up at the ballot box–while at the same time accepting bigots-for-Jesus in their ranks without arguing with them or trying to change their minds. Some “third way” pastors accept married same-sex couples and trans folks, while others grudgingly allow them to join the church but don’t recognize their marriages or transitions or encourage or support them in marrying or transitioning–or consider them full members in good standing. As with most ideas in Christianity, there’s no single monolithic view of the matter.
Why the Third Way is Doomed.
First, Christian bigots themselves will see any softening of the message of bigotry as a compromise–and reject it.
You can see their resistance in the comments of any blog post or news article about the “third way.” They are downright outraged about the mere suggestion of changing anything about what they’re doing. It’s really that simple. They have bought completely into identifying themselves with their culture war. They see themselves as holy paladins, and everyone else as the enemies of Jesus.
Second, this kinder, nicer bigotry won’t fool anybody.
I don’t think it’s even meant to do so.
Non-bigoted people will easily pick up undercurrents of bigotry in the ranks of churches that give any permission whatsoever to bigots to be hateful and exclusionary. They already know exactly how thoroughly bigots tend to dominate, overrun, and pollute whatever environment they inhabit. In the same way that Christian bloggers like Preston Sprinkle alienate LGBTQ folks and non-bigots alike by even allowing bigots to run rampant over their comment sections, churches that don’t take very careful aim at bigotry in their ranks will quickly sour the group for anyone who doesn’t buy into that rhetoric.
In the few years since I began seeing this whole “third way” push begin, though, I haven’t seen it get a lot of traction. The religion as a whole is still losing thousands of Christians a day. Churches are still closing all over the place, with many of the ones remaining open struggling to survive. Pastors who dare try the idea out on their congregations are seeing schisms erupt in their churches as bigoted members simply leave and their parent denominational leaders toss their churches out of the group. I haven’t seen a lot of new members flocking to “third way” churches as a result of seeing this supposed change of heart, any more than I’ve heard about the long-term success of any groups that are already trying to mix Side A and Side B Christians.
In short, evangelicals themselves have rejected the idea that there is possible some way to turn away from their culture war without softening their opposition to equality for all people, and non-evangelicals won’t settle for anything less than an end to bigotry.
Preston Sprinkle has rejected the idea of a “third way” generally. Here he explains that he sure doesn’t agree with full acceptance of gay people who refuse to take his suggestions, a position which is typically characterized as the “traditional view.” But he doesn’t like being lumped in with Christians holding the “traditional view” either. He asks in that blog post:
Maybe there is another way to maintain a traditional, non-affirming sexual ethic and promote the scandalous acceptance of Christ. . .
…which sure sounds to me like someone trying to have things both ways.
Like a lot of deep ideas Christians spout, though, it’s hard to nail down exactly what this “scandalous acceptance” looks like in the real world, and his commenters figured that out very quickly–with one calling his explanation of his position “verbal gymnastics” and another complaining that he didn’t provide enough information to “guide action.” Christians certainly don’t often feel troubled by that exact problem in their conceptualization of commands like “be in submission,” but this particular idea is way too new to have become one of their well-you-just-do-it types of ideas.
If you’re expecting Dr. Sprinkle’s book to explain any better, then you’re in for some disappointment. He takes almost 150 pages to get around to declaring that while having “same-sex attraction” might be okay, it’s totally sinful to act on those attractions. On p. 149, he specifically compares his notion of SSA to blindness, saying it “might be part of a disordered creation but still contain the positive potential for uniquely seeing the world.”
Yes, he totally goes there.
Being gay is like being blind: it’s a sign of what he calls a “disordered creation,” but hey, good things can still come out of disorder sometimes. I admit, this whole comparison simply floored me. It’s hard to imagine anything more offensive and off-base coming out of someone who is trying his best to be the Nice Christian in the bigotry equation.
He goes on to refer to “same-sex attraction” as something that can “overwhelm” even people who pray extra-hard for Jesus to make them attracted to the opposite sex (p. 151), and then he expresses his admiration of people–even gay and affirming Christians–who say they arrived at their position after much Bible study and prayer. (Ain’t all that sooooo evolved of him? YES. YES IT IS. TELL HIM HE IS
PRETTY EVOLVED. NOW. TELL HIM. HE IS SO EVOLVED. YES. YES HE IS.)
Ultimately, he does quite a few of those “verbal gymnastics,” making it very difficult to say exactly what he thinks or suggests. He seems sometimes to take quite a bit of perverse pride in refusing to be straightforward, like it’s this little word-game he’s playing with very real people’s lives, families, safety, security, and civil rights.
In the end, he decides after much turning around and around that churches that regard the Bible as authoritative (like he does) and agree that right-wing Christians’ idea of sexual immorality is correct (like he does) must reject people who engage in what he calls “same-sex relations.” He definitely hates to say it. He even says it’s super-painful to come to that conclusion, so we can totally tell he means it. He tries to salvage his view by saying that to be consistent, churches that go this route would also have to eject a number of straight people who engage in other forms of immorality–such as the folks who “drop unchristian bombs” in the comment sections of blogs just like his, as he himself puts it! (I guess he doesn’t mean that part, since he is doing nothing whatsoever to rein in exactly those people on his blog.)
He tries at length to make this exclusion sound grudging and sad rather than the foregone conclusion it always was. He declares that he won’t “demonize or condemn” Christians who disagree with his conclusions (as long as they prayed very very hard about it and studied the Bible a lot). But in the end, he must follow orders! As long as it’s done in what he calls “the context of love and tears and truth,” this rejection is divinely-mandated and demanded of Christians. The only real question for him is how exactly to follow orders.
He thinks he might have found a way to follow his orders without being seen as a hateful bigot-for-Jesus.
That’s what we’re going to talk about next, because as you might guess, your Captain is not super-impressed. See you next week!