The boundaries of evangelical identity

The boundaries of evangelical identity November 22, 2011

A few more quick items on the way the “big four” issues — abortion, homosexuality, evolution, environment — create the boundaries of evangelical identity in America, determining the shape of that community far more than any doctrinal, pietistic or theological characteristic.

1. Tony Jones: “An Open Letter to Evangelical College Students

A year from now, we in Minnesota will be voting on an amendment to our state constitution. If passed, that amendment will define “marriage” as exclusively between a man and a woman. … I’m on one side of this issue, while many Christians whom I trust and respect are on the other side.

The point is this: there are many students and faculty at your schools who oppose this amendment; indeed, there are many students and faculty at your college who support gay marriage. Believe it or not, there are even gay students at your school. …

But I fear that, in spite of stated commitments to academic freedom, the administrations of your colleges will not facilitate an environment on campus where you or your professors can speak freely about your opposition to the amendment, nor your support for gay civil union and/or marriage. I fear that the threat of reprisals against students and faculty are too great, and that you will be condemned to silence.

Jones, who frequently writes in support of marriage equality, hopes to create a safe space for these evangelical students in Minnesota to be able to speak freely. Some might say that his fears of “reprisals” are overblown and that he’s overreacting based on media hype inaccurately portraying evangelicals as hyper-politicized. But I don’t think he’s wrong. Rich Cizik knows he’s not wrong. And the many GLBT students at Minnesota’s six evangelical colleges know he’s not wrong.

Students and faculty at those colleges could get in trouble if they are “outed” as supporters of full legal equality for GLBT couples. And the schools would likely face pressure and coercion from conservative donors to get the students back “in line” with the only officially acceptable position.

Here again we see that dissent on one of the big four issues is not permitted within American evangelicalism. That makes the official stance of opposition to same-sex marriage an article of faith and an indicator of evangelical identity. It doesn’t matter if you’re a born-again Christian, if you do not oppose same-sex marriage, then those who hold power in the evangelical community will not accept you as a member of that community. Doctrine ain’t got nothing to do with it.

2. Mark Achetmeier: “Coming Out as an Evangelical Supporter of Gay Rights

The metaphor of “outing” employed there reflects the chilling effect that mandatory uniformity on the “big four” has in the evangelical community. Achtemeier, who is ordained in the mainline Presbyterian Church USA, is probably safe speaking out in support of GLBT rights, but if he were a minister in any of the 45,000 churches or 40 denominations affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals then this article would likely have cost him his job, his pension and his prospects of future employment. (See again Cizik, Richard; or Bakker, Jay.)

The scope of this chilling effect when it comes to the “big four” can be seen in poll results showing that more than a third of white American evangelicals support access to legal abortion in their communities. You won’t ever hear that 37 percent of evangelicals speaking up about this. They might manage to whisper such things anonymously to a confidential pollster, but saying them out loud is forbidden.

3. Ed Brayton: “What Convinced Me — And You

The link there takes you to Brayton’s personal testimony which, in his case, is the story of how he came to leave Christianity.

So what was it that really did it for me? Science was a big part of it. Though the Methodist church is considered a relatively liberal denomination, the Christianity I was taught was fairly fundamentalist. The flood was a literally true story, as was the creation account in Genesis — and it all happened in the last 6,000 years. So when I learned that the evidence is strongly opposed to that idea, I had no fallback position. It was either true or it was not, and the evidence was very clearly on the side of science.

I’m grateful to Brayton and to the many other former believers who shared their personal testimonies at Greta Christina’s blog. Their stories are diverse, but many of them echo the one Brayton tells. They were introduced to Christianity as a “package deal” inextricably bound up with one or more of those big four issues — usually evolution. And when the insupportable parts of that package deal crumbled — as insupportable things are wont to do — they had “no fallback position” except to leave the whole package deal behind.

This is what Karl Giberson is referring to when he says “Creationists Drive Young People out of the Church.” If one is forced to choose between faith and reality, then it makes sense to choose reality because it makes sense to make sense. That’s one reason — albeit a secondary one — why it’s cruelly wrong to force people to make that choice by insisting that Christianity can exist only as a package deal with opposition to abortion, homosexuality, evolution and environmentalism.

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