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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  • Anonymous

    So many related threads… hard to know upon which one to comment!

    Re: Evangelical Identity, my observations as an outsider among Evangelicals support Fred’s claims re: the Big Four Beliefs.  Background: I was raised Catholic in a small, liberal, solidly Vatican II parish which had crosses burned on its property when I was a small child (1970s). I went to high school where some people, some of them honors students, didn’t know that Catholics were Christians until they were in high school and where some who did know denied it anyway.

    Evolution: I’d been taught by my parents and my priests that evolution is fully compatible with Christian belief, that the creation myths in Genesis divinely inspired metaphors describing the evolution of the cosmos and then of life on earth, so in junior high when I showed a friend of mine a short story I wrote about a time traveler who befriends Darwin, and then, later on–or rather, earlier–witnesses hominids using tools and discovering fire, I was utterly flabbergasted to be asked, “Do you believe that nonsense?” “You’re not a Creationist, are you?” “I’m a Christian, so yes.”

    In 9th grade biology, I asked my teacher when we’d be getting to evolution. He gestured to some posters about Lamarckian vs. Darwinian evolution and told me there was chapter toward the end of the book I could read, but that we wouldn’t be covering it in class. Why not? “Well, we don’t really have time, and also, I don’t believe in it,” he said, “I’m a Christian.”

    Abortion: In high school, a bunch of kids put up gruesome antiabortion posters and stickers (!?!?!) on their lockers. In response, some of us put pro-choice signage on ours. Guess who was ordered to take their signage down? We were. The anti-choicers? “I can’t make them take it down,” the VP told us, “Because it’s their religion.” “Freedom of conscious is part of my religion,” I said. “That’s not the same thing,” he said, meaning, I guess, “Their parents will raise hell. Yours won’t.”

    Teh Gayz: As a Catholic, I was inculcated with the “love the sinner, hate the sin,” meme. The fundamentalists had a “hate the sinner, hate the sin, let God sort’em out–in hell” attitude. Even though, practically speaking, I was as bigoted and homophobic as they were, because I allowed that God does love fags despite them being fags because God loves everybody, I was “in error.” No quarter could be given to the gay menace. [Note: I no longer hold to the love the sinner, hate the sin” view. Because homosexuality is not a sin.]

    Environmentalism: This wasn’t a big deal in the 80s. It wasn’t something on the radar of fundamentalists I knew in junior or senior high, but I guess I started to notice it in the 90s when I was in college when the College Republicans vandalized the humanities building with a hodgepodge of anti-feminist, anti-minority, anti-environmental, and “pro-Christian” messages. I was talking to a friend of mine with whom I had went to high school. He’d always been religious and observant, but was still cool, more or less, not a fundamentalist. He’d been my Dungeon Master and had a fondness of Yngwie Malmsteem. I made some derisive comment about how stupid and nonsensical the stunt was, and said something like “And what’s God going to think about what we’ve done to His Creation?” My friend then launched into a tirade about how environmentalism is a just front for godless Communists who hate Capitalism and crypto-pagans who hate Christianity and both groups want to destroy Our Way Of Life.

  • Tonio

    The choice being forced on those young fundamentalists is actually between reality and dogma, not faith. Their churches are acting like controlling, narcissistic parents. Our host and Giberson note that this behavior is also self-destructive for these tyrannical churches. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing in the long run.

  • Jim

    I would rather a young person turn out an atheist who clothes the naked, feeds the hungry and offers comfort to the bereaved than a theist who can quote Ken Ham’s arguments word for word but does nothing for the poor because, they “will always be with you.”

    That said, there’s a young guy at my church that I’m trying to help come to grips with his burgeoning liberality. He’s already pretty much dediced that he’s not a creationist and is concerned that this means he’s damned . . .

  • Anonymous

    This seems like the perfect time to recommend Raised Right by Alisa Harris (who has a Patheos blog as well), which Fred has mentioned before. Maybe she and her family and community and college were also hyper-polical exceptions.

  • As an atheist, I’d say that a fellow atheist who helps the least of these has turned out more Christian than Pat Robertson. People like Fred show every day that one can be Christian without being a monster, as well, despite the impression one might receive to the contrary by the loudest and most conservative facets of the religion. I send slacktivist links to my fellow heathen and apostates, especially the ones like my roomie who have an understandable and unfortunate gut-reaction to anything ‘Christian’. (See: Party, Tea and Constitution, The.)

    It’s a tragedy and a crime that anybody would come to believe they’re damned because they shake off fundamentalist or conservative bullshit and come to a more humane and just understanding of the world. That’s the sort of corrosive, evil-as-disease that leaves people traumatized for life, even long after they’ve won free of the church and thought they’d broken its operating system.

  • Reverend Ref

    I’ve read the two posts on Evangelical identity that Fred put up and their comments. 

    I was raised in the Episcopal Church and never left.  I don’t remember there ever being any Issues put forth as being necessary to believing one way or another in order to be a proper Episcopalian or Christian.  All of the parishes I was involved in were really big on the whole three-legged stool — Scripture, Tradition and Reason.  What we find in Scripture is transmitted through our Tradition and both of those are critically examined with our Reason.

    This whole Evangelical identity thing is an anathema to me, because, as Tonio pointed out, it’s not about faith but about dogma.  And even more so, it’s not about faith but about being part of the proper political party.  The conservative right is not politics informed by religion, it’s religious politics (which, if I remember, was said somewhere, sometime on Slacktivist).

    So, as I was saying . . . I’ve read through the posts and the comments and it absolutely breaks my heart to hear how all these people were abused in the name of Christianity.  These posts were two of the hardest things I’ve ever read here; and that’s incredibly sad.  Christianity should be about faith.  It should be about revelation in which the God of love breaks through our barriers and encourages us to risk returning that love.  It should be about seeing the Word of God not as a static, 66-book idol but in the messy, impossible realities of a continuing life in the discipleship of Jesus, not being aloof and “pure,” but in working through our communal life seeing everyone as holy and seeing everyone as needing a Word of love spoken to them.

    One aspect of faith is taking the time to delve into, explore, wrestle and live out the mystery that is God.  I’ve noticed that it’s hard to want to explore and live out a life of faith when those in charge are using their dogma as a club beating the hell out of you.

    I read these stories and I wept for the people who suffered at the hands of dogmatic christianity.  If there’s a lesson here, I hope that I never use my belief as a club and cause people harm.

  • I don’t see any evidence that Environmentalism really belongs on the same list as Evolution, Abortion, and Homosexuality.  Evangelical churches aren’t kicking people out because they support action on climate change.

    For instance, evangelical schools have gotten in hot water and fired faculty when they’ve made statements on the wrong side of the latter three.  But I don’t know of any examples of an evangelical professor getting fired for writing a book or an article in support of the Environmental movement.

  • Anonymous

    This reminds me of something I once read by the late great Molly Ivins. She was talking about how she became a Southern liberal, and she said that once she figured out she’d been lied to about race, she started wondering what else she’d been lied to about. That resonated with me with church as well (in addition to politics and southern culture.)

    When dogma conflicted with reality, I chose to go with reality. I eventually found a church where I could keep reality and still worship.

  • Jenny Islander

    The problem is that non-fundamentalist Christian churchs get the backwash.  If I mention that I am Christian, people (not all people, but a worrying number) expect me to be cruel and dismissive toward single mothers and cohabiting couples, cheer for the murder of abortion providers, believe all sorts of cockamamie things about paleontology and physics, and obey my religious leader to the point of letting him dictate the color of my clothes (not an exaggeration).  But I was raised ELCA and attend an ECUSA church at present.

  • Tonio

    In the long run, if enough people leave the non-fundamental churches, then the fundamentalist ones would properly be considered extremist, and the positions you describe wouldn’t even be considered Christian by most people. I’m not sure at this point if the fundamentalist churches can be reformed from within.

  • Mackrimin

    Doctrine ain’t got nothing to do with it.

    Of course it does. It’s just that the evangelical doctrine is “God hates fags” (and abortion, evolution, enviromentalism and whatever personal prejudices the particular evangelical happens to want divine backing for). In fact, I’ve never heard of a Christian political movement who’s politics didn’t boil down to “God hates fags”.

    It’s a mystery to me why Fred keeps on being shocked that evangelicals act like evangelicals. Of course supporting gay marriage when employed in an evangelical organization in any capability costs you your job, for the same reason as posting an editorial advocating hard-line communism in the Wall Street Journal would cost you your job. Duh!

    Then again, perhaps it’s as simple as not wanting to admit that one has left the nest.

  • Anonymous

    “For better or for worse, Rich became a great, polarizing figure,” said Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship. “He was gradually, over a period of time, separating himself from the mainstream of evangelical belief and conviction. So I’m not surprised. I’m sorry for him, but I’m not disappointed for the evangelical movement.”

    This, from one of the most evil people in America today. The fact that Chuck Colson is not a “polarizing figure” and separated from “mainstream evangelical thought” just shows the politicization and morality of “mainstream evangelical thought.”

  • I don’t see any evidence that Environmentalism really belongs on the same list as Evolution, Abortion, and Homosexuality.  Evangelical churches aren’t kicking people out because they support action on climate change.

    I recall reading about someone who was potentially slated to lead some national Christian group, though I do not remember who or which group (which I admit is unhelpful and I apologize for not having firmer details.)  But what stuck out in my memory was that he turned down the position because he felt that his priorities would not be welcomed by the group.  Specifically, he felt strongly about “creation protection.”  It is essentially theologically motivated environmentalism, the idea that God gave us dominion over the Earth, but that authority necessarily carries with it a responsibility to take care of and shepherd God’s gift to us.  

  • Anonymous

    @twitter-15487831:disqus , might you mean the National Association of Evangelicals? 

    Edit: and of course I see now that this is an article that’s already been quoted and linked. Apologies.

  • I think it’s because ‘belief’ in climate change is opposed by many Republican politicians, and for some churches support of the Republican Party is inextricably linked to Christianity.

  • Yes, I believe that was the case.  Thank you.  I hate making unsupported citations because I know someone would call me on it, but I was sure someone else here had read the same and would be able to provide one.  

  • If more leaders in-general felt like that; not just about the environment, but about what it means to Lead… this world would be a much, much better place.

    /short rant.

    I know I’m preaching to the choir, so to speak, but that’s something that’s driven me up the walls for… pretty much as long as I’ve been alive.  Leadership is a position of power, yes, but it’s also a position of heavy responsibility.

    If I’m in charge of a group of people, then I am also responsible for their well being insofar as they are under me.  That means if I’m a priest or pastor, I have an obligation to be a moral person to lead by example, and to actually try to steer my congregation toward goodness and righteousness –  NOT fluff their egos by telling them what they want to hear.

    It means if I’m a congressperson, I need to consider what is good for the people of my district, my state, and my nation.  It’s SUPPOSED to be a balancing act – where the needs of people and businesses are carefully balanced so that everyone gets what hey need and society is healthy, harmonious and – with a little luck – happy.

    Why the fuck is that so hard?  Moreover why is it so normal to just think “I want to be in charge cause it’ll get me stuff”?  That’s not the purpose of leadership.

    Sorry, I know that’s tangential to the topic but >< Gah. I HAS AN ANGRY.

  • One of my favorite corruptions of the GOP acronym is “God and Oil Party”.  Because seriously…

  • Hawker40

    I learned (by reading) that Authority and Responsibility went hand and hand.  I was pleased to find that the Navy at least paid lip service to the concept, by teaching new Non-Coms that to have Authority over something or someone is to have Responsibility (and vice versa).  The example given was for a small boat: If you have Authority but not Responsibility for the boat, you can order it destroyed and someone else will be blamed.

  • I know I’m preaching to the choir, so to speak, but that’s something
    that’s driven me up the walls for… pretty much as long as I’ve been
    alive.  Leadership is a position of power, yes, but it’s also a position
    of heavy responsibility.

    If I’m in charge of a group of people,
    then I am also responsible for their well being insofar as they are
    under me.  That means if I’m a priest or pastor, I have an obligation to
    be a moral person to lead by example, and to actually try to steer my
    congregation toward goodness and righteousness –  NOT fluff their egos
    by telling them what they want to hear.

    From General Patton’s War as I Knew It:

    There is a great deal of talk about loyalty from the bottom to the top. Loyalty from the top down is even more necessary and much less prevalent.

    I saw a business leadership book on Amazon the other day that claimed it was based on Patton’s ideas. I’m kinda curious if the authors found room for that line or if it was mostly based on slapping people around and picking fights with the guys in the next office.

  • There is a great deal of talk about loyalty from the bottom to the top. Loyalty from the top down is even more necessary and much less prevalent.

    That was a philosophy that House Atreides lived by in the Dune universe.  Their exact position on the subject was, “We buy loyalty with loyalty.”