The boundaries of the evangelical tribe are political

The boundaries of the evangelical tribe are political May 4, 2012

David Sessions offers some interesting thoughts on the Rev. Billy Graham’s unusual decision to aggressively enter a partisan political dispute — “Why Moderate Billy Graham Supports North Carolina Gay Marriage Ban“:

But what appears to be a departure for Graham actually illustrates an ongoing dilemma for evangelical Christians: the fact that they’ve realized they need to change their tone while remaining determined to hold on to the old message. There have been signs of progress: young evangelicals tend to despise the legacy of the past few decades, and have begun spreading out across the political spectrum. Pseudoscientific views about the earth’s origins, climate change, and homosexuality — all of which have played outsize roles in evangelical political activism — are gradually losing their grip. But all of these developments were driven less by intellectual growth than by bad luck: the Bush administration deeply discredited the alliance between evangelicals and the GOP, and the rapid mainstream acceptance of homosexuality meant conservative Christians were increasingly seen as cruel and bigoted. To the extent conservative evangelical leaders have backed away from issues like gay marriage, it’s had more to do with desperation at this situation than enlightenment on the issue.

I think this is all accurate and helpful. Sessions helpfully distinguishes between Graham’s moderate tone and the immoderate political positions he and other such moderates have long moderately supported.

But in the next paragraph, Sessions stumbles:

That leaves them in the awkward position of downplaying political positions they still take: Focus on the Family, for example, is still just as opposed to gay marriage as it was before its image makeover, though you’ll never see anything about it on their main organization’s website. There has been little pressure from within the movement for those backing away from old culture-war narratives to substantively adjust course.

The problem here is that little phrase “from within the movement.”

The movement in question here is American evangelical Christianity — a stream or strain or tradition so notoriously hard to define that “movement” is about as precise a term as the category will allow. But by inviting us to consider the idea of “pressure from within the movement,” as opposed to pressure from outside of it, Sessions raises the difficult question of where that within/without boundary lies.

And what Sessions misses, I think, is the way that boundary is now being defined exclusively in terms of “old culture-war narratives.”

Sessions seems to accept the pretense that the so-called “gatekeepers” of American evangelicalism care about any other definition — some set of theological or cultural distinctives other than the set of mandatory culture-war stances they now exist primarily to re-enforce.

Let me be as clear as possible: For these gatekeepers, “evangelical” is not mainly a religious category. It is a political category. Or, more precisely, it is a tribal category employing political “stances” as tribal symbols. It’s not about revivalism or biblicism or pietism. It is, above all else, about opposition to homosexuality and opposition to legal abortion. Period.

What does “evangelical” mean? In America, in 2012, it means this: A white Protestant who opposes abortion and homosexuality.

If you are a white Protestant opposed to abortion and homosexuality, then there is very little that you can say or do that will cause the gatekeepers of evangelicalism to regard you as not really a member of the tribe. But no matter how orthodox your faith, no matter how revivalistic, biblicistic or pietistic your expression of that faith, if you do not oppose abortion and homosexuality, the gatekeepers will insist you are an illegitimate outsider.

This boundary is policed with great ferocity. Those who transgress it will be swiftly evicted. Everyone in the tribe knows this, which explains what Sessions says next:

Virtually no major evangelical figures or institutions have switched sides on the issue — including the liberal ones, who tend to keep their actual views quiet or vague. Evangelical gay-marriage supporters’ reluctance to take a stand, however well-intentioned it may be, allows conservative figures and groups to adopt conciliatory language and a veneer of moderation while keeping the same old content.

It’s not just public figures and donor-dependent institutions “who tend to keep their actual views quiet or vague.” More than a third of white evangelicals are pro-choice.

Sit down in a pew in any evangelical church. Look at the person to your left. Now look at the person to your right. Odds are that one of you believes something that the gatekeepers of this congregation regard as anathema, forbidden and unthinkable. That person, whichever one of you it is, is there in that pew because she or he is an evangelical Christian — because her or his story is part of the story of that religious movement and tradition, because her or his faith is an evangelical faith. Because this is where she or he belongs.

But if that person were to speak up, to “take a stand” as Sessions says, then she or he would no longer be allowed to belong where she or he belongs. So they keep quiet or vague.

This also accounts for why Sessions is able to think of “virtually no major evangelical figures” who support gay marriage. I know plenty of evangelicals who do, and who are outspoken advocates for marriage equality. I suppose none of them would count as “major figures,” but the more important point here is that the fact of their advocacy for marriage equality means that they no longer count as evangelicals.

As soon as someone begins to exert “pressure from within the movement,” that person is quickly redefined as being no longer within the movement. As soon as someone proclaims that they are an “evangelical gay-marriage supporter,” the tribal gatekeepers close ranks and loudly proclaim that this person is “not really an evangelical” at all.

Consider, for example, Jay Bakker — who as the son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker surely counts as a “major evangelical figure.” Jay took a clear stand on behalf of LGBT people and was swiftly reclassified as “post-evangelical.” He’s no longer accepted as part of the tribe.

As long as we accept the gatekeepers’ tribal and political redefinition of “evangelical,” then there can never be such a thing as “evangelical gay-marriage supporters” because that redefinition of evangelical precludes support for same-sex marriage.

As long as we pretend the gatekeepers’ tribal definition is the only valid one, then anti-gay and anti-abortion is what “evangelical” means.

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