Evangelical gatekeepers and conservative holiness

Evangelical gatekeepers and conservative holiness July 25, 2013

I want to follow up on a recent post about evangelical tribal boundaries — “Bebbington, schmebbington.” Part of what I’m getting at there is the way that white evangelicals scrupulously police their left-wing boundary, but the right-wing boundary is unmonitored. Because there is no right-wing boundary.

Consider, for example, the ongoing “debate” over the full humanity equality of women in the church and in society. Some evangelicals are “complementarians” — meaning they believe women must be subservient to men and that the church must maintain strict gender roles while supporting policies that enforce those roles in the larger society. Other evangelicals are “egalitarian” — the term used within the subculture to denote those who believe men and women should be equals under the law, in the church and in families. This side of the debate has been designated the “liberal” side, and is therefore inherently a bit suspect.

Gatekeepers police the fortified boundaries of evangelicalism, but only on the “liberal” border. There is no conservative border.

“Egalitarianism” is still tenuously in-bounds, yet it’s also possible to get in trouble for being too egalitarian. It’s permissible, but only up to a point. That point isn’t clearly defined, but if any given evangelical gets a bit too enthusiastic in endorsing an egalitarian “stance” — or, even worse, acting on it — “controversy” will ensue, serving to remind them to settle down and get back in line lest their membership in the tribe be revoked and their speaking engagements and donor-streams start to disappear.

To understand this only-up-to-a-point dynamic, just look at that word itself: “egalitarianism.” We could save several syllables if we just said “feminism,” instead, but that’s not quite the same thing. That’s pretty much the definition of “egalitarianism”: not-quite feminism. Feminism is out-of-bounds. The word egalitarianism is basically evangelicalese for “as close to feminism as one is permitted to get while still remaining within the tribe.”

Whenever egalitarianism strays too far, too close to feminism, the gatekeepers who patrol the boundaries of the evangelical tribe will step in to enforce those boundaries. But there is no corresponding response for when “complementarianism” strays too far because complementarianism is never regarded as straying. Anyone regarded as too egalitarian will be labeled as “extreme” and “controversial,” and ultimately as a “former” evangelical. But no such labels will be assigned to anyone who is too complementarian because it is not possible to be too complementarian.

The tribe only has “liberal” boundaries. Conservatism is unbounded.

Witness, for example, Mark Driscoll, whose reckless anti-feminism exceeds the cautious not-quite feminism of his egalitarian counterparts. Or consider Douglas Wilson of the Gospel Coalition — he of the screeds about male authority and female submission, endorsing sex as conquest and not as “an egalitarian pleasure party.” Yet the Gospel Coalition is not characterized as “extreme” because the tribe has no category of “extreme complementarianism.” The popular pastors and authors of that coalition are never implicitly or explicitly forced to distance themselves from people like Wilson.

Wilson, by the way, is also a Neo-Confederate slavery apologist. His views on the antebellum South, President Lincoln’s big-government “tyranny,” and the post-war amendments are not substantially different from those of Jack Hunter, a.k.a. “Southern Avenger.” Hunter was recently forced to step down as a staffer for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul because his right-wing views were regarded as too extreme for Paul’s tea-party supporters and other Kentucky Republicans.

But those same views are not too extreme for the Gospel Coalition, or for the larger white evangelical tribe in which the Gospel Coalition is regarded as a respectable part of the mainstream establishment.

That’s not to say that most white evangelicals are comfortable with Wilson’s Neo-Confederate nonsense. They’re not. But the subculture lacks any useful vocabulary for speaking or thinking of something as too conservative.

“Conservative” occupies the same space in the evangelical imagination as “sexual purity” does. To say someone was “too conservative” — theologically, politically, socially — would be like their saying a bride was too much of a virgin.

This is tied up with the distorted notion of holiness as meaning the avoidance of contamination. In this view, spirituality — like sexuality and all the rest of life — is like a spotless, undefiled white bed sheet. Our task is to conserve the cleanliness of that sheet from all potential defilement. Holiness is a matter of being conservative.

This idea of holiness-as-non-contamination is profoundly un-Christlike. Nothing in the life or teaching of Jesus Christ suggests that avoiding contamination has anything to do with holiness. From the manger to the cross, Jesus’ whole story is about getting down in the dirt with the shepherds, fishermen, tax-collectors, prostitutes, Gentiles, women, Samaritans, zealots, lepers and other “unclean” outcasts of every kind. “Follow me,” Jesus said, but the idea of holiness-as-purity forbids us from doing that.

This view of holiness creates a bias favoring everything perceived or purported to be “conservative.” As long as any given “stance” can be framed or positioned or spun as the conservative option, it will be perceived as the purer choice. Conversely, anything that can be framed or positioned or spun as “liberal” will be perceived as less pure — as tainted, suspect and dangerous.

This framework of conservative = pure, liberal = impure also becomes the basis for determining and defining what is or is not “biblical.” No need to go to the Bible itself to figure that out. No need to read the Bible at all. Whenever you’re presented with two conflicting or competing interpretations, just ask which one is more “conservative” and which one is more “liberal.” The conservative one must be purer and holier, so it must be right. The more liberal view must stray from such purity and holiness because anything that is “liberal” is, by definition, a form of straying.

Consider for example the neo-monastics of intentional Christian communities like the Simple Way in Philadelphia or the Jesus People in Chicago. Their radical embrace of poverty and communitarianism is explicitly biblical — arising from just exactly the sort of literal interpretation that most white evangelicals insist is the proper “conservative” approach to the Bible. Yet people like the Simple Way’s Shane Claibourne are not perceived as conservative because they’re engaged with the world rather than separated from it, and because the form of their zeal corresponds with the cultural signals that signify “dirty hippie” rather than “Republican member of the Chamber of Commerce.”

Shane doesn’t wear a tie, so he must be “liberal,” so all that stuff he says about poverty must not be biblical. That logic is never articulated so explicitly, but that is the logic at work here.

And by that same logic, Doug Wilson is obviously not a liberal. So therefore his views must be purer and more biblical even if they seem repugnant. The spotless white sheet of his holiness may have eye-holes cut in it, but as long as it remains uncontaminated by the stain of liberalism his status and standing within the tribe will go unchallenged.

The gatekeepers of evangelicalism do not patrol the tribe’s right-wing boundary because there is no right-wing boundary. Their ideal of holiness prevents them from imagining that there ever could be one.


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  • I think the best that can be said about them is that they have never seriously questioned the gender essentialism that they were taught.

    It’s rife within society: Look how often people talk of “the man cave”, “female nesting instincts”, and what have you.

  • That said, my childhood in the 1970s and 1980s was almost a repeat of the 1950s and 1960s. I grew up in the requisite two-parent household. Mom cooked and cleaned. Dad went out and worked. We lived in smaller towns where the worst that would happen to you is going down the wrong side street or wiping out on a bicycle.

    That said, I definitely knew about 80s pop culture and console gaming systems and being quite widely-read by the time I hit high school, I knew the world wasn’t as simple as people would have liked it to be.

  • One of the Minority Report scripts explicitly lampshaded this:

    Look at us -it’s 2040 and we’ve
    wrapped ourselves up in the 1950’s
    like a big security blanket. Why?
    Because we want to feel like they
    felt. Safe.

  • P J Evans

    The library you went to is a museum, half the building at your high school aren’t there any more, the favorite park for summer disappeared forty years ago (it really did – they built a dam right there). And the people you were really friends with are dead or living in a different state.

  • I thought at first you said, “Threatening Buffy Effect,” and wondered how, exactly, that would work.

  • Matri


    Oh wait, you and they were being serious?

    …. BWAAAHAHAHAHahahahaaa!!

  • The cannon you and your friends used to climb on has been sent back to Japan, leaving only a concrete rectangle to mark its previous location . . . .

  • Baby_Raptor

    Prove he exists first, please. Then you can go on to prove the rest of Fred’s post wrong.

  • Mary

    The Rev is right. There were and are still small towns where people don’t lock their doors. My mother grew up in rural Virginia in a house that had been in the family for generations. The key to the house was lost long before my mother was born in the 1920’s. It was never replaced and when I went to visit a few years ago they still didn’t lock the house. In fact it was very common for friends and neighbors to walk into the house without knocking. They just hollered “Hello, the house!” when they walked in. If no one was there then they would just make themselves comfortable until someone returned home.

    It is a very different world now but part of it is just that we live in cities and cities always have more crime.

    But we definately do have a tendency to idealize the past. The infamous Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist went on a crusade to stop necking on college campuses in the 1950’s. He actually made the cover of a national magazine, I think it was Time, but I am not sure. The headline read “A Return to Traditional Values?”

    That one boggled my mind because being born in the 60’s I thought the 50’s WERE the era of traditional values!

    I asked my dad about that and he just said that it depended on your perspective. Certainly someone from around the turn of the century would have considered fifties morals to be horrible what with women wearing shorter skirts, or pants and having the right to vote and dating without a chaperone.

    My Dad’s point of view is that there never has been a golden age of morality and so we should not idealize the past.

  • I find it so hard to believe. Until I moved to Washington, I perpetually lived in the middle of nowhere — heavily rural areas where the nearest neighbor was several minutes away. Every such home I have ever lived in has been the target of a crime. If anything, I think the isolation made them more attractive targets.

  • Mary

    Well what can I say..I can’t argue with your experience however this is not necessarilly everyone’s experience. There is a tiny town in the Northern Sierra’s of California called Chilcoot. It has maybe 100 people there and one family runs the only store in town and also the only restaurant. I imagine though that they do lock up because there is a major road running through there. Although they are not a tourist stop, people stop there to eat and gas up before returning to the road. All I can say is that it may just depend on the area you live in and maybe also whether there are any major highways going through it. Often times people who commit crimes will be attracted to a rural area if it is easily accessable.

    Also keep in mind that living in a rural area does not always mean that you don’t have close neighbors who can keep an eye on things. In fact a community can be so close-knit to scare off intruders, while in the city it is more likely that they can get away with more.

  • Mary

    “Maybe it’s partly that for people older than me (I’m just 50 this month) their defining war was the “war is a force that gives us meaning” war, and not Vietnam and sequels, which are very poor sources of meaning.”

    I am turning 50 this month also. And although I have never been around Vietnam vets, I do have empathy. And it is so true that the older generation sees war differently. My dad, who became of age right after WW2, didn’t actually fight in the war but he does have strong feelings about how it was a just war. I happen to agree with him on that one. But he simply does not understand the difference between that war and the war in Iraq. It isn’t the same but he was raised with the motto, “My country right or wrong.” Furthermore I think he is incapable of understanding that sometimes our country IS wrong. To say that it is okay to invade a country based soley on the idea that the ruler isn’t exactly a nice person is wrong. Turns out the Iraqi’s did not want to be “liberated” Unless in fact we were attacked FIRST or they attacked an ally, then we should have stayed out of there.

    That again is part of the problem with the conservative mindset, it doesn’t allow for ambiguity.

  • Mary

    I would agree with that, even though I was born in the sixties I really was not exposed to the “hippie” culture. So actually my opinions were formed much later. I happen to think that the idea of throwing out all the rules is as bad as saying that we need to legalistically follow rules that no longer make sense. They did have some good objections about some things but the bottom line is that they were extremely immature in their thinking and actions. The worst legacy we have from that time is drugs. But that is not to say that there weren’t good things that came out of the movement too. However when you think about the fact that the brain does not reach full maturity until about the age of 25, then it is easy to see why they were so reckless in their behavior. The part of the brain that helps us understand the consequences of our behavior is not developed in teenagers.

  • Mary

    I think when they say that the roles are different but equally important then they are being disingenuous. That may sound like respect but it isn’t. You have given a great example of this that in fact they consider women to be inferior intellectually. Or even if they don’t they consider it a waste of time for a woman to get an education because of course she is meant to simply be a mother. I talked to one guy who thought the only reason that a woman would want to get an education and work was so that she could “prove” herself equal to men. Well let’s see, what about getting a career that you love and enjoy? Job satisfaction is a good motive and besides we don’t have to prove ourselves equal because we already are. Frankly for me it is a matter of competing with myself, not others and certainly not men.

    Another one of these guys told me about how much love and respect he has for women and then in the next breath he said that women are trying to usurp the man’s “rightful place.” in the work field. When I pointed out the contradiction he then accused me of being a “man-hater.”

    Women get accused of being emotional and illogical and yet when it comes down to it, complementarism is an emotional and illogical position to take.

  • fraser

    No, I have heard that taking on, say, domestic chores is a Bad Thing for men. Because it will leave you kids growing up thinking gender roles are flexible.

  • Mary

    I am not sure that is always true. There are for instance male nurses but they are usually heavily frowned upon since this has been traditionally a woman’s job.

  • myeck waters

    I have no idea what “Mockingbird” is.

    I think I’m OK with that.

  • fraser

    Oooh, crushing point. It’s not like Fred offered any examples or anything. Oh, wait …

  • Mary

    Very well put.

  • ReverendRef

    the nearest neighbor was several minutes away.

    I wonder, though, if a small town lives in that “sweet spot” (so to speak) of not being so rural that the lone house for miles is a target and being urban where crime goes up because of the density. Just a thought.

  • Hmm. The smallest town I’ve ever been in was about 1000 people, guesstimating from its 2011 census data. Smaller than that? Before that was a town of about 1200 and that place was a pit. Maybe I just have awful luck when it comes to residences.

  • Stephen Hutchison

    I believe there is a perfectly good word to define the right-wing conservative legalist. “Pharisee” comes to mind, though Jesus used “hypocrite” and “whitewashed tomb” as well. The signal lack appears to be in Charity – the selfless, no-strings love that comes from God. So, Paul’s description of ‘noisy clanging bells’ is also good.

  • ReverendRef

    Don’t know. Bad luck or good luck could play a part in it. I suppose if I were really ambitious and had the time, I’d ask for a government grant to study crime rates with relation to population and seclusion. But that sounds too much like work at this point.

  • Maybe it’s just Michigan, too. XD

    (When in doubt, I just think of the police force — taking over an hour to stop in and see if a domestic abuse case resolved itself peacefully, declaring a man killed with an axe to have committed suicide, failing to interview the friends and family of a murdered man and accepting evidence conjured by people with a life insurance policy on him without having it analyzed, or just stopping a car load of kids one night and having one of them sit in the front seat with the sheriff — right next to a loaded shotgun, which he then caresses and asks “Would you like to touch it?” Michigan is seriously fucked up.)

  • Great. Now if I’m in Michigan and a creepy man pulls up alongside me, strokes his shaft and asks me if I’d like to touch it, I’m going to have to hope he’s talking about his penis

  • Yeah. I’ve long thought that perhaps the 1960s was an overreaction to the 1950s and that’s why apparent social stability appeared to return by the 1970s and 1980s: the pendulum would have swung back in any case.

  • LorenHaas

    Men and women’s roles being “Different but equally important…” = “separate but equal” in segregated schools, lunch counters and buses. Sorry, but that is how it works out.

  • “The Kingdom of God is at hand”: At some point, I forget when, but it was with the jaw-dropping paradigm-shifting clarity of realizing the white-space around the vase made two faces – I stopped hearing that as “…is about to appear, so be ready,” and started hearing it as “…is within reach RIGHT NOW if only you’d recognize it and act like it.”

    I think it was probably something I read here that made the focus shift, honestly. In any case, it made me appreciate the phrase much more.

  • God is good because God is God? Might makes right?

    Reading your post just inches apart from MaryKaye’s is illuminating.

  • “I hinted at that when…”

    Well, “hinting” instead of “asserting” was probably your mistake, then.

    Or perhaps you meant, “I tried to communicate that when I said [X], but I guess I wasn’t as clear as I meant to be. Sorry about that. Let me try again…”

    I hope that’s what you meant. If so, the trick to it is the “I meant to, but I failed, sorry” language. It makes you sound less like some arrogant jerk sowing cryptic passages in order to judge the fertile ground from the barren, and more like someone who’s just trying to communicate, same as everyone, and cares whether you’re succeeding, and wants to learn from your mistakes.

  • “That young girl next door who kept drawing in your comic books? She’s in collage now.”

    I have fallen a little in love with your typo, above. Comic book art and collages go together well. I mean, just look.

  • It’s true! We never did lock the cars on my block when I was growing up. And then in my early teens (late ’80s, early ’90s) someone breezed through and stole all the car radios.

    I suppose I could huff and kvetch about how people were more honest In The Good Old Days, but I’m more of the opinion that the thief was just lucky in discovering a neighborhood of parents in about the right generation and economic class (and possibly also ethnicity and religious culture) to not be in the habit of locking their car doors.

    That, or the thief was an acquaintance-of-a-friend-of-a-friend of one of the kids on the block who knew exactly what they were doing.

    Now the car doors are all locked. Which did nothing to stop the thief who went through a few years ago stealing a particular make/model/size/type of tire, leaving the victims’ trucks on blocks in their own driveways.

    I kinda had to laugh, despite one of the trucks being my Dad’s.

  • Mary

    Yeah it is a circular argument. How can it be an ethical position to be believe in an unethical God? How is that God in the bible would give commandments and then order his followers to break them? Everyone knows the story of Abraham and Isaac and how God spared Isaac’s life so it was just a test. And God condemns the human sacrifices of the heathens. And yet there is the story of the human sacrifice of a young virgin girl whose father promised God he would burn her as a sacrifice in exchange for winning a battle. God did not intervene. (Judges 11:29-40)

    I actually encountered a man who said that he did the right thing in obeying God. What the hell is wrong with these people? They go on and on about how secularists use situational ethics when in fact they worship a God who uses situational ethics!

    In essence I think the writers of much of the bible essentially made God in their image, not the other way around. I cannot believe in an immoral petty God. I believe that God would not stoop so low as to commit the very sins that he condemns. Isn’t he supposed to be better than us?

  • Mary

    Yeah and then Fox allows their male co-hosts to publically condemn them for not being stay-at-home moms.

  • stardreamer42

    And everything looks smaller. (This even though I had grown to within 2″ of my full adult height by the time I moved away. Everything still looked smaller when I went back.)

  • themunck

    Good point. I shall now pretend it was intentional all along.
    We have always been at war with paper.

  • Peter

    Brilliant! A very helpful analysis. Thanks!

  • Lorehead

    Because “The Minority Report” was a commentary on the world in 1956 that afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted, not a prediction of the future. Incidentally, that fact also proves that many people in the ’50s did not really feel safe. (Terrorists like the Ku Klux Klan threatened some of them openly, for example, with the full collusion of the authorities.) White people who were children then just remember it that way.

  • Lorehead

    That immediately raises the question: when a complementarian doesn’t think the roles should be equal, is that seen as a problem? Do most self-identified complementarians take the idea at all seriously, and put any effort into making the complementary roles equal? If the answers are no, wouldn’t it be a mistake to take what they say at face value?

  • That was the point. The unstated part of the sentence is:

    “… we want to feel like [we imagine] they felt. Safe.”

  • FearlessSon

    Some of them are actually proposing a “Christian Counter-Culture” movement. Seeing that the definition of a counter-culture is a rejection of the prevailing culture and embracing of one separate and distinct from it, and that they are already halfway there with things like homeschooling, sectarian colleges, explicitly sectarian businesses and the like, they might actually go ahead and do it.

  • Speaking of “nesting instincts”?

    Men totally can get them.

    I knew a guy way back who was a bit of a recluse and an insomniac, neither of which totally helped him really act within social norms (when you’re tired but you can’t sleep and you’re a severe introvert, social interaction can become exhausting). Well, he developed a bit of a crush on this woman in the same chat channel I was in, and he started seriously talking about wanting kids and the whole nine yards.

    She mostly thought it was “nice”, but as I recall, routinely brushed off his suggestions that they meet face to face. In retrospect, not surprising. She would have had to be leery of a guy who was giving off Desperate Nice Guy vibes.

  • David S.

    Yeah, one of my friends in small town Oklahoma left his car unlocked with his keys in it; the cops recovered it burnt out in a barn. I wonder if the difference sometimes is more about perception then reality.

  • David S.

    The Iraqis certainly did want to be liberated. But it was like a more violent version of the Iranian Revolution; there was consensus on what they wanted to get away from, but not what they were going towards. It’s amazing that George Bush Sr. apparently understood that deposing Hussein was trouble but Jr. didn’t.

  • Thing is, you always had to lock your door if you lived in the city, even in those hypothetical days of yore.

    And even today, if you don’t live in the city, you can probably get away with not locking your door at night. I mean, a criminal who walks up to the front door of a single-family home in the middle of the night when the occupants are at home is already pretty much committed, and isn’t planning to walk away if the door turns out to be locked.

    (I’ve actually known someone who came home to find his unlocked door had been kicked in, because why would the thief even bother wasting the time to try the knob if his plan was to kick the door in?)

    (Cars are a different matter, because you can walk down a street and discreetly try each car door in turn in a way you can’t with houses (Apartments are different, ofc))

  • I had someone knock the door in – in the middle of town – in the middle of daylight – with my neighbors home and a car in the driveway.

    Scariest thing to ever happen while I was in the bathtub. :p