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.


"Sadly, what we think of as the rule of law might be a historical aberration:I've ..."

Culotte fundamentalism
"As I said: I'm rather curious where your interpretation comes from, since the wiki section ..."

Culotte fundamentalism
"Like, oh, walking directly away from the strange man with no authority questioning him. Like ..."

Culotte fundamentalism
"I wonder if California would meet that by saying they’ll declare independence if that happens?"

Culotte fundamentalism

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jessica_R

    I think this is related, pro lifers to hold “pray in” to stop…marriage equality. http://joemygod.blogspot.com/2013/07/anti-abortion-group-to-hold-marriage.html#disqus_thread

  • Carstonio

    Would it be fair to say that “purity” is really a euphemism for tribal boundaries? Perhaps these folks are two or three decades away from retreating from society entirely, forming their own insular communities like the Plain People.

    the tribe has no category of “extreme complementarianism.”

    They might remain silent if some of their colleagues kept their wives chained up in their basements, or sold their marriage-age daughters in auctions to suitors.

  • Michael Pullmann

    For a second I thought the title read “conservative hotness”, and expected a very different article.

  • SergeantHeretic

    They just might. frankly having read and seen some of the things these “people” allow to come slithering out of therir mouths, at this point I don’t put ANY form of Neo-Confederate or even Neo-Medeival brutality past them.

  • Carstonio

    I’ve long suspected that to be the tactic of Fox News. Cable networks have always favored attractive women for news shows, but Fox leads in recruiting young blondes.

  • AnonaMiss

    The spotless white sheet of his holiness may have eye-holes cut in it


  • Kubricks_Rube

    Tim Dalrymple responded to a similar post by Scot McKnight a few years ago. I was pleasantly surpised by some of his concessions:

    It is, fellow conservatives, possible to be too conservative. And moving too far to the Right can be just as destructive as moving too far to the Left.[…]

    Conservative evangelicals frequently act as though moving Right is sometimes wrong but basically harmless, whereas moving Left is not only wrong but dangerous. Or, put differently … moving Rightward can be factually wrong but not morally wrong, whereas moving Leftward is both factually and morally wrong.[…]

    I hate to say this, but I sincerely believe that Ken Ham does just as much damage as Shelby Spong. Neither one is harmless; both need to be corrected. One leads people away from the faith by repulsion. The other leads them away from the faith by attraction. But the outcome is the same.

    True, his examples of being too far to the right (dominionism, Young Earth Creationism) are not quite the kinds of things Fred is talking about, but it’s still nice to see some acknowledgment of the tendency to gatekeep only in one direction. (Bonus points for getting Ken Ham to show up and post a huffy comment.)

  • Geoff

    Thoughtful. I posted to my fb page https://www.facebook.com/PsychologyReligion

  • Peg Y

    I cannot begin to tell you how much your comments about “holiness” as an idea of being uncontaminated resonate with me. I have several people that I need to share this post with. Thank you!

  • ReverendRef

    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.

    I wonder if this has to do with the known/unknown.

    Right-wing conservatism seems to continually hearken back to “the good old days” (either real or imagined) when things were more proper and defined. You can look back to that time and know what was right and what was wrong. Consequently there doesn’t need to be a boundary because we are all working to get back to those “good old days.”

    Left-wing liberalism, on the other hand, seems to consistently push boundaries into the unknown and challenge existing thought processes. Free slaves? Allow women to vote? Equal pay? Provide meals for people who don’t work? Marriage equality? Why that there’s all crazy talk. Who knows how long our civilization will last if we start doing that stuff.

    In other words, the fear of the unknown is greater than the oppression of the known — at least for those in power.

  • I’ve said this many times, Fred. I totally agree. It’s why CT will publish as essay by Scot McKnight basically saying that Brian McLaren has stepped off the left edge of evangelicalism, but you’ll never see them publishing a similar essay about Mohler/Piper/fill-in-the-blank stepping off the right edge.

  • Eric Boersma

    I’ve argued a few times in the past, and I would again — Conservatives, at their heart, nearly always yearn to go back to the “Good Old Days”…of their childhood. Most of today’s conservatives grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and that’s where they seem to be targeting things with regard to their backward look. It’s not that things were actually simpler then (Mad Men is an awesome illustration of just how simple things were back then), but rather, that they were children and thus the world simply seemed simpler, because they were shielded from the complications of the world by adults.

    They’ve mistaken the goal (a sense of personal security that they can never get back) with asymptotic mainstays that are unrelated to the goal, like the oppression of women and blacks. It’s the political equivalent of trying to relive your honeymoon with your spouse twenty years after the fact by going to the same places, eating the same foods and seeing the same sights, ignoring that the honeymoon — and the intervening years — changed both of you as you changed each other, and that while you can go back and put everything right where it was, the feelings you had during that time cannot be replicated.

  • themunck

    Like how you can never go home and all that?

  • Rckjones

    This is very insightful. Thanks for sharing. I’m gonna be mulling over this all week, now.

  • ReverendRef

    I know what you’re getting at, but I don’t think that’s the right analogy. The implication there is that you can’t go home because you’ve changed but the hometown people want to keep you as they know you in their memories.

    In this case I think it’s more like the person who grows up but continues to hold onto childhood memories as fact even though that’s not the case. For instance …. when I was in junior high I always bought the school lunch and never took my own. I can either hold onto that memory and proclaim that everyone should be able to buy their own lunch, or I can acknowledge the reality that my parents were broke, couldn’t afford to send me with lunches, and I benefited from a social program that fed poor kids.

    I think the right-wingers hold onto those idyllic childhood memories without being willing to acknowledge the reality of the situation.

  • In a few cases, I’ve been able to trace back some of those idyllic childhood memories someone has been spouting on about directly to Leave it to Beaver episodes. There’s a special kind of nostalgia there.

  • ReverendRef

    I would guess The Andy Griffith Show would be right up there as well. I mean, really . . . who wouldn’t like to hang out at the fishing hole, live in a town where crime was non-existent and have Aunt Bea cook for you?

  • Gordon Duffy

    My perspective is that you don’t need a phrase for “too conservative” because it’d be redundant. Conservative already means too conservative.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    The way Dalrymple puts it in the piece I linked to above is, “Conservatism believes that the True, the Good and the Beautiful are in the past, while Liberalism believes that the True, the Good and the Beautiful are in the future.”

  • “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.”

    This is beautiful. I’m still shocked and outraged that TGC, and especially people like John Piper who pay lip-service to anti-racism, see no need to distance themselves from Wilson whatsoever.

  • Indeed. I’ve heard the yarn so many times, “Back in my day, we never even had to lock the door or even bother closing any but the screen door, even if we were going to be gone over the weekend!”

  • MMattM

    The heart of this message resonates with me and I wanted to share it. Unfortunately, you embedded some loaded language in this post, especially at the beginning when you defined complementarianism based on your assessment and not of people who hold that stance. It gives me the sense that you only want to talk about the right and not to them. It’s a shame, too, because conservatives need to hear and consider your valid points.

  • ReverendRef

    To be honest . . . When I was in Montana I lived in a town pretty much like that. It was almost a real-life Mayberry. I had a parishioner who told me he didn’t lock his front door because the UPS driver wouldn’t be able to leave packages inside. Bikes get left unlocked at the pool. Everyone knows everyone. We only locked our door at night because we had a transient wander into the house looking for the priest (that made Mrs. Ref and Kid Ref less than happy).

    That said, though, we did have serious bouts of vandalism between high school kids from rival towns, bored high schoolers destroying mailboxes, grade-school kids wandering into the bars looking for their parents and several other “under the surface” issues.

  • Jerry Irwin

    This right/left, conservative/liberal argument basis is not reality! Some things need more liberating,some need more conserving. God, in theory, could be a tyrant or allow for moral anarchy. HE IS THE FINAL ARGUER!

  • MaryKaye

    Yeah, that sentence made me stop and read it aloud to my partner. A very sharp turn of phrase.

    I was raised by someone who regarded the 1950’s, not as Utopia, but as a nightmare she wanted desperately to wake up from (and with good reason). I do have a soft spot for the 1960’s, when I was a child, but I wouldn’t want to go back there–there were *reasons* the counterculture was so strident, and that’s mainly because the main culture inherited from the 50’s was so toxic. And then, Vietnam….I have never in my life since been far from people who were desperately scarred by the war. I look to the future and hope we’ll do better, because I sure don’t want my personal past to repeat itself.

    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.

  • dpolicar

    How would you rewrite the “loaded” language to talk to the right while expressing the same thoughts?

  • If the final authority could swing either way, how can we possibly use it for an appeal to authority?

  • MMattM

    I hinted at that when I said “…when you defined complementarianism based on your assessment and not of people who hold that stance.” Complementarians wouldn’t define it as women serving men. I know that’s the unfortunate result many of us see, but phrase it that way and the people who need to see this most will close the page after the first paragraph. Of course, no one seems to agree with me so far, so maybe I’m just being oversensitive. Overall, I agree and wish the Tim Kellers out there would do a better job of culling within their own camp.

  • dpolicar

    (nods) I understand.

    So, how would you rewrite the definition of complementarianism so as to encourage the people who need to see this most to keep the page open?

  • dj_pomegranate

    I still have not heard a definition of complementarianism that does not mean either “women are subservient to men” or “women are subservient to men but we are going to pretend they are not.” There’s a lot of talk about “different but equally important roles” but it all seems to amount to the same thing: men are allowed to do things that women are not allowed to do.

  • ReverendRef

    If closer, I just might attend that rally.

    O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

    or maybe

    O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

    I’m probably not the guy they want leading prayers at that rally, though.

  • MMattM

    Direct quotations of complementarians defining it or staying as close to one as possible would help. “Different but equally important roles” is the gist, and like I said, is gainsaid by the results we witness. Unfortunately, defining it by the results we see won’t convince anyone who isn’t already in our camp.

  • MaryKaye

    The comments to Dalrymple’s essay are pretty interesting; the majority of them reiterate the point, “No! Errors to the right cannot endanger your salvation, errors to the left can!” despite the clear evidence Dalrymple presents that young-earth creationism causes young people to leave Christianity or at least Evangelicalism.

    To me this edges toward one of the most personally unacceptable parts of (much of) Christianity, the emphasis on salvation at any cost. What does it matter how life evolves, as long as souls are saved? What does it matter (we hear all too often) if we actively lie, as long as souls are saved? What does it matter if we browbeat or bully, as long as ….? Historically this doesn’t always stop short of “What does it matter how many we kill, as long as….?” And the supposed good news becomes an abomination.

    Truth should have value in itself, virtue should have value, love should have value, independent of the cosmic scorekeeping game; else what is good about God? And yet that’s where the doctrine of salvation seems to lead, in almost all ages, a majority of those who believe in it: to the idea that what matters is the score, the outcome either for your own soul or for others’ souls, and nothing else. Deathbed conversions on the one hand, forced conversions on the other.

    I do not know what is true about the fate of the soul; but it seems better to stand with feet firmly planted in the here and now, saying “This matters: these plants and animals, these people and their joys and sorrows, these groping attempts to better understand plants and animals and people, or better serve them. If there is a Kingdom of God it is among us now. Whoever is the enemy of love on earth because it is not heaven is the enemy of love, no more and no less.”

  • dpolicar

    Right, I understand that your primary concern is with convincing the other camp, I was just wondering how you wanted to see it done. Quoting the other camp makes sense, given that goal.

  • Liya

    A few practical examples , if I may. If a married woman with more earning power and way better education wants to have a career , while her husband becomes a stay at home dad, would that be acceptable in your view?

    Another married woman is clearly a better, more mature Christian than her husband, would it be acceptable for him to assume the role of a student and her the spiritual leader of the family?

    Both are real life situations, I know both couples. In both cases the egalitarian view and progressive Christianity of both welcomes the non standard arrangement . What say you?

  • Mark Z.


  • Michele Cox

    That second one is one of my very favorite prayers in the BCP; it helps keep me honest, I think. There are times that my prayer goes, “Dear God, please help me pray sincerely, ‘O God, the Father of all…'”

    But if that’s the closest I can come, it’s still a start…

  • themunck

    Personally, I always saw it as more of a to-way street. Yes, you’ll never be the same as you was back then, but neither will the hometown. That old librarian lady who was always so nice? Retired. That tree you used to play in on the school grounds? Cut down, or got struck by lightning. That young girl next door who kept drawing in your comic books? She’s in collage now.
    Sure, your parents’ house is still there, as is the school, but the little things are different. And somehow, those can sometimes be more important.

    …but I admit, I’ve completely forgotten if I ever had a proper point by now :/

  • spinetingler

    I got a rock.

  • fraser

    In many ways, I think they were simpler. That WASP men were entitled to run the country and get picked for jobs over everyone else wasn’t in dispute. And from the perspective of older conservatives, there was never any of this affirmative action crap–the best men got together, competed for jobs, and the top guy won. It was easy to miss that better qualified women or minorities never even got to compete.
    That’s not a good kind of simplicity, but it’s there.

  • fraser

    There was a Catholic article I read once that said Christians should know there’s no going back to Eden, only forward to the New Jerusalem.

  • Laurent Weppe

    You should not underestimate the Threatening Bully Effect: that is, extremists explicitely or implicitely making known that, If they get kicked out of the Tribe, they’ll get really mad and start breaking everything they can. And people don’t want to make them mad, because they take seriously any threat made by a bully who wear his authoritarian and violent fantasies on his sleeve.

    The hippies on the left-wing borders are mostly harmless, and much, much slower to anger than the thugs who roam the right-wing borderlands, which means than guarding the seconds is a much more dangerous endeavor. So the gatekeepers keep themselves busy -and safe- by guarding their community from the very manageable “threat” of the dirty liberal hippies: kinda like the self-styled “neighboroud watch coordinators” sometimes keep themselves busy by stalking skittles carrying teens instead of, say, challenging the much more harmfull and dangerous abusive husbands who dwell within their gated community

  • Persia

    As someone who grew up well after the 60s, there was certainly toxicity there too, and I’m not sure it was all just cleansing itself of the 50s…some was just, I think, human nature and the fact that nothing changes easily.

  • danallison

    Over at Mockingbird today, and with a lot less snark, they’re demonstrating that the Puritanical fear of contamination is YOUR tribe’s problem, Fred. And they’re actually making a case, not just throwing around slanders.

  • ‘Demonstrating’? Not a word traditionally associated with the anecdotal free association championed by that Mockingbird piece.

  • Carstonio

    We could assume that complementarians are honest in seeing the different roles as equally important. But the real problem is that they espouse roles in the first place. It’s wrong to restrict people to roles based on genitalia. People should have the freedom to live their lives how they wish. It’s not the place of complementarians to decide how others should live.

    I doubt that complementarians can be swayed, and I have little sympathy for them. I just want them to leave everyone alone. In a just society, Erick Erickson would not be able to get any job in broadcasting and people would shun him on the streets. If he has daughters, he must be a soulless monster if he can look them in the eye.

  • Guest

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not exactly calm empiricism.

  • Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not exactly dispassionate empiricism, is it?

  • banancat

    Yeah, I have no sympathy for complementarians. I’m a woman and I’m an engineer for a living. Complementarians already assume that I’m unqualified for this because I am biologically female. I have no desire to engage them in conversation when they are starting from the assumption that I’m wrong for being good at something that traditionally men have done. They’ll never convince me that I’m actually less of the qualities they attribute to men, because I know myself better than they know me. And I’ll never convince them that I am actually who I am and not just pretending or lying to myself and others because they’re invested in this idea too hard.

  • frazer

    This. And I’ve never heard that men are not allowed to do something, even if it’s more properly seen as a woman’s role.