Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Alan Noble is not being disingenuous in his recent Atlantic essay, “Is Evangelical Morality Still Acceptable in America?”
That stipulation is a bit of a stretch, since Noble generally seems like a fairly bright man, and thus the self-serving obtuseness he affects here seems to be a pose. But let’s pretend the pretense is genuine and treat his faux-naive argument as genuine naiveté. Let us answer his question as though he didn’t already know.
Noble presents “evangelical morality” as under siege. He isn’t responsible for the subtitle of his essay, but the copy editor who supplied that did a good job summarizing Noble’s question: “People who disagree with same-sex marriage and birth-control use have been met with accusations of bigotry. Are some Christians being unfairly shamed out of the public square?”
Here is his conclusion:
If the evangelical worldview is deemed invalid in the public sphere, then the public sphere loses the value of being public. American discourse will be marked by paranoid conformity, rather than principled and earnest disagreement. And our ability to prophetically speak to one another and to our nation’s troubles will be restrained.
The right framework here is one of pluralism: the ability of many different kinds of people to live out their faith in public with and among those who deeply disagree with them.
Pluralism, bravo. Excellent. Robust, “principled and earnest disagreement” in the “public sphere” and the public square. Yes. Good. Three cheers for pluralism and wave the Patheos flag.
Noble, rightly, believes that everyone should have the right to participate in such disagreements and in such public arguments. Where he goes wrong — and rather weirdly wrong at that — is in his insistence that the right to participate in such public discourse carries with it the right to be rewarded for winning such arguments even when you’re losing them. The freedom to disagree, for Noble, means the freedom to have a losing argument afforded the same dignity, merit and respect as the arguments it is losing to.
Ultimately, then, Noble’s argument is profoundly disrespectful of evangelical Christianity. He insists that “the evangelical worldview” must be treated like a small child in a T-ball game in which no one keeps score, no one makes an out, and everybody gets to run the bases even after three strikes. He wants evangelicals to have the freedom to disagree, but he will not allow them the mature freedom to lose an argument.
Nor will he allow anyone else the freedom to notice that “evangelical morality” is losing the argument.
Consider two such arguments that “evangelical morality” is currently losing — and losing quite badly: 1) The advocacy of “purity culture,” and 2) The denial of civil marriage for same-sex couples.
Noble desperately want to avoid the substance of these losing arguments, and to ignore the consequences of them. That’s not a luxury that everyone has. Both of these arguments have been pressed, forcefully and incisively, by the very people who bear those consequences. For them, these disagreements are not abstractions to be pondered in an essay for the Atlantic. They are, rather, sources of real, tangible and measurable harm — harm inflicted on them. Noble’s abstract appeal to a perpetually unsettled disagreement would mean, for them, perpetual harm — without respite, without hope, without end.
And so Noble does his best to distract us from these real people — to keep the focus elsewhere, on some abstract, ethereal dispute between advocates of “tradition” and the cruel juggernaut of “progressives.” Doing that requires Noble to maintain that disingenuous pose in which he pretends not to understand any motive for these so-called “progressives” other than their blind devotion to a creed of progress. He can’t allow himself to admit or to acknowledge any substantial motive for this challenge to “tradition,” because to do so would require him to acknowledge the real harm that is being done to real people by the traditions he wants to defend.
But again, let’s play along with Noble’s pretense, and respond as though he really doesn’t understand why “evangelical morality” has lost the argument. So, then.
Dear Alan Noble:
Evangelical morality is not losing the argument because it is insufficiently “progressive.” Evangelical morality is losing the argument because it is insufficiently moral.
Evangelical morality has, rather, demonstrated itself to be immoral — to be a source of harm to real people. Those people — rightly, justly, and understandably — are demanding that this harm stop. “Evangelical morality” insists that this harm continue, but has thus far been unable to offer any reason why it should. Defenders of evangelical morality are free to keep trying to come up with some plausible justification for such harm being done to others, but they are not free to mandate that everyone else ignore the failure of their attempts to do so thus far.
Because of those two things — the real harm being done to real people and the utter failure to provide any credible basis for inflicting such harm — this “evangelical morality” is, in fact, increasingly being “shamed out of the public square.” This is not happening because the public square is dominated by progressive chauvinists. This is happening because such immoral “evangelical morality” is, in fact, shameful.