An ugly, disgraceful, and utterly familiar little drama has played out over the past two days in the evangelical subculture and religious media. It started with an interview for Religious News Service with beloved pastor and author Eugene Peterson.
Peterson is perhaps best known for his folksy, colloquial translation of the Bible, “The Message.” Before retiring, Peterson served as pastor of a mainline Presbyterian church, but he’s always been evangelical-ish, and his dozens of books are devoured and adored by white evangelicals. If you’ve spent any time in white evangelical churches, you’ve probably heard your pastor quote from one of them.
At age 84, Peterson has just published what he says is his final book, and interviews surrounding its release have a farewell-tour quality to them — like Mariano’s last game at Fenway. That’s how much of Peterson’s RNS interview with Jonathan Merritt went, but some of the questions — and Peterson’s answers — wound up producing a different headline: “Best-selling author Eugene Peterson changes his mind on gay marriage.”
It’s welcome news when a prominent evangelical leader “changes their mind” to affirm the full humanity and civil equality of LGBT people. It’s especially so when — as with a J.R.D. Kirk or a Dave Gushee — that person offers a full-throated theological explanation for their change of mind, and then jumps in with both feet, demonstrating the courage of their newfound convictions. That’s not really what happened with Peterson, though. His “change of mind” was a bit more … meh:
EP: I wouldn’t have said this 20 years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over. People who disapprove of it, they’ll probably just go to another church. So we’re in a transition and I think it’s a transition for the best, for the good. I don’t think it’s something that you can parade, but it’s not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.
JM: A follow-up: If you were pastoring today and a gay couple in your church who were Christians of good faith asked you to perform their same-sex wedding ceremony, is that something you would do?
That’s a bit tepid, but — reading that yesterday — Peterson seemed to be “in transition … and I think it’s a transition for the good.” That’s welcome, even if it’s not a tectonic development and even it doesn’t exactly make Peterson a trailblazer or put him in the vanguard for Pentecost and justice. But, hey, baby steps can be good too.
The backlash came swift and fierce. The tribal gatekeepers of white evangelicalism denounced Peterson for his apostasy. They hastily donned and rended their Disposable Rending Garments in an extravagant performance of feigned lamentation, smile-frowning all the while at the opportunity to engage in their favorite sport. It all followed the usual script, including the now-standard threat to stop carrying Peterson’s books at LifeWay Christian Book, Jewelry, Witnessing Tool, Family Lifestyle And Thomas Kinkade Print Outlets.
The gatekeepers — the Righteous Defenders of Their Exclusive Status as the Defenders of Righteousness — were, as always, indignant and displeased. That is, after all, their vocation. They are professionally indignant and displeased. It’s how they make a living. So they set out to Cizik the suddenly “controversial” Eugene Peterson.
Richard Cizik’s name became a verb in 2008 when, after nearly 30 years of faithful service as the National Association of Evangelical’s top government relations person in Washington, he was unceremoniously shit-canned. Cizik got Ciziked after appearing on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air. The pretext was his belated, lukewarm affirmation of maybe possibly something like perhaps some kind of maybe civil unions. Here’s what Cizik said:
I’m shifting, I have to admit. In other words, I would willingly say I believe in civil unions. I don’t officially support redefining marriage from its traditional definition, I don’t think. We have this tension going on in our movement between what is church-building and what is nation-building. And I lean in this spectrum at times, maybe we should concentrate on building our values in our own movement.
The Righteous Defenders were indignant at that. (Well … they were indignant before that. They’re perpetually indignant, after all. But that was what they seized on and claimed to be the newfound source of their indignation.) They portrayed it as a rejection of the Bible.
Let me explain all the unspoken steps at work in that charge. Set aside for the moment any consideration of personal animus toward LGBT people. For the gatekeepers and the Righteous Defenders, The Gay Thing has become an all-sufficient proxy for the Official Required Stance on the Bible. To be a member in good standing of the white evangelical tribe, you must have a “high view” of scripture. You must read the Bible literally as the infallible, inerrant, authoritative Word of God. You must submit and concede whenever you are presented with any clobber-text clipped from the pages of this holy, authoritative, authoritarian book authored by God Himself via plenary verbal inspiration.
But this Official Required Stance of what all evangelicals must believe about the Bible is long and complicated (institutional statements of faith struggle to contain it in a single dense paragraph). And all of that length and complication makes it difficult to police others for failing to live up to it. Since policing others is one of the key functions of this Bible business, they need some short-hand, some proxy, to quickly sort out those who may be out of line.
These days, that proxy is often The Gay Thing. Any slight qualification or mitigation of a hard-line anti-gay “stance” is perceived as a deviation from full devotion to the high view of the authority of the inspired and inerrant Word of God.
Richard Cizik’s civil-union remarks illustrate how absurdly categorical this antigay-as-proxy-for-biblical nonsense can be. He explicitly made a distinction between what he believed the Bible had to say for Christians and what he believed the Constitution had to say for citizens apart from the church. And yet he still got fired for allegedly rejecting the Bible.
But that’s not really why he got fired.
Cizik didn’t get Ciziked for his kinda sorta statement on civil unions. He got fired because of something else he said to Terry Gross: “In the Virginia primary, I voted for Barack Obama.”
Virginia has an open primary, so this didn’t necessarily mean that Cizik was — gasp! — a registered Democrat. But he voted for a Democrat. And that meant he had to go.
Many white evangelicals might not have liked or agreed with Cizik’s semi-endorsement of civil unions, but it couldn’t credibly be twisted by proxy into any kind of rejection of the Official Required Stance on the Bible. His support for civil unions did not constitute an existential threat to white evangelical identity, or to the unchallenged authority of the tribal gatekeepers.
But his vote for Obama did constitute such a threat. If anyone does not, always and everywhere, without question, endorse and support every Republican candidate, that person cannot be allowed to remain within the tribe.
It’s that nakedly partisan. It’s that comprehensively and that exclusively partisan. That’s how evangelical tribal gatekeeping always works. For the past 30 years, the enforcement of partisan Republican loyalty has been its main purpose and function.
That’s why the NAE was far more gracious in gently removing its former leader, Ted Haggard. Haggard got outed by a male sex-worker, but he never hinted that electing Republicans to office wasn’t a mandatory cornerstone of evangelical identity. So he was asked to resign, but he wasn’t treated with the dismissive contempt and retribution that was directed at Cizik.
But of course the NAE couldn’t just come right out and state: “If you’re not a 100-percent, unquestioningly loyal Republican, then you can’t be a Christian.” So they needed a pretext. Civil unions became that pretext.
I think the same thing is happening with Eugene Peterson. The pretext for him getting Ciziked is his belated, lukewarm “change of mind” on marriage equality. That is what the gatekeepers and their toadies are seizing on and elevating as the cause for their pearl-clutching and their threats of banishment from the tribe and from the shelves of LifeWay.
Granted, I’m sure the gatekeepers didn’t like those comments from Peterson, but that’s not what really infuriated — and terrified — them. What has them truly shaken is another bit from his interview with Merritt, in which Peterson directly challenges the bedrock core of their faith and doctrine:
I think we’re in a bad situation. I really do. Donald Trump is the enemy as far as I’m concerned. He has no morals. He has no integrity.
It’s not that Peterson was joining the #Resistance. He continued, saying:
But I have good friends who think he’s wonderful. But I think they put up with it less and less. People are getting pretty tired of him, I think. Some of us were tired of him before he was elected. I think we can put up with it, though. I don’t think it’s the end of the road.
It doesn’t matter that Peterson’s criticism was directed only at Trump and not at the entire Republican Party. (Ask Russell Moore whether that distinction matters.) Nor does it matter that his statements about Trump’s lack of integrity and morals are demonstrably true. All that matters to the Righteous Defenders and to the traumatized followers kept within their gates are these five words: “Donald Trump is the enemy.”
That’s intolerable to them. It’s a direct challenge to their identity, to their faith, to everything they believe about what it means to be faithful to the Word of God. It’s an existential threat, and it must be destroyed.
So the Righteous Defenders quickly set out to destroy it — to destroy Peterson. To officially “Farewell” him. To Cizik him outside the gates of the tribe, erasing his books and his teaching and his influence until nothing remains except a blank space like in one of those old group photos of Stalin’s Politburo.
That was where things stood as of yesterday, but we haven’t yet finished following this script. First comes the “controversial” comment. Then the backlash. And now, today, we get the backtrack. Peterson heard the gatekeepers’ threats and, it seems, he got The Message.
“Eugene Peterson backtracks on same-sex marriage” is the headline on Jonathan Merritt’s newest RNS report. (Should’ve just re-used the first one — “Peterson changes his mind” is still accurate.)
This is hideous. Peterson cavils and qualifies and grovels and hedges. It would be shocking if we hadn’t seen the same script play out so many times before — with World Vision and InterVarsity and Russell Moore and too many others to name them all. We’re at the groveling apology stage, in which the transgressor performs their remorse for briefly saying something truthful and vows never to let it happen again.
But that’s Stage Two of this gatekeeping drama, so let’s save further discussion of that for Stage Two of this post.