I need to apologize to some of my Christian friends for what they are about to read. I seldom work with binaries, as I find them less than useful, and more often than not, I find them to be false dichotomies. However, I think the tenor of a certain debate has reached a point that I'm weary of not saying something directly. This post started as a response to an article (or yet another damn article) in the NYT about the (insert ominous all-cap font) decline of evangelical America. John S. Dickerson, legitimate award-winning journalist, author, and evangelical pastor, wrote the piece as a thubmnail assessment of the paralysis currently suffered by American evangelicalism. His assessment about the symptoms is very accurate. He is, after all, an investigative journalist, and like many of his kind, he is able to look at information without flinching.
In short paragraphs he chronicles the shrinking political influence, the shrinking donations, the loss of young evangelicals, and the inability of evangelicals to "adapt to rapid shifts in the culture," especially same-sex marriage. After talking about a couple healthy signs, including inexplicably megachurches in most large cities (that is surely a sign of cancer, sir), he moves to his main concern:
But all this machinery distracts from the historical vital signs of evangelicalism: to make converts and point to Jesus Christ. By those measures this former juggernaut is coasting, at best, if not stalled or in reverse.
What is unexpected is Dickerson's lack of concern about this malaise. He thinks it a good thing. That is the subject of a future post, and one that I will probably not write until I read his forthcoming book. Dickerson then makes three statements that I want to combine before I get to the main point here.
We evangelicals must accept that our beliefs are now in conflict with the mainstream culture. We cannot change ancient doctrines to adapt to the currents of the day. But we can, and must, adapt the way we hold our beliefs — with grace and humility instead of superior hostility...I believe the cultural backlash against evangelical Christianity has less to do with our views — many observant Muslims and Jews, for example, also view homosexual sex as wrong, while Catholics have been at the vanguard of the movement to protect the lives of the unborn — and more to do with our posture...This does not mean we whitewash unpopular doctrines like the belief that we are all sinners but that we re-emphasize the free forgiveness available to all who believe in Jesus Christ.
Notice that he never says explicitly that gay marriage is wrong. That has to be inferred from the entire piece. What he says is that even if you do think it's wrong, you have to hold that belief with grace and humility. Sigh. I'm so weary of this diagnosis. I will happily grant that encouraging fellow evangelicals to avoid being truculent assholes festooned with douchebag awards is a noble cause and even a good idea. It misses the entire point, though. You can be nice and still support injustice. You can be kind and still be painfully wrong. You can be polite and still be a bigot.
This will sound crazy to some people, but the Bible gets some stuff wrong. Way wrong. I won't trot out the list of silliness from Leviticus here. Most of you familiar with this debate are familiar with the list. Let's apply Dickerson's thinking to just one historical example: slavery. Imagine a pastor in 1850 saying, "We can't whitewash unpopular doctrines. Slavery is mandated by Scripture. It is God's natural order. What we must do is hold that belief with grace and humility." That's reductio ad absurdum, folks. The method is nonsensical. What matters here is that evangelicals come to the point where they can say they are wrong. Many have. Many try for a middle ground of tolerance and outward love, but believe that it is grievous sin. Many believe they must "speak the truth in love," and how much damage has been done under that fuckin' banner?
Marcus Borg once offered a sensible rationale for assessing what is and isn't a moral law, especially when wanting to import ostensibly moral laws from the Tanakh. He said that trangression of the law would need to cause obvious harm to individuals or the community in order for it to be considered a moral law (excepting those that are direct offenses against the invisible Being, like blasphemy, I suppose). Those opposed to homosexuality and same-sex marriage are incapable of showing what actual harm would derive from the acceptance of homsexuality as normative within a framework that doesn't see sexuality as a simple binary. If the Bible is treated as a document that requires justification for its claims, and it should be, what is the justification for prohibiting same-sex marriage or homosexual sex? Even if you believe in an invisible being who dispenses divine laws, you must at least ask yourself the rationale for prohibitions. This one seems to have none. Absent a tenable answer for that question, please just admit you're wrong. It's way better than holding outdated, discriminatory beliefs with "grace and humility." Admitting you're wrong is a sign of true humility, in fact.