An overwhelming three-fourths of Americans identify as religious. Listening to some religious conservatives in the U.S., though, one might think believers were a persecuted minority on the verge of extinction. In the name of protecting the sincerely held beliefs of religious Americans, conservative lawmakers and lobbyists have introduced a spate of controversial religious-freedom legislation in recent months. But apparently Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig aren’t the only ones fighting ghosts in 2016. The problems these bills claim to solve don’t actually exist.
(BOSTON) Only a few dozen worshippers attend Boston’s Tremont Temple Baptist Church on a typical Sunday, but the historic church was once so prominent that legendary preacher Dwight L. Moody called it “America’s pulpit.” This week, however, Tremont’s massive auditorium played host to influence again when 1300 Christian leaders gathered for the Q conference to discuss the most pressing issues facing their faith.
While the annual gathering had no official theme, attendees would be excused for assuming it was sexuality and gay marriage. Plenary speakers addressed topics ranging from the connection between spirituality and sexuality to Americans’ attitudes on religious freedom laws. A breakout session focused on transgender issues.
Richard Stearns, president of World Vision U.S., even discussed his organization’s controversial decision to hire people in same-sex relationships and their abrupt reversal of that policy. Stearns claimed “World Vision never changed our view of biblical marriages” but was merely trying to find common ground on a divisive issue.
Even when the speakers weren’t discussing sexuality, they seemed to be discussing sexuality. Andrew Sullivan, a gay writer who formerly blogged at “The Dish,” spoke on how intellectual diversity makes us better. Michael Lindsay, the president of Gordon College who created controversy when he reaffirmed his university’s conservative stance on homosexuality, delivered a talk titled, “Do We Have to Agree?”
A pre-conference survey found that almost half of those in attendance were church leaders and 53 percent held graduate degrees. Thirty-one percent self-identified as “conservative,” 8 percent as “liberal,” and 59 percent as either “independent” or “moderate.”
While at least three other Christian conferences during the past year focused on same sex debates, this is the only one that featured both pro-gay speakers and those who oppose gay marriage and relationships.
“The aim of Q is to create space for learning and conversation and we think the best way to do that is exposure,” said Q’s founder Gabe Lyons. “These are conversations that most of America is having, and they are not going away.”
Tension rose during two discussions moderated by Lyons that pitted one side against the other. One explored whether the church’s historical teaching on the matter was reliable. For this, California pastor Dan Kimball argued the traditional position across from Dr. David Gushee, a prominent evangelical ethicist who recently announced he had changed his mind and is LGBT affirming.
Imagine Jesus wearing a baseball cap, attending the Republican National Convention, celebrating American Independence Day, and advocating for another war in the Middle East. According to blogger Benjamin Corey, author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message, this is the Jesus that conservative American evangelicals have created. As a result, many worship a domesticated Jesus and have diluted his radical good news.
Here, we discuss what it means to be “set apart,” the idolatry of certainty, and whether he’s just making the same old liberal arguments we’ve been hearing for decades.
RNS: Many evangelicals work to be “set apart” from culture, staying true to the fundamentalist roots of some denominations. But you say evangelicalism, has fallen prey to syncretism—the blending of culture with religion so that it’s difficult to distinguish them. Where do you see this?
BC: Over time, I’ve noticed syncretism in a variety of ways within our own culture—such as our cultural focus on individualism, justification of violence, and our often narrow Western understandings of justice. The big picture concern however is this: following Jesus has become something that fits snugly into an American evangelical worldview, both theologically and politically. Unfortunately, as I argue in Undiluted, any time following Jesus becomes comfortable, and any time Jesus seems to agree with our entire worldview, it’s a good sign that we have adapted our concept of Jesus to our culture and that we’d bode well to return to the roots of his message and start over.
RNS: You share about leaving fundamentalism/conservative evangelicalism and moving into a faith that you describe as being oriented on a more radical Jesus. Isn’t this just liberalization?
BC: Not at all, and I think this is part of the problem with a modern evangelical worldview. We have become so sure, so confident in our theological and political rightness that any straying from the company line is dubbed “liberalization” and immediately discounted. But the liberal vs. conservative paradigm is a false choice when we’re talking about following Jesus. Jesus claimed that his kingdom was “not of this world”; he did not come to push a conservative agenda or a liberal agenda—he came to present a radically different way of living that no human worldview could ever duplicate. In a world of false binary options, Jesus is the one in the middle inviting us into a “third way” of living.
The evangelical world blew up this week over the question of whether Christian business owners and individuals should refuse goods and services for same-sex weddings. Many Christian theologians, pastors, and bloggers—particularly hailing from the evangelical new-Calvinist movement—have argued the answer is yes in some cases.
In a Daily Beast column I wrote with Kirsten Powers, we argued that the Bible does not prohibit such service. Sean Davis at The Federalist blasted the column as “a masterpiece of Biblical ignorance.” He points to a passage in 1 Corinthians where the Apostle Paul addressed whether Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols as proof that Christians should not provide service to same-sex weddings.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), made a similar argument and cited the same scripture in a response to our column. He reasserted his position that Christians should “sacrifice the business for the conscience” when there is an obvious deviation from Biblical standards. ERLC Director of Communications Joe Carter took to Twitter to accuse Kirsten and I of having “embarrassed” ourselves with the column.
So, is our argument really that far off base? I reached out a variety of leading theologians the evangelical world respects to get their take. They uniformly found the use of 1 Corinthians in this case to be a misapplication.
“USA Today” columnist Kirsten Powers kicked the conservative Christian hornet’s nest this week with her article, “Jim Crow laws for gays and lesbians?,” by arguing that religious business owners should not be able to refuse service to same-sex couples. The column questioned the legitimacy of a recent bill, which passed the Kansas House of Representatives, that would allow religious employers and individuals to discriminate against gays and lesbian customers.
Powers rankled conservatives by accusing Christian business owners—such as the bakers and florists who refuse to serve same-sex couples who are being wed—of double standards. After all, she said, they serve “unrepentant murderers through prison ministry.” In the article, evangelical mega-church pastor Andy Stanley echoed Powers’ sentiment, noting that if companies refused service to every couple entering into an unbiblical marriage, they’d go bankrupt.
Many criticisms of Powers’ piece centered on her comparison of the Kansas law with Jim Crow era discriminations of black people by white people. But there is at least one religious leader from the past who would likely agree with Powers: Martin Luther King, Jr.
In a lecture King delivered in 1961 to an ethics class at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Civil Rights pioneer addressed the issue of whether a business owner in the United States should be allowed to “choose his customers” and those he serves. He responded thusly…
Dennis Rodman has often bragged (in third person, no less) about “doing whatever the f— he wants.” And his public life shows he’s not joking.
From kicking a camera man in the crotch during a basketball game to his infamous hair-dying practices that often distracted both teammates and fans to the time he promoted his autobiography by showing up in a wedding dress and announcing that he was marrying himself, Dennis Rodman has always been an powder keg of peculiarity.
Now, the 52-year-old Rodman has created a media circus with a trip to North Korea to train the country’s basketball players.
And at least one person, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, thinks he’s the perfect bridge builder and mediator in the United States’ contentious relationship with the communist country.
Rev. Jackson tweeted, “Ping pong diplomacy worked in China, and Basketball seems to work in North Korea.” He also congratulated Rodman on his efforts, calling him “a light” in a dark place.
I beg to differ.
How does one deem a government worker “non-essential”? It’s difficult to say, but 800,000 of them were sent home last week.
The ripples of the government shutdown are far-reaching, affecting everything from the national parks to the IRS. Even the Centers for Disease Control, the agency tasked with detecting and investigating disease outbreaks, was forced to drastically reduce its workforce and has ceased to monitor flu outbreaks.
But in the face of so much chaos and calamity, the non-essential workers who are racking up IOUs may not be paying the greatest price.
According to recent polls, more Americans blame the Republican Party than the Democratic Party. On this one, it seems the public got it right. Senator Ted Cruz has reached celebrity status among Republicans for leading the charge and the party’s leaders are beside themselves with glee.
“We’re very excited,” House Republican and former presidential contender Michelle Bachmann told The Washington Post. “It’s exactly what we wanted and we got it.”
But the shutdown may be a classic case of getting what you want and then not wanting what you get. The polls indicate that the stalemate may further alienate Hispanic voters from the GOP, but the effects may be more deleterious than that. It may repel young Christians who have struggled to connect with Republicans in the way many of their parents did.
“Big-hearted youngsters looking to ‘do unto others’ won’t find their calling in today’s rancorous politics,” Matt Lewis stated in a column for The Week titled, “The GOP is losing young Christians.”
As Lewis argues, the name of the game in Washington these days is mockery and relentless “eye for an eye” partisanship, things that repulse young Christians. There was a time when conservative Christians would have rushed headlong into the fray, fighting the culture wars with everyone else. But some of them — particularly the younger ones —seem to be taking a different approach.
Criticizing the evangelical adoption movement seems to be all the rage these days. Salon.com, a digital bastion of liberalism, ran an article arguing “the Christian right perverts adoption.” Hermant Mehta, Patheos.com’s “Friendly Atheist”, warned that we “should fear the evangelical adoption boom.” And Melanie Springer Mock of “The Nation” penned “Why Christians Like Me Should Listen to Critiques of Evangelical Adoption.”
At the heart of their critiques is the work of Kathryn Joyce, the self-described “secular, feminist journalist” and author of The Child Catchers, who is again decrying the evangelical adoption movement, this time in the pages of “The New York Times.”
In her article, Joyce again paints the picture of evangelical adoption as a well-intentioned, but misguided, movement that exacerbates corruption and harms children around the world. It is a perspective I was first introduced to after reading Joyce’s “Mother Jones” article (“Orphan Fever: The Evangelical Movement’s Adoption Obsession”). I responded to her article at “On Faith and Culture”:
“In the end, Kathryn Joyce curses the darkness without lighting a candle. She attempts to pour cold water on the Christian adoption movement, but her ideas for actually solving the orphan crisis that now affects more than 100 million children are more than lacking; they’re non-existent. We should expect more from even an unashamedly partisan publication like Mother Jones. Not to mention a writer who recently published a 352-page book on the subject. “
Joyce contacted me after the publication of my article, and we had a rather heated exchange. She asked me to read her book, The Child Catchers, which I had already ordered before her request. The book arrived, and I read it, but I was not persuaded as she assumed I might be.
Charles H. Spurgeon has been called “the greatest of the Victorian preachers,” but the 19th century Brit is much more than an artifact. Modern conservative Christians maintain an enduring fascination with Spurgeon, whose writings still rank among the top 100 bestsellers of Christian literature on Amazon.
Most of the books, blogs, and articles written about the longtime pastor of London’s Metropolitan Tabernacle center on his evangelistic fervor and theology. But the most fascinating thing about Spurgeon may be his lesser known political views.
“Spurgeon was basically a left winger politically,” says Tom Nettles, professor of historical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “He was politically active, but some evangelicals may be surprised to find that he was usually on the side of liberal politics.”
Though Spurgeon supported Bible teaching in public schools, Nettles says, Spurgeon “loved the American idea of the separation of church and state.” He favored the disestablishment of the Anglican church from the British government and spoke about it often.
Spurgeon was also sensitive to the problems of the poor that arose as a result of the industrial revolution in the West. He favored the abolition of the elitist House of Lords that disempowered ordinary Brits, and he publicly support more liberal policies to address poverty.
“He was very active in preaching about certain social issues,” says Nettles, author of the forthcoming Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. “Spurgeon preached in support of making government low-income housing projects more humane and encouraged Christians to vote for the governmental alleviation of poverty.”
But one of Spurgeon’s lesser known and more contentious political stances was his opposition to war. He believed that war was “an enormous crime” and “regarded all battles as but murder on a large scale.” Spurgeon said in his 1857 sermon “Independence of Christianity,”
Christ’s church hath been also miserably befooled; for this I will assert, and prove too, that the progress of the arms of a Christian nation is not the progress of Christianity…. The Christian soldier hath no gun and no sword, for he fighteth not with men. It is with “spiritual wickedness in high places” that he fights, and with other principalities and powers than with those that sit on thrones and hold sceptres in their hands.
“Spurgeon was anti-war,” says Nettles. “I don’t know if he actually rejected just war theory, but every time he talks about war, he speaks of it in the most negative, unattractive way. The only war he fully justified was the American Civil War because he believed so strongly in the cause of freeing slaves. It even caused some Southerners in America to boycott his books. I wouldn’t go so far as calling him a pacifist, but he would think the justification for war would be extremely rare.”
Bill Leonard, church history professor at Wake Forest Divinity School and author of Baptist Ways: A History, says Spurgeon’s views on foreign policy were formed as a response to a time in which his mother country ruled the world and was sending its soldiers to fight foreign wars. His situation, Leonard says, is not unlike ours.
In June 1979, a coalition of conservative religious leaders led by a Jewish Howard Phillips, Catholic Paul Weyrich, and evangelical televangelist Jerry Falwell banded together to wage a political “holy war” against the liberal establishment. They called their organization the “Moral Majority” to signify the large number of social conservatives they believed were being ignored across American culture.
Forming a political action committee, the organization registered 4 million voters in 1980 and purchased $10 million in radio and television ads questioning President Carter’s patriotism and Christianity. Its message struck a chord with a large swath of Americans, and their efforts are credited with helping to elect Ronald Reagan. More importantly, the birth of the coalition began of a period of political dominance for the religious conservatives that would span at least three decades.
But according to a new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in partnership with the Brookings Institution, the religious balance of power is shifting in ways that could make the religious left the new “Moral Majority,” figuratively speaking. If current trends persist, religious progressives will soon outnumber religious conservatives, a group that is shrinking with each successive generation, the data show.
PRRI reports that 23 percent of 18- to 33-year-olds are religious progressives, 17 percent are religious conservatives, and 22 percent are nonreligious. By contrast, only 12 percent of 66- to 88-year-olds are religious progressives, while about half are religious conservatives. The survey used a religious-orientation scale that “combines theological, economic, and social outlooks.”
“What you clearly see in the data when you move from the oldest Americans to youngest Americans is a stability among religious moderates and decreased appeal in religious conservatism,” says PRRI CEO Robert Jones.