A Modest Proposal In Response to a Modest Proposal

As long-time readers know, I often engage with the work of Ross Douthat, New York Times columnist.  And, often, I disagree with what Douthat has to say, especially when he talks about religion (I mostly disagree with his politics takes as well, but I rarely find them worth talking about).  Sometimes I have a laugh with/at the expense of Mr. Douthat.  But this Sunday's column was the first time I really got mad reading a Douthat column.  But, the key was I wasn't sure why I was mad--it just rubbed me the wrong way.  And, upon reading it again, while I understand what about it rubbed me the wrong way, I think Douthat is basically right.  And so, in the spirit of the column, I would like to offer a Modest Proposal of my own to go in tandem with Ross's Modest Proposal.

Douthat's premise for the column is that the kinds of educated, "coastal elites" that in the main read the New York Times really should start going to the more progressive Protestant churches, generally referred to as "the Mainline" (i.e. the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church USA, United Church of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, etc.)  They should do this, says Douthat, because churches provide community and community is a good thing; churches also provide a grounding for a progressive vision, one that is more robust and less in danger of dissolving into a mass of competing victimization ideologies.  Finally (in a part which, to be honest, I misread the first time I read it), Douthat suggests that people who describe themselves as "non-religious" are often not conceptually adverse to religious experiences, but are instead turned-off by the packaging of religious messages.

Upon further reflection, I basically agree with all of that.  I certainly can't speak for "the Mainline," which is a diverse and diffuse intellectual construct, as a whole.  Instead, I will talk about the church I have been attending for the last nine months which would be considered part of the Mainline--All Saints Episcopal Church in New Albany, Ohio.  There is indeed a real spirit of community at All Saints--far more so, to be honest, than anything I ever experienced in a Catholic parish (it is also, by the way, a far more diverse community that the make-up of the surrounding neighborhood would suggest).  My Girardian commitments make me very aware of the ways in which victimhood as a political category can become toxic, as I have discussed here and here.  Likewise, I have seen no signs of religious tests or purges or enforced intellectual uniformity--we are a pretty diverse group in that way.  Nevertheless, I would hasten to point out, you are going to get the full small-c catholic experience at All Saints, with deeply theological sermons that engage with the Bible and tradition.  The notion that all you get at the Mainline is Democratic Party talking points is, in my experience, untrue, but it is especially untrue at All Saints.

So, if there are any New York Times readers in the greater Columbus, Ohio area that are reading Douthat's column and intrigued by his proposal, I would strongly encourage you to check out All Saints.  I'm happy to save you a seat on Sunday at 10 a.m.  I would say look for Deacon Diana to show you around, but Deacon Diana will find you herself--detecting and welcoming newcomers is her superpower.  Tell her Mike sent you.

But there is another group of people for whom I would be happy to save a seat at All Saints, and it is here that my own Modest Proposal comes into play.  Here, I would like to talk to the folks who already have a "church home" somewhere other than the Mainline (and other than the small but growing subset of progressive evangelical congregations--i.e. your pastor isn't someone like Brian Zahnd).  Many of you, especially those who attend more liturgical churches, have been through the experience of Holy Week.  You have walked with Jesus from his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, through the Last Supper, to the Garden, to the Cross, to the Tomb, and then ultimately to the Empty Tomb.  It is an emotional experience, at least it is for me, and it especially was this year.

I would ask you to take a minute and reflect on your experience of Holy Week this year, and what it all means to you as you sit here right now.  Once you have that in your mind, I would encourage you to take a hard look at this question:

Do you really believe that Jesus did all of that, went through all of that, to enforce some particular family structure?  To determine who can and who can't have sex under what circumstances?  Do you really believe that?

Because, for the Ross Douthat's and the Rod Dreher's of the world, the answer to my question is an unqualified "yes."  Dreher says this explicitly in his new book (read the quote I pull in this post).  And the denominations and churches of which you are a member, while perhaps shying away from being so forward as to say that, have demonstrated again and again through their "revealed preferences" that they believe that, too.  It colors every bit of how they relate to the world, and especially the way they approached this election season and its aftermath.  I mean, you have the U.S. Catholic Bishop's Conference essentially saying "well, we have a President who is actively making plans to break up the families and send away a significant chunk of our members, but he is also going to make sure that it's OK to fire people for being gay, so it's a mixed bag, really."  Everything, everything, comes down to enforcing a singular understanding of how people relate to each other in terms of sex; nothing else matters.

If, when considering this in your heart, you come to the conclusion that "yup, I totally think that this was the end-game of Jesus's Passion; no problem here," then fair enough.  But I think, I know, that there are many of you who are saying to yourselves "that's not the Jesus I know.  That's not what the Passion means to me."  If you are one of those people, I would ask you, in the most gentle way I can (because I know this is hard--I've been where you are) "then why do you still go to a church where your name and your presence and your money is being used to advance the notion that Jesus died and rose so we can tell LGBT people not to get married and enforce pre-modern notions of gender?  Because by your presence, even in a small way, you are affirming that view."

As much as I want to save a seat for Douthat's "unchurched" New York Times readers, I also want to save a seat at All Saints for these folks who are, frankly, my people.  I wouldn't tell you this if I didn't believe it--the Ross Douthat and Rod Dreher notion that you can't have authentic Christian faith without the Secret Sauce of conservative gender and sexuality norms is bullshit.  I sat in a Good Friday service and watched people weep openly as they came forward to venerate the Cross, somehow able to do so without also needing to view gay marriage as a threat to civilization.  Jesus died and rose from the grave so that we--all of us, male and female, straight and LGBT--could have life, and have it more abundantly.  That's the meaning of what you experienced in the last week.  You no more need this conservative gender superstructure than you need to ride in horse-drawn carriages and avoid zippers.

I'll save you a seat.  10 a.m. on Sunday.  Deacon Diana will find you.  Ask for Mike.  

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