Living Through A Divorce

Professor David Gushee, who I have mentioned before in this space, wrote a column recently entitled "On LGBT Equality, Middle Ground is Disappearing."  Yesterday, he penned a follow-up column, in which he attempted (apparently unsuccessfully, though not from lack of trying) to clarify what he was getting at in the first column.  These columns, the reactions to them, and especially the reaction from Rod Dreher, bring into focus what I think is the state of play for Christianity in 2016 in North America.  We would do well to acknowledge where we are and where we are probably going in the near term.

To begin, Gushee asserts in the second column that his first column was an attempt to provide a descriptive framework for the state of the United States in 2016 with regard to LGBT issues.  In other words, let us put aside for now whether you think this state is good or bad, and let's talk about what is.  Gushee's picture of what is has four primary components.  First, essentially every non-religious institution in American life has embraced LGBT rights, at least in a formal sense--the corporate world, the government, the military, the broader cultural space, the academic world, and even things like sports.  Moreover, the trend line is toward greater acceptance in those spheres.  Second, Gushee asserts that within religious communities (and, since I think that is the focus of the piece, let's limit our discussion to Christianity), there is a segment of active participants that affirm and encourage the direction in which secular society is trending on this question.  The degree to which they are a minority or majority depend on the particular religious community in question, but this group exists in every community.  Third, the only major segment of society that is actively opposing this trend line in the broader culture is the conservative religious establishment and those that identify with that establishment.  And, fourth, insofar as the trend line is toward greater and greater support for LGBT rights, the point-of-view that opposes those rights, and the institutions that espouse those views, will become more and more marginalized, with political and social consequences for those who oppose those rights that may be similar to the consequences for those that opposed rights for African-Americans a generation or two ago.

I don't think you can meaningfully disagree with this assessment as a descriptive matter.  Notably, critics like Dreher do not meaningfully try to challenge the analysis of the situation Gushee provides.  Instead, the focus of Dreher's piece moves immediately from what is to the fact that all of this is terrible and that the conservative religious establishment should prepare for persecution.  This is not new ground for Dreher, and we have heard all of this before.  But two things hit me from the Dreher piece that I think are worth talking about.

First, Dreher and others like-minded folks implicitly take the position that the pro-LGBT position is per se illegitimate for Christians because it happens to correspond with where the broader culture is located, citing the history of Christian persecution under Rome as a model for the notion that Christianity will always oppose the secular order.  The timing of this newly discovered, quasi-Mennonite position with regard to the relationship between the state and religion is awfully convenient. The political order in the United States more or less lined up with the prevailing Protestant Christian values for the vast majority of the history of the country, and the ancestors of the current dissenters had no problem with that.  No one in the 1850s, or now for that matter, was saying that the imposition of anti-polygamy laws directed at the Mormon Church was a sign that Mormonism must be the true religion and mainstream Protestantism the false one because the state backed the mainstream Protestant side (except, of course, for the Mormons).   Having secular culture agree with you doesn't make your position automatically correct, but it doesn't make it obviously wrong, either.

But my main take away from reading Dreher's piece is the last sentence:

One of the hardest things that dissidents will face is that when the Thought Police show up at the door, church people like David Gushee will proudly say, “They’re in the basement, officer.”

In other words, David Gushee and people like him (and me) are quislings, traitors to the clearly established and unquestionable Christian duty of opposing LGBT rights.  But this framing ignores Point Two of Gushee's analysis of the current situation--there is a segment of people out there who are supporting LGBT rights out of a belief that it is their Christian duty to do so.  They are not, by their own terms, betraying anything, any more than anti-segregation Christian leaders did not believe themselves to betraying the Gospel when they marched with Dr. King.  Look at the chart Gushee copies at the top of the second article--in a survey by LifeWay, an evangelical outfit who explicitly limited the scope of the survey to exclude groups like the UCC or the Episcopalians, 30% of pastors reported that LGBT people participate fully in the life of their congregations.  Strip out the inflammatory rhetorical framing and ask yourself this question--why wouldn't Professor Gushee, and the pastors of those 30% of evangelical churches that support full inclusion, believe that it would be good for more people to embrace LGBT rights?  That's what they stand for after all.

Now, one can still say that everyone who believes as Professor Gushee does is not a real Christian, and as such their sense of Christian duty is illegitimate.  I'm sure Dreher would say that.  And, if you think that, then you can frame what is happening as treason to the true cause.  I think that's wrong, obviously, but I can't tell Dreher or anyone else what to think or how to frame what counts as real Christianity.  But the broader problem with this framing is that it suggests implicitly that Gushee and those that agree with him are not just "not real Christians," but that their motivations are non-Christian in their own minds.  In others words, it is not simply that progressive Christians are not real Christians in some objective sense, but that they know they are not real Christians, and are really sleeper agents trying to undermine Christianity from within on behalf of their secular overlords.

This framing is both untrue and unhelpful for the long term prospects of religious believers in the United States.  As Gushee says:

Those Christians standing up for LGBT equality and inclusion believe we are reflecting the deepest, truest values of Christ. Those standing against it believe the same thing. We will never, ever agree. Only God can judge.

It is fine to think that it is wrong and nonsensical to believe that "standing up for LGBT equality. . . reflect[s] the deepest, truest values of Christ."  But I think it is legitimate for those who hold that view to ask for a recognition that this is a genuine position, arrived at on its own terms, rather than a Trojan Horse for some other agenda.  One of the biggest problems we have in our current religious discourse is every dispute over substance turns into an inquiry into motivations--"you say you believe X, but that's really because of Y."  To be fair, both sides are guilty of this.  On the conservative side, this move is almost inevitably framed in terms of some capitulation to so-called secular values (as here); on the liberal side (and I have been guilty of this), the religious positions of conservatives are often presented as the product of some sort of psychological dysfunction, like sexual maladjustment or obsessive need for control or what have you.  

All of this, I think, this is unhelpful.  A better framing is to acknowledge that North American Christianity is in the midst of a divorce.  We are starting to have irreconcilable differences, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to remain under the same roof.  Right now, we have two different religions existing under the roof that is the Christian church (and, by the way, under the roofs of almost every actual church in almost every actual denomination).  I personally believe that the differences are more substantial and deeply rooted than simply LGBT issues (going, in many cases, all the way to our very conception of God), but nevertheless LGBT issues are the flash point for the break.

Maybe if we acknowledged the divorce and committed to as peaceful a separation as possible, we might be able to turn down the temperature a little bit.  Because by naming what is happening in our communities, we might avoid the hard feelings and bitterness that Dreher points to in that last paragraph.  We could spend our time trading broadsides over who has held to the true faith and who is a traitor; we could litigate who changed what position when and for what reason until we are blue in the face.  Or we could just avoid that recrimination and bad blood and just go our separate ways.  We might be on opposite sides of this dispute, but if we recognize that we are different, we might come to view that fact as a disagreement rather than a betrayal.

Acknowledging the split will not make the problems of balancing religious freedom and equality magically go away.  It is unfortunate, in many senses, that this divide is co-terminal with the political working out of LGBT rights and the consequences of those rights for religious communities.  It would be nice to be able to handle the divorce in "private" before tackling the "public" dimensions, but this cannot be helped, as it is manifestly unjust and inappropriate to ask LGBT folks to park their political life while Christians sort out who gets what piece of furniture.  And, as Dreher says and Gushee tacitly admits, the former spouses are likely going to be on opposite sides of these issues.  But I can't see any way in which it is beneficial to anyone to interject our internal Christian disputes and bad blood into what is already a complicated and fraught question.  Let's try, as much as possible, to keep the two questions separate.

In the end, you can't control how other people feel.  If Christians like Dreher are feeling betrayed by the fact that other Christians like Gushee have changed their minds on LGBT issues, leading to a feeling they are being "hung out to dry," I can't tell them not to feel that way.  Divorces are often bitter and leave bad blood and this might be one of those divorces.  But I think we can, and should, try to make it as civil as we can.  And keeping things civil starts by acknowledging that we are getting a divorce, and that we need a divorce.


David Gushee said…
This is really well done. You understood what I was saying and you analyze the situation very clearly. Thank you.

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