Why There is No Middle Ground

Rev. Jordan Haynie Ware's twitter feed directed my attention to this excellent article, written by Jem Bloomfield.  Ms. Bloomfield is a British academic, and she makes three points that I think are critical in thinking and talking about the interaction between Christianity, the broader "secular" culture, and in particular the younger slice of that culture.  But it also interacts in a way with people who are searching for some sort of "third way" on the contested issues of sexuality, most recently in the form of Fr. Jim Martin's book Building a Bridge, which was based on a talk he gave last fall and which I talked about here.

Before turning to the article, it's worthwhile to get the "whatabout"-ist objections out the way (some of which can be seen in the comments section of the post).  Yes, "secular culture" is not a monolithic entity, and neither are Millennials/young people.  There are quite a number of young people who are very traditional, even perhaps hyper conservative and traditional.  There are also a significant slice of less conservative young folks who are nevertheless staying in more conservative Christian religious institutions for one or more no doubt very personal and idiosyncratic reasons.  Nevertheless, it is a statistical fact that there is a large and growing number of younger folks who have rejected any sort of religious identity.  It is to this group that Ms. Bloomfield's comments are primarily directed.  I would also add, parenthetically, that my experience is that the concerns of the "nones" are often reflected in their peers who decide to stay within the fold of organized Christianity.  In other words, you have the group of folks who leave, and then you have a group of folks who have similar views (or at least understand where the nones are coming from and sympathize) but who stay on the other side of the line.

Disclaimers out of the way, let's turn to Bloomfield's points.  The first has to do with defining what is at stake:

One of the major points of view that I hear is that Christianity is immoral. . . .  I mention this because in public discussions of ethics, young people are often stereotyped as selfish and opportunistic, just wanting all the pleasure they can get out of life without taking any responsibility.  I don’t think that’s true of my students, and it’s not what makes them suspicious of Christianity.  When a lot of young people argue that the Church should be more inclusive of LGBT people, it’s not usually because they want to “get away” with anything, or because they don’t have moral standards.  They’re not trying to drag down the general moral tone so their own transgressions can be allowed.  It’s because they see the Church’s position as itself immoral, and they think that is a result of its oppressive beliefs.

"Team traditional Christianity" often will take the position that they are not simply defending their moral positions but morality as such, over and against an essentially libertarian (or even hedonistic) world view from "Team secularism."  This becomes particularly pointed, in my experience, when the topic of sex comes up--those that don't support traditional positions must be supporting "free love" and unrestrained sexual activity.  This is, in my view, a self-serving fantasy.  As Bloomfield suggests, I don't know anyone who rejects the notion that there are moral limits on sexual behavior, but I know many people who reject the specific moral limits proposed by traditional Christian sexual morality.

More to the point, it's not even that the limits that traditional Christian sexual morality places on sexual behavior are "too restrictive," but that some of the rules are seen as affirmative immoral.  While I am not as young as the people that Bloomfield is speaking to, I would venture to say that the majority of people I know would say that requiring LGBT people to live a life of celibacy is affirmatively immoral.  Likewise, I think that an overwhelming majority of the people I know think the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to artificial contraception is affirmatively immoral.

Keep in mind, the very same people who complain about the secular youth lacking a moral system are often the folks who are also complaining about those same people being "Social Justice Warriors."  You can't have it both ways--either young people are living in an amoral haze, or they are too tied up to their own idiosyncratic notions of justice, but it can't be both.  It seems to me, from a descriptive point of view, the "Social Justice Warrior" tag at least fits the observed behavior, particularly when the great bugaboo of teenagers having sex is on a steep decline.

This is important because the vast majority of Christian outreach pre-supposes that the goal of the exercise is to convince people that they need to, or at least should be willing to, embrace a more rigorous moral approach.  That might make sense if people are just amoral, but that strategy has no answer to people who have a quite serious and rigorous moral system and just believe that the one Christianity offers is an inferior substitute to their own.  Far too often, traditional Christianity is unwilling or unable to defend its own positions on sexual matters from direct critique, but direct critique is what they are subject to in a modern context.

And, if the traditional position can't be defended, as in many cases I believe it cannot, then that creates a knock-on problem: 

Another major theme I hear in my university life is that Christianity is essentially about sex. . . .   [A] lot of young people seem to view Christianity as a rather mucky-minded business, full of people forever going on about sex and who’s having it with whom.  Again, this goes against a common stereotype: that young people are continually thinking about sex, and the Church attempts to direct their thoughts towards higher things.  In the general attitudes I can discern among my students, it is the other way around: many of them see churches as unhealthily sex-focused organizations. . . .


I worry that so long as they have this image of churches, the Christian vision of sin and redemption will not make much sense to them.  If “sin” is another word for shagging, much of the spiritual world of Christian faith simply does not make sense.  The vision it offers of the tragedy of human lostness and the hope of salvation becomes incoherent if some of its basic vocabulary is so distorted in the ears of the listeners.  What can “Incarnation”, or “creation”, or “Trinity”, or “redemption” mean if Christianity is a system for stopping people having sex with each other?

One of the things you hear from conservatives (and it was raised by an "Ian Paul" in the comments to Bloomfield's article) is that progressives are obsessed with sexual issues, which is why they are constantly bringing them up and pushing for change.  Bloomfield's second paragraph is the best response to that charge that I have seen.  If we don't clear the decks of a sexual morality that is seen as incomprehensible and affirmatively immoral, then we will never be able to articulate the rest of the Christian message in a way that is remotely coherent.  A Christianity in which "'sin' is another word for shagging" is in fact incoherent.  It can't be justified from a fair reading of the Gospels, nor from a serious engagement with the broader Christian tradition.

And, at the end of the day, it is the conservatives who are insisting on making everything about sex. Conservatives are the ones saying that Catholics in the UK should be thrilled about DUP governance because, hey, it might get rid of abortion and/or gay rights.  Conservatives are the ones running around saying the sky is falling because of gay marriage. Young people think that Christianity is just about preventing people from having sex because the most prominent institutions of conservative Christianity have through their revealed preferences shown that that is all they care about.

Perhaps no where is this more clear than when talking about same-sex marriage.  When people in the broader secular culture talk about same-sex marriages, they talk about love and commitment and fidelity.  Yes, people know that the couples in question are probably also having sex with each other, but that's not at all the focus of what is going on in these situations.  But all the conservatives have to say about these relationships has to do with sex.  No love, no fidelity, no real people at all, just two sex-havers.  Is it any wonder that an outside observer would conclude that the Christian church cares only about sex?  After all, they can't even see what is in front of them with these relationships.

The first two points do a good job of talking to the conservative side of the Christian spectrum.  But the third point, and I think the most insightful part of the whole piece, is directed at the more centrist elements within the Christian church:

An unfortunate knock-on effect of this situation is the way I sometimes find people regarding Christian groups which do affirm LGBT people.  There is an air of “she’s Christian, but…” around this.  A feeling that the people in question are Christian, but, you know not hardcore serious Christians.  Christian but nice.  Christian but don’t buy into all that stuff the Church says.  Christian but modern.  Christian but not too Christian.  As long as inclusiveness of LGBT people is not a major part of our public message, I am afraid that this will continue, and that affirming Christianity will be seen as a sort of watered-down version.

For Christians like me, who are deeply attached to the Scriptures and the traditions of the Church, and who find their spiritual life in the liturgy and sacraments, this is a troubling distortion.  Our commitment to inclusivity is not a compromise we have made between our faith and the situation we find ourselves in, it is a central part of what that faith can reveal to modern society.  If the situation continues, I am concerned that many people will understandably see our inclusivity as proving that we are only sort of Christian, since “serious” Christians have to discriminate against LGBT people whether they like it or not.

This, right here, is why the Pope Francis/James Martin approach to dealing with LGBT and other sex questions is doomed to failure, at least with regard to the "nones" population we are talking about.  Distilled to its most elementary form, the Pope Francis approach is to change the subject away from the black-letter moral positions (without actually changing those positions) in favor of communicating love and acceptance of all people.  But that creates a Catch-22.  If I don't succeed in convincing you that, notwithstanding the official positions "on the books," that I really do love you and care about you as you are, then I lose all credibility, because it comes across as a bait-and-switch.  But if I do convince you that I love and care about you as you are, then I have done so at the expense of the credibility of the Christian church, because I have had to spend all this effort distancing myself from the official doctrines.  You may very well be convinced of my sincerity, but why would you then listen to what I have to say about the other parts of the Christian message?

Let's use a real-life example.  Until the 1970s, the Mormon church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, to use the official title) held that men of African descent could not be ordained in the manner that all other men in Mormonism are routinely ordained.  The reason for this, per Mormon theology at the time, was that the souls of black folks (which, like all souls in Mormon theology, are pre-existent) were the less virtuous than the souls of people of other races, which is why God put them into black people.  In other words, black people were inherently inferior from a theological point of view.

When Mitt Romney was running for President, they asked him about this, he talked about how the teaching pained him until it was changed in 1978, and how he never believed that black people were inferior.  For what it is worth, I believed and believe that this was and is how Romney felt, and let's stipulate for the sake of argument that Romney was telling the truth.  Imagine Mitt Romney out on his mission pre-1978 trying to bring people into the Mormon church.  He comes up to me, and I engage him in a conversation about Mormon views on race.  Romney can't win.  Either I don't believe him when he tells me he doesn't believe that black people are inferior, in which case I am convinced the Mormon church is a racist institution that I want no part of.  Or I do believe him, but I still have no reason to take seriously anything else that the Mormon church might have to say about other topics, since our hypothetical Mitt Romney has spent so much time and effort disavowing his own church and their abhorrent positions.  If the Mormon church can't be trusted to have a morally sound position on race, why should I believe they have a morally sound position on anything else?  And why should I join or participate in a church where I have to disavow their moral guidance from the jump?

Fr. Martin et al. are in precisely the same position as Mitt Romney.  I think most people believe that Fr. Martin is completely genuine in his concern for LGBT people.  But as long as the rules are on the books, none of that good will toward Fr. Martin personally is ever going to translate into engagement with the Christian church, because he will be seen as taking the positions he does despite the views of the church.  Both his conservative critics and the outside secular world will likely agree that Martin is soft-peddling the Christian message.  Ditto with Pope Francis--I know lots of people who think Pope Francis is swell in the abstract, but thinking he is swell is never going to be enough for them to consider participating in an institution that doesn't support full participation of women, LGBT people, bans birth control, etc.  They think Pope Francis is swell despite the fact he is a Catholic Christian, not because of it.

Said another way, it is not enough to be a Christian who supports LGBT rights; to be a credible witness to the "nones" you have to support LGBT rights because you are a Christian.  Only if you can plausibly say that you position on sexuality issues flows out of your religious commitments do your religious commitments seem like something that should be taken seriously as a guide to moral behavior.  And the only way to do that is to cut the Gordian knot and be part of a Christian community that unambiguously supports same-sex marriage.  That's not going to be enough to convince people that you and your version of Christianity are not like the baseline "'sin' is another word for shagging" Christians, but it is a necessary pre-condition.

Some, perhaps even Fr. Martin, will say that this is a bridge to far.  Fair enough, but in that case everyone should understand the score.  Progressive, affirming churches may or may not be able to reach some portion of the "nones" population, but conservative churches that hold to the traditional line of sexuality have zero chance of reaching those people.  No one is going to join an institution, or even listen to the message of an institution, that proclaims a message that the person believes to be immoral.  And no one is going to listen to a messenger that holds a position that the listener believes is immoral, no matter how that message is couched or presented.  Holding to the traditional line on sexuality means foregoing any chance of meaningfully engaging with these people.  Conversely, the entry fee for trying to reach these people is unqualified, public renunciation of those traditional positions.

In other words:


I am coming around to the idea, and Bloomfield's piece is part of this, that there simply is no middle ground to be had on these issues.  A progressive Christian cannot preach the Gospel as they understand it to the people they want to reach unless they reject, completely and publicly, the very thing that conservatives assert is an essential component of that Gospel.  The attempt to accommodate the views of conservatives has the effect of making the progressive message ineffectual with regard to its target audience.  All of this is on top of the fact that most of the progressive Christian crowd thinks that secular culture is right about its moral judgment on traditional Christian sexual morality.

If building a bridge has the cost of shutting us out from meaningful dialogue with the people we are trying to reach, then building such a bridge is too high a price for progressive Christians to pay.

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