Theocrats to the Right of Me, Theocrats to the Left of Me

Southern Baptist blogger Jonathan Merritt has a pretty good article about his denomination as it deals with a decline that is not unfamiliar to mainline Protestants.  He offers a few ideas on how to stem the decline and the one that gets the most attention is where the he faults the SBC for mixing religion and politics or more specifically, conservative politics:

Tony Campolo once said that mixing the church with government is “like mixing ice cream with horse manure: You will not ruin the horse manure, but it will ruin the ice cream.” I’ll let you determine which one is the ice cream in his analogy.

During the last 25 years, the Southern Baptist Convention has rushed headlong into conservative politics, often parroting Republican talking points and baptizing the GOP’s agenda. Just last year, Richard Land, former head of the SBC’s political arm, broke tradition and publicly endorsed Mitt Romney for President.

Of the 117 resolutions passed by the denomination at their annual meeting since 2000, a breathtaking 70 of them have been political. This includes a 2003 resolution endorsing President Bush’s war in Iraq, a 2008 resolution taking a position in the so-called “War on Christmas,” and a 2009 resolution titled “On President Barack Hussein Obama.” I keep waiting for a resolution naming Sean Hannity as an honorary fourth member of the Trinity.

American evangelicalism is becoming more politically diverse and nuanced than it once was, particularly among young people. If the denomination continues to operate like a Republican lapdog, it can expect to be seen as a polarizing political institution. If they can learn to speak truth to power on both sides of the aisle, the SBC stands a chance of restoring its image. Americans want a Church that is prophetic, not partisan.

Having been raised in an evangelical background, I can agree with Merritt that there conservative Christianity has basically gotten in bed with conservative politics.  That was part of the reason that I left the evangelicalism of my youth and joined mainline Protestantism.  I was leaving the partisan in favor of a church that wasn’t in the thrall of the Republicans.

And the mainline church isn’t carrying the water for the Republicans, no sir.

They are carrying water for the Democrats.

Merritt is probably right that the SBC’s willingness to align itself with the GOP has turned off potential members.  They seem to waste a lot of time passing resolutions on whatever conservative cause du jour.  But having been a part of mainline/progressive Christianity for two decades, I would posit that the left-wing agenda of mainline churches has also turned off potential members.  I’ve heard enough “sermons” from pastors that are basically Democratic speeches with “God” tossed in a few times to know that the mainline is playing the same game conservatives churches are doing.

Back in 2010, Walter Russell Mead, who is Episcopalian, wrote a modern-day jeremiad against the mainline churches for their willingness to basically be petty prophets for what he calls the “Blue social model,” the operating model of governing starting at the middle of the 20th century.  He accuses mainline churches of confusing the Kingdom of God with the Blue Social Model:

The problem is that the contemporary mainline churches have confused the Blue social model with the Kingdom of God.  I’ve written about this model before — what the Blue model is and why it is breaking down, why the breakdown has impaled contemporary liberal politics on the horns of an impossible dilemma, and how the Blue Beast is sucking the life out of the mainline churches today. Historically this is not surprising; the blue social model was in large part formed by thinkers from the mainline churches in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Somehow the mainline churches came through the violence and the upheavals of the twentieth century with their faith in liberal progress largely intact.  Neither Stalin nor Hitler nor Reinhold Niebuhr could convince us of the power of original sin; neither Hiroshima nor the Holocaust shook our faith in the ability of good government programs to remake mankind.

To mistake an ideology or a social model for the transcendent and always surprising (and irritating!) Kingdom of God is, technically speaking, the sin of idolatry.  It is to worship the work of our own hands.  What makes it worse is that to some degree in the mainline churches we have replaced faith in the scripturally based and historically rooted doctrines and values of the Christian heritage with faith in progressive social thought.

Instead of proclaiming a gospel of salvation that still brings lost sinners streaming through the doors (ask the Pentecostals and evangelicals who have continued to grow even as we shrink) we issue statements urging the federal government to fulfill its contributions to the Millennium Development Goals and to raise the minimum wage.  They preach and plant churches; we have professional development workshops for diocesan employees.

It’s hard for me to not to look at Merritt’s suggestion with a bit of suspicion.  It’s not that he’s wrong; I think he’s spot on.  What makes me skeptical is that I fear he is asking people to give up one idol and fall for another one.

I wasn’t expecting him to also call out the mainline church.  But I do wish that those who look at the sin of conservatives in walking too close to the ways of the world, are willing to look at their own heart and actions .

I end this with a quote from Methodist blogger Alan Bevere:

I must confess as a mainline Protestant who has come out of evangelicalism, I find it almost tragically humorous when the religious left accuses the religious right of wanting to institute a theocracy in America when they have their own theocratic vision they are working to bring to fruition. It reveals the truth of the statement that when you point your finger at someone there are three pointing back at you. The way around the errors of both, of course, is for the church to recover its primary work of embodying the gospel in its corporate life and bearing witness to the ways of God in the world. That is the central way the church is to be political in the world. As I continue to say, the church is where the politics of the kingdom resides and comes to fruition, not in the halls of nation state power.

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On Holy Friendships

friendship

My thoughts these days are drifting towards relationships, or the lack thereof in churches.

I’ve been thinking about this in light of a recent blog post on CivilPolitics.org on the dearth of cross-party friendships.  The post linked to a longer article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the issue.  The author, Neil Gross notes that such friendships have benefits for the whole of society:

President Obama last month took a group of Republican senators to dinner at the Jefferson Hotel, in Washington, to discuss the sequestration crisis and a wide range of other policy matters. The next day he asked Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the former vice-presidential candidate, to lunch at the White House. Another meal with Senate Republicans is planned for April 10. The goal of those meetings? To score PR points—but also to build personal relationships that might erode partisan gridlock.

It’s too early to tell whether the president’s outreach will work, but social-science research suggests that friendships that reach across the political aisle may be good for democracy: They facilitate cooperation by reducing extremism and enhancing trust. In a 2002 study, the political scientist Diana Mutz assessed the effects of political diversity among friends. Study participants who reported friendships with those who were unlike them politically had a better grasp of why people on the other side held the view they did. Those participants were also more tolerant…

The problem is that, in both Washington and the country as a whole, friendships that cross party lines are becoming rare. The political scientist Robert Huckfeldt and his co-authors found that in 2000 only about a third of Americans who supported George W. Bush or Al Gore for president had someone in their political-discussion network who backed the other candidate. And in a study of wider acquaintanceship networks, the sociologist Thomas DiPrete and colleagues discovered that such networks are segregated by politics as well.

It should not surprise anyone that such a lack of cross-party friendships are lacking in the church as well.  I’ve noticed more and more how liberal Christians tend to stick with each other, while conservatives keep with their own kind as well.  In a post from last year, I explained that this wasn’t always the case:

It was about 20 years ago, that I attended a large Baptist church in Washington, DC.   The church was an odd mix, or at least it would be odd today.  Evangelicals and liberals were somehow able to worship together, along side a healthy dose of members from Latin America and Asia.

The church decided at some point to hire a pastor to the join the good-sized multi-pastor staff.  The person chosen was a woman with great pastoral care skills.  At the time, there was a bit of controversy because she was pro-gay and some of the evangelicals in the church weren’t crazy about that.

I was at a meeting where a member of the congregation stood up.  She was one of the evangelical members of the congregation and she had what could be considered a “traditional” understanding on homosexuality, but she spoke in favor of calling the pastor.  You see, the pastor had been involved with congregation for a few years and the two had gotten to know each other.  “We don’t agree,” I recall this woman saying when talking about the issue they didn’t see eye-to-eye on.  But this woman was a good friend and she saw her as the right person for the job.

What’s so interesting about this story is that I don’t think it could happen today.  Churches like the one in DC really don’t exist anymore.  Evangelicals and liberals have sorted themselves into different churches and don’t really know each other.  Which only makes it easier to highlight differences and demonize each other.

As I move within my different circles, I’ve noticed how liberal and evangelical Christians don’t talk to each other at all.  They don’t see to like each other and say not-so-nice things when they are in their own groups.  Since I work for the Presbyterians and pastor a Disciples church, I’ve seen how we all self-select or how we wish we could not have to deal with “those” people.  I’m reminded of talking to another pastor a few years ago after a difficult vote.  The pastor wished our denomination was more like the United Church of Christ, our sister denomination that tends to be far more liberal.  I was privately irked by the pastor’s comments, because what was being said is that life would be easier if we didn’t have to deal with “those” conservatives.

In our society, it is becoming easier and easier to not have to hear diverse viewpoints.  As much as I like social media, it has the tendency to shelter folks from other opinions and reinforce our own views.  It’s been interesting to see people on Facebook who seemed more temperate in the past become more zealous over time.  People will put up the latest graphic that makes fun or demonizes the other side.

We are less interested in trying to build bridges, than we are in setting the damn bridge on fire.  In the name of social justice or orthodoxy, our places of worship are becoming less graceful.

Recently, social conservative writer Rod Dreher shared his experiences meeting the well known gay blogger Andrew Sullivan.  The two have tossled more than once on the issue of same-sex marriage, and yet something surprising happened over time: they became friends. Here’s what he said, responding to Andrew’s take of an evangelical church he attended where a mutual friend’s funeral took place:

It will not surprise anyone to learn that Andrew and I will simply not be able to agree on theology. It may surprise some to know that I can live with that, because Andrew is a decent and kind and very much alive person (though I can see his difficult side too; we all have them, as did — very much — David Kuo; as do I). Listening to Andrew speak with passion the other night about his love of Jesus Christ, and his experiences of Christ’s presence, was moving, because so genuine. Hearing of him speak of his own deep suffering as a child and as a young man — stories I hope he will be able to tell one day in his writing, because they were incredibly powerful, and gave me a new perspective on him and why he believes and feels the things he does — deeply reinforced for me the Gospel interdiction on withholding judgment from others. We really don’t know what others have endured, and how they have managed to hope in spite of hopelessness. I found myself back at my hotel room that night praying for Andrew, that Jesus will help him carry the things he has to carry, which to a degree that startled both of us, I think, resemble some of the heaviest burdens I myself have to carry.

If that makes me a squish, well, it makes me a squish. The older I get, and the more I become aware of my own frailty, my own vanity, my own hard-to-govern passions, my own weaknesses, and the more I come to grasp how freaking hard life is, the more inclined I am toward mercy. It’s not out of big-heartedness, necessarily, because unlike my sister Ruthie, I am not big-hearted. I am petty and jealous and quick to anger. My worst fault is my unbridled tongue. Rather, I think any inclination towards mercy on my part comes from a recognition of how much I need it myself.

The words that are most important here is that Rod could live with not agreeing with Andrew’s theology.  Live with. Tolerate.  Knowing that you might never change another person’s views and coming to a place where that’s okay.  To know that sometimes, it’s better to be loving than to be right. Grace.

What I wish for the church today is that we could live with a little more grace towards each other, especially when we don’t see eye-to-eye.  We need to get to a place where we can disagree and argue and still hug each other afterwards.

Maybe if we were more merciful we would be willing to hear each other.  Methodist pastor Stephen Rankin wishes that people not refer to things with the various political adjectives that keep us separated:

We absolutely must enact a moratorium on political labels as identifiers for the “kind of Methodist” that someone thinks she or he is.  Calling a particular theological position “progressive” or “conservative” perpetuates (ironically) the very groupthink that we often say we deplore.  These words are code that do nothing more than allow people to decide whether they like the theological idea or not without having actually to engage the idea itself.  It thus stops necessary reflection even before it gets started.

Using political labels, therefore, like “progressive” and “conservative” and, in some ways “evangelical” does nothing but short-circuit and maybe even ruin the possibility of important and serious conversations.  Let us please stop using them, at least long enough actually to talk and listen to one another without these maddening distractions.  I am not naive to think that we’ll stop using them altogether, but let us please become very self-aware and spare in our use of them.  And we should agree never to use them as conversations stoppers in public debate.

Our society is so fractured, and our churches mirror this sin.  What needs to happen is for Christians to not always work so hard to be right.  I’m not saying we give up our views, but to know that relationships matter, even when you don’t see eye-to-eye.

I know this will seem weird to others, but I hope one day to become friends with a social conservative.  We won’t agree on the issue of sexuality.  We might even think the other is sadly mistaken.  But I want to have a friendship with someone I don’t agree with to learn to love someone for more than their having the right viewpoint.  I want to love them as Christ did and does: with grace and mercy.

So, if there are any social conservatives who have always wanted a sassy black gay friend, I’m available.

QMTD*

This summer the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) will gather for its biennial General Assembly in Orlando.  One of the items to be considered is a resolution proclaiming the denomination Open and Affirming to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons.

A resolution is for the most part a sense of the Assembly and carries no legislative power.  That said it does carry some importance in making some kind of a statement at a specific time and place.  I know some of the people who came up with the resolution and after much revision it looks good. It resolves that  “the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) declares itself to be a people of grace and welcome to all God’s children–inclusive of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, ethnicity, marital status, or physical ability.”

Good words.  We want to strive to be welcoming to LGBT persons who have been told in the past that they aren’t welcome at church.  The explaination for the resolution points this out:

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ) people have suffered, often most egregiously at the hands of the church. This suffering has come as a result of outright violence in word and deed and, perhaps just as damaging, through silence in the face such injustice. As a denomination that proclaims itself “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) must accept a special responsibility in actively finding ways to bring wholeness and offer healing, in particular to those whom the church has had a hand in harming, as well as to those whom the church has failed to stand beside in the face of the harm perpetrated by others.

The primer continues explaining how Disciples have spoken prophetically in the past:

At the height of civil unrest in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when the country remained violently divided on the issue of race, Disciples stood up and spoke with a clear voice at the International Convention of Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) in 1968 “to address the sin of racism through resolutions and direct action.” In 1973, when only 4% of the of professional church workers and 9% of seminarians were women, and congregations were divided over whether women should be allowed in ministry, the
General Assembly in Cincinnati, Ohio found its voice and passed resolutions urgently seeking to address the inequities of gender discrimination posed by excluding women from serving the church in the same capacity as men.
The important thing to note in these two examples is the extent to which Disciples made it a priority to help shape the church’s thinking on a General level, prior to any consensus on the Regional or congregational level. Knowing the potential fallout from taking controversial stands on race and gender, the General Church spoke to a better version of ourselves in which justice trumps inequity, in which hospitality surpasses exclusion, and in which holy courage eclipses fear. Despite the traditional theological understanding among some, underwritten by Scriptural interpretation—that races ought not to mix and that women ought to remain silent in the church— Disciples embraced a hermeneutic that opened itself up to God’s
ability to do a new thing among God’s people.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is in need of such a voice today to speak courageously against the exclusion of LGBTIQ people from full participation in the life and ministry of the church.

And the thrust of this is to extend hospitality:

There are many Disciples who believe that we need to take positive action to communicate the need for a broader sense of the reach of hospitality, to acknowledge just how we can live out our identity as a people of welcome and grace. Therefore, it seems fitting to offer a resolution that would allow the General Assembly to speak a word to the church about what it means to welcome all to full participation in the life and ministry of the church.

All of this is good.  And yet, there is something missing.  It’s not something that is added to a resolution, but it has to be added to the life of many mainline churches.  I think it is good to extend the Table to LGBT folk.  I am all for hospitality.  But here’s a question that no one seems to care to answer:

What do we do once we’ve extended hospitality?  Where does discipleship fit into all of this?

In many ways, progressive Christians have adopted the tactics of the wider society in fighting for equality.  I think in some cases that’s important.  But as Christians, we don’t just follow the law; we are also called to follow Jesus and to take up our crosses as well.

Most progressive Christians will talk about how inclusive Jesus was.  That may be the case, we aren’t talking about some kind of glorified Benneton ad.  Jesus also called people to do hard things.  He called the Rich Young Ruler to see his possessions.  He called the Woman Caught in Adultery to leave her life of sin.  There is forgiveness and grace with Jesus, but there is also a call to follow which isn’t always easy.

Maybe this harder call to follow Christ is heard in our churches and odds are it is.  But more often than not, we are welcoming people something more akin to a social club than it is to the community of Christ. I know this because I’ve seen it in churches and among fellow Christians. Recently, blogger Rod Dreher had something  to say regarding what Christianity is about. Regarding a discussion on religion between Andrew Sullivan and the late Christopher Hitchens, Sullivan noted ““I don’t see Jesus trying to control anybody’s life.” Dreher responded:

Judging by the evidence in this dialogue, Sully seems to believe in a Jesus that doesn’t require anything of him, a Jesus that exists as a psychological comfort, but certainly not as Lord.

“I don’t see Jesus trying to control anybody’s life” — what could that possibly mean? Did Jesus not try to control the lives of the moneychangers in the Temple? Did Jesus turn away from the woman caught in adultery as she was about to be stoned by the Pharisees? It wasn’t his business, strictly speaking, to tell the Pharisees how to run their lives. In fact, he told the adulterous woman to “go and sin no more” — a pretty conclusive sign that he believed he had the right to tell an adulterer to stop doing that.

When the Rich Young Ruler came to Jesus and asked him what he must do to be saved, Jesus had an answer for him — an answer the rich kid didn’t want to hear. True, Jesus didn’t press the young man into his service, so in that narrow sense, Jesus didn’t try to control his life. But Jesus did tell the young man how he ought to live if he wanted to find eternal life. To say that Jesus never told anybody how they ought to live — which is what Sully means here — is not remotely tenable. Hitchens the atheist militant has a better understanding of what Christianity demands, I’m afraid.

Sullivan wrote a post last year about what Jesus meant to him that got a lot of play. (I wrote a post about it.) The thing is, the Jesus that he is talking about at times tends to be the Jesus that I might hear in a mainline church.  It’s the Jesus of Moral Therapeutic Deism a faith that looks like this:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Sadly, when I hear people talk about the inclusion of LGBT persons in the church what I hear are numbers 2 and 3.  We are arguing less for the fact that all are welcomed to follow Christ than we are wanting to be good and fair people and making sure people are happy.

I would like to see mainline churches do more than offer Queer Moral Therapeutic Deism*, which is what I feel we offer at times to gays and lesbians.  I’m not advocating for a more conservative theology, but I am asking that mainliners offer a more robust and challenging Christianity than the weak tea we get at times.

 

Birth Control And The Sham of Theological Diversity

One of the things that Progressive Christians like to say about themselves is how welcoming and tolerant they are.  Compared to their more conservative cousins, progressives can pride themselves in being able to think for themselves and to have a place where all ideas and beliefs can be shared without fear. Why, your progressive church even welcomes Republicans!

But in reality, all of this talk of diversity is a complete shame.  We are no more tolerant of other viewpoints than our conservative relatives.  What we are good at is lying to ourselves about how good we are.

Case in point is the current discussions over birth control and the new federal health care law.  Catholics and Evangelicals were upset at the initial rules which came out a year ago that mandated birth control in all health care plans.  The exceptions were religious places for worship like churches or mosques.  However, religious bodies such as a hospital or university would have to include birth control in their health plans regardless if they found such things goes against their faith as they understand it. The Obama Administration has offered a compromise solution that seems to fall of deaf ears of the opponents.

Now, I need to say straight up here is that I support people using birth control.  I think it can help prevent unwanted pregnancies, which is a good thing.  That said, even though I think birth control is a good idea, that doesn’t mean that I think anyone who has a problem should just shut up or that the government should force groups to go against their beliefs.  If people of faith have really discerned the issue and they believe that mandating universities or hospitals to include birth control in their health plans goes against their faith, the those of us who might have an other position should within reason stand to support them.  Not because we agree with them, but for the simple reason that Christians should be able to express their faith without the state forcing them to go against their beliefs.

Very few progressives were up in arms about the proposed changes a year ago and not much has changed.  Methodist pastor Morgan Guyton shares in his somewhat overly candid Huffington Post piece his satisfaction that the United Methodist Church covers birth control.

Apparently, the Obama administration just announced a rule change in the contraception mandate to allow broader exemptions for religious employers beyond churches themselves. Well, that’s fine and all, but I’m actually grateful that my health insurance through the United Methodist Church pays for my wife and me to have our IUD that keeps us from having more babies. And I think it’s time someone named the fact that family planning is a legitimate part of the equation of Christian sexual ethics rather than always being a demonic conspiracy against God’s will for humanity. Birth control is part of how my wife and I try to be faithful stewards of our bodies and our relationship for the sake of both our family and the ministry to which God has called each of us.

I’m very attracted to Roman Catholic theology for a lot of reasons. The Roman church’s theology of the body is derived from a lot of principles I agree with: a sacramental understanding of human existence, an affirmation of God’s sovereignty over modernist individualism and a suspicion of the worship of science. At the end of the day though, I’m a pragmatist. My wife and I are at the age where we would risk having a child with serious health problems if we did not use birth control. We would receive a child like that as a blessing from God and love him or her with all our hearts, but it would result in our relative lack of availability for ministry beyond our family, which is why having an IUD is appropriate stewardship for us.

Again, I’m not personally opposed to having birth control as part of a health care plan.  Good for the United Methodists for including it.  But not everyone thinks that way.  Should we just ignore them because they get in the way of our pleasure?

Guyton says birth control is part of Christian sexual ethics.  I’m not saying it can’t be part of a Christian sexual ethic (it should), but how?  Guyton doesn’t say.  He keeps saying that having his wife use an IUD keeps them from having another baby that could be subject to health issues.  He then lifts up a Latino couple who are low income and might not be able to afford the IUD.  Okay, but why are we acting as if this is the only option?  Has Morton ever heard of a condom?

Guyton then goes to focus on the evangelicals who oppose the mandate and basically says their opposition is probably racist and very selfish:

Fifty years ago, the threat that black male libido posed to white girls was the main justification for the social order of segregation (if they come into our neighborhood and our schools, how will we keep our women safe?). Though the racial dimensions have been sublimated (somewhat), the threat of sexual transgression has carried over into our era as the primary underlying anxiety behind middle-class evangelical family decision-making whether it’s about homeschooling, suburban living, or finding a church with a strong youth program so my kids won’t go to the drinking sex parties that every non-Christian high school student attends every weekend.

The irony is that the culture war over sexual purity is not at all the counter-cultural stand that it purports to be; it’s completely accommodating to the mythology about the underlying causes for the social order that privilege needs to tell itself. It reassures a population of middle-class parents that focusing on their nuclear family to the exclusion of everything else is exactly what Jesus wants them to do (the same Jesus who said, “My mother and brothers and sisters are those who do my Father’s will” [Mark 3:35]). This reassurance is one of the most important obstacles to kingdom living among Christians today.

So, it’s pretty obvious that the kingdom of God includes IUDs and selfish conservatives should wake up and smell the coffee.

The problem with Guyton’s piece is that he makes no attempt to even understand the other side.  He has made up his mind that the other side is profoundly evil and if they want to be good Christians they need to give up their upper middle class priviledge and support birth control coverage.

A year ago, Episcopal Priest and commentator Frederick Schmidt wrote about the contraception mandate issue.  He wrote:

What should be troubling to Protestants is that there aren’t more people in our circle voicing support for the Catholic bishops. It is true that the intersection of secular government and religion poses peculiar tensions and the church cannot afford to treat the government as if it were a surrogate for Christian activity. But, for the same reason, no part of the church can afford to compromise its freedom to take specific religious positions—regardless of what other churches or even its own membership might think. The issue of precedent is at stake here, not just the specifics of this particular policy decision.

Furthermore, simply because Protestant churches may not completely share the Catholic position this time around, does not mean that they will manage to avoid jeopardy at some point in the future. Presidents come and go, but precedents are forever—unless the Supreme Court reverses them—and religious leaders everywhere would do well to remember that. What would the same progressive Protestants argue if some future administration reinstituted the draft and eliminated conscientious objector status?

Schmidt continued to note that Progressive Christians have lost the theological language to speak on issues, especially those dealing with sex and marriage:

So, is there any other reason that progressive Protestants aren’t more actively engaged? Yes, there is one: We don’t have any language for the presenting issues of contraception, choice, and abortion, except for the political vocabulary that we’ve been using all along. So, while the administration has run a coach and horses through the First Amendment, we find it hard to explain why that might be a problem, because we are convinced that what the administration just did was strike a blow for what is not just politically, but theologically appropriate.

Shame on us. The right to choose, control over our bodies, and access to treatment are all political issues–and they have a place in the conversation.

But in using that language alone, we have neglected the hard theological work that is properly the church’s task. From the theological point of view the stewardship of the bodies that God has given us, being made in the image of God, giving birth to those made in the image of God, chastity, the sacrament of marriage, and the purpose of life are all in play as well. How those values are honored in a complex world is the stuff of Christian conviction and practice.

Progressive Christians who are dead sure that the Catholic bishops have conflated church and state should remove the beam in their own eyes before reaching for the microscope to help others. Far too often Protestants have bought the so-called Erastian notion that the church is subordinate to the state and that faith, therefore, is a private affair. Now we are in danger of taking those notions to their logical, self-destructive conclusion: The only theological vocabulary we have is the vocabulary that the state gives us.

Sociologist Peter Berger notes that many secularists and their liberal Christian counterparts, want to defend the gains in sexual liberation made in the 1960s.  Here’s what he said relating to two legal cases on the public display of religion:

I do want to make a general observation: In all these cases the authorities accused of violating the plaintiffs’ rights operate with a definition of religion as a private matter to be kept out of public space. There is here a general issue of government overreach, as clearly illustrated by the (still unresolved) attempt by the Obama administration to force Catholic institutions to provide contraception coverage in their employees’ health plans. Beyond that, though, there is a very ideological view of the place of religion in society. In other words, religion is to be an activity engaged in by consenting adults in private. The attorney for the Judeo-Christian side in the aforementioned American case had it quite right when he compared the treatment of his client’s religion with measures of disease control. This is not an attitude one would expect to find in a Western democracy. It is curiously reminiscent of policies toward religion in Communist countries and toward non-Muslims under Islamic rule….

Let me venture a sociological hypothesis here: The new American secularism is in defense of the sexual revolution. Since the 1960s there has indeed been a sexual revolution in America. It has been very successful in changing the mores and the law. It should not be surprising that many people, especially younger ones, enjoy the new libidinous benefits of this revolution. Whether one approves or deplores the new sexual culture, it seems unlikely to be reversed. Yet Christian churches (notably the Catholic and Evangelical ones) are in the forefront of those who do want to reverse the libertine victory. Its beneficiaries are haunted by the nightmare of being forced into chastity belts by an all too holy alliance of clerics and conservative politicians. No wonder they are hostile!

Now, I benefited from that sexual revolution.  If that never happened, I would never be able to be an openly gay man.  So, I’m not against the loosening of sexual standards.  But why are they good?  Why should we use birth control?  What is does marriage mean for the Christian community?  What about divorce? What about sex outside of marriage?  The answer doesn’t have to be no (though sometimes it can be) but we need to do some thinking theologically as to why Christians can take these stances instead of just baptizing any left-wing idea as holy and good.

Which brings me back to the subject of theological diversity.  If we really have a spirit of discernment and an openness to what God might be saying, then there will be room for other views and a willingness to allow for space for different views.  However, when we adopt the language of politics, we divide folks into like minded groups and hinder any chance of diversity.

Which is what Guyton is doing here.  Instead of trying to understand the other side and explaining in theological terms why he thinks his view has merit, Guyton wades into demonization.

If Progressive Churches are basically suppose to be chaplains to the Democratic party, then let’s be honest about that.  Just don’t dress it up in religious garb.  I’ve had enough of that, thank you.

On Getting With the Program

Since I work for the Presbyterians, I spent some time this summer watching the live feed from the 220th General Assembly in Pittsburgh.  On the penultimate day of the Assembly there was discussion on allowing ministers to be able to marry same-sex couples.  It was not a surprise to see conservatives quoting scripture.  In fact, one young delegate opened her Bible on the Assembly floor and started reading a verse.  As bothersome as that was, what really bothered me was my own side.  I wasn’t bothered that they were advocating for marriage equality, but I was bothered by how they were doing it.  Time and time again, a commissioner who was in favor would come up to the microphone and say something kind of like this:

Why is the church so behind the society on welcoming gay people?  This is why the young people leave the church.  If we allow ministers to marry our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, then we will be become relevant in the eyes of the young and the rest of society again.  So let’s vote yes!

I have to be honest, as much as I agreed with them at some level, every time I heard something like what was said above, it was like fingernails on a chalkboard.  There was something grating about it.  Presbyterians were being asked to approve this policy not because the body had discerned where the spirit of God was moving, but instead it was doing it to be relevant to the wider society; to get with the program.  These folks were doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.

In a recent article, Phillip Jenkins wrote about the uproar of the wider society when the Church of England voted down the motion of allowing females to become bishops.  The Anglican’s sister body in the United States allows women bishops and of course, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church happens to be a woman. While one could be crestfallen that the vote had not gone the other way, what was disturbing to me and Jenkins was how the wider society reacted:

What has been striking about the recent English debate, though, is the extreme rarity of anything approaching a theological rationale. Both inside the church and outside, the standard argument goes something like this: society has changed fundamentally, and the church has to accept and absorb these changes, as a matter of “moving with the times.” In the words of Prime Minster David Cameron, the Church of England needs to “get with the program.”(emphasis mine)

I think there are many good reasons for having female leadership.  I think there are many theological reasons for having women bishops.  But as much as I like Prime Minister Cameron, the Church of England should not do this just because he thinks its a good idea.  The problem with this line of reasoning is that it assumes that cultural change is always a good thing.  As Jenkins notes, that ain’t necessarily so:

Lost in such rhetoric is any suggestion that this church, or any religious institution, follows an authority over and above that of general social trends and priorities, as interpreted by politicians and the mass media. The church’s sole duty, it seems, is to turn to the editorial pages of the Guardian or the New York Times, and to follow the stern injunction, “Go and do thou likewise!” Any historical sense might remind us that on occasion, “Society” has a bad habit of forming a consensus that is wrong and dangerous, and that it is an excellent idea for the church not to move with these particular times. At times, resistance is justified or even demanded. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had some vital things to say on these matters.

Logically, there is no reason why in decades to come, the church will not face comparable pressures to accept other trends that presently seem monstrous or unacceptable, but which will in due course win popular support. That juggernaut “Program” is a constantly growing and evolving beast. In such circumstances, there are literally no aspects of the Christian tradition or scripture that would give the slightest protection against calls to conform.

What society wants is not always a good thing (cue the scenes of Hitler saluting goose-stepping soldiers with cheering crowds all around).  Even if what is being debated is a good thing, the church should not do it because it’s the modern and new thing.  The church isn’t supposed to follow society, but following Christ.  It is in that light that we determine if something is good or bad.  If we approve having pastors do same sex marriage ceremonies, we have to ask things like what is marriage, or what does committment mean between two people in light Christian teaching.  It doesn’t matter if the rest of society is doing it, we have to judge things by a different standard- even if we come to the same conclusion as society.

Twenty years ago, I was trying to come to terms with my sexuality.  One of the things I sought to do as I tried to figured out if what I was feeling was sinful or okay was to look at what Scripture said.  I didn’t want to accept being gay just because it was fashionable; I wanted to have some theological justification for it.  Thank God that I was working at a bookstore at the time and picked up a wonderful book called, Is The Homosexual My Neighbor? Using that book and my Bible, I was able to come to a theological understanding that allowed me to come to the same conclusion others had come to.  The difference is I used the tools of the church, not society.

As churches start to debate the issue of same sex marriage, I would ask those who are in favor of it to do one thing: ignore or at least pay less attention to what society is saying and look to what scripture, reason tradition and experience are saying.  Listen to the words of the Spirit, not the sirens of modernity.  We might arrive at the same place as our secular friends, but how we got there matters as much and at times more than when we arrive.

Our Hope Is Built on Nothing Less…

A few thoughts on the election…

-My candidate for President didn’t win, but the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota was defeated.  Three other states, Maine, Maryland and Washington all voted in favor of legalizing same sex marriage.  Personally, I think it’s a great move forward in gay rights.  That said, I think we need to be mindful of those in our neighborhood and moreso in our pews who faithfully disagree on this issue.  As much as I disagree with him, Rod Dreher’s blog post this morning should be read as how social conservatives feel about the changing climate.  They are fearful of having to give up what they believe is a moral belief.  It behooves those of us who favor same-sex marriage, especially those of us in the church, to reach out to these folks with openess and love and not just dismiss them. I think we have to do this for two reasons: one, because we are Christians and  two, because the most dangerous animal is one that is backed into a corner.

If Rod Dreher’s post is a good read of what social conservatives are feeling, the Tony Jones’ post is probably what a lot of progressive Christians are feeling this morning.  I’m all for calling a spade a spade, but I also think that there are times we need to be the “bigger man” and learn to be gracious in our victory.  How we win is just as important as how we lose.

I also think Jones’ rationale that putting same sex marriage on the ballot was cynical is a bit shortsighted.  I think the legislators and the religious groups that supported the amendment actually believe that gay marriage is wrong.  I don’t think they were trying to divide the electorate, whatever that means.

-Conservative political commentator Matt Lewis is spot on when he says the GOP needs modernization and not moderation.  One the things they need to modernize is their immigration policy.  I don’t think their stance was born of bigotry or racism, but I do think a lot of Latinos saw it that way.  Yes, we need to have tougher enforcement, but we also need to do something with the 12 million people who are in the country illegally.  We can’t send them all back, and we can’t hope they will “self-deport.”  We need to find some way to make them citizens of the United States.  This is one place where evangelical Christians could use their clout and push for a humane immigration policy.

-On Sunday, I preached about the fact that Jesus, not Obama and not Romney, is our Hope.  Christ is the final hope expressed in the closing chapters of Revelation, not a political agenda.  Scot McKnight talks about this in a blog post this morning.  Here’s a sample:

Somewhere overnight or this morning the eschatology of American Christians may become clear. If a Republican wins and the Christian becomes delirious or confident that the Golden Days are about to arrive, that Christian has an eschatology of politics. Or, alternatively, if a Democrat wins and the Christian becomes delirious or confident that the Golden Days are about to arrive, that Christian too has an eschatology of politics. Or, we could turn each around, if a more Democrat oriented Christian becomes depressed and hopeless because a Repub wins, or if a Republican oriented Christian becomes depressed or hopeless because a Dem wins, those Christians are caught in an empire-shaped eschatology of politics…

Where is our hope? To be sure, I hope our country solves its international conflicts and I hope we resolve poverty and dissolve our educational problems and racism. And I hope we can create a better economy. But where does my hope turn when I think of war or poverty or education or racism? Does it focus on my political party? Does it gain its energy from thinking that if we get the right candidate elected our problems will be dissolved? If so, I submit that our eschatology has become empire-shaped, Constantinian, and political. And it doesn’t matter to me if it is a right-wing evangelical wringing her fingers in hope that a Republican wins, or a left-wing progressive wringing her fingers in hope that a Democrat wins. Each has a misguided eschatology…

We are tempted to divide the USA into the good and the bad and to forget that the gospel has folks on both sides of political lines. Even more: we are tempted to think that the winners of the election are those who are blessed by God when the blessing of God is on God’s people. God’s gospel-powered mission creates a new people, the church, where we are to see God’s mission at work. Therein lies our hope.

I think this is something to be aware of, if not repent of.  Christians of all political stripes are always tempted to place God in the seat of earthly power.  We confuse an earthly kingdom with God’s kingdom.  Our hope as Christians doesn’t lie in “Obamacare” or Social Security or tax cuts or defense spending.  It has to lie in the name of the One who has liberated all of creation through his life, death and resurrection.

Finally, blogger Michael Kruse touches on the whole rhetoric of “empire,” and how those Christians who used that term to describe the administration of George W. Bush seem okay with the empire when it provides health care and other social programs and especially when their guy is in office:

As I have watched this election, my mind has gone back just a few years ago to when left-leaning Christians were preaching about America and Empire. As I follow social media, how curious it is to see many of those same Christians who embraced that critique in delirious joy over the inauguration the latest “Emperor.” It confirms much of what I suspected all along. The critique was partisan, not prophetic.

Earlier this year, I blogged about what constitutes being prophetic (you can read the posts here and here).  I still think a lot of what passes for prophetic speech, especially in mainline Protestant churches, is nothing more than a liberal political agenda dressed up in religious garb.  I still would like to know what it means to be prophetic.

What are your thoughts?

Graphic: An image created by Minnesotans United for All Families, the main group working to the defeat the marriage amendment in Minnesota.