Andrew Sullivan’s Ghost of Liberalism Present

Andrew Sullivan yearns for a Christianity that supplies meaning and destiny. But his Christianity is too beholden to modern gods.

In his final moments with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ebenezer Scrooge sees a young boy and girl, whose monstrous, “wolfish” appearance terrifies him. The ghost explains that the boy and girl are Ignorance and Want, and without transformation of society’s attitude toward the poor, they will be doomed to a desperate fate. “Have they no refuge or resource,” asks Scrooge. The ghost then quotes Ebenezer’s own words from the opening chapter back at him: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” The ghost vanishes, and Scrooge is left alone, condemned and exposed.

A Christmas Carol is a story about a man who gets a rare mercy: A chance to see himself and the world as both truly are. The story is an evergreen classic precisely because it narrates a fundamental human experience of understanding. For we creatures who look in a glass darkly, to see the true end of our ideas and actions is a kind of personal eschaton. Mostly, we expect to be justified, and are shocked when we aren’t.

I wonder if some ghosts have been haunting Andrew Sullivan lately. His latest essay on the way Americans have replaced religion with politics reads like someone trying very hard to see the world as it really is, but lamentably turning his eyes to the wrong place at the most crucial times. While reading it, I wanted to join the Ghost of Christmas Present and scream at Sullivan, “O Man! Look here!” The problem for Sullivan is that I would be pointing at him.

Sullivan laments the thinning out of organized religion in American life. “We are a meaning-seeking species,” he writes, and meaning cannot come from material wealth or scientific conquest. In lieu of the meaning-bestowing propositions and practices of Christianity, Sullivan fears that Americans are juicing their sense of transcendence out of politics and tribalism. This could be thought of, Sullivan argues, as the conclusion of (classical) liberalism-for-liberalism’s-sake:

Liberalism is a set of procedures, with an empty center, not a manifestation of truth, let alone a reconciliation to mortality. But, critically, it has long been complemented and supported in America by a religion distinctly separate from politics, a tamed Christianity that rests, in Jesus’ formulation, on a distinction between God and Caesar. And this separation is vital for liberalism, because if your ultimate meaning is derived from religion, you have less need of deriving it from politics or ideology or trusting entirely in a single, secular leader. It’s only when your meaning has been secured that you can allow politics to be merely procedural.

That’s an outstanding final sentence, and gets to the heart, I think, of how American life has transformed in the past 30 years. The postwar solidarity that was the unseen casket next to George H.W. Bush’s this past week was a solidarity bought and paid for, in a real sense, by American Christianity. Cultural Christianity is a major problem for believers who take the euangelion literally and not just liturgically, but it does bestow certain benefits. What Sullivan rightly fears is the emerging anti-solidarity generation, an American era without shared religious experiences or thought-forms, that transfers the metaphors of sin, judgment, and salvation from the spiritual to the social. There’s good reason to be afraid of that era, and writers like Sullivan, Marilynne Robinson, and Jordan Peterson are not speaking to the whirlwind when they warn us that politically conscious secularism may be costing us something we won’t be able to get back.

But Sullivan’s prophetic mantle is a bit too see-through. Sullivan yearns for a Christianity that supplies meaning and destiny, even as he’s spent the better part of his public life rigorously advocating for a Christianity that reinvents itself in the image of modern gods. For years Sullivan was one of the most influential and impassioned advocates of legal same-sex marriage, and his “conservative case” for radically redefining matrimony drew extensively on his progressive Catholic sensibilities. During the George W. Bush administration Sullivan eviscerated traditional evangelicals over their stance on LGBT issues, even coining the term “Christianist” to evoke Islamic extremism when describing Christians to the right of him.

Sullivan doesn’t appear to consider whether the neutered Christianity that bows to politics might bear any genetic resemblance to the doctrinally plastic faith that frames his celebration of Obergefell. Indeed, it is extraordinarily telling that Sullivan thirsts for a Christianity that transcends politics, only three years after using “It is accomplished”—the Greek τετέλεσται uttered by Christ on the Cross in John 19:30—as the title of his blog announcing SCOTUS’s decision. Does Sullivan truly want a Christianity that talks down to politics? It’s difficult to know, only because there seems to be a lot of confusion in his own mind over which political issues deserve equivalency with the Atonement, and which don’t.

What Sullivan calls for in his essay is a Christianity that can bestow meaning, revelation, and identity across any political experience. Every believer should want this too! We American Christians are far too given to letting social and political categories set the agenda for the church. But as in the parable of the sower, merely wanting the message to implant and bear fruit isn’t enough. The problem for modern Westerners is that even our desire for transcendence outside politics is lethally dosed with our own desire for theological autonomy. We want Christ to tell our political opponents to find their identity in Him rather than their ideas, but we want Christ to tell us, “You guys have it right. You’re good.” We want to crack the whip at the fundamentalists changing money (and ballots) in the temple, but resist the “legalism” that scowls at our ethically-sourced porn. We want, in other words, the risen Christ to shape our deepest desires, but to retain the final say as to what those desires actually are.

Sullivan’s lifelong advocacy for same-sex marriage represents a lifelong resistance to the unanimous teaching of the Christian church and the overwhelming judgment of the Scriptures. What kind of culture-shaping transcendence can really come from a faith that has been so gutted? Asking for Christianity to be exalted over politics may not be a request Sullivan is ready to have fulfilled. The same is true for many of us, left and right, fundamentalist and woke. The vacant pews of mainline Protestantism testify to how the human heart responds to the separation of theological authenticity from authority, just like vacant worldviews of many American evangelical leaders.

Just like Scrooge, our fate depends much on how well we see. Sullivan sees an American public square fraying at the edges and hollowed out at the center. Many of us see the same thing. But what he doesn’t see is the lordship-shaped cavity in the heart of American Christian churches. The idol of politics is too strong to yield to the idol of self-determination. For Sullivan’s sake and ours, I wish he would reconsider his own role in the gutting of American Christianity, and turn to a solution more ancient, and more spiritual, than ever before.

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My Latte, Your Chicken Sandwich, and Our Neighbors

The idol of politics must come down if we are to love our neighbors

Starbucks donates money to many causes with which I, a conservative Christian, strongly disagree. It supports Planned Parenthood. It supports various LGBT initiatives, the majority of which involve definitions of marriage and human flourishing that are incompatible with my faith. Based on public comments from Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz, it’s highly unlikely someone with my religious and political convictions could ascend high up their corporate ladder. I could probably become a barista, maybe even a manager (if I played my HR cards just right). But if words mean anything, I could not represent the company at a significant level.

None of this has convinced me to stop buying coffee there. Why not? Don’t I care about where my money goes? Yes, I do. But a public marketplace is populated by people, people who have free consciences and who will, in many cases, oppose my deepest beliefs. Making opposing beliefs the basis for severing a marketplace relationship only makes sense if the purpose of a marketplace is to match people with others just like them. But that’s not the point of a marketplace. None less than the apostle Paul commanded the Corinthian believers to have a free and open conscience about purchasing meat sold to them in a pagan storefront. Either Paul didn’t care about idolatry (he did), he didn’t think conscience mattered at all (he did), or else, he is working from a vision of civic life that is deeper than simply making sure Christians only do business with other Christians. It’s a vision that is deeply theological: The people of God do not belong outside the world, but in the world, representing a kingdom not of the world that will nonetheless come to the world.

What I’m beginning to realize is that religious architecture for seeing the world is crucial for having a functional vision of the public square. Americans who don’t have this theology increasingly fail to grasp any compelling reason why people with opposing political or religious views should interact at all.

Writing at Huffington Post, Noah Michelson rails against Chick-Fil-A, specifically decrying his fellow LGBT Americans who continue to patronize the restaurant. The problem is that CFA is owned by conservative evangelical Christians who have traditional beliefs about sexuality. Further, the owners give money to organizations that share these religious beliefs. For Michelson, CFA’s corporate partnership with traditionally evangelical organizations makes them unacceptable for right-thinking people:

Yeah, I know, I know ― it sucks that we can’t have waffle fries. But you know what sucks even more? Not having equal rights and contributing to the profits of a company that wants to ensure you never do because it believes you’re fundamentally disordered or unnatural or sinful or some delightful combination of all three.

Am I saying Chick-fil-A and everyone who works for it is evil? Of course not. The corporation has done a lot of good and even donated food to volunteers giving blood in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre (though, ironically, most gay men weren’t allowed to participate in that charitable effort).  But none of its generosity changes the fact that the chain has taken and continues to take an anti-queer stance and still donates large sums of money to anti-queer groups.

Note the careful wording. Michelson says that LGBT Americans ought not buy food from a company that “believes you’re fundamentally…sinful.” The problem for Michelson is not political activism or lobbyists. It’s the worldview of Chick-Fil-A’s ownership, which believes that homosexual sex is sinful. It’s their theology that makes them boycott-able to decent Americans.

It’s important to see that this is essentially an argument against people who disagree with each other interacting in the public marketplace. Buying a chicken sandwich is hardly a political donation, and the religious beliefs of CFA’s ownership does not mean that when Michelson enters the restaurant, he’s going to encounter direct hostility (he acknowledges as much). Since a fast-food transaction is impersonal, what’s the problem here? The problem is that Michelson doesn’t want to have anything to do with people who believe he is a sinner—and there’s no reason to think this standard begins and ends with owners of fast food chains.

How does this mentality lead us anywhere but a radically dysfunctional public square? It doesn’t, but for those who lack a vision of human dignity and human fate—for those without a transcendent moral framework of human relationships—political purity must play the role of divine judgment. “Come out from among them and be separate” isn’t just a parochial mantra; it’s human nature, an expression of our incurably religious sense of ourselves.

I pay for my Starbucks latte (too much) and drink it as an evangelical Christian because I do not believe that Starbucks’ political and social views have the last word. Like a Corinthian, I eat what’s sold in the market because I reject the idols that “blessed” my purchase. The idol of politics is a strong cult, and refusing to bow down puts one at risk of attack from many of the faithful, both Left and Right. But the idol must come down if we are to love our neighbors.

Jesus plainly taught that neighbor-love means nothing if by “neighbor” you always mean people whom you like and who like you. Neighbor-love according to Jesus is love of enemies, even enemies that would not hire you or buy your coffee or nuggets or vote for you. Neighbor love goes beyond political categorization…and that’s why only those who have a category beyond politics can love like this.

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Hatmakers and Hot Takers

One thing that concerns me about conservative evangelicalism right now is the inability we often demonstrate to let those who exist and teach outside the boundaries of historic Christianity…just stay there. I often feel like there’s a compulsion in evangelical culture to always be writing and tweeting against “false teachers,” and here I include air-quotes not because false teachers don’t exist, but because not every person who teaches false things actually rises to the level of a “false teacher.”

There is a time when polemics are needed to protect the confessional integrity of a body of believers, either at a small group, congregational, denominational, and, yes, cultural level. But the gospel urgency of such polemics should, I think, decline as we go down that scale. Unorthodoxy in small group and local church teaching should be met with quick and decisive action. Unorthodoxy in denominational teaching should likewise be addressed, but that situation is different and requires a more careful, strategic response, one that must consider how much this denominational position affects the congregation.

The cultural level is the most slippery of all categories. If you want to, you can do polemics full time against all sorts of heresies in American religious culture. But is that really what orthodox evangelicals should aspire to? Or should we practice a sort of polemical triage, keeping close watch over the corporeal bodies around us and a more marginal watch over heresies that exist outside our boundaries? This is not to say that bad teaching in other denominations or in Christian institutions of which I’m not a member are unimportant. It’s just to say that they’re not AS important.

The problem is you wouldn’t know this from reading a lot of evangelical blogs. I honestly don’t know why we’re still writing stuff about Jen Hatmaker. It’s fairly evident that she does not align with historic Christian teaching on sexuality or marriage. Yes, LifeWay has stopped selling her books. But that’s because Lifeway is an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination with specific beliefs about sexuality which is funded by local churches that share those beliefs. Lifeway’s compelling interest to not sell books by Hatmaker or other progressive evangelicals such as Rachel Held Evans is not just a culture war interest, it’s an institutional interest. Lifeway exists because Southern Baptists go to church and give money for the support of institutions that don’t contradict the Baptist Faith and Message.

What I don’t understand is why this test of compelling institutional interest applies to our resources, but not our minds and our time. Yes, there is certainly space to write about people and doctrines “outside our tribe.” That space should be, I would submit, filled first and foremost by pastors, elders, discipleship leaders, and church teachers who have an obligation to their flocks. But blogs, Tweets, videos, and #content that is produced from within clearly defined doctrinal and institutional boundaries, directed toward people and ideas and groups that don’t share any of those boundaries (in fact, they may not posses any real boundaries of their own), feels like a validation wrapped in a rebuke.

Part of the reason for the intra-Christian animosity in the same-sex debate is a bipartisan attempt to maintain an illusion: the illusion that we really are all on the same team, and that some members of the team are just awful members. This is not true. We’re not members of the same team, a fact that would be more self-evident if we took denominational identity and doctrinal coherence seriously. To continue to wring our hands about people like Hatmaker is to continue to give the nebulous, unaccountable, and helplessly du jour concept of “online platform” a spiritual significance that it hasn’t earned. It’s not at all clear to me why Hatmaker’s opinions on same-sex marriage belong in a different category than Bart Ehrman’s opinion on the Scriptures. The latter is utterly false and damnable, but also of no immediate compelling interest to my family, my church, my denomination, or even my subset of evangelicalism. The fact that Hatmaker’s heterodoxy is more in demand than Ehrman’s may mean I should be more ready to give an answer on that issue than I might be otherwise, but it assuredly doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea for me to wage an online war against it in a way that implicitly baptizes social media as a valid ecclesial structure, or that extols getting a book deal as just as consequential to ecclesial life as being ordained for ministry.

Some people might read this and think I am calling for people, especially women, to be more marginalized and ignored, while letting the “experts” handle things for us. That’s not what I’m calling for. But I am wondering aloud whether part of our problem as American evangelicals right now is not only that we have too many bad teachers, but that we have too many teachers, period. When a charismatic speaker with a podcast writes a book that is theologically dysfunctional, I simply do not think that it’s in evangelicals’ best interest to always make “correcting” them a full time job. If the theological dysfunction were ignored rather than engaged, might it be possible that the economic incentives for such dysfunction would thin out? And if they did, might it be possible that we’d be left with a better ratio of teachers—who want to think long, slowly, and deeply about Scripture, under authority and accountability of real ecclesiastical structures—to platform builders, who want to become social media famous with the help of their resentments, and whose only accountability is their Google analytics page?

A Falling Out for Christians and Public Schools

Rod Dreher reprints a correspondence between one of his readers and their child’s school principal, regarding a teacher’s lesson on transgenderism and sexual orientation. As the emails indicate, the parents had requested advance notice if their child’s classrooms were going to teach on the topic, so as to officially request an exemption. When that didn’t happen, and the child received a day’s worth of ideological training on gender, the frustrated parents reached out to the principal.

After initially not responding, the principal replied:

As a mother and school leader, I can empathize with the challenge of keeping up with what our children are exposed to and wanting to be their first teacher on so many issues.

I also think well of [the teacher]. She has shown herself to be a proficient teacher and student advocate.

I do not recall a conversation about how we would handle conversations about transgender issues, but I cannot imagine agreeing either to censure such material or inform you in advance. I am sorry if [the teacher] or I led you to believe such a request would be honored.

The book used is one that is a respected text in honoring the diversity of our children. It is a text that explains a real situation that many children face in self-acceptance, acceptance by others and being true to themselves. We feel the classroom is the appropriate place to share such messages.

We would not request that these themes require permission, or clearance with families. (Different than courses on sexual education, for which we do require permission.) Quite the contrary, families have asked that we enhance our curriculum to be more inclusive of all the different groups our children and families represent, and we feel that this book achieves this purpose.

Here’s what frightens me about this. I cannot imagine a reason that the parents would lie about having talked to the principal previously. There’s nothing to gain from a lie like that (especially since the reader who showed this exchange to Dreher does not reveal the name of the school/principal/teacher). There is, however, quite a bit to gain for a school in misleading parents to feel more in the know about sexual diversity training (which is what this is, not education) than they actually will be. Of course, I don’t know that this principal lied to the parents, so it would be irresponsible to say absolutely that she did. And that’s kind of the point–the alleged conversation was off the record, so the parents can’t prove that anything was agreed to or that their trust has been betrayed. If this were a whistleblowing case involving a CEO and an employee, I think I know where initial public empathy would lie.

Up to this point I’ve resisted the idea that Christian parents have a positive moral obligation to withdraw their children from public school. I still think laying a burden where Scripture does not should be avoided at nearly all costs, and I know these issues affect lower income families in a much different way than they do upper-middle class ones. To that end, if I were a pastor, I wouldn’t (I think) say from the pulpit that parents shouldn’t enroll their children in public schools.

But I have to admit that the exchange Dreher reprints is terrifying to me. It’s terrifying because it’s a naked assertion of authority that is beyond accountability. It’s terrifying because I cannot conceive what the parents could have done differently while assuming the school and its administrators were acting in good faith. It’s terrifying because the lack of nuance, the lack of sympathy, and condescending tone of the principal in these emails suggest that there is no space in her moral imagination for people who have the concerns of these parents. They simply don’t appear on the school’s radar. They don’t count. What matters is pleasing those who want compulsory transgender training in the school, even if it means being duplicitous with parents who have religious or moral scruples.

It feels more and more like the arc of history is bent in the shape of a bow, and its arrow is pointed squarely at people like me and my family.

My honest advice to orthodox Christian families right now would be to do everything possible–financially, logistically, even geographically–to have your young, school-age children spend their days at traditional institutions, or at home. And my urgent request to Christian churches would be for local congregations to quickly move to help families with this burden by organizing part time school opportunities as much as possible. If churches have to wait on that new gym in order to pay some volunteer instructors to teach 2 or 3 days per week, why not? If local churches have a strong group of stay at home moms, or dads with flexible schedules, why not engage these members to be proactive in Christian education? In thinking about public mercy ministries that churches can invest in, I can hardly think of a mercy ministry that would make a larger kingdom imprint than a part time day school. The moment and the opportunity is right there.

Oh, and as a postscript: How do progressive evangelicals who rebuke conservative Christian families for not supporting public schools reckon with all this? If you can look at this episode and come away still thinking that the real problem are moms and dads who want to do a “white flight” out of public schools, I’m afraid you’ve reached Sean Spicer-levels of objectivity. This isn’t a group of privileged Benedict Option religious fanatics who want their elementary and middle schools to teach the 10 Commandments on Thursdays. We’re talking about families whose only request is that their children not be forced to learn a destructive, secular liturgy. And that request is increasingly beyond the pale for public schools. Who is fleeing whom here?

Orthodoxy, Sexuality, and the Local Church

James K.A. Smith’s post about orthodoxy, Christian creeds, and sexuality has provoked much commentary, most of it far more thoughtful than anything I could write here. I agree with Smith’s critics that his case against labeling revisionist sexual theology as “heresy” is weak and relies on a reductionistic appreciation of doctrinal formulations. I don’t necessarily agree with some who say Smith obviously is bowling to knock down the traditionalist pin. We must read others as we would like to be read. Prying into hidden motivations is always tempting when we encounter something we feel strongly is wrong, but it’s a temptation we should resist.

Since most of the commentators in this exchange are far more learned on the historic Christian theology than I am, I’m not going to pretend to add anything revelatory to the discussion. But I want to make one quick point, one that everyone in this exchange, from Alan Jacobs to Alastair Roberts, probably agrees on, but one that gets easily lost in theological disputes online.

There is an inextricably pastoral purpose to defining orthodoxy and declaring what’s outside it to be anathema. Smith is right that being wrong is not necessarily the same as being heretical. One major reason this is true is that the assembled congregation, the covenanted local church that is guided by overseers and whose members exercise the keys to the kingdom, must respond to the wayward member(s) in a particular way, according to the error. Church discipline does not exist to make every member agree on every theological dispute. But it does exist to enforce the boundaries that demarcate the embodied faith of the church. And it also exists to do practical spiritual warfare on behalf of the wayward member.

When Paul calls on the Corinthians to expel the man who is sleeping with his step mother, he is calling the church to protect its boundaries by executing its one appointed means of disenfranchisement. In doing this, the church also wages spiritual warfare that is intended for the man’s ultimate redemption and restoration. By throwing the member outside the camp, the Corinthian church was to assert its identity, its authority, and also its mission.

The proper end of heresy is excommunication. When the Christian faith is betrayed, the body of Christ must respond the same way that the Corinthian church, threatened by a member’s unrepentant immorality, did. The relationship between orthodoxy and ethics is more tight than we might assume, particularly if the local church is to protect both its confession and its purity by exercising the same power–the power of church discipline.

What does this mean for this particular debate? Three suggestions:

  1. The idea that we can infer from silence in historic Christian creeds what doesn’t rise to the level of “heresy” is a nonstarter, because the responsibility of the local church, as explained by Paul to the Corinthians, does not end merely at examining members’ personal doctrinal statements. The man whom the Corinthians excommunicated may not have failed a test of the Apostles’ Creed, but by being thrown out of membership on account of his unrepentant immorality, he was subjected to the same key-wielding power that governs his confession. The practical responsibility of the church with regards to heresy is the exact same as it is to unrepentant sin.
  2. Therefore, it follows that the real question is not whether homosexual sex is a violation of Christian creeds. The question is whether or not it is sin. Because the embodied community of God has the same obligation toward the heretical member as it does toward the unrepentant member, dividing orthopraxy from orthodoxy is simply kicking the theological can down the rhetorical road. For the covenanted people of God who wield the embodied authority of Jesus, heresy is sin, and sin is heresy, and the practical response to both depends not on sophisticated distinctions between belief and behavior, but on the question of doctrine itself.
  3. The reason this is important is not only that we can have an orthodox confession, but also so that we make practical distinctions between churches that have irreconcilable differences. Smith’s proposition is so attractive partially because it appears to relieve the hostility between churches that are “LGBT affirming” and churches that are not. If we can simply agree that this is a theological disputation, but not a fault line in basic Christian confession, we can, perhaps, start bridging personal and institutional gaps. But I submit an alternative thesis. I believe one reason there is so much heat and rancor in the Christianity and LGBT debate is because too many people, on both sides, are trying to behave as if this is a family skirmish amongst people who really do belong in the same pew. It is not. This is a fundamental question of what it means to be human. There is no reconciliation possible between churches that teach disparately about this, because there is no reconciliation possible between a church and a non-church. Embracing this, and quitting once and for all the delusion that this is a matter of some brothers and sisters being mean to other brothers and sisters, might actually relieve some of the anger and bitterness.

4 Thoughts on Eugene Peterson’s Retraction

Eugene Peterson told Jonathan Merritt in an on-the-record interview that he supported same-sex marriage. I, along with many others, publicly registered my disappointment and reasons I wish Peterson would have held the orthodox line. Today, however, Peterson retracted his comments and issued a statement of support for the biblical definition of marriage.

Through the smoke, here are 4 things I think:

  1. It would be a mistake to be angry with Peterson, either from the left or the right. There are no hotter questions in American culture right now than these questions, and it’s not difficult at all to imagine ourselves giving a poorly thought out, poorly worded answer to them.
  2. It would be a mistake to be angry with Jonathan Merritt here. We don’t know exactly how these questions were phrased, and of course it’s possible they were presented in a misleading way. But Peterson himself has not made that accusation, and in fact has owned his comments by officially retracting them. The questions as they appeared in the piece were direct and clear, and we have no reason (at least yet) to think they were less direct or clear in the moment they were given.
  3. It would be a mistake to chastise writers and bloggers who commented on Peterson’s interview. Words matter because ideas matter. Irresponsible “hot takes” are one thing, but publicly critiquing a public figure’s public comments on a publicly controversial topic is not a hot take. If there’s one response to this whole situation that makes zero sense, it’s blaming those who took Peterson seriously.
  4. It would be a mistake to let this whole episode pass by without reminding ourselves that there really is only two possible answers to the question of what marriage is and what sexuality is for. A “third way” is a fantasy. It’s wishful thinking that evaporates on contact with the pastoral and existential implications of either the orthodox or affirming theology. Not long ago there were some clever evangelicals who insisted that dogmatism on this issue was wrongheaded, and that were was plenty of room in close ministry partnerships for both a traditional and a non-traditional view. Today, many of those clever evangelicals are publicly deploring Eugene Peterson for betraying them. Not all dilemmas are false. This one is real, and if nothing else, Peterson has at least illustrated that.

The Coming Polygamy Showdown

Critics of legalized same-sex marriage have often made the point that many, and perhaps all, of the arguments in favor of what the Supreme Court in Obergefell can also be applied to the legalization of polygamy marriage and plural marriage. Proponents of marriage redefinition have often responded by dismissing this claim as slippery slope scaremongering; Andrew Sullivan’s “conservative case” for gay marriage explicitly repudiated such “open” marriage contracts. For years leading up to the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015, the idea that redefining the relationship between marriage and gender would precede a similar redefinition between marriage and persons was scorned out of court.

But I don’t think all the scorn in the world can ignore what’s going on in this essay in Chronicle of Higher Education. Moira Weigel (yes, the Moira Weigel who recently entered The Atlantic‘s “We Regret the Error” hall of fame) has written a profile of Carrie Jenkins, a philosopher at the University of British Columbia who lives in an “open” marriage. In case you’re wondering what that means, the article helpfully includes a photograph of Jenkins, her husband Jonathan–and her boyfriend, Ray. Jenkins and her husband identify as polyamorous, meaning their marriage is not exclusive and that both husband and wife may be and are sexually active outside it.

Before you dismiss this as just another, relatively insignificant example of absurdity in the lives of professional philosophers, consider also reading this Atlantic piece from 2014 on the “trend” of polyamory and open relationships. Even if this practice is now more or less at the margins of American social life, these two pieces in tandem clearly indicate a mainstream fascination with “nonmonogamy.” It’s real, and it’s happening now.

What makes, I think, the profile of Jenkins more interesting than The Atlantic’s piece is that, whereas the latter essay is framed more or less as an on the ground examination of a lifestyle still surrounded by social stigmas, the former clearly aspires to something more like normalization. Jenkins is, after all, a prestigious academic, and as Weigel notes, she and her partner(s) carefully weighed potential blowback to their careers before, to use the term Weigel does, “coming out.” In this essay, Jenkins (and Weigel) makes a clear and positive case for polyamory, with unmistakeable reference to the recent legal battle over same-sex marriage.

Listen to how carefully Jenkins articulates the moral reasoning of her menage a trois:

Take, for instance, the claim that it’s unhealthy to have multiple sexual partners. Jenkins and (husband Jonathan) Ichikawa pointed out that this was simply untrue. It is perfectly possible to maintain sexual health with multiple partners; indeed, a person who has openly discussed the pros and cons of opening a relationship with a partner is more likely to practice safe sex than is the frustrated partner who resorts to “drunken flings, clandestine affairs, or other ill-considered hookups.”

What about the assumption that nonmonogamy is psychologically damaging? “Different people are different,” Jenkins and Ichikawa wrote. Many nonmonogamous people report that they come to feel less jealousy over time; conversely, many monogamous people complain of experiencing sexual jealousy. In response to the charge that nonmonogamy is “unnatural,” Jenkins and Ichikawa pointed out that virtually no species are sexually monogamous, even if they are socially monogamous or pair-bond for life. (“Not even swans.”)

For a moment, let’s just brush aside the content of the moral claims being made here (the argument about nonmonogamy and jealousy reminded me of a line from True Detective: “People incapable of guilt usually do have a good time”).  The immediate takeaway is that Jenkins believes in a philosophically positive case for the inherent goodness of polyamory and open marriage. This isn’t mere personal narrative. It’s an objective claim about the nature of love, the purpose of marriage, and the good life. It is, in other words, a fundamentally political idea.

Jenkins goes on to acknowledge that her case for polyamory intersects with the political trajectory of same-sex marriage. She says: “We are creating space in our ongoing cultural conversations to question the universal norm of monogamous love, just as we previously created space to question the universal norm of hetero love.” Jenkins believes the case for polyamory is historically significant, clearly implying that she hopes to see its legal and political ramifications:

“Let’s not forget that it took many years of serious scientific research to convince (most) people that there is no biologically superior race or gender,” writes Jenkins. “Getting a proper grip on the biology of love may help us unravel the idea that there is one biologically superior way to love.”

Doesn’t this sound exactly like the rhetoric of same-sex marriage? This connection isn’t incidental; it’s foundational. Jenkins isn’t merely some hedonist, thumbing her nose at the culture and its oppressive strictures. She is instead making an intellectually serious case in the public square, a case that she knows is politically potent in a post-gay marriage era. Her arguments are going to be reckoned with.

And the question is, of course, what could a culture that no longer believes in the inherent value of male and female possibly say to this kind of reasoning? Are there any people left who endorse the legalization of same-sex marriage but would oppose the legalization of plural marriage? If there are, on what grounds? I’m afraid there aren’t any. After all, you love who you love. If it doesn’t matter whether that’s a man or a woman, why would it matter if it were 2 men, or 4 women? A fundamental right to human self-determination, at any and all costs to transcendent moral reasoning, does not simply end at #SameLove. The “right side of history” is much longer than the eye can see.

A (Very) Brief Word About the Education Debate

For the last two weeks my social media feeds have burst with punditry on Betsy DeVos. Probably the majority of my feed think her appointment as Secretary of Education is a mistake. The rest wonder aloud when it was that so many people suddenly became education policy wonks overnight. As the conversation around DeVos has continued, however, it seems to have expanded into a more theoretical debate over the merits of public schools, the wisdom of school choice programs, and, least interestingly, Why This Writer’s Personal Narrative Proves Your Political Opinion Is Wrong.

Truthfully, I don’t have a horse in the DeVos debate. I don’t know much about her or the Department she now leads, and I don’t care enough about either topic to learn more. I do though have something more of a perspective on the public school-school choice subjects. Here’s a bullet point summary of what I think:

  • What a person believes about public education in this country is shaped largely by their own personal experience and the experiences of those close to them. That’s OK. It’s OK to have your opinion formed by experience. As far as I’m concerned with education, results matter more than ideology. The effects the rules have on people is absolutely part of the conversation.
  • That being said, a person’s personal experience is personal, which means it describes what happened to them and not necessarily what happens/has happened/will happen to others. Being able to draw knowledge and perspective from one’s own experience without making that experience the sole basis of how one understands the world is a mark of intellectual maturity. Intellectual maturity, alas, is not social media’s strong point.
  • Those who have a more sympathetic perspective toward American public schools should not behave as if public education is really ever on the line here. Public schools will never disappear from this country. No serious person wants that to happen or is working toward it. Construing criticism of the current system as a wholesale assault on the ideal of public education is hysteria, not serious thinking.
  • It seems to me that those who resist school choice programs often misunderstand where the other side is coming from. I’ve seen a lot of friends on social media belittle homeschooling and private schooling families for “white flight,” for not caring about poorer students or inner city students. What I haven’t seen yet is an honest explanation from an anti-school choice evangelical of why Christian families who send their children to public school should not be concerned about the upcoming Supreme Court case concerning school bathrooms and transgendered students. What I haven’t seen yet is a validation of the concerns many parents have about gender ideology in the classroom, or about the dissemination of pornography in school halls. What I haven’t seen yet, in other words, is an evangelical critic of school choice who takes seriously the mistrust that many Christians have toward the public school system. I have to conclude that either A) these evangelicals don’t know how seriously many of their fellow believers take these issues, or B) these evangelicals do know how seriously they take them, but don’t agree that they should take them seriously. Either way, the lack of understanding from school choice critics that I’m seeing is disheartening.

10 Questions For Buzzfeed

After reading Buzzfeed’s “expose” on the evangelical teachings of the church that evangelicals Chip and Joanna Gaines attend, I have a few questions for Buzzfeed, Kate Aurthur (the writer of the piece), and for publications that do this kind of thing:


1. How many evangelical Christians do you personally know? How many evangelical Christians are employed by your company? If the answer to either of these questions is “None,” why do you believe that is?

2. Why, in your opinion, would your readers want to know what the pastor of the Gaines family preaches about sexuality? Based on what you know of your readership, how are your consumers likely to respond to a piece like this?

3.  As a journalist, what is your hope for this piece? Would you hope that it results in the Gaines losing their show? Publicly disowning their pastor? Receiving a public outcry? If none of these, what?

4. Which do you consider more journalistically noteworthy: The belief that all who do not worship Jesus Christ will eventually be in hell, or the belief that sex is meant only for a man and a woman in marriage? If the first, why is that not the story here? If the second, why is this teaching more significant than the first?

5. Do you believe that people who have the same religious convictions as Jim Seibert are capable of having genuine friendships with those who disagree with them?

6. As the piece notes, many people, including LGBT Americans , watch Fixer Upper. Why do you think this is?

7. Does this piece necessarily reflect an editorial position of Buzzfeed? If not, should HGTV feel like they are being represented by the religious beliefs of the Gaines?

8. Would Buzzfeed (or Cosmopolitan) be willing to publish a perspective on this story by a person such as Wesley Hill or Eve Tushnet? If not, why not?

9. Would Buzzfeed fire a staffer for expressing beliefs similar to Jim Seibert? Would Buzzfeed fire a staffer not for expressing such beliefs, but upon discovering the staffer attended a religious gathering that taught them? In your opinion, does being wrong on LGBT make one a bad person?

10. If Chip Gaines, Joanna Gaines, Jim Seibert, or another evangelical Christian asked you why they or their family and friends should trust what they read reported in Buzzfeed, what would you say?

InterVarsity

In reflecting on InterVarsity’s recent decision, two things occur to me.

The first is that critics of the decision need to realize that, even though fealty to IV’s evangelical doctrinal heritage was clearly the decisive factor here, it wasn’t conservative evangelicalism that forced this kind of move. Rather, the political and cultural pressure has been coming from Obergefell champions and theological revisionists. Consider that a couple years ago the organization was “de-recognized” by the California State University system, because of its policy requiring members to hold to a New Testament ethic of sexuality. Progressive columnists praised California for enforcing its ideology and mocked evangelical concern that such a move represented a hostile posture toward historic Christian doctrine. Fast forward to this past summer’s showdown between the Golden State and Biola University, and the reality is unmissable: Organizations and institutions, no matter how much they serve students and taxpayers, are subject to sexual revolutionary tests.

What this means is that InterVarsity was given a choice, not by evangelical subculture, but by the cultural headwinds: Either you can curry favor with states like California by adopting doctrines on marriage and gender that run afoul of your history, your heritage, and your mission, or you can risk alienating some students, staff, and the right side of history, for the sake of the right side of the faith. That was a choice given to them by one side, not the other, and not both.

Second, it seems pretty clear to me that InterVarsity didn’t make this decision because they wanted to “win.” If you were a person in charge of making sure that IV had political protection, sufficient funding, and great PR in the next few decades, would you have advised them to adopt this policy? Of course not. And this is important because it gets to the heart of what many progressive evangelicals accuse traditionalists of–namely, exploiting the culture war for gain. For years, mainline Protestants and others have argued time and time again that conservative evangelical institutions thrive when they play culture war. Thus, it is reasoned, we have an obsession over issues like homosexuality and abortion, rather than mercy and justice, because the former are politically profitable and the latter are not.

But can anyone with a shred of intellectual responsibility look at the cultural and political landscape that InterVarsity finds itself in, and argue that they are engorging themselves on wedge issues? One point that needs to be said repeatedly is that by adopting a formal policy, InterVarsity is showing its LGBT and affirming students and staff that it has no interest in profiting from their confusion. I’m sure this is a difficult time for some who love InterVarsity, but by playing both ends against the middle, never saying anything certain but always nodding a head in both directions–is that really a better culture for InterVarsity to build for those on opposite sides of this theological divide?

You may disagree vehemently with InterVarsity. But what everyone, regardless of conviction, should agree on is that we have here an example of people who are selling out to principle. Right or wrong, truth or fiction–that’s worthy of respect, and also worthy of a moment of grief for a society that so often encourages the opposite.