Evangelicals and the (Complex) Persecution Complex

Conversations about American Christians and religious liberty are dysfunctional to the core.

Bonnie Kristian surely writes for almost all in the journalist class when she ridicules Mike Pence’s comments about Christians and religious freedom. “This is the evangelical persecution complex in action,” she writes, and “suggests an embarrassing ignorance of history and the teachings of Christ alike, and to those outside the church it unquestionably reads more as whining than witness.” I’m not sure whether by “those outside the church” Kristian means everyone who isn’t an evangelical Christian, or everyone who is sympathetic to progressive politics whenever they collide with Christian conviction. If she means the second, she’s definitely right. If she means the first, she might be surprised at the religious non-Christians who also feel threatened.

Anyway, Kristian’s argument is a familiar one. She says that 1) Christians have historically been persecuted (and are currently persecuted around the world), so Pence’s implicit nostalgia is misleading; 2) the gospel promises opposition to genuine faith, so Pence’s call to political culture war is at odds with Jesus’ teachings; and 3) Christians actually enjoy power and privilege in the United Sates, so Pence is simply lying in suggesting to young believers they are being actively discriminated against. She concludes, “For Christians here in the United States, this sort of rhetoric has a “boy who cried wolf” effect where religious liberty issues are concerned.”

With regard to Pence’s comments, I think Kristian is understandably cynical, but her argument has problems. First, from the manuscript, it looks to me as if Pence was careful to avoid saying that American Christians are persecuted in the same sense that Christians across the globe are. Rather, he said that while the church global is often persecuted, American evangelicals face intolerance and social pressure to capitulate—something that feels self-evidently true in the post-Obergefell era. Second, she seems to imply that political influence and economic privilege rule out any kind of meaningful prejudice. But how does that square with her reminder that Christ promised that his followers would regularly experience enmity? If any political capital rules out any form of persecution, is the conclusion that Barronnelle Stutzman and Jack Phillips must not be genuine believers?

The problem, though, is not really Kristian’s argument, nor Pence’s. The problem is that the entire conversation about religious persecution is dysfunctional to the core.  If there’s a better contemporary example of the genetic fallacy and the age of lumping than the issue of religious liberty, I can’t think of it. It’s absolutely soaked in out-grouping and gainsaying those whom your tribe dislikes, no matter what they’re saying.

My suspicion is that there are many fair-minded people who know that Christian universities are facing authentic forms of political pressure, but can’t bring themselves to endorse this idea publicly because of how it would lump them in with the GOP or religious right. It’s true that American Christians are often quick to find conspiracy when really only the market and a rapidly diversifying culture exist. But it’s also true that evangelical educators and business owners have been in court quite a bit lately, and that even the “victories” appear to leave the door open to a radical new understanding of what is and isn’t a permissible exercise of religion in the public square. The issue isn’t that evangelical political persecution never happens, the issue is that evangelicals and everyone to the left of them fundamentally disagree about whether it’s “persecution” or “the price of citizenship.” If you think that same-sex marriage and transgenderism are fundamental human rights, and that anyone doing any business in public should be required to recognize and accommodate those rights, then by definition you are going to see through 90% of religious liberty cases as simply whining.

As in a lot of things, the question “does group X experience Y” is really proxy question for, “What is group X and what should their experience be like?” This is the same way that debates about racial injustice in policing or politics get stuck. That there is no systemic injustice against ethnic minorities can never be disproved if it comes from the prior belief that systemic injustice is impossible because we’re all Americans. Likewise, what’s underneath a lot of the ridicule of the “evangelical persecution complex” is a steadfast belief that certain traditional elements of Christian theology are illegitimate in a civil culture. Isn’t it impossible to persecute persecution, to be intolerant toward intolerance? Stuck in between all this are, again, fair-minded folks who sense something is off when nuns are sued over contraception or adoption agencies are shut down, but refuse to be mapped onto Twitter alongside Donald Trump or Pat Robertson.

Worst of all, “Are evangelicals persecuted” is often asked completely devoid of geographic or socioeconomic context. Without qualifiers, the question really reads, “Are the evangelicals you see on TV and read about in magazines persecuted by people like you?” This fails utterly to take into account how pocketed American life has become, how diverse yet intensely concentrated.  What it means to be a traditionalist Christian in Marietta, Georgia means something very different than what it means to be one in San Francisco. For all our obsession over federal politics and national headlines, it’s worth remembering that people don’t risk their jobs or their relationship with their neighbors on a national level, but a local one. And it’s often true that small things punch deep holes in grand narratives.

All this is why I don’t use the phrase “persecution complex” to describe evangelicals. To me the phrase comes more from (warranted) frustration with evangelical political engagement than a fair consideration of the facts. And I don’t think it helps those outside the Christian tribe who may be experiencing prejudice and threats to constantly talk religious liberty concerns down.

But I also think it’s fair to also be skeptical of commencement addresses that sound like pre-battle hype speeches. Bonnie Kristian is right to suggest that a steady diet of this rhetoric undermines thankfulness and orients hearts toward victimhood and resentment rather than mission.  After all, the reason so many want so badly an answer to the question “Are evangelicals persecuted” is so they can know how to treat them or how to demand to be treated. Ours is a society in which far too much of our experience depends on whether we are sorted in a pitiable class. I can only take you seriously and care about you if you’re being run down by the outgroup. Forget neighborliness. Advocacy is where it’s at.

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The NFL’s National Anthem Failure

The league has a right to make its own rules, but this was a missed opportunity to model a healthy public square.

The NFL’s new policy that players must stand for the national anthem or else stay in the locker room during the song is the wrong decision. Team owners, a group of 32 billionaires, took varying approaches last season to handling the public relations kerfuffle over African-American players who knelt during the anthem. The “compromise,” announced by league head Roger Goodell, is more of a mandate, a response to an unexpectedly significant public backlash that seemed to drag down the NFL’s all-important TV ratings. Of course the league has the legal right to make its own rules, but the new policy represents a failure of moral leadership.

It’s important to remember that while former quarterback Colin Kaepernick began the kneeling as a way to protest black deaths at the hands of police officers, it was President Trump who played the most important role in the melodrama. The president made vulgar and unbecoming remarks about the few (at the time) players who were not standing for the anthem. The protests, which were then small and confined to a small handful of the league’s 32 teams, grew in response to Trump’s insults, until it snowballed into ESPN’s favorite topic of the year. Can you imagine a more perfect example of our dysfunctional public square than that?

Indeed, the NFL’s new mandate smells of the authoritarian flavor of the day. Conservatives who cheer on the NFL for making an example out of football players love to emphasize that the NFL is a private business and can do what it wants. Yes, and Google was a private business when it fired James Damore, and so are the elite universities that “disinvite” conservatives from speaking, and so is Facebook when it blocks pro-life advertisements, etc etc. This is a very strange time for those who adhere to traditional beliefs to be erring on the side of corporate autonomy.

The new policy is presented as a compromise between image-conscious owners and socially conscious players. But is it? According to the players who knelt, the entire point of the demonstration was not to express hatred of America or disgust at her citizens, but to express sadness for the centuries of racial animosity and violence that continue to gnaw at our country’s heel. You can make a good argument that kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner fails to sufficiently get this message across, but you can’t argue that forcing players who want to kneel—for reasons political, or historical, or familial—to stay in the locker room, out of sight, is an authentic compromise. Rather, it’s the exact kind of conscience gerrymandering that traditionally religious Americans are used to by now, the kind that offers “freedom of religion” in a toothless, privatized sense, but denies “freedom of religious practice” in public life.

Why the implicit comparison between racial demonstrations and religious practice? For one, the similarities between the responses to each from corporate America is too much to ignore. Secondly, the NFL is a surprisingly religious league, with more openly Christian superstars than either the NBA or major league baseball. It’s not hard to imagine that the league’s aversion to peaceful (even prayerful) demonstrations during the national anthem might be a prelude to a more holistic aversion to players whose beliefs and practices are outside the mainstream.

In fact, we don’t have to imagine this, because the NFL has already told us what they think of orthodox Christianity. By threatening to punish states that protect Christian conscience from transgender dictates, the NFL has already positioned itself as a arbiter of American ethics, fit to lecture us all on morality. The anthem mandate reveals impressive depths of moral hypocrisy: The NFL doesn’t want the views of black Americans to disturb viewers’ TV experience, but it has no problem telling those who believe in “male and female, He created them” that pro football is better off without them. So much for compromises!

Given the NFL’s commitment to the right side of secular history; given its comfort with telling players to stay out of sight if they want to take a knee; and given the number of professing Christians who play pro football, doesn’t it make sense to be concerned that sooner or later, billionaire owners are going to want their players to stop posting those bigoted Bible verses on social media?

Roger Goodell and the team owners have missed a valuable opportunity. They’ve missed an opportunity to model a healthy public square, one in which people with different perspectives on rituals and anthems can dialogue with each other in public, learn from each other, and work with each other. They’ve missed, in other words, an opportunity to model the idea of America. One doesn’t need to agree with the demonstrations themselves to see the value in a sports league that errs on the side of peaceful expression and dialogue.

The water is getting choppy these days for pro football. Millennials are less interested in touchdowns and more interested in CTE. There are some who argue that the physical costs of football render it unacceptable to moral society. Count me among the number who believe, as Roger Scruton says, that valuable things are more easily torn down than built up. I only wish the NFL would agree.

Bernie Sanders, Christianity, and the “Price” of Citizenship

Read this David French write-up of an appalling episode today between senator Bernie Sanders and Russell Vought (seeking to be confirmed as Deputy Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget). Sanders’ grilling of Vought’s theology is distasteful, yes, but it is also borderline unconstitutional, since the clear implication of Sanders’ conclusion is that Vought’s religious views disqualify him from the office.

So what gives? I can think of 3 possibilities as to why Senator Sanders would do this:

  1. The senator genuinely doesn’t know or understand that Christians believe that those who aren’t Christians are, at least in some meaningful sense, “condemned” because they lack faith in Jesus Christ. It could be that senator Sanders honestly has no idea this theology even exists, and assumed that Vought’s sentiments were extreme, fringe, and bigoted.
  2. Senator Sanders does understand what Vought means, but he believes this theology is genuinely dangerous to pluralism and tolerance, and that those who believe in it are, by extension, threats to the social order.
  3. Senator Sanders understands the theology, and doesn’t really see such religious belief as inherently dangerous to the public. He does, however, believe that secularism, not religion, is the “fair” and “neutral” position, and that it’s best for everybody if those with political power do not take their religious beliefs with them into the public square. Laying personal theology aside is, Sanders reasons, the cost of citizenship.

Looking over those possibilities, I think:

  • If scenario #1 is true, then that means the Democratic party nearly nominated a man for the presidency who doesn’t understand the most basic meaning of the country’s majority religion–and, perhaps even worse, despite years in public service, he has never bothered to figure it out.
  • If scenario #2 is the case, then we have to admit that a senior senator in the US’s most important legislative body, and a presidential contender with a national political party, sincerely believes that orthodox religion is incompatible with American democracy, and certainly incompatible with leadership of said democracy.
  • If scenario #3 is true, then the implication is that senator Sanders, and perhaps some of his colleagues, believe that secularism is an appropriate, and the only appropriate, public religion.

I’m not sure which scenario I believe. But here’s the thing: It doesn’t really matter which one is true, because in the end, they all mean the same thing. They all mean that a candidate for public office was openly asked to relinquish the unanimous teaching of his 2,000-year old faith in order to serve the American republic. They all mean that an elected official ridiculed and questioned the patriotism of orthodox Christian teaching, and did so likely knowing he could count on impunity from his colleagues and his constituency. They all mean the pitting of basic religious conviction against citizenship.

Look, I’m not trying to be melodramatic. I’m not trying to scream persecution, and I’m not even trying to score a partisan point. But this episode matters, and it matters not only because of where and how it happened, but also because there are sizable numbers of people who insist day by day that this kind of ideological pressure cooking just isn’t happening. “That’s just silly,” they say, when presented with new evidence of focused attacks on religious liberty. “Christianity is a majority religion. You have privilege on top of privilege. You’re just mad you have to share with somebody else now.”

Sorry, but when nuns are sued to sell contraceptives, and when nominees for public office are interrogated in confirmation hearings about whether they actually believe in their religion–that’s not just “sharing” privilege.

One more thing. I happen to know quite a few friends and peers who are both Christian and fans/supporters of Bernie Sanders. Here’s my challenge to you: Say something about this. Don’t let it fly just because you like the idea of free community college, or because you’ve seen through the whole “GOP=Christianity” facade. Capitalism is not orthodoxy. I get it. But if your partiality for economic redistribution means you’re OK with religious tests being applied for public officials who have the misfortune of their convictions, you’ve simply repeated the mistake of your Moral Majority ancestors, only on behalf of a different tribe.

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.

What’s Your Conscience Worth?

Bruce Springsteen says he won’t perform for North Carolina, as long as the state upholds its recently passed law regarding gender and public restrooms. Springsteen is doing what millions of Americans are taught, in classrooms and in culture, to do: Standing up for his conscience, and drawing lines accordingly. But in our era, the question becomes: If this is counted to Springsteen as righteousness, why is it counted as sin to North Carolina?

That’s the kind of morally confused age we live in. In the 1980s, Allan Bloom could write in The Closing of the American Mind that nearly all American college students had one thing in common: A (professed, at least) belief in relativism. Bloom was prophetic and prescient in his time. But is his observation still true today?

There’s reason to doubt it. There’s reason to believe, as several commentators are now saying, that relativism has been weighed in the balance by the millennials and found wanting. Postmodernism’s tantalizing promise of the end of metanarrative and ethical absolutes has tripped over the foot of “academic justice,” Obergefell vs Hodges, and transgender restrooms. What we see in American culture today is not the reign of “Just do you,” but “Just go along with it.” Following your heart is old and busted; being on the right side of history is the new hotness.

G.K. Chesterton observed the difference between two kinds of worldview. The first worldview places great confidence in truth but is skeptical of oneself. Belief in transcendent realities is solid, but humanity’s inherent ability, or even desire, to seek them out is suspect. The second worldview does precisely the opposite: It places great confidence in human abilities, but is wary and suspicious of anything claiming to be truth.

On the surface, it looks like our contemporary culture is the embodiment of the second option. But I actually think that the spirit of our current age is less pure than that. What the Springsteen/North Carolina example shows us is that our culture is actually trying to escape the spiritual and intellectual emptiness of worldview #2 by combining it, in a sort of hideous moral alchemy, with worldview #1. The result is what you might call a secular religion, an indefatigable belief in absolutes that are in turn defined wholly in terms of human instincts and cravings. Those who violate the religion–those who question the inerrancy of human autonomy and progress–are the heretics, who must be quarantined and kept at bay.

The idea in question has been called “New Morality,” and I think that’s a helpful way of understanding the seemingly contradictory cultural trends at work now. The sexual revolution was never amoral; many of its fruits are immoral, of course, but at its core was always a moral center as rigid as that of the religionists it appeared to so deftly defy. By saying that it couldn’t define “person” in Roe v Wade, for example, the Supreme Court was actually defining it, the same way that separate-but-equal did in fact define personhood and citizenship by not defining it. Thus, “safe, legal, and rare” has lost its usefulness for the abortion lobby, which now prefers to talk about the “absolute good” of abortion and the sinister “anitchoice tactic” of humanizing the fetus. You can see the pattern: The language of choice and freedom has morphed into the language of obligation and necessity.

So the language of the culture has changed. Francis Schaeffer was right when he said that all Christians are missionaries to foreign-speaking lands, and so must learn to understand the language of culture in order to speak truth to it. What’s important for Christians to learn now is that the question of relativistic postmodernism was, “What does your conscience look like?” But the question of New Morality is, “What’s your conscience worth?”

The last generation had to insist that the neutering of absolute truth–the “gagging of God,” as D.A. Carson put it–was at odds with the Christian gospel. We had to articulate our religious DNA to a culture that was being taught at every turn that every god came from the same family tree. But now the conversation is changed. Our task now is to show that our un-gagged God cannot be bought off with promises of the “right side of history” and the approbation of our descendants. We must show our beliefs in more than theological argument but in practical acts of rebellion against the cultural consensus.

Whenever freedom of conscience is threatened by the ambient culture, two things inevitably happen. First, pressure will be applied to those who dissent to either recant or to accept their contagion and shrink back to the smallest corners of the public square. The second thing that happens is that sometimes, this pressure works. So we see memes like “Bake for Them Two,” an attempt to end-around, using religious jargon, the question of conscience and so be at peace once again with the spirit of the age. On the other hand, we also see angry, hand-wringing dissenters, for whom the pressures of the surrounding culture are causing them to forget who they are and where they are headed. Both options are capitulations, and both betray the value of our testimony.

Only a conscience worth something can point out when false gods fail to deliver the fire they promise. Only a conscience worth something can lose admission to Ph.D. programs but stand athwart culture yelling, “Stop!” And only a conscience worth something can carry a gospel that is the power of salvation to everyone who believes.

What’s your conscience worth?

 

On Religious Liberty, the NFL Fumbles In Their Own Endzone

As a lifelong fan of the NFL in general and the St. Louis Los Angeles Rams in particular, the months of March through July are not my favorite sports cycle. There are still, however, things I look forward to from my favorite sport in its offseason–the drama of the draft, the excitement of free agency, and the revealing of the upcoming season schedule. When it comes to giving its fans fun and entertainment off the field, few organizations do it quite like the National Football League.

But yesterday, Roger Goodell and the league made me wish football had been a bit quieter this spring.

News broke on Sunday that the league has threatened the city of Atlanta with losing its potential bid to host a Super Bowl, if Georgia passes House Bill 757. HB 757 is a religious freedom bill which stipulates that pastors and other religious clergy cannot be sued for refusing to perform services (such as a same-sex wedding) that violate their religious beliefs. The bill also extends this protection to “faith-based organizations,” closely held, IRS-designated religious institutions that would likewise possibly be pressured to lend services to events or products contrary to a confession of faith.

This law is, of course, a response to recent court cases that have found bakers, florists, and other professionals liable in discrimination suits because they would not create for or participate in a same-sex wedding. Similar to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, HB 757 is designed not to empower discrimination against particular groups but to preemptively protect religious organizations and individuals. There is absolutely nothing in HB 757 that enables public services to deny access for LGBT citizens. Rather, the law would force the government to demonstrate a compelling interest when seeking to punish conscientious Georgians.

The NFL, however, disagrees. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the league publicly implied that passage of HB 757 would disqualify Atlanta from hosting football’s biggest night:

The statement from league spokesman Brian McCarthy reads, “NFL policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard. Whether the laws and regulations of a state and local community are consistent with these policies would be one of many factors NFL owners may use to evaluate potential Super Bowl host sites.”

As a pundit on Twitter paraphrased it: “Lovely representative democracy you have there, Georgia. Shame if someone manhandled it.”

To be fair to the league, their statement doesn’t explicitly deny that there’d be a Super Bowl in a state where religious liberty is taken seriously. But the NFL’s statement was in fact a reply to a question posed by the Journal-Constitution, and it’s difficult to read it as anything but a veiled threat against the state. It would have been quite easy (and very NFL-like) to not comment publicly on ongoing legislation, or to simply observe that the league doesn’t itself dictate political beliefs to its 32 teams and owners.

And it would have been much better for the NFL to have done that. The league’s moral grandstanding here borders on the ridiculous.

First, it should be noted that the NFL’s appeal to its own policies is hypocritical at best. Current NFL policy, for example, prohibits the use of recreational marijuana. Yet the NFL continues to field teams and host events in states where recreational marijuana is legal, like Colorado (which hosts the newest NFL champion Denver Broncos) and Washington (home to the recent Super Bowl winning Seattle Seahawks). The NFL has shown no urgency to make sure its internal policies align with state law up until now. I highly doubt this is an earnest change of heart.

Secondly, by implicitly threatening religious liberty, the NFL is turning on many of its most legendary and important people. Pro football has benefited enormously from the platforms of religious athletes, whether old-timers like Reggie White, Herschel Walker and Tony Dungy, or younger players like Russell Wilson and Drew Brees. Indeed, the NFL, far more than major league baseball or the NBA, depends on the employment and performance of religious players and coaches throughout its organization. The Atlanta Falcons, like other teams, have featured their chaplains in their organizational literature and PR. There’s no question that the NFL and its member companies have marketed themselves as friendly to the people they now imply may be bigots.

Third, the league is really not in a position to lecture taxpayers about their ethics. Pro football owners are notorious for passing along the costs of exorbitant new stadiums onto cities, while the NFL, which makes sure to get its cut of everything licensed by the “shield,” files with the IRS as a “non-profit” coalition of 32 individual businesses. In other words, the NFL reaps the financial harvest that comes when taxpayers–the same taxpayers who elect representatives, who then sponsor and pass legislation like HB 757–are asked to subsidize pro football, and don’t see any of the enormous profits come back to them via taxes.

If the NFL wants to criticize Georgia’s politics, it should first profusely thank Georgia and several other states for essentially sponsoring pro-football at taxpayers’ expense and the owners’ (and commissioner’s) profit. As it stands, if the NFL wants such a one-sided relationship with cities, it should probably abstain from farcical moral grandstanding on representative politics.

Lastly, pro football is not really in any position to wax ethical about…well, anything. This is the league, after all, that is facing a tumultuous legal and cultural battle over concussions, and recently settled with former players over accusations that the league withheld information about the effects of concussions on mental health. This is the league, after all, that until 2 years ago repeatedly turned a blind and apathetic eye towards domestic abuse, changing their tune only when media pressure was applied in the Ray Rice case. The NFL is good at entertaining and competitive sports, but it’s lousy at giving lectures on morality and decency.

As a football fan, I enjoy the league, even while I have criticized its flaws and hypocrisy. If the NFL wants to learn from its past failures, I am happy to hear it. What I am not happy to hear are lectures from an organization that profits from people with a conscience and taxpayers who let it skate. If the league wants to make leftist culture warring its newest offseason activity, count me out.

My Favorite Articles and Blogs From 2015

Last week I did a run down of my favorite book reads from 2015. Below is a brief list of my favorite blogs, articles, and reviews from the year. As with the book list, there is no hierarchy or ranking here.

“There Is No Pro-Life Case for Planned Parenthood,” by Ross Douthat in The New York Times.

But to concede that pro-lifers might be somewhat right to be troubled by abortion, to shudder along with us just a little bit at the crushing of the unborn human body, and then turn around and still demand the funding of an institution that actually does the quease-inducing killing on the grounds that what’s being funded will help stop that organization from having to crush quite so often, kill quite so prolifically – no, spare me. Spare me. Tell the allegedly “pro-life” institution you support to set down the forceps, put away the vacuum, and then we’ll talk about what kind of family planning programs deserve funding. But don’t bring your worldview’s bloody hands to me and demand my dollars to pay for soap enough to maybe wash a few flecks off.

“The Beauty of the Cross: 19 Objections and Answers on Penal Substitutionary Atonement,” by Derek Rishmawy.

As I said before, though it is not the only work Christ does on the cross, his sin-bearing representation is at the heart of the gospel. While we need to be careful about using it as a political tool to establish Christian orthodoxy, the issues at stake make it worth defending with grace and care. The justification of God’s righteousness in the face of evil, the graciousness of grace, the finality and assurance of forgiveness, the costliness of God’s love, and the mercy of God’s kingdom are all caught up in properly understanding the cross of Christ.

“The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic.

Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance. Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that he or she is not a real American. Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’sThe Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.

“How Not to Read the Bible If You Want to Remain a Christian,” by Collin Garbarino in First Things

But Crossan’s central idea is not amusing; it’s disingenuous. He talks about finding the “heartbeat” of the Bible, but he’s interested in no such thing. Instead of honestly trying to understand how love and wrath can both find their source in a holy God, Crossan seeks to tear God in two. The violence of God must be dismissed as Crossan looks for the nonviolence of God. Crossan says that he’s looking for the diastole and the systole of the Bible’s cardiac cycle, but he isn’t. He’s actually trying to have one without the other. Any heart that only has one and not both will die. In the same way, the heavily edited Jesus of Crossan’s imagination is not the living Christ, and the faith that Crossan offers is a dead one.

“The New Intolerance of Student Activism,” by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic.

Watching footage of that meeting, a fundamental disagreement is revealed between professor and undergrads. Christakis believes that he has an obligation to listen to the views of the students, to reflect upon them, and to either respond that he is persuaded or to articulate why he has a different view. Put another way, he believes that one respects students by engaging them in earnest dialogue. But many of the students believe that his responsibility is to hear their demands for an apology and to issue it. They see anything short of a confession of wrongdoing as unacceptable. In their view, one respects students by validating their subjective feelings.

Notice that the student position allows no room for civil disagreement.

“Slouching Toward Mecca,” by Mark Lilla in The New York Review of Books.

Given all this, it will take a long time for the French to read and appreciate Soumissionfor the strange and surprising thing that it is. Michel Houellebecq has created a new genre—the dystopian conversion tale. Soumission is not the story some expected of a coup d’état, and no one in it expresses hatred or even contempt of Muslims. It is about a man and a country who through indifference and exhaustion find themselves slouching toward Mecca. There is not even drama here—no clash of spiritual armies, no martyrdom, no final conflagration. Stuff just happens, as in all Houellebecq’s fiction. All one hears at the end is a bone-chilling sigh of collective relief. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. Whatever.

“The Serial Swatter,” by Jason Fagone in The New York Times

Early one weekend morning in January 2014, Janet was sleeping fitfully in her parents’ home in Toronto. A junior studying elementary education at a nearby college, she had gone home for the weekend in a state of nervous collapse. For months, someone going by the name ‘‘Obnoxious’’ had been harassing her online. He had called her cellphone repeatedly and sent her threatening texts. Worst of all, he had threatened to ‘‘swat’’ her at school — to make a false emergency call to the police and lure a SWAT team to her door.

“What ISIS Really Wants,” by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic.

That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model. Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time.

Theological Triage and the Doctrine of Creation,” by Samuel Emadi in The Gospel Coalition.

Theological triage is not a way of minimizing doctrine but of being able to say all doctrine is important, though some doctrines are more important than others. Lose the Trinity and you lose the gospel. Lose your favored millennial position and, while you may need a little reshuffling of some exegetical commitments, most of the rest of your theological system remains safely intact. To be clear, I’m not saying the earth’s age or the length of the days in Genesis 1 is unimportant or that we shouldn’t have convictions on these matters (just to prove it, I’ll tip my hand and reveal I’m a fairly committed literal six-day, young earther). I am saying we need to separate first-order issues in the doctrine of creation from second- and third-order issues, mitigating our suspicions of the other side and hopefully reminding those with teaching ministries what to prioritize about creation as we disciple others. In other words, this isn’t just about learning where we can disagree; it’s also about shoring up our defenses on the non-negotiables.

“C.S. Lewis Was a Secret Government Agent,” by Harry Lee Poe in Christianity Today.

How Lewis came to be recruited and by whom remains a secret. The records of the Secret Intelligence Service, known popularly as MI6, remain closed. Perhaps one of his former pupils at Oxford recommended him for his mission. It was an unusual mission for which few people were suited. J. R. R. Tolkien had the knowledge base for the job, even beyond that of Lewis, but Tolkien lacked other skills that Lewis possessed. Perhaps someone had heard Lewis lecture on his favorite subject in one of the two great lecture halls in the Examination Schools building of Oxford University. At a time when Oxford fellows were notorious for the poor quality of their public lectures, Lewis packed the hall with an audience of students who were not required to attend lectures. In the 1930s, Lewis was the best show in town. Somehow Lewis had developed the skill to speak to an audience and hold them in rapt attention, in spite of his academic training rather than because of it.

Jennifer Lawrence Should Read the Books That Made Her Rich

Hollywood A-lister and my fellow Louisville, Kentuckian Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t think much of Rowan County clerk Kim Davis. Actually, that might be overstatement. J-Law has, according to her cover-story interview with Vogue, zero tolerance for Mrs. Davis’ name:

The day I am at Lawrence’s house also happens to be the day after the infamous county clerk Kim Davis gets out of jail, where she had been sent for defying a court order requiring her to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Lawrence brings it up, calling her that “lady who makes me embarrassed to be from Kentucky.” Kim Davis? “Don’t even say her name in this house,” she shoots back, and then goes into a rant about “all those people holding their crucifixes, which may as well be pitchforks, thinking they’re fighting the good fight. I grew up in Kentucky. I know how they are.”

I’m sorry that Lawrence is embarrassed to be from Kentucky, but I’m afraid her tremblingly angry commentary here will do little to win Kentuckians to her side. Her screed reeks of classism and ideological bigotry, not to mention a fair amount of unintentionally hilarious self-righteousness (“Don’t even say her name” is right up there with Starbucks red cup hysteria on the FacePalm scale).

And I’m not sure why J-Law is so particularly embarrassed by Kim Davis. After all, it was her entire home state that voted to pass its own Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It was also her whole home state that just overwhelmingly elected a pro-religious liberty governor. It sounds to me like Ms. Lawrence’s beef is really not with a Kentucky clerk but with Kentucky.

Of course, it’s Lawrence’s right to be embarrassed by Kentucky and hateful towards those who disagree with her. That’s what liberty is about. J-Law should actually be more familiar with those themes than most actresses right now, seeing as she just wrapped up her fourth and final adaptation of The Hunger Games series. The Hunger Games is, of course, a fictional series about a dystopian future in which a totalitarian central government (the Capitol) exercises absolute authority over its citizens, keeping them in subjection through starvation and gladiatorial rituals. It’s nowhere close to the sublime power of Orwell, but for young adult literature, The Hunger Games actually portrays a fairly compelling–and nightmarish–vision of a future without liberty.

Perhaps Lawrence thinks that liberty should be conditioned so as never to transgress cultural consensus. Perhaps she thinks  Kentuckians who believe in traditional marriage should enjoy freedom of conscience only so long as that freedom does not offend the cultural consensus or disturb the quiet conformity of the public square. But if that’s what Lawerence really does believe, she should take some time out of her career to re-read carefully the books that have made her a millionaire.

The Hunger Games is a frightening narrative of people held in captivity to the elite brokers of power in culture (specifically, I might add, power over the media). Interestingly, the Capitol’s dictator, President Snow, forbids any mention of the rebel protagonist Katniss Everdeen in his empire. The world of the Capitol is a tightly controlled world of uniformity and unquestionable government authority.

There are many Americans at this moment who are facing tremendous cultural and legal pressure to jettison their religious beliefs, pressure that, in some cases, has driven businesses and families out of the public square. Meanwhile publications like the New York Times openly refer to them as “bigots” and modern-day segregationists. Is there any question who, in this scenario, are the truly powerful elites, demanding conformity, and who are the separatists insisting on liberty?

Of course, our current situation is nothing like the post-apocalyptic nightmare depicted in The Hunger Games, just as the West was not actually learning to love Big Brother in 1984. But that’s not the point. The point is that sometimes we need shocking images and warnings to remind us how precious freedoms like freedom of religion are. When they are taken away, even fictitiously, the world that results is nothing but horror.

I’m not sure what it is about exercising one’s sincerely held beliefs that is so offensive and embarrassing to Lawrence. But it sure sounds like the Katniss Everdeen we see on the screen bears little resemblance to the conformity-craving actress who wears her costumes and says her lines.

Liberalism, Then and Now

We go now to Houston, Texas, where a referendum on a piece of anti-discrimination legislation resulted in the bill’s being defeated nearly 2-1 to by voters. The law, dubbed “HERO” (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance), was written to create broad sweeping mandates for all businesses, housing, and public accommodations pertaining to gender identity and sexual orientation. Under the law, for example, a business or a school could not prohibit a transgendered woman (born biologically male but identifying as female) from entering a women’s restroom.

The law’s critics complained–quite reasonably– that such a far-reaching act would 1) undermine the conscience rights of business owners and other individuals who had objections to such practices and 2) potentially create vulnerable situations that could be exploited by predators, particularly when it came to younger children in schools. The first concern was pretty blatantly justified last October when the city’s mayor, Annise Parker, subpoenaed sermons and other communiqué from local clergy who had criticized the law. Parker was sharply rebuked in many corners for the audacious move (she soon backed off), and in hindsight, one could probably infer the controversy played a significant role in solidifying opposition to the mayor’s bill.

But that’s not a satisfying explanation to editorial board of The New York Times. In a blistering, furiously angry editorial, the Times condemned Houston’s voters as “haters” and warned that “the bigots are destined to lose,” further predicting that the politicians opposed to the bill, including governor Greg Abbot, would be “remembered as latter-day Jim Crow elders.” Other progressive publications echoed the Times sentiments (though none that I saw achieved the theocratic sanctimony that the Times did).

Now what’s fascinating about all of this is that we are seeing, clearer than ever before, the kind of intense internal transformation that has happened inside American progressivism. It’s no small thing for The New York Times to call a plurality of Houston’s voters bigots and modern day segregationists if the city were refusing to sign marriage certificates for same-sex couples. But nothing like that is happening. Instead, the Times calls down fire from heaven because the city doesn’t see the benefit of a far-reaching, dubiously enforced bill that potentially eliminates any and all meaningful public distinctions between the sexes; not to mention that nearly identical laws elsewhere have been used to strip florists and bakers of their businesses.

Houston’s ERO clearly legislated a specific, very progressive sexual morality, a morality that goes far above and beyond the United States’ admitted leftward pilgrimage on issues like homosexuality and same-sex marriage. There are many liberally-minded people in the country, friendly to the idea that a man or a woman should be able to marry whomever they desire, who nonetheless balk at the idea that restrooms and public showers should take no opinion on a patron’s genitalia.

The failure of the current generation of liberals to recognize the existence and validity of this middle ground is a remarkable shift for American progressivism. It’s remarkable because it is precisely the opposite of the argument that the architects of Obergefell, like Andrew Sullivan, pioneered. Sullivan’s “conservative case for gay marriage” was not predicated on the idea that gender is ultimately an issue of self-determination and that culture must acquisese or become oppressive. Rather, Sullivan’s case was the opposite: People are born with affection and desire for people of the opposite sex or their own sex, and in either case, marriage is a stabilizing, socially constructive outlet for that desire in a way that promotes the family unit.

Now of course, I didn’t and don’t find Sullivan’s conservative case for same-sex marriage compelling. But its truthfulness is beside the point. The point is that we are hardly a decade separated from an articulation of liberal sexual ideology that assumed the very concepts of cultural permanence and cross-political values that today’s progressives decry.

To put it another way: In the span of two presidential terms, liberalism has been transformed from a fight to widen the margins of culture to a fight to close them up. It’s particularly sobering to see the transformation in light of what justice Anthony Kennedy said in the majority opinion of Lawrence vs Texas, the landmark 2003 case that ruled state sodomy laws were unconstitutional. Kennedy’s words are remarkable:

The condemnation [of homosexual behavior] has been shaped by religious beliefs, conceptions of right and acceptable behavior, and respect for the traditional family. For many persons these are not trivial concerns but profound and deep convictions accepted as ethical and moral principles to which they aspire and which thus determine the course of their lives. These considerations do not answer the question before us, however. The issue is whether the majority may use the power of the State to enforce these views on the whole society through operation of the criminal law. “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code…”

The question for today’s liberals is simple: Does Justice Kennedy’s articulation of liberty for all apply to those outside the Obergefell/ERO arc of history, or does it not? Are people who believe things about marriage, sexuality, and gender that President Barack Obama said only five years ago he believed entitled to meaningful public protection from current majoritarian values, or are they not? When Lawrence and Texas have switched places in the courtroom, what happens?

It’s difficult to see what the long term result of this radical evolution of American liberalism will be. There’s evidence of solidarity and strength, and the leftward leaps of the Democratic Party have helped smoothen liberalism’s ride. On the other hand, the debacle that seems to be unfolding on the campuses of American universities suggests that this new progressivism has some self-destructive tendencies. It may be that in the quest to finally stamp out the remnant opposition to the Sexual Revolution, liberalism will end up biting the hands that feed it.

How a Christian college unravels

Photo: Richard Arthur Norton, CC License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/deed.en
Photo: Richard Arthur Norton, CC License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/deed.en

I want to double back to the comments from the US Solicitor General that I highlighted a couple days ago. I think it was a rare but not shocking moment of clarity from the legal forces behind same-sex marriage legalization about what the endgames of a Court ruling in their favor would really be.  Continue reading “How a Christian college unravels”