Evangelicals Are Strangers in America — and Everywhere
Jonathan Rauch, one of the more thoughtful writers of the Left, has called Evangelicals “the last gay marriage hold-outs.” He posits that “most American Catholics support gay marriage. So do most mainline Protestants.”
A few immediate responses:
The Catholic Church
The position of the Catholic Church on same-sex unions remains unaltered. The day of the Obergefell ruling, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement by its president, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, that said, in part, “Regardless of what a narrow majority of the Supreme Court may declare … the nature of the human person and marriage remains unchanged and unchangeable. … It is profoundly immoral and unjust for the government to declare that two people of the same sex can constitute a marriage. … Jesus Christ, with great love, taught unambiguously that from the beginning marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman.”
However, the polling data seem to bear out Rauch’s argument about the position of most American Catholics. According to a Quinnipiac University poll released in October 2013, “More devout Catholics, who attend religious services about once a week, support same- sex marriage 53-40 percent, while less observant Catholics support it 65-26 percent.”
To some extent, polling data concerning old-line Protestants’ beliefs about marriage provoke a complacent shrug. Most of these churches long ago abandoned the historic Reformation conviction that the Bible’s teachings are clear and authoritative and, thus, their departure from historic Christian views on marriage is part of a protracted pattern.
According to Pew Research, from 2007 through 2014 alone, “the total number of mainline Protestant adults … decreased by roughly 5 million … (from about 41 million in 2007 to 36 million in 2014). … Additionally, more Americans have been leaving mainline Protestantism than joining the tradition. Nearly one in five Americans (19%) were raised in the mainline tradition, but more than half of them (10.4% of all U.S. adults) have left the faith.”
This is really quite understandable. Fundamentally (inside theological pun intended), why would someone want to go to a church where Jesus is shaded in the prevailing colors of whatever cultural palette is currently appealing? Yet this is the default position of the Religious Left. As Amy Butler, named in 2014 the senior pastor of the Riverside Church in Manhattan, said in a Washington Post interview in March, “I want to reinterpret the Gospel and reclaim it in a way that is life-giving.”
This is a resonantly stunning statement. The life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ needs no “reinterpretation” from Rev. Butler. It’s done just fine for 2,000 years, since it is the message of hope offered to a fallen humanity from the hand of God. It needs no re-shaping to comport with the desires of a restive, secularized populace. It only needs bold and compassionate and faithful proclamation, something someone desiring to “reinterpret” it to make it “life-giving” can never do.
Re-inventing Jesus and the teachings of Scripture such that they are less discomfiting to a post-Christian society is pretentious and violates fidelity to the Word of God. It is why liberal/mainstream/old-line Protestantism is impotent and dying. Making Christianity less Christian seems rather pointless, after all.
Rauch argues that some Evangelicals are wrestling with the issue of homosexuality to the point they are willing to jettison the Bible’s teaching in order to be more “welcoming” to gays and lesbians.
As many, including me, have written before, there is nothing loving about lying to people concerning their sin, whether that sin relates to homosexual or heterosexual immorality. And according to the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, all homosexual intimacy is immoral, as is all heterosexual intimacy outside of marriage.
Telling people their actions or beliefs don’t comport with biblical teaching can be painful. This is especially true in the case of homosexuality, given that self-identification as gay or lesbian is, for those espousing it, comprehensive: It is not something they do, but how they view the nature of their humanity.
Yet love divorced from truth is mere sentiment and weakness, not the kind of sacrificial and courageous kindness Scripture calls on those who have been “born from above” to exhibit.
That is why it’s wrong to be reluctant to tell someone not to sin because it might hurt him emotionally. A mere desire to do something does not justify doing it. And in the case at hand, the presence of a homosexual attraction does not justify a moral right to fulfill it. Besides its inherent illogic, the Word of God makes clear that this proposition is wrong.
Rauch notes that “many evangelicals (sic) are in a state of agonized reflection over homosexuality and gay rights. This is partly because they see they have lost the argument and worry that they will soon be cultural strangers in their own land.”
Regardless of whether Evangelicals have “lost the argument” (we’ve lost a Supreme Court case and, as Roe v. Wade has shown, Supreme Court judgments do not trump deep social controversies), he is right that a small group of Evangelicals are wrestling with how to deal with homosexuality. Rauch admits that “only a trickle of evangelical churches have embraced same-sex marriage, and I won’t venture to predict that a majority will do so soon.”
This trickle is being endlessly magnified by media drawn to controversy and, more importantly, astonished that theological orthodoxy still exists and is even relatively widespread. The media generally are actively supportive of the “mainstreaming” of homosexuality, and are irked by Christians who refuse to cavil, rationalize, or at least remain silent.
Perhaps most intriguing is this phrase — some Evangelicals “worry that they will soon be cultural strangers in their own land.”
First, for decades, Evangelicals felt culturally at ease in the United States. Over the past half-century, this has changed into a growing sense of surprise, anger, and loss as moral presuppositions and their cultural out-workings have been challenged. It has also animated extensive and sometimes effective action; witness the rise and increasing successes of the pro-life movement. Evangelical political action has not, however, resulted in any kind of triumphant reclamation of a Christianized culture.
Christians now live in what could be described as a post-Christian culture. From the moral debasement of network television to the commonness of pornography, from abortion-on-demand to, now, legalized same-sex marriage, Evangelicals no longer enjoy the cultural cache they did when Newsweek declared 1976 “The Year of the Evangelical.”
But in a larger sense, neither Evangelicals nor any other Christians have ever been truly “at home” in this world. The apostle Peter calls us “strangers and aliens” (I Peter 2:11). The writer of Hebrews tells believers to model their lives after heroes of the faith who “were strangers and exiles on the earth” (11:13-16). And Jesus said of and to His disciples:
If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. (John 15:18-19).
Followers of Jesus should always have a deep sense of unease in a world where rebellion to our Creator and Redeemer is the norm. As we consider how most effectively to live in a very different America than the one known by our forebears, we must bear in mind that even were we to achieve an Eisenhower era type of cultural milieu, such an environment would be impermanent — and that the world must remain strange to us.
We live in a world cursed and permeated by sin. Sin is estrangement from God. We are to be estranged from sin. Ergo, even the friendliest of cultures will always be for us an ill-fitting garment.
This does not mean withdrawal from public life. To leave the cultural marketplace would be to abandon it to forces of sin much too aggressive to go unchallenged.
Evangelicals will continue to stand against social and political wrong-doing. We will endeavor to work with faithfulness, prudence, and wisdom to advance what Family Research Council calls “faith, family, and freedom.” We will work to defend the unborn and their mothers from a predatory abortion industry, to uphold marriage as the union of one man and one woman and foster stronger, more vibrant families, and to retain the religious liberty that is the basis of all of our other freedoms.
But as to Rauch’s observation that unless we conform to the spirit of the times, we will find ourselves “cultural strangers in our own land,” so be it. Christians have been “predestined to be conformed to the image of (God’s) Son,” Jesus Christ, not a world system or social trends at enmity with God (Romans 8:29, Romans 12:2, James 4:4).
Christians must use the political tools at our disposal to advance and defend God’s justice and righteousness in public policy and law, but do so mindful that the restraint of evil and the promotion of good are our calling whatever the outcome of our efforts or the popularity of our cause.
Patriots? Unequivocally. Strangers to our culture? Increasingly. Aliens in a fallen world? Indisputably. Citizens of an eternal commonwealth far more precious than even our own beloved earthly country, loyal first and foremost to the Jesus Who is Lord? Always.