Thinking About the Christian Intellectual

I’ve been thinking a bit about Alan Jacobs’ piece over at Harper’s on the absence of the Christian intellectual as part of our society’s public discourse. (I haven’t, I should say, followed all too closely the various responses already up, except to see the all-but-inevitable “hey, what about me?” sorts of posts. For those of you in the academy, you knew that was coming, right?) What I liked especially about Alan’s essay was its refusal to assign any kind of easy “blame” for the fact–and I think it is indeed a fact–that Christian thinkers working from explicitly theological frames don’t get much of a hearing in public these days. Too many of our secular friends just don’t have an ear for theological language (or are ideologically committed to not having an ear) and too many Christians don’t know how to tune their voices (and, frankly, too many of them aren’t willing to do the hard, slogging work to actually be able to do serious intellectual work). But two things struck me in reading that I think are worth bringing out.

First, I think there’s a piece of the essay that hasn’t gotten enough notice and that’s the question of what it actually means to *be* an intellectual today as opposed to, say, the 1940s and 1950s. Jacobs suggests that each of the intellectuals he’s interested in had a posture of interpretation that grounded their most important works–they were public intellectuals in that they were bringing their  scholarly, philosophical, theological, and moral sensibilities to bear on understanding and interpreting the world around them so as to illuminate that world for their reading publics. Niebuhr, whatever else he was doing, wanted people to understand that the happy-clappy utopianism of the early 20th century was a mirage and that you had to be tough-minded if you wanted to do good in your politics. I’m not so sure that’s how *our* public intellectuals see themselves or the world. They seem (to me, at least) to think of themselves much more in line with the 19th/20th century Russian intelligentsia who had bought into Marx’s dictum that the point of philosophy (and, presumably, any kind of intellectual work) was to “change” the world, not just understand it. Jacobs gestures at this with his discussions of “technique.” To be an intellectual in our day means mastering some set of rhetorical or disciplinary “techniques” that can then be applied more widely in the service of “social change” or “justice” or whatever the term is these days.

Perhaps I’m wrong about this and our sense of the intellectual hasn’t changed, but it does strike me that we are in the midst of a revival of the idea that we can indeed grasp the levers of history and achieve, in a way that our early 20th century forbears failed to do, fully just, fully prosperous social order. If only the peasants would get with the program. So when Alan asks why aren’t there any Christian intellectuals anymore, I think part of the answer has to be that we lack his sense of intellectuals altogether–or, at least, that’s true as a *public* matter.

The second thing that struck me was more a question of institutions. He notes that many of these public intellectuals had communities within which they developed, tested, and refined their public ideas–and then places within which they could communicate them to a wide audience. Both seem more difficult today. On the latter side, our public discourse is much more obviously differentiated in any number of ways and it’s impossible to imagine what would stand in for a Time Magazine cover these days. But on the former, it’s also more difficult and it’s especially more difficult to have differentiated sorts of conversations.

Here’s what I mean. I host a Christian political thought workshop every summer here at Wheaton–anyone who is a Christian who is doing “political thought” (which I define rather capaciously) is welcome to come and have their working papers gone over by other Christians. The idea was to create a space within which we could have the sorts of philosophical and theological discussions that are hard to do together in the modern academy. We can talk in ways that just don’t fit in an R-1 research university seminar. But I wonder how available those spaces are to many people, and especially spaces where others, who don’t share some basic presuppositions, aren’t listening in? If Christians (or anyone else) is always looking over their shoulders, wondering how *everyone* might react to their half-baked ideas, it’s hard to see how they’ll develop well as intellectuals (Christian or otherwise). The digital world is remarkable, among other things, for its ability to connect us quickly across vast distances, but it also makes it possible for our ideas (half-baked and otherwise) to travel just as quickly, sometimes when they’re not exactly ready. Perhaps this is what Alan was pointing to in his references to “subaltern counterpublics” and I wonder if those are becoming less and less available?

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Same-Sex Marriage, Religious Liberty, and the Democratic Moment

 

Now that the Supreme Court has ratified Same-Sex Marriage (SSM) as a “fundamental right” in Obergefell v Hodges, it looks as if we will finally get to how religious liberties will fare. For the past 10-15 years, scholars and pundits have variously warned about or celebrated the idea that broad changes in how the law thinks about sexual orientation would impinge on individuals’ and institutions’ exercise of their religious beliefs. (See this edited volume as one example) Here (as much for my own benefit as anyone else’s) I thought would sketch out what I take to be the most significant possible challenges religious communities and individuals will face in the coming years, at least as things stand right now, what would we (traditionalist religious believers) might do in response. To give away the conclusion, I think these challenges can genuinely be met, but only if we take seriously our own obligations as citizens in a democratic republic to vindicate and protect our own liberties not merely through litigation and court decisions but more importantly through popular deliberation and legislative action. In other words, if we are to find ways to give religious liberty its due, it will be up to us as citizens and the men and women who represent us in our legislative bodies to make it happen. The advent of SSM offers us a democratic moment—will we take it?

The first thing to note is that SSM in and of itself will not likely present any direct challenges to religious liberty. Instead, because it embodies and represents a deep and pervasive change in how we think about sexuality, families, and the like, it really just accelerates the growing sense within our society that broadly popular anti-discrimination norms should be extended to include sexual orientation (and, I think, gender identity). The challenge of SSM is really the challenge of non-discrimination.

It’s worth pausing for a moment, then, to think about why we value anti-discrimination norms—and why we sometimes don’t. It’s not uncommon to hear or read people suggest that we shouldn’t abide any sort of discrimination, but a moment’s reflection shows that to be obviously untrue. No one (or almost no one, I’d guess) really minds that Harvard prefers smart high school students to dumb ones and thus discriminates. Similarly, it would be an odd thing if you couldn’t “discriminate” in your choice of a spouse or roommate. Or if the NBA didn’t prefer people who could jump over people (like me) who can’t. But we would find it objectionable (and legally actionable) if Harvard refused to admit Latinos or the NBA discriminated against Lutherans. We’d even find it morally bothersome if someone was committed to only marrying or rooming with someone of a particular race, though it’s unlikely we’d make it a legal issue (though there were some interesting legal cases with regard to the latter that show its complications). What accounts for the difference in our moral and political judgments?

The difference lies in our judgment that, first, there are some aspects of our selves, the ways in which we identify and are identified, that should not shape how we treat others or are treated—they are “morally irrelevant,” we might say. Imagine someone made employment decisions in a bank based on the length of the applicants’ nose – just silly, right? More importantly to this discussion, we also have made the judgment that access to certain goods—employment, education, health care, legal judgments, etc.—are so central to living even a reasonably good life (in our society, at least) that their availability should not be conditioned by these “morally irrelevant” characteristics. If you fail to study hard or just don’t have the native intelligence to do really well in school, then Harvard is not wronging you by not admitting you. If Harvard denies your application because of your skin color or ethnicity or place of birth, then it has indeed wronged you. Sometimes, we might acknowledge that you’ve been wronged—it seems right to say that you’ve been morally wronged if someone refuses to be your friend or be romantically interested on account of those sorts of characteristics—but not make it a matter of political judgment because to do so would extend the state’s reach beyond its proper scope. (Imagine a Federal Friendship Law). When Congress enacted the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a way of breaking racial segregation, it represented a dramatic expansion of federal political authority precisely on the theory that black citizens’ lives were being systematically devalued and made difficult solely on account of their race—and that the only way to change that was to prohibit (and penalize) racial discrimination across a wide range of “public accommodations.” Over time, Congress added other categories—sex, age, marital status, etc.—with the view that these, too, should not impinge on our access to those fundamental goods necessary to living well in modern America.

The true challenge that SSM represents for religious liberties, then, is that it offers a shot in the arm to efforts to extend those anti-discrimination norms to include sexual orientation and gender identity. (The latter isn’t necessarily required by SSM, but it seems to follow along nonetheless). And so the question becomes whether in extending those norms, we should continue or even expand the range of exceptions we offer to religious believers and institutions or, conversely, whether we should narrow or eliminate them. Currently, most religious institutions (at least the non-profit ones) get more or less a pass on most anti-discrimination statutes, and it’s easy to see why. It would be strange thing indeed if a church or mosque could not require a minister to be of its own faith. So the Catholic Church can freely discriminate not just against non-Catholics in its selection of priests, but also against women.

The partial exception to this broad set of exemptions is race, and it is here, in particular the Supreme Court decision in Bob Jones v United States, where we can see highlighted where religious liberty and expanded non-discrimination norms could come into conflict. Bob Jones University was (and is) a fundamentalist Christian college that used to (though no longer does) discriminate on the basis of race. The IRS decided that this meant it could no longer claim a tax exemption and the Supreme Court agreed in 1974 that the public interest in eradicating racial discrimination meant that the university’s religious liberty had to give way. The idea is not that you couldn’t have a racially discriminatory church or college or whatever, but, rather, that the state could decline to “subsidize” such an institution with tax-exempt status, even if such a decision meant that the state was picking some religious entities out for disfavor (thus rubbing up against the well-established principle that the liberal state cannot support some religious communities over against others). (I tend to think the notion that tax-exempt status is a “subsidy” represents a poor understanding of the proper relationship between the state and civil society institutions, but my views, for some reason, have not won Supreme Court approval yet). The general principle is that while religious liberty is important, in this particular case, it’s more important that the state work to eradicate racial discrimination.

For some, since moral opposition to homosexual practice is on a par with racial discrimination, religious groups that don’t get on board with the new dispensation should likewise lose their tax-exempt status. We should not, I think, discount this possibility, especially with respect to states or local municipalities where religious liberty protections might be weaker than they are on the federal level. But before giving into full-fledged panic, it’s worth noting a few things here. First, so far as I know, no court has, in fact, extended the logic of the Bob Jones case in such a way as to take it beyond race. No religious institution has lost its tax-exempt status because, for example, it only allows one sex to participate or hold some sort of office. Second, since Bob Jones is a university, it doesn’t quite fit into the same category as churches proper (which should probably be a relief to churches, but not mean very much to schools, non-profits, etc.) And, finally, the Bob Jones case was at the tail end of a long series of legal and political efforts to combat a much more pervasive set of discriminatory institutions, something that is obviously much less true with regard to sexual orientation. So though it is clearly the case that if you think that moral opposition to homosexual practice is on a par with racial discrimination, you probably should be in favor of extending the Bob Jones case to all sorts of other situations, it seems to me that the political and material conditions make such a move not immediately in the offing.

Much more likely, at least in the short- to medium-term, are any number of smaller, more localized efforts to ostracize religious communities who hold to orthodox sexual views. We will likely see, for instance, efforts to exclude those communities’ access to public venues and certainly public monies, the latter through grant and contract rules requiring adherence to non-discrimination norms. Plenty of communities went out of their way to disadvantage the Boy Scouts over their (now ended) ban on gay scoutmasters and President Obama looks to issue an executive order prohibiting those who hold to traditional religious views from competing for government contracts. We may also see efforts, already in motion to some degree, to use licensing and other forms of credentialing procedures to weed out those who don’t affirm the new dispensation. Gordon College had its accreditation threatened last year over the issue, and it seems plausible (likely, even) that other credentialing bodies will try and flex their muscle in the near future as well.

Finally, and much more nebulously, it seems likely that we will see an invigorated move to make traditional views outside the bounds of “polite society” (as if our society is anything like “polite”). All one needs to do is to think about the overheated response to Indiana’s proposed state-level RFRA (especially in a context where state anti-discrimination laws did not over sexual orientation) to recognize that there are powerful cultural movements dedicated to making the traditional view of sexuality as socially noxious as explicit displays of racism.

So what to do?

Well, we could just try and withdraw from the surrounding culture a la the Amish, but that seems unlikely to succeed in any sense, even if it were an attractive option. We live within a regulatory state that claims a wide expanse of interests, ones that do not stop at the threshold to our homes, churches, or anywhere else. Though the Supreme Court found that churches do have a broad “ministerial” exemption with regard to anti-discrimination norms Hosanna-Tabor v EEOC, it is telling that the Obama administration argued (unreasonably, in my view) that no such exemption was required by the First Amendment, suggesting instead that churches and other religious institutions should be required to defend discriminatory practices in court as intrinsic to their religious mission. Few share that expansive view, but it seems reasonable to think that, unless trends change, regulatory efforts that fall just short of that will be on the table in the relatively near future. (It’s worth noting in this context that though the court was unanimous in affirming the “ministerial exemption,” there was significant disagreement about how far the exemption should extend within religious organizations. The state will not be able to tell churches how they choose their ministers, but with regard to their teachers, support staff, and the rest, we can’t be sure). Religious liberties thrive not just in a culture where the law is right, but where popular sentiment believes in its principles as well. When the state can (and does) reach most everywhere, it will do no good to simply try to build high walls around our institutions and hope we won’t be bothered.

A better answer starts in noting that in all the various challenges I sketched out above where the initiative lay–in the political, that is the legislative and executive, branches of government. Though the Supreme Court affirmed SSM as a “fundamental liberty,” the Court is, I think, highly unlikely to demand on its own that churches and other religious organizations change their views accordingly. Rather, if we get threatened with a loss of tax exemptions or what-not, it will be on account of cities, states, and the like deciding to take action. The Court didn’t on its down decide that Bob Jones shouldn’t have a tax exemption; it just ratified the IRS’s decision as constitutional. When the California State system decided to suspend InterVarsity Christian Fellowship it did so because it made a judgment about the relative importance of non-discrimination and religious liberty – and it reversed its decision when pressed on the merits. If and when cities or states think about yanking churches’ and schools’ tax exemptions, or when credentialing bodies suggest you can’t become a licensed counselor without pledging to the new faith, it will be people in political office who make those decisions—real, live, people who can be reasoned with or even replaced through electoral efforts.

And this is why I think the conflict between religious liberty and SSM offers us what we might term “a democratic moment.” The most significant debates are not to be held, at least at first, in the courts, but in legislatures and regulatory and licensing bodies. We are conditioned to think that our most significant debates happen in front of judges—and courts do matter, of course—but that’s just not true in this case. Courts will not decide these outcomes. They may ratify (or overturn) them, but the first move belongs to us as citizens engaged in moral and political deliberation. So when a city or state begins to deliberate about whether traditionalist religious colleges and non-profits should continue to receive tax-exempt status, our first impulse should not be to ask about how this fits with this or that legal doctrine or whether the courts will affirm or deny. It should be to engage in serious, thoughtful, and passionate deliberation with our fellow citizens, making the case that we have good reasons for organizing as we do and that they have good reasons for respecting that. In other words, we should act as citizens, not subjects, and validate our liberties in politics, not just beg courts to do it for us.

Christians (and others who think religious liberty shouldn’t always lose) should recognize that while we might lose (and will lose in some places), those losses are not inevitable, nor are they simply issues of legal and constitutional doctrine. These are moral and political matters that citizens in a democratic republic have a responsibility, the privilege really, of deliberating about and deciding. It would be a shame if we didn’t recognize that.

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Why Toleration Is Never Enough and Why Moral Conservatives and Free Speech Liberals Will Keep on Losing

Two groups have, of late, found themselves more than a bit on the defensive, and seem befuddled about why. Moral conservatives, those increasingly rare birds who think that not only is there some objective set of moral standards but also, generally, that those standards should be publicly recognized, have been shocked (not as in “shocked, shocked!”) that lots of folks want to follow through on the premises of the sexual revolution and reorder how we think about marriage—and that, as with most social revolutions, if you don’t get on board, you’ll find yourself the object of social, economic, and political ostracism. Free-speech liberals, on the other hand, increasingly find themselves besieged as the places they once thought citadels of free expression—our colleges and universities—sometimes seem to care more about psychological safety and comfort than the rough and tumble of opposing ideas.

What gives? Why can’t we just come to reasonable disagreement about the many matters that, in fact, divide us and figure out how to tolerate those differences? Why can’t same-sex supporters just leave the marriage traditionalists alone? What’s so terrible about having someone on campus who thinks things you find terrible? Whatever happened to principled toleration, both ask?

And herein lies the change that underlies, I think, the dilemmas for both the moral conservative and free-speech liberal: toleration is, in the minds of many, no longer enough, if it ever was.   For the last few decades have witnessed a sea-change in the way a broad swathe of scholars and intellectuals think about the social and political response to moral pluralism. Traditionally—at least for the past few hundred years—the standard response to pluralism has been toleration, by which we generally mean being willing to put up with something we find morally noxious on account of some other, more important, good. Locke, in his Letter on Toleration (1689), argues for toleration among (most) Protestant churches because it helps secure civic concord and best respects the nature and limits of government. (Those aren’t his only arguments, but I’ll return to this below). This eventually gets expanded to include all Christian groups, and then others until you get to what I take to be the apotheosis of liberal toleration, John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle.” On Mill’s view, society and government (and it matters that he includes both) can only coerce or even severely criticize individuals to prevent “harm” to others. The Supreme Court, which has largely written Mill’s principles into its First Amendment speech jurisprudence, draws the circle of what counts as publicly actionable harm pretty narrowly: incitement to violence, libel, etc. It has been a principle of American public life—certainly not observed consistently in practice—that the proper response to moral disagreement is to allow others their views, though within certain limits and with the caveat that toleration does not imply an abstention from offering serious, even polemical, critiques.

We might ask, though, why Locke found it necessary to include in his Letter the various religious arguments for toleration? He starts the letter off suggesting that the “chief characteristickal mark” of the church is toleration. (A mistake both theologically and sociologically, it seems to me). Everyone I’ve ever read on this makes these sorts of claims at least somewhat instrumental—most everyone reading his writing would be Christian, and you should always appeal to your audience—or as a reflection of his own, fairly latitudinarian Christian views. Perhaps that’s correct, but what I also think is true is that toleration as an abstract claim about letting people be only has real moral and political teeth provided that you have some good positive reason to tolerate. Or, to use the language I offered above, provided that when you tolerate some noxious practice or belief, you are always, inevitably tolerating with an eye toward some other good you interested in securing. When you tolerate your irascible relative at family gatherings, you do so because the good of familial peace is worth tolerating for. Locke’s argument for toleration works, insofar as it does, precisely because the goods it secures are worth putting up with your religiously wrong neighbors.

So what does this have to do with the ostracism of moral conservatives and the retreat of free-speech liberals? In relatively recent debates over toleration, there has developed a view that says toleration is simply not enough. In tolerating others, we implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) communicate that what they do or believe is, in our view, morally disreputable. That can have serious effects, of course, on the tolerated’s sense of self-worth and ability to live her life as she sees fit. Instead of toleration, the argument goes, we should instead offer one another mutual respect or positive regard or, and this is the key move, recognition. We need not morally endorse others’ lives full stop, but we should go beyond a grudging indifference to something like a decently warm encouragement. And the reason, broadly speaking, we must do so is because the goods we thought we could secure via toleration are not enough. They still leave those being tolerated the object of social opprobrium and thus at some real disadvantage—or worse.

Hence, it is not enough for gays and lesbians to achieve a rough degree of legal and political equality. Nor is it enough for tender college students to hear criticisms that go to the heart of their own sense of identity. Unless their moral lives are, in some real way, recognized and affirmed not only by public (or university) authorities and unless their fellow citizens (or students or speakers) can be counted on to do the same, real, substantive equality will remain elusive.

But this makes for the obvious question: if recognition, not toleration, is the rule of the day, why can’t moral conservatives or others with unpopular views make similarly structured claims? Well, in my view, they should be able to and the fact that they can’t helps reveal an incoherence at the heart of the recognition claim. Given a certain range of moral and religious pluralism, it is principally and practically impossible to extend recognition to all or even most, especially once recognition extends into our everyday social lives. Recognition is, or at least can be, a zero-sum game. And so what is lurking behind the purported argument for recognition—and toleration, for that matter—is a set of moral judgments about what lives are in fact worth recognizing or tolerating, and here is where the misunderstandings of moral conservatives and free-speech liberals will continue to lead to loss after loss. It is not enough to merely beg for toleration on the grounds of tradition or conscience or some-such. Nor is it enough to suggest, as Mill did, that it is worth our while to hear scandalous or provocative views. For when our latter day inquisitors deny the requests for recognition or toleration, the reason is that the moral and psychological harms they suppose themselves to be receiving stem from what they view as morally problematic views of the world. It is the sheer existence (or at least their own awareness) of these terrible people and their ideas that seem to function as a standing rebuke to their own moral self-conceptions—and thus those terrible others must be marginalized and even run out of impolite company.

The implication here is obvious, if not altogether comforting: if moral conservatives and free-speech liberals are to find success, even if that just means being let be, they will have to do more than just make ever louder claims in favor of toleration. They will need to do the more laborious, painstaking work of making the case that the lives or practices they hold dear have real positive value to them, to convince our morally skeptical neighbors that a life lived in obedience to some great good (or even God!) is one worth living, that hearing and engaging claims that challenge, even hurt, your sense of yourself is of very great benefit. I confess that I have no great confidence that success can be found in such an enterprise, but I think it really is our only option.

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Is Islam “the cause” of Islamic terror?

Take a look at this crackerjack bit of reporting on the Islamic State.  (Ignore the requisite use of “medieval” – I think he merely means the time of Islam’s founding, though I wonder if Islamic historians use the same terminology).

The article’s virtue is that it takes seriously the question of whether Islam the cause of the Islamic State.  More generally, we can (and should) as whether self-described Islamic terrorists, such as those who attacked the Charlie Hebdo paper offices or perpetrated the 9/11 attacks?  (Note: the “self-described” here relates to the “Islamic,” not the “terrorist” label).  As stated, it’s almost certainly true and also almost certainly false.  It’s almost certainly true in that, as a description of the terrorists’ subjective self-understanding, Islam is understood as motivating their actions.  They say they are acting out of a particular understanding of the demands of Islam and so in that sense, yes, Islam causes Islamic terrorism.  But it’s also almost certainly not true as well in that Islam is not the cause of Islamic terrorism in that there are plenty of social, economic, political and other factors that impinge on an individual’s actions.  And herein lies the trouble in figuring out the degree to which “Islam” causes people to commit these horrific acts of violence.

 You’d think that social science—which is all about trying to figure out what causes various social and political phenomena—would pretty good at helping us figure this out.  And scholars have done lots of research trying to understand why some people commit terrorist acts (and, implicitly, why others don’t).  The trouble is that our social sciences have a hard time thinking about ideas as having causal power and so they tend to discount ideas as significant.  Here’s why.

 First, ideas themselves are just that—concepts, arguments, etc. floating about in speech—until they attach to particular persons or institutions that can put them into play and thereby make things happen.  But just as soon as they get attached in that way, teasing out their causal effects gets confounded by the fact that the actor—whether individual or institutional—has a history, a class location, a sex, a race, etc.  That is, the actor is a material creature with material interests, demographic factors, and a history that can also do work to explain all of our actions.   Consider Samuel Huntington’s Third Wave that explains the great wave of democratization in the latter third of the 20th century in part through reference to the Catholic Church’s change of heart with respect to liberal democratic rights at Vatican II.  Anthony Gill in turn suggests that the Church did that because it was in their interests (at least in certain parts of South America).  These two explanations are not, strictly speaking, mutually exclusive but it’s a pretty vexed question how one might tease them apart (and decide which is more basic).

 Second, ideas are never just “ideas” or a single cohesive idea that gets put into play across a variety of contexts or situations.  We usually see instead that the “idea” is in fact a family of ideas, different conceptions that have a reasonably close resemblance but that certainly aren’t always the same thing, or at least the same thing in all the relevant respects.  So when we ask whether “Islam” caused a certain sort of action, it’s a pretty simple thing to point to places where people hold to that idea and don’t commit the action—and give an all too easy negative answer.  But that might be, of course, because what one person takes “Islam” (or any other set of ideas) to be is different than what another person takes that idea to be.

 The temptation, then, for the social scientist is to favor material explanations over the ideational.  Some do it for philosophical reasons (e.g. material causes just are more basic) and others for professional/methodological ones (e.g. you can count and measure material factors while ideational ones are frustratingly fuzzy).  But in either case it seems to me a mistake, since it suggests that we are merely material creatures, subject solely to material causes and in practice indifferent to moral (or immoral, as the case may be) suasion.

 So does Islam cause terrorism?  Well, sure, in the sense that we have any number of people who have committed terrorist acts motivated (they say) by what they take to be Islamic beliefs (however incoherent or poorly structured they may be).  But, no, in the sense that this is not the only thing going on—it’s probably not even the only ideational thing going on.  But it is striking that over thirteen years after the 9/11 attacks we’re still having these kinds of debates.  I wonder what that says about us?

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David Gushee’s Changing Mind: Evangelicals and Sexual Ethics

On November 4th David Gushee published an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “I’m an evangelical minister. I now support the LGBT community–and the church should, too.” Here, Gushee makes his case for rejecting the traditional Christian teaching on homosexual conduct, framed in terms of the LGTB community as a sexual minority. He summarizes it thus:

For me, the answer to this debate has become simple: There is a sexual-minority population of about 5 percent of the human family that has received contempt and discrimination for centuries. In Christendom, the sexual ethics based in those biblical passages metastasized into a hardened attitude against sexual- and gender-identity minorities, bristling with bullying and violence. This contempt is in the name of God, the most powerful kind there is in the world. I now believe that the traditional interpretation of the most cited passages is questionable and that all that parsing of Greek verbs has distracted attention from the primary moral obligation taught by Jesus — to love our neighbors as ourselves, especially our most vulnerable neighbors. I also now believe that while any progress toward more humane treatment of LGBT people is good progress, we need to reconsider the entire body of biblical interpretation and tradition related to this issue.

Put simply, it finally became clear to me that I must side with those who were being treated with contempt, just as I hope I would have sided with Jews in the Nazi era and with African Americans during the civil rights years.

A caveat: I understand that this op-ed reflects thinking Gushee develops in more detail in his recent book Changing Our Mind (David Crumm Media, 2014) and in his series of 17 posts for Baptist News Global. I haven’t read the book and have only scratched the surface the BNG posts, so what follows here is focused on Gushee’s Washington Post piece. (For a critique engaging the broader project, see Matt Franck’s excellent piece for Canon & Culture.)

The Logic: As I make it out, the basic structure of Gushee’s argument goes like this:

  • Christians are oppressing sexual minorities (based on contested scriptural interpretation);
  • The Gospel requires standing with the oppressed;
  • Christians should drop their ethical claims about sexual behavior as part of standing with the LGTBQ community.

Gushee’s logic here is worth noting. The last step–dropping traditional Christian claims about sexual ethics—rests on two rationales: 1) the fact of being oppressed; and 2) Gushee’s judgment that the clarity of scripture on this issue is “questionable.” In his Washington Post piece, the first of these claims bears the lion’s share of his argument; the second is merely mentioned in passing. I believe the first claim is flawed and the second to be unsubstantiated. We’ll consider each in turn.

What Gushee gets right: It’s helpful to recast Gushee’s language of “standing with” in terms of a biblical conception of love. The fact of being oppressed does indeed call for a loving Christian response to suffering. Gushee’s exhortation to treat those who identify as LGTBQ with love is thus well-taken: he describes a history of “contempt and discrimination” towards those who so identify and rightly treats “bullying and violence” as un-Christian. In addition to the compassion Gushee calls for, we might add that where Christians have sinned, love also requires repentance and confession. So far, so good. Moreover, Gushee wants to compassionately account for the suffering of those who identify as LGBTQ–an important aspect of showing love in a fallen world, and an issue that resonates with the experiences described by the likes of Wesley Hill.

Divine love: welcome with an agenda: Where Gushee’s argument gets into trouble lies with the implications of love for our ethics: Does the call to “love the oppressed” change the substance of Christian ethics? Many would say yes. Christians sometimes talk about God’s love as “unconditional” and there is a sense in which this is quite right. God does not wait for sinners to reform themselves before He reaches out to them. Instead, God is like the father in the story of the two brothers in Luke 15. He runs to meet the prodigal son–the one who knows he is helpless and cries out: “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’” (v. 21, NIV). But thinking of God’s love as “unconditional” can easily distort the agenda that God’s love entails. When confronted by the Pharisees in Matthew 9 for the keeping company with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus replies in Matthew 9:12: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (NIV) The implication is that those who mistakenly think they are healthy wrongly fail to call the doctor–just as in the Luke 15 story where the “good” brother is in danger because he does not know his need. Gushee frames the LGBTQ issue as “not primarily an issue of Christian sexual ethics” but rather “primarily an issue of human suffering.” Here, he seems to endorse the first aspect of divine love (the welcome) while avoiding the second (love’s agenda). But the need to take love’s welcome more seriously does not, ipso facto, abrogate any aspect (jot or tittle?) of love’s agenda.  Thus, while the fact of being oppressed does support the argument to love, it does not provide any support for changing the transformative content of that love. To push the point further, any time that we suggest that love is only welcome (and thus not also transformation)—a gospel of “I’m okay; you’re okay”—we encourage each other to think of ourselves like the older brother in Luke 15 who stays at home and who see no need to repent. To the extent that we reduce love to “welcome”, we accept that false claim that ethical disagreement is itself dehumanizing. Insofar as Gushee makes this reduction, he seems to go beyond opposing political oppression (dehumanization) to requiring a positive affirmation of a new sexual ethic.

Interpreting scripture: Given the above, the substantive merits of Gushee’s rationale for altering Christian sexual ethics must rest entirely on his account of scripture’s witness regarding sexual ethics—a matter that gets minimal treatment in Gushee’s op-ed (and thus also by me in this post). In it, Gushee describes “Our argument has centered on six or seven biblical passages that appear to mention homosexuality negatively or appear to establish a heterosexual norm: the sin of Sodomthe laws of Leviticus and the list of “the unrighteous” in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.” He describes “endless debates over how to interpret that handful of biblical passages.” Gushee attempts to resolve this debate with the claim that, “I now believe that the traditional interpretation of the most cited passages is questionable.” If we should reject any apparent biblical teaching that has ever been subject to the sort of questioning Gushee describes with respect to sexual ethics, then no major teaching of scripture that has ever been questioned should be held securely, including, for instance, Christ’s divinity, the trinity, and the nature of justification. Put differently, this would mean that the existence of a question–such as the disagreements that required councils of the Church to iron out creedal commitments–should preclude accepting the Bible’s apparent meaning. I understand that Gushee has devoted significant attention to the scriptural and theological questions tied up in Christian sexual ethics and I look forward to reading and engaging his arguments. Suffice it to say, however, that more than being “questionable” should be required to reverse course on the Church’s long-held interpretations of the Bible.

Implications: Finally, we should recognize that more is at stake than just how to interpret a handful of passages on specific sexual acts. To make this claim suggests a case of serious theological myopia. Strongly implicated in questions of human sexuality and relationships are other matters of no small import to Christians: the doctrine of creation, especially as regards marriage and the family; the relation of God to his people as a bride (Hosea, Ephesians 5); the theology of Divine covenants, which are always made with familial implications; and the very model of relational plurality-in-unity: the Holy Trinity. I expect that Gushee knows all of this; indeed I believe he engages some of these issues in his more extensive arguments. But he would do better to resist casting LGTBQ  issues as a “love vs. questionable passages” dichotomy in which Christians should choose “love.” Of course we should choose love, but that love must be understood in theological context, in all of its rich fullness and breadth—to the extent that we can comprehend it.

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Election Predictions and the Responsibility to Vote–A few hastily-composed thoughts for election day.

The last few weeks have been full of bookie-like odds projections, predicting the outcomes of various races and the subsequent composition of governing bodies. How likely is the Senate to swing to the Republicans? It depends who you ask. The New York Times puts the odds at 75% and offers a graphic representation of how the odds have changed over time. Yesterday’s Huffington Post suggested a 77% chance. One CNN analyst today predicted 95%. The Washington Post goes as high as 96%.

Probabilistic statistics may make us uncomfortable at times, since they can suggest a higher degree of determinacy than is compatible with our sense of personal agency. They can also work against get-out-the-vote efforts. Don’t the voters decide elections, after all?

Honesty about the math, however, can be sobering. As rational choice theorists are sometimes fond of observing in the so-called “paradox of voting”, the probability that one person will cast the deciding vote in a large-scale election is infinitesimally small. Indeed, it is so small that the numerical representation of a consequence-based argument for voting (the pB term in the equation R = pB – C — namely, the the probability of casting the deciding vote multiplied by the benefits one will receive if and only if one’s preferred candidate wins) is statistically indistinguishable from zero.

So why vote?

Rational choice theorists focus on the “D” or “duty” term in the equation–the social and psychological benefits that are intrinsic to voting and that one receives even if one’s preferred candidate does not win. This is where economic theories of voting locate one’s sense of moral obligation.

The mathematical realities have led some Christians to argue that we ought to approach voting expressively rather than instrumentally. That is, we should vote sincerely rather than strategically, to borrow language from my colleague Tom Knecht. His  argument suggests that one should vote for a candidate that one truly endorses–rather than the least-of-several-evils that actually has a chance of winning–since one’s vote will not actually determine the election. Moreover, one could extend this argument to support the expressive value of not voting when the only choices are among minimally attractive candidates. Despite the varied merits of these argument, I want to suggest something else (not particularly original) here.

Voting does present a collective action problem, but it is not clear to me that this requires one to entirely reject an instrumental approach to voting (i.e., one that is geared toward contributing to a particular outcome). While one vote is not generally instrumental to selecting a candidate to hold office, elections nevertheless are instrumental to selecting a candidate to hold office and that this has implications for how we see individual voting inputs. The argument that one vote does not determine an election requires all other things to remain equal–for others to behave as one expects them to do. Thus, the logic of the case for expressive voting or non-voting require that others not do likewise.

Since we are responsible for ourselves more than we are responsible for others, I wonder whether we might not retain certain election-outcome-based moral arguments for voting. Since we do not have the responsibility (let alone the ability) to keep all other things equal (cast others votes for them or require that they do so), we can only behave in a manner that spends our own political authority responsibly. Put another way, what is our duty with regard to elections, and why? If candidate selection is even slightly implicated, then I don’t know that we can accept a purely expressive view.

The biblical concept of faithfulness is instructive here. Proverbs 16:9 states: “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.” (NIV) While the supremacy of God’s wisdom and providence are in view here, so is human agency in relation to Him. I’ve often reflected that humans are responsible for being faithful with inputs and that God is responsible for outcomes. I think this is well applied to an argument for voting instrumentally, not just expressively.

If I am right about this, then faithfulness may require spending our political authority responsibly–as if we are casting the deciding vote, even when we aren’t. This doesn’t deal with all the attendant issues and problems raised by rational choice models and arguments for expressive voting, but it does suggest something of what we should do.

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Of the Arts and Alan Jacobs

My friend and erstwhile colleague Alan Jacobs has penned this really quite interesting something-more-than-a-blog-post but not-quite-an-essay  in which he suggests – and it really is a suggestion in the best sense of things – that the financial and institutional ties art currently occupies (or is occupied by, I suppose) limits artists’ (and he has in mind mostly writers) ability to imagine “other” worlds, other ways of being. I’m not going to pull quotes much from the piece because you really should go read and think about it.

I’ll admit that the piece bugged me when I first read it through, first because he flogs that old chestnut “military-industrial complex” as the big bad thing that is limiting our artists.  I get bugged by the phrase because it’s so often misconstrued – Eisenhower’s warning was not about a bunch of generals and captains of industry conspiring against us all, but, in reality, a warning about what political scientists call “corporatism,” a way of organizing political and economic institutions such that government, business, and labor all cooperate in policy-making.  It’s the model that dominated Europe’s political economy for most of the post-war era and while it has some real benefits, it also tends to ossify economies and privilege insiders.  (President Obama, you should recognize, is much more a corporatist in this sense than any sort of socialist or social democrat or whatever).

But then I realized that Alan means the “complex” phrase to stand in for the ways in which a kind of instrumental rationality that prizes the calculus of material investment and gains above all else has, when it captures different institutions, converts them, so to speak, to its logic.  So to the degree that our artists are tied to universities and our universities have become institutions dedicated above all to material profit, then Alan’s worry is that art itself becomes hemmed in or even deeply structured by that self-same logic.  (And don’t kid yourself – major research universities may not report profits in the same way that IBM or GM do, but they have profits–they just distribute them differently).

So what to make of this?  Well, in a way, it’s nothing new, is it?  It reads to me as at least running in parallel with 150 years of Marxist thought on the subject and similar in structure (I think – I’m wandering a bit outside my expertise here) to some of the complaints the Frankfurt School folks made in the middle of last century about culture.  And, of course, there’s obviously some sort of truth to it – people who give the money will often (though certainly not inevitably) look to pull the strings.  At the very least, artists, like most anyone else, respond to incentives and if institutions are set up to reward those who remain within a certain “lane,” that’s where folks will drift.

No doubt lots of folks on the political and cultural Left will read this (or see pithily tweeted link) and cheer.  See, they’ll say, the universities are being “corporatized” and here’s another casualty!  Ah, but I think Alan’s point is meant to cut more deeply than that, because what our libertarian economists and socialist sociologists share is a deep, deep commitment to a modern (and post-modern) conception of human moral psychology that reduces human beings to calculating preference machines (whether those preferences emerge out of appetites, culture, whatever makes for many of our differences, but that they rule us is widely held).  And since we can see “through” human beings that way, we can organize them (or allow them to organize themselves) in some unitary and unified way.  That’s why we can see what looks superficially like a paradox – a society that is both more libertine (sexual ethics limited only by consent) and puritanical (don’t smoke!) – is, in fact, not and why there is a tremendous amount of pressure to remake every institution and range of human activity in the image of, well, something or someone.

I’m not sure I quite buy a central part of Alan’s thesis – that capitalism is central to this development – but I’ll have to think more about that.  But for those whose instincts make them dubious regarding the benefits of markets (or certain markets), it’s worth keeping in mind that I think Alan’s critique cuts much more deeply (or, maybe better, should cut much more deeply) than some we-don’t-like-corporations gesture.

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Religious Liberty and Pluralism: The Case of Gordon College

The Boston Business Journal (BBJ) reported last week on recent developments between Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts and its accreditation board, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC): take a year to review (and change) college policy.

(By way of background, NEASC had put Gordon on the agenda for its higher education commission’s meeting during September 17-18, following heightened attention to Gordon’s behavioral expectations last summer. This attention spawned from Gordon President Michael Lindsay’s signing of a letter to President Obama arguing for exemptions for religious organizations’ hiring practices under an executive order limiting hiring discrimination by federal contractors. At issue for the NEASC is whether the exclusion of “homosexual practice” by Gordon’s behavioral expectations violates NEASC “standards and policies” [see BJJ 7/10/14]).

Last week’s developments reflect the NEASC granting Gordon College a year reprieve in order for a college working group to review Gordon’s behavioral standards for consistency with NEASC policy. While the review is ostensibly at Gordon’s initiative, the purpose (from NEASC’s perspective) is clear: to give the college a chance to see the error of its ways and to change its policy. According to the BBJ’s report, NEASC President Barbara Brittingham described the year in just these terms: “She said the long time frame that Gordon College has been allowed for the review is appropriate considering that Gordon College’s policy is ‘deeply embedded in the culture of the college’ and such things ‘don’t change overnight.'” (BBJ)

Much remains to be seen about how this will play out, so it’s best not to rush to any final judgment. The process and what is driving it, however, bear consideration. Without inferring any malevolence on NEASC’s part, its actions should give pause to those committed to religious liberty and to a pluralist society. In this instance, an accrediting board is using its power to pressure a private college away from its religious commitments as manifested in its behavioral expectations. NEASC’s power is far from insubstantial: accreditation has major implications for college finances, perhaps most notably through students’ eligibility for federal financial aid. Put strongly, the pressure from NEASC brings the coercive power of the state (albeit indirectly) to bear on (re)shaping a distinctively religious community.

Moreover, NEASC’s actions reflect a broader cultural confusion about what toleration and pluralism mean–the same confusion shaping the CSU system’s recent policy change for its on-campus groups. Rather than suggesting that Gordon ensure that prospective students are familiar with its policies so that those who disagree with them can elect to attend other institutions, NEASC’s stance suggests something else. It seems to indicate that reasonable people of good will cannot disagree about sexual ethics, and that those who do disagree–even voluntary communities like Gordon–should be prevented from shaping policies pursuant to their beliefs.

Regardless of one’s opinions about Gordon’s behavioral standards, a pluralistic society must retain protections for religious freedom such that voluntary associations are not precluded from shaping their communities in a manner consistent with their beliefs. As Robert George provocatively phrased it over at Mirror of Justice, “If the powers that be—in this case an accreditation board—can force Gordon College into line with the dogmas of expressive individualism and sexual liberationist ideology, no college (or law school) whose moral and religious commitments place it in dissent from the new orthodoxy will be safe.”

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Discrimination and Diversity

Stephen Monsma’s recent piece in Capital Commentary provides helpful perspective on the California State University’s system-wide de-recognition of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. InterVarsity asks that its officers hold religious views consistent with the group’s mission, placing it at odds with recent CSU policy changes prohibiting recognized clubs from discriminating on a host of lines, including religion. Monsma wonders how: “…in the upside-down, Alice-in-Wonderland world of the CSU, reducing the diversity of on-campus religious student organizations somehow will increase students’ ‘exposure to new ideas, especially those that are in conflict.’”

Monsma’s argument echoes Justice Alito’s 2010 dissent in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez–a case which dealt with a closely parallel situation. In the CLS case, Alito argued that making an all-comers policy a condition for recognized club status worked against the very diversity it purported to promote: “In sum, Hastings’ accept-all-comers policy is not reasonable in light of the stipulated purpose of the RSO forum: to promote a diversity of viewpoints ‘among’–not within‘registered student organizations'” (p. 31).

Like Alito, Monsma points out that not all discrimination is invidious. Indeed, ensuring that groups can make such distinctions is essential to the existence of groups espousing diverse viewpoints. Monsma is right that CSU’s policy injures the pluralism of California’s CSU campuses. His commentary can be found in its entirety here.

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Education, Formation, and Assessment

(Note: this post began as a reply to Bryan’ McGraw’s post from July 23, but it got long enough to suggest posting it separately–though not because I disagree with McGraw’s argument.)

David Brooks’ recent column on William Deresiewicz reaches conclusions similar to McGraw’s, though Brooks is somewhat less critical of Deresiewicz. Rather than framing what is missing from higher education explicitly in terms of “human flourishing” as McGraw does, Brooks describes the problem in closely related terms:

But people in authority no longer feel compelled to define how they think moral, emotional and spiritual growth happens, beyond a few pablum words that no one could disagree with and a few vague references to community service. The reason they don’t is simple. They don’t think it’s their place, or, as Pinker put it, they don’t think they know.

In contrast, those in parental authority still (usually) claim some “place” in more substantive accounts of formation-for-flourishing. Michael J. Lewis’ piece in First Things today suggests that to exercise this authority effectively, parents may need to take a significant step back. Lewis uses Deresiewicz as a launching-point for questions tied up with childhood formation–how non-constrictive parenting habits and especially independent play are essential to shaping imaginative, responsible, and mature people. He argues that unsupervised play allows children to learn from the consequences of the choices they make “when no one is looking.” He continues:

They do this in the process of deciding what to play, establishing the rules, choosing sides, and resolving the inevitable dispute. In short, by acting as miniature citizens with autonomy rather than as passive subjects to be directed.

While the “unsupervised” aspect of this could easily be overstated (formation requires outside influences, after all), the exercise of minimally-structured agency seems a crucial part of maturation.

I can’t help but wonder whether both faces of the problem–a rigidly cognitive (and thus anemic) conception of education on the one hand, and risk-adverse and unimaginative students on the other–will only be compounded by educational trends that are increasingly oriented towards assessable outcomes. In other words, might the pressures from accreditation agencies (and increasingly from government sources) have stifling consequences on education-for-flourishing in a manner analogous to the effects of helicopter parents on their children’s maturation?

Cognition–especially its simpler forms–is easier to quantify than are the many facets of a robust account of human flourishing. Moreover, imaginative and risk-taking academic work may not seem like a good bet to students or their teachers in a context that rewards narrowly-defined assessable successes. Like a parent watching from the kitchen window, the presence of the rubric may loom increasingly over the academic endeavor, constricting the goods it orients itself to pursue.

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