Some readers tipped me off to the latest tempest-in-a-teapot going on in the fundagelical world lately. It didn’t take long for me to notice that as usual, Christians are arguing about the wrong thing.
To them, of course, the argument is of the utmost importance–and like everything they do, there’s a reason behind this controversy. It’s not a great reason, but we can’t have everything.
The Iceberg Cometh.
I don’t think toxic Christians would even know what to do with themselves if they didn’t have some huge drama brewing somewhere in their world. They haven’t been taking their losses very graciously, and nowhere are they losing as much as they are with their culture war against LGBTQ people.
We talked a while ago about the idea of marker beliefs: that set of opinions, customs, and behaviors that Christians employ to differentiate themselves from everyone else and to measure their own power relative to other groups. At the time, we were specifically talking about Creationism, but I mentioned then that I saw control of human sexuality as their other big crusade–which includes opposition to LGBTQ rights and women’s rights.
I’d be hard-pressed to identify a belief that is more distinctly fundagelical than anti-gay bigotry. I can’t think of a single person I’ve ever met or heard of who was a bigot without also being religious (and in the United States, that religion is, of course, going to be Christianity). But I’d also be hard-pressed to name a single other Christian crusade in the modern age that has turned out quite as disastrously for adherents as this one has.
A substantial number of their own young people are scattering as soon as they reach adulthood–and a sizeable percentage of those leaving say that bigotry turned them off to the religion. The most common description researchers get about Christians is “anti-gay,” even when the person describing them is actually another Christian.
The war on LGBTQ rights is costing them in real money, too. While her fellow Christians get similarly whapped with reality, Kim Davis, our favorite bigot-for-Jesus, is now staring at legal fees of USD$233,000 after her courtroom grandstanding–and she’s helped turn public opinion against her own tribe.
Despite all these setbacks, however, fundagelicals don’t seem likely to abandon their culture war at this point. It’s too important, and there’s too much at stake to change gears.
A Missing Gear.
Fundagelicalism means never
having to being able to say you’re wrong. Their culture doesn’t have any way to acknowledge error, much less to make big, systemic changes–especially about stuff that their leaders insist is “the will of God.” There is absolutely no way to walk that kind of pronouncement back without it turning into a complete SNAFU.
When the error has to do with one of their big culture-war topics, they’re even more hamstrung. They’ve got 50 years of preachers shrieking about LGBTQ rights. Just about every single big-name pastor, apologist, and evangelist (if not every one of them!) has spoken against it. Entire libraries have been published and blogged and preached trying to rationalize this bigotry and sell it to an increasingly-skeptical and polarized audience.
So when one of their more public adherents has a change of heart about the topic, they literally only have one way to respond.
Meet Jen Hatmaker, the Pebble in the Gearbox.
I first heard of Jen Hatmaker a couple of years ago. She’s a middle-class white Christian with one of those oh-so-trendy nouveau-Christian blogs that are supposed to be inspiring and quirky and startlingly non-traditional despite her having views that are more or less completely traditional, which allows her to say the same old stuff in sparkly new ways. I realize this summary sounds critical, but for a chirpy, overly-perky Christian, she seems pretty nice.
A gay Christian man writing on Rachel Held Evans’ blog at the time (2014) mentioned her because she’d managed to write a bigoted, anti-equality blog post that didn’t sound totally hateful. He wrote, “[Ms. Hatmaker] wrote that same-sex marriage is sinful and yet left me in layers of love.”
Good luck finding the post he referenced, though; it’s been deleted. I read it at the time and wasn’t super-impressed; it sounded like the typical “agree to disagree” bullshit that Christians say when they really don’t want to get their tribemates mad at them. I couldn’t blame her at all for going that route. No Christian with any sense wants to arouse the wrath of a tribe well-known for “shooting their wounded!”
But fundagelicals couldn’t just let it go. I learned the hard way myself when I was Christian that they can’t respect “I don’t want to talk about it” as an answer; their deep-seated fear of uncertainty and drive to dominate everything in sight makes that social courtesy all but impossible for them to offer.
Ms. Hatmaker didn’t really want to talk about exactly how she felt about equal marriage, and her blog post was supposed to be a tacit request to please just let her go do her Christian thing and fly her Jesus-freak flag high.
For what it’s worth, speaking as someone on the receiving end of another culture war Christians like to wage, I might not have been very impressed, but at least it was sensitively handled. I don’t think that’s an ideal way to handle the sight of a great evil occurring in one’s vicinity, but each of us has to evaluate the risks of speaking up. If the best she could do at the time was just to stay out of the way and not add to the problem, maybe that’s an improvement over what the rest of her group was managing.
So she slid off my radar, though her tribe never lost their innate suspicion of her. Over the years I saw people talking about her sometimes, but apparently she was holding firm in her decision not to discuss her views. Such resolve is impressive for a fundagelical, if you think about it! In April, when she posted on Facebook about how Christian churches should fully include LGBTQ people in their communities, she got some backlash, but even then I don’t think she really talked about legal rights. Like a lot of Christians, she clearly thought that she could “love” people while at the same time ignoring that a great many of her peers were doing their level best to strip those people’s rights from them.
Then, a few days ago, she and her husband posted on Facebook to state unequivocally that they are finally, after years of Bible studies and many hours of prayer, somehow okay at last with the idea of two people of the same sex getting married without being condemned for it, and further, they are sure that their god is totally fine with it. If I sound a bit sarcastic, it’s because it’s kind of mind-blowing that someone would need to do that much work to arrive at a conclusion that is the only loving or moral position to hold. (What happened to all that objective morality that Christians keep saying they have?)
Careful readers will be able to discern, between the lines, the entirely-involuntary nature of the Hatmakers’ confession, and their extreme reluctance to make it at all:
The last 10 years of our ministry we’ve tried our best to learn what it means to “love mercy and seek justice”. In order to do this, we’ve learned we must first identify pain and suffering that we might normally miss. We’ve seen it among the poor, among the orphan, among those affected by unexplainable natural disasters, and among the sick. We’ve seen it in everyday people like you who have faced a personal crisis, experienced oppression, depression, racism, sexism, have loved ones dying, teenagers off the rails, marriages in shambles, and private struggles no one else knows about. . . [W]e have been consistently criticized, challenged, pressed, bullied, and pushed to make a clear stance on where we land on the topic. As the criticism grew louder, more demanding, and more confusing to those we partner with, serve with, represent, and love, we felt obligated to take a new and hard look inward to be able to explain our position with love. . .
Bottom line, we don’t believe a committed life-long monogamous same-sex marriage violates anything seen in scripture about God’s hopes for the marriage relationship.
Mighty nice of them, ain’t it? As you can expect, the crowd went wild. And not in the nice way.
One Exciting Ride.
You can tell, reading the post, that the Hatmakers were bracing for condemnation. And whoa Nelly, did they ever get it. Evangelicals are acting like they’re just upset that they can’t burn these two dissenters at the stake. You can’t win for losing with them; they’ll shove people to the wall to force them to give an answer or talk about something they distinctly don’t want to talk about, then punish them for saying the “wrong” thing. They’re like the mean kids in middle school, holding everyone else hostage and pushing them around to ensure the ideological purity that they’re all totally obsessed with upholding.
Jonathan Merritt interviewed Ms. Hatmaker and was probably the only Christian who doesn’t sound condescending or nasty to her. WaPo openly sympathized with the “high cost” of her declaration. LifeWay, that Christian bookstore chain that nice Christian Thom Rainer is in charge of, even stopped selling her books to punish her for her foul heresy–even though they had no issue with her work at all until they learned of her thoughtcrime. A Christian women’s convention that Ms. Hatmaker has worked with in the past has had to make an announcement saying that they didn’t deliberately uninvite her, but instead that she apparently had already withdrawn from this year’s event for her own reasons.
Over on the Patheos Evangelical channel, one can find histrionic blog posts like “Farewell, Brandon and Jen Hatmaker” from a fundagelical who sounds like he’s giving their eulogy rather than discussing a simple difference of opinion about something that is, ultimately, neither party’s business. The farewell, you see, refers to what he calls his “grieving” (that’s Christianese; it means sadness, but it’s extra-Jesus-y sadness with condemnation thrown in) over their departure from TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. He sanctimoniously declares that they’re no longer part of the tribe–and threatens them with Hell just for good measure, in case anybody didn’t quite grasp what being kicked out of the tribe means for a fundagelical. (Threats are to fundagelicals what gravy is to Southern comfort food.)
Dan Chappell, a Christian who says he’s “same-sex attracted” and has some kind of ministry based around, IDEFK, trying to convince gay people that they need to pretend they’re straight, wrote a post over there that also begins with that dogwhistle term “grieves.” It’s been radio silence out of this guy for months, when he got his ass handed to him by a great many of his own commenters, and now suddenly he breaks that silence to write a screed about “The Increasing Difficulty of Clarity on Same-Sex Relationships.” (Hint: It’s not actually difficult or unclear to everyone else.) He promises that he’ll be writing some posts Real Soon Now about what Ms. Hatmaker should have written, because he’s just that kinda standup awesome helpful kinda guy.
TRUE CHRISTIANS™ do love to police each other and measure each other’s doctrinal correctness! And oh, they are so very quick to decide that this or that other Christian is a false one! To hear them tell it, the number of actual, TRUE CHRISTIANS™ is vanishingly low–but there is always one Christian at least whose inclusion in that august assembly is certain.
Guess who that always is?
What They’re Arguing About.
The real problem here is that Jen Hatmaker is popular in fundagelicalism, especially with women. She’s a bestselling author who’s made a very successful living in the field of inspirational sorta-slice-of-life Christian-woman rah-rah literature and at least by all appearances is living a fundagelical woman’s dream: married, lots of kids, comfortable financial situation, international travel, charity work, an adoring husband who works in ministry. (I don’t think that those two Patheos bloggers I just mentioned could match her reach and audience if we added them together!)
So if she’s done an about-face on equal marriage, that speaks to the boundaries and territory-markers being shifted in an undeniable way. Worse, she’s not alone in making that shift. For the last few years, a growing trickle of Christian leaders have similarly changed their minds. Danny Cortez did so after his own son came out to him. Ken Wilson wrote a whole book about his shift in thinking, as did David Gushee (neither of whom will be terribly familiar to non-Christians, but they’ve got decent audiences of their own in the religion).
When a group uses anti-gay bigotry as its marker belief, its members are going to react particularly poorly to any attempt to change it in any way–even if maintaining that belief is demonstrably costing them tons and tons of adherents, money, credibility, and prospects!
The one thing that seems to frighten fundagelicals about losing this culture war is that their tribe’s persona will be altered to the point of unrecognizability. Without anti-gay bigotry, the lines around their tribe simply aren’t distinct.
So when you see squabbles like the one I’ve outlined here, you’re seeing Christians arguing not about same-sex marriage or civil rights, but about the very future of their religion and their entire religious identity–which is based around opposing equality and rights. It’s sort of like how the Deep South fought a war that people nowadays say was about “states’ rights” even though it was really about slavery.
To fundagelicals, their religion isn’t marked by charity, love, grace, honesty, forgiveness, service to others, or any of that other boring-ass stuff Jesus specifically told his followers to do. It’s marked instead by who they hate, who they want to control, and who they want to mercilessly punish. In their rush to fulfill what they imagine to be the Great Commission, they have completely forgotten the Great Command.
Unsurprisingly, in making that choice they have ultimately failed at both.
They are not only NOT bringing more people into the religion, they’re losing the adherents they still have–AND they’re now known more for their hate, judgmentalism, dishonesty, and cruelty than for their love.
Colonel Ty Seidule, Professor of History at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
With each one of their feuds, Christians show us exactly why their culture is so toxic to humanity. Literally all they’ve got is smear campaigns and silencing tactics. That is all they can do. In response, all Ms. Hatmaker has in her arsenal is her own interpretation of maddeningly-ambiguous Bible verses whose cultural contexts were lost many centuries ago–to the point where none of them actually know now exactly what any of it means. (Hell, it’s possible that Christians in the age of Charlemagne didn’t know. And that Christians in the age of Constantine didn’t either. Almost since the beginning, everyone’s just been guessing.)
Now we have a whole population of Christians–many millions of them!–who imagine that that this mare’s nest of a book is authoritative and definitive, that it is an instruction book which they must obey and live by to the letter. They compete to outdo each other with how hateful, oppressive, and nasty they can be to their enemies, because that’s how they demonstrate their superiority at living out their tribe’s orthodoxy.
Best of all, the only way this infighting can continue–and for their culture wars to have any hope at all of success–is if they also spend tons of effort trying to recruit new people to finance it all and wage its infantry battles.
It’s hard to imagine a more guaranteed recipe for failure. But they’ve spent decades building a culture that can’t change to do anything else but what they are doing right now.
The Inevitable Shipwreck.
Meanwhile, I’m just wondering why we never see fundagelicals arguing about exactly how to feed all the hungry people in their region, or exactly how they’re going to get all their local homeless people into safe shelter for the winter. They’ll spend millions of dollars trying to push for laws restricting people’s rights and to erect eyesore statues and religious theme parks everywhere like a feral animal pisses on everything to mark its territory, but are curiously not interested in making sure everyone can access decent medical care. It’s easy to tell what their priorities are. A pity their orthodoxy doesn’t revolve around seeing who can outdo everyone else for charity and kindness.
I’ll leave us with this great quote from a Christian character from Something Positive who is responding to some fundagelicals who’ve tricked him into visiting their “Hell House”:
Frankly, I don’t think any of you understand the god you say you serve. The shortest verse in the Bible is, “Jesus wept.” The only thing wrong with it is the past tense.
Next time, I want to look at how healthy disagreement works–and how people with reality-based opinions disagree. What’s going on with Jen Hatmaker is ten shades of terrible–and shows us exactly why Christianity, especially the right-wing ends of it, is such bad news.
This is what we’re watching right now.