The Gap Between Politicized Perception of Discrimination and the Real Deal

773 - Mainline Protestants

It is not news to anyone that mainline Protestant Christian denominations are simultaneously the most liberal and the most white. Despite that, the findings of a new study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion may raise a few eyebrows:

This article reports the results of a nationwide audit study testing how Christian churches welcome potential newcomers to their churches as a function of newcomers’ race and ethnicity. We sent email inquiries to 3,120 churches across the United States. The emails were ostensibly from someone moving to the area and looking for a new church to attend. That person’s name was randomly varied to convey different racial and ethnic associations. In response to these inquiries, representatives from mainline Protestant churches—who generally embrace liberal, egalitarian attitudes toward race relations—actually demonstrated the most discriminatory behavior. They responded most frequently to emails with white-sounding names, somewhat less frequently to black- or Hispanic-sounding names, and much less to Asian-sounding names. They also sent shorter, less welcoming responses to nonwhite names. In contrast, evangelical Protestant and Catholic churches showed little variation across treatment groups in their responses.

So, it’s those crazy evangelicals and Catholics–long associated with the American right and therefore with bigotry of every description–who were actually the most welcoming to minorities.

(Hat tip to Secular Right on this one.)

Where’s the General Christian Defense of Marriage?

835 - Christian US

Last week I pointed out that a lot of the liberal glee at Kim Davis’s apparent hypocrisy was disingenuous. One of our commenters who supports same-sex marriage countered that there is reasonable grounds for suspicion about conservative motivations for opposing same-sex marriage, however. He wrote:

There’s a slightly deeper issue at play, which none of the news or reporters that I’ve seen has addressed. That is the observation that for “Christians opposed to marriage” (my term), the reasons–including scriptures and arguments about what’s best for children or ‘family’–ought to sound as loudly with respect to divorce. And yet in many voices divorce seems to get a pass.

This is a legitimate point, and it’s worth more of a reply than I gave in the comments at the time. So, what explains the discrepancy between Christian opposition to same-sex marriage (which seems loud and absolute) and Christian opposition to divorce (which seems quiet and muddled)?

1. People are selfish hypocrites sometimes, and this includes Christians. Divorce is something that a lot of heterosexuals have participated in and/or may expect to participate in at some future time. So it effects them in a way that gay marriage simply doesn’t. Therefore opposition to divorce is seen as either limiting their future options or condemning their past actions, and so they are more likely to accept it than same-sex marriage which they can safely depend on never impacting them directly.

2. According to Christian sexual ethics, divorce (or something like it, e.g. separation, annulment) is morally acceptable and even beneficial and necessary in a small but regular and persistent set of cases (e.g. in cases of abuse). But, by the same code of ethics, same-sex behavior is not routinely acceptable, even in a minority of cases. So you can’t attribute all the discrepancy between opposition to divorce and opposition to gay-marriage to selfish-hypocrisy, because some of the difference is actually intrinsic to the underlying Christian philosophy. Of course, I don’t expect any same-sex marriage supporters to accept that this is correct, but at least it is consistent.

3. Christians have been more opposed to divorce than I think the general public is aware. This is simply because conflict draws attention. When Christians oppose divorce and try to strengthen marriage they are, for the most part, not really arguing with anyone. There is no broad, popular movement that celebrates divorce or infidelity or walking out on your family. As a result, Christian opposition to these things tends to fly under the radar and go unnoticed. But it is there. In fact, that’s what made me think of this post. Thrice, which is my favorite band, has not one but two tracks on their fairwell album Anthology that address this issue directly. Here’s one of them, “The Weight.”

The other is “Promises.” Both of them are full-throated condemnations of modern sexual morality, including not only infidelity but serial monogamy, which is generally accepted through most of American culture.

Or how about Fight the New Drug? The anti-pornography organization “presents itself as a non-religious and non-legislative organization”. That’s not at all dishonest–the group has no religious or political dogma or goals, but it is a marketing tactic to have a broad-based appeal. The fact remains that all four founders of the group are Mormon.

Then, as I mentioned in the comments at the time, there’s also covenant marriage:

Covenant marriage is a legally distinct kind of marriage in three states (Arizona, Arkansas, and Louisiana) of the United States, in which the marrying spouses agree to obtain pre-marital counseling and accept more limited grounds for later seeking divorce.

This is a pretty direct attempt to mitigate the effects of no-fault divorce and, while it is not become at all common even in the states where it has been enacted, it illustrates a Christianity that is working to bolster traditional views of sexual morality in the public sphere.

The reality is that the Christian fight to defend and bolster marriage is only visible when it conflicts with the mainstream of society, and it is visible in direct proportion to the extent of that conflict. When Christians sing about fidelity and marriage, basically no one notices. I’d wager that a lot of fans of Thrice don’t even know what Dustin Kensrue is singing about. When Christians campaign in ways that are indirectly opposed to social trends, such as fighting for abstinence-only or abstinence-first sex education–they are seen as obnoxious, backwards meddlers. But it’s not exactly headline news. And when Christians find themselves in a fight with an organized, dedicated, savvy coalition such as the gay-marriage campaign, then they are seen as bigots and it absolutely does become headline news.

In other words, a lot of the impression that Christians mysteriously decide to care about marriage just in time to oppose same-sex marriage is a function of the fact that no one notices what they are doing the rest of the time.

Now, a couple of closing caveats / clarifications. I’ve said “Christians” a lot, but traditional Muslim and Jewish traditions also oppose same-sex marriage. So do a small number of atheists and agnostics, including some homosexuals. But the focus here was on Christians, so that’s what I emphasized. There’s also some ambiguity around the term “Christian.” Is everyone who is born and raised as a Christian really a Christian? I don’t want to get into the business of being a gatekeeper and judging who is “good enough” to be Christian. That’s misguided, counterproductive, and distasteful. But it is worth noting that, when you see polls that show the extent to which individual Catholic opinion differs from Catholic teachings, a lot of that has to do with the interplay between religious conviction and sheer social-cultural inertia.

As long as religious belief is the default, and for the time being it still is in most of America, being an atheist is going to be a much more meaningful descriptor than being a Christian for the simple reason that–by and large–atheists are people who choose to be atheists. The same can’t be said of Christians, since the category embraces both people who consciously choose to be Christian but also people who haven’t really given it much thought and just happened to be born into a Christian family (to, quite possibly, parents who also haven’t given it much thought).

This is important, because it means that you should not be surprised when a minority of Christians actually get out there and support Christian beliefs. That’s not because Christians are more hypocritical than other groups. It’s because, as the dominant religious group in the US, the category includes a lot more “by default” members than other groups. That’s just something to keep in mind.

The Mormon Church and Gay Rights

979 - Church Press Conference

Last week the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held a rare public press conference. The topic was gay rights, and Jonathan Rauch described the main idea this way:

[Mormon leaders] made a startling offer to gay and lesbian America: If you will support reasonable religious-liberty exemptions for us, we will support expanded civil-rights protections for you.

So, what should we make of this? For his part, Rauch (who is gay) advocates giving the Church the benefit of the doubt and viewing the offer as a genuine olive branch. However, he concedes that “it could be a trap.” Brooke P. Hunter is not nearly as conciliatory in her piece: How the Mormons Punked the Press. She described the press conference as “mostly about defending Mormons’ right to discriminate.” She said “the new Mormon position is like that candy with a razor blade inside” and added

Today’s press conference took place in a twilight zone where parents are in danger of being jailed for teaching their kids about Jesus, and where believers can’t “share their views openly in the public square.” Oh, please. Show me the Mormons who have been jailed for sharing their views. There are none. And if you can point to one instance of the government preventing good Mormons from practicing their religion in their homes, we’ll eat our hat.

Let me make two observations. First, although Hunter doesn’t seem aware of this fact, her position constitutes a drastic reduction in the scope of religious liberty. First, because she envisions no protection for religious liberty outside of the strictly private sphere. Second, because she is contemptuous of the idea of religious liberty as religious. For instance, she decries Mormons for wanting “special privileges and special rights for churches and for religious people.” Well yes, in order to be religious liberty it has to be liberty specifically for (i.e. specially for) religion and religious considerations. Whatever Hunter has in mind when she talks about religious liberty, it seems to have very little do to with our historic appreciation for the special role religion has to play in the public sphere. This attitude, especially as it seems to be both widespread and innocent of any awareness of its own novel and revolutionary character, goes a long way towards vindicating the fears of religious people.

Second, I think the most logical way to take the Church’s position is the straightforward one. I do not think the bargain is merely political or expedient. I think, and this is born out by other changes in Church policy and teaching I outlined here, that the gay rights debate has forced Mormons (and the religious community as a whole) to do a better job of separating between principled religious doctrines of sexual morality and social convention. It is possible, and for a Christian it is necessary, to commit oneself to loving gay people (and bisexual, and transgender, etc.) in a way that affirms the unique dignity of every human being as in the image of God and also the religious principles that Christians believe lead to human flourishing. Does this break down to the old “hate the sin, love the sinner” trope? In short: yes. And it’s a distinction the world may find curious but that is at the heart of the Christian faith.

In short, I think Mormonism has come to an awareness that fighting against discrimination of the LGBT community is more than politically expedient: it is the right thing to do. The LGBT community should be protected from discrimination in housing, employment, and so on. I do not believe, and so far neither does the Church, that this extends to same-sex marriage, however, which is seen not as equal access to a common institution but as the redefinition of an institution. Even if you think that last bit makes no sense, and I know that many people do, my general message is just that I think Mormons (and a lot of the religious community) have been humbled by the past couple of decades and have come to a deeper understanding of how to live as Christians. That, I believe, is also what led to last week’s press conference.

Those Darn Medical Missionaries

Dr. Kent, the Christian medical missionary who survived contracting Ebola. Also, apparently, a more alarming concern than Ebola itself.
Dr. Kent, the Christian medical missionary who survived contracting Ebola. Also, apparently, a more alarming concern than Ebola itself. (At least if you’re a certain kind of intellectual who might write for Slate.)

I’ll give Brian Palmer this: in his article for Slate he’s not at all shy about telling us how he really feels. It’s great, he says, that Christian medical missionaries are out there trying to do good works in Africa: “Rather than parachuting in during crises, like some international medicine specialists, a large number of them have undertaken long-term commitments to address the health problems of poor Africans.” And yet, after all the kind words like these he has to say for medical missionaries, they only serve to underscore the weirdness of his central point:

When an infected American missionary was flown back to the United States for treatment…  a fair number of Americans were thinking a much milder, less offensive form [thinking that he should “suffer the consequences” or that he was “idiotic”]. I’ll hold my own hand up. I still don’t feel good about missionary medicine, even though I can’t fully articulate why.

So let me point out the first obvious irony, which is for someone flying the proud flag of rationalism and skepticism to be so open and honest about his totally irrational and credulous animosity towards Christians. Gee, if only we had a word to describe irrational, unarticulated prejudices…The sad part is that religious skepticism has descended so far below the heights of freethinking iconoclasm that no one even seems to remember when rejecting theism was a carefully considered intellectual proposition that actually meant something. Now it’s a fashion statement. Some of us don’t like normcore. Some of don’t like Christianity. People are weird, am I right?

I’m definitely not the first to take Palmer to task, and I’m avoiding the most obvious problem with his argument. David French handled that admirably in his piece for the NRO:

In other words, [Palmer] has a problem with medical missionaries because they’re not operating in first-world hospitals with first-world reporting systems and first-world systems of legal accountability? If there weren’t staffing shortages, drug shortages, a lack of large health-care facilities, and all the other issues that dominate developing-world medicine, we wouldn’t need medical missionaries.

French is right, and so I don’t repeat it. Instead, let me raise just one other issue. It’s subtle, I think, until you state it out loud. Then it seems really, really awkwardly obvious. We’re on the threshold of an unprecedented humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Africa with the potential to kill millions (both directly and from the resulting chaos and upheaval) and, on the verge of this nightmare, Palmer thinks it’s a good time to talk about the queasiness with which he regards the religiosity of strangers? That is what the threat of a continent-wide pandemic makes him think is a really pressing issue?

Now that’s some privilege right there.

The Spirituality of U2

2014-09-18 U2

Obviously I know the band u2. Everyone knows the band U2, and I like the songs of their’s that I’ve heard. And I now all about Bono’s humanitarian efforts. But I’ve never really gotten into u@ in a big way, so I’ve never really paid attention to the lyrics, so I never really knew that Bono’s Christian faith is important to him; important enough to show up in his lyrics on a regular basis. Thankfully, a long article from Deseret News headlined The biggest band in the world is also one of the most spiritual has cleared that up for me.

The article goes through too many examples of religious themes in the music across many of the bands albums for me to list here, and easily enough to convince me that–like songwriting from Brandon Flowers of The Killers–the religious themes are deeply intertwined with their music. Looks like I’ve got a lot of listening to do.

Can Christians Rock?

There’s an interesting review over at First Things of Christopher Partridge’s new book, The Lyre of Orpheus. Partridge’s theory, according to First Things’ Stephen Webb is as follows:

Rock is essentially transgressive. Christianity upholds a sacred order that excludes the profane. Therefore, contemporary Christian music cannot be true rock and roll, because it is “unable to establish a credible presence in [rock’s] profane affective space.”

Webb contests this theory, but he does so very weakly, writing: “Satan might or might not be beyond redemption, but everything else, including the devil’s music, isn’t.” That may be true, but it’s not really informative (how does one go about redeeming a genre or music?) nor does it actually address the core point. If rock is intrinsically transgressive, then when you redeem it you don’t really have rock anymore. The question that Partridge begs, and that Webb never spots, is this: transgressive of what?

I know it’s only a short review, but all the musicians noted were born in the 1950s – 1970s. It’s certainly easy to surmise that in the time they were making music (the 1970s and 1980s) traditional family values were still relatively dominant in America. In that context it makes sense to assume that “transgressive” meant contradicting these traditional values of modesty, self-restraint, and fidelity. But that assumption doesn’t make sense any more. No big surprise, by the way, Partridge himself was born in 1961. His cultural reference points were already stale in the last millennium.

By coincidence, I also picked up this story from the Daily Beast today: Watch What You Say, The New Liberal Power Elite Won’t Tolerate Dissent. The article’s first paragraph shows what Partridge and especially Web could have been talking about all along:

In ways not seen since at least the McCarthy era, Americans are finding themselves increasingly constrained by a rising class—what I call the progressive Clerisy—that accepts no dissent from its basic tenets. Like the First Estate in pre-revolutionary France, the Clerisy increasingly exercises its power to constrain dissenting views, whether on politics, social attitudes or science.

When the powers that are in charge change, so does the meaning of the term “transgressive.” Music that is truly subversive now is effectively opposite of what was subversive back then. This makes sense: terms like “subversive” and “transgressive” are value-neutral without context. They are good or bad and useful or damaging entirely dependent on what it is they are attacking and promoting in its stead. It’s entirely possible for Christian rock to be subversive of the dominant culture while authentically embracing Christian tenets. In fact, because it faithfully embraces Christian tenets. You probably won’t get this if by “Christian rock” you are thinking of the kind of praise or worship music that you’ll find on Christian radio stations, because that music is geared towards being played in houses of worship. It doesn’t oppose or subvert anything. It probably can’t be real rock and roll. But it’s only one particular variant of Christian rock. How about my favorite band of all time: Thrice?

Yeah, I’m biased, but pay attention to which way the causality runs. I’m not endorsing Thrice as an example of a counter-cultural Christianity because I like the band. I liked the band in the first place precisely because of its subversive (in relationship to the Clerisy) nature. Nowhere is this more obvious than the official video of their song “Image of the Invisible” (off of their 2005 album Vheissu). The music alone screams beleaguered defiance and the lyrics match it perfectly: So raise the banner, bend back your bows / Remove the cancer, take back your souls and Though all the world may hate us, we are named / The shadow overtake us, we are known. But, in case the subversion theme wasn’t overt enough, the video drills the point home with a distinctly dystopian theme in which Christians are part of a modern underground resistance movement, fighting to get out a message that the world hates, has always hated, and will always hate.

Has Webb forgotten the relationship between the Church and the world depicted so directly in the New Testament, culminating in the crucifixion of God’s Son by the greatest political empire of the time? How about Paul’s words to the Ephesians:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Give me a break, Christ’s alleged crimes were basically variants of “subversion.” Subversion of the orthodox religious view and subversion of the Roman political order. We worship someone who was tried and executed for subversion 2,000 years ago, and Partridge thinks some aging rock stars have a damn thing to teach Christians about what it means to be subversive?

I think not.


Meet the New Catholicism, Same as the Old Catholicism

2013-09-21 Pope Francis

The Internet was all abuzz this week with news that Pope Francis had announced bold, sweeping changes to Catholic teachings on abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. Except, of course, that he hadn’t. Even a little bit.

This is the second time that Pope Francis has issued statements that amount to basically restating fundamental Christian theology, and has been met with awestruck praise from the mainstream press for revolutionizing the Catholic faith. Don’t get me wrong: I’m pleased (even as a non-Catholic) that everyone seems to love the New Catholicism so much. I’m just scratching my head because it is actually the same as the Old Catholicism.

Of course that’s a bit of an exaggeration: Pope Francis’s tone is markedly different. But that doesn’t actually justify all the “did you hear what the Pope just said!?!?!” coverage that is coming out, because the secular press is just as incapable of understanding the New Catholicism as it was of understanding the Old Catholicism. It hated the one and loves the other, but it understands neither

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