The religious right has a narrative and there has been a lot of ink spilled in the last week or so to promote it. The short if it comes from Rod Dreher “To be a secular liberal is to hate Christians…” The stories used for evidence to this claim has been; the reaction to the Covington students, the outrage at Karen Pence working at a school that discriminates against LGBT students and staff, the #exposechristianschools Twitter feed and the NY Times soliciting stories from those who went to private Christian schools.
Now this blog post is not going to go through all these issues thoroughly, only as a backdrop to the larger claim. Catholic schools have been busing kids to anti abortion protests for years. It became an issue because of the racial dynamic with white students and native American activists were toe to toe. The NY Times soliciting stories from former students of private Christian schools came about because so many alumni of such schools started the twitter hashtag. Their stories should not be silenced because somehow it reflects badly on such schools.
And then there is Karen Pence, working at a school that discriminates against LGBT students and staff. To treat this as opposition to Christianity only works if you equate opposition to LGBT equality as Christian. But the majority of American Christians support equality on this issue. The majority of mainline Protestant churches, including my own denomination support non discrimination. I mention that since I am gay and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.
The defense of Karen Pence is that she is a Christian and she is doing things required of her Christianity as is the school. So if you don’t like discrimination it is because you don’t like Christianity. What to do about Christian bodies that don’t discriminate? Two responses. One is to ignore that such bodies exist.
When I see critics respond to a Christian by telling them that they’re a bigot because of their loving beliefs, they’re telling that Christian he’s a liar. They’re telling that Christian he’s insincere in the origin and purpose of his deepest convictions. Every Christian can and should be prepared for questions about his faith. In fact, it’s a biblical imperative that Christians “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”
The claim of bigotry, however, is wrong. When it is used to attempt to drive Christians out of the public square, to block them from public offices, or to shame them out of even their own ministries, it’s an instrument of injustice.
In this account, the discriminatory practices of Karen Pence’s school is a Christian and those who oppose them hate Christians. That makes it next to impossible to oppose any stance the religious right puts forward since it is the religious who advance it from the transgender ban in the military to discrimination against LGBT and non Christian parents in foster care. Oppose such policies and you are a religious bigot. But notice the mainline simply doesn’t exist in this account. As a liberal Protestant minister, I don’t exist until folks like me are attacked for truly not being Christian. Here’s a piece where David French questions Obama’s Christian faith and my denomination
The UCC, like many Mainline denominations, is scarcely Christian in any meaningful theological sense. Its roots lie in the Reformation, but its theology would be unrecognizable to any of the great reformers. Rather, it draws on selective Christian teachings and selective Christian traditions to provide general spiritual comfort and, specifically, to inspire its members to progressive social activism.
The UCC’s statement of its own beliefs is remarkable for how little traditional, orthodox Christianity it contains. The church proudly declares, “The UCC has no rigid formulation of doctrine or attachment to creeds or structures. Its overarching creed is love.” The church emphasizes each person’s “spiritual journey,” the “power of peace,” the “power of possibility,” and the belief that each person is “unique and valuable.” If you’re looking for the Apostles’ Creed…you’ve come to the wrong place.
And then there is this piece arguing against LGBT inclusion in the church because it causes church decline.
Yes, there are liberals who “long” for the church to change. But that’s because they long for it to disappear.
Now I have a different argument in that I see liberal religion as an attempt to recover the tradition. We liberal Christians are a strange group because we believe Christianity has the resources to make for a meaningful life and that this tradition, in principle could be open to all people. Some liberals would find our interest in the church and old practices and ideas incomprehensible. And it’s clear that many on the right likewise find it odd that we who would critique and transform the tradition still hold on to it. But as a pastor I’ve dedicated my life to this.
But at least David French acknowledges the mainline existence. It’s a pattern on the right, they have largely written off the mainline as not existing or if we do exist, we’re not truly Christian so that the only real Christianity is that which is invested in a socially conservative vision. This has been an ongoing stance of the religious right since it’s modern inception 40 years ago and in it’s prior incarnations.
Now, what happens when liberals start believing conservatives on this point? What if liberals believe that to be a Christian is to identify with a set of social conservative views, such as that they not only reject such views, they reject the religion on the whole?
There has been some evidence of this in the last following decades with the rise of the nones. To be a none has striking political consequences. In fact one’s religious affiliation is a marker, for many on how they plan to vote. As one study put it
The trend in declaring oneself as having no religion according the respondents’ declarations of political ideology — for those who called themselves liberal (blue), or slightly liberal (purple), and so on. Although liberals were always more likely to be Nones than were other Americans, the gap widened greatly starting in the 1990’s and even self-described moderates increasingly rejected a religious identity then.
And in 2018 the trend continued as 70% of nones voted Democrat and 75% of white evangelicals voted GOP. These numbers have remain consistent in the 21st century though there is evidence that the the 1980’s and 1990’s started what has become known as the “God Gap”. Robert Putnam was one of the first to identify religious identity as being shaped by a political backlash against the rise of the religious right. And a recent study saw significant increases of religious disaffiliation when the religious right had secured victories against gay marriage in the last decade. It was as if to say, if that is Christianity, I want nothing to do with it.
The only antidote to this sorting of religion and politics is if you had formed your religious identity prior to your political identity. Liberal Democrats who remain in the church today, were primarily, those who did not leave the church in high school and in college. They stuck with it such that their religious and political identity formed together and not in opposition. I note this given that I work as a liberal pastor on a college campus, who is hoping to connect faith to the next generation of college students.
I can imagine some of my secular friends would say that is not just politics. They have actual problems with the doctrinal claims of religions. And this is real and deserves its own focus but I would say that when the mainline stretched itself to include doubts, that allowed space to revise doctrines, there was a space for such objections within the church. As people have sorted themselves out on politics and when doubters and skeptics made for the exits, you see a Christianity increasingly intolerant of those doubts. It’s a re-enforcing cycle.
And while that may weaken the overall church it also polarizes the church and society such that liberally minded folks are outside of the church and those with religious certainty and conservative politics remain in the church. The stark divide becomes a religious conflict of those in the church versus those outside of the church. Now that is not fully the case, as I write as a liberal Protestant pastor. But I think David French is apt to see this as is Ross Douthat who is worried about this development.
To a point. Because there has been a huge investment of resources, financial, intellectual, organizationally, to push this development on the right. The Institute on Religion and Democracy, largely funded by GOP donors, has sought to prevent the mainline church from speaking with a progressive voice on the issues of the day since the 1980’s. They have also sought to purge such churches of religious liberals and have used feminism and then LGBT folks as proxies for such a battle.
It is not just that the religious right has become the public face of Christianity, it is also that a lot of money and effort has gone to prevent any other expression of Christianity from getting a foothold. When their efforts succeed it strikes me as dishonest to wonder why so many liberals don’t go to church. That doesn’t mean the mainline doesn’t bear some responsibility too. Any church or any organization that fails to connect has to ask itself questions. But when it matches the desired result of the religious right so that they have the monopoly of religious expression, should they be asking the question?
Or to put it another way I know of no moderate to liberal Protestant or Catholic who has not faced a lifetime of questioning and accusations. How dare you call yourself a Christian. You should just be honest and be an atheist or a Unitarian. It is a constant in my adult life and most of my friends in the church have experienced the same. It is just what it means to be a liberal Christian in the last number of decades. Every liberal pastor has received a call like that and while it is an occupational hazard, how many parishioners have just given up?
Nonetheless, the mainline is not dead. We represent tens of millions of Americans whose understanding of Christianity includes skeptics, LGBT folks and even a good number of Democrats. To the last point, the Democratic Party is itself a diverse coalition and if there is a God Gap it refers to the differences between white liberals, who are often secular vs. white evangelicals who are lock step with the GOP. But that does not describe people of color and how they have sorted themselves. This divide is a white problem. Which makes it a real problem but how white people sort themselves is not the be all and end of all of what is happening in this country and in the church.
In the meantime, some of us on the left who are Christian, are working against this trend of religious polarization. But suffice it to say the presidency of Donald Trump and the politics of the religious right has made our job harder, not easier.