New York Times columnist Frank Bruni doesn’t believe that Christians who are opposed to same-sex marriage are genuine. That’s the obvious upshot of his new piece “Bigotry, the Bible, and the Lessons of Indiana.” Rather than building a positive case against religious liberty laws like the ones that exist in 21 states (including Arkansas as of Thursday), Bruni turns his attention towards the moral deficiencies of RFRA’s advocates in general and evangelicals in particular.
He begins his piece by extolling denominations like the Episcopal Church and United Church of Christ, which have codified approval of same-sex relationships and marriages in their theology. Such groups are proof, Bruni thinks, that evangelicals are bluffing when they appeal to the Bible:
And homosexuality and Christianity don’t have to be in conflict in
any church anywhere.
That many Christians regard them as incompatible is understandable, an example not so much of hatred’s pull as of tradition’s sway. Beliefs ossified over centuries aren’t easily shaken.
But in the end, the continued view of gays, lesbians and bisexuals as sinners is a decision. It’s a choice. It prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since — as if time had stood still, as if the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing.
It disregards the degree to which all writings reflect the biases and blind spots of their authors, cultures and eras.
It ignores the extent to which interpretation is subjective, debatable.
And it elevates unthinking obeisance above intelligent observance, above the evidence in front of you, because to look honestly at gay, lesbian and bisexual people is to see that we’re the same magnificent riddles as everyone else: no more or less flawed, no more or less dignified.
Bruni then produces a laundry list of ethical transformations that Christianity has embraced over the years, further demonstrating that believers are no more compelled to their theology of sex and family by divine revelation than they are now compelled to sexism by First Timothy. He approvingly quotes recent same-sex marriage champion David Gushee as saying that Christians flip flopped on slavery, contraception, and many other things as a result of an “evolved sense of right and wrong.”
Bruni’s argument is as clear as it can be: Christians who oppose same-sex marriage are only using the Bible and theology as a public shield to hide homophobia that hasn’t yet submitted to the modern mind.
His clarity is helpful. It illuminates for his readers the logical process involved in outrage against laws like RFRA, laws that neither mention LGBT citizens or same-sex marriage. If Bruni speaks for many others in this piece, and I think he probably does, he has helped me understand that the anger and social warfare directed at RFRA from the New Morality liberals is not actually about religious liberty laws, Christian theology or even gay marriage: It’s about the meaning of religion itself. What Bruni identifies as so toxic to our cultural exchange is not so much evangelicalism in particular but (in his view) a pretense to conviction in general.
Here Bruni–perhaps unwittingly–reveals the epochal gap between contemporary progressivism and religious traditionalism. The denominations that Bruni lauds over their full inclusion of those in same-sex relationships are losing churches and members at astonishing rates, rates well above those of traditional evangelical groups. Exactly why this is has been a subject of intense speculation and debate, but conservative evangelicals have typically offered one simple answer: Progressivism may be hypothetically compatible with Christianity, but is not existentially compatible. If the creeds and confessions of Christian history are viewed as interesting but ultimately meaningless signposts on the road to modernity, and Scripture as an inspirational but toothless work of mere men struggling with greatness in the chains of premodern ways of life, then most people will find something better to do at 10AM on a Sunday morning. Secularism is non-adhesive.
But secular progressives don’t think of religion this way. If pressed on the issue of why progressive Christianity has failed and is currently failing, most will either mutter something about “fundamentalism” and pretend to get a phone call, or they will throw their hands up and admit that religion just exists outside of rational life. By definition, secular progressives don’t attribute this kind of gravitas to religious life. It’s the John’s baptism trap: If religion comes from above, why don’t you believe, and if it comes from below, how dare you?
So then, writers like Bruni carry on the hopeful vision of a progressive religious life, one that is continually in flux and adaptable to the demands of modernity. They disbelieve that the same evangelicals who carry iPhone 6 in their pockets can actually have their epistemological and social lives constrained by tales from 4th century Palestine. The real culprit is homophobia, and evangelicals’ “obeisance” is offered not to God but to oppressive traditions built on power.
So how should evangelicals respond to this? Well, there is both good news and bad news on that front.
The bad news is this: There really isn’t a good way to argue against bad faith. When Bruni and others rage against RFRA, they are not raging against the protection of beliefs, they are raging against the protection of hypocritical ones. RFRA MUST be coverage for homophobia, because Christians are no more constrained to believe antiquarian homilies on marriage than they are constrained to conquer Jericho and enslave its inhabitants.
If Bruni will not grant good faith to evangelicals and admit that in 2015 millions of Americans can love LGBT neighbors while believing they were created for something different, then there’s no logical riposte possible. Bruni quotes a “gay philanthropist” as saying “church leaders must be made ‘to take homosexuality off the sin list.’” Is that a threat? Yes. Is it anti-pluralism? Yes. But if the whole thing is just a hoax anyway, who cares?
But there is good news. When Christians see public, outright rejection of the basic precepts of religious faith, we know the field is ripe unto harvest. Debate, argumentation, and policy have their place. But a post-Christian culture needs Christian churches more urgently than it needs Christian influence. If it takes the shriveling of the margins of civic life–until evangelical conscience is deemed an enemy of the state–to rekindle the flame of the Great Commission in American evangelical congregations, then so be it. Let the epic collapse of demythologized and de-Christianized American religion signal again the showdown between the only two worldviews possible for society: Jesus, or nothing.