I personally like quite a number of conservative Christians. I find them to be very sincere people, by and large, who have large chunks of their personal identities invested in the idea that they consider the nature of right and wrong with a special care. And yet I often find myself wishing that I never had to think about them again.
The problem tends to come about because the above belief in one’s own personal commitment to morality works in the negative, as well: Christians also think that no one else thinks as hard as they do about what’s right, and what’s wrong, and what the difference between the two concepts is, and that anyone who is not a Christian, or who is a different kind of Christian and has come to a different conclusion, is not merely a person with different moral priorities and perhaps even a broader life experience, but someone who is deceived and worthy of course of compassion but never compromise. Compromise would be cruel—you can’t split the difference between right and wrong.
This gives rise to a persecution complex which, taken without understanding the train of thought that terminates there, can confound. The evangelical subculture controls every single branch of government and most statehouses, so it’s fair to say that we live in a state of Christian apartheid, where the mongrel majority made up of Catholics, mainliners, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and of course atheists and people who just don’t care very much about religion are regularly bent to the will of Southern Baptists, conservative Presbyterians, Seventh-Day Adventists and the odd Pentecostal who dictate national and international policy. And yet talk to Christians and they will tell you they are under siege.
At base, conservative American Christians hold a strong belief that persecution by The World—that’s us, fellow mainliner/Catholic/Jew/whatever, that’s you and me—will always irrationally hate true Christians—that’s basically all Calvinists and some scrappy free-will Baptists who like power—because they/we cannot stand the sound of the Truth in our ears. It is just too terrible to us to hear the Gospel of Jesus in our fallen state and so we assault the helpless bearers of capital-G Good News from all sides and ultimately martyr them, so blind is our rage.
That there are still mild public concessions to gay people trying to quietly live out their span of years with their beloved wives and husbands is, to evangelicals, proof of their coming martyrdom: Openly gay people demonstrate the reality of a teeming subculture enslaved to its own lusts of which these are probably the least shameful—see the right-wing subcultural obsession with child molesters, notably Pizzagate—and ready at any moment to boil over into armed conflict.
It’s a reason so many Christians are also gun enthusiasts. They genuinely fear a militant uprising by gay people, black people, or Antifa. (I should say that this is by and large a white phenomenon purely in its political expression but not exclusively white by any means.)
So when a bunch of Lifeway theologians like J. I. Packer and James Dobson and RC Sproul join forces with conservative media creatures like Al Mohler and Marvin Olaksy (disclosure: I used to write movie reviews for Marvin’s Christian weekly, World, which does some good reporting on the church, though it is reliably wrong about the color of the sky when it comes to extramural politics. That’s not much of an excuse; I’m very ashamed of that association now.) to create something pretentiously called “The Nashville Statement,” I feel a sort of preemptive fatigue, as though a million Thanksgiving dinner eaters started talking about partial-birth abortion at once, and then were silenced.
The Nashville Statement is the usual contemptible publicity seeking by the usual contemptible suspects, minus, blessedly, the humanitarian and fathead Franklin Graham, to whom the Lord must teach humility in his own time, and not mine. Its signatories are mostly megachurch pastors of the Considered Intellectual variety, with a lot of notable Never Trumpers like Russell Moore, whose signature I think is the gravest disappointment.
I don’t know why I’m being coy here; the content is just the political stance, deceitfully couched as an ecumenical stance, of a few dozen tremendously arrogant people on the subject of whether or not Christians can participate in consensual sexual relationships with their partners if they happen to be gay. The arrogant people in question, none of whom are personally gay, say they can’t, and, in a particularly galling “article X,” say that anybody who disagrees with them isn’t a Christian, which doubtless comes as a real shock to, I don’t know, Jesus, among others.
It’s taken me a long time to write this and the reason it has is that I don’t like giving this sort of thing oxygen. It is a transparent bid and effective bid to get space on op-ed pages and funding for anti-gay lobbying groups in order to try to drag the culture back toward a time when you could beat the hell out of somebody for kissing his boyfriend in public and no one would care. Again, this all comes because these people have taught each other that whenever someone disagrees with you, no matter whether that person is standing in front of you yelling in your face or has never met you and is whispering her disagreement to someone else who has never met you, you are being attacked. Mohler, in the op-ed linked above, says the Nashville Statement is mere self-defense: “[W]e now face challenges to biblical teaching that require an unprecedented level of specificity,” he writes.
What I find so intolerable is the kindness. Lord knows there are bigots in the world; we see them every day, masturbating on the subway or doing something simple like giving a press conference in the Oval Office. Mohler, Moore, Piper and their ilk want us to know that they want gay people to be murdered in the streets for their own good, that they want the partners of AIDS sufferers locked out of the ICU on the grounds that only immediate family can be admitted, yes, but also, they feel they ought to be thanked for it. They don’t expect to be thanked, of course, because of the inexplicable hatred the world has for them, but they want us all to know that they deserve it and that deep down, we know they deserve it, too.
So I guess in the face of this all I can do is entreat my fellow Christians who read this stuff and find it persuasive and come down on the side of Mohler and Moore to do me a single courtesy, and that is to follow the shunning principle described in Matthew 18 and deployed as a cultish disciplinary tool in megachurches: Please break faith with me. Do not return my phone calls or emails, remove me from your list of friends on Facebook, tell people you’ve never met me before if my name comes up in conversation. Leave my company forever, if you “deny that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.” I assume that is how you would treat your gay friends and neighbors, or your gay sons or daughters, so you can go ahead and lump me in there with them.
Notably, there is no Houston Statement from any evangelical leader of note. The environmental crises that led to record flooding; the near-prohibition on zoning regulations in Texas that allow corporate waste to seep into neighborhoods; the deregulation of facilities like the Arkema chemical plant, which dumped toxic chemicals into the water and air as it exploded during Hurricane Harvey; the problem of majority non-white and poor neighborhoods bearing the brunt of the destruction; these are all policies that consistent Christian support for Republican and libertarian policies in Texas has helped to bring about.
The primary mode of Christianity, despite what the Mohlers and the Moores of the world preach and demonstrate in their personal comportment, is not accusation. It is confession. The Christian church is always in the process of self-perfection; its goals for earthly improvement are internal, not external. Of course, anyone with a sufficient lust for power can turn the mechanism of confession into a tool of control and can argue without too much effort that the pastorate is the part of the body of Christ where individual men and woman stands in for God. But that is a lie. The truth is that we are all called to confess our own sins, not our neighbors’ sins.
And so here is one of mine: When I was close to evangelical Christians, I was not enough of a bulwark for the gay men and women I knew among them. I did not understand the intense fear of people like me—not people who hated them, people who were straight and didn’t understand them—that governed their lives, and I did not understand how easily the intensity of that fear drove them away from a church that, though callous and infested with power-hungry and cruel leaders like the signatories of the Nashville Statement, had still been assembled around the truth of the love of Jesus for sinners. Now that I am on the outside, I see more clearly what I could have and should have done better, but the truth is that I always knew what the right thing to do was, even when I didn’t do it.
That is why I find it so vital to renounce the Nashville Statement as the work of preening, pitiable, selfish men, covetous of power and control, who worship no God above themselves.