Why Political Correctness is back

feminist-tweetsI don’t have much to say about Jonathan Chait’s recent missive against the new wave of political correctness. The debate he sparked has followed predictable lines: most lefties deny the problem or downplay it, adding a healthy dose of ad hominem against Chait to build their case (he’s not a true leftie, he’s said bad things in the past, and he’s a white guy, so case closed.) Debating the merits of these accusations is, in the larger scheme of things, beside the point. Even if individual examples can be dismissed, the totality of the evidence proves that the problem exists.

I’d like to focus instead on a debate that unfolded between fellow lefties Freddie deBoer and Angus Johnston. Both bloggers are worth your time, but to state briefly, deBoer argues that political correctness is a major problem that is stifling free speech and preventing would-be activists from joining liberal causes, while Johnston is much more optimistic and finds the issues Chait and deBoer raise overblown and easily addressed within an in-group setting. If the dynamics of this exchange sound familiar to you, it’s because this debate is a carbon copy of the ongoing missives between ex-churchgoers listing the reasons the church has failed us, and the Christians chiding them for leaving the fold.

Johnston has adopted a social justice version of The Gospel Coalition position: activist organizations are great, people are welcoming, and you just need to make an effort to be respectful in order to fit in. If there’s a problem or you feel unwelcome, it’s likely your fault.

deBoer is taking the Benjamin Corey position: activist organizations are unwelcoming, cliquish, and thick with their own coded language that separates rather than unites. If there’s a problem and you feel unwelcome, then maybe it’s the organization’s fault after all. (If you’re skeptical of my take, skim over Corey’s first nine bullet points about why people are leaving churches and switch out “leave church” with “quit activism” or “quit being allies.” The similarities are astonishing.)

While it makes sense for churches and activist groups to set behavioral expectations, it’s worth asking why liberal activists sweat the small stuff so much (and invent small stuff to sweat over). I’ve worked with both conservative and liberal activists over the years (sometimes concurrently), and I believe that the answer can be found within the culture of activist groups themselves.

We live in an age when women’s health clinics are being shut down at an unprecedented rate, yet there is little effort to reverse this trend. Activists seem to care more about making sure reporters get quotes from women of color in articles about the closing of health clinics than whether the clinics themselves stay open. Rather than fight for gay housing and employment rights, they focus on making sure activists say “cisgender” instead of “straight.” Instead of fighting to reverse the trend of cutting programs that support the disabled, activists waste time scolding people for using the word “disabled.”

I believe that the cause of all this infighting over political correctness is an underlying pessimism among liberal activists. By and large, activists do not believe that abortion rights are salvageable in the short term (due mainly to the conservative make up of the higher courts, and the rightward swing of state and federal governments.) Most do not believe that global warming will be reversed because oil companies and climate change deniers wield too much power. The battle for racial equality mimics the misfortunes of gun control advocates: a tragic shooting happens, then a big media flare up follows. Protests, grassroots energy, and hope for genuine change surge. Sometimes that energy grows to the point where it looks like the Left might finally be getting its act together. But then the sound and fury fades. The media loses interest, conservatives change the terms of debate, and the Left flitters off to the next controversy or tragedy. With few exceptions, the momentum is on the conservative side.

Some of this pessimism is warranted. By design the modern Left attempts to stand up for the powerless, so the people they’re advocating for lack the resources to sustain their cause. It’s a lot easier to defend billionaires than the poor. The decline of unions and blue collar liberals has led to greater dependance on academia and young people. This adds up to a largely unreliable voting base that lacks resources and the self-discipline to sustain political causes beyond 4-year presidential election cycles. An aging population coupled with rising costs of college may deal another major blow.

So that leaves us with the kind of activism that young people with short attention spans can sustain. Activism that can win small victories with minimal effort. Activism that people suffering the weight of massive debt and time-consuming jobs can participate in. And yes, activism that can often bring positive results.

Language has proven to be the easiest thing to police online. What begins as noble intentions (be considerate of others’ feelings and experiences) and clear cut goals almost everyone can get on board with (racism and misogyny suck) easily morphs into the bullying campaigns deBoer and others describe: someone famous says something ignorant. So you spread the word, call them out for it and get them to recant. With a few days’ work, you’ve helped communicate your message globally, established your reasoning, and discouraged others from using the same language. Often this creates positive change, but it’s usually superficial change, and it creates the illusion of genuine political victories.

As these quick successes multiply, in-group expectations intensify. Some of these are positive (like pointing out that women of color have lacked a voice in feminism) while others are negative (like condemning anti-war veterans for using masculine language to express their frustration with the military-industrial complex.)

Instead of acknowledging that people who travel in different social and economic circles will not be familiar with their in-group language, activists attempt to transfer the environment of their online community into the real world, full of people who don’t tweet or don’t have time for their meetings or learning their lingo. So you end up with the same alienating dynamic evangelicals experience when they try to use Christianese in public, except liberals resent the fact that people aren’t hip to their lingo more than evangelicals do.

As a result, even the best ideas become unwieldy and incapable of being translated to non-academic circles. Does anyone believe that your average fifty-something blue collar Dad with a GED diploma could ever get his mouth around the phrase “reinforce patriarchal and heteronormative stereotypes of women,” even if he’s a lifelong Democrat?) So instead of translating their ideas for the public, the public is expected to learn activist’s language. The whole process is so convoluted that you end up with situations like the ones deBoer describes, where people just give up rather than risk offending people, even when they mean well and want to contribute.

Christian Logic

hqdefaultWell, I managed a pretty cool accomplishment this past month. I got banned from both a liberal and a conservative website! There’s nothing like moody forum managers to illustrate the truth in my moniker.

I don’t want to name the liberal site because I posted under my real name, but the conservative site was The Gospel Coalition. Since my last post there was a rather innocuous post explaining why employers hesitate to hire employees with evangelical ambitions, I suspect that someone over at TGC took a gander at my blog and decided they didn’t like me anymore.

At the liberal site, my crime was disagreeing with the opinions of people on the forum. Yup, that’s it. My last two posts there was a statement that arguing that hell doesn’t exist makes a number of New Testament verses about hell sound nonsensical, and pointing out (after the forum manager ranted against evangelicals spreading the “love the sinner, hate the sin” mantra) that the quote actually comes from Augustine.

After engaging fellow Christians on message boards and blogs nearly twenty-years, I’ve found that forums run by liberal Christians tend to be much testier than those run by conservative Christians. There’s a constant culling and deleting of even the mildest dissenters at them. The stakes at conservative sites tend to be much higher (your soul is at stake if you’re wrong), but for the most part administrators at those sites tend to be very permissive of dissenting opinion and rarely delete the evidence. That’s always struck me as odd.

And then it hit me: the answer was hiding in plain sight. Conservative sites are more permissive precisely because for them, the stakes are higher.

For a while now I’ve been toying with writing a post about the different ways conservative and liberal Christians think. I’ve touched on this in various ways on my blog, but last night it crystallized me with two simple, logical equations.

Here’s the conservative perspective about God:

A. God said X.

B. Therefore, a society that believes X will be a more moral one.

Now here’s the liberal perspective:

A  A society that believes Y will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must believe Y.

You can plug in almost theological debate into these equations and they make things so much clearer. For example:

A. God said that homosexuality is immoral.

B. Therefore, a society that believes that homosexuality is immoral will be a more moral one.

and:

A  A society that believes homosexuality is moral will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must believe homosexuality is moral.

Now let’s plug exclusivism into the equation:

A. God said Jesus is the only way.

B. Therefore, a society that believes Jesus is the only way will be a more moral one.

and:

A  A society that believes there all religions are true will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must believe all religions are true.

Now so far, it sounds like I’m saying that the weight of logic falls in favor of the conservatives.  I’m not. And if we plug in slavery, then we’ll see why:

A. God endorses slavery.

B. Therefore, a society that endorses slavery will be a more moral one.

and:

A  A society that believes slavery is immoral will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must believe slavery is immoral.

And herein lies a thousand internet debates distilled into their core elements. Now I know that some readers will insist that the conservative logic should say “The Bible says..” But remember that, from the conservative perspective, the Bible = God. And certainly many liberals make a good case that the Bible doesn’t teach that homosexuality is immoral, and therefore their argument fits the conservative equation.

But we’re talking psychology here. Conservatives prefer top-down, authoritarian logic. They believe that God’s opinion weighs supreme, and any discrepancy between mankind’s moral values and God’s must mean that mankind has gone awry.

Liberals prefer bottom-up, evidence-based theology. A pluralistic society strikes them as a more just society than a theocratic one, so that means that the pluralistic society is more reflective of how God wants us to live. Societies with a more loving attitude towards gays tend to be more just, therefore God must endorse homosexual relationships.

These equations also illustrates the strategy each side uses to challenge the other. Liberals ask whether it’s self-evident what God says (or whether conservatives are consistent about this). Conservatives argue that modern society is less moral, and that liberals prioritize societal values over God’s.

Check out Christian blogs for example. Notice how many conservatives blogs start with the question “What does God say about this controversy?” Liberal blogs, on the other hand, usually start with a personal experience or the impact the controversy has on people, and use that to illustrate where God must therefore stand on the issue. For liberals personal experience is evidence in moral debates, while conservatives see it as a nonfactor.

So what does this have to do with surly liberal blogs?

Well, if your theological arguments are evidence-based, then you’re working with a more ambiguous set of proofs than if you believe that God said it. The key difference is confidence. They are confident that the Biblical proofs they provide refute the liberal perspective. Conservatives are confident that liberals posting on their sites allow them to provide wise instruction to a visitor happening upon the debate. In their view, these debates serve a potentially evangelical function.

On the other hand, since liberals base their arguments on evidence, people providing contrary evidence muddy up the waters. A woman who pops into as discussion about gay conversion therapy to say she underwent it and lives a happy life will likely be deleted or banned (as I have witnessed), because the discussion as a whole rested on the case that gay conversion therapy has been awful for everyone involved in it. A man popping in to cite Bible verses to rebuke them gets tossed out because their focus is on evidence, not scripture.

In my case, I suspect that I was kicked out of The Gospel Coalition because my account linked back to my blog, where my liberal views are largely uncontested. The liberal site kicked me out because their case against hell rested on the belief that a God who creates hell would be unworthy of worship. Citing Bible verses muddies up their argument and takes it out of an evidence-based structure.

Peter Enns & The Sovereign Grace/ TGC Scandal Pt 2

christianity-todayIn my last post, I gave some context regarding the ongoing dispute between Tullian Tchividijan and The Gospel Coalition. For more details on the scandal, I highly recommend you check out the links in Part 1. Now that that’s out of the way, I’d like to dive into Peter Enns’ response to the controversy:

1. First of all, I’d like to reaffirm my respect for Peter, so people don’t misinterpret my intentions. However, I think he opens up a lot of interesting ideas that are worth further analysis.

I’l begin with Enns’ contention that the belligerence Tchividijan experienced is endemic to Reformed Theology. This implies that the Reformed movement is inherently problematic and therefore falls short of being good theology.

I tend to be skeptical whenever people make a “fruits-based” argument against a theological position. At face value much of Enns’ critique of the Reformed mentality (especial as manifested by The Gospel Coalition) rings true. But the truthfulness of a belief system isn’t dependent on how that system impacts its advocates’ behavior. I happen to strongly disagree with Reformed theology. But in theory Calvinists could be insufferable bores and also have a correct understanding of God. Their behavior is not evidence for or against their theology.

For example, in my view Richard Dawkins is a very unpleasant person. But his understanding of science is rock solid, and he could still be correct when he argues that God doesn’t exist. Feminism is correct when it argues that patriarchy is a major problem in our society, but their constant infighting turns people off. Evangelicals could be right when they say that God has called them to convert people. But evangelists are frequently off-putting and rude.

I don’t dispute the argument that some belief systems cause more harm than others. But since we’re all sinners, there will be fruits-based evidence against any belief system.

2.  I don’t believe that there’s any evidence that members of the Neo-Reformed movement are more prone to “fight” against their ideological opponents than other Christians are. There’s aways been an adversarial streak in American Christianity. And to be fair, a lot of the reasoning behind it comes straight from scripture. Over the last few years the Neo-Reformed movement has dominated online discussions about modern evangelicalism, but it’s important to keep in mind that an equal number of evangelicals identify themselves as Arminians, and no one would claim that Arminian evangelicals are any less prone to an “us against the world” mentality. And let’s not forget that liberal Christians are just as likely to take up the fight for their theological beliefs.
3. Quite a few people got tripped up over Enns’ statement that he “doesn’t really care about this issue.” I highly doubt that Peter’s implying that he’s indifferent to child abuse or the need for justice. But his reasoning behind his statement – that he has “no personal stake in the outcome” – strikes me as overly cynical.
For one, our ability to discuss and act on newsworthy problems would be dramatically handicapped if we only focused on those stories that personally affected us. In that case, why would anyone outside of the Gulf Coast report on the Hurricane Katrina? Most Americans had no personal connection to the disaster, and the degree to which the region has failed to rebuild doesn’t affect them one iota.
And even if it’s not readily apparent, the outcome of this scandal might impact Enns. Many people are speculating that the fallout could doom The Gospel Coalition and possibly the Neo-Reformed movement itself. I doubt that the impact of the scandal could reach that far. But if Enns is correct that the Reformed Movement is inherently belligerent, then the collapse of their movement should result in less belligerent brand of Christianity taking hold. That’s something that Enns clearly desires (as do I.)
4. I agree with Peter’s statement that “the world isn’t watching” to see the results of TGC’s shakeup. But word of the chid molestation scandal itself is bound to spread, especially given the likelihood of additional investigations and trials. And yes, souls have already been lost. Some of the people who have been hurt by SGM have left the faith and never looked back.

Peter Enns & The Sovereign Grace/ TGC Scandal Pt 1

tullian-tchividjianI’m a big fan of Peter Enns. I’m a regular reader of his blog and a number of his books. I’ve always found his ability to straddle evangelical theology and modern scholarship very helpful and enlightening.However, I have to disagree with his post regarding Tullian Tchividijian’s recent split with The Gospel Coalition.

But before we get to Peter Enns, I should provide some very important context. To sum up, there are two versions of this split. The Gospel Coaition claims that Tchividjian left due to theological differences that peaked with an online debate with Jen Wilkin about failure’s role in theology.  Both posts are worth your time, but to briefly summarize: Wilkins argued that by “celebrating” our failure to obey God, we risk tolerating moral laxity, while Tchividijian (pictured above) argues that Wilkins is being too harsh and underestimates the scale of God’s grace.

The Gospel Coalition establishment sided with Wilkins, and given Tchividian’s many contrarian posts on the site (specifically regarding TGC’s horrifically tasteless response last year to the CJ Mahaney sex abuse scandal.) , TGC told Tchvidian to pack up and leave ASAP. This led to Tim Keller posting their version of Tchividijian’s exit.

Tchividijian claims that the theological disputes are a smokescreen, and the real reason they told him to leave was his crtitism of TGC’s insistence on standing behind CJ  Mahaney in spite of the growing evidence that Mahaney and Sovereign Grace ministries  knew that childen were being molested in churches in their network. Rather than report it to the proper authorities, Mahaney and the church leadership are alleged to have covered up the allegations and shame the victims. Testimony during the trial appears to confirm this accusation. The pattern strongly mimics the code of silence we witnessed with Penn State and the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Coincidentally, Tchividijian was let go the same weekend Mahaney and Joshua Harris (current pastor of Mahaney’s former church) stepped down from the TGC board. This took place just days after the alleged molester was finally convicted on five charges of child molestation.

Usually whenever hot button topics like this erupt across the Christian blogosphere, I bow out because other bloggers have already expressed my views better than I can. But Enns’ take goes in a different direction I think it warrants further analysis, which I’ll provide in my next post.

Loving Church Even When It’s Boring

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 10.51.35 PMI’m only vaguely familiar with Donald Miller, so it feels awkward to dive into the recent controversy surrounding him. Miller is the author of Blue Like Jazz, which was a mini-sensation in evangelical circles a few years ago. All II knew about the book was that Christian teens loved it and youth pastors spent a lot of time condemning or praising it.

The firestorm began when Miller confessed that he had no interest in attending church. Initially I was shocked that a bestselling evangelical author would risk his writing career with such a scandalous confession, but Miller’s appeal resides in his willingness to dance on the edge of acceptable evangelical beliefs a la Rob Bell. But both of his posts dovetail nicely with my last post.

Last week I stated that my comfort level with a church is largely based on its ability to answer the question “Why are we here?” in a universal sense and an immediate “why are we here on thhs particular Sunday morning?” sense.

Miller approaches this from a more immediate angle: he doesn’t get much out of church, and for him it’s a design flaw rather than a problem with one particular style of worship.

I’ll confess that I share some of his frustrations. Personally I’d rather suffer through a Two and a Half Men marathon than listen to contemporary worship music. For me it’s not about the song choice or the quality of the performance; I just find  CCM mind-numbingly vapid, no matter how sincere or reverent its lyrics. I used to tell my Campus Crusader friends that I felt CCM never stops trying to sell its listeners on its sincerity (i.e. We’re really really joyful, and we can prove it if you listen to us sing the word joy forty seven times!)

So for me worship music was thirty minutes of service that I tuned out. I figured that this is the part of the service that other people loved, and I had no business pissing on their joy or tapping into my inner hipster and looking down on their musical tastes. As I see it, there is no worship music that truly moves me, so quibbling over the music seemed like wasted energy.

The irony was that, due to my lack of interest in CCM, I rarely heard the original versions of the songs my church sang. Inevitably I discovered that the rag-tag sing alongs evangelical churches sang every Sunday turned out to be horrifically overproduced dreck, and if anything, the congregations’ lo-fi versions were better than the originals.

All of this is a roundabout way to say that I share many of Miller’s frustrations, and i’m not sure how church – particularly the contemporary worship format-  can be done differently. However, I also don’t expect my needs to take center stage when I worship.

I love going to church (even though I don’t currently have one I’m attending), even when I’ve hit a dry spot where the sermons or Sunday School classes leave me wanting. I look at church the way people look at school: the more you invest in it, offer your services, and connect with people, the more rewarding it will be. Except church has the added bonus of serving and worshipping God, and no matter how rewarding work is, it can’t compare to worshipping with fellow believes. As Jonathan Leeman so adeptly puts it:

“I don’t know how we can say we love and belong to the church without loving and belonging to a church. Or saying we want to connect with God, but we won’t listen to God’s Word for only 45 minutes out of all the minutes in a week. Ultimately, it’s like claiming we’re righteous in Christ, but not bothering to “put on” that righteousness with how we live.”

Gay Marriage Is Here To Stay

O'Keeffe_Georgia_Ram's_Head

Kevin DeYoung has a post over at The Gospel Coalition entitled 5 Reasons Not To Give Up On The Marriage Debate. The title is self-explanatory, and while much of it is just a restatement of the Right’s talking points against gay marriage, there are some tidbits worth dissecting.

His first point addresses The Baby Wars. While DeYoung doesn’t even come close to advocating for Christians to pump out offspring so they can win the ideological battles with sheer numbers, he does accept the premise that demographics predict our ideological future.

I must confess that back in the 90’s I bought into this thinking, too. I didn’t advocate it of course, but there was a cold logic to the idea that the culture that passed on its traditions to the largest number of offspring would gain influence in future generations, while those that produced fewer or no offspring would fade. Classic examples of this were the Shakers (who believed in lifelong celibacy) and Mormons, who are known for large families  (and of course polygamy). If you couple Mormon birth rates with their evangelical zeal, it looked to me as though America’s future belonged to Mormons.

But recent data has confounded these assumptions. According to Pew Forum, the much-discussed Nones are the largest growing religious category, and people nowadays are much more likely to leave their childhood belief system. (It should be noted that this goes both ways: an atheist who turns fundamentalist falls into this category as much as a fundamentalist turned atheist.)

So clearly the picture is more complex. What matters is that DeYoung’s assumption about birth rates isn’t playing out as expected.

Discover magazine addresses at least part of this conundrum. The Austrian study cited by Razib Khan found that being traditional doesn’t mean that one is deeply religious:

Berghammer found that people following the ‘traditional’ lifestyle were more to have 3+ children than those following the ‘modern’ lifestyle. What’s more, traditionalist individuals were more likely to be religious (all Catholic in this analysis).

But – and this is the crucial bit – among those who followed a traditional life path, there was no relationship between their depth of religious belief, or their Church attendance, and the number of children they had.

Exactly the same was seen for those following a modern life path. Although this was more popular among non-religious women, those religious women who did follow this trajectory had no more children than the non-religious.

There was also no difference between the religious and non religious in the chances of remaining single and childless.

Berghammer concludes from this that the critical factor in determining fertility is the choice of life trajectory. Once this has been decided, then religiosity has no further effect on fertility.

DeYoung’s 2nd point baffles me. He leads off with a deeply arrogant assumption:

When you think about how quickly public opinion has swung in favor of gay marriage, it’s clear that the new conclusion has not been reached because of deep, ethical reflection.

It’s this kind of mentality – the assumption that any serious thought about a moral question can only lead to one conclusion – that has annexed evangelicals from mainstream America, and created epistemic bubbles wherein people convince themselves that election polls are all wrong and Romney isn’t losing Ohio.

Gay marriage isn’t growing in acceptance because of hipness or because it’s fashionable to be in favor of it. It’s growing because marriage is inherently unhip. Marriage is the most conservative social institution. There is no clearer way members of our culture signal their desire to become part of the fabric of the community and live a life in accordance with traditional family structure. Gay marriage is popular because it embraces traditional American values rather than contests them. When it became apparent that the gay “lifestyle” was no different than the straight “lifestyle,” the only people left fighting against gay marriage were bible thumpers weened on AIDS- era urban legends.

A recent Daily Show skit illustrates just how far we’ve come. Daily Show pundit Al Madrigal visited the reddest of red states and staged public gay marriage to gauge the reactions of the people around them. Everywhere they went the gay couple received applause and congratulations. The message of the skit became their inability to find antigay hostility.

One final anecdote on this point. Last year I was in a third grade classroom where the teacher was reading a story to the kids about Georgia O’Keefe. At one point, when the teacher mentioned O’Keefe’s marriage, a student asked whether she married a boy or girl. No one was shocked or surprised by the question (except perhaps the teacher); in these childrens’ minds, marrying someone you love no longer carried the requirement of gender. When wide-eyed little girls assume gay marriage has always been with us, then the issue has long since left the realm of urban hipsters.

The Gospel Coalition Update

Jesus-HomosexualitySix weeks ago I posted a tally of the disproportionate number of articles about homosexuality at The Gospel Coalition. Since a month has passed since the last tally, here are the latest numbers. Since January 2012, the site has posted:

31 articles about the theological case against homosexuality and/or gay marriage.

17 articles about evangelism.

8 articles about caring for the poor and/or the Social Justice movement.

4 articles about divorce.