Evangelicalism’s greatest problem is its beliefs. So thinks Jake Meador:
Evangelicalism’s biggest problem with regards to those outside evangelicalism isn’t our image, it’s our beliefs. That’s why Louie Giglio was uninvited from President Obama’s second inaugural. That’s why there was a mass freakout about Chick-fil-a despite the fact that even gay rights activists admitted that the leadership at Chick-fil-a was consistently kind and gracious to them. That’s why laws so modest and restrained as the Indiana RFRA illicit such outrage and why the SCOTUS Hobby Lobby ruling met a similar reaction last year. The groups being attacked in these cases are not Fred Phelps clones or even Pat Robertson clones. They are simply ordinary evangelical believers trying to live out their faith.
If the issue actually was that most cultural elites outside of the church simply didn’t understand what we actually believed and had all sorts of wrong ideas from seeing one too many stories about Fred Phelps, then maybe a rebranding campaign could “work” in the way that marketing campaigns work. Trying to convince everyone outside the church that we’re cool and “get it” and care about all the things Portlandia hipsters care about would get us somewhere. I’m not sure it’s a place worth going, mind, but it’d be something.
But the events of the past five years, or at least the past three years, should make it abundantly clear that ours is not a credibility problem. The issues are much greater than that. As Rod Dreher noted several months ago (and David Sessions made much the same point here), what we’re actually talking about are two societies that have beliefs about the basic nature of reality that are fundamentally antagonistic to one another. Note that they aren’t simply fundamentally different, but antagonistic. Set next to a difference of that nature, the attempts at finding superficial similarities look rather silly–which is precisely what they are.
Consider this if you want to make a big deal of Christian belief. Once upon a time the Christian world divided with important cultural implications when the Western Church added filioque to the Nicene Creed. Or remember the 16th century when beliefs really did matter to the differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant churches and the societies that underwrote them. Or remember too a more recent past when differences of beliefs made even liberal Protestants worry about a Roman Catholic president like Josiah Bartlet.
Beliefs have mattered.
They don’t any more. What matters now are divisions over morality, yes. And you can’t have a full-bore ethical system without some kind of theological or philosophical system. And that leads to a host of doctrinal differences that should actually divide Jake Meador from Rod Dreher. But for now those doctrinal convictions don’t divide the two bloggers.
What matters and has always mattered in U.S. history is morality and the degree to which personal moral convictions must be implemented as public policy or law. In the 1970s thanks to Francis Schaeffer channeling neo-Calvinism (in part), evangelicals bought the idea that neutrality didn’t exist, that faith went all the way down (read identity politics), and that secularism was stripping the public square of clothes. It was possible and still is every single day to practice most of one’s Christian convictions — Sabbath observance? — without turning it into law. Heck, you can even voluntarily choose life (even though Christians are right to try to protect the lives of innocents).
So the credibility that evangelicals seek has taken a beating because of the way they have conducted public arguments. Would they have won? Would social life have turned out any better if they didn’t adopt the very logic of gay rights — that one’s political identity cannot be distinguished from one’s personal convictions? I doubt it. News from Ireland today about the referendum on gay marriage suggests that Christians have few tricks up their sleeves in public debates.
But the difference has far less to do with beliefs than with politics and especially the age-old American trope of LIBERTY.