Karen Pence Falls into the Scopes Trap

SAGLRROILYBYGTH have likely been following the story: Second Lady Karen Pence has taken some heat for going back to work at Immanuel Christian School, an evangelical school with explicitly anti-LGBTQ beliefs. As they rush to defend her, I’m arguing this morning, Pence’s conservative allies are actually stumbling into an old culture-war trap.

shapiro pence


Understandably, some of her conservative defenders are taking the path of least resistance. Opposing any sort of non-hetero, non-married sexual activity, they say, has ALWAYS been a standard Christian belief. As Ben Shapiro put it most bitingly, Pence’s critics seem to have “never heard of religious people before.”

Thanks to the Made By History series editors, this morning I’m arguing in The Washington Post that Pence’s defenders are making an old mistake in their hasty counter-attacks. I won’t give away the details–you’ll have to click over to read the whole thing–but I will say I work in some of the biggest names in twentieth-century creationist history: Henry Morris, Bernard Ramm, and William Jennings Bryan.


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  1. mlshatto

     /  January 21, 2019

    Nicely done. Thank you.

  2. Agellius

     /  January 21, 2019

    Your argument seems to be this: You claim to believe homosexual acts are sinful based on ancient Christian teaching. But you believe in a literal six-day creation, which is not an ancient Christian teaching. Therefore your belief regarding homosexual acts is not based on ancient Christian teaching.

    By this same logic, their belief in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection also are not based on ancient Christian teaching. But if not, then what are they based on?

    Granted, Protestants have interpreted the scriptures in various ways, and changed what they consider to be “orthodoxy”. But it doesn’t follow that any given Protestant can interpret the scriptures to mean anything he wants, or that he can choose to make anything orthodox. It doesn’t follow that the things they believe are mere preferences, as opposed to things that they feel compelled to assent to. It doesn’t follow that the antiquity of a doctrine holds no weight with them.

    I’m obviously not a Protestant, but based on the Protestants I have known and had discussions with, I think for most of them, it’s important to think that their beliefs comport with the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. If they swallow the relatively new and novel belief in the literal six-day creation, then it probably seems plausible to them that Jesus and the Apostles (being uncontaminated by modern science) believed that way. But can they find it plausible to think that Jesus and the Apostles found homosexual activities morally acceptable?

    • I don’t want to tell anyone if and when their beliefs are “really” Christian. How could I?
      What I was trying to say was only this: If you consider yourself a conservative, traditional, possibly “orthodox” (not the church, but the attitude) Christian, you must be aware that historic orthodoxies have changed over time. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just a human truth, and a central truism of theology. (In the past, for example, American conservative evangelicals have ditched “bedrock” beliefs such as a notion that the Bible condones human slavery.} Given the obvious truism that human interpretations of God’s eternal truth must change over time, it seems sketchy to me to pretend to have no option but to endorse anti-LGBTQ policies, to say that such ideas are merely an inherited Truth of traditional Christianity. Christians–no matter how Bible-centered and conservative–ALWAYS need to interpret their faith and their Scriptures, as Bryan admitted in 1925. There’s nothing sketchy about that, but it means they can’t turn around and say their policies are out of their hands. Conservatives need to say, instead, that they are CHOOSING to interpret their religion in this particular anti-LGBTQ way at this particular historical moment.

      • Agellius

         /  January 22, 2019

        The problem I have is your implication that anyone can change the faith according to his liking (and therefore choosing to believe homosexual acts are sinful can only be due to bigotry, allegiance to political conservatism, etc.).

        Yes, the scriptures need interpreting, but it doesn’t follow that anyone may interpret them as he pleases. Particularly for Catholics, the faith is not arrived at through personal interpretation, but is received from the Church, in which it has been handed down for centuries. My role is either to accept the faith as taught by the Church, or reject it, but not to mold and shape it according to my preferences. The Church itself is restricted by its own doctrines as to the extent to which it may re-interpret its teaching, that is, if past teachings were infallible, then it’s impossible to now contradict them without undermining its present claim to infallibility.

        Granted, churches that eschew infallibility and claim the right of private judgment in doctrinal and moral matters leave themselves open to your criticism, since there is more doctrinal wiggle room. But even in that case, most Christians don’t view the faith as a thing they have a right to change at will. Granting that more than one interpretation of a given scripture is possible, it doesn’t follow that all are equally plausible and therefore one may choose whichever he likes best.

        If beliefs were changeable at will, why are fornication and adultery still considered sinful? Who wouldn’t rather have sex with whomever he pleases with a clear conscience, rather than face guilt, shame and the threat of eternal damnation for it? What can explain the persistence of these beliefs? (If Christians were able to drop their opposition to homosexual acts, wouldn’t acceptance of fornication would come first?) Clearly something in Christianity deters willy-nilly doctrinal change. Maybe part of it is the notion that the faith can change your life. If it can be changed to suit your preferences, then your life is changing the faith, rather than faith changing your life.

  3. Conservatives need to say, instead, that they are CHOOSING to interpret their religion in this particular anti-LGBTQ way at this particular historical moment.

    Conservatives won’t admit to doing that. It seems to be a core conservative principle, to deny that they are choosing interpretations.

    • I agree 100%. It is deeply ingrained in today’s type of religious conservatism, yet as you say it is politically impossible to admit. And, just to make sure EVERYONE dislikes me, I’ll say this too: I think American progressivism has some similarly baked-in weaknesses that we are constitutionally unable to admit to. The most glaring is our un-admittable affinity for coercion.

  4. Patrick Halbrook

     /  January 22, 2019

    (My apologies in advance—this is a bit long-winded.)

    In an effort to reveal similarities between apparent changes in teachings concerning creationism and homosexuality, I’m concerned that you’re passing over some even more important distinctions.

    In the case of literal six-day creationism, it is not that that particular teaching is new and unheard of before the 20th century (many Christians for thousands of years have believed in it—see John Calvin, the Westminster Confession of Faith, etc.). What is new is the particular modern American manifestation of the manner in which it must be established as a point of orthodoxy. That some traditions have witnessed a change in this regard is noteworthy historically (and I’m always a fan of working the Scopes trial into as many conversations as possible); yet it’s not particularly surprising or radical, as we could also name many other doctrines and practices (baptism and the Eucharist, the nature of justification, predestination, slavery, etc.) over which Christians have argued and about which various traditions have taken contesting positions over many centuries.

    The history of Christian teaching on homosexuality is quite different. The most important question the Pence controversy has raised, it seems to me, is: “Should we be shocked and scandalized that a Christian school has not changed its position on homosexuality to keep up with the times? Or is it cynical or naïve to condemn the school for not doing so?” This is where the differences vastly outweigh the similarities. Whereas some Christians throughout history have accepted a literal six-day view of creation and some have not, all Christians (before the past couple of decades) have understood the Bible to teach that homosexual practices are sinful. Debates have raged over the proper interpretation of Genesis 1, as well as dozens of other things, but never (until now) over homosexual practices.

    If Americans were primarily interested in the question, “Is Immanuel Christian School in 100% alignment with the teachings of the Bible, or with historic Christianity?” then your point would certainly rings true. Personally, I’d also question other teachings on Immanuel’s list, including dispensational premillennialism. But I don’t think that helps us answer the more crucial question, which everyone would still be asking even if Mrs. Pence were teaching at a different Christian school, one which (like mine) did not espouse young-earth creationism: “how easily and quickly should we expect a Christian institution to change its interpretation on a major ethical question on which all Christians across all denominations and traditions for nearly 2,000 years have been united?”

    It is certainly true, as you point out, that one cannot read the Bible without interpreting it, and there are many teachings that are debated precisely because a consistent, self-evident interpretation is forthcoming. But to flatten out the entire Bible and the entire history of Christian theology by saying, “Well, since there are some things Christians can’t agree on, it must be the case that every interpretation must be up for grabs” sounds akin to saying, “Since there are some historical questions that are hard to answer, that means no historian’s interpretation is any better than another,” or “Historians need to admit that they are CHOOSING to interpret the past a certain way,” as if there’s never anything more to the interpretation of a historical text than personal bias and cultural conditioning.

    (One more point: I don’t think I’ve heard anyone point out that it has only been within the past few years that a significant number of Christian schools have had any kind of official statement at all about their LGBT policies. These have been added because of legal concerns about getting sued. Some churches have started adding them as well. In fact, if you look at Immanuel Christian School’s statement of beliefs from just four years ago, there was nothing in there about LGBT policies—not because they didn’t have that policy, but because they only felt a need to make them part of their official documentation because of recent hostility against Christian businesses. https://web.archive.org/web/20141016173508/http://www.icsva.org:80/about-ics/foundational-statements/. I think that’s part of the historical context worth considering as part of the discussion as well.)

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