Christian Culture Warriors Come in from the Cold

It has not been easy to be anti-gay lately. In a rush, support for same-sex marriage went from fringe to front-and-center. Many conservative religious people have felt flash-frozen out of the mainstream. When it comes to LGBTQ issues, many evangelicals have been surprised to hear themselves called bigots. In her continuing role as conservative dream-maker, Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos recently moved to bring anti-LGBTQ religious activists back into the mainstream. Will it work?

DeVos lgbtq

Welcoming anti-welcomers

First, let me lay out the required clarifications. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but new folks might not know where we’re coming from here at ILYBYGTH. So here they are: I personally feel strongly about LGBTQ rights, in school and elsewhere. But in these pages—as in my recent book about educational conservatism—I’m more interested in understanding the politics involved than scoring political points one way or the other.

Second, a little background: In the past three years or so, many conservative religious folks have been surprised to find themselves so quickly tossed from the precincts of respectability when it comes to LGBTQ issues. As I’ve been working on my book about evangelical higher ed, I’ve noticed how often university leaders have bumped up against the question. At Gordon College near Boston, for example, President Michael Lindsay was surprised by the ferocious response to his reminder about Gordon’s policy against homosexuality. The issue of same-sex rights threatened to split the world of evangelical higher education in two.

As traditional evangelical notions about homosexuality were kicked out of the mainstream, evangelical intellectuals were confronted again with their perennial dilemma. Do they maintain their dissident notions and deal with the consequences? Or do they adapt their ideas as mainstream culture changes?

Today, we see that Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos has moved to reverse the tide. As reported by BuzzFeed, she invited two unapologetically anti-LGBTQ groups to an official Ed Department meeting. Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council both participated in a recent Father’s Day event. The signal couldn’t be clearer: Opposing expanding LGBTQ rights and protections does not make conservatives unwelcome in Queen Betsy’s regime.

We should not be surprised. In the twentieth century, according to progressive critics, Queen Betsy’s family foundation gave sizeable donations to both Focus on the Family and its offshoot Family Research Council. And there is absolutely no doubt that the two groups are stridently opposed to LGBTQ rights. Founder James Dobson views homosexuality and transgender as transgressions, pathways to “orgies” and sin.

Will such notions move back into the mainstream? Will groups who hold such views be allowed to participate in federally funded projects? It’s a frightening prospect, and the Trump White House makes it seem frighteningly realistic.

canute

I command you, tide…

In the end, though, I think DeVos’s Canute strategy is doomed. She seems blithely unaware of her own separation from mainstream notions, but she will nevertheless be forced to deal with it. By including Focus and FRC, for example, she alienated the national Parent-Teacher Association, hardly a group known for its culture-war extremism.

As with her recent remarkable comments about discrimination in schools, Secretary DeVos will find herself apologizing for her inclusion of these anti-LGBTQ groups. There is no doubt she would like to welcome their ideas back into the mainstream, but she doesn’t have the power to reverse the tide.

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Booze and Bibles

Have a cocktail with your Leviticus?

That’s the new option for faculty and hangers-on at Chicago’s storied Moody Bible Institute.

Image Source: Renew Chicago

Image Source: Renew Chicago

It represents only the newest iteration of an age-old story for conservative evangelical institutions: How much to embrace and how much to eschew contemporary cultural norms.

According to a story in Religion News Service, the downtown Bible institute will now allow faculty and staff to drink.  This is new.

The question asked by Sarah Pulliam Bailey is whether this represents a trend among leading evangelical institutions.  As Bailey points out, evangelical organizations such as Focus on the Family and Wheaton College have made similar changes to their lifestyle policies.

Bailey might also have mentioned recent changes at the more conservative Liberty University.

Such questions of cultural relevance and theological fidelity are nothing new at Moody Bible Institute.  As I argued in my 1920s book, President James M. Gray wondered at that time whether the new fundamentalist movement was a boon or a threat to the MBI’s evangelical mission.

In the end, President Gray and the 1920s MBI generation took a skittery position on fundamentalism.  Insofar as fundamentalism supported a firm insistence on the inerrancy and primacy of Scripture, it was all to the good.  But if the new fundamentalist movement took attention away from the primary goals of Bible knowledge and evangelical effectiveness, it was a threat.

Nor is the weightiness of the MBI’s internal debates about this issue unique among conservative educational institutions.  Many evangelical schools have a long history of struggle with questions of change and cultural consonance.  At Wheaton College, for example, President Charles Blanchard fretted throughout the 1920s about the meanings of modernism.  At that time, “modernism” among evangelical Protestants referred, first and foremost, to a theological movement.  Modernists in the 1920s hoped to bring church doctrine more in line with changing cultural norms.  Fundamentalists and their conservative allies, on the other hand, insisted on keeping true to traditional theological norms.

Blanchard, as did other evangelical educational leaders in the 1920s and since, experienced a good deal of anguish as he worked to guide his school through this cultural Scylla and Charybdis.  On the one hand, Blanchard, like Gray, did not want to truckle to fads.  On the other hand, neither leader wanted to insist on tradition merely for the sake of fuddy-duddy-ness.

The recent decision to allow drinking among MBI faculty represents a similar wrangling with contemporary cultural issues.  How much does a trenchant cultural Amishness contribute to true Biblical understanding?  And how much does it distract from MBI’s central goals of Biblical missiology?

 

In the News: “Gay” Is not Slander in NY

In a story from my new hometown, a New York appellate court ruled recently that it no longer counted as slander to falsely accuse someone of being homosexual.  In this case, a woman spread a rumor that Mark Yonaty was gay in order to get his girlfriend to break up with him.  Yonaty sued and lost.  As the New York Times reported, the appeals court threw out earlier rulings in Yonaty’s favor, saying they were “based on a false premise that it is shameful and disgraceful to be described as lesbian, gay or bisexual.”

What does this mean for Fundamentalist America?  On one hand, it could mean that FA will find itself more marginalized if it maintains its opposition to homosexual sex and relationships.  Some conservative groups, for instance James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, emphasize love and care for those engaging in homosexual behavior or identifying as homosexuals, even while condemning all sex outside of marriage, especially including gay sex. 

Other FA voices keep up harder-edged language against homosexuality.  A recent article by Bryan Fischer, for instance, on Rightly Concerned, affiliated with the American Family Association, notes that America must discriminate against homosexuals not out of hate but out of love.  However, Fischer also compares healthy anti-homosexual discrimination to other healthy forms of discrimination:

We discriminate against adults, even priests, who have sex with children. We discriminate against teachers who have affairs with students. We discriminate against teachers who moonlight in the porn industry. We discriminate against students who engage in sexting. We discriminate against rapists. We discriminate against those who expose sexual partners unknowingly to the AIDS virus. We discriminate against those adults who commit statutory rape against minors.

If the recent ruling from Albany is a bellwether for the direction of mainstream American culture–and that’s a big if–then Fischer’s type of argument is swimming upstream.  If it is no longer an insult to call someone ‘gay,’ then it will make no sense legally, politically, or culturally to discriminate against homosexuality. 

There’s another lesson we can draw from this article.  At least one gay-rights activist has warned that this decision must not be taken as the end of discrimination against homosexuality.  As the UK’s Daily Mail reported, New York activist Jay Blotcher insisted that being identified as gay could still summon up “something akin to a lynching mob” in parts of the country.  “It’s still a thorny issue,” Blotcher said. “Bottom line, just because you have gay characters on television that make everybody laugh doesn’t mean that the entire country embraces gay people as equal citizens yet.”

Blotcher’s comments illuminate one of the most puzzling aspects of these kinds of “culture-war” debates.  Instead of celebrating the achievement of mainstream acceptability for homosexuality, Blotcher emphasizes the continuing persecution of homosexuals.  Like Blotcher, many voices from FA insist on their own status as beleaguered cultural minorities.  This tradition among American Protestantism has long roots, back to the seventeenth-century persecution of “Pilgrims” and “Puritans” that led in part to the founding of New England.  In the twentieth century, fundamentalist activists have often used Blotcher’s language of continuing discrimination to defend the borders of Fundamentalist America.     

To cite just one example, in 1965 in the wake of the US Supreme Court rulings against school-sponsored religious devotions in public schools, fundamentalist editor and publisher John R. Rice insisted that “White Minorities Have Rights, Too.”  In the pages of his Sword of the Lord magazine (volume 31, September 3, 1965, page 1), Rice asked,

“If Christian people do not have a right to have the Bible taught in the schools, then infidels have no right to teach infidelity in the schools . . . . Why not have freedom in America as much for one minority as another?  Why not observe the rights of white people as well as the rights of Negroes?  Why not observe the rights of nonunion workers as much as the rights of union workers?  Why not observe the rights of Bible believers as well as the rights of the infidels in the churches and infidels in courts or schools?” 

Just as Jay Blotcher warned not to remove homosexuality from the category of defended minorities, so fundamentalists such as Rice insisted that they be allowed to claim minority status.  One of the quirks of America’s culture wars is that both sides often claim the rights and privileges of both majority AND minority status.  If we hope to understand Fundamentalist America, we need to understand the continuing propensity of fundamentalists to do both at the same time.    

 

In the News: Gay Rights, Bullying, and the “Homosexual Agenda”

Thanks again to Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center for drawing our attention to Missouri’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

This bill, Missouri House Bill 2051, would prohibit teachers in public schools from discussing homosexuality with their students.

The impetus for the bill comes from a widespread belief in Fundamentalist America that public schools push what Fundamentalists call a “homosexual agenda.”

Understandably, non-fundamentalists see bills like this as an attempt to limit rights for gay people.  One Missouri activist called this bill “a desperate tactic by frightened, bigoted, cynical individuals who are terrified at the advancement the LGBT community has made.”  Other interweb voices blasted the move as “moronic legislation” by the “elected bullies” in the Missouri legislature.

I agree with the sentiment expressed by these anti-2051 activists.  This Missouri bill, like other bills that seek to control teachers’ ideological performance, promotes a poisonous educational atmosphere in which the best teachers are forced into cynicism or subversion.  Meanwhile, the bulk of public school teachers trudge along in a bland mediocrity, avoiding any topic that might have potential interest or relevance in students’ real lives.

But I wonder if opponents of the Missouri bill understand that the polemic strategy they use actually reinforces the notions of their Fundamentalist opponents.  Here’s what I mean:  The most common defense of discussing sexual orientation openly and frankly in public schools is that such discussions can help limit bullying.  Defenders of the rights of gay people, especially of gay students in schools, point to the dangerous and even fatal bullying of gay students as the threat of gag rules like HB 2051.  To attack HB 2051, gay-rights activists wrap their assertion of rights for homosexuals in the language of a wider, faddish anti-bullying campaign.

In doing so, they confirm the suspicion of anti-gay activists from Fundamentalist America.  Such activists warn of a creeping “homosexual agenda.”  Such an agenda, Fundamentalists warn, focuses on using public schools to promote an idea that all sexual orientations must be considered equal.  A central trait of this “homosexual agenda” in public schools, as this CitizenLink (an offshoot of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family) video emphasizes, is that the homosexual agenda is “sneaky.”  [This video is just under ten minutes long, but well worth the time for those who hope to understand the thinking of Fundamentalist America.]

Fundamentalists warn that homosexual activists will wrap their true agenda in other causes.  And, when gay-rights activists point to bullying as the main reason to oppose 2051, they add more legitimacy to this Fundamentalist claim.

Let me be clear here: I am not in support of 2051.  But arguing that this is a bullying issue, instead of a gay-rights issue, is exactly what Fundamentalist America expects of gay-rights activists.  I suspect a better understanding of Fundamentalist America would allow gay-rights activists to avoid playing into Fundamentalists’ hands in this way.  Using the broader issue of bullying to promote fuller equality in public schools ends up strengthening Fundamentalist arguments, not weakening them.  Equality should be enough.  That is, gay-rights activists and others should keep it simple: Public schools must be places where every student, teacher, parent, staff member, and administrator feels welcomed and valued.  Regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or other distinction.  This is sufficient reason to oppose Missouri’s 2051 and similar bills.  Saying that gay students must have equal rights only because they might otherwise be bullied muddies the issue.  It fuels Fundamentalist fears that a “homosexual agenda” is being foisted on public schools, hidden in common anti-bullying campaigns.