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Cracking the Code
What progressives, moderates, and good-faith conservatives need to know.
I don’t always engage the screeds of people like Rod Dreher, but when I do, it’s because I think there is something to be learned from them.
Stick with me here. This post isn’t ultimately about conversations inside the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) right now, but that’s where we’ll start:
Weighing in on the recent decision of the Synod of the CRC to elevate the condemnation of “homosexual sex” to confessional status, Dreher focused on the consequences for Calvin University. More specifically, he set his sights on me, “one of the brightest lights of post-Christian Christianity.”
Excerpting a lengthy portion of my last newsletter, Dreher offered his prediction of what would happen to Calvin:
It’s going to lose its rock star faculty. But it’s probably going to remain Christian. These liberal faculty are going to go on to greater things, professionally, and be able to dine out on how they were badly treated by the homo-hating fundagelicals at Calvin. But the CRC has taken a brave and unpopular stand for the Gospel. God sees.
There is so much to unpack here.
First of all, “rock star faculty.” Fair enough, I do my job on a larger stage than most of my colleagues choose to do, but as I’ve said many times on campus and off, I’m just doing my job in public, no more skillfully than my many colleagues do day in, day out, in the classroom and through their scholarship. Conservatives, moderates, liberals, biologists, political scientists, art historians, and astronomers, we’re all doing rigorous research that holds up to the highest disciplinary standards while also bringing our historic, Christian, Reformed faith to bear on our scholarship, and our scholarship to bear on how we understand our faith. This is the Calvin way. It is who we are and who we have always been.
But that’s an aside, really. The most important part of Dreher’s piece is this sentence:
These liberal faculty are going to go on to greater things, professionally, and be able to dine out on how they were badly treated by the homo-hating fundagelicals at Calvin.
Quite simply, this is pure fiction. Not just the suggestion that all of us “liberal faculty” will land in posh R-1 positions. (No one who knows anything about higher education these days would make that assumption.) But especially the suggestion that any of us who end up leaving, by choice or otherwise, will take joy in disparaging the “homo-hating fundagelicals at Calvin.” This is simply not who we are, on all counts.
As one of the “liberal faculty” (although my views on many issues are more “traditional” than many of my critics assume), I want to make one thing perfectly clear. I’ve been at Calvin for 19 years. I have yet to meet a “homo-hating fundagelical” among my colleagues or my students. Not one.
I know some colleagues who hold “traditional” views on sexuality. These are thoughtful, compassionate individuals who care deeply for our students. When our student body president came out as bi in a very public way last year, one of the most stridently conservative members of our faculty wrote a piece in the student newspaper in defense of “traditional” understandings of sexuality. And had her over to his home for dinner with his family.
I know colleagues who hold to the “traditional” view but are deeply troubled by the struggles of our LGBTQ students, by the statistics they are presented on suicide, and by the loss of some of our own in this way. Colleagues who, when it comes to teaching and mentoring our LGBTQ students, have two primary goals: “Keep them alive and point them to Jesus.”
I know conservative colleagues who believe the “traditional” view is in accord with the historic Christian faith but who have deep respect for their colleagues whose study of the Scriptures, disciplinary scholarship, and personal experiences have led them to a different conclusion.
I know many colleagues who hold their position with deep humility, knowing that they might be wrong, knowing that they have only a partial understanding of the mysteries of God, that each of us is limited in our understanding of the law of God and the book of nature, and that to be a part of a tradition is to be committed to listening to voices that challenge us and, sometimes, disturb us. I know many who hold to “traditional” views who do not believe that one’s position on this issue defines the boundaries of orthodoxy.
If you read the news coverage of the conversation around LGBTQ at Calvin, you know what you won’t find? Homo-hating fundagelicals. You also won’t find any “post-Christian Christians.” (Although you might meet one or two LGBTQ folks who felt they had no choice but to walk away from the faith.) You’ll find thoughtful people, students, faculty, staff and alums, seeking to obey God and love their neighbors. You’ll meet LGBTQ students and alums who sacrificed to attend a Reformed Christian university and who remain invested in its future. You’ll meet administrators weighing heavy decisions imperfectly, and with care. You’ll encounter real harm, deep disagreement, genuine frustration and sometimes anger, but also, across all of this, deep love—for a school, for a faith tradition, and for one another. And you won’t find a single person who engages any of this perfectly.
But I said that this post isn’t really about the situation at Calvin, so let’s pivot to a question worth pondering.
Why would someone like Dreher make something like this up?
Of course I know this is what he does, but I think it’s still worth reflecting on this question: Why lie, and why this lie?
Maybe it’s simply projection, an accusation that more accurately reflects the contempt conservative Christians have for their more progressive counterparts. Given the vitriol I’ve experienced first-hand from (a small but loud group of) conservative Christians, I’m open to this suggestion.
But I think there’s another, more important reason that goes beyond mere projection.
It is in the interest of people like Dreher to erase the existence of any reasoned, nuanced, and principled middle ground. We see this around the issue of LGBTQ rights and inclusion, and, especially this week, around the issue of abortion. I think that is one of the reasons why I have become a target, not just for Dreher, but for others—particularly among the Christian nationalist wing of the evangelical world. And why I am routinely mocked for saying things like “it’s complicated.” Because their power depends on a stark binary, on a simplistic division of us vs. them.
As I chronicle in Jesus and John Wayne, this has been a throughline of conservative evangelicalism for more than half a century. A key moment in my research came when it dawned on me that the militancy of conservative white evangelicalism wasn’t primarily a response to fear, but rather a precondition for fear. I saw how militancy required the continual stoking of fear: fear of outsiders, of secular humanists, feminists, Muslims, Democrats, immigrants, the list goes on and on. This is how we can make sense of the strange phenomenon of the fake “ex-Muslim terrorists” who were all the rage on the post-9/11 evangelical speaking circuit, long after they had been exposed as utter frauds. This is how we can make sense of the combativeness of Mark Driscoll and Jerry Falwells (father and son). This is how we can make sense of not just the positions but also the posture and tactics of the Christian Right. Militancy requires fear. In the absence of a real threat, a new threat must be manufactured.
The greatest challenge to this system are those who threaten to expose it for what it is. Those who remind fellow Christians that the Bible tells us not to fear. Those who seek to live obediently with humility—humility that, in discerning how to live as faithful Christians, we will inevitably get things wrong, but that we can nevertheless remain secure in the knowledge that God’s truth is not dependent on our perception of that truth.
To be clear, none of this means that doctrine isn’t worth debating, that boundaries around orthodoxy aren’t significant, or that all political and social views are equally valid. But if I may make a theological claim, let me assert that to use doctrine or discussions around orthodoxy as cudgels is not the way of Christ.
Just this morning, our New Testament reading was from Galatians 5:1, 13-25, a passage about the freedom we have in Christ. In the midst of controversies swirling around the Christian Reformed Church and our country today, our pastor paused to reflect on verses 18-21, on the things that are oppposed to the Spirit:
“sexual immorality, impuirty, debauchery, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”
That’s right. Anger, quarrels, dissensions, and factions are up there with sexual immorality and impurity (terms that also have interesting textual meanings for those who care about such things). And then verses 22-23:
“By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Christians concerned about gatekeeping, about determining who is and who is not a Christian, might start by keeping both of these lists in mind. Sowing dissent, stirring up anger, and shoring up factions is not the way of the Spirit, according to the Apostle Paul.
The goal of those who do these things appears to be to make it as difficult as possible for those who are seeking unity, who are challenging this us vs. them posture, this weaponizing of the faith. Who by words and example remind others that polarizing rhetoric on any given issue rarely captures the majority view even among Christians and frequently obscures the fact that orthodox Christians can and do hold a range of views on contested issues. And that conservative Christians, too, hold a wide range of views not just on particular issues, but also on how to live as faithful followers of Christ, with compassion and conviction, in a pluralistic world and in a democratic country.
Loud voices on the Right are deeply invested right now in denying or destroying the existence of communities of faith holding together across political and social differences in one Lord, one faith, one baptism. It is in their interest to do so, to insist that the choice is between Christianity (as they define it according to their purposes) and enemies of Christianity (everyone else).
As I demonstrate in Jesus and John Wayne, this has been an effective tactic for those attempting to consolidate their own power in religious spaces.
Historically, a similar tactic has been wielded by right-wing authoritarians. Here might be a good time to note Dreher’s admiration for Viktor Orban. (Now is probably also a good time to come clean: My outside field in graduate school was twentieth-century Germany with a focus on the German Christian movement.)
One of the most important books I’ve read that has guided my actions over the past five years has been Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. For more than a year after the 2016 election, I kept the book on my bedside table. I’ve taken many of its lessons to heart: Do not obey in advance. Remember professional ethics. Be kind to our language. Believe in truth. Practice corporeal politics. Contribute to good causes. Listen for dangerous words. Be as courageous as you can.
And also: Stand out.
“Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.”
Now you know why I do what I do. Why I give them fodder, over and over again, to “cancel” me, to attempt to discredit my work and my faith. I know that playbook, and I know that the best way to counter that playbook is to place oneself in the line of fire. By refusing to obey in advance. By standing for truth. By risking something, or everything.
So expect more of the same.
**I know, I promised that the next post would be on Live Laugh Love, but this needed to be said. More on Live Laugh Love soon. Also, let me take a moment to express my gratitude to those of who have taken it upon yourselves to become paid subscribers. Your support has been a tangible expression of solidarity over the past few weeks, and I’m deeply grateful.