Dear Christians: Donald Trump is discrediting your witness

Dear Rebecca:

NDT

Rod Dreher is, as you’d expect, largely on board with The Nashville Statement, with some caveats. But he acknowledges it’s a disaster among young people, and you probably won’t be surprised to find out why.

An older pastor said that it is impossible to separate the Nashville Statement from the massive support white Evangelicals gave to Trump. Impossible to separate, I mean, in the mind of the young.

“But Russell Moore signed it, and other Trump critics among Evangelicals,” I said.

“I know, and I’ve tried to tell people that,” said this pastor, a conservative Evangelical. “It doesn’t matter to them. All they see is a bunch of leaders of a movement who voted for a sexually corrupt man like Donald Trump are now trying to take a public stand on sexual morality for gays. It’s totally hypocritical to them. I don’t know how the Nashville Statement drafters and signers didn’t see this coming.”

Indeed. My very first reaction to the statement — despite Russell Moore’s involvement — was that I wasn’t very much inclined to take moral instruction from people who supported Donald Trump for president.

The main defense of The Nashville Statement has been that it constitutes a rather orthodox expression of Christian thought on homosexuality, historically, and that while the culture has moved on, the Essential Truth of God has not.

Fair enough. But here’s the funny thing about your witness: People want to make sure that you’re consistent in it. That you’re not a hypocrite. Otherwise, they’re less inclined to believe you when you insist on orthodoxy.

So if you disdain sexual sin except when it occurs by a powerful man courting your vote and willing to pander to you, welp, that sure makes your values look terribly convenient. In short: An evangelical movement that hadn’t tied itself to Trump might’ve had more credibility with The Nashville Statement than it did.

Me? I don’t care much for the orthodox Christian view of things either way. What I see in my life, and among my friends, makes a mockery of the idea that such loving relationships are disordered. Shit, man, we’re all disordered.

But I’ve tried to respect that people with orthodox views on the topic really believe that’s what God requires of them, and they’ve got — at the very least — quite a bunch of tradition backing them up on the matter. That same tradition, though, would’ve cast Donald Trump out of polite society long ago. That’s not what happened. Which means The Nashville Statement has been accorded more or less precisely the level of respect that’s deserved.

Love, gays, Mennonites, and me

Dear Rebecca:

You mention the Mennonite gathering at Orlando this week. As it happens, I was at the 2001 conference in Nashville that created the Mennonite Church USA. Tough to believe there’s a whole generation of high school students with no memories of “GCs” and “MCs.” We’ve been a united (ahem) church for a little while now.

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The shirt from the 2001 Nashville conference.

That trip to Nashville affected me two ways:

•It made me love Mennonites more than ever.

•It helped drive me out of the church.

The reason for the first is simple: It’s difficult — for me, anyway — to spend days with Mennonites from across the country, much of that time spend in fellowship and worship and prayer with them, and not come away inspired by the breadth and sweep of the faith. Simply: I met a lot of good people at Nashville — including a few with whom I was in disagreement.

But yes: It helped drive me out, too. Why?

That year, the organization of gay and lesbian Mennonites were not allowed to have a display or official presence in the conference’s main hall. So they set up shop in hotel across the street, instead. I went over, to listen and to talk, and ultimately to worship with those folks.

I met a middle-aged Mennonite couple. I don’t remember their names at this point. But one of the men had had a heart attack a few years before. The other had nursed him back to health. And it was inhering their story that any ambivalence that remained in my heart was washed away: This was love. It was a good thing. And I decided in that moment the onus was not on them to prove they belonged in a faith community, but on a faith community that could look at that love and call it evil.

My faith was tenuous anyway, admittedly. But between that and other events, I decided a couple of things:

•I didn’t believe that God wanted me to turn my back on my gay friends when I entered the faith community.

•If God DID want me to turn my back on my gay friends when I entered the faith community, that was not a god worthy of my worship.

•In any case, I wasn’t going to participate in a faith community where I had to argue for the simple, lovely humanity of people who loved each other.

I’ve been slowly stepping back into the church of late. It helps that I have a congregation here in Lawrence where I don’t have to have these arguments. (Though the congregation’s history is imperfect on such matters.) But I confess to not being sure how to address the arguments that remain in the broader Mennonite Church. I know that my friends who love each other also love God and I’m pretty sure God loves them too. I don’t know what else to say about it.

Respectfully, Joel

What Mike Pence Gets Right about Marriage and Wrong about Religious Freedom Makes Him Unfit for Office

I generally consider presidential and vice-presidential wives off limits for discussion, figuring that their lives are terrible enough, though I really struggle with anyone woman who could support either Trump or Pence.

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Above, Mike and Karen Pence wave at the crowd and one of the several inaugural balls this past January. Want to read more about how conservative Christian women understand freedom through constraint? Check me out

You may have heard that Mike Pence never dines alone with a woman who isn’t his wife, nor does he attend events where there is alcohol present without her. If he were someone else, I’d say cool, whatever your marriage needs.  Maybe it means he doesn’t trust himself not to sexually assault women. Maybe it means he doesn’t want to be falsely accused of sexual impropriety. Maybe it means he’s been unfaithful (or addicted to alcohol) before and that hurt his wife, or maybe her father was a philanderer or an alcoholic, and this is his way of addressing any insecurity she might have about lousy husbands. If it was just about them, I would be happy to give Pence the privacy and dignity in his relationships that he has withheld from same-sex couples.

But it’s not just about him. His decision to never meet with a woman alone means that men have had more access to him than women. That means that women have not had an equal opportunity to petition their government–our First Amendment Right. It means the women of Indiana (and now the women of the whole US) are not being treated equally under the law.

I’m sure Pence has his reasons–potentially even good ones–for this personal standard. If his reason is so worthwhile, though, he should have taken pains to insure that it didn’t undermine anyone else’s opportunities or rights. How?

He could meet with no one one-on-one.

If Pence could organize his life so that he never met with a woman alone, he could also have organized it so that he never met with a man alone.

This would have insured that all constituents had an equal opportunity to meet with him.

If that idea seems unworkable–How could he get any business done?–then you understand that his choice made politics unworkable for women. You also now see your assumption that politics is for men, not women.

This is typical Pence, though: willing to make women bear the costs of HIS personal choice. (Ironic, yes, for someone arguing against federal funding for Planned Parenthood on the grounds that taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for someone else’s moral failing.)

But it’s the same logic behind his anti-LGBT efforts in Indiana. An anti-LGBT Christian makes the personal choice to be a florist. She refuses to provide flowers for a wedding of two gay men. If you think that the First Amendment and equality are important, you probably think that the florist is choosing both her anti-gay faith and her job. She is not compelled to either, but the law does mandate that she treats customers equally. She has a choice: defy what she sees as a key point of her faith (Thou shalt not arrange flowers for gay weddings!) or quit being a florist.

You make your choice, and you take your consequences–but you don’t demand that someone else take the consequences of you living out your faith. That’s on you.

And you know who really should understand this, dear 606 readers? Mennonites. Even conservative Mennonites who oppose gay marriage. Because we are asked all the time to make the choice to compromise our faith or live with the consequences. And we do! Our kids get heckled for not saying the pledge. (“You must hate God!” as one sweet child told my daughter this year.) Our grandparents went to CPS instead of war, and our great-grandparents got tarred and feathered for refusing to serve in or support World War I.  Some of us pay the consequence of war tax resistance. The proudest parts of our history aren’t Anabaptists dying for their faith–they are the stories of Anabaptists refusing to let our enemies die so that our faith could be protected.

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Above, a woodcut telling the story of Dirk Willems. A Dutch Anabaptist in the mid-1500s when the faith was illegal, Willems fled a prison guard by crossing thin ice. When the guard fell in behind him, Willems turned back to rescue the man, leading to his own capture and, eventually, burning. 

Pence doesn’t have to be a theologian or a church historian to understand this, though. He simply has to care that his constituents and his colleagues have equal access to his ear. If he did–or if he had bothered to consult with a woman with more insight than the women he apparently does bother to talk to–he would have either stopped his discrimination against women or changed his policy to insure that he didn’t dine with men alone, either. His other choice was to not take a job that would require him to be alone with women in order to guarantee their basic constitutional rights. (Other examples: if you don’t want to look at ladyparts, don’t become an ob-gyn. If you don’t want to pour booze, don’t open a bar. If you don’t want to defend people who have done wrong, don’t be a public defender.) That, not his perhaps unusual marriage protocols, is why he’s unfit for office.

And his selfish, lazy Christianity should have clued you in.

 

Yes, Rod Dreher, Irrelevant Christians Should Go Away

My pendulum doesn’t swing quite as far as Joel’s when it comes to Rod Dreher. I am grateful for his work on Catholic child sex abuse. I can’t imagine the anguish of leaving his beloved Catholic church in light of that, but I admire him deeply for following his conscience. And I’m appreciative of his honesty about his regret for supporting the Iraq War. I think we need to give everyone (ourselves included) ample space to turn around when we’ve made a mistake.

But Dreher has done a lot of damage, too–especially in collapsing gay priests and pedophile priests, a move often used by those who scapegoat gay men for the child rape scandals that have rocked the Catholic church worldwide in their effort to defend the church’s cover-ups. And his worry that LGBT acceptance will be the end of Christianity is so overwrought that you have to wonder if it’s not the the result of some kind of spiritual or psychological wound, not just a gross, ahistorical statement. (The argument for Indian genocide or the enslavement of Africans was a much bigger affront to faith.) I wish Dreher could see how child sex abuse, misogyny, and anti-LGBT sentiment are related. Both rely on patriarchy, secrecy, and shame. I wish Dreher, who has shown himself to be a “big picture” thinker in many ways, could see that bigger picture.  Obviously, he’s not a pedophile priest, but his anti-LGBT statements and commitment to repressive gender norms also endanger children.

So when Dreher threatens to head to a monastery, I’m not sure I’d miss him.

Image result for meteoraAbove, a Greek Orthodox monastery in Meteora. Six active convents or monasteries, plus now-emptied ones, rest like eyries upon gigantic rock formations. It’s one of my favorite places. Dreher looks to the monastic tradition as a model for retreating from the world, to “embed ourselves in stable communities of faith,” in order to deepen spiritual faith. 

I’ve just finished The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation published by Sentinel, Penguin’s right-of-center imprint, and Dreher’s argument is pretty clear: we are in “post-Christian Dark Ages,” and the only way for Christians to keep their faith is to withdraw. He doesn’t call for them to head to actual monasteries but to create stronger Christian “villages”–for example, by homeschooling and living within walking distance of others of faith. The goal is twofold: to strengthen individuals’ faith and also to allow Christianity to survive (and maybe one day reappear triumphant, as it did after the Dark Ages).

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To the left, an image of St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of the western monastic tradition. 

Gabriel A. Almond, Emmanuel Sivan, and R. Scott Appleby have developed a model for understanding religious groups’ orientation to the world: world conquerors, transformers, creators, and renouncers, patterns influenced by structure, chance, and choice. Dreher is calling for Christians to choose to renounce the world.

I’m empathetic to Dreher’s position, to an extent. As a native of rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I grew up isolated both physically and culturally. I headed off to a small liberal arts college in the rural mountains of Pennsylvania, a college with historic ties to religion in a region filled with churches and religious believers. In the lead up to Y2K, the land around me was being turned into bunkers–a really extreme Benedict option. I’ve taught in similar places. I currently live in Utah, where the LDS history of retreat and empire building continue to inform politics and faith. And I’ve loved living in religious and ethnic enclaves. When I taught at Hesston College, a small Mennonite college in Kansas, I drove past a half dozen Mennonite churches on the way to work. Each morning, I dropped off my child at the Mennonite childcare center and preschool that was located inside the Mennonite nursing home that was on the same block as my Mennonite college. Each afternoon, I returned to find my Mennonite baby being rocked by old Mennonite ladies who volunteered in the center. My child could have lived much of his life–infancy through pre-K, college, then retirement–on that single block.  My membership is in a church that started as an intentional community with a common purse. This kind of life can be lovely and also stifling.

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Above, “The Cliffs,” a place for retreat and mediation above within walking distance of Juniata College, my alma mater. The Juniata River runs through the valley below.

The Amish might be die Stille im Lande, but American Mennonites have generally been a rural, quiet people too, disengaged from politics, doubtful about the ability of government to get good results, and focused on their spiritual citizenship. The result has been a privileged ignorance about how the overwhelming whiteness of American Mennonites has benefited from institutional racism–like the Homestead Act, which allowed for cheap rural Midwestern settlement after the indigenous people of the region had been removed.

The Mennonite focus on rural life and retreat hasn’t always been our story, though. Early Mennonites were urban radicals, rabblerousers  who, in rejecting both Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation, were also rejecting the government and demanding radical change in politics. Though much reporting on Mennonite political engagement is about the shock of discovering that Mennonites are politically engaged, engagement, not just retreat, is part of our history. We haven’t always been–and many of us still aren’t–world renouncers.

World renouncers are relatively rare in Christianity–and for good reasons. First, isolation to a religious community has to be something you are called to; it can’t be something you impose on someone else–even one’s one children. What is faith if it’s not worked out? And how can it be worked out if it’s given or demanded by one’s parents or community? How strong is a faith that is never tried? How useful is it?

Those drawn to retreat won’t survive it if they are choosing it out of fear of the world, as Dreher seems to. A faith that can’t survive a pluralistic society won’t survive a purified one, either.

Dreher is quite right in his insistence (the real gift in this book) that “what we think does not matter as much as what we do—and how faithfully we do it.” And there are times when we must exit the world in order to wrestle with and renew that faith. But these are moments–maybe some moments every day, maybe shorter or longer uninterrupted periods of retreat. For most of us, our calling (and our challenge) is to learn to think and,more importantly, to do our faith in the world where we already are.

Those who retreat in order to save Christianity, as if it is some priceless artwork to be hidden from the Nazis, already have little faith. If your Christianity can’t weather the world, it’s not worth much. If it doesn’t speak to the needs of this present world–the only one we can serve–then the world doesn’t need it, and it doesn’t deserve to survive.