Over the weekend, the New York Times published a lengthy article about a Minnesota mega-church pastor, Gregory Boyd, who had publicly disowned conservative politics. While the church lost 1,000 members, Pastor Boyd did gain a glowing profile in the New York Times. The Times, often hopeless on religious issues, is however spotting a real trend in evangelical politics — an increasing re-examination of the evangelical church’s commitment to social conservatism (Jonah highlighted the same trend this weekend). Money quotes from the Times piece:
There is a lot of discontent brewing,” said Brian D. McLaren, the founding pastor at Cedar Ridge Community Church in Gaithersburg, Md., and a leader in the evangelical movement known as the “emerging church,” which is at the forefront of challenging the more politicized evangelical establishment.
More and more people are saying this has gone too far — the dominance of the evangelical identity by the religious right,” Mr. McLaren said. “You cannot say the word ‘Jesus’ in 2006 without having an awful lot of baggage going along with it. You can’t say the word ‘Christian,’ and you certainly can’t say the word ‘evangelical’ without it now raising connotations and a certain cringe factor in people.
Because people think, ‘Oh no, what is going to come next is homosexual bashing, or pro-war rhetoric, or complaining about ‘activist judges.
Mr. Boyd lambasted the “hypocrisy and pettiness” of Christians who focus on “sexual issues” like homosexuality, abortion or Janet Jackson’s breast-revealing performance at the Super Bowl halftime show. He said Christians these days were constantly outraged about sex and perceived violations of their rights to display their faith in public.
I have two quick responses about this. First, it is difficult to accept the moral seriousness of a person who will characterize abortion as a mere “sexual issue.” The issue in abortion is not sex, but death, and I can think of few entities better suited than the church to address issues of life and death. Moreover, most serious people recognize that “homosexuality” is also not a mere “sexual issue.” Homosexuals certainly see it as something more than sex, and anyone who thinks that sex is the only issue needs to read more.
Second, this approach is just naive. Some people will always “cringe” in the presence of devout Christianity no matter how palatable and inoffensive the political views of the church. While any movement should be open to criticism and self-examination, the Boyd/McLaren critique flies in the face off recent history. The decades leading up to the emergence of the so-called “religious right” were hardly the golden age of Christianity. In fact, the religious right emerged largely because every single leading social indicator regarding the health of our families and culture was heading into the toilet.
If Boyd and McLaren want to see a contemporary laboratory for their approach, they need look no further than the college campus. Evangelicals in the academy have taken all of the Boyd/McLaren lessons directly to heart. Acting with the best of intentions, campus evangelicals have focused tremendous efforts on racial reconciliation and service to the poor. They have rejected any focus on the so-called “sexual issues” to the extent that it is difficult to find any Christian fellowship of any size on any campus that is directly involved in pro-life advocacy or even talks much about same-sex “marriage” or homosexuality. At some schools, campus evangelicals will even march in “gay rights” parades and join homosexual activists on various political projects.
Has this effort caused a new evangelical golden age on campus? Far from it. In fact, campus Christians are battling for survival. As the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute found (see page 3), student faith practices dramatically decline during the college years, with 52% attending church regularly at the start of their freshman year, and only 29% attending by the end of their junior year. Even as fewer kids attend services, universities are dramatically ramping up their efforts to eject the Christian presence from campus. Dozens of colleges have banned or attempted to ban Christian student organizations from campus unless those organizations pledge to open themselves up to non-Christian members or leaders. Some of the banned groups had marched with homosexuals at “gay rights” events. But no matter; if they wanted to maintain a distinctively Christian leadership, they were “discriminatory” and had to go.
Our college campuses show what the world would be like if the left had absolute control of the agenda and of policy, and it is a world where dialogues run one way, fundamental rights no longer exist, and even the most accommodationist Christians are shoved to the sidelines unless they abandon all of their principles. Pastor Boyd should take note.