Rachel Held Evans on friendship and the culture wars

Rachel Held Evans recently put up a blog post expressing frustration with the overly politicized approach to homosexuality taken by many conservative Christians.

When I speak at Christian colleges, I often take time to chat with students in the cafeteria.  When I ask them what issues are most important to them, they consistently report that they are frustrated by how the Church has treated their gay and lesbian friends Some of these students would say they most identify with what groups like the Gay Christian Network term “Side A” (they believe homosexual relationships have the same value as heterosexual relations in the sight of God). Others better identify with “Side B” (they believe only male/female relationship in marriage is God’s intent for sexuality).  But every single student I have spoken with believes that the Church has mishandled its response to homosexuality.

Most have close gay and lesbian friends.

Evans draws attention to the role that having gay or lesbian friends plays in these students’ reactions. Regardless of their theological views about same-sex relationships, the young Christians Evans talks to evaluate the Church’s response by thinking about how it affects their friends:

Most feel that the Church’s response to homosexuality is partly responsible for high rates of depression and suicide among their gay and lesbian friends, particularly those who are gay and Christian.

Most are highly suspicious of “ex-gay” ministries that encourage men and women with same-sex attractions to marry members of the opposite sex in spite of their feelings.

Most feel that the church is complicit, at least at some level, in anti-gay bullying.

And most…I daresay all…have expressed to me passionate opposition to legislative action against gays and lesbians. 

“When evangelicals turn their anti-gay sentiments into a political campaign,” one college senior on her way to graduate school told me, “all it does is confirm to my gay friends that they will never be welcome in the church. It makes them bitter, and it makes me mad too.  This is why I never refer to myself as an evangelical. Ugh. I’m embarrassed to be part of that group.”

Read the whole article: How to win a culture war and lose a generation >>

15 thoughts on “Rachel Held Evans on friendship and the culture wars

  1. There is some very fuzzy and emotive thinking in this article, especially with reference to those who have gay and lesbian friends and therefore are opposed to legislation which “hurts” them.

    As a Christian who upholds traditional views on sexual morality, were I to have a friend involved in a gay relationship, I would not encourage him in this involvement, nor would I conceive of the legitimization (by the culture or the state) of this involvement as unto my friend’s good. Legalization of gay marriage is likely to result in more people accepting this lifestyle as normal, healthy, and good. Therefore, if I am a true friend to someone who is inclined to this error of thinking and action, then I am not doing good to him by refraining from opposing legislation which institutionalizes this error in our society and our laws.

    I find especially problematic the suggestion that conservative Christians are promoting “legislative action against gays and lesbians.” I know of no such legislation currently under discussion. As a friend of mine commented after this reading this article: “What legislation? The author doesn’t seem to recognize that the conservative reaction has been precisely that — a reaction, a defense, against an aggressive cultural-political campaign; not a pogrom against people who live the homosexual lifestyle.

    “If the polls she cites are true about attitudes of young people, I would not say it actually reflects the real activity or attitudes of conservatives or Christians. Rather it says more about the amount of television young people watch (even young Christians, etc). In fact the perceptions expressed in this article itself testify to the success of the sexual revolution and the gay rights agenda.

    “Where I think we can grant her a point is this: parishes and churches need to do more to respond to people, not just issues. It’s persons that finally matter. However, policy affects people too, and what kind of culture our children are going to be raised in. If we are going to be responsible citizens and participate in the life of society and in the political process, then we’re going to talk about public policy.”

  2. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

    First, I want to say that I am a Catholic who holds an orthodox Catholic understanding of sexual morality. I have spent many years defending that teaching in public (see the “City of God” and “The Great Debate” links in the sidebar above).

    So I agree on the importance of upholding this teaching.

    People, not just issues

    I also agree with this: “parishes and churches need to do more to respond to people, not just issues.”

    If you took the money raised by conservative Christians to oppose same-sex marriage in the last few years, you could use it to fund the present national budget of the Catholic Church for pastoral outreach to men and women with SSA for several centuries.

    Courage, the official Catholic ministry to men and women struggling with same-sex attraction, has a six figure budget. In just the Proposition 8 campaign in California, conservative Christians raised over $40 million dollars.

    If I give $1 to help a homeless person, and $100 to an initiative campaign to ban the homeless from the streets of my city, can I really claim that I am “doing more to respond to people, not just issues” when it comes to homeless people?

    Who is responding to whom?

    The question of who is reacting to whom obviously needs to be viewed in light of history.

    Your friend says, “The author doesn’t seem to recognize that the conservative reaction has been precisely that — a reaction, a defense, against an aggressive cultural-political campaign; not a pogrom against people who live the homosexual lifestyle.”

    Let’s go back 60 years.

    Prior to the gay rights movement, gays and lesbians were routinely fired (and during the McCarthy era, the government went out of its way to uncover evidence of homosexuality–even a married man who had a gay friend might be investigated by the FBI or other government agencies.

    When the first laws were passed protecting gays and lesbians from employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority launched campaigns to overturn these laws. At the same time, no-fault divorce was being legalized in most states in the country. The Moral Majority did not oppose no-fault divorce, and Anita Bryant herself would divorce a few years after her successful campaigns to keep employment discrimination against gay and lesbian people legal.

    In addition, thousands of gay men were harassed by the police, arrested, and prosecuted for sexual activity. These sexual activities were sins, yes; but similar sins committed by heterosexuals did not result in police harassment, arrest, or prosecution. Laws that enabled this police harassment remained on the books in many states until 2003, when they were struck down by the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas. Robert George, one of the most prominent leaders in current conservative legislative efforts against gay marriage, submitted an amicus curiae brief urging the court to keep these laws on the books, and arguing that it was legitimate to punish gays and lesbians for sodomy, even when the same acts by heterosexuals were permitted. The Catholic Church, to which George belongs, regards both heterosexual and homosexual sodomy as a sin.

    As recently as last year, prominent conservative Christian leaders insisted that gays and lesbians needed to be kicked out of the military (note that Israel, a nation with far more pressing security needs than we do, has long allowed gays and lesbians to serve).

    It is true that in the present cultural context, gay rights is gaining ground and conservatives are losing ground. It is also true that, because past conservative efforts to arrest, fire, and otherwise harass gays have, over the last few decades gradually been defeated, there are not at present plans to persecute gays. But that is largely because past efforts to do so–discrimination in employment, prosecution for sodomy, etc.–have been defeated.

    Moreover, it just happens that conservative Christians virtually always throw their money behind policy initiatives that oppose gay people. Where there are policy initiatives that could be supported without compromising our beliefs about sexual morality–for example, anti-bullying initiatives–conservative Christians fall silent, or even oppose any anti-bullying initiative that would explicitly protect students from bullying based on sexual orientation.

    Legitimation of sin

    I do not think legitimation of sin is good.

    But let’s be honest: conservative opposition to gay marriage is an obvious case of straining at gnats and swallowing camels. I already pointed out that in the late 1970’s, when no fault divorce laws were adopted by dozens of states, the Moral Majority was busy making sure it was legal to discriminate against gays and lesbians in employment, and silent on no-fault divorce.

    Many of the sponsors of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act were themselves divorced and remarried.

    Today, men like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh are prominent opponents of same-sex marriage–each of them is a serial divorcee.

    Of course, not all Christians who oppose same-sex marriage are hypocrites. Many follow the traditional Christian teaching on marriage and remain faithful to their spouse. Yet though they think it vital to denounce same-sex marriage, they are not only willing to tolerate divorce, but will embrace men like Newt and Rush as valuable allies in the defense of the “sanctity of marriage.”

    The same Christians who spend hundreds of millions of dollars in hopes of avoiding raising their children in a culture that allows same-sex marriage seem surprisingly passive in the face of the prospect of raising their children in a culture that accepts no-fault divorce.

    Yet the odds are overwhelming–perhaps as much as 50:1–that their child will grow up to be heterosexual. Gay marriage will pose no significant temptation to their child. Yet no fault divorce will. There is also a significant chance these laws will enable their child’s spouse to abandon them.


    I’ve done a lot to defend the traditional teaching about homosexuality over the last few years. My essays have reached hundreds of thousands of readers, and I have corresponded with hundreds of those readers, trying to answer their questions and resolve their doubts about traditional Christian sexual ethics.

    One of the largest challenges to defending the traditional teaching is simply that very few gay or lesbian people want to accept in its full rigor a teaching which straight Christians have largely abandoned. Premarital sex is widespread, divorce widely accepted, and, for Catholics, the teaching on contraception is largely rejected.

    Seeing how much damage the legitimation of heterosexual sin has done to the Church’s witness, I am not anxious to legitimate any more sins.

    But an even greater obstacle to defending the traditional teaching is hypocrisy. The Evangelical churches which are at the forefront of opposition to same-sex marriage have, by and large, rationalized away the traditional teaching on divorce. But if you ignore the teaching on divorce and remarriage found in I Corinthians 7, how much credibility do you have when you try to uphold with full rigor the teaching on homosexual acts found in I Corinthians 6?

    For me, people are more important than issues. I’ve spent a lot of time speaking to people who struggle with this issue over the years, and so I know a lot about why the traditional teaching fails to convince.

    Despite the emotionalism in her piece, I think Rachel Held Evans gets this.

    And although there is a superficial logic to your objections, I don’t think that you really grasp the reality of the relationship between conservative Christians and gay and lesbian people over the last few decades. The world where your objections would make sense is not the world we have been living in for the last couple of generations.

    What I notice above all about your post is that you approach it from the perspective of issues. Though you quote a conservative friend, your post does not indicate that your response is informed by personal knowledge of gay or lesbian people. And I don’t just mean a gay or lesbian coworker you you can interact politely with at the office. I mean close friends who you get to know well enough to understand how Christian responses to homosexuality as an issue has helped or hurt their walk with Christ.

    Although I agree with you that Rachel Held Evans’ piece can be somewhat emotional, people get emotional when they see their friends’ lives being destroyed.

    I hope you will continue to stick around, follow the discussions here, and share your own thoughts. It may help you to understand more why the present issue-centric focus of so many conservative Christians hasn’t worked. It may also help you to be a true friend to gays and lesbians you meet in the future: a friend who can show both grace and truth as you listen to them and as you speak.

    And your defense of the traditional Christian sexual ethic will help to keep us honest in sticking to what the faith demands of us.

    Once again, thanks for sharing your thoughts, and I hope to see you around more in the future.

    • Ron: The key statement from above is this: “[P]eople are more important than issues.” I get that. But I’m concerned that you’re potentially setting up a false dichotomy between people and issues. We cannot abstract issues from people when they’re enmeshed.

      I hold that the institutional church must teach and practice the Bible’s view on marriage and sex while the organic church (individual Christians, para-church ministries, non-profit organizations) should act responsibly in the public square. Let me be specific: I would oppose my pastor using a Sunday church service to advocate for or against Colorado’s civil union bill or to opine about President Obama’s recent “evolution” on marriage, whereas I respect and support the public stand against same-sex marriage from Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical leaders behind the Manhattan Declaration or from the contributors to Public Discourse and First Things.

  3. Ron, that should be a post not a comment!

    On the other hand, I don’t think we should squabble over hypocrisy. Defend orthodox Christian teaching when the discussion is about marriage and remarriage (even if the majority of your evangelical audience politely ignores you). Defend orthodox Christian teaching when the discussion is about homosexuality (when the same audience will no doubt applaud you). But mixing the two leads to discord and factions.

  4. Both Jesus and Paul condemned hypocrisy, and Paul said that, because of hypocrisy, “God’s name is blasphemed among the gentiles” (Romans 2:24).

    There is a time for defending orthodox Christian teaching about marriage and remarriage, a time for defending orthodox Christian teaching about homosexuality, and a time for defending orthodox Christian teaching about hypocrisy.

    It seems to me that one of the times for defending orthodox Christian teaching about hypocrisy is when the audience ignores the teaching about marriage and remarriage, but applauds the teaching about homosexuality. (I will add that in my experience, the audience does not always politely ignore it when teaching on remarriage is brought up.)

  5. I totally agree.

    I regret the way phrased my previous comment, I was thinking more my own tendency to argue against hypocrisy out of deep feelings of resentment (I’m not suggesting you have done this). Sorry,

  6. Thanks for the follow-up.

    I agree that accusations of hypocrisy can be a problem when they spring from anger, or when they become an excuse to abandon any statement of Christian orthodoxy at all.

  7. For me, Rachel Held Evans did an amazingly eloquent job of summarizing many of my own feelings on the issue. Through meeting and becoming friends with a number of LGBT people, over the course of the past 10+ years, my own thinking on the issue of homosexuality and Christianity has run the full gamut. It wasn’t until I read Washed and Waiting that I found a position I felt comfortable embracing as my own.

    I am straight, and have never experienced same-sex attraction, but I have also been single my whole life, and can relate in some small way to the problem of loneliness and how to solve it if I don’t have a spouse. I think straight singles in particular can and should be doing more to be an ally and encourager to our gay Christian brothers and sisters. We don’t have all the same struggles, but we have enough in common, I think, that we can be a support network for others.

    I also have come to believe, through my friendship with a large number of non-Christians, including many who were raised in the church but have abandoned it, that we Christians should stop trying to legislate morality. That is not to say that we should stop Biblical preaching or redefine our understanding of sin. But making laws that discriminate against a group of people is the absolute WRONG way to try to reach that group for Christ. We are supposed to be doing all we can to further Christ’s kingdom here on Earth and spreading the good news to everyone we meet.

    Regardless of whether we are hypocrital or bigoted in actuality, the perception matters a great deal. If LGBT people feel hated by Christians, how can they ever come to embrace Christ, whom we claim to represent?

    I believe the same can also be said of the many anti-abortion bills that are being passed, as well as issues such as national healthcare and programs such as welfare. I believe Christians need to abandon the realm of political lobbying and return to the social circles, where we can first prove to non-Christians that we care about them as people, and then attempt to win them for Christ.

  8. James K. A. Smith, Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, wrote a sizzling response to Rachel Held Evans’ post that elicits my “Amen!”:

    It seems like every other day I’m told another reason why young people are leaving the church: because Christians fight too much, or because Christians are too political or anti-gay or don’t care about social justice. Millennials, we’re told, are leaving the church because the church won’t bless their cohabitation or provide them with contraception for pre-marital sex. They’re leaving because they don’t care about fights over creation/evolution or abortion or worship style or what have you. In sum, it seems we’re regularly informed that if the church doesn’t change, young people are going to leave.

    And what exactly are we supposed to do with these claims? I think the upshot is pretty clear. Indeed, am I the only one who feels like they’re a sort of bargaining chip–a kind of emotional blackmail meant to get the church to relax its commitments in order to make the church more acceptable?

    Could we entertain the possibility that millennials might be wrong?

    SOURCE: Fors Clavigera, “Generational Blackmail?” (May 15, 2012)

    • I didn’t link to Evans’ post because I agreed with everything she said or because I thought she’d expressed the point perfectly. But I think she made a legitimate point, and this response completely misses it.

      Smith may have a legitimate larger point about Millennials wanting the Church to relax the rules. But that is not what Evans’ post was about. She was arguing that Millennials are frustrated by the ways the Church makes gays and lesbians unwelcome. That was an important point, which has been made elsewhere, and Smith just doesn’t get it.

  9. Sure, Evans makes a “legitimate point” about the mistreatment of SSA people in the church but her point is obscured or lost in the predictable and plaintive cry of disaffected young Evangelicals, who zealously throw out the old in order to usher in the new, overlooking the partiality and prejudice of their own views. Evans quotes the study by The Barna Group. I don’t take my cues about the current state of Christianity from non-Christian Americans ages 16-29, as if they were somehow more enlightened than their predecessors. Why should we privilege their perception or, even worse, regard it as reality? Are some Christians anti-gay? Of course. But I could also point to some Christians who are compassionate toward gays while maintaining their convictions about the Bible’s prohibition on homosexual behavior. My whole life I have belonged to conservative Evangelical churches and attended an Evangelical liberal arts college. Never once did I hear a pastor, counselor, school administrator, or faculty member say anything remotely anti-gay, let alone do anything harmful toward gays. The biggest failing of the church, in my experience, is one of omission rather than commission: the church needs to creates a culture where the vocation of celibacy can be fruit-bearing.

  10. Christopher–I would agree that many Christians are compassionate. And that it would be great for the Church to move in a fresh and fruitful direction of promoting the vocation of celibacy. I also can understand why the complaints of the church being anti-gay and fighting all the time can seem tiring after hearing it over and over. However, I would disagree on a couple of things:

    1. Those who are concerned about the Church’s response are not merely Millennials. I am not in that age bracket, but I share the concerns.

    2. The concern is not about relaxing the rules. I have a conservative sexual ethic. What I object to is the whole ultra-conservative response to sin. It is not a biblical response. The complaint is about the agitation and anger and lack of compassion exhibited in the public square by ultra-conservatives. One simple example of this is the way information is distorted. Gay people have suffered precisely because of the propaganda techniques used. I, personally, still have to deal with people’s stereotypes that gay people only care about sex and want to have sex with any person of the same-sex they come across. I have to regularly reassure new female friends that I am not interested in them romantically. Even though I have been celibate for many years, I deal with the fall out of ultra-conservative rhetoric. Even nice, polite Christians–even moderate Christians– will sometimes maintain some emotional distance from me even though in reality I live out far more sexual restraint than most of them.

    To say that the concerns are primarily about trying to relax the rules is to completely and utterly miss the point. There are legitimate issues that still need to be addressed. I don’t mean problems with Christians carrying God hates fags signs. I mean something as subtle as someone at church giving you a handshake instead of a hug because of some lingering discomfort based on the effects of propaganda. I mean people in the Church expecting my sexual orientation to change–if I would just try a little harder–because they have been brainwashed into thinking most gay people can change their sexual orientation. The religious Right began using ex-gay testimonies in 1998 as a political ploy; if gays can change then gays don’t need rights. Thus, change rates were purposely exaggerated (and still are) for political purposes. This despite the fact that even Christian studies (Yarhouse and Jones) have found that the majority of those who are in ex-gay ministry will not experience change in sexual orientation. In the meantime, I have *celibate* gay friends who have not gotten jobs or have been fired from Christian institutions simply for being gay despite living their lives in complete obedience to Christ (one of these friends experienced that just this past December).

    For those who do want to see the rules relax, I have noticed that it has more to do with the fact that younger Christians have not always been shown how to hold to truth gracefully. They think the only two options are to either affirm the relationships of their gay friends or to be mean-spirited and engage in political agitation. So if they have to choose one of those, of course, they will choose to affirm. The church needs to give them more models of what truth in love looks like. Think about when Christians do talk about the issue–whether its in Christianity Today or some other source–even moderate Christian sources–most of the attention goes to what is happening politically.

    One simple example of this is where money is put. Millions of dollars went into the Prop 8 campaign in California to fight gay marriage. Meanwhile, I was volunteering as a ministry assistant down the road in San Jose, California working with Christians struggling with same-sex attractions. We had no money. We did not have our own building. We had no paid staff. It was like pulling teeth to get local Christians and churches involved. Most of the leadership were those who had dealt with this issue themselves–it was rare to get a straight Christian from the Church involved. Yes, people in the church might be polite and seem to be more compassionate. But look at where people put their time, money, and attention and the truth reveals itself.

    One thing to consider is that people don’t repeat themselves over and over when they feel heard. Usually when something is harped on it is because a person doesn’t feel heard. I suspect that is the case with those like Rachel who are voicing complaint. And from your response I can see why she wouldn’t feel heard. Once people feel heard and they can see positive changes occurring, the harping will stop.

  11. Karen – Indeed, concern about the church’s response to SSA persons extends beyond Millennials, but Smith’s critique is appropriate because Rachel Held Evans expresses the oft-heard grumbing of Millennials as evidenced by The Barna Group Study that she cites (non-Christian Americans ages 16-29). Is there substance behind that grumbling? Undoubtedly. We both agree that the “ultra-conservative” response is troubling because it harms rather than helps SSA Christians. But are you willing to acknowledge that the ultra-liberal response, which Evans seems vulnerable to adopting, also harms SSA Christians for different reasons?

    The conclusion is Evans’ argument (the church should withdraw from the public square on the issue of same-sex marriage) does not necessarily follow from the premise (“the church has mishandled its response to homosexuality”). A false dilemma is at work here. The church does not need to choose between compassion toward SSA Christians or civic engagement on same-sex marriage. What is missing from Evans’ argument is a nuanced understanding of the church, distinguishing between the organic church (individual Christians, parachurch ministries, non-profit organizations), which properly gets involved in the public square, and the institutional church, which improperly gets involved. To repeat what I told Ron above: I would oppose my pastor using a Sunday church service to advocate for or against Colorado’s civil union bill or to opine about President Obama’s recent “evolution” on marriage, whereas I respect and support the public stand against same-sex marriage from Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical leaders behind the Manhattan Declaration or from the contributors to Public Discourse and First Things.

    Evans says “young Christians are ready for peace.” Her version of peace is obviously apolitical or anti-political. While I think we need to decouple the political from the public, I do not share her devaluing of the political, especially because its (unintended?) consequence is to privatize religion. What we need is not a retreat into quietism but a kinder, gentler, and smarter form of civic engagement.

    The soft bigotry toward SSA persons, which you mention, is “unChristian.” Is it alsounChristian to defend the conjugal view of marriage in the public square? Evans seems to think so. And I do not. Her overarching concern is about offending gays and lesbians. Here again, her thinking lacks a vital distinction: there is a bad offense, which is created by thoughtlessness and lovelessness in the church toward SSA persons, and there is a good offense, which is created by the transforming power of the Gospel. We should all work toward eliminating the bad offense but not compromising or diminishing the good offense.

  12. Ron,
    Thanks for your eloquent response to HD Herman’s comment. As a middle aged female celibate gay christian I’ve struggled with the callousness I’ve witnessed over the years among church folk who no longer blink when it comes to divorce but think nothing of scandalizing homosexuality as the ‘worst sin’.

    Currently I’m involved with a small tight knit Christian community. Last week the prominent leader of our group took the opportunity to voice his stand about how he feels pressured to accept gay marriage only later in the evening over hear him encourage one of our newest members to bring his girlfriend to one of our summer BBQ’s even though he’s not yet legally divorced. The member in question works for a prominent Christian college in town and the reason for his divorce is not based upon biblical grounds. In fact he chose to leave her. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that if I suddenly did a 180 and decided to pursue a same sex romantic relationship I would not be encouraged nor welcomed to bring my new girlfriend to the group.

    Fortunately the group I’m part of encourages open & honest dialogue so later in the week I met face to face with our leader and his wife to share how I felt about what happened. I was pleasantly surprised by my leader’s reaction. It dawned on him what he did was indeed a double standard and he apologized for his insensitivity as he and his wife are aware of my struggle. He now plans to have a talk with the member of our group about what he’s currently doing. Although it was an extremely difficult conversation in the end it brought us all closer together and I know for me personally it really diffused my anger and brought a lot of healing for me surrounding the issue of divorce versus homosexuality in the church.

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