What If Rachel Held Evans Is Wrong?

By Rod Dreher

According to Evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans, many young Evangelicals are so upset with the church on how it has handled homosexuality that they're walking out the door.

She writes about the North Carolina amendment, and how large numbers of Evangelicals under 40 either disagree with traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality, or, if they accept traditional teaching, don't think it's as big a deal as older Christians think. "So my question for those evangelicals leading the charge in the culture wars is this: Is it worth it? ... And is a political "victory" worth drowning out that quiet but persistent internal voice that asks -- what if we get this wrong?"

Interesting. I wonder if Held Evans and her generation wonder if 2,000 years of Christian tradition and the clear instruction of the Bible indicates that maybe they, and contemporary American culture, have this wrong?

In any case, I don't think there's much doubt that the numbers she cites in her post indicating the falling-away of young adults from organized religion are valid. In their book American Grace, the social scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell sifted through the exhaustive research on American religious attitudes today, and found that the abandonment of organized religion by the young is the biggest story in American religion today.

The key point, though, is that they are not becoming atheists; they are rather becoming "spiritual but not religious" types.

Crucially, the data cited in American Grace show that the young began to fall away from the church in the early 1990s; around the time that homosexuality, including same-sex marriage, began to be a topic of mainstream discussion. Understand, it's not that Evangelicals are becoming more liberal, necessarily (though some are); it's that young people who were raised Evangelical are becoming more liberal, and ceasing to identify with Evangelicalism. In the book, the scholars postulate that sympathy for the gay rights movement among late X-ers and Millennials has a lot to do with it.

But -- and here's the thing -- they also found that liberal churches are not benefiting from the culture shift. Bob Putnam has said in interviews (and maybe too in the book, I can't recall) that if the Christian church wants to hold on to its young, it will have to liberalize on homosexuality. But his own research shows that liberalization on homosexuality has not benefited the churches that have done so. They continue to decline as well. Something else is going on with young Americans and institutional religion.

It's important to separate the question of whether or not churches should involve themselves in political campaigns like the North Carolina amendment -- do liberal Evangelicals like Held Evans believe that liberal churches should have abstained as well, or is political activism only problematic when conservative Christians do it? -- and the moral theology question of the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality.

The first is a question of prudential judgment, but the second is fundamental. The pressure from outside and within churches to ignore or repudiate Christian teaching is strong and going to get much stronger in the years to come, especially when it starts costing churches tax exemptions, and starts costing individual Christians social and professional status. I heard over the weekend from a Christian professor at a secular university who is extremely leery of letting anyone know his beliefs on homosexuality. He explained ways in which the culture and the policies of his university are so pro-gay that any deviation, however mild and for whatever reason, would identify him in the eyes of his professional community as a horrible bigot and, absurdly, a threat to the safety of gay students and faculty.

The church (by which I mean all Christian churches) has already lost American culture on this issue. The real fight, and the most important fight, is within, for the truth of Scripture and Tradition on this issue.

The Putnam-Campbell data suggest the real battle will not be over whether or not churches are going to embrace gay marriage. As I said, the churches that do aren't benefiting from it, overall. The question is going to be whether or not young people remain Christian in any sense connected to the Great Tradition. Homosexuality is a clear, bright line. The Rachel Held Evanses need to ask themselves if they would be willing to follow Jesus Christ if in doing so, they would have to take a countercultural position on the issue. To embrace same-sex marriage from a Christian viewpoint is a radical shift, one that repudiates two millenia of Christian thought and teaching.

Are we really so sure that we 21st century Americans have this right, and everyone that came before us, including St. Paul, was wrong?

All of which is to say that I expect a severe winnowing in the ranks of Christians over the course of my lifetime. It is surely never the case that truth is determined by numbers. Trads like me point to the extinction of liberal nun orders as an example of how abandoning tradition leads to a kind of death, but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that any church or religion has to be prepared to die for the sake of the truth. That is, better to die in truth than to live for a lie. I think about how hard it would have been for a Christian in the Jim Crow South to repudiate, if only in his own heart and mind, the anti-Christian racism widely held in the culture around him, mostly because it was so normative in that day and age.

Similarly, for traditional Christians, preparing our children to hold on to certain truths of the faith in the post-Christian culture that now exists, and that is fast coming into being, is going to be an incredibly difficult challenge.

Rod Dreher is a Senior Editor for the American Conservative. There he operates a daily blog, from which this piece has been adapted.

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