Saturday, April 09, 2016
Authoritarianism has become a major characteristic of white American evangelicalism. We hear story after story of how leadership in major evangelical institutions has shifted to be more conservative, bullying professors and pastors to leave their jobs if they do not agree to the conservative views of the leadership – a stance that is stridently anti-gay, anti-women, anti-science, pro-gun, pro-war, and pro-torture. Let’s pause on that last one. Evangelicals are more likely than any other religious group to support torture.
That makes me ashamed to be an evangelical. I am not alone in this. There are a great many evangelicals who feel that this type of “evangelicalism” represents the very opposite of what they believe in, the very opposite of the values of Jesus. Many of us have felt compelled to leave the church, out of moral protest, and what we feel we are leaving is a toxic and abusive environment. That’s why when a church gets a fog machine and lights we still don’t want to come back. What’s needed is a moral overhaul, not a better entertainment system.
While the rest of society is moving forward, evangelicals are behind on pretty much every moral issue of our day. Not in a passive way, but actively opposing that moral progress. We are seeing major movements in our society towards reducing violence, towards civil liberties for all people, towards caring for the needs of the disadvantaged, towards human rights, and the largest group who is actively engaged in fighting to stop this moral progress on every front is evangelicalism.
So we basically have two evangelicalisms. One is the evangelicalism that I grew to love. It was an evangelicalism focused on cultivating a relationship with a loving God, on knowing “the father heart of God.” It was where I learned about grace, and how being unconditionally loved opens your heart to love others with that same kind of open hearted grace and compassion. It as an evangelicalism where you sang with all your heart, with hands stretched high to the heavens out of gratitude for that love. An evangelicalism where you wanted to share this good news with the whole world. It was an evangelicalism that I associated with joy, deep friendships, and abundant life. Maybe that’s an evangelicalism you knew, too.
Then there is the evangelicalism that people associate with being intolerant, judgmental, angry, sexist, homophobic, and Islamophobic. It is an evangelicalism characterized by fear and hostility, which then responds with authoritarian violence and coercion. That’s why it supports police brutality, pushes for laws with harsh criminal punishment as well as laws that restrict civil rights, endorses torture, and cheers when politicians promise to indiscriminately carpet bomb their enemies. As much as I wish I could bury my head in the sand and insist that this ugly and immoral evangelicalism is not the “real” evangelicalism, it is very real, and very much a major force in our world with great political and economic influence, not to mention popular support – not a majority thankfully, but a significant and very vocal and engaged minority.
Why do people support it? Because of fear. Feeling threatened leads to hostility. This is characteristic of low level moral development. A child, when it does not get what it wants, will go to whining, hitting, and screaming. That child will justify their actions saying things like “that’s not fair!” This all comes naturally to children, it comes “pre-installed” so to speak. It’s cooperating, being social, and resolving conflict that they need to learn. When a person does not learn this, and retains the simplistic black-and-white, us-vs-them-thinking characteristic of a child, this is moral immaturity. It is a low-level morality that has been stagnated or retarded. Unlike children, morally immature adults are not cute. They can also do a lot more damage than a little child can, especially when they are in positions of power – morally immature pastors, politicians, and CEOs.
Being a morally immature adult is of course not exclusive to evangelicalism, to Christianity or even to religion. There are lots of morally immature angry black-and-white-thinking atheists, just as there are loving, thoughtful, compassionate, morally mature atheists. There are also thoughtful, compassionate, morally mature evangelicals. I hope I can count myself in their number. But as a morally mature evangelical, I do think it is important to recognize that my beloved evangelical faith can and does act to give religious cover, providing justification and sanctification to morally immature people.
Indeed, morally immature evangelicalism typically wraps itself in scriptural justifications, and claims to represent orthodoxy and tradition. It claims to represent the good, and genuinely believes that it does. That’s why Hollywood’s negative portrayals of religious conservatives miss the mark when they paint them as just plain mean “bad guy” characters. Moral immaturity is sincerely trying to be good, but does so in a way that hurts others. That’s what immaturity looks like. The key difference between maturity and immaturity is that maturity is complex and social. Children therefore need to learn to develop into social beings, learning empathy and the skills to maintain relationships – as do morally immature adults.
Likewise, a morally immature evangelical is not always angry and judgmental. The complex reality is that they can be deeply loving in certain situations, while being angry and hostile in others. Just like a child can be wonderfully loving... right before they throw a fit. As any parent knows well, children can be little angels, and little monsters. They are both. That is, again, characteristic of immaturity.
It’s understandable why immature evangelicals react as they do with hostility, but we do them a disservice when we let their aggressive and hurtful behavior take cover, saying their hurtful actions are due to being “passionate” or having “zeal.” The Apostle Paul knew about that kind of “zeal” first hand, but came to regard that very zeal as his greatest sin. When Paul repented, he was not repenting of breaking a commandment. He boldly claimed, in this regard, that he was “faultless” (Philippians 3:6). Yet he nevertheless came to regard himself as “the greatest of all sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15) precisely because of the harm resulting from his religious zeal.
Those of us who are morally mature evangelicals need to know how to articulate what a morally mature faith looks like in action, drawing from those same scriptures and traditions, in order to demonstrate that one does not have to choose between a morally immature faith or rejecting one’s faith altogether.
Moral immaturity is not focused on the self, but on the in-group. It is not me-focused, but rather it is us-focused. It is us-versus-them, whoever that perceived “other” is. In contrast, Jesus continually taught people to expand that circle, saying that the way we treat those who we regard as “the least” is how we treat our Lord, teaching us to care for the beggar, the outsider, the stranger... even going so far as to tell us to love our enemies. This is the very height of moral maturity, which is focused on growing ever more social, focused on the ministry of reconciliation, the mending of broken relationships.
It is only when you begin to practice this that you learn that the tools of moral immaturity – the tools of yelling and hitting, of coercion and force, building higher walls and dropping more bombs – are simply ineffective when our goal is to make for peace and work to reconcile. Those who are immature cannot see this. To the morally immature, true strength, the strength to compromise, forgive, and work together is regarded as weakness. They gravitate towards authoritarian leaders who they see as strong and bold. But those who are mature can see that this “strength” in fact reflects an utter ineptitude in regards to solving problems, working with others, and resolving conflicts. We have a word to describe a morally immature person who has grown big: They are a bully. Being a bully is not strong or admirable or brave or moral.
The more we become versed in the way of reconciliation, the more we see how ill-equipped the means of moral immaturity is at achieving this. It only knows how to build walls, not how to build bridges. That’s why it’s so important that those of us Christians who support nonviolence do not simply regard it as a statement about what we won’t do, about where we draw the line, about what is forbidden. This is often where the conversation stops. But it needs to go beyond what we won’t do. Nonviolence also needs to be about how we actively work to make things right, how we act to resolve conflict and mend relationships. For example, it’s one thing to say you are against adultery. Big deal, pretty much everyone is. It’s quite another thing, however, to be able to provide a couple with the relational tools to walk the difficult path beyond betrayal, and towards re-building trust together. Forgiveness is not simply about overlooking a wrong, it is about learning how to reconcile. Learning how to do that is what moral maturity is all about.