Monday, February 11, 2019

The unFaith - Never Had It, Never Will!

I still haven't read Southern Baptist divine R. Albert Mohler Jr.'s We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking Truth to a Culture Redefining Sex, Marriage, and the Very Meaning of Right and Wrong (Thomas Nelson, 2015), but I promise you solemnly, this generation shall not pass away before I do so and write about it here.

Meanwhile, I happened on unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity ... and Why It Matters (Baker, 2007) by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons.  The authors worked for years for the Barna Group, an evangelical polling organization, and Kinnaman is currently its president.  Early in his career, Kinnaman set out to explore why younger Americans don't find conservative Christianity appealing; unChristian is his first book based on the research he conducted.  As you can see, it's somewhat dated by now: it was published during the second Bush administration, before Obama became President, before the Supreme Court struck down laws against same-sex marriage, before conservative evangelicals sold their souls to So-called Donald J. Trump, and as younger people have continued to defect from Christianity in most of its denominations.  Since 2007 Kinnaman and Lyons have published two more books on the same issue, most recently in 2016.  It'll be interesting to see how the spiel has developed, but I'm not in a great hurry to find out.

The reasons their informants gave Kinnaman and Lyons for rejecting born-again Christianity were pretty predictable.  Anyone who's listened to people talking about religion will have heard them: Christians are judgmental, hypocritical, too "political," they only pretend to like you so they can try to convert you.  The authors fret about these complaints, acknowledge that they are not unfounded, and urge lay Christians and clergy to adjust their approach.  They fill out the book with contributions by numerous evangelical writers, ranging from Charles Colson to Jim Wallis, mainly infomercials for their various ministries. These are very upbeat, but if they're doing so well, why do the numbers of churched Christians continue to dwindle?  There's nothing radical here, Kinnaman and Lyons are just rearranging the deck chairs in hopes that the right configuration will make the Titanic float again.

There's even an entire chapter devoted to Christians' treatment of LGBTQ people, and it too is what I expected.  I'll discuss it in more detail later this week -- surely that post is coming quickly -- but basically it warns against having "God Hates Fags" on the walls of your church or youth ministry's coffeehouse.  Daring, that, but almost willfully irrelevant. Very few American Christians, even the most reactionary, regard Westboro Baptist Church as a role model; they mainly use WBC as a bogeyman to show how much nicer they are. (That, I think, is what Kinnaman and Lyons are doing.) I don't blame them, since the alternative would be to rethink Christian teaching on sexuality altogether.  More on that soon; I think this issue deserves a post of its own.

While gender and sexuality are indeed hot issues for young people, it's noteworthy that Kinnaman and Lyons barely touch on race.  There's one anecdote, on page 190, about a pastor who excluded (presumably) black teens from a church youth concert in California, and a concession that "Unfortunately, stemming from our common sin nature, Christians continue to harbor prejudices regarding race, age, gender, and intelligence."  They encourage Christians to be "willing to talk with Christians of different racial and ethnic backgrounds about their political persuasions" (169), but that's about it.  From this I infer that they imagine their readers to be white, of Western European descent, which bespeaks a serious lack of imagination on their part, especially since most born-again Christians in the US are African-American males.  Nor do they show any awareness of the role white evangelicals have played in the promotion and defense of white supremacy in this country.  Once again I thought of the scholar James Barr's judgment that "the conservative evangelical view of sex and marriage, far from being haunted by sin and guilt, is light and superficial."*  I'd say that such superficiality extends to conservative evangelical views of race and other social issues, and there's nothing in UnChristian to indicate otherwise.

Kinnaman and Lyons also insist on the intellectual cred of evangelicals today.  One of their commentators, D. Michael Lindsay, leads the charge:
The percentage of evangelicals earning at least a college degree has increased by 133 percent, which is much more than any other religious tradition. Indeed, the rise of evangelicals on America’s elite campuses is one of the most notable developments in higher education over the last thirty years. As highly selective universities have sought to diversify their student bodies by race, gender, and ethnicity, they have also unintentionally diversified their campuses’ religious makeup. As Gomes said, “A lot of Midwestern white-bread Protestant Christian evangelicals at whom Harvard would never have looked in the past, and who would have never looked at Harvard, suddenly became members of the university [149f].
I wonder if that increase in the numbers of evangelicals getting degrees is due to their numbers being much lower in the past; the comparison to other religious traditions suggests to me that it is, just as women greatly increased their college participation as various (mostly external) barriers that had previously discouraged or excluded them were removed.  The quotation from Peter Gomes (1942-2011), longtime chaplain and professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University, is amusing in the context of this book, because Gomes was black, gay, and (though celibate himself) a solid advocate of "marriage equality."  I doubt Lindsay was unaware of this, but I wonder if Kinnaman and Lyons were.

Lindsay also pointed out that "Practically every university in the Ivy League was founded to serve the church, and for most of their history, these institutions have been places where faith and knowledge support one another" (148).  True enough, but this is hardly specific to Christianity: Islam and other world religions have founded universities and other institutions of learning where "faith and knowledge support one another."  There's also a strong tradition of anti-intellectualism in American Christianity, which goes back to the New Testament.  It's good to avoid stereotyping, but in all directions.  (For that matter, atheists and agnostics are not all intellectual heavyweights either.)

UnChristian held few surprises for me; it supported what I already knew about conservative Christians' efforts to make sense of and counter their dwindling presence and influence in American society.  "Young adults," the authors lament, "are less likely to support a 'Christianized' country ...   [They] are less likely than their predecessors to support keeping the motto 'In God We Trust' on our currency, the phrase 'one nation under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance, or the Ten Commandments posted in government buildings.  They are also less likely than Boomers and Elders ... to favor a federal marriage amendment defining marriage as possible only between one man and one woman" (164).  Not only that: "Young adults are less likely than preceding generations to start their political explorations as Republicans" (165) -- Oh noes!  Which I welcome, of course, though I'm also concerned about what young people will replace Christianity (or the GOP) with, be it alternative religions or atheism.  As an atheist myself, atheism is the option I favor, but I also know atheism is no guarantee of thoughtfulness or wisdom.

* Barr, Fundamentalism (Westminster, 1977), 331.