By Alan Bean
The old protection racket has been featured in hundreds of gangster movies. “Nice business you got here,” the mafia drone tells the owner of the corner grocery, “it’d be a real shame if something terrible were to happen to it.”
Message: “Pay us $250 a month or we will ensure that something terrible does happen.”
The evangelical protection racket works on the same crude principle . Orthodox racketeers condemn the sin of homosexuality from the rooftops. But they understand that the orthodox message is a bit too close to the Fred Phelps franchise for some evangelicals. Some prominent evangelicals may know GLBT people too well to buy the demonizing chatter. In fact, there are leading evangelicals with gay children. Left to themselves, these leaders might send mixed messages and confuse the faithful, so a way must be found to silence them.
To make a protection racket work you must be willing to follow through. The slightest deviation from the party line must be punished swiftly and without remorse. If the corner grocer refuses to pay up he gets a rock through the window and a follow-up visit.
If a pastor, Christian author, or parachurch ministry (say, World Vision) has the temerity to hint that gay or lesbian people might be children of God in good standing, something really terrible will happen.
World Vision is a ministry of compassion that gives desperately poor children and their families food, shelter, and a path out of poverty and oppression. On Monday their president announced that the US side of the organization would henceforth be hiring qualified gay and lesbian applicants living in committed relationships. World Vision wasn’t endorsing gay marriage or signing off on “the gay lifestyle”; they just said the ban on hiring would be lifted because the standing policy was creating pain within parts of World Vision’s diverse constituency.
Anticipating criticism from the orthodox wing of the Church, World Vision president Richard Stearns laid out his position:
“This is also not about compromising the authority of Scripture . . . . People can say, ‘Scripture is very clear on this issue,’ and my answer is, ‘Well ask all the theologians and denominations that disagree with that statement.’ The church is divided on this issue. And we are not the local church. We are am operational organization uniting Christians around a common mission to serve the poor in the name of Christ.”
The anathemas were immediate.
Russell Moore, the moral voice of the Southern Baptist Convention got right to the point:
At stake is the gospel of Jesus Christ. If sexual activity outside of a biblical definition of marriage is morally neutral, then, yes, we should avoid making an issue of it. If, though, what the Bible clearly teaches and what the church has held for 2000 years is true, then refusing to call for repentance is unspeakably cruel and, in fact, devilish.
If you’re having trouble parsing this argument, here’s what Moore is saying. The Bible says that gay men and lesbians are going to hell. That being the case, it is hardly kind for a Christian organization to suggest that homosexual activity or gay marriage is acceptable to God. Gay Christians will learn the ugly truth when they reach the pearly gates, so we might as well tell them now.
John Piper, one of the leading lights of the New Calvinist movement, spelled it out a bit more precisely:
First, World Vision has taken a step away from the cry of biblical love, which says, we care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering. Without care about eternal suffering, care about temporal suffering is a mirage. It looks like love, but the greatest gift is being withheld.
But Piper had a second reason for decrying World Vision’s decision.
World Vision has aligned itself with liberal Christians who choose not to renounce homosexual practice. Culturally, historically, and biblically this is a huge step toward the powerlessness and growing irrelevance of the mainline liberal establishment. You cannot undermine biblical authority, and trivialize perdition and its blood-bought remedy, and expect to maintain a vibrant spiritual base. It isn’t going to happen.
This has been a stock evangelical argument for decades. It can be empirically proven that churches that embrace marriage equality and gay ordination are in numerical decline while churches that call homosexuality sin are growing (or at least not declining quite as quickly). Rev. Piper’s church is growing like gangbusters, a sure sign that preaching the wrath of God and the reality of hell (a nuanced version of Fred Phelps’ God-hates-fags theology) is being blessed by a grateful God. God runs the evangelical protection racket.
According to white American evangelical orthodoxy, there are not two kinds of Christianity, conservative and liberal; there is the One True Church and there is a pack of infidels. Therefore, as Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, made clear, World Vision has a decision to make:
No organization can serve on behalf of churches across the vast theological and moral spectrum that would include clearly evangelical denominations, on the one hand, and liberal denominations such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ, on the other. That might work if World Vision were selling church furniture, but not when the mission of the organization claims a biblical mandate.
Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son and heir, also pulled no punches:
It’s obvious World Vision does not believe the Bible. I’m sickened over it . . . I’m just heartbroken and I’m sickened that World Vision has taken this ungodly position.
World Vision has taken an ungodly position, Graham argues, because God wrote the Bible and the Bible condemns homosexuality. End of argument.
As hundreds of outraged evangelicals walked away from the vulnerable children they were supporting in third world countries for a modest $35 a month, a board meeting was hastily convened at the World Vision headquarters in Federal Way, Washington and a statement of apology was rushed to media outlets. According to the AP:
The aid group told supporters in a letter that the board had made a mistake and was returning to its policy requiring celibacy outside of marriage “and faithfulness within the Bible covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.”
“We have listened to you and want to say thank you and to humbly ask for your forgiveness,” the agency said in the letter, signed by World Vision president Richard Stearns and board chairman Jim Bere.
But do you get do-overs on this sort of thing. As Franklin Graham argues, the decision to hire men and women in same-sex marriages shows that World Vision doesn’t believe the Bible, at least not in the same way the evangelical establishment believes the Bible. Reversing course doesn’t really alter that impression; it just makes you look weak, desperate and unprincipled.
And what about the World Vision supporters who either support gay marriage or have no settled opinion on the subject? World Vision made its initial decision, in part at least, because they concluded that their current hiring policy was inconsistent with the loving heart of God. What, exactly, has changed to alter that assessment?
Ultimately, this isn’t primarily about the Bible; it’s about the character of God. Progressive Christians argue that if same-sex attraction is a matter of orientation, not choice, then the Bible’s scattered condemnations of homosexual behavior must be re-evaluated. Your heart may be big enough to welcome the GLBT community into full fellowship, but God, unfortunately, isn’t so generous–and we’ve got to play by His rules. God, the evangelical Sanhedrin argues, didn’t get the memo on orientation and is still operating out of old-school assumptions.
When evangelicals talk about what the Bible says on the subject, they are primarily thinking about the most important document in the evangelical canon, the book of Romans. Early in that dense, sprawling epistle, the Apostle Paul paints an unflattering portrait of Gentile morality, including a rather graphic depiction of what Paul assumed one might encounter at a Roman orgy. Because the Gentiles refused to acknowledge the clear revelation of God in creation, Paul says,
God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever, Amen.
But Paul doesn’t leave it at that. Not only are the Roman Gentiles sexually immoral idolaters, they grow bored with garden variety promiscuity, so:
God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural , and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.
This isn’t the only place that Paul expresses disgust for homosexual behavior, but it is probably the most explicit.
Paul’s argument in the first chapter of Romans is setting a trap for his Jewish readers. By highlighting sexual sins commonly associated with Gentile life, he hooks Jewish moral outrage. His purpose is to show that Jews and Gentiles are in an equally hopeless moral state and therefore equally dependent on the grace God revealed in Jesus Christ. Paul isn’t trying to single out one particular moral failing for special attention.
Still, Paul clearly sees same-sex attraction as a moral failing. Moreover, he appears to assume that the Gentile sinners he is describing were naturally attracted to members of the opposite sex but, growing bored with heterosexual promiscuity, they made a conscious choice to stifle their natural inclinations. This is what Paul means by “giving up natural intercourse with women.” We are talking about conscious choice.
This helps explain why the keepers of the evangelical flame assume, without argument, that gay men and lesbians are making a lifestyle choice and, further, that gay adoption is simply an attempt to recruit children to a perverted way of life that no sane person would choose for themselves. Franklin Graham has said as much in so many words and endorses Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay agenda in Russia for precisely this reason.
For those who realize that people do not choose their sexual orientation, all of this is deeply problematic. Some people are born bi-sexual, that is, they can be sexually attracted to members of both sexes; but you aren’t born straight and decide to become gay. This explains why Exodus ministries, an organization designed to help gay Christians “pray the gay away”, finally admitted that it doesn’t work.
If this modern take on sexual orientation is right (and it is) then what are we to do with the Apostle Paul?
If you are Russell Moore, John Piper, Franklin Graham or Al Mohler, you argue that two plus two equals five because the Bible says so. Paul assumes that all humans are born with a heterosexual orientation; Paul wrote these words while under the full plenary-verbal inspiration of God (that is, he was serving as a mouthpiece for God); God cannot be wrong; ergo, the overwhelming evidence presented by social scientists notwithstanding, Paul must be right.
Al Mohler deals with the ubiquitous evidence for the antiquity of the earth in a similar fashion. Sure, the scientific data suggests that the earth is billions of years old, he says, but that just means that God created the world to look that way. We know that because the Bible clearly states that the world was created no more than 10,000 years ago.
Now you know why Christian sociologist Christian Smith has accused protection racket evangelicals of “making the Bible impossible”.
As Mark Knoll argues in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Southern Christians embraced a literal interpretation of Scripture because it allowed them to legitimate the unspeakable horrors of American slavery. It was right there in black and white. The Bible placed limitations on slavery, but the practice is never condemned in so many words. Northern Christians countered that slavery violated the spirit of Christian brotherhood, but rarely provided chapter and verse. Hardly anybody, North or South, understood that Jesus Christ is Lord of Scripture, so there was no way of adjudicating this argument.
Here’s the fist principle of biblical interpretation: if a text appears to be inconsistent with the radical grace of God Jesus talked about, you are reading it wrong.
Richard Stearns, the embattled president of World Vision, will likely be announcing his resignation in the near future. Either that, or his freedom to speak for the US wing of World Vision will be curtailed dramatically. Had he stood his ground, World Vision would have lost support from the most conservative wing of its constituency, many conservatives would have stuck with a program they believe in, and progressive Christians might well have picked up the slack. Now, we will never know.
What was Mr. Stearns thinking? Did he not realize that twenty-first-century white American evangelicalism operates like a protection racket?
Stearns may have known what he was up against and decided to do the right thing anyway. If so, the decision was quickly taken out of his hands by those with a better grasp of the political realities of American religious life.
Must World Vision jettison both the GLBT community and Christians who prize both biblical authority and common sense? Has it really come to that?
If so, it’s time to get real. There are serious problems with the God-dislikes-homosexuals-and-intends-to-torture-them-forever take on the Bible.
The biggest problem is Jesus. If same-sex attraction is such a horror, why did Jesus say nothing on the subject? Why did Jesus consistently underscore God’s love for the poor, the outcast and the oppressed? And why did Jesus reserve his rhetorical brickbats for religious leaders who hold themselves up as moral exemplars?
And then there is the hell thing. Paul doesn’t use hell language. Neither does John’s gospel. Jesus talked about hell all the time, but the folks in danger of hell fire are the oppressors, the self-righteous and the morally indifferent. Think the parable of Lazarus and Dives (Luke 16) or the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.
If we take the Bible seriously, we can’t just pick and choose which scriptures to quote; we must make sense of the full sweep of biblical teaching.
And this isn’t about good Jesus versus bad Paul. The Apostle Paul was wrong about the genesis of same-sex attraction, but he was right about God’s saving love for everybody, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free. Paul spole out of deep pastoral concern. Gentile Christians were having a hard time understanding the need for Jewish-style sexual responsibility, something unheard of in most of the Graeco-Roman world. Therefore, Paul is constantly forced to address the dangers of sexual sin (as well as non-sexual sins like envy, gluttony and arrogance). But Paul’s great passion was to introduce the world to the gracious God revealed in Jesus. That’s the heart of his gospel and must be the heart of ours.
Where do we go from here? Buoyed by the great success of their protection racket, the guardians of evangelical propriety will be encouraged to shrink the parameters of acceptable discourse still further. The tragic chasm between conservatives and liberals within the church will continue to grow.
But only in the short-term. For a younger generation of evangelicals the issue has been settled in favor of inclusion. In a decade or two we will be comparing this episode to the white evangelical support for slavery and Jim Crow. Men like Al Mohler and Franklin Graham know this deep in their bones. Their protection racket is their way of stalling for time.