First Principles

This past week my wife held a conversation using the app Meetup to bring folks together to discuss spirituality and religion. I went with her this week and the question we discussed was, “What is your guiding principle in life?” We had a diverse group of people with various backgrounds and experiences and unsurprisingly the question provoked an interesting and wide-ranging conversation. At first the question came off as a bit challenging for people to fully answer but no one objected to the topic. I think at some level we all want to feel we have clear life principles and goals.

I grew up in a Christian home and have attended church all my life. I was even essentially a missionary overseas for two years after college. I feel like I grew up being taught, and then taking as my own, very clear first principles that have guided my life. These principals include the centrality of a relationship with Jesus for salvation, reading the Bible and praying regularly, and loving others. To give you a landmark these principles could be described as conservative protestant evangelical.

I have been far from the perfect Christian in my life but my adherence to these principals has always been near the forefront of my life. In high school I got into fights about abortion more often than I discussed going out with friends. I developed a huge interest in Christian apologetics in high school in order to better defend my faith. I have always tried to be as best I can to be honest, respectful, and kind to others. Friends and others, even when they disagree with me, have noticed these qualities in me repeatedly. I have grown a lot in the last ten years and I see many pros and cons to these first principals of my life but overall I am grateful for the grounding they have provided me.

The reason I mention the above is I read an article a couple of weeks ago that put these first principles up for a debate that infuriated me. You can read the article here. The article discusses how Trump earned the wide-ranging support of white evangelicals. The same white evangelicals I have been a part of my entire life. The most damning quotation to me in the article reads,

“The clearest example of evangelical ethics bending to fit the Trump presidency is white evangelicals’ abandonment of their conviction that personal character matters for elected officials. In 2011 and again just ahead of the 2016 election, PRRI asked Americans whether a political leader who committed an immoral act in his or her private life could nonetheless behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public life. In 2011, consistent with the “values voter” brand and the traditional evangelical emphasis on the importance of personal character, only 30 percent of white evangelical Protestants agreed with this statement. But with Trump at the top of the Republican ticket in 2016, 72 percent of white evangelicals said they believed a candidate could build a kind of moral dike between his private and public life. In a head-spinning reversal, white evangelicals went from being the least likely to the most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office.”

Conservative evangelicals whether you agree or disagree typically have incredibly clear and strong first principals. They are rooted in scripture and, if you grow up in church, you hear them from cradle to grave. I do not think all these principals are good or helpful but I think many are. And until November 8th, 2016 I thought most evangelicals followed them. With the advent of the Trump candidacy and now presidency, it is evident that many conservative evangelicals have either rejected, or never had, many of the first principals I thought they did.

I realize, as I have said before, that many evangelicals did not vote for Trump. I also realize why politically, morally, or spiritually many felt they could not vote for Hillary Clinton. What I cannot wrap my head around is why people with the strong first principles that conservative evangelicals supposedly have could justify voting for a man like Trump. As I have written before, he is a leader with the opposite in character, temperament, and ability that any conservative evangelical would want. Or so I thought.

This is not merely a political issue for me. If white evangelicals had gone for Cruz and Rubio I would not be writing this. This is not about a mostly republican base voting for a republican candidate. This is a about a group who promotes clear first principles reject them to vote for a chance at what they perceive as power.

I am beyond disappointed at how all this has gone down but ultimately I am not worried about myself. In spite of everything I will still attend church and believe that , at our best, Christians can do much good in the world. I do worry about our witness to the world though. What does it say to the world when our first principles have to be so soundly ignored and rejected to bring us to a man like Trump? What does it say to our young people? Why should a secular person care about the moral compass of a philosophy that explains away the incompetency and moral failings of our current president?

I do not write this to demean people who voted for Trump. Many did who are not, in fact, evangelicals. He was elected at a specific point in history, via an arcane electoral system. But it needs to be said, as a life-long evangelical, I feel betrayed and this cannot bode well for the church or its mission in the world.

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A Better Story

This past weekend President Donald Trump gave the commencement address at Liberty University in Virginia, one of the premier evangelical colleges in the US. In a presidency that so far has never been short of headlines, this one is completely unsurprising. The President of Liberty, Jerry Falwell Jr. was an early supporter of Trump and invited him to campus during his campaign. In recent weeks he has gone so far as to say that Trump was a “dream president” for evangelicals so far.

President’s Trump victory was surprising and even shocking to many whether you were ardently opposed to his candidacy or not. Much analysis will continue to be done on how he accomplished this victory but a major factor was his deep support from white evangelicals. The most common statistic I have seen is that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump. This number has been parsed in many ways often to minimize how religious these “evangelical” Trump voters really are and to an extent I agree with that. I know anecdotally that many Christians either refused to vote, or voted for a third party candidate. Many Christian leaders began and remain in the #NeverTrump camp. But a quick search on the internet reveals a deep swath of support for Trump from white evangelical leaders and the group as a whole.

As someone who is essentially a white evangelical and still attends church this troubles me deeply. I know this will be almost impossible but take away the politics from Donald Trump as a person for a moment. Who are we left with? We are left with a man who rarely, if ever, tells the truth. A man who was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault.  A man many consider racist or at least deeply hurtful. A man who, whatever his political views, seems woefully unprepared for the office of the presidency. And most damning to me, a man who seems the polar opposite of what I thought white evangelicals would want in a presidential candidate.

I realize no one is asking for my advice but writing this is simply one small way that I can tell myself that I spoke out against this man. As a Christian I think we need to cut our losses. We need to speak out against the white evangelical leaders who undercut their entire lives of work and ministry and their moral rightness in advising that Mr. Trump was somebody evangelicals could support. Leaders like Mr. Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins, and Eric Metaxas, among many others. They can keep telling us that we saved the republic by voting for Mr. Trump but we should not listen to or support their claims. I’m not asking anyone to become a democrat who is not or that they should have voted for Hillary Clinton. I am not proposing that either political party is all good or all evil. I am simply asking the white evangelical community to renounce their support for Mr. Trump and to move on.

The leaders I name above are all Christians. They fancy themselves as truth-tellers. They want to believe we avoided catastrophe by electing Mr. Trump. They want to believe that Mr. Trump’s presidency is adding to the story that all Christians tell of the gospel, the good news. In fact Christians have a better story. A much better story. A story that can change lives and even societies for the better. Mr. Trump does not add anything to this story, he undercuts it at every turn. Our moral witness as Christians means nothing as long as it is tied to the support of this petty and incompetent man. We can do better. We have done better. We must do better in the future.

Changing Church

I have attended the same church about half my life. In 7th grade my family finally completed a move after my dad switched jobs and we started attending Grace Chapel. I grew up in the youth group and except for a break when I was in college and then living overseas I have been a regular attender. All told I have been there around 14 years.

I loved Grace Chapel. I was an active member of the high school youth group when I was a teenager and always enjoyed it. For the past seven years I served in the middle school and high school groups as a small group leader. I’ve gone on retreats and events and gotten to know many students, parents and other leaders. Most notably I met my wife while volunteering and we are approaching our 3rd anniversary next month. When I look at my experiences at Grace Chapel I feel elated, excited, and blessed. However, despite all these positive feelings toward this community and place, this coming Sunday I am changing churches.

Why on earth am I doing this?

My wife was not any lowly church girl. She was a church staff member. The first time I saw her she was speaking in front of the huge group of middle schoolers. I had never really personally known anyone who worked at church but soon I was dating someone who did. As I relate to in a previous post I have learned a lot. But because we met at the church we both attended I did not have to worry about changing where I went every week.

This did not change that my wife’s career was still developing and changing. Earlier this year she accepted a new position at a different church. It is a little farther away but we do not have to move which is great. But it does mean on Sunday I won’t be at Grace but someplace totally new.

This is undeniably bittersweet for both of us. We both know and love many people at Grace. Both our parents go to Grace and it is a place with many great memories and experiences. At the same time this church and position feels like the perfect next step for her and her development and we are excited to see what happens.

Even with the excitement of a new journey about to begin it is apparent in the recesses of my mind that if I was not married I would probably not be attending this new church on Sunday. So to be very clear at the end of this blog: my wife is totally worth changing church for. I think our society values the idea of marriage a lot in our society. We certainly still value weddings. Despite this value we ascribe to the ideal of what marriage can be I do not think we acknowledge as much what is absolutely required in any strong marriage: mutual sacrifice from both parties. In getting married we combined our lives. My wife married me, a school teacher. I married her, a (youth) pastor. Whether or not I processed what that fully meant on our wedding day, changing churches this Sunday is in a small way a fulfillment of that commitment I made three years ago to us.

I am going to a new place on Sunday. It will be new and different and maybe even a bit weird. But I’ll be sitting next to my wife so I think I’ll be ok.

When Churches Do More than Preach.

Over the past 10 years I have become decidedly more liberal in my political beliefs and general worldview. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and how this has happened but nonetheless it has. Today I typically find liberal solutions to issues more feasible, just, and factual accurate than many conservative ones. I try to read sources from both sides regularly but everyone has their biases and I think I’m fairly well aware of where mine lean.

However, one thing I have been uncomfortable with as I have driven ever deeper into a liberal worldview is the often clear animus toward religion. Sometimes this is subtle, sometimes it is blatant. Many liberal writers (or bloggers, or facebook posters) are quite clear that religion is a pox on humanity and if we just got rid of it the world would be a much better, kinder, tolerant place. I can understand where that view might come from but I also see it as hopelessly out of touch with where many people still are and where society might continue to go.

Given the divisive nature of American society at the moment and the dangerously cruel and incompetent nature of our current president I want to explain a little bit about what many churches do on a regular basis to help society. If religious and irreligious people can understand each other a little bit better I think we can not only achieve more in the future but also avoid political leaders like the one we recently elected.

Churches do far more than just preach a message on Sundays. Many give away significant portions of their money (which is usually exclusively donated by church members) to missionaries doing health care, relief, and leadership training in countries many Americans have never heard of. Many operate food banks. Many can, with one special offering, give thousands of dollars to charitable groups both domestic and international. Many churches have small groups and ministries that not only preach a religious message but offer folks support for all sorts of issues, addictions and emotional baggage. Churches are often small (or enormous) networks that provide things like childcare, education, or just a place to talk to each other. During the holidays many churches do more than just typical charitable giving but go beyond to provide a place where people who do not have family can spend time together. At their best churches want to make the world a better place not only by preaching an “exclusive” message but by helping the poor, downtrodden, widow, and orphan.

To be clear churches also all too often have many significant problems. There is homophobia in some churches. There is Islamophobia in some churches. There is sexism in some churches. Uplifting the institution over the people can create environments where abuse has been tragically too common. Churches are made up of flawed people just like the rest of society. Just as government and society are far from perfect so churches often (regrettably) miss the mark. But I also think if every church closed tomorrow our world would be much poorer from it.

I understand that any entity that preaches an exclusive, religious message may be a bridge too far for many people to accept.  But in a divided society I think it is essential that we at the very least seek to understand one another. Many God-fearing religious folks do not want to bestow theocracy on the US but simply want to help others. Maybe in my attempt to bridge these divides I am being too kind or naive. But in these times I think it is essential that we see and call out the good that we can in others.

An Opportunity for Gordon College

In July I wrote three entries dealing with the media firestorm that Gordon College in Massachusetts had been facing. While the school is no longer making daily headlines they are still grappling with the fallout of those events. The current situation is they are taking 12 to 18 months to review their policies as relates to same-sex behavior. Despite this Gordon has said that their accreditation is not under threat and they have no plans to change their “Life and Conduct Policy.”

Depending on your view of things this may engender great hope or great despair. For me, I see it as a great opportunity for Gordon College to show to the world how a conservative Christian institute of higher education can interact with and include LGBT people in their community.

Gordon is allotting at least a year to think on these issues. To spend so much time on something and not come up with at least one good idea worth pursuing seems to me to be a waste. Some will probably say that Gordon has been unfairly depicted in this whole incident and should not be pushed into change too quickly. I agree, the media’s coverage this past summer left much to be desired in the nuance department. I think Gordon came off as a much worse school than it, in fact, is. I find that highly unfortunate. But what has happened, happened and now Gordon is taking the time to give these issues the hearing they deserve.

Many Christians are overwhelming frustrated with how many people in American society see them today. They are tired of being called bigots and hateful and homophobes. I am not trying to paint them as victims but just to highlight what people on the ground are feeling. Gordon College has an opportunity to change this, to be a beacon for engagement and inclusion towards LGBT people. If they get the next 12-18 months right they will not have to defend themselves against a society and millennial generation that has largely decided that Christianity has little good or moral to offer it. Gordon will be able to highlight that they do not hate, discriminate or stigmatize their LGBT students because they have done this and this and this. They will have set the model for every conservative Christian school to catch up to. They will become a magnet for Christian students who want strong doctrine but also reject the exclusiveness of other schools. Gordon’s long-term legacy and success will be assured. Of course some will never accept that a entity based on religion is worthwhile and no changes by Gordon will dissuade them of those feelings. Those people though are not why Gordon should be changing in the first place.

So what exactly should Gordon do? I’m not sure, I do not run a college or university. I will say this though. Gordon can institute changes that result in what I describe above without giving up their Christian identity, doctrine, and religious belief. Of this I am sure. Many commentators have argued in recent months that their is no “third way” on the issue of LGBT people. Gordon is taking the next 12-18 months to prove those commentators wrong. It is my hope and prayer that they do not waste this opportunity.

Thoughts on Gordon College (Part 3)

Two days ago I started writing about Gordon College being in the news. Yesterday I highlighted some of the factors on why the college will not change in the short term. Today I want to finish by offering solace to those who want to see change today.

First, lets be clear about the scope of the issue. Gordon (and other conservative christian schools) is not banning certain groups of people from campus. It is requiring that any prospective members sign a statement agreeing to behave by certain community standards.The issue is not one of institutional integrity. It is of untenable policy. For those who want to see Gordon torn down and consigned to the ash bin of history I have nothing for you. You are welcome to go check out the cable news pundit of your choosing. For those who want Gordon to become a better version of itself, keep reading.

I personally believe Gordon and all schools like it will eventually change their policies toward LGBT people. I do not know when this will happen or the precise scope of these changes but they will. But when they do change it will not be to acquiesce to a new cultural norm of government mandate but because they believe are following Christ more clearly as an institution. 

I do not think many secular people fully understand the religious scope of a place like Gordon College. I’ll try to lay it out as clearly as I can. Gordon is a (conservative) Christian college. This means they want to follow Jesus in all they do. To follow Jesus they read, believe and try to follow the Bible. At the moment they believe the Bible says LGBT behavior is sinful. Hence their policies on belief and behavior. I realize you might not agree with this. That’s totally fine. But Gordon genuinely believes the above. They have a right to do so. And until the calculus above changes, the policies pertaining to LGBT people will not change in any profound ways.

If you are an LGBT person or supporter who has been burned by your experiences at Gordon or another school their is hope however. I offer a few ideas to put out the fire in the short term of this issue.

1) Petitions. This is already occurring. The trustees cannot ignore their student body and faculty if they are constantly confronted with the inadequacy of their current policy. I would focus petitions on small attainable things like meetings with school leaders. Asking big, direct things will have the leaders cocoon themselves in fears about money (see part 2) and religious liberty.

2) Call for consistency. I do not know how strictly Gordon enforces its community standards. But if it is not expelling straight students for premarital sex or drinking alcohol but are expelling students who come out as LGBT than this is an easy thing to confront them with. LGBT students need to be assured in writing that they will not be subject to school discipline and/or community rejection if they are publicly out on campus. If Gordon is unwilling to provide a safe campus for LGBT people because of their religious beliefs they need to say that openly. 

3) Call for some distinctions in employment. At the moment I can understand Gordon not wanting its trustees or professors to be openly gay. But what about their landscapers, or the construction workers who build their next building? Do they have to sign the community standards? If not I am not sure why they are asking for the federal exemption. If they are I think this is an easy compromise that allows for Gordon’s religious freedom concerns to be met while also not seeming utterly callous to society.

I never attended a Christian school or college but I am firmly committed to the idea that they belong and bring something to society. I know too many fantastic wonderful people who received their education and training from Christian schools and institutions. Moving forward I see ample opportunity for misunderstanding, polarization and judgement on both sides. But the time to do nothing has passed. I pray for all involved that wisdom and peace would dictate their actions moving forward and that together places like Gordon can become even better representations of Christ in their communities and society as a whole.

 

Thoughts on Gordon College (Part 1)

Gordon College (MA) has been in the news lately. Their president recently signed a letter with other leaders that was sent to President Obama asking for a continued religious exemption when an anticipated executive order would be signed in the near future. The response was immediate and overall almost completely negative. The issues being raised are big and important ones: religious freedom, LGBT rights, government reach and/or overreach. Unfortunately the issue also lines up nicely for pundits to polarize our country even further.

I’m writing today as someone who grew up evangelical and feels like I have a pretty clear understanding of that subculture. I also write as someone who feels considerably more liberal than I did 10 years ago. Be warned what I am about write will make neither side happy. Evangelicals are not all the bigots some would smear them as. At the same time the status quo needs to change and they will need to consider things in the future. Liberals and/or less religious people have their hearts in exactly the right place as they seek to end discrimination and make the lives of LGBT people better. However their understanding of why entities like Gordon College believe what they do needs to improve and they need to consider how best to achieve their goals moving forward.

Today I will highlight some of the underlying details of the controversy. Tomorrow i will consider how each side can think about the future. (Brief disclosure before I continue. I applied to Gordon College for my undergraduate degree over 10 years ago but did not attend. I do have a significant number of friends and acquaintances  who have attended the school. They are all fantastic people.)

1) Gordon College is not the evil organization it has been made to appear.

It has been amazing to see the nefarious intent hoisted upon Gordon College as an institution in the past week. For someone who has never heard of the school they would probably assume it was full of hopelessly bigoted rednecks. This is categorically untrue. To my knowledge Gordon College has not changed any policy leading up to this letter. They are a conservative Christian college. This means they ask students,faculty, and staff to sign (voluntarily) a statement of faith and code of conduct. A part of this will be a line saying something along the lines of, “Members of the community will abstain from sex unless they are married.” This may sound crazy or naive or prudish or just plain lame to the average person but every conservative christian college and university in the US has a rule like this. It is their conviction as a religious institution and one that is genuinely held. When these rules were written discrimination, or hate or judgement against LGBT people were not the intent. If you disagree with this that is your prerogative but I would suggest evidence needs to be produced before smearing organizations like Gordon. However we still have a problem and this leads to my second point.

2) Gordon’s policies on sexual behavior are quickly becoming untenable.

The huge blind spot of the policies I highlight above is that they ignore LGBT people. LGBT students at Gordon can abstain from sex or they can get (presumably) kicked out. Even if they get married (which is legal in Massachusetts) that is not an option if they want to remain a member in good standing at the college. This is the issue that has people understandably upset about discrimination and students’ quality of life at the college. The fact that Gordon accepts federal student loans and is tax-exempt is problematic too. Why should they get federal money and perks but not have to follow the rules the federal government enacts for everyone? Today Gordon College is in the press but every Christian college will have to deal with these issues moving forward.

I’ve obviously provided more questions than answers here. Tomorrow I will look at what both sides can do moving forward. I welcome comments.