Clearing the air in the intra-Evangelical culture war

The larger culture too often mistakes evangelical Christians for an unfractured conservative bloc. Many would be surprised to know about the culture wars that rage between liberal and conservative evangelical Christians. For instance, the advocacy of left-leaning evangelical groups is often reported as “a shift in evangelical culture” when in reality the same people have been saying the same things for a long time.

One would think that arguments between Christians about hot social topics would be more gracious and constructive than the venomous contest between the religious right and the secularist Left.

But is it? Evangelicalism’s internal culture war, between bloggers and authors like Rachel Held Evans and pastors like the recently ousted Mark Driscoll is lamentably hobbled by sloppy logic, red herrings, and an even firmer commitment to never having anything but an exchange of insults. The fond idea that the culture wars would not be so nasty if folks just got to know each other does not hold up in the case of the evangelical community, where the venom is even more poisonous for its thin coating of sentimentality. In fact, the culture wars rage within the evangelical world with a special viciousness, and this is probably to be expected. As anyone with siblings will attest, intimates tend to fight more often and with deeper malice.

So why wade into such a maelstrom? Because the intra-Evangelical culture war bears a peculiar feature that makes it different from the broader national conversation. That is, the rhetorical dodges that undermine honest debate in Evangelical circles come far more often from the liberal side than the conservative one. This is not a terribly popular opinion to have, and it may seem a typical one to hold for an ardent social conservative like myself, but surveying the battlefield as dispassionately as I am able—yes, even taking the Driscolls of the world into account—it seems clear to methat the style of liberal evangelical argumentation most regularly causes the breakdown of honest and charitable debate.

Usually, these sorts of pieces tend to have words for both sides. Blaming only one side (and not yours) seems unreflective, but it just so happens that my admonition to the conservative side can be summed up in a single phrase, one used to keep up the spirits of another people in a desperate situation: Keep Calm and Carry On.

It should be abundantly clear to the careful reader that my objections below are not aimed at the substance of liberal Christian arguments against traditionalism, but how keen they seem to be to derail conversation before it even begins. My basic assumption is that there are, broadly, two threads of thought which, if taken separately, liberal evangelicals may argue with logical responsibility and integrity. When, however, they are combined, the discussion becomes disingenuous. One of these threads is that the church is called to something higher and holier than the culture wars and ought not take part in them. The other is that the church is on the wrong side of the culture wars. Weaving a foundation for discussion from these mixed fibers leads the unwitting conservative apologist into a morass of pointless bickering on issues that are completely beside the point. To put it another way, these two ingredients are harmless when kept in separate beakers, but when combined, they create an acid that erodes honest and logical debate. These two assumptions are rarely articulated explicitly, but they nevertheless create the implicit basis for most if not all of the talking points deployed by those Christians who disagree with the traditional view of issues like gay marriage, contraception, or abortion. When liberals irresponsibly thread these two basic assumptions together, the resultant mixture of half-truths and evasive declaratives serve as ultimatums meant to checkmate discussion rather than doing their interlocutors the courtesy of posing a straightforward and consistent challenge. Disentangling them is necessary if constructive debate is to resume.

It’s about time these lame and destructive rhetorical strategies had an anvil dropped on them. In subsequent essays, I will call out various talking points and objections frequently raised on the liberal side which have the effect of evading honest discussion, and attempt to dismantle them for the sake of more reasonable, open debate.

Mr. Barrett’s series will continue next Wednesday, examining the proposition that “the church is unhealthily obsessed with sex.”

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Will Barrett

Will Barrett is, by profession, a teacher. By vocation, a humble neighborhood parson doing weekly battle with Sunday brunch lines for the souls of his fellows. By title, a bad Anglican, reader of men, loser in the cosmos, armchair historian of the dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and the Christ-forgetting, Christ haunted death dealing Western world.

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