A terrific letter came in last night from a reader:
As a Millennial whose change-of-heart on gay rights/ssm played a significant role in my walking away from the faith of my childhood, I feel I can shed a little light on that dynamic, and specifically why Millennials aren’t moving on to more liberal churches. My leaving was much more about what the gay rights issues revealed about that faith than it was about the actual issue of gays and their right to marry.
Because there is nothing more obnoxious than a 24 year-old who’s going to tell everyone how the world works, all of this comes with the major caveat that it is simply my experience, and perhaps no one else’s.
I grew up in a Baptist church which practiced a kind of soft Evangelicalism. They would have never thrown out that term because doing that kind of taxonomy isn’t really in the Baptist mindset, but the influence of Evangelicalism was everywhere. Even for non-evangelical Millennials though, it’s important to remember just how much Evangelical culture infused the culture of youth groups from more traditional denominations during this period. I spent a fair amount of time in other churches, and even in those churches that were quite conventional with their adult ministries, their youth ministry was heavily influenced by Evangelicalism.
We were taught that our church not only had the absolute truth, but that there was no earthly history between the Bible and the doctrines being presented to us. I went to Evangelical churches fifty-two Sundays a year for the better part of 19 years, and I cannot for the life of me remember once when the name of a theologian was mentioned. There was one interpretation of scripture, and it was absolutely true. And, in fact, even the various doctrines that were taught were never mentioned by name, because the presence of the name might suggest that there were alternatives. One in three sermons at least name-checked Pre-tribulation rapture theology, but neither those terms nor pre-millennialism or John Nelson Darby was ever mentioned.
Instead of an intellectual tradition, it is a church built on emotion. Every sermon is a revival stump speech about the evils of the world and the need for salvation. Every sermon ends in a sentimental pop song/worship chorus to accompany an altar call in which the same handful of members weeps at the altar (these people are subsequently held up as the most exemplary Christians. I had a friend in junior high who could cry on cue; she cleaned up on attention in this system).
The problem these churches inevitably run into with their young members and same sex marriage is on the issue of doubt. When you have a feelings based salvation in a faith in which doubt is a sign of spiritual failure, the young members of these churches lack the space to wrestle with a tough issue like this.
You see SSM advocates as employing emotive arguments in order to win, but you have to realize that a lot of the Christians that are being argued against have traded in nothing but emotion for the last 30 years. Salvation is a weeping, sinners-prayer mumbling, emotional roller coaster, and the emoting never stops. In all the years I was a member, my evangelical church made exactly one argument about SSM. It’s the argument I like to call the Argument from Ickiness: Being gay is icky, and the people who are gay are the worst kind of sinner you can be. Period, done, amen, pass the casserole.
When you have membership with no theological or doctrinal depth that you have neglected to equip with the tools to wrestle with hard issues, the moment ickiness no longer rings true with young believers, their faith is destroyed. This is why other young ex-evangelicals I know point as their “turning point” on gay marriage to the moment they first really got to know someone who was gay. If your belief on SSM is based on a learned disgust at the thought of a gay person, the moment a gay person, any gay person, ceases to disgust you, you have nothing left. In short, the anti-SSM side, and really the Christian side of the culture war in general, is responsible for its own collapse. It failed to train up the young people on its own side preferring instead to harness their energy while providing them no doctrinal depth by keeping them in a bubble of emotion dependent on their never engaging with the outside world on anything but warlike terms. Perhaps someday my fellow ex-evangelical Millennials and I will join other churches, but it will be as essentially new Christians with no religious heritage from our childhoods to fall back on.
If you are a Christian — Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox — I want you to send a link to this post to every pastor in your church, and everyone involved with youth ministry. And if you are a parent, I want you to think hard about this letter. I know I am. It explains how same-sex marriage was the catalyst for rethinking this churchgoing young Evangelical’s entire belief system.
This dumbed-down emotivism is the way many, many churches — not just Evangelical churches — present the faith to its young people. It’s that “Jesus is my best friend” stuff that adults think will make the faith more palatable to young people, but which just sets them up for collapse when they step outside the bubble of church culture and find pushback. Specifically, as the writer points out, if emotions are the foundation on which you build your faith, what happens when your emotions don’t line up with the teachings of your church? We Orthodox, Catholics, and Reformed Christians can look down our noses all we like at charismatics and Evangelicals for not having a strong and systematic theology, but what good does our theological depth do us if we don’t teach our young people how to think as Christians, and how to discipline their feelings with reason? Catholics, for example, are even more pro-SSM than Evangelicals.
It cannot be said often enough: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the de facto religion of American youth. Who taught MTD to our kids? Who failed to give our kids something real and strong with which to resist MTD? Not long ago, I was talking to a young adult I know who has walked away from the church, and I told her that if I thought the entirety of Christianity was embodied by the kind of insipid, intellectually vacant church experiences she has had, I would have walked away too. The answer cannot be to pound kids over the head with dry theological lectures, because hyperrationalism is also a problem. But the opposite extreme — teaching young people that the faith is all about emotional experience and fideism — sets them up to be ex-Christians.