Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Martyrdom, McCarthyism, and the Problem of Naivete

Christians ought not be so quick to assume that a time of testing will make their faith stronger

I said in my Benedict Option talk yesterday that we small-o orthodox Christians could take a lesson from Dante, and allow our exile from the mainstream — both chosen and unchosen — to humble us, to bring us back to fidelity and the life of the Spirit, and renew us. We must try, anyway, because if we are going to hold on to the orthodox Christian faith in this increasingly anti-Christian culture, we are going to have to learn how to endure, and to endure joyfully.

I ran out of time this morning on the stage, but I wanted to talk briefly about how we will have much to learn from the African-American experience. A black friend’s grandmother, encouraging her children in the 1940s not to let their spirits and their dignity be broken by white hatred, counseled, “Don’t be the kind of person they think you are.” That’s great advice for Christians going forward.

That said, I think a lot of us Christians have a problem with naivete on this culture war front. The Evangelical writer Matthew Lee Anderson hits it square on the head in this post. Excerpts:

But there is a wide gap between disliking the fact that the pursuit of LGBT rights makes some people mean (as the unfortunate pizza owners discovered) and providing principled reasons for why, given the logic that the LGBT cause has used to advance its own rights and that sympathizers have adopted, such restrictions and prohibitions should not be pursued.

Such are the stakes of the great dispute that is upon us about how gay rights can co-exist with religious liberty. Which is why it’s curious to read libertarian writers like David Harsanyi or Conor Friedersdorf or Ben Domenech seem surprised by the pervasiveness of the conflict. Friedersdorf thinks that it is only a “faction” of gay marriage proponents that want to exclude those who have objections (religious or otherwise) from meaningful participation in public life. But while he’s right Julian Sanchez persuasively argues our current situation with respect to gay rights is nothing like Jim Crow, the LGBT community has made all of its legal and political gains the past twenty years by arguing that those who object are motivated by animus or bigotry. The one lesson that everyone in the gay marriage dispute should agree on is that the law has a pedagogical function: having been told (now) by the Supreme Court that objectors are motivated by animus, our society is simply starting to believe it. What else would we expect?  It is precisely what conservatives have been arguing about the institution for the past twenty years, and on this they have once again been vindicated.


There is no room for naivety about our current cultural crisis. Only within the evangelical world naivety is the dominant problem. Young evangelicals who are increasingly sympathetic to their cause want to make nice with gay marriage while supporting religious liberty, but until we are given arguments for how they can coexist given our current legal and political history, we have no more reason to think that is possible than that we could unwind marriage from politics altogether (which is the ultimate libertarian fantasyland). The people who are now shouting about “religion-based bigotry” may be outliers now, but if Frank Bruni has his way they’ll be the future of the movement. After all, Rachel Held Evans thinks that conservatives have blood on their hands.  If that’s not sufficient reason to do whatever it takes to eradicate such views, I don’t know what is.

So while it’s nice that Jonathan Merritt recognizes Bruni’s “strong-arm tactics” are “deeply troubling,” a careful reader will observe that he does not object to Bruni’s construal of the backwardness of religious conservatives. In fact, Merritt’s main argument against Bruni is that he’s going to embolden conservative evangelicals by framing them as persecuted. Apparently Merritt thinks its better to be nice to us so that none of us say anything, ever. With friends like these

Read the whole thing.

I don’t know the Evangelical world, so I am in no position to determine whether or not Anderson is right or wrong about their supposed naivete. But I do believe that there are very many Christians, including Catholics and Orthodox, who have no idea what’s at stake in all this, and how much they stand to lose. It never seems to touch them, this culture war, so they believe it doesn’t exist, or it’s much ado about nothing. They really do believe the quaint cliche that the marriage of their gay neighbors doesn’t affect them.

But when they start seeing their friends losing their jobs, or having to live in constant fear that somebody in the office will discover that they’re a Christian, they’ll realize how far things have gone. They may hope that the LGBT movement and its allies will satisfy themselves by dismantling non-dhimmi institutions like Gordon College, and that if they keep their heads down the bullies will pass their favored schools and institutions by. They’ll find out.

Many Christians have trouble accepting that all their service to the poor and vulnerable will avail them nothing in the world that’s here, and that is coming. The city of Lynn, Mass., tossed Gordon volunteer interns out of the impoverished city’s public schools, which are full of low-income kids. Why? Let’s ask school committee member Charlie Gallo, who led the push to evict Gordon:

“Their volunteer involvement was very limited. You have to draw the line somewhere,” Mr. Gallo said. “If the Ku Klux Klan, for example, made the best school lunch in the world, we’re not going to hire them to make the school lunch in the Lynn Public Schools.”

Cross-burning racial terrorists, young Evangelicals volunteering to teach in schools filled with impoverished minority kids — well, gosh, who can tell the difference?

I swear, this must be what McCarthyism was like: the moral panic, the fervor to root out the impure, the fear people who were guilty of nothing had of being suspected of disloyalty.

Anyway, I heard someone here say in conversation that a period of persecution might be good for Christians because we have grown too comfortable. It’s a position that I sometimes think is true, and in any case we are obliged to join our sufferings to Christ’s and try to be strengthened by our trials. Nevertheless, it is also true — and probably more important to think about — that it’s awfully glib to assume that persecution always makes the church stronger. As another person pointed out in that same conversation, the church in Japan never recovered from its persecution. There are other examples.

Optimistic Christians love to quote that line from Tertullian, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” but that’s mighty easy to do when it’s not your children’s blood at risk of being spilled. And it’s easy to do when you can’t imagine losing your family business or job over your faith, or imagine what it’s like to live in fear that somebody in the workplace is going to ask you a question, and you answer it honestly instead of lying, and you will be branded a bigot forever. And so forth.

Maybe this kind of thing will make some people’s faith stronger. But we should not be eager to be put to the test. None of us know for sure how we would bear up. As an ardent Catholic, I really did believe that nothing could make me lose my faith in Catholic Christianity. I learned otherwise the hard way.

So, look, you tell me what you’re seeing where you are: do you think Christian conservatives are naive about the nature of the opposition? Examples, if you have them, please.

UPDATE: A reader responds:

“But I do believe that there are very many Christians, including Catholics and Orthodox, who have no idea what’s at stake in all this, and how much they stand to lose. It never seems to touch them, this culture war, so they believe it doesn’t exist, or it’s much ado about nothing. They really do believe the quaint cliche that the marriage of their gay neighbors doesn’t affect them.”

It will touch them even if they have no interest. This was the case for some friends of ours until recently. One of them took his boys out of Boy Scouts because of where he thought the organization was going. He didn’t say anything about allowing gays in to the scoutmaster and this was over a year before those changes were made. Just said that they had other priorities. The scoutmaster berated him for being homophobic as the real reason they were leaving. He started getting threatening calls from another parent about being intolerant. Then he had problems at work because one of the other parents in the troop he works with told co-workers about him leaving scouts, and a gay manager then did everything she could to get him fired. He’s safe for now as a top sales producer but he’s not sure for how long.

Another close friend is a public school teacher. This past summer, they rolled out transgender curriculum for her grade school kids and she has a 7th grader using girl’s restrooms because he identifies as female. She can no longer use terms like “he” or “she” when referring to students. Next year, they will start queer studies. She needs to affirm kids in the classroom and the coursework. She figured a mandate not to use gender terms isn’t actually in the Bible so it wasn’t a big deal but has no idea what to do about teaching the gay coursework. She left working in a Christian school because they could not pay the bills. Now in the public school system she’s the family breadwinner with her husband working as a pastor. If she teaches the curriculum will her husband get fired? Or will the church be tolerant because they need him as a pastor and can’t pay him very much?

Our friends where taken by surprise by this. As in, hit with the proverbial bus. My friend who was in scouts remarked to me how quickly things spiraled out of control when he made what he thought was an insignificant decision to leave Boy Scouts, and this was almost three years ago. What shocked him is that he never even mentioned leaving scouts due to the policy changes. Everyone just assumed that was the reason because they knew he was active in his church. He has no doubt he would no longer be employed if it wasn’t for the amount of revenue he brings in for his company.

UPDATE.2: Reader Smitty:

As an Evangelical, the naivete is quite strong, in two distinct strands.

In the older generation of Evangelicals (I would say, Generation X and earlier), there is a naivete that because the “silent majority” is with them, they will be fine. This generation believes that there is a silent, moral majority that disapproves of homosexuality and that this will be the bulwark that stems the tide. This thinking arises out of the culture wars fights of the 1970s and 1980s, where there really was a moral majority that was sick of the way that the popular culture was headed. These Evangelicals think that this is a similar fight and they will prevail or at least battle to a draw. They really don’t see/understand/realize the stakes or how our side is being demonized. And where I am at, people take a great deal of false comfort in the idea that “We live in the Bible belt. This is something that happens in big coastal cities. But we’ll be safe here.”

Among the Millenial generation, they do have the naivete that there can be peace. They believe that there is a compromise that can be found where they can oppose same sex marriage, have gay friends and not be ostracized. I am a youth leader of a Pentecostal church in the southern U.S. Gay rights and religious liberty isn’t really talked about among my group and I don’t really see it talked about in other youth groups.

I think because there is a naivete that if we don’t talk about it, it pass right over us, like a storm that never quite hits. I’ll admit that I find that line of thought tempting, because this isn’t an issue that is easy to talk about.

And what that generation faces is something far different that our most recent predecessors faced. I commented to someone recently that things are about to completely flip for Evangelical teenagers in public schools, if they haven’t already. When I was in middle school/high school in the 90s, living as an Evangelical Christian meant facing social opprobrium (the fear of every teenager), but the pushback came in the form of “Oh, you think you’re better than us?” By living as a committed Evangelical, you were at risk of being thought of as someone who fancied themselves better, more moral than everyone else. And that attack could be largely thwarted by combining the traits of Christ: being kind, approachable, friendly, etc., with proving yourself to be principled.

But for a teenager today and the coming years, living as a committed Evangelical puts them at risk of being labeled a bigot and a homophobe. So instead of being as someone who has tried to make themselves better than everyone else, they will be seen as beneath everyone else. They will be seen as a denizen of a hateful gutter. And that cannot be easily thwarted. No amount of kindness can overcome being seen as a bigot. The pressures on Evangelical (as well as Orthodox, Catholic, etc.) teenagers to give in will be immense. I am quite fearful for our future.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now