Rod Dreher recently posted a letter from one of his readers. The letter recounts the experience of a Millennial for whom a change of heart on the issue of same-sex marriage led to his departure from evangelicalism. Responding to Dreher’s contention that the arguments of same-sex marriage advocates are founded upon emotion, the letter writer counters that many Christian opponents of same-sex marriage “have traded in nothing but emotion for the last 30 years.” He suggests that, having grounded their opposition to same-sex marriage solely in an unexamined disgust, the moment young evangelicals have humanizing engagements with gay persons they are left without any argument against same-sex marriage, and their Christian convictions are thrown into confusion.
Reflecting on the letter, Dreher focuses on the dangers of “dumbed-down emotivism,” bemoaning the intellectual vacancy of many quarters of the Christian church. My purpose is to peel away some of the layers of Dreher’s analysis to reveal and reflect on a deeper but overlooked dimension of evangelicalism’s identity that has a significant effect on its responses to same-sex marriage. While Dreher highlights evangelicalism’s emotivism, I believe there is a more fundamental issue. I will caricature evangelicalism somewhat in the remarks that follow. Nevertheless, as for any good caricature, I trust the features, even if slightly exaggerated, will be immediately recognizable.
Caricatures can be instructive as movements tend to give undue importance and centrality to their distinctives, often becoming caricatures of themselves in the process. Provided you recognize my caricature doesn’t represent evangelicalism as it really, always, or necessarily is, but what evangelicalism tends to become when its center of gravity is shifted toward its distinctives—something that frequently occurs—my points should be understood.
Misplaced Center of Gravity
The governing story at the heart of evangelicalism is the conversion narrative. This may be a controversial claim to make about a movement that purports to be driven by the story of the gospel, but careful observation of evangelicalism’s dynamics provides much evidence for its truth. For evangelicalism, the “gospel” is typically framed not as Scripture frames it—as the historical story of God’s salvation accomplished in his Son through the public events of Christ’s incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost, and return in glory—but as the “story” of how the sinful individual can be saved in the present. It’s a story of how Christ can become an active part of my personal biography rather than a historical account that stands apart from my biography, which I must enter as I die to myself and my old biography and become a part of Christ’s life. The difference may appear subtle, but it is immensely significant.
Evangelicalism’s foregrounding of the conversion narrative leads to a particular understanding of the formation of the Christian’s subjectivity. In a tradition that placed its primary accent on the objective, historical narrative of God’s work in Christ, Christians’ subjectivity would principally be formed as they entered into a larger story outside of themselves and as this story shaped and identified them. By contrast, within evangelicalism, Christian subjectivity is effected chiefly from within, through the immediacy of the “conversion experience.”
With this understanding of genuine Christian subjectivity as arising from within comes a suspicion of the place of the objective, external, and institutional dimensions of Christian faith—of creeds, confessions, theologies, liturgies, sacraments, rites, and churches. Rather than being valued as means of spiritual formation and incorporation into the life of Christ and his people, they are viewed as a sort of dead shell that surrounds the internal, living reality of Christian faith, residing purely in the believer’s heart. Their sole value arises as they serve as means by which we express the spiritual life within us. The sacraments and institutions of Christianity cease to be regarded as acting to form us into a living body and start to be seen as mere public expressions of our private faith. I am baptized, not so that I might participate in and be formed by the life and death of Christ and his body more fully, but in order publicly to declare my personal and private belief.
Evangelicalism places on all within it a responsibility to fashion a spiritual identity from out of their own divinely visited subjectivity. To be evangelical is to account for one’s identity from out of one’s own “born again” spiritual experience and not in terms of membership or participation in some external institution or ritual. The typical evangelical narrative of conversion begins by establishing an antithesis between genuine Christian identity and “external” identities—“I was raised in a Christian home and grew up attending a gospel-believing church, but. . . .” Rather than emphasizing an outward-looking affirmation of one’s belief in the truth and saving power of historical gospel events, and the reliability of God’s Word and promise in the “external” means of grace, the evangelical “personal testimony” is principally concerned with presenting a detailed account of one’s arrival at a believing subjectivity. Evangelical identity is manifested and established through demonstrative piety, which is where the lure of emotionalism comes in.
By this point we may seem to have strayed far beyond relevance to the original question. However, the significance of these reflections becomes more apparent when we recognize that this evangelical account of Christian identity finds noteworthy analogies in LGBT communities.
For LGBT persons, one cannot truly be defined by the objective reality of one’s body and its natural relation to the other sex, but one’s identity arises as a subjective achievement. The autonomous authority over against all other interpreters claimed by the sexual subject in his self-identification finds a parallel in the presumed independence of many evangelical readers of Scripture from all external authorities represented by creeds, confessions, traditions, church teaching, and congregational reading.
While most persons receive their identity from without as society imposes its sexual and gendered identities, the LGBT person recognizes that true identity arises from within. The realization of an authentic subjectivity over against the formalism of imposed norms of gender and sexuality is recounted in the “personal testimonies” of coming-out stories and tales of transition. Given the understanding of the nature of true identity within LGBT communities, it shouldn’t surprise us that same-sex marriage has been pursued chiefly as an “expressive”—rather than a “formative” and “institutional”—reality. Marriage is presented as the way couples publicly express their love for one another, rather than a public institution that places demands and identities on us and our communities, irrespective of our internal states.
Because both elevate the subjectivity and personal “story” of the individual as the defining factor in identity and share a resistance to the “external” determination of identity, evangelicals and the LGBT community have an ironic affinity. The content may radically differ, but the form of identity has great similarities. This affinity has considerable implications for understanding the character of evangelicalism’s response to LGBT persons and to same-sex marriage.
Here are three areas where the effect of this affinity can be felt.
First, evangelicalism lacks a robust account of institutions. It is ill-equipped to mount a strong defense of marriage when its own fundamental understanding of institutions has much in common with that of the LGBT community. If institutions are chiefly means by which we express our personal narratives and subjectivities rather than larger “narratives” that we enter, to which we subject ourselves, and by which we are formed, the case against same-sex marriage is a much weaker one. Evangelicalism has long had a fraught relationship with institutions and their claimed authority over the individual and their spiritual consciousness. Placed in the position of having to defend an institution such as marriage, it lacks the requisite conceptual tools and categories.
Second, when a movement finds its center of gravity in individual subjectivity, it will face either the risk of a brittle bigotry, asserting the superiority of its own mode of subjectivity over all others, or a soft relativism, within which all subjectivities are treated as independent guardians of their own individual “truth.” Evangelicals have typically been tempted to the former. However, such a posture is difficult to sustain when one encounters well-intentioned people of radically different perspectives. The moment genuine empathy occurs, it becomes hard to sustain such a position. Young evangelicals are exposed to the subjectivities of LGBT persons in a way their parents were not. As their initial bigotry crumbles (as it should) there is often nothing else to fall back on.
Third, the LGBT community and the same-sex marriage cause are advanced in large measure through emotional personal testimony and stories of subjective self-realization. This is the language evangelicals were raised on, and it can resonate with us. Evangelicals, having placed so much store on the truth and immediacy of the personal narrative and the value of unfeigned emotion, will face particular difficulties in considering how to respond to these.
Opportunity to Learn
In responding to movements deemed to be un-Christian within our culture, our habitual posture is one of direct and forceful rejection. We perceive our duty within such engagement solely to be that of defending the truth against error. In adopting such an approach, though, I believe we miss one of the chief purposes of such challenges in God’s providence. In sparring with opposing positions, we can uphold the truth. However, we can also develop new strengths and, more importantly, discover our own compromising weaknesses.
As evangelicals respond to the LGBT movement, I hope we will do so self-reflectively. This is an opportunity to learn uncomfortable lessons about ourselves, to discover how our “truth” can rely on little more than brittle bigotry, to discover how we have marginalized God’s story for the sake of our own, and how we have lost sight of the blessing and authority of institutional means of Christian and social formation. As we come to a realization of the faults in others, we may find we are seeing a mirror image of the faults in ourselves.