Can Evangelicals and Christians Coexist in America?

I just read an article entitled, “Can Gays and Christians Coexist in America?” Once again, I find myself annoyed by the presumption--the enduring arrogance present in unself-critically asserting that the “Christian position” with respect to LGBTQ people is by definition condemnatory.

This just in: There are Christians who actually believe God created LGBTQ people the way they are. So, I propose a title more representative of reality:

“Can Evangelicals and Christians Coexist in America?”

Oh, now I’ve got your blood boiling--at least some of you. Such a title sounds like heresy to a significant portion of the American Christian population, since in many people’s minds “Evangelical” is but a placeholder for “Christian”; which is to say, in many people’s minds the Venn diagram of “Evangelical” and “Christian” is a single, round circle. And therefore, anything not in that circle, anything not suitably “Evangelical” enough is suspect tout court.

But, I’ve got to tell you, I’m much less sympathetic to the outrage my title elicits from that particular segment of the population than I used to be. After repeatedly seeing evangelicals refer to their take on faith as “Christianity”--unqualified by even the slightest trace of humility that, you know, there might be other ways of reading the Christian faith that don’t necessarily correspond to evangelical interpretations. There’s always a subtle presumption at work among these folks that evangelical theology is the uncut dope, straight from the dealer--no fancy “interpretation,” no ostentatious hermeneutical parlor tricks (like the liberals employ), no “politically correct” weasel words that say “bad is good” and “down is up”--just the unalloyed stuff God intended for us to know and believe all along. Traditional means always and forever--as in, “We stand for ‘traditional marriage,’ one man and one woman, the kind God laid out in the Bible. We don’t go in for all that stupid contextuality stuff. God’s word is unchanging.”

But that is such a craptacular lie! Or if that’s too strong for you, God’s word may be unchanging, but our ability to read it correctly sure as hell isn’t.

Tradition. Orthodoxy. Precedent. These are not fixed theological quiddities, despite all the indignant howls to the contrary; they’re all much more fluid than Evangelicalism seems comfortable acknowledging. For example:

  • There was a time when baptizing people most likely meant dunking them under water, until it didn’t …

  • There was a time when fighting in the military was an unprecedented affront to the peaceful example of Jesus, until Constantine and his heirs came along and a new precedent was set …

  • There was a time when the mother of Jesus was deemphasized, until she wasn’t, but then the Reformation happened and (among Protestants) she was again …

  • There was a time when torture and forced conversion satisfied the rigorous demands of orthodoxy, until it didn’t …

  • There was a time when tradition permitted the owning of slaves, until traditional Christianity opted for a new tradition …

  • There was a time when it seemed clear to a number of the religious forbears of today’s evangelicals that interracial marriage was a grievous strike against God’s unchanging will for humanity, until it wasn’t …

Tradition, orthodoxy, precedent … all have a nasty habit of changing over time, and thus disappointing those who so vigorously contend that “God’s word is unchanging.” So, it seems a more plausible reading of the history of faith to argue that one of the constants of Christian theology over time is not some fetishized constancy expressed in a vacuum, but an ability to engage an ever changing world in new ways that honor the unfolding reign of God’s desire for peace and justice for all God’s creation.

Consequently, if one of the central components of Christianity is the tradition of thoughtfully embracing new traditions when those new traditions seem more fully capable of expressing God’s character and will in new and previously unheard of ways, then one is prompted to ask the difficult question: Can evangelicals and Christians coexist in America?