World Vision and the Culture Wars

I, for one, am tired of arguing. I’m tired of trying to defend evangelicalism when its leaders behave indefensibly.

Is there a problem with hypocrisy in the modern church? Yes, just as there was in the ancient, medieval and renaissance churches. Fortunately, Christian doctrine and practice accounts for the fact that all of the churches members will remain in a state of sin. The church has a built-in “sin problem”.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion regarding the proper response when this problem is recognized. There are many calls in the current culture for doctrine to bend because of pressures from the scientific community and public perception at large. The core issue is the insistence that individual feelings, cultural mores and scientific consensus should determine Church doctrine.

Ever since Søren Kierkegaard’s turn to experience in the 20th century, emotions and feelings have been increasingly exalted as vital to forming the modern worldview. Couple this with the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, and H. L. Mencken’s characterization of fundamentalists as the sort of folks who are the unlucky recipients of the rubbish tossed out of your upscale train car as you rode from New York to New Orleans, and you get a full-blown culture war. The term ‘fundalmentalism‘ meant something very different then when compared to the straw-man characterization popular now that casts biblical inerrantists as robotic and unschooled biblical literalists.

The Scopes trial has a fascinating history, with William Jennings Bryan leveraging his considerable oratorical skills to defend creationism with flourishes that emphasized the primacy of the the “rock of ages” over the “ages of rocks” that were a consistent focus of the evolutionary scientists at the trial. Mencken’s skillful pen drew up the battle lines, casting fundamentalists as emotional and pedantic as they fought against the tide of logic, progress and science — a characterization that has only grown stronger over time. After World War II, anti-communism and conservative Christianity sealed an alliance that became a tenant of american conservatism and the academy gradually became less and less associated with conservative values. It doesn’t help that our society has polarized overall due to natural feedback cycles and self-selectivity in location, education, marriages and vocations. We now have an educated and well-paid elite in the cities that are overwhelmingly liberal islands– both economically and religiously, while their surrounding territory has become more conservative. Moreover, these separate populations are now served by increasingly separate educational institutions, food distribution, and entertainment. The technology-enabled connectivity we are experiencing now is just accelerating everything into an increasingly polarized state.

While modern polarization between conservatives and progressives is heavily discussed, there is a lesser known population of evangelicals who are growing increasingly dis-enchanted with the traditional church. While they want to respect the traditional Church, they want a more modern version of Christianity which is consonant with their desire to love others and the current scientific/cultural consensus of their peers. They are open to a progressive doctrine and emphasize honesty over certainty. They want to offer something distinct than the image of Westboro Baptist Church, which has characterized evangelicals in the eyes of many.

Rachel Held Evans is a young blogger and author who tailors her work to this population and recently resonated with some my respected evangelical friends in her recent article How evangelicals won a culture war and lost a generation. One friend posted on Facebook that her article “could not have been said better” and was “exactly how [she had] been feeling.”

Ms Evans’s leverages her hometown of Dayton, Tennessee and its role in the culture wars to build a sympathetic audience online. She claims to be an active defender evangelicals, but her books and writings are consistently critical of the traditional church. Like the furniture store that is always going out of business to attract sales, Ms Evans has made a brand of continually walking away from conservative Christianity in a number of books and articles and here she once again galvanizes her audience as an insider who is walking away from the complications of dogma to the bliss of a culturally relevant and acceptable version of the Christian faith. She writes:

I, for one, am tired of arguing. I’m tired of trying to defend evangelicalism when its leaders behave indefensibly.

“I’m going AWOL on evangelicalism’s culture wars so I can get back to following Jesus among its many refugees: LGBT people, women called to ministry, artists, science-lovers, misfits, sinners, doubters, thinkers and “the least of these.”

Here she does something very subtle. While from her books, she has been AWOL from orthodox Christianity since 2008, she once again draws her boundaries which form the basis of her own salvo in the culture wars and then blames conservatives for the instigation. Implicit in her article is that you have to decide between a false dichotomy: you are either in the evangelical tent or you are an artist or scientist or sinner, or thinker.

I disagree. Outliers aside, the church I see is not going out of its way to prosecute homosexuals, but is simply defending its doctrine against a massive attack on its source of authority. I’ve never found the conservative church to be obsessed with this issue. I’ve never heard it mentioned in any sermon after attending 6 churches over 15 years–that is roughly 700 sermons. (The last time I heard a the pastor mention the sanctity of a marriage between a man and a woman in Boston 15 years ago at Park Street Church in Boston.) The church and its organizations are being asked this question on all fronts and even though many don’t want to answer it, they are being forced to show their hand. Will you redefine marriage? Will you buy contraception for your members? What is your position on gay rights/marriage? I have no doubt that if the church were pressed to celebrate divorce or gluttony or any of her present sins, that it would be forced to clarify her position on these matters as well, fortunately society hasn’t forced those questions on the church yet.

Aside from a incredibly small fringe, there is nothing like a symmetric response to the gay pride movement. There are just people like me, trying to live consistent and loving lives, but who can not change the foundations of our faith just because others want us to. To Christians like me, we are ready to change our mind if you can show me through what we consider to authoritative that homosexual behavior is approved, celebrated and sanctioned. To those who disagree, it is worth considering what evidence you would consider that would change your mind. If the answer is that there could be no external evidence outside of your own feelings about the subject, then you and I have a very different way of approaching the question: “What is truth?”

This is the issue for Christians: should they abandon their source of truth and replace it with something else? If so, what and why? Ms Evans doesn’t have any answers here. While she has built a brand around honesty and doubt, she exalts herself as the measure of truth and declares dogmatically:

“Christians can disagree about what the Bible says (or doesn’t say) about same-sex marriage. This is not an issue of orthodoxy.”

Now, what does she mean by orthodoxy? The definition of orthodoxy I’ve learned is an acceptance of transcendent standard rooted in tradition and authority. Without a transcendent standard, you have a church, and a Christ, without anything to offer. You might as well join the local meetup, it will cost you a lot less, help your resume, and fit better in your modern schedule.

But despite the hidden foundation of the article, which is to abandon conservative epistemology and jump in with the flow of the times, is there a real claim to the argument that lured in my friends?

“But when we begin using child sponsorships as bargaining tools in our debates, we’ve lost the way of Jesus”?

While Ms Evan’s faith is centered in the nebulous “way of Jesus” that I wish she would clarify, I have two key issues with her argument: (1) You can’t assume that the cessation of support for an organization is intended to harm or inconsiderate of the object of the charity and (2) there is good reason to keep ones philanthropic activities in line with ones values.

First, World Vision claims that financial concerns had nothing to do with their reversal and I have no reason to believe otherwise. While two articles I’ve read quote 2,000 and 4000 lost sponsorships, I have no idea of the real number. Lets assume there were three categories for lost sponsorships: (1) normal attrition, (2) “bargaining chip” moves that placed doctrine over the needs of needy children and hoarded their money or (3) individuals who out of conscience moved their money to another critical need since World Vision was now adhering to a view inconsistent with their values. We have no idea of the second category is significant, but Ms Evans seems to assume all evangelicals fit there. My guess would be a 1/4/95 % split in the populations who ceased supporting. The second category, yes, behaved selfishly and are worthy of her rebuke. Admittedly, that is a lot of people by my own math, maybe 100 to 200 bad apples in the mix. However, it is the third category that I feel deserves a defense.

First, I think it is completely consistent to align one’s money with one’s values. If one affirms the traditional definition of marriage, they were out of sync with World Vision from its first position and it was the right thing to re-consider their partnership in light of this values disconnect. Consider if world vision would have announced that they no-longer supported women in leadership roles, or were no longer going to provide support to non-Christian children or children of a certain race. Such a position would have rightly caused a reconsideration by many to decide if they wanted to support such an organization and take their money elsewhere, even though some children would suffer and if the money were moved to another charity, other children would benefit. There are no shortages of excellent charities and we can never support them enough.

There is an additional line of logic implicit in her arguments and the supporting Facebook comments, that I find troubling. Two example Facebook comments are:

Just shifting your support to another organization still leaves those children you have been supporting through World Vision without the support they are counting on is unconscionable! Those are people! not just “recipients” of your money.

and

They still pulled their funds from 2000 children who needed the money for food, education and living in general. Doesn’t that upset you at all? Is it ok for those kids to starve now? I think as Christians we of all people should understand grace and being the hands and feet of Jesus.

From these comments, I (and all of us who withhold some of our funds from World Vision) am in a whole condemnable category of my own. I wasn’t a World Vision supporter in the first place and am therefore worthy of more condemnation than those who were giving but withdrew their support. Additionally, while I support other charities, I’ve certainly spent money on myself and on luxuries for my children that could have gone to saving other children. I purchased new clothes for my children when I could have provided food to others. Aren’t we all guilty here to some degree? And for an article that excoriates others for their judgmental actions, aren’t the comments above laden with a big bit of judgment resulting from a small bit of information?

One of the great ironies of this article, is that ignores the real suffering that has been caused by such a shift in support from governmental access and resources to faith-based organizations that have orthodox and traditional policies on abortion or homosexual activity. Who is going to advocate for the homeless in DC who can no longer receive food or the adoptive services which have been diminished in numerous cities as their federal funding has been pulled? Are these organizations not also “bargaining chips” in the culture wars?

In short, I applaud Ms Evans for winning a lot of eyeballs on the internet by putting together a compelling article with the right ingredients for internet stardom: a dramatic walking away from faith from an insider, a claim that she is not engaging in/even running away from culture wars from as she fans the flames, a scathing judgment against the judgmental conservatives in a non-judgmental way, and a framing of conservatives for fighting a war just to be right as they cling to ancient scriptures in the face of modern progress.

However, her most skillful move was to employ Mencken’s most effective weapon: the straw man which casts evangelicals as doctrinaire and so obsessed with persecuting well-meaning homosexuals that they are willing to throw children under the bus. For those who are apt to believe this characterization accurately reflects a sizable percent of those who removed their funding, I would recommend that you step back and talk with someone who withdrew their support. You might just find they are a lot more reasonable than Ms Evans makes them out (or needs them) to be to sell her books.

2 thoughts on “World Vision and the Culture Wars

  1. Well-said, Tim. What Ms. Evans wants is what Dennis Prager calls “cut flower ethics”: the appealing sight and fragrance of charitable and “moral” behavior divorced from its infrastructure, wellspring and transcendant Source. Such feel-good constructs are destined to wither and die, leaving a society bereft of even the veneer of morality and social order. I wonder, according to her logic, if there’s ever any valid reason to withdrawal one’s support from a charity serving the helpless.

  2. Tim, Great commentary on this really important trend in the church and in our culture. Appreciate your sharing this!

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