Is this the end?
Phyllis Tickle has long argued that the fight over human sexuality and marriage is the last battle of the culture war. It is the last plank of the cultural conservative political platform; and the plank is crumbling. That is why the fight has been so brutal. She argues that conservative Christians see this as the end, and are therefore willing to fight to the last breath to defend the status quo.
In the last decade, wide scholarship has lent the progressive argument for marriage equality and equal treatment of LGBTQ persons far more consensus among Christians and scholars than even a decade ago. The “clobber passages” have been decimated in recent years and so thoroughly debunked that their influence over the discussion has little effect any longer outside the confines of the extreme corners of the faith and in their residue in our traditions.
The tide has clearly shifted, and did so years ago. We’re just feeling the currents now.
So it is no wonder that the culture warriors would feel so disturbed and threatened, given the dramatic and seemingly rapid, (though it has been through decades of groundwork that has led to this) change in the culture. The Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges isn’t an isolated moment, of course, but a watershed in the midst of a half-century struggle for recognition and participation.
In some ways, the conservative concern is right. Things have changed. But not suddenly, and not for the ill. In many ways, it was the culture war itself, launched in the 1980s upon a so-called enemy who has itself rarely fought back which has brought us here. The organizing and rallying to a unified conservative cause against, not liberal oppressors, but a moderate and normalized culture struggling with postmodernity and wrestling with the issues of our world constructed this framework, this war, and all of its battlefields. A war for faith, for the very definition of truth.
This means the only target left in this discredited war is other Christians. Of course a strange move, given that this seems like decidedly un-Christian behavior.
It is also illogical in purpose. No portion of the church has been hit harder by the fall of modernity than the progressive and center-holding mainline. It has struggled to name its voice and claim its Christian ethic with strength and clarity, getting too mired and mixed up in philosophical puzzles, diction, and doctrine.
Conservative Christians have pilloried the progressive and mainline churches for their struggles, criticizing and humiliating the churches in public forums for decades, always suggesting that its decline coincides with the decline of liberalism. Sometimes going so far as to call it GOD’s punishment. At the last census, we had the biggest numbers gap and rates of decline between conservative evangelicalism and the mainline in 50 years. Though conservative Christianity was quite a bit stronger a decade ago, the mainline has really never been weaker.
Why, then, have conservatives chosen to be the bully? By their own measures and self-assessment, they are winning. If trends continue, they will have won in a matter of decades.
So how could this, the weakest member of the Christian family be in actuality, the most dangerous? Progressives, the ones so insignificant as to be ignored and ridiculed is simultaneously the scariest enemy the church has ever faced (apparently – and unlike, say, any other point in the last 50 years). And both insignificant and terrifying at the same time, I guess.
But what if Conservatives do know something we don’t? What if they actually sense something about the rest of us that we aren’t noticing about ourselves? Or, more importantly, have been unwilling to acknowledge and name about our churches?
The mainline has played the sleeping giant, refusing to be roused, even after 9/11. Refusing to be roused after Abu Ghraib and torture. Refusing to be roused after an economic meltdown. Refusing still to be roused in the midst of Black Lives Matter, generational inequality, rising infant mortality, and frustratingly unequal systems of injustice and access to education and healthcare.
Or perhaps it is that the sleeping giant is slow to wake, roused decades ago and much slower to get to its feet, harder to rein in, and impossible to stop.
And maybe, just maybe, they are right to name the giant, the true giant of transformation; that it isn’t the mainline churches themselves, but the progressive ethic and theological awakening many in the mainline have embraced. For it is the giant itself, rather than its churches that conservative Christians fear.
The giant, so terrifying to the privileged and the comfortable; to the wealthy and the ignorant alike; it has come to bring the Kingdom, turning things upside down and inside out. The big churches brought low and the tiny churches raised up. A giant of transformation and innovation the likes of which humanity hasn’t seen in generations, with new expressions and reflections of grace we have yet to name. This giant comes in love and hope. But it won’t be kind to white supremacy, unequal justice, and the bank accounts of the wealthy.
Those things are toast.
Conservative evangelicals are right: a more powerful and transformative faith is being born. A faith that is eager to include us all. But it won’t. Because I suspect that many hate the thought of losing more than they like the thought of sharing in winning.