Kim Fabricus recently wrote a post for Faith and Theology. Up front, I must say that he gets at something crucial in this post: namely, the tendency for evangelicals to punctuate their prayers with the word “just.” I have long been annoyed at this tic and am simultaneously saddened and satisfied to see that it has transmitted itself to Australia as well. I must also say that he has correctly identified broad tendencies in Christian circles, which he labels “neo-liberal” and “conservative evangelical.” He describes them in exaggerated terms, but that can be forgiven in light of his satirical intent.
My quarrel with the post focuses on its core argument. First, he claims that these two tendencies are mirror images of each other (this supposedly has something to do with the Enlightenment); neither are quite “getting it” when it comes to true Christianity. Nevertheless, he claims that we are able to rank the two tendencies and claims that the conservative evangelicals are preferable. It is not entirely clear to me what the basis for this judgment is, but it seems fair to say that it has something to do with beliefs — conservative evangelicals do have incorrect beliefs, but they are closer to real Christianity than the liberals are on that level; what’s more, the passion with which they hold their beliefs and their willingness to assert their beliefs as better than other beliefs makes them somehow more authentic than the liberals who want to hold all beliefs at a distance out of a desire for tolerance.
In comments, I characterized this as an “at least it’s an ethos” stance. That is to say, even though conservative evangelicals advocate bad or misguided things, their “believingness” is good and could in theory be directed toward true orthodoxy; whereas liberals are just terminally wishy-washy.
I would counter that we need to look beyond beliefs and believingness to make this judgment. I claimed in comments that evangelicalism “cultivates something just short of mental illness.” That statement was exaggerated, hurtful, and intolerant, and I apologize for it. Nevertheless, I do believe that evangelical churches do not form their congregants in a good or desirable way. Just as the tic of punctuating prayers with “just” propagates itself in the evangelical community with no one consciously choosing or desiring it, so too do attitudes of paranoia, habits of passive-aggression, an atmosphere of persecution complex, and a general fakeness (forced happiness, exaggerated poses of concern, etc.). There are good and sincere people in evangelical churches, but there are also many people for whom “being nice” is a conscious project of spiritual growth — so that saying hello and remembering your name somehow become boxes they check off on their righteousness score card. There are people who display the best form of tolerance, holding fast to their convictions while nonetheless being genuinely accepting of others and even open-minded to an extent, and yet there are also people who have taken on a project of actively inoculating themselves against any other opinion, with the help of a fully-fledged right-wing Christian propaganda industry. There are people who sincerely believe that their religious community would be beneficial to others and want to be able to talk about it openly, and there are also people who believe themselves to be beseiged by a phantom “liberal mainstream” bent on the destruction of all they hold dear. In each category, I would say that there are many more people in the latter camp than in the former — which is unsurprising, because it’s the latter behaviors that evangelical churches cultivate and spread.
By contrast, liberal Christians in my experience are at worst harmless, at very worst. Caring about people does not get caught up in a project of personal spiritual growth, genuine struggles with faith and despair are dealt with honestly and openly, and social justice is at the heart of the church’s self-image. Yes, “mainline liberal denominations are dying,” but that means that the people who are there are by and large the people who want to be there, the people who genuinely sympathize with the church’s mission, who want to be faithful to Christ and are determined not to let the crazy fundamentalists scare them off or have an exclusive claim on the gospel.
In short, I think Kim Fabricus needs to review the principle of selection in the parable of the sheep and the goats. It wasn’t beliefs or believingness — it was concrete action. On that front, I don’t think there’s any contest.