When I was in college and grad school, the conservative leaders in both politics and Christianity with whom I was acquainted had a calm demeanor, respect towards those with whom they disagreed, an openness to information, and an acceptance of the secular nature of our government. My father was a good example of this. Conservative Christians divided into fundamentalists and evangelicals, and we evangelicals tended to see fundamentalists as angry and confrontational, suspicious of academics, inflexible, and authoritarian (i.e. using power to control others). In retrospect, I think they also tended towards apocalyptic thinking (fear of imminent demise) and dare I say, racism (e.g. the anti-miscegenation of Bob Jones). The “fighting fundies” in turn judged us as being ungodly from their perspective. Regardless of how accurate or inaccurate our perceptions, these were clearly demarcated “camps,” and Billy Graham (an evangelical leader) was a touchstone of the “second-degree separation” issue that made fundamentalists denounce him.
Strikingly, one of the leading individuals today who seems to represent that harsh and aggressive tone and perspective is Billy’s own son Franklin Graham. For many of us, the distinction between the two of them is very palpable and painful, and it has no relationship to a divergence in their stated theology or morality, but in how they perceive society and relate to it. (If you see no real difference between Billy and Franklin Graham, or you see a difference and prefer Franklin, you may not benefit from reading the rest of this post.)
Perhaps that clear divide I saw in conservative Christianity never existed, or perhaps the distinction has broken down, but I feel myself at a loss to know how to personally relate to this new face of a consolidated conservatism. I feel an urgent need to distinguish and distance myself from the one variety of conservatism while connecting with the other kind. But if they steadfastly hold together–in the same churches, organizations, and institutions–I find no way to connect to community, but only one-on-one. This need to distance myself from strident Christians (as I experience them) rises from several important values I hold.
- Personal Integrity. The groups with which a man publicly identifies communicates his outlook on life. It is disingenuous (i.e. lacks integrity) to be an anti-gun member of the NRA or a pro-choice supporter of Right to Life. This is especially true 1) the closer a group is identified with a particular viewpoint or attitude; 2) the more central that viewpoint is to their overall outlook; 3) the more vocal and pervasive their message is regarding that perspective; and 4) the more exclusive they are about their view (i.e. rejecting alternative voices). So I face a deep personal conundrum in locating my group identity. Some might suggest I find commonality in core theological beliefs and relegate other matters to the periphery, but that only holds if “all other matters” truly are treated by the group as peripheral. No Jewish organization has anti-Muslim principles in its charter, and yet some are known chiefly for that. Groups have a wide range of conscious and unconscious norms, fairly consistent characteristics and viewpoints, brand values that define them to the public, and such a context can turn peripheral matters into their most identifiable markers. Regarding the evangelical brand, I ask myself: “Are these characteristics and viewpoints true of you and what you believe, of what you value and want to promote?”
- Theology of Grace. I deeply value the virtue of grace as applied to our relationships. Grace, the highest expression of love, is my most core and cherished value (as it is in Scripture, I believe). However, my point here is much more fundamental than a matter of Christian behavior. Grace, or unconditional love, is essential to the very nature of God himself–not just the way he relates, but who he is. It is the very ground from which creation and salvation spring. It is the quintessence of the gospel, our message of life to the world. How our message is communicated often trumps the message itself in importance, but in some cases the timbre of our words actually contravenes the message. Just as some apologies morph into accusations and some commitments end up betrayals in the fine print, our rendering of the gospel of reconciliation may come across as outright rejection. The method denies the message, like pacifists taking up arms to enforce their views. I feel morally obligated to distance myself from that rendering, especially since the gospel message is our most crucial moral and spiritual consideration.
- Social Responsibility. As grace is my most cherished value, I feel responsible to make its progress in society paramount. And as grace is fundamental to the nature and work of God, of how he relates to us and calls us to relate to him, I see it as essential and core to every facet of society. If I am to promote grace, I must resist all that contradicts grace, whether in myself or in others. Discerning ungraciousness and determining one’s response to it can be quite subjective and individual, but if grace is a core Christian value, we must confront what undermines it in as gracious a way as we can. I am flawed in many ways–morally, intellectually, perceptually–so I will make many mistakes in this delicate balance of trying to graciously distance myself from ungrace, but I feel obligated morally, spiritually, theologically, socially, and relationally to resist ungrace.
- Internal peace. Because of my own weaknesses, I often do not have the emotional resources to stay in a harsh context. I must do my best to determine where my greatest responsibilities and usefulness lie and live in such a way that my limited energies are invested wisely. So for very emotionally and spiritually pragmatic reasons, I find it necessary to distance myself from too much contact with those who pull my spirit down, primarily those with the characteristics I have described as “fundamentalist” or I will sap the energy I need for personal growth and strategic life investment.
- Communal connection. In the same way that I need to protect my own spirit, I need to support my own spirit by connecting deeply with those who strengthen and encourage my heart, who love and accept me into being honest, brave, vulnerable, faithful, and all that grounds me more deeply in myself, in God and in his world through love.
I have floundered in my search for such a community. What I seek is not a perfectly gracious community, which does not exist, but one which values the grace of God as its primary end and means, however faulty those efforts. Conservative churches are staunch in their beliefs, affirming all who agree regardless of the spirit in which they express those beliefs, as though arguing that God is love is far more important than showing that God is love. Normative theology is a membership requirement, graciousness is optional, even if valued. I am not suggesting that most conservatives are ungracious, but that they routinely embrace and welcome the ungracious as long as they have the right theology, and this profoundly shapes the whole community (and its perception by the world). My inner conflict is not with the theology or even moral positions, but with the spirit.
In spite of this, I feel a great deal of compatibility and connection with my spiritual heritage–its devotional warmth, biblical commitment, and God-centered worldview–so that my dislocation feels like homelessness. I offer here a painful family critique, not an outsider’s rejection, and above all I write as a support to those who feel these things in silent suffering. You are not alone, not by a long shot. I pray for deep grace to flow down in abundance into the minds, hearts, and relationships of my brothers and sisters, and in me as well. And I journey on with God as best I know how, a wandering pilgrim.