Brian McLaren has been taking it on the chin a bit lately.
If you don't recognize the name, Rvd. McLaren is a big name in Christian circles. I'd describe him as an evangelical, though he's certainly on the more post-modern edge of that movement, and he tends to ask hard questions like how to make sense of Christian exclusivism in a multicultural world to whether penal substitution is the best way of understanding Biblical justice, to a lot of other issues that are social rather than theological. And I promise you, that's the last of the technical jargon, because the issue that has Rvd. McLaren in the news these days is really quite simple.
Trevor McLaren (Brian's son) just got married. What should have been a joyous occasion was absolutely not ruined by Rvd. McLaren's reaction to the gender of his son's soon-to-be-spouse. See, Trevor is gay and recently married Owen Ryan. Technically it wasn't a sacramental marriage in the Christian sense because no Christian denomination (to my knowledge) offers non-heterosexual sacramental marriage. But Rvd. McLaren did officiate at a commitment ceremony with many of the traditional liturgical elements. Since then McLaren Sr. has been in the spotlight a bit. Over at Patheos, Tony Jones has collected up a lot of interesting links and given a good synopsis of the situation. Needless to say, Brian is handling himself with the grace and generosity of spirit I've come to expect of him. Given that this whole thing is casting a cloud over his son's wedding, that says a lot to me.
(ETA: As Mary Gorski pointed out at FB, the United Church of Christ does offer full marriage to both hetero- and homosexual couples. The Episcopal Church also has commitment rites for LGBT couples, but they're not sacramental marriage. McLaren Jr. did have a small UCC wedding in his apartment before the commitment ceremony his father performed.)
This has sparked some truly disheartening discussions about whether McLaren is still an evangelical. Since I'm not an evangelical myself, it's not that I dislike what's being done to the evangelical "brand." The problem is that a Christian - any type of Christian - could be devined in terms of a single characteristic we can wrap our head around like that. Sadly, it's not limited to Brian McLaren. I can almost guarantee you that, come November, some Catholic priest will tell his congregants they must confess the horrible sin of voting for a pro-choice candidate. A pastor who dares to support (or criticize!) Obamacare will be condemned as the unholy monstrosity he is. And it happens from more liberal Christians as well. If you're against the welfare state, or don't support nuclear disarmament, or whatever, then you must be a bad Christian. It's really not that surprising - when you start treating the Bible as if it is recommending specific tax policy, you're moving into a territory that makes honest, good-faith disagreement all but impossible.
All of which reminds me of a classic protest sign that's forever getting made into memes and passed around the interwebz:
Now, if you were going to plop me on the American political map I'd probably be pretty far to the left on most issues. I'm more of a communitarian than a proper liberal but often it works out to the same position, at least at the national level. I am the kind of person that's naturally suited to think that caring for the poor through government programs is both a good thing and a duty. But I can also understand how other Christians might feel differently. The Bible tells Christians to care for the sick; it doesn't tell us to require everyone to buy into a tax-subsidized system of privately-run insurance programs. So, while that sign is funny and good up to a certain extent, am I prepared to say that if you're not for Obamacare you're against Jesus? Heck no.
I occasionally read at a medium-sized Christian blog, ThinkChristian.net. Over the last few weeks they've been running several posts with the subject line, "A Christian Vote For..." (They've had different bloggers endorsing Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Gary Johnson, and now Jill Stein.) The first three have been pretty thought-provoking, and while I've not had time to read the Stein piece, I suspect the author did her usual good job. While I may disagree with some of the specific claims the different bloggers made, one thing they all did very well (both individually + overall) is show how you could be a Christian and vote for each of these candidates. What about the politician's record lined up with the kind of values Christians might have, etc.
But even though I thought they did this kind of thing as well as anyone could, that phrase "Christian vote" really got under my skin. It always does, because there really isn't a Christian vote. Oh, I think there are lots of votes motivated by some very un-Christian priorities. The thought of that GOP primary debate where the crowd cheered the idea of a poor man dying on the hospital curb because he had no insurance still makes my hair stand on end. But God is big and complicated, too big for any of the many boxes Ant and Bee look through. And politics is messy, too. There's lots of room for good-faith on disagreements about how to achieve the same priorities.
Put it this way: Brian McLaren is trying to love his gay neighbor the way the Bible requires. I'm sure at least some of his critics are trying to do that, too. There is room for humility here, and a sharp mind and gentle heart not yet sure it has everything all worked out. But excommunication, formal or informal? Not so much. And when people talk about the Christian vote, with the implication that the other way of voting is somehow un-Christian, we just get a little too close to that for my comfort.
So what's the answer? I think a good place to start is with the blind men and the elephant. Christians --everyone, really-- have two options in situations like this. We can look at the guy grappling with the ear "very like a fan" and try to figure out just how that meshes with the rope-like tail we're investigating ourselves, or we can say that guy is just wrong and stick with the idea we've had all along. The problem with that second option is we'll never grow beyond what we have right now. I'm sure you can guess which path I'd recommend. And yeah, sometimes people are just wrong and we have to help them leave their beliefs behind or excommunicate them somehow. But we should definitely try to the first road first, until it proves impossible.
Btw: later this week I'll be posting a review of The Cross in the Closet, a book about one Christian fundamentalist to understand what his gay neighbors were going through by living with that label for a year. Great book. I mention it because it's one of those testimonials to the way we can change and grow if we're brave enough not to shove the "other guy" away too quickly. Check back in a few days if you're interested.
Do check out my other synchrobloggers! Nine other contributions on the intersection of faith and politics, by some very sharp bloggers.
- We The People by Wendy McCaig
- Pulpit Freedom, Public Faith by Carol Kuniholm
- Plumbers and Politicians by Glenn Hager
- Conflating Faith and Politics by Maurice Broaddus
- You Cannot Serve Two Masters by Sonja Andrews
- Would Jesus Vote by Jeremy Myers
- A Kingdom Not Of This World by Jareth Caelum
- I am a Christian and I am a Democrat by Liz Dyer
- 5 ways to make it through the election and still keep your friends by Kathy Escobar