Culture David Gushee: Christians, Conflict and Change Ethics Faith Opinion Politics

A columnist looks back and looks ahead

A man waves an American flag as he watches a July Fourth parade in the village of Barnstable, Massachusetts, on July 4, 2014. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Mike Segar

(RNS) I have been writing opinion pieces since 1986. Ronald Reagan was president, and I was 24 years old. That’s a long time.

Thirty years later, in that oddly reflective time between Christmas and New Year’s, I look back and look ahead.

I was trained in a version of Christian ethics that demanded regular commentary on the day’s news. Hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, I was told. Speak what might qualify as a word from God into the maelstrom of the passing scene.

There is always both wheat and chaff in hurried weekly commentaries. A look back on the past year of my RNS writings reveals plenty of both.

I was right, I think, in my claim that progressive and conservative evangelicals are heading for divorce, though it will never be an entirely clean or complete one.

I was right that America’s national character is eroding — that one sign of that erosion is the nature of our politics and another is the nature of our social media.

My improved peace of mind and retention of good relations with friends and family suggest I was right to abandon Facebook last summer.

I was right that clergy entanglement with American politics is an abiding temptation that regularly makes clergy useful idiots to politicians.

I was right that the (mainly white) Christian right’s embrace of Donald Trump was deeply discrediting to the Christianity that group purports to represent. At least, I believe I was right.

I also think I was right in my regular critiques of the campaign rhetoric and policy proposals of Mr. Trump. Now we all hold our breath to see what kind of president he will actually be.

I was right that differences about ideology, politics, and faith continually tear at the fabric of our society, our churches, and our friendships.

I was right that middle ground on the LGBT issue is eroding.

I was right that the resolution of the Wheaton College/Larycia Hawkins case and her forced departure deeply wounded the cause of Christian higher education, not to mention Professor Hawkins and Wheaton.

I was terribly wrong in my assumption that Donald Trump could never beat Hillary Clinton for president.

I was therefore obviously wrong in my assumptions about the American electorate and in my predictions about what would happen in 2017 and beyond.

In my most controversial columns of the year, I was wrong in predicting that the conservative Christian side was about to be overwhelmed by a cultural volcano demanding that they relent in their convictions about, for example, LGBT inclusion.

And I was especially wrong in not communicating very clearly that the conservative side’s fears and worries about the survival of their values and their institutions must be taken seriously.

Now that Donald Trump has been elected, it is the liberal schools that are worried about possible threats to their very survival based on the overweening power of the federal government.

I doubt I am the only one who now sees that religious liberty issue in a whole new light, and worries deeply over a cultural and political climate where each side (left and right, conservative and liberal) experiences the other as an incomprehensible existential threat, partly because the other quite often is an incomprehensible existential threat.

I experience a continual sense of nausea over the state of our culture and public conversation, the quality of our public discourse, and the risk we have taken as a nation in the choice we have made for our next president.

After 30 years attempting to advocate for a particular kind of American public life, and experiencing the rejection of almost everything I have sought, I feel a deep sense of powerlessness in relation to where our culture and politics are going. I am not the only one who feels that American public life has gotten beyond me, that it is somehow now up to others to take their turn tilting at those windmills.

I do still feel capable of writing a good classroom lecture, preaching a good sermon for my church, and offering good leadership in the academy. This is where I will now turn my attention. If you all want to argue about the latest tweetstorms from whoever about whoever, be my guest.

My memoirs telling the story of my wild ride in American Christianity and public life will be out in September with Westminster John Knox Press.

Happy new year and all best wishes, faithful readers.

(David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Georgia. He writes the “Christians, Conflict and Change” column for RNS)

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David Gushee

11 Comments

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  • We’ve always been powerless. It is a delusion started by the liar to give us confidence in ourselves, rather than Christ. Philippians 4:13 I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

  • Well let me start off by commending Mr Gushee for taking yesterday, today’s social/faith issues in a very reflective manner, open to new revelations, and most of all able to see that NOTHING is black/white. Taking in stride the changes in our country without the chicken little approach. I hope you can impart that to others.

    The vast swath of the US can see, as Mr Gushee alludes to as well, is common sense, basic manners, has become lost. There seems to be an over abundance of people who are so sure they are right about something, so to contradict even slightly, is fodder for all manner of abuse. Even all those who voted for Trump are racists, etc without any regard to the person. Then of course everything is painted black or white with the worst of each side being the face of all. I hope this country can heal this divide.

  • But you serve the Quixotic role so well, Professor. I implore you to rest a while and then once again take up arms. We need thoughtful leaders if we are to tame those windmills~!

  • I had to look up the meaning of the phrase “tilting against windmills”. I think you give yourself and others good advice, but I think we should know the difference between real problems and imaginary foes. Resist stagnation, don’t have a timid spirt as Paul would say. Not having a timid spirit is different than being an intimidator. Intimidators tend to “lean against windmills”. People without a timid spirit are people who are not intimidated, they filter more than they settle. Intimidators stir things up in order to settle things, what usually settles is timid, and intimidatingly spirited people. People who are not intemidated don’t reproduce either of those qualities in the people they influence.
    Don’t “tilt against windmills” that is really hard to do sometimes but seems to be really good advice. Thank you for it.

  • There’s a reason for using the word “sheep” to describe Christians. You have something in common with Islam – complete submission to the will of your God. Let God do your thinking for you.

  • You should study the Scriptures. You will never find anything close to “Let God do your thinking for you.” Doing the will of God is the only way to peace and life. Man’s ways gets us sin, sickness, death, abortion and perversion of marriage to name a few.

  • Great reflections. Thanks for the insights, analysis, and humility. I especially appreciated your expression of existential angst among the left and the right. Hopefully we are not witnessing the unraveling of the American Experiment. Having lost a meaningful cultural narrative (with a religious foundation) it appears we will continue to be warring factions of special interest groups that no longer hear or listen to each other. May God help us.

  • In terms of the irreparable divide that seems to exist in this country, I think you are correct but I would caution us all to not try to do this “both sides” argument. The divide is coming from a group of white folks (mainly but not all) who have seen “their” country be overrun by the “Other.” I am not quite sure what we (I am a person of color) were supposed to do, given that we live in a deeply racially segregated society. The folks who needed to see that I was human did not live near me and would not have believed me had they known me. They would see me as an interloper, someone who does not belong here. I am sad for these people. I am angry at them that their fears allowed them to vote for someone who will not help me them one bit. Yes, I am called to love them and this is how that love will manifest: I shall work to ensure that the benefits that they think I do not deserve are given to us all, including them. I shall also pray that I can find it in my heart to forgive them.

  • I still think that you’re largely right, especially concerning LGBTQ-related issues. But the Obergefell effect has definitely resulted in a certain shuffling of how these issues play out in public. Leading up to 2015, the formations on both sides of the gay-toghts divide were tight. After all, militancy always demands tight formations. That left many Americans with no clear role to play in the battle: They rejected the rigid patriarchalism that drives most opposition to LGBTQ rights, but they also rejected the notion that queer social identities are “normal.” Now that the seminal battle has gone against the patriarchalists, it creates space for others to play a role in the mopping-up process. So, I suspect that we’ll arrive somewhere in the middle. It will become far more “normal” to admit to sexual fluidity. This has already occurred among 20-somethings, who often use terms like “heteroflexible” and “straight but not narrow” to describe themselves. This was made possible by the collapse of the patriarchal order. Moving forward, “straight” or “normal” social identities will be less scripted, and will likely incorporate elements that the patriarchal order viewed as gender non-conforming, e.g., men wearing Speedos. Even so, I don’t see this as lending much help to those who truly want to queer social identities. In fact, it may make opposite-sex coupling even more normative, even as the permissible social scripts for opposite-sex coupling become more free-ranging.

    A reasonably liberal friend recently said something along the following lines: “I think it’s good that men will now be free to engage in bromances and to wear figure-flattering clothing, but I just can’t see myself accepting men who act like women or who, heaven forbid, think that they really are women.” So, we’ll likely see fewer and fewer guys going out of their way to avoid “appearing gay,” to the point where straight guys may begin re-appropriating certain social habits that have become more characteristic of gay men. For example, I just got back from the Caribbean, and was surprised by the number of straight guys in Speedos at the pool and beach. Men will no longer feel the need to conform to the patriarchalists’ definition of masculinity. Even so, this will be a redefinition (and broadening) of masculinity, not a rejection of it. Those who adopt social identities that reject masculinity will still face stiff cultural winds.

    In that sense, Obergefell will represent a bigger victory for metrosexuals and other heteroflexibles than it will for those who truly want to adopt queer social identities. In an ironic sense, the two groups that fought the gay rights battle–LGBTQ activists and patriarchalists–will both end up losing out. For that reason, I suspect that the coming evangelical split will not be over LGBTQ inclusion, but will instead center around maintaining a patriarchal social order in the church. I think we’ll come to see that non-patriarchal straight people supported gay rights for the limited purpose of defeating patriarchy. Once the patriarchalists are defeated, non-patriarchalists will be free to move on from supporting LGBTQ rights.

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