Monday, 7 April 2014

The Danger of the Evangelical Code Red

I recently had a theological run in with the senior british evangelical leader Gerald Coates.  I say 'run in' when I really mean an internet debate. I say 'theological' when it would be more accurate to describe it as a philosophical difference. 

He was going to great lengths to make a case against same sex marriage by using statistics that were no doubt an accurate display of what such a survey was likely to produce. The problem with statistics is that you can make them say anything. 

There was a recent headline in a British newspaper (1) that declared that patients are 45% more likely to die in a UK hospital than an American one. At first one could be forgiven for being somewhat alarmed: on closer inspection however we find that context is ever so important.

Access to NHS hospitals in the UK is not dependent upon personal wealth and therefore we are not comparing apples with apples. It is therefore more highly likely that people will die in hospital. One more piece of information can make all the difference. 

So it seems it is with the ONstat report used by my interlocutor. The bare facts suggested that only 1.5% of the population is gay and this was being linked with the 48% of British HIV sufferers who are also gay. I am reliably informed that the survey concerned self-identification of sexuality and not practice and that it was done face to face or via telephone offering no emotional anonymity. I would suggest that very few homosexual people would feel safe answering this in an open way.

Our debate went on for several days and just when I thought I was making a strong case as to why his approach was not so strong and potentially damaging he took, what seemed to me and several others, a side swipe by asking me whether I was gay and how many partners I had been with. 

I was hard pressed to see how this was relevant and so dodged the initial question only to find that instead of responding to my next critique he brought it up again a short time later. I responded and then regretted it; feeling a little sullied and used.

It seems somewhat strange to me because I am heterosexual and have been married for 33 years; and yet I felt slightly abused, as if I had just been bullied.

My thoughts went almost immediately to my friends who were gay and what they might have felt had they been subject to such behaviour. This was an open conversation and was accessible to family and friends. No consideration was given to how private this part of my life might be; in fact when he asked he prodded with the phrase 'surely you want to be open and honest': perhaps suggesting that  if I didn't answer I must have something to hide.

I gave a fairly firm final response and left the conversation because I felt I could no longer support dialogue with someone who would use such tactics.

During all of this a thought occurred to me that had first entered my head after reading a blog by Nate Phelps, the son of the recently deceased Fred Phelps. You may remember Fred and his group, Westboro Baptist Church, as being the people who brought the world the 'I hate fags' placards and other objectionable offerings.

Nate, who is now an atheist and often speaks on behalf of LGBT groups, indicated that although he disagreed with both his father's views and methods Fred was really just articulating what some Evangelical leaders really believe but are not brave enough to admit in public. 

It might seem a stretch to some for me to suggest this with regard to my conversation with Gerald but I couldn't help feeling a sense of urgency in the answers he gave that seem to suggest more lay behind the initial responses than might seem at a surface level. Then, almost without warning, the thinly disguised attacked came.

The scene from 'A few Good Men' came to mind where the lead character, played by Tom Cruise, was wrestling with whether to put the key protagonist Colonel Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson, on the witness stand. He convinces his legal team that he can get the right result by saying 'I think he wants to say he ordered the code red'.

I got a sense of this with my debate with Gerald: that there was more that he wanted to say but he was trying to remain within the parameters of perceived evangelical decency. When pushed, however, it burst out for all to see; and, as much as he might want to protest, I would suggest that to the LGBT community much of what he said would sound just like Fred Phelps. 

Now you may think that I am just enjoying casting myself as Tom Cruise but there is a deeper issue at stake here that seems to be repeated time and time again. 

Before Mark Driscoll was in the news for pretending the ends justified the means by buying his way on to the New York Times best sellers list, he had been making significant statements about how wives were created to serve their husbands. Some of his statements were so outrageous that they were both challenged by egalitarians and ignored by his fellow Calvinist/Complementarians. It seems that when one of their number crosses the line they are reluctant to criticise; the silence however is deafening and says so much especially given there very vocal support for him at other times. 

I can't help seeing a comparison here between Phelps and Driscoll. Just like the former the latter is just willing to say what others are not brave enough to admit. 

When it comes to God loving only those who are elect Driscoll will openly say that God hates certain people. Other Calvinists would feel uncomfortable admitting this but when really pushed it is easy to see that an excessive emphasis on the love of God toward one particular group indicates his absence of love for all of the others. 

In our first scenario Gerald might use the rhetoric of 'hate the sin, love the sinner' but in essence those that disagree on issues of sexuality are as lost to him as they were to Fred Phelps. 

In our second example more moderate calvinists might sweeten the pill by looking to build bridges with the wider community but when the bottom line is revealed dissenting voices can be easily ignored in the way that Driscoll suggests because in the economy of the Calvinist view of God not all people are of equal value.

In part of my debate with Gerald he stated that liberal voices are on the decline whilst also questioning why I would still want to call myself an evangelical. In doing so he offered questionable facts without any reference to context; apparently the only growing churches are those with an evangelical sensibility. 

I pushed back by saying that just because the leaders held a more conservative position he could not guarantee that the congregational members felt the same.  For sure the majority might be inclined to agree with Gerald and their own leaders but given the passive aggressive behaviour I had just witnessed I said it was highly unlikely that many of them would feel comfortable in admitting what they truly believed.

I asked him to consider a debate at one of his churches where he removed the pressure to conform and allow people to speak openly without the fear that they too might be invited to leave the evangelical community as he had just done with me (and incidentally had suggested might soon happen with Steve Chalke).

It was at this point that he raised the issue of my own sexuality again.

Metaphorically speaking I had asked him for the 'truth' about what his congregations members really believed.

Metaphorically speaking he had replied 'you can't handle the truth'.

The problem for Gerald is that you can only suppress the truth for so long by attacking people about their sexuality. 

It's time for evangelical Code Reds to end.


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