Warning, soul search underway

soul searchingThe GOP must do an immediate about-face on its position on gay marriage. That’s not some liberal shouting at some conservative; it’s an official position from a top-ranking GOP pollster. Go read Andrew Sullivan’s post today on a remarkable memo circulating among Republican Party thought leaders from Jan van Lohuizen, a highly respected Republican pollster and strategist. It basically says the party needs to shift its position on gay marriage and gay rights and do so quickly. Otherwise, van Lohuizen writes, the GOP risks marginalization, irrelevance or worse. Wow!

Go read it, and when you come back, I have some things to say.

In the late 1970s, evangelical Christian leaders looked around and proclaimed life in the United States to be a mess. They had happily helped elect a Georgia farmer-turned-governor as President, in part, because he professed to be “born-again.” One of theirs in the White House held out so much hope, but it quickly turned disastrous as Jimmy Carter became their national embarrassment. There was budget balancing by gutting the military, and blaming the “malaise” of the American people for a sliding economy. Then there was the Iran hostage crisis, a failed rescue attempt, and, well, hurry 1980.

At about that time, Pat Robertson hired George Gallup to do a study of American attitudes about evangelical Christians. He found that people viewed Christians as illiterate and uneducated, bigoted, overweight, wearers of ill-fitting polyester suits, Bible-thumpers, self-righteous hypocrites, rural and Southern. Dr. Robertson then made a brilliant, mad-men-esque marketing decision: he would use his television program, The 700 Club, to depict Christians as exactly the opposite.

I began working for Pat in 1981. Being a TV magazine show guy (12 Magazine, PM Magazine, Louisville Tonight), I had some of the knowledge he needed to help build his program into a news magazine “with a different spirit.” I witnessed the rise of the Christian Right as a participant and an observer. Above all, Pat wanted to change the view of Evangelicals in the country, because he felt anti-Christian attitudes were bigoted, anti-intellectual, self-serving, and mostly, bad for the country.

We had unwritten policies in place at The 700 Club, for example, that denied access to overweight people. We required people who wrote to us to report a “miracle” to include a photograph, so that we could filter people out based on how they looked. We wanted youngish, intelligent, attractive and articulate people to counter the view that Christians are all stupid Bible-thumpers. We very rarely, if ever, invited guests on the show that were overweight or fit the stereotypes discovered in the Gallup study. When crowd shots were taken in the studio, the camera operators were advised to zoom in on the most attractive people in the audience. None of this was written down, of course; it was just understood.

Reagan was now President, and a conservative shift was underway in the U.S. In 1984, we did $248 million in contributions, and the clout of the Evangelicals was gaining. When Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert went down in scandals, Pat’s stature increased, because his was the voice of intelligent Christians. In 1985, The Saturday Evening Post ran a cover feature on Pat, raising the possibility of a run for President. We were later summoned to a retreat, where Pat told us that “God has told me to run for President and that I will win.” It split the ministry as the plan unfolded. Contributions crashed, as donors responded by closing their checkbooks.

And so it went. Pat lost. His ministry never recovered completely. The Christian Right evolved and eventually morphed into the Tea Party, and the gap between the Evangelicals and others widened, all of which leads us to this week, and President Obama’s historic support of giving the gay and lesbian community the same legal rights to marry that are enjoyed by heterosexual couples. In the same week, North Carolinians did the opposite ratified Amendment One, which outlawed gay marriage at the constitutional level. The usual suspects are saying the usual things in the usual “he said/she said” way, but beneath all that, I sense a great soul searching underway, one that I think is long overdue and will have lasting consequences for our culture. Jan van Lohuizen’s memo is a part of that, and so is what follows.

A young Christian writer, Rachel Evans, published a moving and personal piece this week that speaks to all of this. How to win a culture war and lose a generation is a heartfelt cry to anyone who will listen that “my generation is tired of the culture wars.”

We are tired of fighting, tired of vain efforts to advance the Kingdom through politics and power, tired of drawing lines in the sand, tired of being known for what we are against, not what we are for.

And when it comes to homosexuality, we no longer think in the black-and-white categories of the generations before ours. We know too many wonderful people from the LGBT community to consider homosexuality a mere “issue.” These are people, and they are our friends. When they tell us that something hurts them, we listen. And Amendment One hurts like hell.

…it should be clear that amendments like these needlessly offend gays and lesbians, damage the reputation of Christians, and further alienate young adults—both Christians and non-Christian—from the Church.

I like what Rachel has written and think she speaks for the vast majority of younger Christians in the country today. Her plea reminds me of something Kathie Lee Gifford once said on The 700 Club. Kathie Lee was the darling of the Evangelicals in the late 70s and early 80s until her very public divorce in 1983. Many people turned against her, and she talked about it on the show. “It’s easy to walk in black and white,” she said, “until life forces you into shades of gray.”

I have strong feelings about civil rights for gays and lesbians, and I think if what Rachel calls “The Church” wants an honest confrontation with God on the matter, it needs to take a deep and thoughtful look in the mirror first. Will it see the youthful, intelligent, slim and successful people of the old 700 Club, or will it see the bigoted, self-righteous sheep who deny the Gospel of Grace in favor of the very “Law” that Christ died to overcome? Take a look at this remarkable diagram from The Guardian for at least part of the answer.

And finally, hasn’t history noted that the prophets of the day were always the most different of all? People of the arts — those whose sensitivity puts them in contact with worlds beyond the flesh — have always been those who carried the message of the moment to others. Why? Because the others have a tendency to get too comfortable within the status quo.

One day long ago, the prophet Jeremiah took a message to the recently enthroned King Shallum, son of King Josiah. Josiah was a righteous king and the land and its people had prospered under his rule, but Shallum was in it for himself. He let the people do as they wished and built himself an incredible mansion. Jeremiah warned of trouble ahead as a result, and then said these powerful words about Shallum’s father: “He pleaded the cause of the poor and the afflicted. Then it was well with him. Is this not what it means to know me, saith the Lord?”

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