On behalf of Evangelical Alliance Ireland, I am producing a book called “Who Owns Marriage?” Scheduled for release on Easter Monday, this book seeks to dig a bit deeper into the issues raised Ireland’s forthcoming Referendum on Same-Sex Marriage. EAI has already released a statement concerning the Referendum, available at http://www.evangelical.ie
The book aims to encourage us to think through what we really believe about Evangelicalism, the Bible, our identity in Christ, civil society, how we hold religious values without trying to enforce them on unbelievers, and how biblical marriage relates to civil marriage.
We have invited a number of thinkers, theologians, leaders and public figures (including some non-Christians) to contribute to the book. This is your opportunity to join the conversation! Each morning, for the next 8 days, segments of the book will be posted here on the Evangelical Seanchai blog. Feel free to add your comments and observations (preferably short and pithy, rather than essays).
A small number of the best contributions (by that I mean the most thought-provoking, not necessarily those that agree with the premises of my points) will be published as part of the conversation section of the finished book. Obviously comments that are hateful to anyone, libellous, or trollish will be deleted. Anonymous comments, or those made under a pen-name, cannot be included in the book.
Today, you are invited to join in the conversation on the below sections dealing with Media Parodies and Stereotypes,
Media Parodies and Stereotypes
The British and Irish media already has a problem in its coverage of Evangelical Christianity. For the most part it ignores the growing number of Evangelicals on their own doorsteps and, if they refer to Evangelicalism at all, do so in the context of the United States. This is understandable, given that Evangelicals are much more numerous in the US, but unfortunately the coverage rarely extends beyond the repetition of tired and inaccurate parodies.
Usually, if the word ‘Evangelical’ appears in our popular media, it will be coupled with phrases such as ‘the religious right.’ This perpetuates a lazy stereotype of Evangelicals as white Americans who all solidly vote Republican, support the Tea Party, are anti-immigration, and who, if you scratch deep enough below the surface, will be found to harbour racist and homophobic prejudices.
So, for example, the twisted ideology of the late Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church receives much more press coverage in Ireland than do the more measured statements of an organisation like the National Association of Evangelicals. Yet the Westboro people, with their ‘God hates fags’ placards, have never boasted more than a few dozen members – whereas the NAE represents a plethora of major American denominations and movements encompassing approximately 45,000 churches and many millions of members.
We see the same inaccurate parodies being trotted out in the British and Irish media’s coverage of US presidential elections. If a Republican candidate, usually in the primaries rather than the election proper, makes one brief stop at an Evangelical college or church then that will be repeatedly referenced by pundits on this side of the Atlantic. If such a candidate expresses any kind of religious belief then that is cited as an example of theocracy at work. Yet no reference will be made to the fact that Democratic candidates quote the Bible frequently, use much more overtly religious language than their Republican counterparts, and deliver numerous campaign speeches from the pulpits of Evangelical churches (predominantly African-American congregations).
This is not to say that the religious right does not exist. But it should alert us to the fact that our media are rarely prepared to do the serious journalism that would be involved in recognising the varied and multi-faceted nature of American, let alone Irish, Evangelicalism. It is much easier to present a misleading stereotype, particularly one that allows us, as Irish people, to preen ourselves and pretend we are infinitely more sophisticated and tolerant than our cousins on the other side of the Atlantic.
During the same-sex marriage debate, therefore, we should not be surprised if the media prefers to portray Irish Evangelicals as frothing-at-the-mouth fundamentalists rather than seriously listening to what we have to say. And, inevitably, there will always be one or two from within the Evangelical community who will be happy to step up to a microphone and confirm such stereotypes.
A Vital Discussion
Despite my personal reluctance to get involved in the same sex marriage debate, I am of the opinion that the position Evangelical Christians take on this subject, and how we express that position, is of the highest importance – not so much because of the repercussions that society faces but rather because of how it will define the Church.
I am under no illusion that our contribution to the debate will somehow shape the short-term future of Irish society. Evangelical Christians are a small minority within the Irish Republic, and our numbers and influence are such that we cannot realistically swing a Referendum, or public opinion, one way or the other. All the opinion polls that I have seen suggest that, barring some massive unforeseen game-changer of an event, same-sex marriage will be passed into law by a substantial majority when it is put to the electorate in a Referendum.
So why should we poke our heads above the parapets and risk getting them shot off? Why not just keep quiet, wait for the inevitable to happen, and then move on? My answer is that the approach and stance we take on this issue may well define how we are viewed by the general public, and by our children, for at least a generation. Our contribution to this debate may not affect the short term future of Irish society – but it may well determine the long term future of the Evangelical movement in Ireland.
In the long term, the most significant thing to me is not whether same-sex marriage is legalised or not. I am enough of a realist to recognise that society often falls short of how we might like it to be. Indeed, Christianity has often been at its most vibrant when it operates as a counter-cultural force with values that may be radically different from the surrounding society.
The important thing in years to come will not be whether we felt we won or lost a culture war, but whether our words and actions at this point in our history really manifested the presence and influence of Jesus Christ. Marriage is something that is really important to us as Evangelicals, and I strongly believe that we have an important perspective to share at a time when marriage, including heterosexual marriage, is being reduced to a mere social convention – often leaving a trail of disillusionment, cynicism and heartbroken adults and children. If we keep quiet, and fail to add our contribution to the debate, then we will have proved to have been unfaithful witnesses to Jesus and the new life He gives.
Equally, if our passion to share what we believe to be truth leads us to be selfish, harsh and intolerant, then we have also failed to adequately represent Jesus Christ. And that is why I feel that EAI has no option but to get involved in the current debate. If we keep silent then, by default, things will be said and done in our name that do not represent the views of large numbers of Evangelical Christians in Ireland. We have a moral responsibility to engage in discussion with those of differing views, and to do so as peacemakers and fellow seekers after truth.
Various Attitudes towards Homosexuality within Evangelicalism
It would be wrong to suggest that there is one undisputed or definitive Evangelical opinion on the subject of same-sex marriage. Certainly some of our community feel so strongly on the subject that they might claim that their particular opinion should be the only acceptable one, and that all others, by default, are unacceptable and automatically disqualify one from being considered an Evangelical. Nevertheless, we need to acknowledge that Evangelicalism is a fairly broad movement, and that trying to steer all of our community in one direction and to speak with one voice is akin to trying to herd a group of cats.
When it comes to homosexuality in general, there is a range of attitudes taken by Evangelicals. These might be categorised as follows:
1. On the extreme right of the spectrum, there would be a number of our community who would not only believe that homosexual behaviour is grievously sinful on religious grounds, but also that it is seriously detrimental to society as a whole and therefore should be forbidden, or at least restricted in some way, by law. Thankfully I have never met any Evangelical in Ireland who has advocated violence against homosexuals or imprisonment, such as has been legislated for in Uganda. However, I have heard a few Christians argue that, if such a thing were possible, that they would support laws prohibiting homosexual behaviour. One representative of this viewpoint said to me, “I don’t agree with what’s going on in Uganda, but I think Putin has the right idea in Russia!”
2. Others take a slightly more liberal stance in that they still believe homosexual behaviour to be sinful and extremely detrimental to society, but would not support any kind of legal restrictions. Such people might still cite an increase in homosexuality as a sign of moral decline, but would try to ‘hate the sin, but love the sinner’ (a quote from St Augustine that was later appropriated by Mohandas Gandhi).
3. Still others would see homosexual behaviour as a sin in the sense that it does not represent God’s will for His people, but no more sinful than many other common aspects of human behaviour. According to this view, homosexual acts would be inconsistent with being a practicing Christian, but would pose no threat to wider society as such. This would treat homosexual relationships as being on a par with heterosexual couples cohabiting outside of marriage – not part of Christian morality, but not a major concern when practiced by non-Christians who, after all, can hardly be expected to adhere to Christian standards of behaviour.
4. A newer approach among some Evangelicals is to interpret the Bible in such a way as to validate same-sex marriages. Prominent representatives of this position would include David Gushee and Matthew Vines. Both Gushee and Vines are adamant that this is a reinterpretation, not a jettisoning of, biblical teaching on sexuality. Vines, for example, disapproves of premarital sex – irrespective of gender – and Gushee maintains that sexual promiscuity is incompatible with Christian living.
5. On the extreme left of the spectrum there would be a small number of people who would call themselves Evangelicals, but who would not see that as speaking to their sexual behaviour at all. They would read the Bible, see themselves as Evangelical because they hold certain beliefs about God, Jesus and salvation – but feel at liberty to form sexual relationships outside of marriage (heterosexual or homosexual), engage in premarital sex, and don’t feel that their religious beliefs commit them to a lifestyle where there are boundaries to sexual behaviour.