Advice to Evangelical Christians

December 16th, 2012 | Posted by:

John S. Dickerson, an evangelical pastor and author of the forthcoming The Great Evangelical Recession, wrote in the New York Times this weekend about the decline of evangelicalism in America. He details the waning influence of evangelical churches and notes stereotypes of evangelicals, writing that “evangelicals are increasingly typecast as angry and repressed bigots.”

Hemant Mehta weighed in on the decline, writing:

Dickerson (at least in this article) entirely ignores the fact that people are pushing back against evangelical Christianity because we’ve found a better alternative: Reality.

Of course, reality is never quite so self serving as it might seem, and the statistics are much less flattering. Most of the “nones” celebrated in recent polls are actually religious–68 percent of them say they believe in God or a “universal spirit.” The number of creationists in America has remained basically constant over the last twenty years, and the only denomination to see a noticeable dip over the last five years is protestant evangelicalism. Religious numbers are dropping, but it doesn’t seem to be for the reason many atheists would like to think—rather, as Dickerson and David Niose in the fantastic Nonbeliever Nation suggest, the mixing of religion and politics is what’s driving most of the exodus from the church.

Dickerson doesn’t think that evangelicals can reclaim their influence from when they won George Bush the 2004 election, and I find this as welcome news. The mix of far-right politics and religion was a particularly toxic one, and I’m happy to see it on the way out. Dickerson doesn’t seem interested in bringing it back, though. Rather, he wants to update modern evangelical Christianity. He writes:

For me, the deterioration and disarray of the movement is a source of hope: hope that churches will stop angling for human power and start proclaiming the power of Christ.

This actually doesn’t sound so bad to me, particularly since Dickerson calls for evangelicals to “refashion themselves into a more sensitive, spiritual and humble movement.” So if I may be so self-indulgent as to offer some unsolicited suggestions for the forward-thinking evangelical Christian, I’d like to make a few changes both that I’d like to see and that would help shape the church in a direction I think that Dickerson would want.

1. Support marriage equality

Seriously, this one’s pretty important. We live in a secular democracy, and one group shouldn’t be able to force their conception of marriage on everyone else. This doesn’t need to conflict with religious liberty at all—churches who object shouldn’t be forced to carry them out, and evangelicals don’t necessarily need to update their theology.

Sin shouldn’t translate into secular institutions, though. I’m sure there are many Catholics who think that divorce and remarriage are sinful, but it would be absurd for them to turn that belief into law in a secular state.

2. Focus more effort on humanitarian causes.

Christians already tend to be pretty good about this—they’re more civically engaged and donate more money and time than atheists to religious and secular causes, alike—but there’s definitely room for improvement. Particularly with megachurches and heavy political involvement, it’s hard not to see a lot of modern evangelical Christianity as “angling for human power,” as Dickerson puts it.

Fighting gay marriage rather than poverty, just like institutional focus on condoms rather than AIDS in the Catholic Church, reads hypocritically and likely disillusions many young evangelicals.

3. Embrace science.

Science obviously doesn’t have all of the answers, but the conspiracy-like thinking that surrounds modern evangelical science denialism on both theologically relevant—like evolution—and irrelevant—like, bizarrely enough, global warming—is both frustrating and off-putting. I know a lot more atheists would be happier with evangelicals if they left intelligent design creationism out of classrooms, and I’m sure it’d spare some young evangelicals the embarrassment of being associated with people who think the earth is 6,000 years old.

And if any evangelicals have a hard time reconciling their faith with evolution, I’m sure they could look to the Catholic church for guidance. They’ve been accepting modern science for a while, now.

So those are my immediate suggestions: be more mindful of the secular state, focus more on charity, and embrace modern scientific findings. Anything I might have missed?

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

15 Responses to “Advice to Evangelical Christians”

  1. Keith Favre Says:

    Possibly best part: “Reality is never quite so self serving as it might seem.” But yeah, great work as usual.

  2. JM Says:

    I think perhaps the marriage equality point may be less closed than you seem to assert. Here, at least, is an application of the principles of Rawlsian liberalism to the issue of same-sex marriage which may dissent with the presentation you make of “forcing views”.

  3. Jonathan Figdor Says:

    The Catholic Church’s policy of spreading misinformation about the efficacy of condoms in Africa in modern times, along with the whole persecuting Galileo thing pretty much sinks the idea of the Catholic Church being a model for religion accepting science. If you want a better example of churches accepting science, consider the Unitarian Universalists or UCC, organizations I would have thought you’d be familiar with, Vlad.

  4. VladChituc Says:


    Unitarians are hardly a mainstream example, and I didn’t realize the Catholic Church is the same entity it was when it prosecuted Galileo. This does nothing to change that they’re a good model to look to for reconciling evolution and science with their doctrine, which is the point I’m making. UU’s have hardly done the theological scholarship the catholic church has on the topic.

    JM, that looks really interesting but I don’t have time to read a 50 page paper carefully right now. As I see it, the purpose of marriage is to provide, at least in our state, certain legal rights and privileges to couples that show love and commitment to one another. I don’t see why that should be sex-specific at all.

    But if you’d like to make a rough sketch of the argument here, I’m happy to talk about specifics with you.

  5. JM Says:


    This is hard to do in a blog comment, but here goes. The paper I linked to would seek to show that such a definition of marriage is publicly unreasonable, where here “public reason” is meant in Rawls’ specific technical sense. O’Brien frames his argument as follows:

    “I will argue that there are two reasons why liberal neutrality is incompatible with same-sex marriage: the first reason is that all available arguments in favor of same-sex marriage depend essentially upon controversial moral values and principles drawn from comprehensive doctrines about the good life. These arguments are therefore illegitimate grounds for state action in a liberal democracy marked by reasonable pluralism. Traditional marriage, however, can be defended in terms of public reasons.”

    This, despite the fact that most intellectual opponents of same-sex marriage rely on natural law/Aristotelian frameworks for framing their arguments (clearly, these are publicly unreasonable). The most critical passage in the article runs like this:
    “The non- public, moralistic character of arguments in favor of same-sex marriage is often obscured by a rhetorical maneuver, however, which frames the debate as if it were simply about providing equal and fair access to an agreed-upon, uncontroversial social good. In brief, such rhetorical arguments for same-sex marriage proceed as follows. First, “marriage” gets implicitly defined as any affective sexual relationship between two adults. Second, it is argued that since the state promotes “marriage,” it should promote it fairly and with equal respect, not denying access to anyone who is eligible. Third, it is argued that since gays and lesbians can obviously have affective sexual relationships, there is no reason to preclude them from marrying, because to do so would be to discriminate against them as a class. This argument is often quite successful rhetorically, but it relies on a question begging definition of “marriage.”

    Mary Lyndon Shanley, for example, begs the question when she says, “De-spite their differences, neither side [in the same-sex marriage debate] questionswhether marriage is a good thing and whether it should be recognized by thestate; their argument is over who should be able to marry.” On the contrary,the debate is precisely about whether marriage, according to its historic meaning,is a good thing or not. Gay rights activists think that marriage, historically understood, is a bad thing because it has the effect of establishing heterosexuality as socially normative, and by implication, they argue that it “inflicts profound psychic damage” on people who embrace a homosexual identity as part of their self-image. They propose abolishing marriage and replacing it with a new legal category that solemnizes any affective sexual relationship between any two adults and thus discourages sexual complementarity as a social norm. It is politically useful to call this new category “marriage,” too, because it conceals just how expressively significant the change is, and makes it more likely to convince wary voters to accept the change. But to define “marriage” as a relation equally open to heterosexual and homosexual couples, as Shanley does, is first, simply to beg the question against the natural law defenders of traditional marriage, for whom sexual complementarity is marriage’s sine qua non, and second, to impose an alternative comprehensive doctrine.”

    In essence, O’Brien frames the debate over same-sex marriage in terms of According to him, this happens because:

    “Rawlsians tend to be sectarian liberals and they have relied illicitly on their comprehensive religious or secular doctrines about “liberated” sexual morality in order to single out homosexual relationships as such for special promotion, thereby violating the ideal of public reason and the political conception of justice.”

    Obviously, adherents to “traditional marriage” tend to be similarly partisan in their views; natural law/Aristotelian traditions would tend to pass negative judgment on homosexual acts, which is similarly publicly unreasonable. O’Brien attempts to solve the dilemma by suggesting that:

    “A publicly reasonable argument for traditional marriage specifies the state interest in terms of sustainable procreation and cultivating in citizens the two moral powers, which are “a capacity for a sense of justice and for a conception of the good.”… A liberal democratic society needs sufficient children and it needs them to be educated. Therefore, a liberal democratic society needs families headed by two married parents who are the biological mother and father of the children, because such families are (a) intrinsically generative and (b) optimal for childrearing. In other words, sex between men and women makes babies; society needs sufficient babies; babies need moms and dads.

    Every family arrangement in which chil-dren are raised need not and cannot conform to this pattern, but the state has a legitimate interest in encouraging people to form families that do so, which the state can accomplish by enshrining this conception of marriage in the law, as conferring unique social status, and promoting it with material benefits.”

    I think the more controversial point is (b); clearly, heterosexual sex does make babies, even under most contraceptive regimes. O’Brien frames this claim as follows:

    “This claim can be demonstrated in two ways: first, by making an empirical argument that children do best when raised by the mother and father who bore them; second, by making a philosophical argument that developing a conception of the good requires knowing your mother and father and the family history into which you are born.”

    These claims are very important to O’Brien’s argument, and I will not lessen them by making a summary. In the interest of not boring you with further block-quotes, I’d suggest that Section IV of the article treats these questions in-depth.

    I will note that I may not have done justice to the whole of the argument. I’m not going to sit here and claim that O’Brien’s argument is perfectly sound and that we should all drop everything to defend “traditional marriage”, or whatever. My only point is that 99.5% of Americans consider this issue to be a total no-brainer, which from the paper O’Brien has written seems less true.

  6. JM Says:

    While I’m here, I’m just going to drop this in so that you can get a flavor for how the Catholic Church relates science to revelation, with a specific application to the question of evolution. It’s a little dense and technical, but it speaks to the sort of reconciliation that Vlad claims (and I agree) is necessary for evangelical folks to understand more thoroughly.

  7. VladChituc Says:

    Thanks for the reply, JM.

    I’ll read it in more detail when I get a chance, but thanks for the summary. My initial reply is that the critique that those fighting for gay marriage are begging the question is that, when you’re talking about definitions it’s hard not to beg the question. But I think if the choice is between a natural-law style marriage where it’s an institution for procreation, and the “new” definition marriage as a union to express love between two people, then I think you can make pretty convincing arguments for why we should accept the latter. Particularly since there are many cases where we can find the utility in a non-procreative marriage (either among senior citizens, those who are infertile, those who don’t want kids), and in fact many of the societal benefits of marriage seem to go beyond simply procreation.

    It’s an interesting argument that I admit I’m not too well versed in, but I certainly appreciate the thoughtful counterpoint. I’ll look into it more when I get a chance.

  8. VladChituc Says:

    And Jonathan, in addition to JM’s point.

    “organizations I would have thought you’d be familiar with, Vlad.” The condescension isn’t necessary or particularly appreciated. You could do some charitable reading and wonder why I chose Catholicism rather than UU’s as an example, maybe even addressing potential reasons instead of implying ignorance on my part.

  9. JM Says:

    Sure, absolutely. I’m not here to critique whatever account of a pro-marriage equality position you may have on grounds of logical coherence and orientation toward the common good. It’s specifically the language about “forc[ing] their conception of marriage on everyone else” that I’d take issue with. Claims of that kind always rest on a more or less Rawlsian basis, and given the style of the O’Brien argument I’m much less clear on whether a same-sex marriage regime is truly “neutral”.

  10. VladChituc Says:

    Ah, yeah I got called out for that on Facebook, too.

    I think it was too quick a claim that I made partly out of brevity and laziness. I’m happy to back off from it, and I think gay marriage is neutral in a useful way, but maybe not necessarily in the way I argued.

    I think it’s definitely more useful to talk about what types of reasons we should find persuasive, what definitions of marriage are appropriate, and so on. But I think as this thread has showed, it’s definitely a lot more in depth of a discussion.

  11. JM Says:

    I also wanted to criticize the point about the link between the Catholic Church, condoms and HIV/AIDS in Africa made here, and to a lesser degree in Vlad’s original post.

    The nature of extra-monogamous sexual relationships in Africa is very different from those found in the United States and developed West, which makes inference from our own biases and assumptions relatively difficult. Because most non-monogamous relationships in Africa are long-term and concurrent, promotion of condoms as an effective method of fighting the AIDS epidemic has surface plausibility to our Western instincts (it worked here!) but in fact is not conclusively supported by the evidence as effective in Africa.

    What has worked is convincing folks to reduce multiple sexual partnerships, which is incidentally part of the Catholic Church’s social teaching. Meanwhile, through its diocesan structure, the Catholic Church has been on the front lines in terms of teaching children about the HIV prevention, caring for the sick and needy in hospice systems (including provision of antiretrovirals to prevent mother-child spread of the virus), and lobbying for laws and practices which de-stigmatize those with the virus.

    The science surrounding condom use in Africa is summarized in a Washington Post editorial by Edward C. Green, former director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at Harvard.

    I mirror the Science article to which Dr. Green refers in his editorial here:

    The Catholic Church does in fact focus on HIV/AIDS; it’s intimately involved with pastoral and charitable care in Africa on a day-to-day basis. To object to the Church’s stance on condoms in this matter doesn’t only overlook the great work they do on the ground; it may also be bad science.

  12. JM Says:

    Perhaps I overstate my case. I do work in the sciences, but I am not a public health expert and I do not claim to be aware of the entirety of scholarship in this field. What I will say is this – personally, I would see publications of this kind as evidence that suggests that the field has not entirely made up its mind on the subject. To then attack the Catholic Church for being “anti-science” because of its stance on condoms does not appear, to me, to be adequately supported by the literature.

    I don’t really want to come off as curmudgeonly and contrarian. I think y’all do great work here, work that our society is going to need moving forward. Religious organizations haven’t been the kindest to nonbelievers over the years, and it takes an immense amount of good, old-fashioned kindness and charity to overlook that. What I’m saying is – keep up the good work; you’ve got a lot going for you that everybody in the human family can learn from.

  13. VladChituc Says:

    Even so, I appreciate the perspective. I’m actually embarrassed to say I’ve never heard the condoms/AIDS thing from a Catholic’s point of view.

    I don’t think you’re being a curmudgeon or contrarian at all. I honestly enjoy the perspective because most Christians I’ve talked to have been evangelicals, and I’ve rarely gotten a Catholic perspective. Thanks for the kind words, and I hope to hear more of where you’re coming.

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