The Freakishness of Christianity

What would the American culture wars look like if they were less about “values” and more about Jesus?

Ricardo Ordonez / Reuters

Evangelical Christianity has long had a stranglehold on how Americans imagine public faith. Vague invocations of “religion”—whether it’s “religion vs. science” or “religious freedom”—usually really mean “conservative, Protestant, evangelical Christianity,” and this assumption inevitably frames debates about American belief. For the other three-quarters of the population—Catholics, Jews, other Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, secular Americans, Buddhists, Wiccans, etc.—this can be infuriating. For some evangelicals, it’s a sign of success, a linguistic triumph of the culture wars.

But not for Russell Moore. In 2013, the 43-year-old theologian became the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the political nerve center of the Southern Baptist Convention. His predecessor, Richard Land, prayed with George W. Bush, played hardball with Democrats, and helped make evangelicals a quintessentially Republican voting bloc.

The idea behind this sort of Moral Majority-era politics was clear, Moore writes in his new book, Onward. “Most Americans agreed on certain traditional values: monogamous marriage, the nuclear family, the right to life, the good of prayer and church attendance, free enterprise, a strong military, and the basic goodness of the American way of life. The argument was that this consensus represented the real America.” Presumably, everyone else—gays, divorcees, pacifists, socialists—lived outside the “real America.”

If such a “real America” ever existed in more than Leave It to Beaver re-runs, it certainly doesn’t exist now. Gay marriage is legal. Church attendance is down. Most TV shows are less about happy homes than the hectic, diverse tumble of American family life; the cultural preoccupation with perfectionist conservatism has largely come to an end.

Some see this as a loosely defined form of “secularization.” These are the people, Moore said, who approach him after church and ask, fearfully, whether Christianity is dying. “Behind that question is an assumption that Christianity is a sub-culture of American life,” he told me. “I think what is dying is cultural, nominal Christianity, and I don’t think we should panic about that. I think we should see that as an act of God’s grace.”

The assumption that evangelicals own American culture and politics has ended. This is good for minority groups, for other Christians, and for those who are still searching. But the radicalness of Moore, who by right of inheritance should be America’s Culture Warrior in Chief, is that he thinks it’s good for evangelicals, too.

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Like any good Southern Baptist preacher, Moore knows how to unleash some spiritual whoop-ass, though that probably wouldn’t be his preferred choice of words. The straitlaced, suit-wearing preacher from Biloxi, Mississippi, included a whole passage in his book about how much he hates tattoos; he is studiously polite and clean-cut. Yet he rails against people who merely perform their Christianity, who assume that following Jesus is the same as being a “shiny, happy Republican.”

In the Bible Belt in particular, “Christianity became a totem to secure a happy marriage, a successful career, well-behaved children—all that, and eternal life, too,” he writes. “Such a Christianity doesn’t have a Galilean accent, but rather the studied clip of a telemarketer.”

That last dig—at the faith’s “telemarketers”—is key to understanding Moore’s rage. It’s partly aimed at some of evangelicalism’s most prominent leaders—the Creflo Dollars and Joel Osteens of the world, who spend $70 million on jets and preach about perfection, rather than sin. But it’s also a partial repudiation of culture warriors past.

Moore sees the world through the eyes of the outcast, rather than the conqueror.

“There was a larger mentality that came along with the last generation of evangelical political activism that assumed that we represent the real America in ways that turned out not only not to be true, but turned out to be damaging to the larger mission of the church,” Moore told me.

It may be more effective to package Christianity in terms of God and country and tradition, rather than sin and Christ and blood, but in Moore’s eyes, it’s less authentic. As he wrote in his book, “We were never given a mission to promote ‘values’ in the first place, but to speak instead of sin and of righteousness and judgement, of Christ and his kingdom.”

Moore is making an argument for embracing Christian strangeness. “Our message will be seen as increasingly freakish to American culture,” he writes. “Let’s embrace the freakishness, knowing that such freakishness is the power of God unto salvation.”

This word, “freak,” is both jarring and effective: It’s a high-school-hallway diss, all hard-edged consonants and staccato contempt. Christians have reclaimed this word before; the 1960s-era “Jesus freaks” mixed gospel teachings with hippie counter-culture. In many ways, Moore wants to capture a similar mentality, one of standing against and apart from culture, rather than trying to win it over. This is not quite the same as “the Benedict option,” as Rod Dreher has called it—a strategic retreat from culture and fortification of communities that share similar values. As Moore pointed out, the core of being an evangelical is evangelism, spreading the good news of Christ; there’s no low-church history of monastic retreat like there is in the Catholic or Orthodox traditions. But it is a strategic reorientation: to see the world through the eyes of the outcast, rather than the conqueror.

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If pastors and pundits and politicos follow Moore's lead, what would that mean for evangelicals—and for everyone else?

On the evangelical side, Moore hints at a few strategic shifts ahead—and, perhaps, strategic retrenchments. During his time as a Southern Baptist leader, Moore has pushed hard on the topic of racial reconciliation within the denomination. He sees the broader church for what it’s becoming: markedly less white, and steadily more global. This is part of the context for his campaign against a vague, American-values Christianity—the real movement in the faith is happening outside of the United States.

He also thinks Christians need to change how they relate to their LGBT brothers and sisters. “The loudest voices against the hounding and intimidation of gay and lesbian persons around the world should be from the wing of the church most committed to a biblical Christian sexual ethic,” he writes. This means working to end homelessness among gays and lesbians, he says, and caring for teens who have been rejected by their parents.

But this response is not a softening on sexuality; if anything, Moore is calling for more fidelity to this Christian sexual ethic. This means talking about “chastity,” not just “abstinence,” he says; condemning “fornication,” not just “premarital sex.” It means eschewing divorce and recognizing traditional gender roles and rejecting the values of the sexual revolution. (“Can we really pretend that the culture around us is an increasingly safe place for women or for their children?” he writes. “What is this but the brutal patriarchy of a Bronze Age warlord? All of these things empower men to pursue a Darwinian fantasy of the predatory alpha-male in search of nothing but power, prestige, and the next orgasm.”)

“A certain cultural moment in American life sees Christianity as a mood, rather than a life-changing truth.”

This is not an assimilated, salable Christianity. If anything, it troubles the anodyne, dog-whistle-y “values” rhetoric that Moore rejects. It calls for politicians to be committed to living out Christianity beyond the breath it takes to utter “God bless America.” It goes against “a certain cultural moment in American life which sees Christianity as a mood, rather than a life-changing truth,” like the Willie Nelson concert where the singer seamlessly transitions from “Whiskey River” to “Amazing Grace.” And inevitably, it undermines Bible Belt identity, which has long depended on pairing God with guns and Republican politics. Not to worry, Moore says: “The Bible Belt was no Promised Land.”

Perhaps this moment of evangelical clarity could also be a moment of clarity for other kinds of American Christians. Conservative Protestants have longed crowed about the decline of mainline Christianity, citing shrinking attendance as a sign of tepid faith. Then again, “American Christianity” has so often been used as a shorthand for evangelical Protestantism; if the faith is delineated in terms of conservative “values,” it’s a little unclear what it means to be a progressive Christian. If evangelicals embrace their weirdness, perhaps progressive Christians will embrace a similar cultural moment.

What will be most interesting, though, is how a distinctive, metaphysically weirder Christianity will be perceived in broader American culture. Most Americans have some religious affiliation, and an even greater portion of Americans believe in God. For many, though, religion is not the defining element of their identity; it’s something for Saturday or Sunday mornings, if that. Moore urges evangelicals not to fear the secularization of American culture, but “if by ‘secularization,’ we mean the loss of the ability to comprehend religious motivation or religious people, we have an entirely different set of problems,” he writes. It’s been somewhat easy for the American public to accept a Christianity that’s vaguely nationalistic. As evangelicals let go of popular opinion and let their freak flags fly, this will be a harder exercise in pluralism. But, as Moore says, “onward.”