By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit Magazine
In the summer of 2017, daily headlines remind us that vulnerable minorities are at risk around the world—including within the United States where militant and sometimes violent new right-wing groups are rising from the grassroots.
A June 1, 2017, report in The New York Times on the “Scope of Hate” explored the collective impact of nearly 2,000 incidents of hate and bias in the U.S. in recent months. The next day, the Times reported again on the rise of roving groups of angry right-wing protesters that “recruit battalions of mainly young white men for one-off confrontations.” While much of this fury swirls around President Trump’s actions toward Muslim and Latino minorities, millions of LGBTQ allies are on alert as well.
“It is very painful to watch competing sub-cultures clashing over whether America will continue as an inclusive, diverse society—or we will retreat into someone’s narrow vision of what America should become,” says Dr. David P. Gushee, the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University.
“Each day there is new evidence of this tearing at America’s soul. My own mood is torn between optimism and pessimism. I am very concerned about this large movement that wants to retreat to a narrow vision of America. What gives me hope is that there also is a very solid constituency in our country for an expansive, inclusive society that happily welcomes diversity of all types: racial, sexual, gender and religious diversity.”
Since 2014, when Gushee’s pro-inclusion message in the first edition of Changing Our Mind exploded in American media, he has suffered countless online and professional attacks from from former evangelical colleagues. Once known as “America’s foremost evangelical ethicist” and the author of standard evangelical reference works on Christian morality—Gushee now describes himself as exiled from a religious group he once proudly claimed as his own.
“I have had a bit of post-evangelical syndrome, and have laid low for a while,” Gushee wrote recently for the Religion News Service. But he is not alone, Gushee explained. He is among millions of others “who have made their exits, or had their exits made for them, and now wander in a kind of exile.”
That’s why, this summer, Gushee is publishing what he sees as a related set of books: The third and definitive edition of Changing Our Mind, including a small-group study guide plus his pointed responses to critics—as well as a spiritual memoir, Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism.
Despite the attacks, Gushee also has received substantial support from his scholarly colleagues nationwide. He has been elected to the presidencies of both the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Christian Ethics—although those elections also sparked fresh fury from hard-core evangelical and fundamentalist partisans.
That’s why Gushee sees these two books—the substantial new resources added to the third and final edition of Changing Our Mind plus the memoir Still Christian—as so closely related. Together, they tell the dramatic story of how he first embraced a deep Christian faith—and how that faith led him to drop what he now realizes was a bombshell in 2014.
“In the memoir, I tell about first becoming an ‘evangelical’ before I even knew that term,” Gushee says. “I converted as a Southern Baptist while I was still a teenager. I didn’t really embrace that ‘evangelical’ label for myself until 1990 when I worked with Ron Snider at Evangelicals for Social Action. From that time until the first publication of Changing Our Mind, I proudly flew the evangelical flag and was sought after to be part of every relevant evangelical circle. You name a school with an evangelical label and, in those 25 years, I was there.
“Then, when Changing Our Mind was published, the evangelical world froze me out. Rob Bell and others have talked about the trauma of going through that experience. Sometimes it takes the form of vicious attacks online and in other circles—and sometimes it’s just a matter of your name and work being erased, scrubbed. Invitations are pulled. And, yes, it does sting when you are called a ‘heretic.’ ”
WHY ‘WE MUST FIND THE COURAGE’
Although Gushee’s story is marked by pain and sorrow over broken relationships and regret at how the evangelical community has thrown up barriers to inclusion—he remains crystal clear about his commitment to the path he has chosen.
In our interview, I asked, “Was it hard to find the courage to make this choice?”
There really was no choice, he said. His faith was leading him in this direction, step by step.
“We must find the courage,” he said. “People’s lives are at stake—and I admit now that, when I first published this book, I had no idea of the full extent to which that is true. The process of writing and publishing, first the weekly blog posts and then the entire book, revealed some of this to me. Then, as the book spread across the country and I began to travel and talk about it, I was inundated with correspondence.”
One of Gushee’s friends researched this tidal wave of public attention using Google Trends (see above). “In all my years of teaching and traveling and publishing so many books—there had never been as much public attention to what I was saying as there was in November 2014.”
Much of that attention took the form of furious attacks, “but there also were so many new contacts with LGBTQ people, many of whom remain in touch and remain friends, now. And, when I say that I was unaware of the extent of the damage that we as evangelicals had done to LGBTQ people and their families, I say that with repentance. I began to realize that traditional Christianity had created tremendous distress. We had been breaking up families—and causing people to want to end their lives, especially young people. The distress we had been causing was alarming. There was so much at stake here for so many people!”
Gushee’s critics dismiss that kind of comment as an attempt to cast their arguments cruel and unfeeling. “I hear that response from my critics all the time, but that is no excuse to continue telling people that something they cannot change about themselves is fundamentally disordered and wicked. I say this in the new edition of Changing Our Mind: I stand by what I wrote because, as a Christian leader, scholar and teacher, I have an obligation to work toward a Christian community that doesn’t cause people to want to kill themselves. Instead of the turmoil, suffering and death that the traditional Christian condemnation is causing—I am offering life in my basic presentation of the Christian faith. I believe Jesus came to bring life, not death. I have staked my reputation and my life on that conviction and I am standing with Jesus.”
SIGNS OF HOPE IN AMERICAN LIFE
One sign of hope for inclusion lies in the millions of dollars and years of staff training across American business, industry and nonprofits as well as educational and health-care institutions.
“These major segments of American life have embraced not just tolerance but diversity in an effort to create workplaces and schools and an entire society that is not just tolerant of diversity, but actually embraces diversity,” Gushee said. Even President Trump, who has emerged from the corporate world, has declined to demonize LGBTQ Americans in the way he targets Muslims, Latinos and immigrants in general. “And that’s a blessing that he seems to have spared LGBTQ people.”
But that widespread consensus among major institutions “is fueling a backlash among people who don’t like that consensus,” Gushee says. “They feel oppressed by it. They feel pushed around. They resent it. That’s a source of anger that we should not overlook.”
Since the 1960s, Gushee says, “every bit of America’s ‘white, male, European, Christian culture’ has been challenged. From the 1960s, until recently, the overall trend was toward America becoming more multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-religious. And, more than that, the cultural consensus was that this is a good thing—reflecting the best values of our country. While that trend has been moving in a hopeful direction, right now we’re seeing a collective visible and physical response from people who probably have always bristled at these changes and have tried to resist this movement.”
FREEDOM TO CREATE NEW COMMUNITIES
Right-wing activists aren’t the only ones creating new communities coast to coast. Gushee said he takes encouragement from movements like the new Blue Ocean Faith, where members embrace a deep Christian faith with a complete commitment to inclusion.
In fact, this willingness to continually reform and re-imagine the rules and style of church life has defined Christianity for the past 500 years. (See our earlier story about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.) The term “evangelical” has been used in many ways, down through the centuries, including as a proudly embraced label in churches that today are considered mainline Protestant.
“The most important period for people who call themselves evangelicals today was in the late 1940s when the term was claimed by fundamentalists—the biblical literalists who emerged about a century ago,” Gushee says. “In starting to call themselves evangelicals, they tried to make themselves seem more modern and less militant. But the truth is that most card-carrying evangelicals who address the LGBTQ issue still reason the way fundamentalists did. Those of us who want to rethink the issue, now, realize that the evangelical term probably never fit us—and certainly doesn’t fit us anymore.”
Now, Gushee points out, there are many Christian leaders—including people like Ken Wilson, a co-founder of Blue Ocean Faith—”who are no longer trying to prove our evangelical orthodoxy to the self-appointed bishops and cardinals of today’s evangelical movement. See what Ken and his colleagues are writing and teaching. Or, read a book like Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible, about the need to get past the straightjacket of biblical literalism. You will find there are many of us out here claiming the freedom to rethink our faith from the ground up.”
In the end, as Gushee concludes in his memoir, these new voices have a common theme. “Ken Wilson describes it this way: It’s not sola scriptura—or the Bible alone as the guide for our lives—it’s sola Jesus. We follow Jesus. And Jesus said, ‘I will leave you with the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit will lead you into all truth and will remind you of all I have taught you.’ (paraphrase of John 14:26)
“Jesus did not say the Holy Spirit will lead you to read every line of Scripture and will make you argue about literal readings of every word and every verse. That’s the hyper-rigid trap into which the evangelical bishops and cardinals have fallen. For me, we cannot start the LGBTQ discussion by debating a handful of verses in the Bible that mention homosexuality. No, you start by considering the way Jesus treated other people.
“Critics can shout, ‘Heretic!’ at me all day long, but I have moved on. I am not in the same religious community they’re in. Like so many others today, I’m following Jesus and walking away. One thing I’ve learned is that I’m still deeply Christian and love Jesus with all my heart. Yes, there’s some sadness in these two books—but, in the end, these books are a deep affirmation of faith in Jesus.”