“Separation” in the age of Bannon

I haven’t thought about “separation” much since leaving Fundy-land, a less-than-magical place where every decision I made as a Christian had to be run through a sieve of questions to be sure I wasn’t running afoul of the Doctrine of Separation.

Separation from sin is what defines Fundamentalism from Evangelicalism in their minds (and I’d say that’s essentially accurate, though it’s not the entirety of the difference).  It boils down to this: if someone is “sinning,” and you call them on it, and they don’t stop sinning, then you don’t hang out with them or do ministry with them or whatever. This idea extends to individuals, to entire churches or denominations, and to whole movements (basically any group in Christendom that doesn’t interpret the Bible the same way the Fundamentalists do).

Because Separation is THE critical doctrine in Fundy practice, Fundy Christians have to separate from people who don’t separate. The hall of mirrors is infinite. And no one can escape it once they’re labeled “someone who must be separated from.”  It’s one of the reasons my husband and I left the BJU orbit in our late 20s: with apologies to those who attempt to defend this as a legit biblical doctrine, it doesn’t hold water.

Here’s the most fair defense I can find of the doctrine of separation, as explained by Fundamentalist pastor Mark Minnick. I have a lot of respect for Minnick and sat under his teaching for several years. He’s a careful expositor. Though I disagree with his conclusions, he presents the best of the Fundy arguments here:
Mark Minnick on Separation (9 Marks-audio interview)
Article by Minnick on Separation (Frontline magazine)

I could have a whole ‘other discussion of how separation and legalism are related, and how separation is — at its core — a critical misunderstanding of how sin works.  If you’re interested, I wrote some posts about it a few years ago:  On Sin and On Sin Revisited.  I believe the central flaw of Fundamentalism in general and all Evangelical legalism is the rejection of Paul’s teaching at the end of Colossians 2: you can’t make enough rules to make yourself holy. Sin is on the inside, if you accept the traditional doctrine of the Fall and of sin, and as such it’s something that must be changed by God via redemption and Grace. Sanctification is active and ongoing, but it is also internal as much as it is external.

Fundamentalists talk a lot about how sin is inside us all, but they ACT as if it can be regulated and “solved” through shunning, excommunication, and rule-keeping.  [Side note: if you read that last sentence and thought, “Huh, that sounds like the tactics Evangelical conservatives are using to drive the narrative of a ‘culture war’ within American politics,” then you may understand why I think Evangelicalism has lost its Grace, and why I don’t want to be in that tribe anymore.]

In the end, Fundamentalism boils down to a lot of gate-keeping by the tribe to make sure everybody is following the rules, although not all rules are equally accepted…. and thus you have many small islands of Fundamentalism rather than a monolithic whole.  My BJU experience was qualitatively different than that of someone who attended PCC or Ambassador Bible College or Hyles Anderson or Northland or Detroit Baptist Bible Seminary or the Free Presbyterian Church’s seminary or ….  All of these little islands have their own rule book. Fail to play by the rules, and you’re voted off the island.  It’s been 100 years (or so) since Fundamentalism really came into its own as a movement, and most of those islands have merged into a few larger camps.

It’s important to note that “preserving a good testimony” is the club used to control people within Fundamentalism if there’s no clear biblical rule against doing something.  Take movies, for example.  Moves are BAD EVIL HORRIBLE NOOOOOO in Fundamentalism because of sex, language, violence, whatever. Mostly sex.  So no good person would dare set foot in a movie theater, right?  Even if you were going to see The Incredibles 2, how do people at the theater not know you aren’t there to see Slenderman or Sexx69?  So you’d better not go.

If you just spewed your coffee, I sympathize.  I lived this stuff, folks, and I thought it was Gospel truth well into my 20s.

Your “testimony” is everything in Fundamentalism because it’s about the only currency you have to gain prestige or power.  If someone can mount a credible accusation against your testimony, especially if you’re in ministry, you’re done.

Well, maybe.  There’s a stunning irony here that isolation + patriarchy + misogyny + ignorance + authoritarianism tends to work to the advantage of pedophiles and serial abusers, and that’s rampant in Fundamental churches.  (See my post about the GRACE Report at Bob Jones for a wee taste of that delightful topic.)

What’s separation got to do with Steve Bannon?

This morning, I read John Scalzi’s interesting post on the situation with Bannon and the New Yorker.  It’s a good take, and I recommend you take a minute to go read it. (Scalzi is a sci-fi writer and his blog Whatever is always a great read.)

The Whatever Digest, 9/4/18 (Scalzi)

Here are two paragraphs that grabbed my attention:

As a former journalist, I can understand Remnick’s thinking on this one: He’d been angling to interview Bannon for a while, and the idea of getting that festering lump of white “supremacy” on a public stage where he couldn’t equivocate or finesse his way out of his shitty racist ideas seemed like a good one. The problem was that Remnick was thinking with his journalist brain and not his event coordinator brain. The event coordinator brain should have realized that inviting Bannon to a New Yorker-branded “festival of ideas,” complete with travel expenses and honorarium, was in effect paying Bannon to take on the New Yorker imprimatur for his ideas. It’s not reportage; it’s the New Yorker saying “these ideas are important enough that we paid to get them on our stage.” And note well that Bannon was meant to be the headliner.

Which is of course the New Yorker’s, and Remnick’s, privilege — it’s perfectly within its rights to book a fascist piece of shit to its festival and hope people pay to see Remnick chat that fascist piece of shit up on a stage. But Remnick’s event coordinator brain should have probably realized there was going to be a backlash to that. It’s not just the New Yorker’s brand associating with shitty fascism up there on that stage; it’s the personal brand of everyone else on the program as well. Strangely enough, a fair number of other people didn’t want their brands smeared with shitty fascism, and theywere perfectly within their rights not to participate for that reason. Remnick’s problem then, as an event coordinator, was realizing that soon his “festival of ideas” would be nothing but shitty fascism unless he dropped Bannon. Oh, and that his staff hated it. Oh, and that social media hated it too.

Huh.  That, my friends, is the EXACT argument made by Fundamentalists (though for different reasons and with zero curse words) for refusing to share the stage with Billy Graham, and for then refusing to share the stage with any pastor who had shared the stage with Billy Graham.

If you’re new to all this and that example made zero sense to you, well, lucky you for not growing up in the weirdness that is Christian Fundamentalism and separatism.

Also, it’s worth noting that even the most moderate of Christians who doesn’t believe in The Doctrine of Separation™ as it’s practiced by Fundamentalists still holds to a line that he/she will not cross, though in general progressive Christianity is much more likely to take someone’s faith claim at face value and treat them like a brother/sister in Christ unless there’s evidence to the contrary.

It’s usually the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists who demand receipts before they will accept someone as legitimate.  This might explain the shocked and horrified response of many moderate Christians to James Dobson, Jerry Falwell Jr, Eric Metaxas, and other Christian “leaders” who have rushed to affirm Trump as a baby Christian despite zero evidence to this being true (and plenty of evidence that Trump is using them for political power but they’re too stupid or power-hungry to see it).

Vox has a really good explainer on this, and it’s fair to the Evangelicals IMO.

And Metaxas got dragged hard on Twitter last week for playing into this ridiculous charade by Trump instead of seeing it as outright pandering to a group of people willing to trade away their conscience for the sake of some political power. But I digress….

Anyway, back to Scalzi….

John dives deeper into the question of when it’s right for an author to bail on an event to avoid appearing with someone distasteful like Bannon, and when it’s probably a poor decision.

Again, I was somewhat stunned to see the exact same style of argumentation happening here as was discussed in my ministry classes at BJU. How far is too far?  When is an author’s “testimony” on the line in the age of Bannon, Trump, and alt-right fascism?

Scalzi takes time to parse out which types of people would provoke him to withdraw his presence from an event (separation from the event because of the presence of others) vs when he’d be wiling to attend but not be on the same panel (personal distance) vs just avoiding being on a panel with someone because it would generate into a mess (or the person is a jerk).

Notable:  Scalzi defines his rules based on a mix of factors, and he progressively intensifies his “distance” (and the lengths to which he would go to enforce that distance) from someone based on how reprehensible their ideas are (or their actions as a person).  So, for example, he has no desire to be anywhere near Ann Coulter (and I agree with him, having heard her speak myself) but he wouldn’t pull out of an event just because she was there.

The question I’ve been chewing on today:  is this qualitatively the same species as Fundamentalist separation, or different?

It’s common in Fundamentalism to reject anyone outside the tribe because of their loose moral code and “anything goes” associations (and thus loss of testimony).  I think Scalzi is a great example of how this simply isn’t true. He’s got a clear and well-organized set of principles plus a clear plan for implementation and flexibility to judge things case-by-case.

Why do I reject Fundamentalist separation but laud Scalzi for his “separation” from alt-right fascists?

I think it boils down to this:

  1. Scalzi isn’t pretending he’s gaining brownie points from a higher power because of his rules.  Legalism can be defined as using my actions (especially rule-keeping) to gain favor with the Higher Power, and it’s linked to self-righteousness. It operates on both the personal level and the group or institutional level.  Do progressives fall prey to self-righteous legalism? Oh, hell yes. I’ll take that up below.
  2. Scalzi owns the pragmatism of his rules. For example, he’d avoid being on con panels with particular authors because he thinks they’re jerks or annoying or whatever, not because they’re morally evil people.  Fundamentalism had no categories for something in the grey area, a simple preference. It’s “rock music is evil because Satan invented it and also a bunch of racist ideas about African beats!” rather than being honest about not enjoying a particular genre of music or the subculture around it.  Again, liberalism is in danger here…..
  3. Scalzi increases distance in proportion with the nature of the offense. I never understand why Christians can’t make strategic alliances to accomplish a greater purpose. How many discussions did I have at BJU about whether it was wrong to, say, cooperate with Catholics to run a crisis pregnancy center?  Even at the time, I had to shake my head at some people’s inability to weigh some issues as more critical than others.  Life is all about strategic compromises. To pretend that you can live as someone separate from all the bad and dirty stuff is just arrogant.  On the other hand, boundaries are healthy and helpful. Everybody needs them. Just avoid turning your personal boundaries into a statement of what everyone else needs to do.

Takeaways for these turbulent times

My colleague (and former headmaster) Dennis used to talk about wisdom a lot, about how Wisdom gives us  a framework for making well-informed decisions in the grey spaces in between moral laws. Wisdom enters into the questions where we aren’t sure what we’re supposed to do to ensure that a “judgment call” is based on something sound.

I’ve had a thousand discussions with my friend Jack about how there’s an intellectual fundamentalism on the Left that’s corroding people’s ability to enter into discourse with anyone who isn’t already allied with liberal ideals.  Problem is, you’ll never win anyone over to your way of thinking if you can’t even find a way to talk to them, or if you start screaming at them as soon as you realize your views differ.

Are men wrong to not enjoy every argument a feminist throws at them on Twitter? Is every man “mansplaining”? What does justice and redemption look like in the wake of the #metoo movement?  Do we burn bridges or extend a hand?  Does the Democratic party have room for socialists just like the GOP made room for Tea Party libertarians? Will the result be just as caustic?

See also:  America in 2018

I think we can learn from Scalzi (and many others like him — I’m using him as an example because of his post this morning) and avoid the errors of American Fundamentalism.

But that leaves us with some really difficult judgment calls, like….

  •  It’s all well and good to say “punch Nazis in the face,” but there’s a relativism in that approach which breaks down quickly as soon as the mob decides some other group is equally deserving of face-punching. Progressives lose pubic arguments (about immigration, for example) because they don’t “fight dirty,” because “when they go low, we go high.”    We can learn from Scalzi that it’s ok to implement different standards for different fights (if you will), and to raise the stakes if the situation demands it.  But we also need to acknowledge that we’re on dangerous ground here — just like when Lincoln suspended habeas corpus or FDR took America into a total wartime economy.  The Constitution doesn’t protect us from evil men who might refuse to hand power back to the people once the crisis is over. And mobs never give power back.
  • How do you engage in civil discourse when the other person’s presuppositions disgust you, repel you?  Scalzi notes the critical error of the New Yorker journalist: this event would have handed an alt-right POS a microphone and a mantle of respectability.  Idiotic.  The Press has been doing this for Trump’s ideas for a few years now. It’s frustrating, and it deserves a whole separate conversation. But if we get to the point that we cannot find ANY space for discourse — a smaller, more private one-on-one conversation where there’s less shouting and piling-on and “performance” for the sake of one’s tribe — then I don’t think democracy will survive.
    As more and more issues explode (like sexual harassment, or the sex abuse scandals in churches, or deciding what America’s health care system should look like), we’re going to be left with a lot of ad hoc line-drawing if we aren’t smart enough to realize what’s going on.
  • Universities must find a middle ground to allow conservative faculty and students a place in the tent, and not a begrudging one.  But that doesn’t mean letting just anyone and anything into the tent of Intellectual Discussion. Someone is drawing boundaries, practicing separation. The problem is, universities aren’t honest about who holds that power or where the lines are.
  • Intellectual authoritarianism and stifling questions are close cousins to healthy boundaries and “taking a stand.”  Only wisdom and experience teach us the difference.  Therefore, we need to be charitable toward those in our camp who draw those lines differently, and reject the Fundamentalist habit of writing off someone because they “soiled their testimony” in our tribe by allowing or rejecting something we want to see as good or sacred.   On the other hand, some ideas need to be thrown out of any public sphere anytime they’re offered as a serious alternative.Educational spaces should run by a different set of rules.  I never support banning or censoring books like Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird for using the n-word. Students need to confront those books as the authors wrote them, or not read them at all.  Students need space and time to reason through their views on an issue, even if I find their views ill-formed, just plain wrong, or dangerous.  Depending on the level of danger (or foolishness), I might be more or less direct in how I point out those problems to students. However, people don’t change their minds because we yell at them hard enough to change.  It takes patience, time, careful explanation, and – above all – kindness. 

I want to dig into that final point a bit.  This is the crux of the problem for Democrats, progressives, etc right now in 2018.  It’s what Hillbilly Elegy was trying to communicate to us.  It’s why I’m worn out by all the NYT think-pieces about Trump voters (which probably need to stop) but also feel committed to remaining friends with people in my life who hold very different political views than mine.

If America is going to own up to its racist, ugly history and find restoration and healing, we must find ways to talk about it honestly.

If American democracy is going to survive past 2020, we need to unite around core ideals that are larger than the tribalism that’s torn us apart.

If you’re going to convince your cousin to see immigration in a better light, you can’t throw facts at her. You’ve got to locate her anger and fear, figure out what’s feeding those emotions, and defuse them before your arguments will stand a chance.

And if you decide that you need to draw the boundary and walk away, don’t cloak your separation in self-righteousness. Acknowledge it for what it is: a personal boundary that exists for your emotional and intellectual health.

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