The New Calvinist movement pairs a traditional take on the Bible with a softer image -- and smarter rhetoric
The day after it was announced that Louie Giglio, an Atlanta pastor, founder of the Passion movement and campaigner against human trafficking, had been chosen to deliver the benediction at President Obama’s second inauguration, an old sermon of his surfaced. Okay, it didn’t “surface”—ThinkProgress, the well-known left-wing blog, dug up a sermon from the 1990s in which Giglio calls homosexuality a sin, worries that same-sex marriage will undermine society, and insists that only a sensitive guy with long hair named Jesus can turn gays straight. An outcry ensued and Giglio withdrew from the ceremony. As political debacles go, this was junior varsity stuff—“over in a flash,” as Sarah Posner put it here on RD.
In the Christian media, though, it had a somewhat longer shelf life. A couple of weeks later, an opinion piece in the Christian Post complained that critics of Giglio were guilty of the “very act of intolerance to [sic] which they have accused the pastor.” On his blog, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote that Giglio’s treatment signaled the dawn of a new McCarthyism directed not at suspected communists but rather at socially conservative Christians. Have these gay activists no sense of decency, sir, at long last?
It reminded me of a conversation I had a few months ago with Matt Chandler. If you have never heard of Matt Chandler then you are probably not a part of the ever-expanding New Calvinist movement, which pairs a traditional take on the Bible with a softer image and smarter rhetoric. Jerry Falwell is dead. Pat Robertson is irrelevant. The new conservative evangelical pastor doesn’t wear a suit and tie or declare that homosexuals cause hurricanes. Heck, these guys don’t even tuck their shirts in. Chandler and his ilk are too savvy for that, though theologically they’re often on the same well-thumbed page.
I wrote about Chandler for Texas Monthly, explaining how the quick-witted, 30-something Dallas megachurch pastor had become a star in that movement, and how he had coped, publicly and courageously, with a cancer diagnosis. What I didn’t mention was our discussion about gay rights. On the day I visited his church, he preached on the pitfalls of pornography and the dangers of illicit desire, but there was no mention of the horrors of homosexuality. That seemed odd to me. So I brought it up with him.
He told me a story about getting to know a middle-aged gay man who runs a costume shop. The man asked if Chandler would allow him to take communion. Chandler asked if the man believed that Jesus was the son of God. The man hemmed and hawed. Well, there you go, Chandler told him. You have to believe if you’re going to partake.
But suppose the man did believe in Jesus’ divinity? Could he take communion then?
“Like anyone else who is walking in open sin, no,” Chandler told me. “Brazen, unrepentant sin has to be dealt with before you can come to the Lord’s table.”
Brazen, unrepentant sin. That’s harsh. But Chandler went on to make sure that I understood that homosexuality is no worse than other sins. He also said he was in favor of same-sex partners being granted legal protections like hospital visitation rights. And while he has preached about homosexuality before, offering one of the most detailed biblical cases against it I have heard, that topic, he assured me, isn’t a priority. For the first time in our conversation, Chandler lowered his booming voice. The gays are best discussed in hushed tones.
Like Chandler, Giglio said homosexuality was not a focus of his ministry. But notice what he didn’t say. He didn’t say that his views had evolved since the 1990s. He didn’t say that he no longer thought gays and lesbians were hell-bound. He didn’t say that the dreaded homosexual agenda had ceased to be a threat to these great United States. He just reminded everyone that he hadn’t said that in a while, as if opinions have expiration dates.
The trick is to oppose homosexuality without appearing to be a bigot. Mark Driscoll, the founding pastor of Mars Hill Church, which has 14 campuses in four states, once answered a question about the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality with the following syllogism: sex outside of marriage is wrong, God said marriage is between a man and a woman, therefore gay sex and gay marriage are wrong. But he was quick to name-check other sins and to note that he had been a “fornicator,” i.e. sexually active while single, back before he was saved. “I will not be baited into picking on homosexuals,” he said.
But why not? I grew up in conservative evangelical churches in the 1980s and heard homosexuals picked on from the pulpit, and those pronouncements were not cushioned by several paragraphs of qualifiers. But the atmosphere is different now. Chandler doesn’t believe Christians are going to win this battle, if winning is defined as convincing the majority of people that you’re right. Even James Dobson said recently that it may be time to shift strategy, that the polls showing support for gay marriage among younger demographics ensured eventual defeat. James Dobson!
I asked Chandler what he thought the middle-aged gay man with the costume shop should do if he wanted to be in harmony with God’s desires. He told me, in so many words, that he should learn to love the ladies. But that is an increasingly tough strategy to sell. Last summer, the president of Exodus International, the best-known ex-gay group, said he didn’t believe that same-sex attraction can really be “cured.” Instead it should be resisted for the remainder of one’s earthly existence. In other words, you will always ache for the life you can’t lead. As marketing messages go, this is less than awesome.
In the wake of the Giglio withdrawal, there was an attempt to frame him as a victim. Chandler embraces a similar narrative, portraying gay rights activists as the bullies and Christians as the persecuted minority. “The rhetoric is changing,” he said. “At one time, we were Ned Flanders, goody two-shoes. Now we’re American al Qaeda.” He told me he was worried about a time, perhaps in the near future, when it would be considered a hate crime for a pastor not to perform a same-sex marriage. He is not alone in this fear. “Are you willing to go to jail?” Chandler said. “These are the questions that are coming for the church.”
I doubt that’s a question that’s coming for the church. The real question is: How long should you fight for a lost cause?
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