Jerry and Becki vs. Jim and Tammy

Over at Religion News Service, University of Missouri historian John Wigger compares two evangelical sex scandals separated by 33 years. Wigger is the author of PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire. Here is a taste of his piece at Religion News Service:

Is there a road back for Jerry and Becki Falwell?

The second acts of Jim and Tammy Bakker suggest that there is. Irrepressible and unfiltered, with big hair and outrageous lashes, Tammy’s focus was never solely on the church, so it was easier for her to branch out. While she never lost her faith, after the collapse of PTL and her divorce from Jim, she ventured beyond the borders of evangelicalism, becoming an icon of the gay community, the Judy Garland of televangelism.

After prison, Jim initially rejected the prosperity gospel that had been so much a part of his success and downfall at PTL. But it was not long before he returned to his roots. He and his second wife, Lori Bakker, have built a new ministry called Morningside on 700 acres near Branson, Missouri. There Bakker has exchanged the prosperity gospel for doomsday apocalypticism, finding a way to turn a profit by selling freeze-dried survival food and gear to preppers. He has also turned to conservative politics, aligning with Donald Trump. It is brilliant, in a way, connecting to current trends and a new base of support.

Whichever path the Falwells choose, they will not be the last of their kind.

Much of American evangelicalism’s success rests on its close connection to American popular culture. But appropriating cultural expectations is risky business. Lines blur and compromises are ignored until scandal erupts.

Read the rest here.

When it comes to Supreme Court decisions, context matters. But whose context?

Context

Earlier today, I published two posts on yesterday’s Supreme Court decision on LGBTQ rights. The first post addressed the politics of the decision and what it means for white evangelical support for Donald Trump. The second post dealt with the religious liberty issues at stake. I encourage you to look at them to get up to speed. Here and here.

In this third post, I want to think historically about both the majority and dissenting opinions.

Over at Think, Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, explains the conservative judicial philosophy Justice Neil Gorsuch employed in coming to his decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia and the other consolidated cases. Title VII of the Act forbids “discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex , or national origin.” The debate, of course, is over the meaning of the word “sex.” Gorsuch interpreted “sex” to cover LGBTQ rights.

In another piece, Levinson describes Gorsuch’s textualism. She writes,

Typically, conservative judges and lawyers adhere to the idea that in determining the meaning of words in a law, you look only at those words. You do not look at the context in which the law was passed, or congressional intent. This is called textualism.

No historian would treat a text this way. Frankly, I am not entirely convinced that Levinson offers an accurate description of how most textualists interpret a text. As we will see below, it is certainly not how Justice Samuel Alito or Justice Brett Kavanaugh understand textualism.

But historical context can also be a tricky thing. Gorsuch appears to have ignored it. He writes in his majority opinion:

Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear. An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids

Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result. Likely, they weren’t thinking about many of the Act’s consequences that have become apparent over the years, including its prohibition against discrimination of the basis of motherhood or its ban on the sexual harassment of male employees. But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands. When the express terms of a statue give us one answer and extratextual considerations suggest another, it’s no contest. Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit.

A couple of quick observations about these two paragraphs:

  1. Does the meaning of a word really exist outside of its historical context? Are we to assume that all words have universal meanings across time? A historian would answer both questions with an emphatic “no.” Historians do not subscribe to the kind of textualism that Gorsuch describes here.
  2. Is Gorsuch correct when he says that the “those who adopted the Civil Rights Act” could never have imagined it being applied to the gay community? This is an honest question. I am assuming Gorsuch is correct, but I am not up to speed on the scholarship here.

In their dissenting opinions, Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh also appealed to the text of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but they interpreted the meaning of the word “sex” in historical context.

Here is Alito:

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on any of the five specified grounds: “race, color, religion, sex [and] national origin. Neither “sexual orientation” nor “gender identity” appears on that list.

Alito argues that unless the document specifically says “sexual orientation” or “gender identity,” the Civil Rights Act could not have encompassed these things. He suggests that “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” do not fall under the category of “sex.”

Alito challenges Gorsuch’s textualism with the ideas of the late Antonin Scalia:

The Court attempts to pass off its decision as the inevitable product of the textualist school of statutory interpretation championed by our late colleague Justice Scalia, but no one should be fooled. The Court’s opinion  is like a pirate ship. It sails under a textualist flag, but what it actually represents is a theory of statutory interpretation that Justice Scalia excoriated–the theory that courts should “update” old statues so that they better refelct the current values of society.”

Alito argues that we need to understand the meaning of the word “sex” in the context of the 1960s. He writes:

Determined searching has not found a single dictionary from that time that defined “sex” to mean sexual orientation, gender identity, or “transgender” status. In all those dictionaries, the primary definition of “sex” was essentially the same as that in the then-most recent edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary (2d ed. 1953): “[o]ne of the two divisions of organisms formed on the distinction of male and female.”

Alito continues:

Thus when textualism is properly understood, it calls for an examination of the social context in which a statue was enacted because this may have an important bearing on what its words were understood to mean at the time of enactment. Textualists do not read statues as if they were messages picked up by a powerful radio telescope from a distant and utterly unknown civilization. Statutes consist of communications between members of a particular linguistic community, one that existed in a particular place and at a particular time, and these communications must therefore be interpreted as they were understood by that community at that time.

For this reason, it is imperative to consider how Americans in 1964 would have understood Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination because of sex. To get a picture of this, we may imagine this scene. Suppose that, while Title VII was under consideration in Congress, a group of average Americans decided to read the text of the bill with aim of writing or calling their representatives in Congress and conveying their approval or disapproval. What would these ordinary citizens have taken “discrimination because of sex” to mean? Would they have thought that this language prohibited discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity?

The answer could not be clearer. In 1964, ordinary Americans reading the text of Title VII would not have dreamed that discrimination because of sex meant discrimination between sexual orientation, much less gender identity. The ordinary meaning of discrimination because of “sex” was discrimination because of a person’s biological sex, not sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Alito is writing like a historian here. He wants to understand the 1964 Civil Rights Act in context. This is historical thinking 101. But while judges use historical thinking skills, they are not historians. They are tasked with applying the past to the present.

Brett Kavanaugh’s dissent is shorter, but it also draws on historical context. Here is a taste:

As to common parlance, few in 1964 (or today) would describe a firing because of sexual orientation as a firing because of sex. As commonly understood, sexual orientation discrimination is distinct from , and not a form of, sex discrimination.

He adds:

[The majority opinion rewrites history. Seneca Falls was not Stonewall. The women’s rights movement was not (and is not) the gay rights movement, although many people obviously support or participate in both. So to think that sexual orientation discrimination is just a form of sex discrimination is…a mistake of history and sociology.

Again, any historian would have to agree, to some extent, with Kavanaugh’s logic. We try to get our students to see that Seneca Falls and Stonewall were indeed different movements in the same way that the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution were fundamentally different “revolutions.” We resist the social scientist’s tendency to clump all “revolutions” or “reform movements” together. Each movement took place in a particular time and place amid a different set of circumstances.

At the same time, we also treat Seneca and Stonewall as part of a larger story of American reform. It is appropriate, at times, to talk about common themes–such as the appeal to the ideas of the Declaration of Independence–that drive this larger and broader story.

But, again, historians are not justices. We are not primarily in the business of telling people what to do with the information we provide and the skills we teach. Kavanaugh was a history major at Yale. During his years studying history, he no doubt learned about Seneca Falls and Stonewall. He also learned to think critically,  make an argument, understand historical context, and reflect on the many ways the past relates to the present. He is now using those skills, guided by a particular judiciary philosophy, to make Supreme Court decisions. His professors at Yale taught him these skills, but they could not tell him how to use them in service to the law. (Although I am imagining that some of them tried).

What strikes me about yesterday’s Supreme Court decision is the fact that it played out, at least in the opinions, as a debate over how to interpret Antonin Scalia’s judicial philosophy . This happened because Chief Justice John Roberts assigned the majority opinion to Gorsuch rather than to one of the Court’s liberal justices.

If Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, or Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion, I imagine it might have also appealed to historical context, but in a much broader way.  Levinson suggests what such an interpretation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 might look like in this case if one of the liberal justices had weighed-in:

Liberal judges and lawyers, however, generally believe that it is appropriate to look beyond the words of the law and at the history and context around the law. But there was no such thing as sexual orientation protections in the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Act was passed, so “sex” in the history and context of the law was not meant to apply to LGBT Americans.

As a matter of policy, LGBT rights should be situated clearly within the larger struggle for civil rights, and discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation  should be outlawed in every workplace in the nation.

Again, context is tricky and this case shows that much of the law rests on how much weight a given justice gives to this important “C” of historical thinking.

What is Going on at Riverside Church?

Riverside

Amy Butler recently resigned as pastor of New York City’s historic Riverside Church.

But why?

Was it because she was an outspoken on sexual harassment?  Here is a taste of Rick Rojas’s piece at The New York Times:

Dr. Butler’s supporters said she lost her job because she had spoken out about sexual harassment and she had complained in particular about an incident in which a former member of the church’s governing council left a bottle of wine and a T-shirt on her desk, both with labels that read “Sweet Bitch.”

They said she had pursued better treatment for women and minorities, with the aim of fixing a difficult environment that had led some church employees to complain and even quit. Her persistence strained an increasingly fractured relationship between her and the church’s lay leaders, her supporters said.

Was it because her leadership style was too progressive?  Again, here is Rojas:

…her opponents said her dismissal was being misconstrued, and pointed to the governing council’s significant misgivings about changes she made to the church staff and programming and spending priorities. Her philosophy and leadership style, they said, collided with a church whose culture remained deeply traditional, despite its politics.

Or did it have something to do with a strange visit to a Minneapolis sex shop.  Here is the New York Post (the article is also cited in Rojas’s piece in the Times):

The Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, the first woman to lead Manhattan’s famed Riverside Church, lost her lofty post amid complaints that she brought ministers and a congregant on a sex toy shopping spree and then gave one of them an unwanted vibrator as a birthday gift, The Post has learned.

On May 15, Butler allegedly took two Riverside assistant ministers and a female congregant to a sex shop in Minneapolis called the Smitten Kitten, during a religious conference, according to sources familiar with the out-of-town shopping excursion.

At the store, the pastor bought a $200 bunny-shaped blue vibrator called a Beaded Rabbit for one minister — a single mom of two who was celebrating her 40th birthday — as well as more pleasure gadgets for the congregant and herself, sources said.

The female minister didn’t want the sex toy, but accepted it because she was scared not to, sources said.

Butler also offered to buy a toy for the second minister — a gay man in a committed relationship — but he declined, sources said.

Read the rest here.

In Defense of Denominations

Hybels

Over at Religion News Service, Trish Harrison Warren argues that the sexual misconduct by former Willow Creek Community Church pastor Bill Hybels should force evangelicals to rethink their commitment to denominations.  Here is a taste of her piece “Willow Creek’s crash shows why denominations still matter“:

Denominations, however imperfect, often have more robust accountability measures in place for their leaders (these measures do not rely on close friends or parishioners of the accused).

As merely one example, in my denomination, a bishop can “inhibit” a church leader from future ministry or an ecclesiastical court — comprising both ordained and lay members — can conduct a trial and decide to depose a clergy person altogether (more commonly known as being defrocked). His or her ordination would be revoked and there are systems in place to ensure he or she would never be a leader in any other Anglican church.  (If a leader is accused of a crime, he or she is also mandatorily reported to civil authorities for investigation.)

The point of church discipline is both to help bring the accused person to repentance and also to protect the larger, global church body from harm.

I wonder if the Willow Creek crisis signals a tacit end to nondenominationalism as a model for future church planting. Certainly, a conversation is brewing among evangelicals about the need for healthy institutions and older traditions as we navigate our future.

Clearly, there is a kind of denominationalism that is corrosive and corrupting. Likewise, institutionalism, the idolatry and self-protection of institutions, has produced massive evil. As allegations against several evangelical celebrity pastors came to light last summer, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report detailing large-scale sexual abuse of children and a massive systematic cover-up in the Roman Catholic Church. It’s utterly apparent that denominations and ecclesial institutions will not rescue us from sin and abuse of power.

Read the entire piece here.

More on “Fairness for All”

c1b7c-wheatoncollege

What is “Fairness for All”?  Get up to speed here.

Over at Religion News Service, Yonat Shimron covers a motion championed by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and the National Association of Evangelicals that is bound to bring more division to the evangelical community.  I was happy to contribute to Shimron’s reporting.

Here is a taste:

Last week, World Magazine reported that two respected evangelical institutions, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, both quietly adopted a set of principles that call for comprehensive religious freedom protections combined with explicit support for LGBTQ protections in employment, education, housing and adoption, among others.

Neither group is backing down from the belief that marriage is between one man and one woman. But the two groups want to work toward federally recognized protections for sexual orientation and gender identity alongside strong religious exemptions.

Specifically, they plan to soon unveil a draft of a bill they are working on with input from legal scholars, theologians and LGBTQ advocates that they say accomplishes those goals. The evangelical groups hope several members of Congress will sponsor the bill, tentatively called “Fairness for All,” in the session that begins Jan. 3.

“Fairness for All says we have to do this together because there are interests on both sides that ought to be protected,” said Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance and a consultant in discussions about a possible bill.

Read the entire piece here.

Al Mohler Pontificates on the Origins of the Culture War

KavanaughWho “started” the culture wars?

Recently some members of the Evangelical left called for a “pause” to the culture wars.  Evangelical women want Congress to reject the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination and appoint a more moderate justice.  Read about their efforts here.

Meanwhile, Al Mohler, the conservative evangelical president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has told PJ Media that such efforts are “doomed to failure.”  Here is a taste of Tyler O’Neil’s piece:

“The ‘Call to Pause’ is just the latest effort by the Evangelical left to blame the culture war on conservatives,” Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), told PJ Media Sunday. He insisted that the “Call to Pause” is doomed to failure, and more likely to damage the reputations of its supporters than to achieve any cultural or political change.

Here is more:

Mohler fought back against the idea that conservative evangelicals are to blame for the culture war. “It was liberals who pushed the new ethic of personal autonomy and sexual liberation, and it was liberals who championed legalized abortion and celebrated the infamous Roe v. Wade decision in 1973,” the SBTS president told PJ Media.

He noted that “you can date organized evangelical involvement in American politics to Roe v. Wade,” noting that the conservative evangelical movement was largely a reaction to the Left’s culture war coups achieved by the Supreme Court. This became even more clear in light of Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which supercharged conservatives’ emphasis on the Supreme Court.

“Now, just after the nomination of a clearly conservative judge, Brett Kavanaugh, as the next justice of the Supreme Court, the evangelical left is predictably opposing the nominee, and calling for a ‘pause’ in the culture war,” Mohler noted. “Amazingly enough, those behind the ‘Call to Pause’ are transparent about their fear that Roe v. Wade might be reversed, or even that abortion rights might be curtailed.”

A few thoughts:

  1. Mohler is often at his dogmatic worst whenever commenting on sexual politics.  I do not expect Mohler to agree with the evangelical women who oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination, but why does he have to come across as such an authoritarian ecclesiastical strongman whenever the issue he is addressing involves evangelical women?  One thinks he might have learned something about the voices of women in his denomination.
  2. Mohler pins the entire culture war on Roe v. Wade.  While this Supreme Court case played an important role in mobilizing the Christian Right, it is much more complicated than this.  But nuance, of course, will not help Mohler and his friends win the culture wars.
  3. Mohler continues to operate on the old Christian Right playbook for winning the culture wars.  If we nominate the right Supreme Court justice, the playbook teaches, the problem of abortion will go away.  For some context on this playbook see Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

What is Going On With Bill Hybels and Willow Creek?

Hybels

While I lived in Chicagoland in the early 1990s I occasionally drove out to Barrington to worship at Willow Creek Community Church.  I was always edified by the sermons of pastor and Willow Creek founder Bill Hybels.

I was thus shocked to see this long Chicago Tribune article on alleged sexual harassment.  Hybels denies everything, but it does seem like there is some credible evidence from his accusers.  Read the piece here.  Christianity Today also has it covered here.  We will see how this unfolds.

If You Want to Know Where the GOP is at Right Now, Watch This Video

From the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference:

The woman on the right of the screen is National Review columnist Mona Charen.

Charen was glad she got booed.

Princeton University conservative Robert George praised Charen:

 

Court Evangelicals Were Behind Trump’s Decision To Ban Transgender People From The Military

Trump Jeffress

Emily McFarlan Miller reports at Religion News Service:

President Donald Trump’s announcement on Twitter that he was banning transgender people from serving in the military seemed spontaneous and reportedly caught some administration officials and congressional leaders by surprise.

But evangelical Christian leaders who informally advise the president discussed reversing the year-old policy at the White House two weeks ago, according to a tweet by David Brody of CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network) News.

Read the rest here.

Does Sexual Indiscretion Matter Any More?

Edwards

john Edwards

Earlier today I was reading a Newsweek article titled “America’s Disgraced Politicians: Where Are They Now?”  Several of these disgraced politicians were forced to leave office or surrender influence in society because of sex scandals of one variety or another.

Idaho congressman Larry Craig solicited sex in a men’s restroom. John Edwards had an affair and a baby with a campaign staffer.  Congressman Mark Foley sent sexually-explicit photos to teenage boys.  Dennis Hastert paid millions of dollars in hush money to a boy he sexually abused.  Congressman Eric Massa sexually harassed members of his staff.  New York Governor David Paterson had a long history of extramarital affairs.   His predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, made regular visits to high-priced prostitutes.  Congressman Anthony Weiner sent inappropriate selfies to a woman who was not his wife.

And I am sure we can add more to this list.

As I noted above, the careers of these men suffered as a result of their sexual indiscretions.  For many of them, their careers in the public eye came to an end.  They suffered the consequences of their actions.

But that was then.

Today we have a president who has had multiple affairs, brags about his sexual prowess, and dismisses sexual harassment charges from his past as politically motivated.

And then there is Bill O’Reilly.  Though he is not a politician, his case is still worth noting.

It was recently discovered that five women have accused the Fox News personality of sexual harassment.   Yet his recent book, Old School: Life in the Sane Lane, is a best-seller, currently #8 at Amazon.  As this Boston Globe article points out, the book “is billed as a defense of traditional values and includes advice on how men should treat women respectfully, not as sex objects.”

Though politicians and public figures have always done this kind of thing, there was a time, even recently, when such behavior, if made public, was detrimental to one’s success or career ambitions.  No more.  I guess we can no longer expect character to be a qualification for office.

Perhaps this will be a question of “change over time” for future historians.  Perhaps they will see the change as having something to do with the election of Donald Trump.

Three Cheers for John DeGioia

Over at the website of Time, Jon Meacham praises Georgetown University president John DeGioia, a Catholic layperson, for coming to the defense of Sandra Fluke.  You may recall that Fluke is the Georgetown law student who Rush Limbaugh recently called a “slut” and a “prostitute” for her testimony before Congress in support of the Obama administration’s proposed requirement that religiously affiliated institutions cover contraception for their employees.

I have a hunch (and I am only guessing here) that DeGioia, as president of a Catholic university, may not agree with Fluke or Obama.  Nevertheless, his call for civility and his own example of civility is worth noting.  Here is a taste of Meacham’s piece:

DeGioia invoked St. Augustine to seal the point. “In an earlier time, St. Augustine captured the sense of what is required in civil discourse: ‘Let us, on both sides, lay aside all arrogance. Let us not, on either side, claim that we have already discovered the truth. Let us seek it together as something which is known to neither of us. For then only may we seek it, lovingly and tranquilly, if there be no bold presumption that it is already discovered and possessed.’ If we, instead, allow coarseness, anger—even hatred—to stand for civil discourse in America, we violate the sacred trust that has been handed down through the generations beginning with our Founders. The values that hold us together as a people require nothing less than eternal vigilance. This is our moment to stand for the values of civility in our engagement with one another.”

All of us should take that stand with DeGioia.