John Stott's Moderation

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Matthew Yglesias and Andrew Sullivan are up in arms over David Brooks's selection of John Stott as more representative of evangelicalism than people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, whom most evangelicals consider to be of the quality most conservatives would assign to Al Sharpton or Michael Moore. They consider them court jesters and opportunistic hustlers. Stott, on the other hand, is a calm, reasonable fellow who holds to solidly evangelical views (on occasion bucking the trend, but he has biblical arguments for his unusual views such as annihilationism rather than lame philosophical ones that contradict scripture that you get from people like Clark Pinnock). He is no political activist in the way Falwell and Robertson are. He spent most of his life pastoring a flock rather than being in the public light in any way besides his books and speaking ministry, which are pretty much exclusively related to simply teaching the word. So there's a huge difference between them that anyone should immediately recognize.

So why is it that people like Yglesias are foaming at the mouth about Stott as if he's no different? It's because they don't recognize his right to hold certain views and still be considered a decent man. Matt's post shows that he considers Stott just as dangerous as Falwell and Robertson merely because Stott believes homosexuality is not a legitimate lifestyle. In other words, anyone who takes the Bible seriously in what it says about the context of sex is for that reason and that reason alone incredibly dangerous, regardless of how their political views influence whether they think that should affect laws, regardless of how their moral views affect how they interact with people whose sexual views or practices are different. I have friends who have been part of Stott's church, and I know for a fact that the church is open and accepting of those who are not viewed by Christians as living a lifestyle that's pleasing to God. Stott did say that he would leave the Church of England if they ever contradicted the Bible's teaching by saying that homosexuality is not a sin (yes, I know that's actually not what the Bible says, but people speak uncarefully when they speak succinctly, and even really smart people like Stott have to do that to avoid ridiculously long sentences). That's not a political issue, though. It's an issue of governing the church of Jesus Christ in a way that holds the Bible's authority as more important than the prevailing political wind.

Yglesias's reasoning is just ridiculous. Having the view that being in a gay relationship and/or having gay sex is wrong does not necessitate doing anything that Yglesias should consider politically dangerous. It's just intellectual dishonesty not to see the difference in views and policies between people like Stott and people like Falwell and Robertson. That purely anti-Bible bias is even more obvious in Noam Scheiber's post at TNR.

Andrew Sullivan chimes in that Stott isn't all that influential on the political agenda of evangelical Americans. I agree. Wasn't that the point? Brooks was not saying that Stott is more influential than Falwell or Robertson on political issues. He was saying that Stott has been more influential on evangelicals and their thinking in general than Falwell or Robertson could even hope to be, and he is indisputably right. He was saying that he's more representative of evangelicals, and that's undoubtedly true. The fact that politics isn't even part of that is telling. It's even what Brooks is trying to say. The heart and soul of evangelical identity lies in the sort of thing Stott does. The political stuff is a side-effect at most. Evangelicals go to church and Bible study not as a means to talk about what other people do that's wrong or for the sake of figuring out how to vote to change society. The point is to develop a relationship with God, to see how one's life does not match up to the standards of God's word, to allow God to transform one's life so that it is then better representing the light to the nations that scriptures declare it to be, not through political action but through everyday caring for people and seeking to value those whom God places in one's life. That includes people who are gay, people who have had abortions, and prostitutes addicted to heroin. Sullivan is right that Stott influence politics less, but that's because he's changed the subject.

Falwell and Robertson have in fact been more influential on political issues, not because most evangelicals consider them real leaders. They don't. They shake their heads in embarassment whenever they hear their names mentioned. They're been more influential than Stott because Stott doesn't talk about politics. Sullivan is right to mention James Dobson. Dobson really does seem to me to be a respected voice among evangelicals in political matters. I should note that Dobson is more like Stott in his tone, even though he's much more politically active in support of conservative social views. He thinks there are dangerous views on the social left. He thinks legalizing gay marriage is a bad idea. I've never heard him say anything against people who are gay. I have heard Falwell and Robertson say things that paint gay people as the scourge of society, blaming 9-11 on them, for instance. Dobson won't do that. He sees homosexual relationships, gay sex, and finding one's identity in a same-sex orientation as morally wrong. He doesn't see that as making the person any different (morally speaking) than any other sinner. The only real difference in moral attitude about sinners that Dobson would advocate for Christians to hold is that they should accept Christians who are forgiven as forgiven Christian brothers and sisters and pursue befriending non-believing sinners as recipients of the message of good news and objects of Christian love. Sometimes his statements might be offensive to people who are gay, but that's not his intent. He means no ill will. His statements are about what he sees as complete redefinition of what he sees as a good social institution, one that will be less good if redefined. That's not hate. It just isn't. It's not a political view I've endorsed (see Jollyblogger's latest post on it for succint summary of why politically conservatives evangelicals shouldn't take such approaches), but calling it hate requires being blinded by one's own hate.

Sullivan points out that key political leaders in the United States won't denounce people like Falwell even though they privately don't like him much. This is supposed to show that the average evangelical would be so offended that they would disown those political leaders. The problem with this is that evangelicals don't so much find their entire identity in politicians, and only hyper-fundamentalists and extreme charismatic/pentecostals seem to like Falwell as a person and as a minister of the gospel (not that he focuses on that much at all anymore). The average person sitting in a pew in an evangelical church has been so little influenced by Falwell or Robertson that they merely consider them to be Christians who shouldn't be smeared in the public light on the simply grounds that they're Christian brothers. They want to be nice to them, in other words. If Bush, Hastert, or Frist denounced them as people, it would anger me. That shows lack of character and lack of respect for my Christian brothers, and yes I do consider them Christian brothers, just sadly misguided ones. Their main justification for political activism is unbiblical, and their attitude toward those whose sins they're not tempted toward seems to me to border on contempt. I know that's not what they intend, but that's how it seems, and many people who do follow them (which is sad in itself) really do have a serious contempt for real people that these guys feed.

I should note that Sullivan posts an email from a reader, one I agree with in its entirety. I read this after writing most of this post, but it's saying things along the same lines. It reminded me that John Piper may be an even better choice than Stott (and he
s American, which these guys all seem to think is important for some reason, as if a Brit could have no influence on American evangelicals). When I teach on homosexuality in ethics courses, I sometimes use Piper's sermons on Romans 1 as the best online example of someone defending the traditional Christian view on those issues. It notably says nothing about political issues, and its main thrust is to argue that Paul genuinely did condemn homosexual orientation as a negative consequence of the fall that someone finding themselves in is not morally responsible for, yet there are moral actions that are wrong if one acts on that found identity. At the same time, he assumes people in his congregation are gay and speaks directly to them many times in the sermons, not with a hostile tone but honestly and lovingly insistent that those in the congregation who are not gay should welcome those who are gay and should seek to understand them rather than pointing the finger or socially ostracizing them. This, I believe, is the standard evangelical view. The evangelical ministries I've been involved with (Campus Crusade for Christ and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship) on two very different campuses (Brown University and Syracuse University) and in three different summer missions projects, one of which involved people from all over the country, all seemed to emphasize something almost like that when dealing with issues of homosexuality. Many speakers at conferences for college students have said similar things. Piper's view seems to me to be only a little more accepting and tolerant than the standard evangelical view.

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David Brooks, Andrew Sullivan and John Stott from JOLLYBLOGGER - a weblog for jolly beggars on December 2, 2004 12:02 PM

David Brooks, author of Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive, recently wrote a column in the NY Times seeking to introduce John Stott to his readers and offering him as a better representative of evangelicalism than Jerry Falwell. Read More

Parablemania has an article on the debate over who best represents Evangeliical America. I don't really like that term, but that is how most people think of it. The nominees have been Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and most recently,... Read More

15 Comments

There seems to be some sort of mindset that thinks that if you aren't politically influencial, then you aren't influencial at all. In this way, I think that the things Yglesias and Sullivan said put them closer to Falwell and Robertson than many evangelicals are to Falwell and Robertson. They, of course, highly disagree on the issues but they all seem to think that political action is the way to get things done or that the way to be heard is through a political voice. So for all the evangelicals out there who share this political mindset, maybe Falwell and Robertson are good representatives. I really don't think there are that many out there, however. I think that the fact that these are the types of people who will go on TV makes their numbers seem greater.

I also agree with you that Piper would be a good representative of evangelicals.

Yes, that's how Jollyblogger is interpreting what's gone wrong in their failure to understand evangelicals. I think it's partly that and partly just not understanding what really drives evangelicals in their daily lives, probably because they don't know any (or don't know they know any and would be shocked to find out that people they know are evangelicals). Anyone who understands the daily life and primary concerns of evangelicals wouldn't possibly think Stott is like Falwell in any important way and wouldn't expect evangelicals even to sympathize with Falwell's actions.

It's just intellectual dishonesty not to see the difference in views and policies between people like Stott and people like Falwell and Robertson. That purely anti-Bible bias is even more obvious in Noam Scheiber's post at TNR.

A more charitable approach might be to try and understand that political junkies of all ideological stripes tend to get wrapped up in politics and to see everyone this way. This is not unique to liberal criticism of evangelicals; it's just part of human nature (example). I see no intellectual dishonesty in Yglesias' post, and so I think your attack on him is unfair and over the top.

Also, perhaps evangelicals wouldn't find themselves being misunderstood this way if a few more would get out there and criticize Falwell and co. for their errors. This could easily be done in a "nice" way that didn't involve denouncing them as human beings, so that doesn't strike me as a very good excuse. I'm not talking about pushing Campolo/Wallis-style evangelical liberalism. I'm just talking about making it clear that the acquisition of political influence is not one of the goals of Christianity. But nobody does this, and in fact, many evangelicals have actively contributed to the muddying of those waters. That includes Piper, who has written magazine articles on why Bill Clinton should have resigned during the Lewinsky scandal, and how he thinks it's always wrong to vote for a pro-choice candidate. Michael W. Smith performed at the Republican National Convention and Max Lucado gave a prayer there. So yes, people like Yglesias might be misunderstanding evangelicals, but I don't see how evangelicals have a right to be defensive about it under the circumstances.

Confusing the following two things:

a. being morally opposed to homosexual activity and relationships
b. being anti-gay

is like confusing:

c. being morally opposed to procrastination and lateness
d. being opposed to people who are late all the time

There's a big difference, and it's not just over whether you're nice to people who are late all the time. Stott, as it turns out, has a genuinely caring ministry, accepting of anyone who is interested in investigating what his congregation has to offer. There's just no way you can rightly call him anti-gay, and that's why I'm reacting so strongly to this.

I think it's morally wrong to tolerate abortion, but I'm not against those who tolerate abortion. I'm not even against those who find their basic identity in abortion. If someone wants to do that, I'll have compassion and pity on them but not be opposed to them. I'll debate their ideas, but I'm not opposed to them as people or as a group. How can someone's merely considering certain behavior wrong be enough to make them anti- a whole category of people? I think that's got to be either intellectual dishonesty or intellectual incompetence. People reflect the latter all the time, but I don't expect it of philosophy majors, so I was assuming he just wasn't acknowledging a distinction he should be well aware of.

The fact of the matter is that a lot of people don't believe in using people's names when they criticize those people's views. They don't think it's very nice to talk about how Falwell is doing X and Robertson is doing Y. They will simply state their view. Bush said at the debate that we need to be tolerant. In so doing, he denounced the viewpoint and attitude of Falwell toward gays. He's polite enough not to mention names. Bush has also made it clear that he separates religion from politics. His welcoming of other faiths to the table when it comes to politics is fairly clear evidence of that.

Therefore, there's no way to derive from his actions or statements that he thinks political views are a Christian thing. Those who do think that way are not understanding him, and that goes for the Falwellites and the Yglesiasites who both approach the world from the same assumption, one not shared by Bush, Piper, Stott, Jollyblogger, or me. I suggest that a large chunk of evangelicalism is with us on this and not with the Right-Wing Christian Political Warriors or the Left-Wing Anti-Christian Political Warriors. We just deny the whole framework they've set up, but Yglesias is feeding into that destructive framework by putting Stott in the same category as Falwell.

Jeremy, I think you are an abortion bigot. You're probably an extra-marital sex bigot too.

I'm also an abortion-hate bigot and a gay-hate bigot, while we're at it. So are Yglesias and Sullivan, it would seem. If all it takes is having a moral view that something is wrong to be hateful of those who practice it, then they seem to have shown his hate.

While we're at it, I'll go on record as a torture bigot, a spouse-beater bigot, a dropping-nukes-on-indefensible-Japanese-cities bigot, a firing-someone-for-using-the-word-'niggardly' bigot, a turning-without-signaling bigot, a tax evasion bigot, a gossip bigot, a promise-breaker bigot, a deceiving-for-personal gain bigot, a deceiving-to-protect-one's-public-image bigot, a downloading-copyrighted-music-without-permission-of-the-copyright-holder bigot, a gay-hater bigot, a gay-avoider bigot, a using-Christianity-for-political-gain bigot, a taking-political-views-merely-to-get-votes-but-not-from-caring-about-the-issues bigot, a poor-stewardship bigot, a rejection-of-God bigot, etc.

Everyone has moral views. If someone is a bigot against people merely for having the view that their actions or way of life is morally wrong, then anyone who takes moral views is a bigot against those who violate those particualar moral views. Environmentalists are anti-polluter bigots. Vegetarians (for moral reasons) are anti-meat-eater bigots. Abolitionists are anti-slavery-supporter bigots. Liberals are anti-conservative bigots (if they think political views have any moral support, which most people do, I think). I just can't see this as a proper use of the formula "anti-X bigot".

Or it could be that he had never heard of John Stott before, then heard his views on homosexuality summarized briefly in the context of a political opinion column, and jumped to a conclusion. I would probably do the same thing if I shared the same background and knowledge base as Yglesias. This is a fairly normal aspect of human nature, even among philosophy majors, and it strikes me as being rather self-righteous and insulting of you to immediately assume that the only reason why he hasn't figured everything out like you have is that he's either a liar or a fool. Frankly, you owe him an apology, and even more so based on what you wrote after further consideration.

I don't mean to keep ripping on Piper, but let's not forget that even Piper wrote a magazine column in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 where he basically posited that the attack was obviously a direct result of the fact that Islam is an inherently violent and depraved religion, and that anyone who tried to explain away terrorism as uncharacteristic of Muslims was just an anti-Christian relativist. Whatever you think about the underlying merits of that opinion, the fact is that there's a big difference between saying Islam is a false religion and saying that it its practitioners are ethically bankrupt. I suppose his inability to understand that distinction had to be "either intellectual dishonesty or intellectual incompetence" as well, and you know what, I don't really expect to see the latter among highly trained and respected theologians. But personally, I prefer to think that he simply jumped to a conclusion about a topic that he just didn't know enough about.

Apologetics are a wonderful thing, but to be quite blunt about it, your attitude sucks. It's as if you think you arrived at all your beliefs because of the breadth of your intellectual honesty. Are you trying to change minds, or do you just want to score points? If you don't remember what it's like to be in the shoes of your opponents, maybe you shouldn't be doing this.

I'm defending Stott against the charge that he's a gay-hater. That was my sole purpose in this post. My views on the apologetical issues regarding homosexuality are public record at this point. I've even got a link on my front page leading to the most important posts I've done on it.

I'm assuming you've read very little of my apologetical work, or you wouldn't assume that I don't think from the perspective of my opponents. You can't survive in a Ph.D. program in philosophy if you can't do exactly that sort of thing, and I spend far more time criticizing Christians' arguments that rely on premises their opponent won't grant than I do giving arguments for Christianity or Christian views.

I'd say the error in reasoning that Piper made was exactly what I meant by 'intellectual incompetence'. That's what an error in reasoning is. He should know better given his attitude about homosexuality. Apparently you're using the term 'intellectual incompetence' to mean something much stronger than I intended it, since you equate it with being a fool. Very sharp people can show intellectual incompetence in one particular area at one particular time. A very smart logic professor in a long proof might show a moment of incompetence in missing a step. It just shows that we're all intellectually incompetent in some way or other, and it shows at unexpected times.

I wonder if your harsher reading of this term is why you think I'm saying something worthy of an apology. I'm making a small point about a logical mistake that a philosophy major should know better than to make. That's fairly normal to do among philosophers. We're used to it. Since this particular mistake involved slander against a very godly man, I think there's reason to be firm about it. I won't apologize for defending someone like Stott against being compared with someone like Falwell. I was apparently wrong for assuming people would understand what I meant by the term 'intellectual incompetence', and I'm sorry for any misunderstanding that caused. I don't happen to think my attitude toward Yglesias, Sullivan, or anyone else over this is anything other than bewilderment over their not seeing something that seems so obvious to me and always has.

As for me, I never said I never do this. I probably do it often. When I do it, I most obviously will not know it, and that's why I'll need other people to call me out on it so I won't keep doing it, as you seem to be trying to do right now (though I think in this case you just misunderstood what I meant, since I think what you're saying is consistent with what I'm saying). I don't think you consider what you're trying to do with me as self-righteous, and I don't think what I'm doing is any different. You're trying to point out how I can't see things from his perspective. I'm trying to point out how he can't see things from mine. Both are claims of bias, and both are consistent with having a genuinely positive attitude toward the person and a desire simply to point out the mistake.

JP, do you have a link to that article that Piper wrote? I found a couple articles on his website that were written Sept. 12, 2001 and they didn't say anything like "Islam is an inherently violent and depraved religion" or that "its practitioners are ethically bankrupt."

The only things I could find were things that talked about making sure we don't treat all Muslims as if they are terrorists and whether Christians can pray for forgiveness and justice at the same time. In this article, he says things like,

"Hatred from Christians keeps Muslims from seeing the superior worth of Jesus Christ. The spirit of revenge sends the false signal that Christ is not an all-sufficient, all-satisfying Savior. We justify our own little jihad, and seek our satisfaction by injuring the adversary. But true Christians treasure Jesus above vengeance, and do not rob Muslim people of truth and hope in this way. Christians would rather suffer to show the supreme worth of Christ. They crucify the craving of hate in their own hearts. They long for Muslims to see Jesus for who he really is. They know that eternal life is at stake - for both."

and,

"Therefore let us open the door of life for all Muslim people by renouncing hate, showing love, conquering fear, commending the King of the universe, Jesus Christ, and suffering willingly, if we must."

and,

"My son called me from Chicago to say that one of his Muslim friends had been beaten on the street. No reason. He just looked like one of "them." The spirit of revenge against Muslims in our nation these days is indiscriminate. Rage boils just beneath the surface. This is not the way of Christ. He calls his people to suffer for the sake of love, not seethe with the fire of hate. "Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly" (1 Peter 2:21-23)."

He also speaks about how Christ is the only way to heaven and how we don't have to "tolerate" Islam as a religious truth and how Christianity and Islam do not "complement each other."

If Piper did write what he said you wrote, then I think he did show "intellectual incompetence" since that seems incompatible with what he said in the article that I linked to.

JP, do you have a link to that article that Piper wrote?

No, I think I read it in print. Facts get blurred over time, so I hope I'm not exaggerating, but I do remember a specific line that went something like: Is Islam a violent religion? All I know is that you'll know them by their fruits - or words to that effect.

For the record, I don't at all believe that Piper hates Muslims. This was rather uncharacteristic, and a lot of people were dealing with a lot of emotions in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I do think that Piper is a little too eager at times to comment on political matters where he's not an expert, but politics clearly are not central to his ministry.

I wonder if your harsher reading of this term is why you think I'm saying something worthy of an apology.

That could be. In retrospect, I came off sounding a little harsher than I intended, so I apologize for that. No more posting late at night for me.

A couple more points though.

First, what I was really reacting to was your accusation not of intellectual incompetence, but of intellectual dishonesty. In your post, you explicitly wrote: "It's just intellectual dishonesty not to see the difference in views and policies between people like Stott and people like Falwell and Robertson." The intellectual incompetence angle didn't come out until later, in comments. Perhaps "intellectual dishonesty" is also a philosophical term of art, but I read it as an accusation of bad faith.

Specifically, when I said I didn't see any dishonesty, you wrote:

I think that's got to be either intellectual dishonesty or intellectual incompetence. People reflect the latter all the time, but I don't expect it of philosophy majors, so I was assuming he just wasn't acknowledging a distinction he should be well aware of.

My interpretation of that was that you were defending your initial claim of dishonesty by arguing "it had to be either that or incompetence and it's not incompetence, right?" That implication may have been unintentional, but I still think the implication was there.

Second point: granting that you didn't mean to level that kind of accusation, I honestly don't even see a logical flaw in Yglesias' argument. What I see is an incomplete understanding of the facts. At the time he wrote his post, he knew exactly one fact about John Stott: that he believes homosexuality to be an illegitimate lifestyle. Given that every other Christian he reads about in the paper who believes homosexuality to be an illegitimate lifestyle also wants the government to take action to restrict it, it was perfectly natural to extrapolate that Stott holds the same views as those other guys across the board. It's not as if Brooks did a very good job in explaining precisely how Stott differs from Falwell, apart from his erudition and so forth. I'm quite sure that Yglesias comprehends the distinction between moral philosophy and government policy. He just wasn't aware that that distinction was applicable to these circumstances.

Now, I'm sure that if Matt knew about this discussion, he wouldn't care much for my defense because I'm sure he would find Stott's views to be objectionable even on the level of pure ethics. Still, he would understand and acknowledge that the distinction exists. And in general, it just doesn't seem to me like a good idea to assume that any ignorance about Christianity must stem from some sort of personal failing. You can't just expect everyone out there to immediately grasp all the nuances of evangelical thought the way you do, any more than you would expect a European to understand the difference between a strong side linebacker and a weak side linebacker. It may be true that most evangelicals disagree with Falwell, but a great many people have never been exposed to any of those evangelicals before and it's a little unfair to expect those people to recognize beforehand the theoretical possibility of their existence, even if there is a perfectly sound logical basis for doing so.

Are you sure Piper wasn't just saying that violence is endorsed in the Qur'an and so Muslims who use violence aren't entirely without support? That really ought to be balanced with the restrictions on that required by the Qur'an (no attacking women and children, no attacking those outside the Judaio-Christian tradition, first waiting two months until oppressors have a chance to repent and then using violence only in defense, conquering terroritory for Islam but only to establish laws and not to force conversion, etc.) Still, it's true. If he was saying something stronger, then it's beyond the evidence.

On the incompetence/dishonesty issue, I was assuming just plain bias, and that resulted from his attitude toward anyone who might make a statement along the lines of what the Bible says about homosexuality. I then acknowledged that it could be an intellectual mistake, upon pressure from you, but I had originally been thinking of that as more insulting. I'm not sure anymore that I think there's a real difference between the two categories. They may both apply. One is a logical error, but the same logical error is required for the moral premise that it's the height of evil to think gay sex or gay relationships are wrong.

I'm quite sure that Yglesias comprehends the distinction between moral philosophy and government policy. He just wasn't aware that that distinction was applicable to these circumstances.

I think that's a genuine mistake in reasoning, or at least it requires a mistake in reasoning at an earlier point to arrive at the view that it's disgustingly immoral to hold a view like the one Stott holds. It's a particular kind off shoddy thinking that I keep seeing all over the place even after someone has pointed out the distinction that they're ignoring. The reason I say this is I've heard people do it. It doesn't matter how many times you say you don't have any negative attitude toward gay people. If you think that what they're doing is morally wrong, you're a monster. It doesn't matter that calling any other action or practice wrong is perfectly fine. It's just an inconsistency in application of moral categories. When it has to do with homosexuality, you're a monster to use moral categories such as right and wrong, but when it has to do with other things you can feel free to take moral views. That's why I call it a bias, and I think it involves intellectual dishonesty. It's not just a matter of not grasping all the facts, though that may also be true. That wasn't the part I was complaining about.

This is 2010 so isnt it time that bigots left their discrimination in the dark ages and worked together in getting this world on a more christian footing ?

I've you've got a certain conception of what it means to be a bigot, an argument for why that's the right conception, and a clear reason why some particular person or group of people falls into that category, I'm open to discussing it. I suppose we should also get clear on what you mean by being Christian. Blanket judgments on undetermined groups of people based on unstated criteria don't go over well on a philosophy blog.

Oh, and this was written in 2004, not 2010.

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