fear

In the most recent issue of his newsletter, David French writes,

The fear of the Christian “best” is harming this nation…. [Some], in spite of Christ’s admonition to deny yourself and take up your cross to follow Him, are not willing to risk tweetings when the apostles braved beatings. Their jobs are too precious to risk. Though they enjoy greater freedom from actual censorship than arguably any people in the history of the planet, self-censorship suffices to drive too many thoughtful Christian voices from the academy, the boardroom, and the office. But shrinking back in the face of challenges to career and reputation communicates fear, not faith, to a broken world. While the fearful Christian would never say this out loud, they’re functionally treating the “strong gods” of the partisan political moment as greater and more powerful than the God of the universe they seek to serve.

He also says, “My friend Rod Dreher’s influential blog has become a clearing-house for frightened Christian professionals to (anonymously) express their deep fears.“

So it’s not surprising that Rod replied, thus:

I like and respect David. Let nobody deny his courage in the public arena. I’m serious about that. I agree with him that Christians cannot be silent, that we have to be willing to be criticized, and even suffer for our faith. The most important chapter in Live Not By Lies is the chapter on suffering as Christian witness. But I read David’s essay as way more optimistic than facts warrant. There really is a difference between hard totalitarianism and soft totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is a mindset before it is anything else. Totalitarianism is the idea that there is no area of life that is free from politics — and that also means cultural politics. I don’t believe that we will have a Woke Stasi in this country. But I also believe we won’t need one for the progressive radicals to achieve what they want to do. Justice Alito said in his dissent today that the ruling raises the question of whether employers will force employees to keep quiet regarding their opinions critical of homosexuality and transgenderism. Might you lose your job over your private social media posts affirming what your church teaches? Yes, you might — and you might have no recourse.

So yes, I completely agree with David that Christians should be more bold … but let’s not downplay how much they (we) are going to be made to suffer under the new and emerging cultural and legal regime.

There’s a lot here that needs to be sorted out. Let me make my best effort at the sorting. Here are the key questions:

  • Are Christians as such widely in danger of losing their jobs?
  • Or, are they merely in danger of losing their social standing, or of getting dragged on Twitter?
  • Or, are Christians as such okay, but those Christians who hold traditional views on marriage and sexuality have become personae non gratae in polite society?
  • Assuming that you are a Christian in some sort of genuine professional or personal danger, what is the proper Christian response to that?

These are difficult questions, and I would just encourage everyone engaged in these debates to be clear about what specifically they are talking about and what their answers to the above are. Then we can have more meaningful discussions.

In this post I just want to make a couple of points that may provide grist for our common mill.

I’ve met a shockingly large number of closeted academic Christians over the years, and received emails from them. I can think of one visit I made a few years ago to a university that everyone would recognize and recognize as thoroughly secular, at which no fewer than three faculty members approached me when no one else was around to confess, sotto voce, their Christian faith and thank me for my witness. It was obvious that outing themselves as Christians was unthinkable to them. But none of the three had tenure, so I understood. I really doubted whether they would’ve been in danger, because none of them struck me as conservative in their politics or their theology, but people on the tenure clock are easily spooked. The question I found myself asking, though, was: Do they know about one another? I doubted it. But wouldn’t they have been encouraged to know they had company? If even one of them had come out it might have meant a lot to the others.

Which brings me to the person Rod Dreher calls Professor Kingsfield. Professor Kingsfield is a tenured law professor “at one of the country’s elite law schools” who secretly confessed his views to Rod a few years back, and in my judgment Professor Kingsfield ought to be ashamed of himself. Just think of how much encouragement he could have given to other Christians at his law school and elsewhere! He could not have feared losing his job, only potentially the approval of some of his colleagues. The very worst possibility would have been something like being denied promotion from associate to full professor. And he couldn’t face that? He should spend some time reflecting on Polycarp of Smyrna (AD 69–155), who, when as an elderly man he was threatened with being burned to death if he did not renounce Christ, replied, “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior?”

Setting aside whatever judgment he may face when the Lord Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead and he has to explain why he could not bring himself to utter the name of Jesus for terror of the Associate Dean, Professor Kingsfield has dug a hole to hide himself into which others have fallen. A pox, then, on Kingsfield, who has made it more difficult for people who come after him to navigate these difficult days, and a murrain on all of his ilk. On all of them David French’s critique falls forcefully and unambiguously.

However. The situation of the tenured faculty member is an extremely rare one in our world. Very few Americans have the kind of job security Professor Kingsfield and I have, and David French needs to have more sympathy for those who don’t — and who don’t have the benefit that he has, and as far as I can tell has had his entire career, of working for institutions that are either explicitly Christian or explicitly open to Christians. (I have that benefit too!) Should The Dispatch fail, French, thanks to his prominence and a writer and to his previous career as a lawyer, has options to fall back on that few of his fellow American believers have. For them it’s not just a matter of risking “tweetings”: as we have seen countless times, people lose jobs because of what they post on social media or what someone with a smartphone captures them saying on video. And for many millions of Americans, losing a job means losing the ability to feed the family and pay the rent. French’s failure to acknowledge the real potential costs for such Christians is insensitive at best.

That said, I can’t help wondering what would happen if the Christians of America en masse started confessing their faith openly. Not going on a crusade against sexual deviancy or whatever — but simply saying that they believe that Jesus is Lord and that they hope to serve Him, which means to love the Lord their God with all their heart and all their soul and all their mind, and love their neighbors as themselves. To comfort the widows and orphans in their distress. To do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with their God. To put no other gods before Him, even the “strong gods” who preen and strut on social media. (Facebook and Twitter are “principalities and powers,” and we should never forget it.)

I don’t know whether that would “work,” whether it would be “effective.” But those aren’t Christian categories anyway. What matters is being faithful to the God who saves us, and that necessarily has a public dimension.

In his famous Divinity School address, Ralph Waldo Emerson complained about those Trinitarian Christians who “dwell with noxious exaggeration upon the person of Jesus.” I often tell people that I want that to be on my tombstone: He dwelt with noxious exaggeration upon the person of Jesus. If Even a relative handful of us did that, what might happen? One thing’s for sure: We and our neighbors would realize that there are more of us than anyone had thought.

I hope to revisit these and related matters in subsequent posts.