In one of his most recent columns, The Dispatch’s David French draws some connections between two recent (and seemingly unrelated) studies — and subsequently unleashed a wave of high school memories and reflection.
The first study, by Lifeway Research and Ligonier Ministries, found that while the majority of American Evangelicals profess belief in traditional Christian sexual morality, a surprising number hold decidedly unorthodox and even heretical beliefs (e.g., 43% deny Jesus’ divinity, and instead, claim He was just a great teacher).
The second study, by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, interviewed nearly 60,000 undergraduates at America’s top universities and found that those who were homeschooled or received parochial educations “are as or more likely to identify as LGBT or non-binary as those from public or private school backgrounds.” That is, they rejected what most would consider to be “traditional Christian sexual morality.”
This all leads me to the complex relationship between theology, morality, and hypocrisy — and to how hypocrisy is particularly damaging when Christians are clearer about their moral stands than they are about even the identity of Jesus. When religion is primarily experienced as a moral code, moral failure undermines the faith itself.
He continues (emphasis mine):
[N]ot all homeschoolers are religiously conservative, so it’s not necessarily right to say that unconventional gender identities would be contrary to the values of all homeschool families. Also, it’s important to note that parenting is hardly formulaic. Kids have agency, and there is no way to perfectly parent your children to share your own values, even if that is a parent’s priority.
At the same time, a number of correspondents wrote in to say that they’ve seen a real increase in nonbinary or “genderqueer” identification even in conservative Christian homeschools, and the explanations were often the same. On the one hand, kids chafed under extremely strict parents. On the other hand, when they did encounter LGBT communities, they didn’t find “evil” people at all, but rather folks who were welcoming, accepting, and kind.
Thus, there was a push-pull dynamic at play. The legalism of their homeschool community pushed kids away, the kindness and acceptance of outsiders pulled those kids in.
Think of it like this. Children are steeped in moral instruction, yet they see the failures. They see the hypocrisies. What does it do to them when the church is less kind than the world? What does it do to them when their own movement’s morality proves to be hollow?
Reading French’s assessment reminded me of my own high school experiences, which I’ve written about before. I grew up in conservative Christian circles and attended small Christian schools throughout elementary school, some of them literally run out of churches. That changed in junior high, when I began attending bigger (and more diverse) public schools. As a burgeoning computer and science nerd, the computer labs and educational facilities thrilled me even as I found myself confronted and confounded by the decidedly non-Christian language and behavior of my new peers.
I was still very much a nerd when I arrived in high school, and an extremely scrawny and un-athletic one at that, and so I naturally gravitated to the freaks and weirdos. They were into alternative bands like The Cure and Nine Inch Nails, watched anime and read The Sandman, wrote poetry, and played Dungeons & Dragons. They were also atheists, agnostics, and Wiccans who dabbled with crystals and Tarot cards, and were very comfortable with expressions of queerness and homosexuality. In other words, the kind of kids that my Christian subculture had warned me about.
But then I realized something strange. Compared to some of the self-professing Christians that I saw, like the jocks who teased and bullied us nerds in their Fellowship of Christian Athletes t-shirts or the youth group kids who fooled around with sex and alcohol, those freaks and weirdos were far nicer and more open-minded. They were better students, academically and behaviorally. Despite having rejected Christianity altogether, they were, by all indicators, better, kinder, and more supportive than some of my Christian peers.
They certainly did challenge my faith and expectations — I recall many a lunchtime debate — but in a way that ultimately helped me refine my beliefs, and I hope that I challenged theirs in a similar fashion.
In hindsight, of course, we were all dumb kids with our own adolescent struggles, anxieties, fears, brokenness, and naïveté; we were all in our own cliques. Many of those high school hypocrites are undoubtedly now living adult lives with integrity, and would probably look back on their high school behavior with embarrassment. Likewise, I’m sure that many of those high school freaks are now living decidedly “normal” lives in the suburbs. How much would we all laugh (or cringe) were we to compare our memories and experiences, and how our lives have progressed since then?
Even so, that first experience of the radical disconnect between what people professed to believe, and how they actually lived their lives, has stuck with me over the ensuing decades. I suppose it explains, in part, why I still view religious authorities with no small skepticism (which is ironic, given that I’m a PCA elder), why culture war salvos tend to elicit eye-rolls, and why I reject any confluence of Christian faith and political loyalty.
It also explains why I’m not surprised by French’s findings, or by the Pew Research Center’s assessments that Christianity is steadily declining in America (“If recent trends in religious switching continue, Christians could make up less than half of the U.S. population within a few decades”). Some will no doubt point to the usual bogeymen: liberal politics, Hollywood, secularism, Marxism, political correctness, etc. But if French’s article is accurate — and based on my own experiences, I have little reason to doubt that — then just as much attention ought to be paid to the hypocrisy within our own ranks, if not more so.
I suspect that a good number of those leaving the Church and joining the “nones” are doing so, not because they’ve rejected Christ or have embraced secularism or want to indulge in sin. Rather, they fear that remaining in their church’s pews will require them to sacrifice their own integrity and faithfulness. That remaining in the Church will eventually require them to be hypocrites if they want to still be considered “faithful” followers of Christ. They see the disconnect — the same disconnect that I glimpsed three decades ago — and they’re choosing to not live like that. And who can blame them, especially as American Evangelicalism has become increasingly politicized and identified with specific behaviors and stances that are not the same as faithful allegiance to Christ.