The Church’s Real Political Correctness Problem

The religious right has created a mirror image PC complete with cancel culture and performative anger.

I’m increasingly convinced that the first rule of our modern political and religious disputes is “every overreaction is answered by overreaction.” Error is answered by error. And so it is with political correctness.

I’ve been meaning to write about political correctness and the church for some time, but I was moved to put virtual pen to virtual paper this week by a poignant tweet from a friend. Karen Swallow Prior is a Southern Baptist professor. She recently announced she was leaving Liberty University to join the faculty of  Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Karen is a faithful Christian woman who engages the world with an open heart and an open mind. She’s also Bible-believing, she’s pro-life, and she upholds biblical sexual ethics. 

She also has a tragic and heroic story. She’s back on her feet, teaching and writing, after nearly losing her life in a fluke bus accident in 2018. 

Yet this week she tweeted this, a transparent reflection on her personal pain:

Why would a biblically orthodox, pro-life professor face such adversity? Was she a victim of leftist cancel culture? No, quite the opposite. She’s been the target of vicious, sustained, and vitriolic attacks from the right. A good way to describe Karen is that she’s biblically orthodox but politically heterodox. Here’s how the New Yorker described her in a January 2019 profile:

She is a conservative evangelical, and a member of the Thomas Road Baptist Church, which is led by Jonathan Falwell, Jerry’s brother. In her twenties, her faith was galvanized by the fight against abortion, and she believes that Roe v. Wade “could and should” be overturned. “I don’t think it’s any more settled law than Dred Scott,” she told me. Prior believes that homosexual sex is a sin. But she is also a committed Never Trumper who has decried the President’s positions on immigration, race, and women. She has called for protections for undocumented youth and defended Black Lives Matter. In May, when Paige Patterson, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, came under fire for having counselled women to remain with their abusive partners, Prior helped organize thousands of women to speak out against his leadership; Patterson was later removed as the head of a Southern Baptist seminary in Texas.

 Karen has—in good faith and after examining scripture—not only taken political positions contrary to prevailing Christian conservative conventional wisdom and is open to examining and even supporting (at least to some extent) movements that come from the political left. This combination of beliefs is intolerable to a certain breed of online Christian.

In a healthy culture, debates over these matters—though meaningful and often emotional—are conducted with grace and humility. Indeed, that’s exactly how countless Christians conduct themselves in their churches, their Bible studies, and in their relationships with friends and neighbors. 

Increasingly, however, that’s not online Christian culture, and online Christian culture matters. It’s the primary way that millions of Americans (especially in more secular American communities) experience Christianity. They don’t encounter Christians in their daily lives, but they do see them on Twitter or on Facebook, often by eavesdropping on vitriolic disputes or watching full-throated partisan advocacy, utterly divorced from doubt and nuance. Moreover, it’s often the most direct way that those Christians who have public platforms engage with the Christian public. And make no mistake, online Americans can see that online Christianity is rife with right-wing political correctness. 

Wait. Right-wing political correctness? Doesn’t the right fight political correctness? Well, one way the religious authoritarian right fights the secular authoritarian left is by creating a mirror image reality—complete with cancel culture, exaggerated anger, and an entire glossary of terms designed to denigrate and marginalize opponents without engaging in substantive argument. 

How can you recognize right-wing political correctness? The first and primary tell is performative masculinity. Reacting to the extreme left’s distaste for “traditional masculinity,” the reactive politically correct Christian wraps both arms around masculine stereotypes. They radiate aggression, they constantly signal toughness, and they often imitate the tactics of schoolyard bullies in their online communications. 

Whereas left-wing political correctness suppresses speech and debate to allegedly (sometimes sincerely, sometimes not) avoid creating offense, right-wing political correctness is intentionally offensive, with each provocation seen as conclusive evidence of “courage.” 

Then there’s the lingo—a short form of language that dismisses substantive arguments and signals followers to join the online assault on their theological and ideological targets. The terms are often bastardized forms of left-wing concepts:

Woke: Accepting or being open to any left-wing critique of American culture or American Christianity. 

Virtue-signaling: Making a moral argument counter to conservative Christian conventional wisdom. 

Pearl-clutching:  Expressing any level of concern about the conduct or consequences of Trump administration actions or the actions of leading Christian conservatives. 

Snowflake: Any person who expresses pain or alarm after being subjected to an intentional, focused campaign of cruelty and malice. 

Once you understand the terms, you see them everywhere online. Are you concerned about the Trump administration admitting an extraordinarily low number of refugees? You’re “woke.” If you think that character matters, and that Christians shouldn’t support a man who has bragged about groping women, then you’re “virtue-signaling.” Are you concerned about young people rejecting Christianity in response to perceived Christian hypocrisy, then you’re “pearl-clutching.”

And above all, do not explain the psychological toll of an avalanche of sneering and sometimes-slanderous attacks—including efforts to destroy your career—because then you’re a “snowflake.” 

The politically correct right-winger must be aggressive. Preferably he’s sneering. Always he’s insulting. And he will almost never credit any idea that comes from the left. Here’s an example of the phenomenon in action, from last fall. Listen to prominent pastor John MacArthur and his fellow panelist dismiss, mock, and sneer at popular Christian author and speaker Beth Moore:

In response to a word-association game, he suggests she “go home.” Another panelist calls her “narcissistic.” They then condemn the #MeToo movement as “the culture reclaiming ground in the church.” If you listen to the entire segment, you’ll hear the panelists briefly touch on multiple hot-button topics, but it’s much more a Hannity segment than a thoughtful theological discussion. 

If conservatives heard secular university panelists adopt the mirror image positions—declaring that MacArthur should “go home,” reflexively dismissing any cultural movements from the right, and mocking rather than substantively addressing contrary positions, they’d think, “This is exactly what they’re like. ‘Go home’ is cancel culture in action. And look how they mock our most serious ideas.” 

“Horseshoe theory” is the notion that at the extremes, opposing ideological movements grow closer together—both in ideology and methodology. Classical liberals become authoritarian. The tolerant become intolerant. Love becomes hate—all in the service of what is allegedly good and true and so very righteous. 

Writing in response to the rising tide of online Christian intolerance, my friend Ray Ortlund tweeted this:

He’s exactly right. Another way of making this point is by reference to 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, 

but do not have love, I gain nothing.

The proper answer to political correctness—from left or right—is to speak the truth, as best you can, fearlessly, with grace and humility. That means being open to truth, regardless of its source. Your worst ideological or theological enemy can be right. Your best ideological or theological friend can be terribly wrong. And the knowledge of that reality should keep our minds and hearts open to discovering truth even in the most unlikely of places and from the most unlikely of people. 

Another thing ... 

Speaking of truth from unlikely people, listen to Justin Bieber (yes, Justin Bieber) and understand that no one is beyond the reach of the grace of God:

One last thing ... 

Some of my Evangelical readers will say, “No, not this song again.” It’s everywhere in Evangelical circles right now, but doggone it. It’s great. Here’s “Way Maker” from the Passion 2020 conference. It encouraged me today. I hope it encourages you. Happy Sunday!

Photograph of John MacArthur from Wikimedia Commons.