Give money or food to people who need it, listen with compassion to those who are different from you, speak to everyone with genuineness, and pray for those facing hardship. My experience growing up as an Evangelical Christian prepared me to practice and receive love in these interpersonal ways, which in turn gave profound meaning to my life and relationships. What it didn’t prepare me for was the realization that my faith tradition enforced boundaries around how this love could and could not be practiced.
Since I cared about my queer friends and listened to their experiences of discrimination, I wanted the prayer ministry that I was a part of on my college campus to remove their sign in support of Prop 107 to ban same-sex marriage in Arizona. But when I brought this request to the ministry, it was dismissed. Evangelicals – particularly White Evangelicals – are so closely affiliated with the Republican Party and social conservatism in the United States, that I should have expected my Christian friends and leaders to lobby against LGBTQ rights. But this doesn’t change the fact that I felt compelled to be in political and institutional solidarity with the socially marginalized, not in spite of, but because of how my faith taught me to love and care for those whom I encountered.
Today, in my work as a sociolinguist and discourse analyst, I try to understand the role that language plays in allowing for seeming contractions such as this. In my own research I have shown that people justify contradictory behaviours by using language to scale these behaviours up and down and to separate them from one another in space and time (1). Seen through this lens, the dismissal I encountered was not just a result of my misinterpretation of Evangelical values. It stems from a more enduring fact, that even relatively progressive, Evangelical discourses promote a limited imagination of love. In this imagination, care for marginalized people is permanently scaled down to the time and space of the personal and kept separate from the time and space of the political and institutional.
Scales don’t just exist, we create them. Someone might describe a restaurant as ‘local’ to scale it down or as ‘international’ to scale it up. Neither word is an inherently negative or positive description of the restaurant, but each puts it in a different position within our understanding of the larger social world. When the restaurant is repeatedly scaled down by being described as ‘local’ over and over again we come to think of it as truly local, and as somehow intrinsically different from an ‘international’ restaurant, even though ingredients in the food may come from other countries. These constructed scales also have real consequences. For instance, when people are willing to pay higher prices for ‘international’ food compared to ‘local’ food, scales are no longer just a way of discussing the organization of the world, but also a reality of the way the world works.
The real life consequences of scaling in Evangelicalism can be observed in the phrase ‘Welcoming, but not affirming’. The expression is often used by church leaders to capture two conflicting ideas. One: the church leadership welcomes LGBTQ people to attend their services, are prepared to listen to their concerns and experiences, and promise to foreground kindness in their interactions. And two: these same ‘welcomed’ LGBTQ people are restricted in their participation and will likely not be allowed to volunteer in the church, serve in ministry, or become members. In this way, the personal scale of kindness and emotional engagement is kept separate from the institutional scale of membership and ministry. LGBTQ Christians are blocked from crossing into the institutional scale since they are literally blocked from becoming affiliated with the church. But other church members are also blocked from institutional action, as any care they might feel for LGBTQ people is relegated to the lower scale of greeting them warmly in church and offering them a ride home if needed.
Care is relegated to the lower scale, not just because it is scaled down, but more specifically because LGBTQ people and concerned church members are blocked from scaling it up. When institutions are successful in blocking movement across scales they take away people’s ability to scale up or scale down as required in the moment (2). Through scaling up, one recognizes that their individual struggle as a marginalized person is connected to a larger collective and political struggle (3). Scaling down is what allows a person to see, describe and relate to another person, not only as the sum of their component political and social positions, but in relation to all of the details of their life and selfhood that make them a complex human with whom they have an equally complex relationship (4,5). Both scaling up and scaling down are meaningful ways to engage with and show care for others. Thus, what troubles me in the case of Evangelicals, is not that they occasionally scale down their love for marginalized people, but that they create an enduring separation from love at higher scales for these same people.
This is not only relevant to LGBTQ exclusion, but also to recent shifting discourses amongst White Evangelicals about Black Lives Matter. The President of the Southern Baptist Convention J.D. Greear’s statement that Christians should say “Black Lives Matter” could ostensibly be read as a move of political solidarity. However, Greear makes clear that he finds himself “deeply at odds with” the Black Lives Matter Movement, which he characterizes as having been “hijacked by some political operatives”. What then, does his statement that “Black Lives Matter” mean, apart from the movement? Greear clarifies through his call to action, that for him, this means Christians should “hear our [black] brothers and sisters,” “feel their pain,” and “bear that burden with them”. He encourages action at the personal scale, but discourages solidarity at the political one.
Similar language can be found among the Evangelicals who led worship at the memorial site of George Floyd’s murder as shown in a video posted by Sean Feucht, a worship leader associated with the non-denominational and hugely influential Bethel Church. The videographer starts by showings Feucht and a band playing worship music, and then moves through the crowd to highlight the emotional encounters that the racially diverse attendees are having with one another and with God. We hear in the background that the worship leaders are instructing racially mixed pairs of people to repeat after them: “I’m sorry for the hurt and the pain. For the trauma and the injustice. I love you …I ask you to forgive me tonight”. This ritual is then framed by the worship leaders as a “reconciliation [that] means we have decided that we’re gonna love each other, that we’re gonna be bold, that we’re gonna have hard conversations” and ends in the culminating act of giving and receiving tearful hugs.
The emotional sincerity is palpable, and points to the ways in which caring for one another at a lower scale can be a meaningful type of human kindness. At the same time, the self- contained ritual suggests that all that is needed in response to Floyd’s death has already taken place at this lower scale. The videographer constantly reminds the audience to “look at these tears…the beautiful tears” and no one makes any audible critique of the police or of racism.
Watching the video myself, I felt on the verge of tears and on the verge of throwing up – the embodiment of my strong, but mixed feelings about Evangelical expressions of love. And I am not the only one with a complex relationship to Evangelical engagement at the lower scale. In my research on LGBTQ Christians, I found that participants had anxieties about certain types of language, which ostensibly showed care at this lower scale. Gay Christians pointed to phrases such as “I’m praying for you” and the sharing of personal narratives about the transformation of one’s sexual orientation as particularly problematic. When scaled down and viewed only as relevant to the interaction between individuals, such discourses can be interpreted as an expression of care, and as a sharing of vulnerability. However, for LGBTQ Christians, many of whom have encountered institutionalized conversion therapy and attempts to ‘pray the gay away’, it is impossible to interpret these discourses solely within the lower scale of the interpersonal. Because they have experienced harm from Evangelical Christians at multiple scales, love that is restricted to only the lower scale seems disingenuous.
This is the crux of the matter. Evangelicals are not, nor have they ever been politically neutral. Sean Feucht ran as a Republican candidate for Congress this year. Evangelical engagement in politics has been in large part defined by opposition to LGBTQ rights and queer identities. White Evangelicals have advocated for slavery and segregation. Higher scale violence is enacted against marginalized people in the name of conservative morality, and if any love is expressed for the marginalized, it is kept at the lower scale of the interpersonal. While the discourses that block movement across scales might obscure the inherent contradictions for some, those of us who are no longer convinced need not limit ourselves to lower scales. Rather, we might seek out alternative discourses among Christians working towards institutional change for the benefit of LGBTQ Christians and Black Americans. Through this, we pursue the possibility that the love we may have first encountered within Evangelicalism can move us across the boundaries set up by this very same faith.
1. Catedral, L. (2018). Discursive scaling: Moral stability and neoliberal dominance in the narratives of transnational migrant women. Discourse & Society, 29(1), 23-42.
2. Gal, S. (2016). Scale-Making: Comparison and Perspective as Ideological Projects. In Lempert, M., & Summerson Carr, E. (eds). Scale: Discourse and dimensions of social life. University of California Press.
3. Crenshaw, K. (1991) Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43, 1241.
4. Buber, M. (1923). I and Thou. Translated Smith, R. G. (1986, 1958) New York: Scribner.
5. Karimzad, F. (2020). Multilingualism, chronotopes and resolutions: Towards an analysis of the total sociolinguistic fact. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, 239.
Lydia Catedral is a sociolinguist and an Assistant Professor at City University of Hong Kong. Her academic research looks at how people use language to understand themselves and others in relation to space, time, scales and morality. In addition to research on LGBTQ Christians, her work has mostly focused on transnational migration and her current project is about transnational domestic workers in Hong Kong. Twitter Account: @lydiacatedral
Image Credit: ‘Worship’ by Vicki Wolkins licensed under CC By-NC-ND 2.0.
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