Here are the previous six posts in the Evangelical Anxieties series. There will be several more.
This isn’t even close to the final version I want of this post, but I may not get back to it for a while. So this will have to do for now.
Worrying about our children has been an evangelical preoccupation for at least two hundred years, and probably more. Let me analyze the problem with the illustration of a junction of roads, one of those cloverleafs where everything is supposed to come together into some form of smooth traffic flow, and instead ties up the highways for hours every morning and afternoon.
When we look at our children, several major highways come together:
1) Our belief that the family is supposed to love, nurture, protect and discipline children in the knowledge and fear of the Lord. In other words, raise them in the faith.
2) Our belief that our children are, by nature, lost, rebels and sinners who must be converted, i.e. “born again,” if they are to have eternal life.
3) Our desire to protect our children from the worst aspects of culture.
4) Our desire for our children to participate in the best aspects of culture. Few evangelicals see the “Amish option” as viable, though from what I can tell, it’s making a lot of progress in some quarters.
5) Our ambiguity, as a religious movement, over public education. In short, we believe in it as a public good in a nation with over 40 million kids who need to be educated, and we hate/fear/loathe it as the primary competition for the minds and values of our kids. All at the same time. (Things seem to be tipping very strongly toward the hate/fear/loath side.)
These major roadways combine in the lives of our kids. It’s a fine place to somewhat confused in what direction you want to go. DO you protect the kids from everything? Do you let them interact with the culture or do you hide them from it? How much control do you exert and how long do you exercise it? Is your job to do everything now with no thought to the problems that may created later, or do you relate to children now with the end in mind?
Do the experts and authorities really know their way through this maze? There is no place where evangelicals rely more on expertise than in the area of what is best for children…and of course, the experts represent every different tribe and tongue in evangelicalism.The result is an evangelical culture that will do, say and believe anything if it can be justified as “for the good of the children,” but that offers a dizzying array of options regarding what is “right for the children.
Oddly, this kind of thinking is also the standard fare across the aisle among leftists and liberals. A Hillary Clinton will justify almost her entire political agenda as “for the children.” The litigious nanny state we have evolved in America uses “the welfare of children” as its primary fuel, and the increased power of government to regulate and control our lives is an extension of someone’s vision that “the children” must be our highest concern.
Of course, it is the anxieties of evangelicals over the welfare of their children that runs entire departments of the culture war: homeschooling, the fight against gay parenting and marriage, the battle against the teaching of evolution, the opposition to environmentalism. All of these are parts of an evangelicalism anxious about what is happening to its children.
The most common statistics to hear among evangelicals are those dealing with the behavior and faith of twenty-somethings, college students and high school students. Evangelicals are convinced their young people are highly likely to lose their religious faith when the leave the protective umbrella of church, family and evangelical-dominated Bible belt culture. Efforts to censor television, remove Harry Potter from libraries, insert Federal prisoner Kent Hovind into a high school curriculum and stop the teaching of sex education are all about protecting our children.
Let me be clear that this is not all a bad thing, and I am certainly not opposed to much of it. I believe in the priority of the family, I resent the intrusive powers of government, and the anti-Christian elements of cultural, especially youth culture, are devastating. Simple compassion compels us to care about the welfare of the young people in our families and communities.
But there are several warnings we need to heed:
1) Building a moral fortress will not make our children Christians, and the evangelical culture warrior’s version of “normal” may be more of an illusion than we want to admit.
2) Withdrawal from culture is much more difficult than we tend to think, especially in this information savvy age.
3)The building of an alternative culture that is safe for our children does not necessarily resemble the movement Jesus initiated in history.
4) Christian history teaches us that our calling to make disciples must extend to our children, and discipleship today calls for intentional, intelligent, interaction with and influence of culture.
5) Our anxieties about our children often make us vulnerable to manipulation, especially by those seeking political power, money and cultural influence. Can we be true to our desire to love and care for our kids and not become the unthinking dronish supporters of political demagogues, fear-mongers and salesmen?
6) We should beware of mis-reading scripture. God’s promises to our children are generous…but they are not absolute. Morality, isolation, saturation in a Christian ghetto and so forth does not make the Gospel true or Christ precious to a single person. Many Christian parents do not know the way the covenants work or how the Gospel promises to families work. Many of those parents will be greatly surprised and disappointed.
7) The evangelical strategy of making the church a collection of children’s and youth programming is a well-motivated, but highly flawed, response to these concerns regarding our children. It speaks deeply to how much we are willing to pay and do to assuage our anxieties. Evangelical young people are, to be blunt, doted over and spoiled by mega-churches. They are seldom asked to mature in ways the larger culture avoids, and the approaches we take in working with them often ship in much of the culture’s worst characteristics.
8) Many of these anxieties have roots in some of our own religious and psychological issues as a movement and as individuals. Our families are not the pretty pictures we see in church advertisements. We may oppose homosexuality, but that hasn’t stopped a significant number of our children from being homosexual (a phenomenon that strengthens my belief in some causation from dysfunctional family relationships.) Our children have the same disorders, the same addictions, the same frequency of medication. It is rare for a church not to have to deal with some issue of domestic abuse or sexual abuse.
Perhaps we have more reason to worry than we think, and perhaps some of what we need to be worrying about is in our own homes, churches and hearts.