To some extent, it’s impossible to give a general theory of the success of groups like the Human Rights Campaign, because the phenomena involved are too complex, and the interactions and conversions that take place on the street, or afterwards, are part of a web of social transformations too big to map out. But I’ve identified four typical differences that, I think, have helped the HRC to dominate the street evangelization scene—differences that could help us strategize for effective evangelization going forward.
The first difference is that the HRC is not identified as “religious”. Calling something “religion” is less a matter of describing its qualities (just look at the confusion surrounding the term’s meaning) than a status-generating speech act. Once enough people decide that something is “religion” or “religious”, it is relegated to an intellectual ghetto. Religion is that-about-which-one-cannot-argue. It is self-contained, irrational, and excluded from the evidences and activities which occur in public (political) life.
Second, the HRC’s project is easy to understand. They present an itch (inequality, discrimination) and a salve (equal protection, tolerance), both of which align with universal moral and civic education. Their message is presented in terms that are known and unquestionable. Who supports discrimination? Who doesn’t want to advance human rights?
The Christian message, on the other hand, is often missing a compelling “itch”: Why should I repent when I don’t believe in sin? Why should I worry about eternal life if I don’t believe in hell? Or in some cases it lacks sufficiently motivating salve: If Christianity is about being a nice person, don’t I already have that covered? If God is so loving and generous, won’t he forgive me, no matter what?
Third, there is a difference of narrative trajectories. The HRC’s project is empowering. Its goals are definite and achievable, and they are outwardly-directed. When one becomes a Christian, the resulting goals tend to be inwardly-directed, and contemporary Christian culture tends to render the narrative aims of Christianity spiritualistic and vague. What is one aiming at, as a Christian? A relationship? Heaven? What do those things really mean? How are they tied concretely to efforts in the present life? These questions are rarely adequately answered, or if they are answered it is in a simplistic way that leaves the majority of daily life untouched by conversion.
The fourth difference I want to point out is not a difference in the style of the presentation, but in the psychology of those presenting the “good news”. For HRC volunteers, there is a strong underlying assumption that the message is not only true, but evidently true. These people are on the street to some extent because they have a conviction, not just that they’re in the right, but that everyone is capable of recognizing that they are right. Often in Christian evangelization, there is an attitude of correctness, but also a sense that the truth of the Gospel is not evident, that people will not understand, and that therefore the mission of evangelization is something of a fool’s errand, successful only by the grace of God. While it is true that grace, not human effort, brings people to Christ, today’s evangelist feels the need to mask the plain message of the Gospel behind personalist spirituality in order to make it appealing. Or his preaching emerges out of a familial or personal heritage, making it more an exercise of personal devotion than an act of education or public proclamation of the truth. The apostolic kerygma has been largely replaced by the spiritual testimonial as a genre of evangelization.
Taken together, these differences suggest problems that need to be surmounted if our evangelism is going to be made more effective:
1. It is necessary to overcome the notion that religion is a private and irrational affair. This is a very difficult problem, because the privacy of religion has become a fundamental tenet of American political culture. The establishment clause has come to mean, for all intents and purposes, that religion has no place in public life. Even our own religious leaders seem to endorse this belief, when they defend faith not by asserting and defending the doctrines of Christianity, but by speaking abstractly in favor of “religious liberty”. Religious liberty is, in the long run, a watchword for political secularization, and the secularization of the political will always be accompanied by the secularization of public discourse and morality. If we are to make evangelization effective, we need to fight for a political culture in which Christianity is not part of a sub-class of irrational ideologies, but a fit and fighting participant in political culture. And this, not on the terms of liberalism or constitutionalism, but unabashedly, and on its own terms. We need to reach a point at which we can assert that Christianity has a place in public life, not because it supports liberal constitutional values, but because it supports Christian values. In other words, because it is true.
2. We need to think more about the intelligibility of our evangelism. To what extent are the concepts necessary for evangelization intelligible to the person today? If the notions of sin and redemption, for example, are not intelligible, we should not replace them with therapeutic spiritualisms that are intelligible, because these weak spiritualisms generate a proportionately weak Christianity. Instead we need to identify the more basic questions and problems which point toward things like sin and redemption. For example, the idea of heaven cannot work as a draw to people who don’t believe in an afterlife. But what might? The suggestion that we should try to live forever. Or if someone believes that everyone goes to heaven regardless, how might we draw them into a conversation about religious commitment? By attempting with them to hash out exactly what eternal life is. These are just examples, but the general principle is more robust: If the evangelist tries to convert someone by offering answers to questions in which a comfortable secularist has no interest, he will fail. If the evangelist tries to win someone over by appealing to the goodness of something the secularist already comfortably possesses, he will fail again. Evangelization should begin, conceptually, where the existing secularism fails in itself, and exploit those failures to draw people into Christianity. Where the concepts necessary for the Gospel are unavailable, we need to begin by building them up, instead of trying to circumvent them.
3. Membership in an organized movement becomes more enticing as the movement is able to provide more concrete ways for members to exercise agency in the accomplishment of broad goals. One of the biggest faults of contemporary Christianity is the way its spiritualization of the Gospel leads to passivity and quietism among Christians. What can we do to advance the kingdom of God? This question is almost never answered from the pulpit, except in terms of a few narrow activities: private devotional exercises, acts of generosity, and monetary gifts. These are good things, but they fail to engage the ordinary, daily lives of Christians. In a purposeless, nihilistic society like our own, people are starving for someone to give them a task in a great cause. They are yearning to be told what to do, to be organized and personally subsumed under something larger than themselves, with glory they can participate in, and sacrifice themselves to uplift. We need organizers of men, who can direct the multitude to exert themselves productively in defense of the Body of Christ. The advent of this kind of activity would not only energize the Church, but go further than almost anything else in drawing people to Christianity.
4. Christians speak a great deal of the truth. Today, we are becoming exceptional in this regard. But often “truth” is treated in religious talk as a kind of metaphor or bit of mystical jargon. Often the weakness of Christian conviction (and therefore of evangelism) stems from an inadequate desire for the truth. Christians become another species of ideologue, characterized by mere prejudice and chauvinistic advocacy for our group and our tradition. Chauvinistic Christianity may preserve people raised Christian, but it makes very few converts, because there are many groups out there in which one can celebrate one’s membership. Christianity only becomes intelligible to outsiders when the Christian faith is treated not merely an inherited prejudice, but as an answer to questions sincerely asked. In general, belief is based not primarily on the communication of personal experiences of transformation, but on the direction of a person to the apprehension of the truth. Testimony is a part of that, to be sure, but only if the testimony identifies the fundamental questions answered by Christianity, in a way that indicates not emotionalism and blindness, but wisdom and understanding. Christianity needs to become truth-loving again, and this means that there needs to be an intellectual renewal—a philosophical renewal—among Christians. We need to deeply understand the questions to which Christian doctrine is the answer.
The HRC is a shallow organization with a fundamentally incoherent ideology. There is very little that is naturally compelling about its message, which only succeeds because opposition in the public sphere is structurally weak, and people are intellectually incapable of critically parsing its ideas. The suggestions I have given above are, in some ways, merely expressions of the foundations of the culture that existed in Christendom: a culture in which ordinary civic life was suffused with Catholic concepts and activities, in which public participation in eucharistic processions and liturgies was common, in which the Church was held to be a fount of reason and wisdom, rather than an ideological enclave in the midst of society. We were great once, nine centuries ago, when all these conditions existed. Time to be great again.