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Changing majors

Religion | Christian women’s conference speakers seek to shift evangelical emphasis in public life

Issue: "Inside the wire," March 22, 2014

The recent IF:Gathering in Austin, Texas, a “Jesus-centered event for women,” generated much attention on social media and in the Christian blogosphere. Its speaking roster included prominent Christian figures such as Ann Voskamp, author of the best-selling One Thousand Gifts, and Shelley Giglio of Atlanta’s Passion City Church. Twitter lit up during the two-day conference, with the #IFGathering hashtag regularly in the world’s top “trending” topics.

Although the event was broadly evangelical (organizers cited the Nicene Creed as their affirmation of faith), the IF:Gathering seemed to appeal to younger Christian women wishing to move past “culture war” flash points such as abortion, religious liberty, and the definition of marriage. The IF:Gathering concentrated on other forms of social activism instead, including assistance to victims of sex trafficking and child sponsorship programs run by Food for the Hungry. “We gather in a new way because we’re not driven by women’s issues,” organizer Jennie Allen told Religion News Service.

Some IF:Gathering speakers have publicly deplored what they see as evangelicals’ overemphasis on traditional marriage. Blogger Jen Hatmaker has written about being “sick of [Christians] majoring on gay marriage,” while Canadian writer Sarah Bessey, author of Jesus Feminist, has said that while she is an evangelical, she supports the legalization of same-sex unions. “The point of Christianity is not to create a theocratic Christian society,” Bessey wrote in 2010.

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Owen Strachan, executive director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, told me that he appreciates any group seeking justice from a biblical perspective. However, he also said that Christians should not see the counsel of Scripture and social justice as opposing principles. “The church must continue to speak truth on matters of sexuality and gender even as it lifts its eyes to address the hurting, the broken, and the needy in the spirit of Christ,” Strachan notes. “In the end, there is no division between obeying Scripture and loving our neighbor.”

Losing liberties

Derik Holtmann/Belleville News-Democrat/AP

With Supreme Court oral arguments scheduled for late March in the Hobby Lobby company’s challenge to Obamacare’s abortifacient mandate, a new LifeWay Research survey of a thousand Protestant pastors reveals that a strong majority believe that religious liberty is waning.

Seventy percent of the pastors surveyed agree with the statement that religious freedom “is on the decline in America,” while only 27 percent disagree. Evangelical ministers are far more likely to concur with the statement than those of more liberal or mainline churches. Almost 60 percent of those surveyed believe American Christians are losing the culture war. About 10 percent regard that conflict as already lost by Christians, and a similar minority say Christians are actually winning the battle for American society.

Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research (an agency of the Southern Baptist Convention), told Fox News that “ten years ago we were talking about who would win the culture war, and now we’re talking about how will Christian rights be protected after the culture war. We’ve lost our home field advantage.”

Secularist critics say Christians are not so much concerned about the decline of religious liberty but about their own fading influence. Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State tweeted about the survey, surmising that “fewer people are listening to religious leaders these days. They do not like it.”

But a simultaneous survey conducted by LifeWay indicated a majority of Americans are also concerned about the fate of religious liberty. Fifty-four percent of those respondents agree at least somewhat with the notion that religious freedom is declining in America. —T.K.

Thomas Kidd
Thomas Kidd

Thomas is a professor of history at Baylor University and a senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.

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