National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: An

Two large churches in the Episcopal denomination’s Diocese of Virginia are voting this week to defect, claiming the mainstream denomination has veered from its Biblical roots and, oh by the way, sanctioned the consecration of one of its pastors as a bishop of a New England diocese who just happens to be openly gay.

These institutions are anomalies in the Northern Virginia region that has made national headlines for its profound demographic shift and the impact on that of turning Virginia, since the 2004 elections, from a “red” to a “blue” state.

With an enormous influx of high tech workers to fill new defense and homeland security-related jobs mandated by the federal government and fitting the profile of what sociologist Richard Florida has dubbed “the creative class” of socially-tolerant, pro-technology twenty, thirty and forty-somethings, Northern Virginia has gone decidedly liberal. The tiny region, as a proportion of the huge overall state landmass, has now swung two statewide elections, for governor and U.S. Senate, to the blue column almost singlehandedly. While the state, as a whole, passed a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, in Northern Virginia it was defeated by a rousing margin.

So what’s with the backlash churches in the midst of this? The two, along with one or two mega-nondenominational church in the same region, have become just that, remnants of an Old South backlash.

Many people are afraid of technology and its smart, young offspring that can whip any older person’s butt in any electronic game or computer problem. They’re afraid of the way science has no respect for any authority except the truths it can verify. In such a world, they feel set adrift and unable to exert the controls over others their society used to bestow upon them almost as a birthright. Men can’t control either women or children, for example, and the same goes for the traditional ways it worked the other way around, too.

So for many of these, a claim of some clear authority arising from outside this slippery world can be a source of comfort. It doesn’t matter how irrational it is. In fact, it could be said the more irrational, the better. That makes it an even purer form of something which demands simply blind belief and obedience.

In the churches voting to defect this week, two of their mantras pertain to “Jesus Christ as the sole path to salvation” and “Biblical inerrancy.” Their leaders assert the larger denomination has drifted too far from these tenants of the faith while, oh by the way, ordaining a gay bishop (the principal lightning rod motivating their defections).

A young friend was once under the sway of one of these churches, but ran into the problem of going off to college and cultivating his powers of independent thinking. He related to me a conversation he had with a minister at the church when he then started doubting this notion of “Biblical inerrancy.”

After all, he pointed out, the Bible didn’t just fall from heaven, its contents as we know them today were hammered out through centuries of contentious debate and discord, with some books in some versions and out of others. How can something so subject to the ebbs and flows of very human political bickering and factionalizing over centuries be “inerrant,” he asked. “Inerrant” means without a single word that’s wrong, or not meant by God to be there. The same standard applies even conflicting translations as they’ve come down through the years.

My young friend said that, pressing his erstwhile mentor on these matters, the minister finally threw up his hands and conceded to him, “Well, we have to draw the line somewhere” on matters of morality and faith.

Then the next question, it seems to me, would be, “Who gets to draw that line?” Ministers would say, of course, “God.” But in reality, few have ever claimed to see a big hand with perfect penmanship really pierce some cloud cover and lay it all out. In other words, it’s really a very human proposition, and as such, subject to very human frailties.

The same goes for the claim that “Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation.”

Not only does this necessarily leave the vast majority of humanity for all of history doomed to Hell, it does also for all Christians who don’t live up to certain preachers’ definitions of sufficient faith. It leads to the same question: Who gets to decide what “Jesus as the only way” means?

Could it mean that emulating the spirit of one filled with compassion for the downtrodden and abused, who told parables that taught tolerance and acceptance of differences represents the “only way?” Not likely, not with these folks.

In fact, it’s hard to know what drives these people’s kind of religious intolerance more, fear or nasty personal bigotry. In the end, which it is it doesn’t really matter.