“Homosexuality is not the only sin mentioned in 1 Corinthians… It’s not the only sin mentioned, but it is different from all the rest, at least right now.”
So wrote Jonathan Parnell, a Minnesota-based pastor, in a short blogpost in 2014. The post, which appeared on John Piper’s Desiring God website, argued that what made same-sex sexual activity unique was its “[celebration] by our larger society.” Christians, he suggested, should respond to this state of affairs by speaking “the truth in love,” affirming both their care for LGBTQ+ people and their disapproval of their sexual relationships.
Coming from an evangelical pastor, this stance is neither novel nor surprising. Although opposition to LGBTQ+ relationships is not exclusive to evangelical Christianity, it is a common feature of the kind of conservative church community that Parnell leads. Indeed, his “love the sinner, hate the sin” trope is banal to the point of parody, and while many defend it, it has also been roundly criticized by his fellow Christians (not least by the many evangelicals who reject the association of homosexuality and sin).
What makes this article interesting, then, is not its substance, but its spread. In June 2018, four years after it was first posted, and almost four thousand miles from his St Paul home, Parnell’s piece found a new audience. It was “shared” on Facebook by Richard Smith, a Christian minister and recently appointed mayor of Ferryhill, Co. Durham, a small town in the north of England. Smith had previously posted images supporting “Straight Pride,” cartoons expressing anxiety over transgender rights, and a warning that Muslims in Britain were “out breeding us” [sic].
For local drag queen Tess Tickle, the Desiring God piece proved the “final straw”: “I totally understand that people’s religious beliefs are there and everyone’s entitled to their own opinions and views but when it’s shared in the public domain, when you’re in a position of authority… it’s alarming.” She used her own social media platforms to call attention to Smith’s posts. Days later, and citing the “unprecedented levels of adverse publicity” to which he had been subject, Smith announced his resignation.
At first glance, the case of Tess Tickle and Richard Smith might seem to be just one more battle in the “culture wars,” an example of democracy in action (or, depending on one’s political persuasion, democracy subverted) through the power of public shaming. And it is, of course, both those things. But it is also, I would argue, a paradigmatic instance of contemporary public theology. It tells us a great deal about the kinds of publicity that theological reflection can generate, the kinds of publics that vernacular theologians can reach, and the kinds of beliefs and practices that are legible to the public as “theology” or “religion.” As I suggest below, it seems that only a certain kind of public theologian, touting a certain kind of theology, is recognizable to the religiously unaffiliated as being, well, religious. Those who do not fit this pre-existing narrative may well find that their theology goes unrecognized and unremarked.
Writing of the emergence of “publicity” as a concept, the anthropologist Matthew Engelke (2013: xxi) suggests that its idealistic seventeenth-century connotations have little purchase in the contemporary world: “Certainly when we think of publicity today we are less likely to think of the social and political projects of John Stuart Mill or Benjamin Franklin and more likely – much more likely – to think of the junkets and tours of Hollywood actors and pop stars.” A similar assessment could be made of public theology. For those of us, like myself, who aren’t theologians, the term “public theology”—if ever we were to stumble across it—is less likely to conjure images of the ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr and more likely—much more likely—to make us think of disputes between the Tickles and Smiths of the world. For whether they focus on Facebook posts, wedding cakes, marriage licenses, or bathroom stalls, media coverage inevitably stresses the religiousness of the person or persons opposed to what Parnell would term society’s “celebration” of LGBTQ+ identity.
As an anthropologist researching conservative Christian activism, I am, perhaps, more likely than most to make these associations. Yet consider Martin Marty’s (1974) account of public theology. In his understanding, a public theologian is one who speaks not only to her co-religionists, but to the wider public: to politicians and people on the street. These are theologians who are less concerned with angels and pinheads, and more concerned with activism and politics. They hope that theological reflection can change public opinion. This, it seems, is exactly what Richard Smith was aiming for when he shared Parnell’s blogpost. He was applying a scriptural gloss to an issue he found worthy of public debate, perhaps in the hope that it would convince (non-Christian) others of the truth of his views. His Facebook page became a site from which to share this “vernacular theology,” a theology formed by both local context and the “broader social and institutional fields” in which he lives (Elisha, 2008: 167). Vernacular theology may not always be acceptable—or even recognizable—to the academic theologian, but from an ethnographic standpoint, it is one of the major forms of public theology being “done” around the world.
After all (and readers of this particular blog notwithstanding), very few members of “the public” attend theology conferences or peruse the International Journal of Public Theology. But many of us read, watch, or listen to the news, where we learn about a seemingly endless string of legal cases and political debates centering on religion and sexual ethics. With their adversarial premise and controversial subject matter, these disputes receive a significant, and perhaps outsize, amount of airtime. (Kim Davis, the Kentucky registrar who was jailed after refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, was practically a household name after her release.) Particularly for those who do not regularly come into contact with “religion” in their local communities, “the Christian Right [may be] the most visible representative of religion for many Americans,” at least among the religiously unaffiliated (Djupe, Neiheisel, and Conger, 2018: 3).
It is worth noting that there is no necessary reason why this should be the case. For previous generations, the Civil Rights Movement may well have constituted the most visible form of public theology, and there is no shortage of alternative public theologians on which the press could report if it so chose. As it happens, though, it doesn’t.
In the absence of sustained media attention on the work of, say, Muslims for Social Justice, or the relationship between Democratic candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Catholicism and her rejection of the carceral state, these conflicts over sexuality color popular understandings of what “religion” is. Indeed, as lawyer and scholar of religion Winnifred Fallers Sullivan astutely notes, “Over the last few decades, religion in law has been reduced to the attitudes of sincere persons described as devout about sex.”
Sullivan’s comments were prompted by a recent ruling of the United States’ Supreme Court. But the assumptions she points to in the US context are also prevalent elsewhere. For example, in a 2017 article about Dutch registrars who voice “conscientious objections” to facilitating the weddings of same-sex couples, scholar of religion and sexuality Marco Derks (2017: 215-6) points out that the general public tended to assume that any such objection must be “religious” in nature. Conservative religiosity was the only reason most people in the Netherlands could imagine for opposition to equal marriage: “non-religious marriage registrars would by definition never have any such objections.” Dutch media coverage seemed to confirm this: the only objecting registrars interviewed on national television were, in fact, practicing Christians.
It goes without saying that not all “religious” persons oppose LGBTQ+ equality (just as it goes without saying that one need not be religious to oppose gay marriage, or even that opposition to the “normalization” of queer lives is necessarily rooted in anti-LGBTQ+ animus). Still, the prevalence of the association made between the two—and the fact that it crops up in contexts as different as Amsterdam, Ferryhill, and St Paul—show the transnational scope of this vernacular theological work. Of course, societies have never been isolated, bounded units; no human community exists in amber. But in an age of social media, these intercultural connections run deeper than ever before. How else could Jonathan Parnell’s piece have travelled from the state of Minnesota to the town of Ferryhill, or the tale of Richard Smith and Tess Tickle make it to the offices of the Washington, D.C.-based Christian Post? Smartphones in hand, today’s vernacular theologians have access to endlessly proliferating publics.
Yet these publics can remain inchoate. There is never a guarantee that they will actually come into being, or that, once constituted, they can actually be reached. Contemporary public theologians—perhaps all those who trade in contemporary publicness—face a somewhat paradoxical situation, one in which publicity is both freely available and yet strictly policed. Anyone can “talk theology” on social media; but not everyone’s theological talk will make it into the news. And even if it does, it won’t necessarily be framed as “theological” or religious in nature. When it comes to publicity, those theologies that do not fit the media’s pre-existing notions of what religion “is” – religion that conforms to, to repeat Sullivan’s phrase, “the attitudes of sincere persons described as devout about sex” – are unlikely to get much airtime.
Of course, the public sphere has a long history of exclusion, of ongoing barriers to access. Consider Marty’s paradigmatic public theologian. When Reinhold Niebuhr spoke to the nation, he did so from a place of race and gender privilege. Not only did he speak from a platform entirely inaccessible to most Americans, but he was also among the demographic most likely to be heard when he did so: white, male, university-educated. Social media has democratized access to the public sphere, allowing, in theory, at least, if not in practice, ideas to be evaluated on the basis of their merits (as opposed to their makers) in a way that Habermas’ idealized Öffentlichkeit never did. Those who speak in the vernacular, as it were, have greater access than ever before. Yet very few of these ideas are “shared” beyond our immediate social circles. And when it comes to theological ideas, those that make it into traditional media outlets follow a fairly narrow script. Only particular kinds of vernacular theologies – those modelled by Richard Smith in Ferryhill, or Kim Davis in Kentucky, or objecting registrars in the Netherlands – seem to be recognised and reported on as religion.
To be clear, my goal here is neither to admonish nor encourage these particular vernacular theologians. Unlike those writing from a confessional standpoint, my job as an anthropologist is to report the content and impact of these ontologies without necessarily passing judgment on their veracity or morality. My point, though, is that when it comes to discussing what public theology “is,” it is not enough to report on those doing the theology, whether Reinhold Niebuhr or Richard Smith. It is just as important, I’d argue, to discuss the ways in which certain kinds of beliefs and practices become legible to the religiously unaffiliated public as “theology” – a mediatized process in which, by reporting something as religiously-motivated, the category itself is brought into being.