What causes people to leave the church: evolution, the sexual revolution, or something else? Perhaps all of the above. But let me offer an additional reason why people abandon Christianity: equality.
Not every kind of equality casts doubts on Christianity’s core doctrines, but some do. Take the most obvious culprit: equality of outcome. If justice demands that everyone receives the same share, then hell is morally intolerable. But equality of outcome has few defenders, even in the academy, so it’s hard to imagine people leaving the church over that.
Equality of opportunity is different. It’s widely embraced, though people mean very different things when they speak about it. Sometimes they want the most talented person to get the job. This kind of equality of opportunity poses no problems for Christianity and is, in fact, supported by it.
But sometimes people use the language of equality to say there is injustice in the inequality itself. Someone may say the problem isn’t that medical school was closed to people because of race, gender, or religion; after all, it isn’t. Doctors just make too much money compared to the rest of us. We don’t need just gross income equality, the complaint runs. Wages need to be fair, or fairer.
This language of fairness highlights the variety of views we hold about justice and equality. In The Righteous Mind Jonathan Haidt writes about conservatives who were not pleased with previously published research; they told him so in forthright language. The problem? Haidt and his colleagues asked questions about fairness in terms of equality and equal rights.“We therefore found that liberals cared more about fairness,” he writes, “and that’s what had made these economic conservatives so angry at me.” Conservatives think liberals don’t care at all about fairness, as they understand it: “It was the fairness of the Protestant work ethic and the Hindu law of karma: People should reap what they sow.”
Is it fair that God sends people to hell? If fairness means equality, that’s hard to say. But if fairness means God giving us what we deserve, then the answer’s easy: yes.
People embrace certain political views about justice and equality without realizing it undermines their faith. That’s reason enough for us to take time to consider these issues.
To conclude, let’s look at two recent studies on religion and politics in modern America. First, think about the kids. In American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell show that those raised as politically conservative evangelicals tend to remain evangelical, but those raised as politically liberal evangelicals do not. People conform their religion to fit their politics, and apparently some religious beliefs fit better with some politics. That’s an unexpected result, but it makes sense if one way of thinking about justice and equality undermines Christianity.
Second, consider the ministers. Eitan D. Hersh and Gabrielle Malina have released a draft of their paper “Partisan Pastor” in which they detail support for their “hypothesis that denomination is a powerful proxy for the partisanship of pastors.” You tell me your minister’s denomination, I’ll guess whether he (or she!) is a Republican, Democrat, or Independent. If our thoughts about politics and theology are disconnected, this result should be downright unbelievable. But it shouldn’t be at all surprising, if what I’m saying is right. On the contrary, we should expect it.
There are certain ways of thinking about justice and equality that undermine historic Christian doctrines. People embrace a new kind of equality and then champion a different kind of Christianity, too. Interestingly, pastors are more politically lopsided than their congregations, and seminary faculty even more so. This observation also makes sense, if what I’m saying is true. Hersh and Malina suggest that “pastors are able to draw (or are interested in drawing) more uniform connections between their theological worldview and a political affiliation compared to congregants.” Exactly.