October 8, 2012
Gay Rights & Religious Liberty
Can we bring the presence of Jesus Christ back into the debate?
*NOTE: This message was delivered at the Q Cities conference in Denver on September 27, 2012. My actual comments may have been slightly different from what is written here. Q restricts presentations to a maximum of 18 minutes, so this message could only skim the surface of the complicated intersection of gay rights and religious liberty.
When I was a freshman in college, the GLBA–the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Alliance–organized an annual Gay Awareness week. What I remember most was “Jean Day.” The student leaders of the GLBA posted signs all over campus announcing that students could express their support for gay rights by wearing jeans on Thursday. Of course denim is a second skin for most college students, and it was obvious the GLBA was seeking to inflate their perception of support. The tactic was so transparent few people paid attention—until a conservative Christian student group began putting up their own signs. Their flyers called students who did not support gay rights to “wear a shirt on Thursday.”
The battle lines were drawn. The silliness of the GBLA’s scheme was matched by the stupidity of the Christians’.
Thursday came and members of the GBLA went to class in blue jeans and topless. (Some women wearing only bras.) The conservative Christians marched to class wearing khakis and in some cases multiple shirts, proudly doing their part to “uphold righteousness.” Eventually the two groups got into a heated shouting match. The shirts accused the skins of being godless and immoral. The denims accused the khakis of being bigots and homophobes.
As I watched the scene unfold, the voice of my high school teacher echoed in my head. “Just remember,” he’d told me, “college isn’t the real world.”
Sadly the real world has proven to look more like my college experience than I would have hoped, only now the shouting between the gay community and Christians happens on cable news, talk radio, outside courthouses and in school board meetings. Still there are many of us–both gay and straight, Christian and non-Christian, supporters of same sex marriage, and those like myself who hold to the church’s traditional definition–who do not identify with the culture war rhetoric emanating from either side. We stand on the periphery wondering: isn't there a better way?
Must we view every advancement in gay rights as a defeat for people of religious conviction? And is the presence of Christian values in the public square automatically a threat to gay rights? What is the place of religious liberty? And how do we elevate the conversation from the shouting match it has become?
I confess to you that in many ways I feel unqualified to address this topic. I am not a constitutional expert or a civil rights scholar. I am not a sociologist or a public advocate for either side. What I am is a pastor; a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is from that identity that I speak, and from that identity I want to ask--What does it mean to enter into the public square, into the tension between gay rights and religious freedom, dressed not in denim or khakis, shirts or skins, but clothed in the Gospel and bearing the image of Jesus Christ?
If we are to bring Christ's presence into this issue, I believe we must do three things. First, we must reframe the current debate. Second, we must rethink a long-held theological assumption. And third, we must reaffirm our committment to public witness.
In order to understand the way the debate is currently framed, we must go back to 1976. Newsweek famously declared it “The Year of the Evangelical.” After 50 years on the edge of the culture, the social upheaval of the 1960s and the legalization of abortion in 1972 brought evangelicals out from the shadows. They feared the country had taken a rapid turn away from Judeo-Christian values and intervention was necessary. That year the seeds were planted for the emergence of the Religious Right and the alignment of “values voters” with the Republican Party.
1976 was also the year Harvey Milk was appointed to the San Francisco city council. Milk was the first openly gay political official in the country. Until then gay and lesbian Americans had been a largely hidden minority. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders; together with Harvey Milk’s political success, it marked the gay community’s emergence from the closet and into the public square.
So, we can look at 1976 as the year when the tension between gay rights and religious liberty became public. In the 36 years since then, evangelicals have primarily seen the issue as a conflict between values. Society will either be shaped by traditional Christian values or by progressive secular ones. There can be no middle ground. One group will win and the other must retreat to the periphery of society from which it emerged.
For the church this framing have been costly. According to Gallop, in the 1970s 66 percent of Americans said they had a strong or high confidence in the church. Today it is only 44 percent. In 1994 only 27 percent supported same sex marriage. Today it is over 50 percent. David Campbell and Robert Putnam report:
The data points to a rich irony about the emergence of the religious right. Its founders intended to bolster religion’s place in the public square. In a sense, they have succeeded. Yet at the same time . . . the movement has pushed a growing share of the population to opt out of religion altogether.
Looking back, the decision to frame the issue as a battle over values was a severe mistake. In reality, the tension had far more to do with identity than values.
Consider Jesus’ words in Luke 6: "Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned.” It is one of the most abused and misunderstood verses in the New Testament. Jesus is not saying we shouldn’t discern between right and wrong. (In fact later in the same chapter he tells us to do exactly that.) He is telling us not to devalue a person as irretrievably guilty or condemn their identity as worthless. We are to believe that all people, including our LGTB neighbors, are made in the image of God and are inherently worthy of his love and ours.
By framing the issue as one of competing values, and then attacking those values, Christians were seen as condemning the core identity of their gay neighbors. When confronted, they might say, “We hate the sin but love the sinner.” But to a culture that understood the issue as one of identity rather than values, this was nonsensical and it opened Christians to accusations of hypocrisy and homophobia--which are the two words young adults now associate with Christians more than any other. If we are to bring the image of Jesus forward, we must reframe the issue and admit that the gay community has been right from the beginning--this issue is not simply about values; it is in fact about identity.
Rather than asking Whose values will dominate the public square? we should be asking: Whose identity is welcomed into the public square? Do we believe LGTB citizens ought to bring their identity into government, business, the media, and education without fear of discrimination? And likewise, do we believe a Christian holding traditional beliefs should be able to bring their identity into the public square without fear of discrimination? Framed this way, the issue ceases to be about winning or losing, or which group gets control and which is pushed back into the closet, and it becomes about learning to share the public square as Americans with different beliefs about marriage and sexuality but all possessing inherent God-given worth.
This reframing of the issue, however, will require the church to rethink a deeply held assumption carried by many Christians. That assumption has its roots in a sermon preached by John Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. While sailing aboard the Arbella, he inspired the Puritan settlers by applying Old Testament promises given to Israel to their colony. If they kept God’s laws, he said, they would be blessed, and if they disobeyed they would see his wrath. “The eyes of all people are upon us,” he declared. The New World would be a “city upon a hill.”
These ideas, and even his words, would be recycled by American religious and political leaders for almost three centuries, to great effect. As a result many still believe America has a special covenant with God. If the country adheres to biblical morality, it will be blessed. If it deviates, it will be cursed. This was on display following the attacks on 9/11 when Jerry Falwell blamed the “pagans, the abortionists, the feminists, the gays and the lesbians” for the tragedy. They had pushed America toward secularism, broken our covenant with God, costing us our divine protection.
As long as American Christians hold to this belief, which has no basis in Scripture, we will never be able to reframe the gay rights / religious liberty issue away from a battle of values toward one of a shared public square. There are two reasons. First, if we believe God’s judgment will come upon us for extending rights to our gay neighbors, then we cannot possibly accommodate their identity into the public square. While the sensible path is to recognize the presence of our LGBT neighbors and cooperate with them to draft laws that ensure their rights while simultaneously protecting religious liberty, instead we risk remaining locked in a winner-take-all battle for social control while the religious liberties of Christians get under-represented in the courts and legislatures. It is a self-defeating posture that must be abandoned.
Second, believing America has a special covenant with God mobilizes Christians through pride or fear rather than love. When leaders, both political and religious, seek to inflate Christians’ fears about their gay neighbors they are not inspiring us to be more Christian, but less. They are not leading us toward faith in Christ, but away from him, because where the fires of fear and anger are fed, the inviting glow of Christ-centered faith and hope and love cannot long endure.
"Values war" rhetoric is not leading us to love our gay neighbors as ourselves, but instead causing us to believe that our well-being necessitates their misfortune. The “us or them” view is antithetical to what Jesus taught and modeled. In other words, believing a false and unbiblical doctrine--America’s covenant with God--is causing Christians to act contrary to a true and biblical one--the call to love our neighbors.
Finally, bringing the presence of Christ into this issue means not only reframing the issue and rethinking America’s covenant with God, it also means reaffirming our commitment to public witness. The Christian presence in the public square is facing challenges from two sides. One is pushing it out, and the other is pulling it. First, by framing gay rights as an all-or-nothing values war, for three decades Christians have given opponents a reason to push them out of the public square, because the Christians are seen as standing against the values of democracy, liberty, and freedom. Lawsuits against individuals, businesses, and groups holding to the historic Christian teaching on sexuality and marriage are mounting. We are reaping what we have sown.
But Christians aren’t just being pushed from the public square, many are choosing to leave it. Over the last 36 years the church has made many mistakes. We see it in the data, we feel it in the culture, and hear about it from our neighbors. And this is causing some Christians to withdraw from public manifestation of their faith in favor of a private devotion.
“If the Religious Right has taught us anything,” they say, “it’s that faith should stay out of politics and business and education.” I believe this is precisely the wrong response. The question is not whether Christians should carry their faith into the public square, but how should we carry it. Will we carry it on the shoulders of fear and anger as a weapon to defeat our enemies? Or will we carry it on the shoulders of love and mercy as a cross that brings healing and comprehensive flourishing to our communities?
In 2006, then Senator Barack Obama addressed this question in his speech on faith in the public square. He said:
Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King -- indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history -- were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity.
For the common good, we must not allow our Chrisitan witness to be pushed or pulled out of the public square, and neither should we retreat into enclaves of private devotion. Followers of Christ must publicly advocate that all people (whether gay or straight, religious or non) be free to live out their identity without fear or violation of their conscience. That means being free to carry one’s faith into school or business. It means not forcing religious organizations to pay for health services that violate their faith, and protecting a business owner being threatened by government officials for holding an unpopular belief. But it also means affirming a Mulsim girl’s right to wear a hijab to school, and the right of her community to build a mosque in their neighborhood. And it means not denying LGTB citizens access to the same legal protections enjoyed by other Americans.
We must ask ourselves, what kind of public square do we want to create? If we desire a public square where all identities are welcomed, then as Christians we must not abandon our place within it, but strive to shape a public square where all people and ideas are welcomed. Where this freedom exists, not only are religious and gay communities more likely to coexist in peace, but I believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ is also more likely to advance. The public witness of the gospel does not simply depend on Christians defending their own religious liberties, but upon our willingness to defend the liberties of those we disagree with.
As Christians, as those clothed in the gospel of peace, we cannot, and should not, demand that everyone share our beliefs. But we can, and should, demand that everyone share our freedoms. When this happens, we will find the courage to take off the armor of the culture war and put on the image of Christ. When this happens, we will find the grace to put aside fear and take up love. When this happens, we can be assured that Christ will be lifted up in the public square and draw all people to himself.