Q Los Angeles 2013
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Gay Rights and Religious Liberties
When I was a freshman in college, the GLBA–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?
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 conversation, I believe we must do three things. First, we must
the current debate. Second, we must
a long-held theological assumption. And third, we must
our commitment 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
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.
We can look at 1976 as the year when the tension between gay rights and religious liberty became public. In the 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. The conflict was framed as a zero-sum game. One group will win and the other must retreat to the periphery of society from which it emerged.
For the church this framing has 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 warning us not to devalue a person as irretrievably guilty or condemn their identity as worthless. Christians 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 and take his words in Luke 6 seriously, 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.
Of course the importance of identity applies to both communities. It is difficult to imagine two things more enmeshed with a person’s identity than gender/sexuality and religion. While Christians must recognize the desire of gay Americans to live out their identities without fear or limitation, the LGTB community must also affirm the right of religious Americans to practice their faiths without violation of conscience. To advance the conversation we can no longer entertain the illusion that these two identities are irreconcilable. That fact is gay and religious Americans work, play, learn, govern, serve, live, and worship together every day. Neither identity is going to disappear.
Therefore, 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
, 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 God’s 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. (President Reagan added his own flourish to Winthrop’s phrase by speaking of America as a “
city upon a hill.”) 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. Similar pronouncements by Christian leaders can be heard immediately after every natural or political disaster that befalls our country as surely as thunder accompanies lightning.
According to this logic, the way to prevent terrorist attacks and natural disasters is by earning the Almighty’s protection through moral behavior, adherence to prayer, traditional family values, and frequent worship. This popular belief about God was also prevalent in Jesus’ day. It followed a simple formula—God blessed the righteous and cursed the unrighteous. Obey his commandments, it was taught, and one could avoid disease, accumulate wealth, and find favor with God and men. The equation worked just as well in reverse. Those with material blessings were seen as righteous and those who suffered did so because they were sinners.
This belief is clearly displayed in John 9 when Jesus encountered a blind man. His followers ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). But Jesus quickly refutes their assumption. “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” He then restored the man’s sight. At every opportunity Jesus dismantled this assumption of his culture. Disobedience did not automatically mean calamity would befall you, and obeying the rules did not guarantee material blessing and avoiding hardship. At every opportunity, through both his words and actions, Jesus revealed the bankruptcy of this belief. Rather than drawing us to love God, in most cases it only burdens people under the weight of guilt, fear, and empty religiosity. This mindset conditions people appear righteous externally, but it cannot actually make us righteous internally. In the words of the prophet Isaiah whom Jesus quotes while rebuking the religious authorities: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules that have been taught” (Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:8-9).
As long as American Christians hold to this belief 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 in 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. And any effort to make the public square more “Christian” by pushing the LGBT back into the shadows may make America appear more righteous, but it will not truly be more righteous.
"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 force 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. This is causing some Christians, particularly the young, to withdraw from public manifestation of their faith in favor of a private devotion. This same impulse was evident in the early twentieth century following the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. Fundamentalist Christians were publicly embarrassed by the trial and retreated from the pubic square for decades to form an insular subculture. It wasn’t until Roe versus Wade in 1972 that many Christians realized abandoning the public square had dire consequences for all Americans.
“If the Religious Right has taught us anything,” some say today, “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 Christian 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 Muslim 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. I believe James Madison did a great favor to the Christian faith when he penned the First Amendment. Madison understood that in order for true religion to thrive, for peoples’ affections to be stirred for their Creator, they needed freedom. Freedom from state coercion. Freedom of conscience. Freedom of practice. Freedom of speech. Freedom to accept religion or reject it. He understood that 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. We will find the grace to put aside fear and take up love. And we can be assured that Christ will be lifted up in the public square and draw all people to himself.
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