Georgia’s governor Nathan Deal just vetoed HB 757, a bill that was essentially aimed at shielding Georgia’s conservative Christians from having to support or be complicit with gay marriage in any way. North Carolina’s governor Pat McCrory signed HB 2, a far worse bill essentially denying transgender people access to public restrooms and denying cities and localities the ability to pass ordinances protecting LGBT people from discrimination.
These kinds of bills could only have emerged at this exact moment in American history. They are rearguard actions by frustrated religious conservatives who have lost the broader national debate over gay people despite decades of strenuous effort.
Georgia’s conservative, Baptist, Republican governor carried through on his expressed concerns about our state’s legislation. He went right at the religious motivations by offering a more humane and hospitable understanding of the religion of Jesus. He also spoke about what kind of state he thinks Georgia wants to be and suggested that this legislation did not advance that vision.
Cynics say this veto was all about commerce. It is true that major business groups opposed the legislation, and surely this mattered. But the governor’s consistently stated religious objections matter too. Perhaps it is sufficient to say that the governor vetoed the legislation because it did not advance the common good in the state of Georgia. I happen to agree, as do many other Christians in Georgia. I can only hope that eventually the same outcome will occur in North Carolina.
The religious heart of this problem remains unchanged. It’s as simple as this: based on a particular reading of the Bible, Christians have been taught moral contempt for gay people and rejection of the concept that gay people can have morally legitimate romantic relationships, including marriages. That comprehensive moral rejection has done great harm, as gay people and those who care about them can easily attest.
For decades, and recently with growing intensity, Christians have been challenged to reconsider their reading of the Bible and their understanding of the demands of their faith as it pertains to their LGBT neighbors. Many have indeed reconsidered. Some have changed their minds, in part or in full. Many attitudes have softened even where minds haven’t changed. Others have not moved an inch, and are digging in their heels.
The process is not that dissimilar from when white Christians supportive of segregation were pressured to reconsider their attitudes toward black people in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of these attitudes were grounded in a certain reading of Scripture (divine separation of the races, the “curse of Ham,” etc.) that has now been almost universally rejected.
Around the same time many Christians were challenged to reconsider their attitudes toward the role of women, who were deemed subservient and denied access to leadership roles in society, church, and home — also due to a certain reading of Scripture that has now been largely rejected.
Eventually society moved ahead on both fronts, whether faith-based objectors were ready to do so or not.
Just as in the 1960s, federal law has now sprinted ahead of this religious reconsideration process. Whether all religious persons have “gotten there” theologically or not, we live in a society that extends many civil and legal rights to LGBT people, including marriage. Those not on board with this change are often both angry and frightened. They are trying to protest, and they are trying to protect what they believe to be their rights.
Objectors do have legitimate religious liberty rights. They, their pastors, their churches, and a wide range of faith-based nonprofits are and should be free to believe, teach, and practice their traditional convictions. But these new laws, especially in North Carolina, went beyond such religious liberty rights into what amounted to a pretty broad attack on justice and equality for LGBT people. This overreach has evoked a fierce reaction that in some cases obscures the religious liberty rights that actually should be protected — and may endanger those rights.
However all the legislation and litigation comes out, Christianity as embodied in these reactionary pieces of legislation increasingly looks small, cramped, and mean.
Fifty years of being the most reactionary force in American society has done considerable harm to (conservative) Christian credibility — and very real harm to its victims, which include those LGBT teenagers who have the misfortune of growing up in states where the grownups still write laws that hurt them.