On LGBT equality and middle ground: Response to critics

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“Where can an LGBT person serve in your church?” Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

“Where can an LGBT person serve in your church?” Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

I wrote a post on Monday describing what I see as the collapse of middle ground on the LGBT equality issue, and predicting narrowing social sympathy for conservative religious liberty claims, especially in a Hillary Clinton era.

This post elicited criticism. (Pause for shocked gasps.)

I rarely respond to criticism. I find that my mental health does better that way. And, it takes time that I don’t have. Plus, most online criticism is of little value.

This time, however, with my sleep sufficiently disturbed by the specter of a new round of viral anti-Gushee posts on the World Wide Internet, I have decided to respond. You got me this time, oh ye critics of mine.

Did you notice how I described my post, up there in the first line? That was exactly what I was attempting to do in my article on Monday. In my allotted column space of about 750 words I was attempting to sketch changing realities, based on new information since I last wrote about this issue. I was describing. Not prescribing. D-E-S-C-R-I-B-I-N-G. Together with a bit of predicting, which is describing what you think will happen in the future. Lots of people describe and predict. It’s fun. Everyone should try it.

What is this new information that informed my new effort to describe and predict, which my critics took as an effort to prescribe and attack?

North Carolina’s HB2 bill and its backlash. Georgia’s governor vetoing his GOP legislature’s anti-gay/religious liberty bill. California’s proposed bill related to nondiscrimination in the state’s colleges.

–The selection of Donald Trump rather than a culture warrior like Ted Cruz as the Republican nominee. The overwhelming likelihood that Hillary Clinton will be elected president. The broad use of federal regulatory power under Barack Obama, especially Title IX, to advance an LGBT equality agenda. The likelihood that it will continue under a President Clinton.

–The substantial pressure within the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship at their annual meeting this summer to reverse its national office ban on hiring “practicing” gay people, and that group’s difficulty in either evading or resolving the issue. Similar pressures within the United Methodist Church.

–My own growing body of experiences in executive posts at the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Christian Ethics, where it is very clear that a core value of contemporary higher education, including in religious studies and ethics, is to reject any form of discrimination against LGBT people.

–Even more opportunities to experience the pain of LGBT people as they continue to tell me their stories of religious-rooted contempt and exclusion in home, church, and school. Those seeking me out to tell me such stories run in the thousands by now. I should also note the stories of parents who describe to me their grief at the suicide of their LGBT children. As more Americans take these kinds of stories seriously, sympathy for LGBT people grows, and sympathy for religion that makes them suffer declines.

Perhaps this is a good time to say again that my carefully written piece was intended in the descriptive mode, with a bit of prediction, not the prescriptive mode. It was aimed mainly at the timid moderates, the dialoguers and middle-grounders, to say that the space for this approach seems to be shrinking. It was only secondarily aimed at the convinced conservatives, to predict, based on current trends that I was describing, that the legal and social pressure on their position is likely to grow.

I was saying: “Watch out, I notice that volcano over there is smoking ominously, and if it erupts, hot molten lava will wash over you.”

I was not saying: “I hope that the volcano erupts, and hot molten lava washes over you.”

My descriptive effort was not intended as a re-litigation of the biblical interpretation questions around the phenomena of same-sex attraction, bisexuality, or transgenderism or what moral norms should pertain to their sexual expression. Been there, done that.

My descriptive piece was not an effort to prescribe a legal defense for conservative religionists or to rally to their defense. I understand that their aggrieved sensitivities are so high that if one from the Christian community addresses these issues without rallying to their side, one is assumed to be their enemy. It is not my calling to prescribe a legal defense for those who believe that their faith requires them to discriminate against LGBT people. They have very skilled lawyers working on such strategies even as we speak.

Nor was my descriptive post an effort to predict in detail exactly what I think will happen to the three main types of organizations making religious liberty claims: business owners like the cake and flower people, religious nonprofits like the schools and charities, and houses of worship.

In case anyone wants to know, I think that the claims of the first will likely be dismissed, the claims of the second will likely be the subject of arduous negotiation and litigation, and the claims of the third will likely be protected. But I am not a lawyer, and none of us know what will actually happen.

Personally, speaking only now in the strategic and prescriptive mode for a moment, I think it would be best for liberals in power to use the following approach: Let internal dissent within exclusionary religious organizations, the coming formation and split-off of alternate inclusive organizations in every religious sector, and growing social incomprehension of discrimination against 3-5% of the population in the name of God, do the social change work that you seek, so it happens organically, avoiding the use of coercive state power as far as possible. But I acknowledge that is easier for me to say this, as a heterosexual married person, than it would be for current LGBT victims of discrimination.

My piece was not an effort to dismiss the competing values that are at stake here. Religious liberty for everyone is a high constitutional and moral value. Justice, inclusion, and equality for everyone are high constitutional and moral values. Those who dismiss either value are missing something important. These are the kinds of values clashes that dominate political argument and, in our country, end up in the Supreme Court.

My post was suggesting that the religious liberty side appears to be losing ground vis-à-vis the justice, inclusion, and equality side. I believe this to be an accurate factual claim, a fair description of reality. If you don’t like this as a factual claim, correct it with contrary data. If you don’t like this as a reality, re-evangelize America with your version of Christianity, slip into an altered state of consciousness, or leave the reality-based community in some other way.

There is an element of the tragic here that runs very deep. Division in society is tragic. Division in the church is tragic in a different way because the church is called to unity.  Intractable differences constantly rehearsed in public view are tragic for Christian witness. And divisions that occur over the suffering bodies and souls of vulnerable people are tragic in both a personal and social dimension.

Culture warriors who criticize me believe they are defending the True Faith from compromising liberals like me. I believe I am defending the Religion of Jesus from intolerant ideologues like them. We will never, ever agree. Only God can judge.

Those Christians standing up for LGBT equality and inclusion believe we are reflecting the deepest, truest values of Christ. Those standing against it believe the same thing. We will never, ever agree. Only God can judge.

Those digging in their heels against any rethinking of the LGBT issue believe they are standing with the saints and martyrs of the ages and facing persecution for doing so. As they set their faces like flint and narrow their steely eyes to peer into a hostile future, they feel brave, strong, and courageous, and they maybe look brave, strong, and courageous to the constituencies they are trying to please. Suffering for Jesus has its rewards.

But only God can judge who is suffering for him and who is instead causing suffering in his name. That sorting out will happen on Judgment Day, when every life is reviewed. Till then, I guess we will keep arguing.