Beliefs Culture Ethics Institutions Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

How Frank Bruni misunderstands Christians—and why it matters

If liberals want to energize their opposition on religious liberties, a column like Frank Bruni’s is exactly the kind of thing that will do it. - (Image: Konstantin Flavitsky, "Christian martyrs in Colosseum" courtesy of Wikimedia Commons - http://bit.ly/1C7AvNG)
If liberals want to energize their opposition on religious liberties, a column like Frank Bruni’s is exactly the kind of thing that will do it. - (Image: Konstantin Flavitsky, "Christian martyrs in Colosseum" courtesy of Wikimedia Commons - http://bit.ly/1C7AvNG)

If liberals want to energize their opposition on religious liberties, a column like Frank Bruni’s is exactly the kind of thing that will do it. – (Image: Konstantin Flavitsky, “Christian martyrs in Colosseum” courtesy of Wikimedia Commons – http://bit.ly/1C7AvNG)

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wants conservative Christians to change their thinking on LGBT relationships. Unfortunately for Bruni, he doesn’t know the first thing about them.

In his most recent column, “Bigotry, Bible, and the Lessons of Indiana,” Bruni argues that while conservative understandings of sexuality are understandable, “homosexuality and Christianity don’t have to be in conflict in any church anywhere.” At the conclusion of his article, he says furniture maker Mitchell Gold told him “church leaders must be made ‘to take homosexuality off their sin list.’” Bruni then comments that Gold’s “commandment is worthy—and warranted.”

Most conservative Christians probably stopped reading after the headline—calling people “bigots” isn’t the most effective way to start a conversation—and Bruni’s arguments are not exactly novel. But the bigger problem with this column is that the author misunderstands the very people he hopes to persuade. As a result, his column will likely embolden, rather than convince, America’s conservative Christians.

Soren Kierkegaard once said, “Life must be lived forward but can only be understood backwards.” Those who hope to direct Christianity’s future must comprehend its past. The world’s largest faith was built upon the ashes of martyrs and forged from the fires of persecution. And the narrative of oppression and struggle has united Christians throughout the centuries. To wit:

  • The anonymous “Letter to Diognetus” (AD 80 – 200): “Christians…love all men, and are persecuted by all.”
  • Augustine (AD 354 – 430): “If you see that you have not yet suffered tribulations, consider it certain that you have not begun to be a true servant of God.”
  • Martin Luther (AD 1483 – 1546): “Men despise the Evangel and insist on being compelled by the law and the sword.”
  • Dietrich Bonheoffer (AD 1906 – 1945): “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Keeping this history in mind, how might you predict conservative Christians will respond to a columnist—especially one who works for a publication many already consider to be suspect—issuing a “commandment” that church leaders be “made” to abandon what they believe to be orthodoxy?

Predictably, conservative Christian responses have already started rolling in. Rod Dreher in The American Conservative issued a call to arms saying, “It is really useful to learn where the lines are in the current and coming battle. Don’t say you weren’t warned, readers. Prepare.” Samuel James of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission saw this piece as a badge of honor, writing, “When Christians see public, outright rejection of the basic precepts of religious faith, we know the field is ripe unto harvest.”

Because Bruni doesn’t know what makes Christians tick, his words will only tick them off.

Every good pastor knows that before standing to preach, they must carefully contemplate their audience. Frank Bruni believed he was issuing a prophetic sermon from behind an elite pulpit. But because he didn’t consider his congregation, the columnist ended up only preaching to the choir. He persuaded no one, but rather worked to unite his opponents with the language of coercion. [tweetable]If you really want energize Christians, try coercing them.[/tweetable]

Here’s the thing: I don’t think Frank Bruni cares that he isn’t convincing Christians with his column. He and many liberals have now seemingly abandoned their desire for reasonable debate—something this important issue deserves—and adopted strong-arm tactics to force their opponents to capitulate. And this is deeply troubling.

I’ve opposed the most recent state-level RFRAs, but the brashness of some liberals lends credibility to claims that religious liberties are being threatened. If liberals want to energize their opposition, a column like Bruni’s is exactly the kind of thing that will do it.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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