Like a lot of folk I’ve been interested in the goings on in Indiana. As you know, the state legislature passed and the Governor signed a law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Depending on who you talk to, the law is no different from the federal version of the law passed in 1993 or will allow religious owners of businesses to refuse service to gays. I’m frankly a bit confused as to what the bill will actually do. Proponents see it as a bulwark against a radically changing culture. Opponents see it as the second coming of Jim Crow.
As I was discussing this with a Methodist minister, he used a word that seemed to describe the whole situation: fear. It’s not a surprise that I tend to think the proponents of the law are fearful of a changing culture, one where homosexuality is becoming accepted and where their views, which once ruled the culture are no longer in vogue. But I also think my side of the debate is also operating on fear and distrust. Like a lot of oppressed groups, it is hard to have any concern for your former oppressors. As I’ve read responses, the attitude seems to be “let the bigots hang.”
What is interesting about all of this is how much this seems to have become a zero-sum game. Religious conservatives seem intent on gumming up the works of progress on same-sex marriage. Gays and liberals seem to not want to give religious conservatives any inch on religious practice. Both sides seem to think that to win, one side must lose.
David Brooks wrote a couple of weeks ago that we live in a more uncertain age and that has changed the tone of politics. Gone are win-win situations where compromise was possible, and coming in its place is the quest for power. Here’s what Brooks says:
National elections take place within a specific global moment. In the 1990s, there was a presumption that we were living in an age of rapid progress. Democracy was spreading. Tyranny was receding. Asia was booming. The European Union was building. Conflict in the Middle East was lessening. The world was cumulatively heading toward greater pluralism, individualism, prosperity and freedom.
Today it’s harder to have faith in rapid progress. Democracy is receding. Autocrats like Vladimir Putin of Russia are marching. The European project is decaying. Economies are struggling. Reactionary forces like the Islamic State and Iran are winning. The Middle East is deteriorating.
In this climate, the tone and focus of politics change. Politics is less about win-win situations and more about zero-sum situations. It is less about reforms that will improve all lives and more about unadorned struggles for power. Who will control the ground in places like Ukraine and Syria? Will Iran get the bomb? Will the White House or Congress grab power over treaties and immigration policy?
It’s hard not to see the fight that is taking place in Indiana and many other places as tribal battles. Religious conservatives feel under fire as liberals go after bakers and wedding photographers.
This clash of rights, between the right to marry and the right to religious freedom has always been difficult for me. I have fought for the right to be able to marry my husband Daniel and to have that recognized by the state, which is what happened when we had our legal marriage in 2013. But as a Christian, I also think people should be able to follow the dictates of their faith without interference from the state. So on some level, I’ve never been as bothered by bakers not wanting to bake my wedding cake. I just thought I’d go to another baker. The baker had the right to refuse service, and I had the right to not go to that baker and tell others not to go either.
I know that it bothers some of my compatriots that I might sympathize with folks who don’t think I should get married to my partner. But two things have guided me on this issue: my belief in Jesus dictum to love our enemies and my libertarian belief in liberty; that I can do what I want and you can do what you want so long as my rights aren’t curtailed.
Loving my enemy means that I have to look at that person as human being. I have to at least try to understand their viewpoint and give them the space to do what they see as right, so long as I am not profoundly impacted.
Of course, my enemy should be able to look at me as a human being, a child of God and give me the space to do what I think is right. (Translation: If religious conservatives want to be treated with respect, treat those you disagree with the same respect.)
As the various RFRA laws come up in various states, both religious conservatives and LGBT communities have to find a way to make room for each other. Not because they like each other. Not because they agree. But because for a democratic society to flourish, we have to find ways to accomodate the Other. Because we must heed the call to love and respect our enemies.
Before all of the focus was on Indiana, some media attention was given to what was happening in Utah. Dubbed the “Utah Compromise,” gay rights groups and the Mormon Church came together to support legislation the protected LGBT persons and also offered exemptions on religious grounds. It is far from a perfect law (but what compromise is perfect). But this seemed to be a place where the culture wars made a truce. A Wall Street Journal column explains how the Mormon Church, who not that long ago was bankrolling the effort to ban same-sex marriage in California, reached out the LGBT community:
The Mormon leadership reached out to the LGBT community, which was willing to reciprocate despite initial doubts. Although there were roadblocks early on, trust gradually developed. Neither side allowed the best to become the enemy of the good. Both came to see that protections for LGBT individuals and for religious conscience needed to be enacted simultaneously, as a package.
There is a lesson here for both sides. For religious conservatives, it is to at least acknowledge LGBT persons. You don’t have to approve of what we do. But you do have to at least see us as persons created by God and deserving of respect.
For the LGBT community and our allies, it means respecting the faith of religious conservatives. Within reason, no one should have to compromise their faith to live in the wider society. We need to honor their consciences even if we think that their beliefs are wrong.
In late 2010, libertarian writer Jonathan Rauch wrote about how the tide was turning in the favor of those of us who support gay rights. Because we were no longer on the defensive, our tactics must change. He wrote:
…we—gay Americans and our straight allies—have won the central argument for gay rights. As a result, we must change. Much of what the gay rights movement has taken for granted until now, and much that has worked for us in the past, is now wrong and will hurt us. The turn we now need to execute will be the hardest maneuver the movement has ever had to make, because it will require us to deliberately leave room for homophobia in American society. We need to allow some discrimination and relinquish the “zero tolerance” mind-set. Paradoxical but true: We need to give our opponents the time and space they need to let us win.
Not giving them that room to deal with the changed landscape has its consequences:
…gay rights opponents have been quick, in fact quicker than our side, to understand that the dynamic is changing. They can see the moral foundations of their aversion to homosexuality crumbling beneath them. Their only hope is to turn the tables by claiming they, not gays, are the real victims of oppression. Seeing that we have moved the “moral deviant” shoe onto their foot, they are going to move the “civil rights violator” shoe onto ours.
So they have developed a narrative that goes like this:
Gay rights advocates don’t just want legal equality. They want to brand anyone who disagrees with them, on marriage or anything else, as the equivalent of a modern-day segregationist. If you think homosexuality is immoral or changeable, they want to send you to be reeducated, take away your license to practice counseling, or kick your evangelical student group off campus. If you object to facilitating same-sex weddings or placing adoptees with same-sex couples, they’ll slap you with a fine for discrimination, take away your nonprofit status, or force you to choose between your job and your conscience. If you so much as disagree with them, they call you a bigot and a hater.
They won’t stop until they stigmatize your core religious teachings as bigoted, ban your religious practices as discriminatory, and drive millions of religious Americans right out of the public square. But their target is broader than just religion. Their policy is one of zero tolerance for those who disagree with them, and they will use the law to enforce it.
At bottom, they are not interested in sharing the country. They want to wipe us out.
Of course, this is exactly what religious conservatives are doing now. So maybe the best way to defeat this kind of thinking is by not trying to shut them up, but by acting differently. Maybe if we show that we will give them the respect they never gave us, maybe things could change for the better.
I don’t know what will happen in Indiana. I do know I can do something to hopefully lessen the fear and increase the peace.
“Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”