Beyond the Bitchy Queen?

There are people in your life who’ve come and gone
They let you down and hurt your pride
Better put it all behind you; life goes on
You keep carrin’ that anger, it’ll eat you inside

-Don Henley, The Heart of the Matter

I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to be the oddest gay man around.

bitchMaybe it’s because of my aspergers, but I don’t tend to carry a whole lot of bitterness that some gays and lesbians that I know have.  The uses of the Bible to justify homophobia didn’t leave me afraid of the Bible.  I don’t doubt that God loves me and always has.  I just don’t live with the anxiety that many gays and lesbians have inside of them.

Maybe that’s why it’s hard to relate to people like John Shore.  For the unitiated, Shore is a gay man who leads a ministry helping gay Christians that have been kicked out of their churches.  Some of his writings tend to be full of bitterness, the result of how he has been treated and seeing others treated the same way.  One his most recent posts includes a letter he received from a lesbian that is trying to live out her faith holistically.  She writes that at times she still feels nervous and even finds it hard to read her Bible.  Shore responds in his blunt style.  A lot of what he says is realistic, LGBT persons do feel a lot of anxiety when it comes to the church because of past experiences.

What bothered me was Shore’s own ambivalence about the church.  He can get Jesus, but wishes he could just give up on Christianity.

Again, my Asperger’s makes me process things differently.  When I faced difficulty in church for being gay, I could see that being the fault of one person or a church, but I didn’t somehow see this as a sweeping indictment of Christianity.  I could see the tree in the midst of the forest.

My way is not how most deal with this.  One bad experience can make people think all churches are bad and that experience lives with them for years.

I can’t really say that others are doing it wrong.  But if I had magic powers, I would try to help LGBT folk only focus on the good people who care and not see all the church as rotten.  I would help them know that God loves them even when the church has issues.

I think that at some point we have to let go of the anger and fear and trust God.  But I also know that is easier said than done.  My experience was pretty tame compared to others.  But I still think we have to learn to let go of the pain, not because we should be abused, but because it does tend to be rather corrosive on our souls.

Maybe I’m speaking out of my element.  Anger has its uses.  But too much of a good thing can be harmful.


“The Right Side of History” and Other Fundamentalisms

right side of historyOver and over again, I heard one phrase being used on my side of the same-sex marriage debate: “the right side of history.”  Yes, most of us who believe in marriage equality do think this is the right thing to do.  We liken this current debate in the backdrop of the civil rights movement and interracial marriages where equality was seen as the march of progress and those who disagreed were out of touch and archaic. The steady march of progress on marriage equality can make one think that those of us on the pro-same sex marriage fight are truly on the “right side of history.”

Despite all of this, if I were King of Everything, I would have that phrase banished from the English language.

The problem with the “right side of history” is that it smacks of hubris and certainty, the very things we accuse the other side of all the time. I’ve said this before, my coming out experience was based less on certainty than it was on faith and grace.  The Bible really doesn’t say much positive on being gay (probably because in biblical times the focus was on the sex act not the person’s sexuality).  It also doesn’t say much about the gay man who is in a monogamus long-term relationship, either.  So, since the Bible is not telling me much to help me, I have rely on faith that God loves me no matter what and also rest in God’s abundant grace.  Grace isn’t about being on the “right side of history” as much as it is how we can be loving to one another; how we can welcome each other even when we disagree.  For Christians, same sex marriage is not about the inevitable march of progress as much as it is about two people entering in a covenant with God and each other.  That’s not as thrilling as being on the right side of history, but it is what Christians are called to do.

Earlier this year former Anglican Bishop and well-known author N.T. Wright warned Christians who use the “right side of history” or progress as the reason to do something.  Not every mark of progress is a good one.

“Now that we live in the 21st century,” begins the interviewer, invoking the calendar to justify a proposed innovation. “In this day and age,” we say, assuming that we all believe the 18th-century doctrine of “progress”, which, allied to a Whig view of history, dictates that policies and practices somehow ought to become more “liberal”, whatever that means. Russia and China were on the “wrong side of history”, Hillary Clinton warned recently. But how does she know what “history” will do? And what makes her think that “history” never makes mistakes?

We, of all people, ought to know better. “Progress” gave us modern medicine, liberal democracy, the internet. It also gave us the guillotine, the Gulag and the gas chambers. Western intelligentsia assumed in the 1920s that “history” was moving away from the muddle and mess of democracy towards the brave new world of Russian communism. Many in 1930s Germany regarded Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his friends as on the wrong side of history. The strong point of postmodernity is that the big stories have let us down. And the biggest of all was the modernist myth of “progress”.

He then remarks on the then failure of the Church of England to allow women bishops:

It won’t do to say, then, as David Cameron did, that the Church of England should “get with the programme” over women bishops. And Parliament must not try to force the Church’s hand, on this or anything else. That threat of political interference, of naked Erastianism in which the State rules supreme in Church matters, would be angrily resisted if it attempted to block reform; it is shameful for “liberals” in the Church to invite it in their own cause. The Church that forgets to say “we must obey God rather than human authorities” has forgotten what it means to be the Church. The spirit of the age is in any case notoriously fickle. You might as well, walking in the mist, take a compass bearing on a mountain goat.

What is more, the Church’s foundation documents (to say nothing of its Founder himself) were notoriously on the wrong side of history. The Gospel was foolishness to the Greeks, said St Paul, and a scandal to Jews. The early Christians got a reputation for believing in all sorts of ridiculous things such as humility, chastity and resurrection, standing up for the poor and giving slaves equal status with the free. And for valuing women more highly than anyone else had ever done. People thought them crazy, but they stuck to their counter-cultural Gospel. If the Church had allowed prime ministers to tell them what the “programme” was it would have sunk without trace in fifty years. If Jesus had allowed Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate to dictate their “programme” to him there wouldn’t have been a Church in the first place.

Progress is not always a good thing and it shouldn’t be the basis for ministry and mission in the church.  Sometimes the church will do things that might mirror society.  Other times it might be in direct opposition to culture.   We can only discern where God wants us at a point in history.  But we can’t be so sure that we have history on our side and in the end that isn’t our concern.

Sociologist Peter Berger notes that the certainty of liberal Christians tends to mirror the fundamentalism of conservatism.  Berger looks at the recent goings on in the Episcopal Church and how the denomination is beset by two fundamentalisms:

I am not concerned here with the merits of these various contentions. (By way of examples, I see no reason why gays and lesbians should not be priests or bishops, but I have serious difficulties with an endorsement of abortion without any limitations.) My point here is simply to point out that two fundamentalisms are embattled here. I am not acquainted with Bishop Schori, but I am prepared to stipulate that as a person she may be amiable, even tolerant. But her public record impresses me as representing a dogmatic adherence to current progressive ideology. This fundamentalism is mirrored by fundamentalism on the conservative side. In the Anglican case this is a mix of Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical groupings, which are at odds with each other but (sort of) allied in opposition to the liberal theology and (less strongly) progressive politics dominant in mainline Protestantism. The two fundamentalisms are very visible in their respective approaches to the Bible. Anglo-Catholics are more concerned with fidelity to tradition than to the Bible, but for Evangelicals the Bible, Old as well as New Testament, has an absolute if not “inerrant” authority. It seems to me that there is a different “inerrancy” operative on the other side—that is, an unquestioning certitude of being “on the right side of history”. Both conservatives and progressives comb the Bible for “proof texts”, an exercise that often leads to very imaginative exegeses. Take, for example, the problem of excluding from imputed “inerrancy” some of the hair-raising penal texts in Leviticus. Schori’s exegesis of the text from Acts is a nice example of hermeneutic imagination on the other side.

In the next few days, I will head down to Orlando, FL for the 2013 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  We will be discussing a resolution on being a table of welcome to all including gays and lesbians (or LGBT).  While I’m in favor of the resolution, I hope that those on my side will not talk about the church “getting with the program.”  We don’t need to be modern as much as we need to be faithful.

How a Gay Webcomic Teaches Christians About Resurrection

11 Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. 12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. 13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.

15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).

17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.

-John 20:11-18, Common English Bible

o human starIn a recent post, I said that being autistic makes it somewhat hard comprehend faith.  I also said that what has helped me the most is the use of imagination to make visible what can seem not very visible or tangible at all.  Tales about vampires or to a lesser extent, zombies, are good ways of understanding the afterlife to me.

So, how do I come to understand the resurrection?  What did it mean for Jesus to come back to life?  What will happen to us in the future when we are promised to be raised from the dead in the same way?

This is where the androids come in.

Androids have been a way for us to understand our own humanity or lack thereof.  They can also help us understand what it means to live, die and come back to life again.

I’ve been a fan of yaoi comics, the comic style that hails from Japan.  Yaoi roughly translates into “boy-love” in Japanese, which means that these comics tend to have gay themes.  The characters are rich and for a gay man like myself, I enjoy having complex gay characters than the alternative which is…not much.

I recently stumbled upon the web comic O Human Star, by Minneapolis-based artist Blue Delliquanti. It’s a quite engaging story.  Here’s how Lauren Davis of the sci-fi website io9 describes it:

Sixteen years after he died, famed roboticist Alastair Sterling wakes in a robot body to a world he barely recognizes. Artificial beings walk the Earth, many of them based on his own memories and designs. Confused about his resurrection and this brave new world, Al visits his old research partner Brendan to find more surprises in store, including a brilliant young gynoid who looks suspiciously like Al himself.

I know that for some folks it might be a little disorienting to be talking about the resurrection of Christ along with gay men and a transgendered robot, but it works for me.  It gets me wondering: what is the Resurrection?  What was it like for Jesus?  What will it be like for us?

I’m thankful for stories like C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and stories on vampires and webcomics for helping me in my faith.  Because of the imagination of others, I am able to comprehend the wondrous mystery of God.


Repost: I Miss the Old Mel White

The following is a post from June of 2012.

I recently read an interview with Rev. Mel White. Most of you know him as someone who grew up as an evangelical, was a ghostwriter for many big evangelical stars and then came out as gay. I remember hearing about him in the mid-to-late 90s and back then he was kind of the SpongeBob Squarepants of the gay community. I mean that SpongeBob thing as a compliment, because he just seemed so darned positive, when it seems like most gay men were known for snark and bitterness. He was kind of a breath of fresh air to me and I was amazed and applauded his attempts to meet and even persuade his some of the people he used to work for. Yes, it might have been hopeless, but there was something wonderful about how he really tried to do that whole “love your enemies” thing that Jesus talked about.

This leads me back to the article I read. The positive Mel White of old is long gone. What’s left is a man that’s pretty pissed off at the church and when I say church, I mean the whole church. White is angry not just at evangelicals, but also more mainline denominations that either still haven’t voted in favor of equality (like the United Methodists) and those that have recently allowed for non-celibate gays to become ordained (like the Lutherans and the Presbyterians):

For example, in the United Methodist Book of Discipline homosexual behavior is labeled, “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Methodists—with their misleading logo, “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors”—have voted against us for approximately 40 years and yet they are the largest and most progressive of the mainline churches. Changing the basic statement of the mainline churches from anti to pro has been the activist’s primary goal for decades with very little to show for it…

After debating the issue for almost half a century in recent years the Lutherans and the Presbyterians have finally voted to ordain lesbians and gays, but the United Methodists still refuse to ordain us. In fact, they still have on their books that local clergy can even deny membership to gay and lesbian Christians…

Again, after at least a decade of futile debate, the ELCA (Lutherans) voted to ordain and marry us, while the Presbyterians and United Methodists continue to deny us the rites of marriage. Even the liberal Episcopal Church is losing local congregations because this most progressive of the mainline denominations appointed an openly gay bishop.

On one level, I can understand his frustration. Many Methodists are upset that even a measure stating they agree to disagree failed, and rightfully so. Living in Minnesota, I know a lot of Lutherans and I know a lot of them either had to live in the closet or face ecclesiastical courts before the ban on gay clergy was lifted.

But the fact is, whether we like it or not, change like this moves slowly. Always does. It moves slowly in society and it moves slowly in the church. It takes a while for people to change their mind or see another way of looking at things. That’s frustrating, but I’ve come to learn that justice comes in its time and till then all you can do is press on making the case for change.

Another thing we have to do is love our enemies. Some times we can love them close and maybe even be friends. Sometimes you gotta love them from afar. White used to at least try, but it seems like these days, he’s just sticking to those who agree with him:

Christian fundamentalists, like fundamentalist Jews or Muslims, read their “holy books” literally. For fundamentalist Christians the Bible is clear: homosexuality is a sin. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

Trying to build bridges with fundamentalists is a game I’ve played—a war I’ve fought—for 20 years and I’ve lost almost every battle.

Fundamentalists don’t listen to facts let alone to personal experience. What the Bible says to a fundamentalist Christian parent is more significant, has more weight, than what they see in the lives of their own children. I have stopped even trying to build bridges with fundamentalists. When one of them asks me, “Have you read Leviticus 20?” (a verse when taken literally demands that men who sleep with men should be killed) I reply, “You’ve confused me with someone who cares about what you think of Leviticus 20.”

Evangelicals see salvation as an act of faith, a very personal encounter between the believer and his/her God. The more historic churches see salvation as a sacramental act, through receiving the Eucharist. Most fundamentalists are evangelical but all evangelicals are not fundamentalists. There are many examples of progressive, even open and affirming evangelicals and we should go on trying to build bridges with every progressive evangelical we encounter.

And, needless to say, we should go on trying to build bridges with the liberal or progressive churches but if the label can be trusted, if a church or denomination is correctly described as “liberal” or “progressive” they are already working with us. Unfortunately, we continue to call the historic mainline churches “liberal” and “progressive” when on our issue they are neither.

Okay, but we aren’t really building bridges if we build them with people who already agree with us. It’s not bridge building; it’s building an echo chamber.

I don’t think trying to reach fundamentalists/social conservatives is a waste of time. Maybe I’m an idiot, but I have tried to reach out to social conservatives. Some folks aren’t ever going to listen to me and I tend to “love them from afar.” But others, I do try to sit and listen to them and have them listen to me. I don’t expect to change their minds; I leave that up to God. And I truly believe that God is powerful enough to change minds. But that’s not my end goal- my goal is to love them as God loves them even if I disagree with it. That’s not a waste of time to me- it’s what being a disciple of Jesus is all about.

I can understand some of the bitterness found in White and in many of my fellow gay folk. When you live in fear that people don’t like you or worse, it’s easy to have a chip on your shoulder and ready to do battle.

Maybe I’m a coward, but I also think that as a Christian, I have to learn how to also learn to love others- even others that might hate and revile me. The Old Mel White had that Christ-like love that allowed him to meet with Jerry Falwell in the long-shot hope that Falwell might repent. It was a foolish and extravagant love that I was amazed to see.

The New Mel White is not so foolish. Some would say he has the righteous anger that Jesus had turning over the moneychangers’ tables in the temple. I would agree we need that passion at times. But we also need that crazy, stupid love that White showed towards his enemies as well, and I think the world is poorer for losing that Mel White.

On Holy Friendships


My thoughts these days are drifting towards relationships, or the lack thereof in churches.

I’ve been thinking about this in light of a recent blog post on on the dearth of cross-party friendships.  The post linked to a longer article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the issue.  The author, Neil Gross notes that such friendships have benefits for the whole of society:

President Obama last month took a group of Republican senators to dinner at the Jefferson Hotel, in Washington, to discuss the sequestration crisis and a wide range of other policy matters. The next day he asked Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the former vice-presidential candidate, to lunch at the White House. Another meal with Senate Republicans is planned for April 10. The goal of those meetings? To score PR points—but also to build personal relationships that might erode partisan gridlock.

It’s too early to tell whether the president’s outreach will work, but social-science research suggests that friendships that reach across the political aisle may be good for democracy: They facilitate cooperation by reducing extremism and enhancing trust. In a 2002 study, the political scientist Diana Mutz assessed the effects of political diversity among friends. Study participants who reported friendships with those who were unlike them politically had a better grasp of why people on the other side held the view they did. Those participants were also more tolerant…

The problem is that, in both Washington and the country as a whole, friendships that cross party lines are becoming rare. The political scientist Robert Huckfeldt and his co-authors found that in 2000 only about a third of Americans who supported George W. Bush or Al Gore for president had someone in their political-discussion network who backed the other candidate. And in a study of wider acquaintanceship networks, the sociologist Thomas DiPrete and colleagues discovered that such networks are segregated by politics as well.

It should not surprise anyone that such a lack of cross-party friendships are lacking in the church as well.  I’ve noticed more and more how liberal Christians tend to stick with each other, while conservatives keep with their own kind as well.  In a post from last year, I explained that this wasn’t always the case:

It was about 20 years ago, that I attended a large Baptist church in Washington, DC.   The church was an odd mix, or at least it would be odd today.  Evangelicals and liberals were somehow able to worship together, along side a healthy dose of members from Latin America and Asia.

The church decided at some point to hire a pastor to the join the good-sized multi-pastor staff.  The person chosen was a woman with great pastoral care skills.  At the time, there was a bit of controversy because she was pro-gay and some of the evangelicals in the church weren’t crazy about that.

I was at a meeting where a member of the congregation stood up.  She was one of the evangelical members of the congregation and she had what could be considered a “traditional” understanding on homosexuality, but she spoke in favor of calling the pastor.  You see, the pastor had been involved with congregation for a few years and the two had gotten to know each other.  “We don’t agree,” I recall this woman saying when talking about the issue they didn’t see eye-to-eye on.  But this woman was a good friend and she saw her as the right person for the job.

What’s so interesting about this story is that I don’t think it could happen today.  Churches like the one in DC really don’t exist anymore.  Evangelicals and liberals have sorted themselves into different churches and don’t really know each other.  Which only makes it easier to highlight differences and demonize each other.

As I move within my different circles, I’ve noticed how liberal and evangelical Christians don’t talk to each other at all.  They don’t see to like each other and say not-so-nice things when they are in their own groups.  Since I work for the Presbyterians and pastor a Disciples church, I’ve seen how we all self-select or how we wish we could not have to deal with “those” people.  I’m reminded of talking to another pastor a few years ago after a difficult vote.  The pastor wished our denomination was more like the United Church of Christ, our sister denomination that tends to be far more liberal.  I was privately irked by the pastor’s comments, because what was being said is that life would be easier if we didn’t have to deal with “those” conservatives.

In our society, it is becoming easier and easier to not have to hear diverse viewpoints.  As much as I like social media, it has the tendency to shelter folks from other opinions and reinforce our own views.  It’s been interesting to see people on Facebook who seemed more temperate in the past become more zealous over time.  People will put up the latest graphic that makes fun or demonizes the other side.

We are less interested in trying to build bridges, than we are in setting the damn bridge on fire.  In the name of social justice or orthodoxy, our places of worship are becoming less graceful.

Recently, social conservative writer Rod Dreher shared his experiences meeting the well known gay blogger Andrew Sullivan.  The two have tossled more than once on the issue of same-sex marriage, and yet something surprising happened over time: they became friends. Here’s what he said, responding to Andrew’s take of an evangelical church he attended where a mutual friend’s funeral took place:

It will not surprise anyone to learn that Andrew and I will simply not be able to agree on theology. It may surprise some to know that I can live with that, because Andrew is a decent and kind and very much alive person (though I can see his difficult side too; we all have them, as did — very much — David Kuo; as do I). Listening to Andrew speak with passion the other night about his love of Jesus Christ, and his experiences of Christ’s presence, was moving, because so genuine. Hearing of him speak of his own deep suffering as a child and as a young man — stories I hope he will be able to tell one day in his writing, because they were incredibly powerful, and gave me a new perspective on him and why he believes and feels the things he does — deeply reinforced for me the Gospel interdiction on withholding judgment from others. We really don’t know what others have endured, and how they have managed to hope in spite of hopelessness. I found myself back at my hotel room that night praying for Andrew, that Jesus will help him carry the things he has to carry, which to a degree that startled both of us, I think, resemble some of the heaviest burdens I myself have to carry.

If that makes me a squish, well, it makes me a squish. The older I get, and the more I become aware of my own frailty, my own vanity, my own hard-to-govern passions, my own weaknesses, and the more I come to grasp how freaking hard life is, the more inclined I am toward mercy. It’s not out of big-heartedness, necessarily, because unlike my sister Ruthie, I am not big-hearted. I am petty and jealous and quick to anger. My worst fault is my unbridled tongue. Rather, I think any inclination towards mercy on my part comes from a recognition of how much I need it myself.

The words that are most important here is that Rod could live with not agreeing with Andrew’s theology.  Live with. Tolerate.  Knowing that you might never change another person’s views and coming to a place where that’s okay.  To know that sometimes, it’s better to be loving than to be right. Grace.

What I wish for the church today is that we could live with a little more grace towards each other, especially when we don’t see eye-to-eye.  We need to get to a place where we can disagree and argue and still hug each other afterwards.

Maybe if we were more merciful we would be willing to hear each other.  Methodist pastor Stephen Rankin wishes that people not refer to things with the various political adjectives that keep us separated:

We absolutely must enact a moratorium on political labels as identifiers for the “kind of Methodist” that someone thinks she or he is.  Calling a particular theological position “progressive” or “conservative” perpetuates (ironically) the very groupthink that we often say we deplore.  These words are code that do nothing more than allow people to decide whether they like the theological idea or not without having actually to engage the idea itself.  It thus stops necessary reflection even before it gets started.

Using political labels, therefore, like “progressive” and “conservative” and, in some ways “evangelical” does nothing but short-circuit and maybe even ruin the possibility of important and serious conversations.  Let us please stop using them, at least long enough actually to talk and listen to one another without these maddening distractions.  I am not naive to think that we’ll stop using them altogether, but let us please become very self-aware and spare in our use of them.  And we should agree never to use them as conversations stoppers in public debate.

Our society is so fractured, and our churches mirror this sin.  What needs to happen is for Christians to not always work so hard to be right.  I’m not saying we give up our views, but to know that relationships matter, even when you don’t see eye-to-eye.

I know this will seem weird to others, but I hope one day to become friends with a social conservative.  We won’t agree on the issue of sexuality.  We might even think the other is sadly mistaken.  But I want to have a friendship with someone I don’t agree with to learn to love someone for more than their having the right viewpoint.  I want to love them as Christ did and does: with grace and mercy.

So, if there are any social conservatives who have always wanted a sassy black gay friend, I’m available.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like A Bigot?

punch a bigot

It was about 15 years ago that I saw firsthand how love of enemy and justice for the oppressed clashed with each other.  I was in seminary at the time and one Sunday afternoon, I went to a discussion held at a local Lutheran church.  The then-Bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod of the ELCA, Mark Hanson (who is now the denomination’s Presiding Bishop) was in attendance.  The topic was on LGBT inclusion.  Bishop Hanson was trying hard to stress the unity of the church amidst diversity.  He tried to talk about how churches that were opposed to having non-celibate gays as pastors and those who advocate for it are brought together and have a place at Christ’s table.

The audience gathered was having none of this happy talk.  A few in attendance talked about LGBT folk they knew who were no longer in the church.  More than once I heard this phrase which was accompanied with tears: “People are dying!”

I never knew what that phrase meant.  Was it literally or figurately?  I don’t know. What I did know is that the people wanted some sense of justice for LGBT folk right now-unity be damned.

In the ongoing debates on the role of LGBT persons in the life of the church, we normally see these two important aspects of our faith, love and justice, collide into each other.  What I’ve observed over time is that you can’t really bring these two concepts together or at least not perfectly.

This collision of two Christian values comes into focus for those us who favor LGBT inclusion.  Many of us tend to use an early struggle as our template-that struggle being the issue of race.  There was a time when I could see the parallels.  Actually, I still see the parallels, but part me wishes I couldn’t.

Why?  Because I can see where such thinking leads, I don’t know if I want to go down that road.

Let me explain.  Methodist Pastor Adam Hamilton wrote an oped recently in the Washington Post expressing his changing opinion on homosexuality.  He likens some of the objections to objections made by those who supported slavery:

There are a handful of Scriptures (five or eight depending upon how one counts) that specifically speak of same-sex intimacy as unacceptable to God. Conservatives or traditionalists see these as reflecting God’s timeless will for human relationships. Progressives look at these same scriptures in much the same way that progressives in the nineteenth century looked at the Bible’s teaching on slavery. They believe that these verses capture the cultural understandings and practices of sexuality in biblical times, but do not reflect God’s will for gay and lesbian people…

For many Christians today, particularly young adults, the handful of Bible verses related to same sex intimacy seem more like the 100 plus verses on slavery than they do the teachings of Jesus and his great commandments to love God and neighbor. Their gay and lesbian friends are people, just like them, in need of love and community. I believe that in the years ahead an increasing number of Christians, not only progressives, but also conservatives, will read the Bible’s passages regarding homosexuality as all Christians today read the Bible’s passages on slavery. And the sermons preached from America’s pulpits decrying the rights of homosexuals today will sound to future generations much like the pro-slavery sermons sound to us today.

I understand where Hamilton is coming from and I tend to agree with him.  But I am also hesitant because what is being said in this article is that those who oppose homosexuality are bigots.  That may well be true, but we should stop what we mean when we say explicitly or implicitly that someone is a bigot for opposing homosexuality.  To paraphrase a Simpson’s line, the word bigot can be used so much that it loses all meaning.  But the term is not one that should be used lightly.

As Megan McArdle said recently, our society has rightly deemed that being a racist is something reprehesible.  I would add that bigot falls into the same category.  In a good post about crime, McArdle notes that there are consequences for calling someone a racist:

Some crimes should be viewed as so morally horrific that they cut one off from decent society.  But society also needs to be careful about who it cuts off.  It is very terrible to let a child molester keep working on new victims.  But it is also very terrible to destroy the life of an innocent adult–to brand him with a label that will probably keep him from ever associating with decent people again.

This does not, by the way, apply only to legal crimes.  We’ve stigmatized racists in much the same way: to be a racist is almost by definition to be a terrible person, or at least, a person who has very terrible thoughts.  But now liberals complain that they cannot have a discussion about race with conservatives without the conservatives taking horrible offense and acting as if the accusation of racism were worse than racism itself.

But this is the natural result of making racism into something so terrible that to utter an obviously racist remark is to brand yourself as an outcast.  You can’t have it both ways–say that racism is so terrible that even subtle manifestations deserve to be stigmatized by all right-thinking people, and then turn around and say that everyone’s a little bit racist and you’re just trying to have a conversation about how we can all pull together to build a more race-tolerant society.

That taboo is a good thing in many ways; I believe that social sanction keeps quite a bit of racism from being expressed, or acted upon.  But the flip side is that there is no such thing as an accusation of “mild” racism, any more than there are moderately bad child molesters.  If you call someone racist, you are invoking a huge social taboo.  (Something that, I must confess, I don’t think all the complaining liberals are entirely unaware of.)  But inherent to a taboo’s power is the fact that it’s only rarely invoked.

I’ve seen this when we talk about sexuality.  On the one hand people like to talk about how everyone is welcome at Christ’s table, even those who disagree.  But we also say that the church needs to repent of its homophobia.  We aren’t yet at the point where being a homophobe is equal to being a racist, but we are close.  If we call someone a homophobic bigot, aren’t we saying that they are on par with slaveholders or a segregationist?  Would we really welcome such a person in our congregation?

Social conservatives usually get a bit ruffled when someone calls them bigot or compares them to Bull Connor.  It’s easy to blow this off, but I think they understand stakes.  They know a racist is a horrible person and they don’t see themselves as the modern equivalent of George Wallace.

Rod Dreher, a social conservative that I read often, understands this as well.  Here he talks about how newspapers view folks like him:

I remember once speaking with a senior executive at another big newspaper about his paper’s agenda-driven reporting on homosexuality and the marriage issue. This wasn’t an accusation on my part; he admitted the bias, and was proud of it. I brought up the likelihood that his paper’s bias could alienate many socially conservative readers, at a time when all of us who worked at newspapers were hemorrhaging readers. The executive said, indignantly, “We don’t need bigots for readers.”

Well, he certainly has a lot fewer of them today than he did when we had that conversation. So does the Washington Post. I wouldn’t claim that newspapers have lost readers because of their bias on reporting the marriage issue, but to the extent readers have lost confidence in the ability of newspapers to report the news with as much fairness as is possible (knowing that total fairness isn’t possible), and are therefore unwilling to spend their money to be lied to and to have people like themselves defamed, then yes, it plays a role.

Over the years, talking to fellow conservatives about media bias, it has usually been my place, as one who worked in mainstream media, to tell conservatives that they’re wrong in some significant way about media bias — not its existence, but the way it works. Most reporters and editors, in my 20 years of experience, do not set out to slant stories, and in fact try to be fair. The bias that creeps into their coverage is typically the result of a newsroom monoculture, in which they don’t see the bias because everybody, or nearly everybody, within that culture agrees on so much. In the case of gay rights and the marriage debate, though, they don’t even make an effort to be fair. I have heard some version of the “error has no rights” claim for years now. They honestly believe they are morally absolved from having to treat the views of about half the country with basic fairness in reporting. And they are shocked — believe me, they really are — that these people view them and the work they do with suspicion, even contempt.

Dreher can be overly dramatic, but there is some truth in his bluster.  If we are equating folks like Dreher to racists, then frankly, I can’t talk to them or read their blogs.  I can’t do any of that because being a homophobe is taboo and people like Dreher has crossed the line.

Which is why I’m hesitant to paint those who might be against same sex marriage as bigots.  Because doing so is serious.  The Great Evangelist Charles Finney barred slaveholders from receiving communion because owning another human being was crossing a line.

Maybe this is the wrong choice.  Maybe I shouldn’t care what social conservatives think.  I just don’t know if I’m ready to tell people that they are no longer welcome because of their refusal to repent of their sin.  Because if I’m calling someone a bigot, that’s exactly what I’m doing.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Social Conservatives

Timothy Dalrymple

I happened to look at a sermon I wrote about 7 years ago.  It was during the time I was involved in a new church start.  Reading the sermon, I tend to think it wasn’t my best sermonizing.  The sermon seems a fitting for the current context; it was based on Micah 6:1-8 and focused on same-sex marriage, which is a hot issue here in Minnesota with the upcoming vote on a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage.

What I took from the sermon is how much I’ve changed over the last seven years.  No, I still believe in same sex marriage and I think it’s a mistake to place this amendment in our constitution.  What has changed is my opinion of social conservatives.  I still don’t agree with their views, but I tend to understand those views a lot better, which has led me to be more respectful of the views as well.

What has changed is reading some social conservative writers like Timothy Dalrymple, Rod Dreher and Ross Douthat.  Listening to the viewpoints, I learn that social conservatives are far more complex than I used to believe.  They aren’t the caritacture I had easily painted them into.  While I don’t think banning same sex marriage is going to solve the concerns they have, I do realize that their concerns about the family in modern America make some sense. Here’s a part of a post by Dalrymple on gay marriage from 2011:

Those who oppose same-sex marriage do not see the fight for same-sex marriage as a continuation of the Civil Rights struggle.  The Civil Rights struggle does not even enter their minds when they consider same-sex marriage, because they do not believe that a person has a civil right to marry a person of the same sex with the imprimatur of the state, or that a person has a civil right to adopt one course of action (marrying a person of the same sex) and have it treated legally the same as another course of action (marrying a person of the opposite sex).  In other words, in this view, there is no civil right to marry whomever you please, and “equal protection” does not enter the equation; people in themselves deserve equal protection before the law, but different courses of actioncan and should be treated differently.

Most social conservatives see the same-sex marriage movement as a continuation not of the Civil Rights fight, but of the sexual revolution.  The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s established a trajectory of greater freedom of sexual expression, of broadening the field of sexual behaviors that are accepted and celebrated, and of disapproving the judgment of sexual behaviors or identities.  Many social conservatives see the push for same-sex marriage as the next phase in the sexual revolution, the next phase in the deterioration of moral-sexual norms, and the next step toward the dissolution of the basic and God-ordained family structure.  The sexual revolution, they claim, has already done incalculable harm.  They see a direct connection in the past five decades between the sexual revolution and the breakdown of the family, with skyrocketing increases in divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and deadbeat dads — and all the poverty, stagnation and malaise those things bring.

It’s a slippery-slope argument made by people who believe they’re already halfway (if not further) down the slope.  Slippery slope arguments often seem exaggerated, because they invest all the importance of the whole downward path in the very next step.  Every step down a slippery slope only takes us a little way.  But it also creates momentum.  And when you look back, you realize how far you’ve fallen, how much ground you’ve lost.  Nearly 40% of American children are now born to unwed mothers.  And the disintegration of the American family has done the most harm in low-income African-American communities, where there was less stability and social capital to start with.  Over 70% of African-American children are born out of wedlock.  For all the heroic efforts of single mothers, the children of single moms are as a general rule less healthy and less educated, and more likely to enter gangs and engage in criminal activity.

The point is this: American society once built a bulwark around the traditional family structure.  Perhaps in some ways or for some people groups the removal of that bulwark has been liberating, but the conservatives who oppose gay marriage believe that the removal of the bulwark has, on the whole, been absolutely devastating.  The further and further we depart from the family structure God intended, they believe, the more damage we do to our society.

Rod Dreher

Do I agree with everything Dalrymple is saying here? No. But his argument is not one of a loon fortelling doom if two men get hitched.  He is bringing up some important issues: divorce rates, single parent families, the less pleasant effects of the sexual revolution.  What Darlymple along with Dreher and Douthat are talking about is what the see as a breakdown in society, a place where there are atomized individuals instead of communal groups like traditional families.  What social conservatives see is less about some kind of modern-day Sodom than it is the concern of the loss of community and the rise of individualism that is concerned more about personal fulfillment than it is about social cohesion.

No, banning same sex marriage won’t stop what social conservatives see happening.  The changes in society were already under way long before any gay person thought about getting married.  But we do need to ask ourselves how to best shore up families and how to find new ways to knit the frayed fabric of American society. In 2010 journalist Jonathan Rauch, who is gay and supports same-sex marriage, wrote an insightful article about the changing state of families in America and how that has impacted people in “red” and “blue” states.  He explains that some of the opposition is not fueled by homophobia, but something else:

We know that gay marriage is very controversial. But why, exactly?

Well, we know that some people oppose it because they oppose homosexuality, and gay marriage, in their view, would give society’s and the law’s imprimatur to a deviant lifestyle. Those opponents will, on the whole, never change. Fortunately for people like me, their numbers are diminishing with time.

Contrary to what some of my friends in the gay-marriage movement believe, however, homophobia is far from the only reason for opposition. Another group, which I think is at least equally large, feels threatened—less by the normalization of homosexuality than by the abnormalization, so to speak, of the conventionally defined family. “Nothing personal, do what you want,” they tell us, “but leave the definition of family—of marriage—alone!”

I would urge you to read the entire article.  Rauch uses the story of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy in 2008 as an example of the different worldviews regarding sex:

Remember Bristol Palin in 2008? During the presidential campaign, it came out that the Republican vice presidential nominee’s daughter was having a child out of wedlock, but the family announced her betrothal to the father, Levi Johnston.

You might have thought that Bristol’s broken chastity would offend conservatives while evoking support from liberals. In fact, reactions were more the reverse. To Red Americans, Bristol was making her pregnancy okay by marrying the boy. They were kids, to be sure, but they would form a family and grow up, as so many generations before them had done. To Blue Americans, on the other hand, Bristol and Levi had committed a cardinal sin. They had children much too young. This was the height of irresponsibility, and a poor example to set!

Rauch isn’t a social conservative, but he has listened enough to see that their opposition to same sex marriage is not simply because they are mean.  Move beyond the anti-gay marriage talk and you see that there is fear and not necessarily of gays.  What they are afraid of is the disintergration of family units around them as well as the unintended consquences of the sexual revolution that has impacted them harder and harsher because they don’t have the financial resources to weather the storms of cultural change.

Columnist Rod Dreher is another example of the complexity of socons.  He is glad gays aren’t persecuted, but he lays out some fears he has, namely the fear of being forced to go against their beliefs:

Ross Douthat

Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I think it’s progress that gay folks aren’t stigmatized as they once were. I don’t want to live in a culture in which they are persecuted. I am pleased that gay people can live openly, even in my small town, without fear — and if I saw someone being persecuted for being gay, I would speak out against it. In my experience, very few conservatives who have actual experience with gay friends and gay folks in general fear and loathe them, as many did in the past. I know I move personally within a pretty narrow group of religious conservatives, but my guess is that most of us share the Church’s moral teaching on homosexuality (which is within a context of a broader teaching on what human sexuality is for), but we know and like gay people, and don’t feel the visceral hostility towards gays that some on the Right do. I think this is a generational thing, mostly. This, in my estimation, is what it means to be tolerant.

The problem is tolerance is not the goal here; mandatory affirmation is, to the point where individuals and institutions who won’t affirm are to be marginalized and punished. The other day I saw a tweet in which someone said that Ross Douthat, a Catholic who articulately defends the teachings of his Church on human sexuality, ought to be thought of as suffering from a psychological disorder. This is how religious and political disagreement becomes a matter of pathology — not a moral argument to be grappled with, but a disease to be cured. This is where we’re headed. It would be wise for conservative Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others to quit fighting a battle they (we) lost a long time ago, and start figuring out how to defend, constitutionally, our religious and cultural institutions from the coming legal assault. Ironically, if we traditionalists are going to be able to hold our ground, we’re going to have to function as libertarians.

I’ve met good Christians who are some of the nicest and honorable people and have treated me with respect.  The only difference is that they can’t cross that bridge to accept same-sex marriage because they believe their faith says it wrong.  As much as I disagree with them, I don’t want to force them to disavow their belief, either.  But that is their fear.  That leads me to ask questions: how do we treat those who disagree?  How do we handle them with grace and love?  What can we learn from their views on marriage that can be adapted to the new consensus? What authority does Christianity have in regards to sexuality? What are the limits?  What does family mean in this day and age?  How can we help shore up disintergrating families in red states and also in the ghettoes of our inner cities?

This is why in the end I’ve come to respect social conservatives.  Yeah, there are a bunch of folks that are still hateful bigots, but that is not all of them and they do have some valuable things to tell us.  In the spirit of tolerance and love of neighbor, the least I can do is listen.