After Orlando: An Open Letter To Conservative Christians About Loving Gay People

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I am writing this to Christians who are sincere in holding three beliefs. 1. Homosexuality does not deserve recognition as legally, morally, or socially equal to heterosexuality. 2. Christ commands you to love gays as fellow sinners in need of redemption. 3. Loving gays requires repudiating homosexuality legally, morally, and/or socially. On account of this you may believe some number of the following or similar things: civilly and socially gay marriages shouldn’t be recognized as valid, we shouldn’t recognize self-identifications as “gay” as valid, children in schools shouldn’t be taught about gay relationships in a way that treats them respectfully, gays should keep their expressions of affection for one another and even their entire relationships a strictly private affair and especially hidden from children, businesses should have the right to fire or deny housing to people because they’re gay. Of course not all self-identifying Christians hold such views.  I am addressing specifically those of you who do. I do not want, in this post, to argue with you about whether homosexuality is moral or not or whether Christianity is true or not. I want to challenge your notions of what loving and respecting gays entails.

When you say you love gay people what you effectively mean is that you think it’s possible for gay people to become Christians, obediently repent from gay acts of sex and love, and then (and only then) be good Christians. You can be friendly and gracious enough with them as long as you don’t start to worry that they might mistake your generosity of spirit for condoning their homosexual behavior. And you’re on standby, eager to give them the Gospel whenever they’re ready and accept them as full members of your church and your equals in Christ—as soon as they repent of their gay “lifestyle”, anyway. You also are quite clear that if they don’t become Christians—or change from the sorts of Christians they very well might currently understand themselves to be—they will, deservingly, suffer for all eternity. You are also usually quite clear that you will judge as tantamount to heretics those Christians who affirm homosexuality spiritually.

None of this is really love on your part. Being merely socially gracious is not love. Having unqualified love for only members of your own group is not universal love for all humanity. And neither is loving people outside your group only for their potential members of your group. Neither is trying to understand everyone as ultimately the creation of your God and so, on that basis alone, lovable. Neither is treating them kindly as a tool for ingratiating yourself into their lives so you can convert them, loving them.

Loving people means loving them as they are or according to their intrinsically good qualities. It is not loving people only as a potential member of your own group. If you abstract away for just a minute from your own Christian allegiances to look at the situation on the level of groups you should be able to see that someone saying “join us or burn” to a member of another group is not expressing a loving attitude. It’s a threatening one that truly accepts no outsiders. Even if you sincerely believe that you’re just relaying God’s message of “obey Me or burn”, that’s certainly not a loving attitude either. But, again, let’s hold off on that part for another day. For now I want to move on to the next point. Not only do you not love gays, you don’t even respect them. Why do you think that your attitude towards gays qualifies as loving, when it doesn’t meet the bar for respect you would demand for yourself. Think about it point by point:

*Would you feel loved, or even minimally respected, by someone who refused to acknowledge your marriage existed, legally or socially, because of their own moral, philosophical, or theological qualms about it?

*Would you feel loved, or even minimally respected, by people who went to the school board to agitate that Christianity never be mentioned—not even as it’s relevant to genuinely important topics like history or sociology or history or world religions?

*Would you feel loved, or even minimally respected, by people who wanted the law to allow Christians to be fired or denied housing simply on account of their being Christians?

*Would you feel loved, or even minimally respected, by people who refused to acknowledge your self-identification as a Christian and said to you, “You only have ‘Christian attractions’ or ‘Christian inclinations’—but don’t worry, you can overcome them and I refuse to accept this phase you’re going through is real.”

*Would you feel loved, or even minimally respected, if forty-nine Christians were slaughtered because they were Christians and people in the media and atheist organizations and Muslim organizations, etc. were deliberately suppressing mention of the victims’ Christianity while expressing their compassion, because they were more concerned with not giving the appearance of supporting Christians than acknowledging that Christians were the group subjected to persecution?

*Would you feel loved, or even minimally respected, by someone that you knew believed that a couple thousand years ago God justly thought that all Christians deserved the death penalty and that you Christians in fact still do but that God is saving torture for you for the afterlife instead if you don’t repent of your false religion? You wouldn’t feel loved, or even minimally respected, in any of these cases. And you wouldn’t do so even if outside of all these persecutory attitudes people behaved in a friendly manner.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly fine to have rational and respectful disagreements with people over facts and values. I’m not saying that simply disagreeing with someone about a moral issue personal to them is inherently disrespectful to them. As a species we are a long way off from achieving unanimity of moral opinion. But we can, based on a number of good justifications ranging  from humility to mutual self-interest to formal fairness, decide to live harmoniously and respectfully with those we have moral disagreements with. Consistent with arguing for what we think is true and good, we can acknowledge others’ rights to peaceably exist, to express themselves, and to live equally to us, even when we substantially disagree with them about what the true or the good are. My point is not that you have no right to disagree with the emerging consensus in favor of the morality of homosexuality. What I intend to demonstrate in the following paragraphs is that your disagreement is crossing the line into disrespect for those you disagree with; a disrespect that I’m pretty confident you don’t show to others you disagree with.

For example, even though I’m an atheist and you’re a Christian, we can at least recognize our rights to get together with those who think like ourselves about theological matters. You can go to church and I can go an atheist meet-up. We can respect our self-identifications. You may not like that I don’t believe in God but you can acknowledge the simple fact that I don’t and say that I’m an atheist if I tell you that I am. Let’s say that I do not like that you’re a Christian, that does not stop me from acknowledging that that’s how you identify and referring to you as a Christian. We can respect that communities of atheists and communities of Christians exist and refer to such communities as such when it’s relevant. You can believe that I’m a sinner and going to hell and inducing others to go there with me, and that I’m in denial of the basic truth of God’s existence, while still accepting that I’m an “atheist”. Even if you’re one of those Christians who literally thinks all atheists are self-deceived and deep down truly believe in God, in my experience even you guys pay me the respect of calling me an atheist. Acknowledging, at least for politeness sake, that I don’t believe in God is not tantamount to a denial of God’s existence on your part. It doesn’t mean you believe it’s morally or intellectually ideal to be an atheist. But if you’re a respectful person, you’ll call me an atheist if that’s what I call myself. If people are attacked for being presumed or self-identified atheists, hopefully you’ll acknowledge it and denounce it. And similarly, no matter how unjustified or immoral I were to think Christian beliefs were, I wouldn’t deny you hold them and you’re a part of the Christian church.

Similarly we can acknowledge Jews and Hindus and Muslims and respect their professions of faith.  A Hindu is no less a Hindu to you just because she believes in many gods and you think that there’s only one. She is no less a Hindu even if you think being one makes her an idolater or some other kind of worshipper of false gods. And Hindus are no less a community for believing in the wrong number of gods and an assault on them is no less an assault on them as Hindus because they believe in the wrong number of gods, right?

And a mass shooting at an American Hindu temple, selected because it was a Hindu place of worship and filled at the time with Hindus, would no less be an assault on the American Hindu community than a shooting at a church would be an assault on the Christian community if it was chosen because it was a Christian church and filled with Christians. Of course not all attacks on churches are attacks on Christianity—historically many such attacks in America have been carried out by self-identifying white Christians against black Christians, in which case the targets were clearly chosen because they were blacks rather than Christians. But of course a church could be targeted because its members are Christians. (And an attack on black Christians is still an evil attack on their church’s ability to be a holy sanctuary for them and in this, and other ways, is still an attack on their religious expression as well.)

And as you would want the respect of acknowledgment of the crime against your church when Christians are persecuted, you would in all likelihood express support for the Hindu community if they were violently attacked like that. You would be able to see, plain as day that this was an act of terrorism aimed at persecuting the Hindu community specifically. When denouncing the massacre, you wouldn’t just vaguely identify the Hindu victims obliquely as “people at a meeting” the way that many Christians and churches appallingly tried to erase the fact that the recent Orlando shooting was at a gay club or that it was an act of deadly homophobia. The Pope himself in his statement referred to the location as merely a “crowded nightclub”, and did not give the primary targets and victims of this persecutory act the dignity of even the slightest identification as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Instead he decried the hatred that inspired the hatred of behind the attack as “senseless” where it would have been minimally appropriate to identify the clearly recognizable meaning of the act and fully appropriate to instigate self-critical reflection by his church about its own treatment of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities.

Similarly, neither you nor the Pope would try to downplay the nature of an act of religious persecution against Hindus by trying to erase any mention of the Hindu religion and trying to stress that “all that matters is humans were killed, not Hindus specifically” or do what the Southern Baptist Convention did in response to Orlando when it encouraged its members to merely “regard those affected by this tragedy as fellow image-bearers as fellow image-bearers of God and our neighbors” while stubbornly eliding the fact that they were primarily gay, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people and transparently targeted on account of these identities. You wouldn’t refuse to acknowledge the existence of that Hindu faith that worships false gods, lest you risk giving it some legitimacy. You wouldn’t try to downplay the idea that the Hindu community would have every right to feel distinctly assaulted and endangered by a crime that targeted Hindus specifically, and which signaled a violent anti-Hindu hatred lurking in the community. And yet in the wake of Orlando, so many of you have wanted to shift the focus away from acknowledging the legitimacy of gay feelings of persecution and change the subject to how this is about Islamic terrorism and its hatred of all things Western instead. If you’re like most Christians I know, you acknowledge Hindus exist and acknowledging it is not a threat to your ability to claim your faith is true. You can express empathy and make calls for justice for the Hindu community even if you disagree with them theologically. You can express solidarity with that community as victims of injustice in any number of ways without compromising your faith. And you can do this even if you sincerely believe that Hinduism is, in fact, a path to hell because it does not lead to salvation through Jesus the Christ, Son of the one true God.

Just as you want respect and equal treatment from people of different faiths from your own, you’re able to give it back to them, without losing strength in your own beliefs or somehow indicating that you don’t really believe them. You can probably say unequivocally that it is unjust to fire or evict Hindus on account of their faith. So why do you prefer the current legal situation whereby gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people can be fired or denied housing on account of their sexuality or gender identification alone? Why do you oppose laws to protect them from such discrimination? Why are you so worried about your children having respectful education about the reality of gay partnerships (now civil marriages even) so that they can understand their classmates’ families when you don’t agitate against respectful education about the Hindu religion in schools? Why are you so anxious about your kids seeing gays kissing in movies or holding hands in the street but not about them seeing Hindus wearing signifiers of their faith in public?  You (hopefully) don’t worry too much that if your child befriends a Hindu child that that child’s parents will convert your child to Hinduism. You don’t get up in arms if the local Hindus march in a city parade or publicly celebrate a festival of their own, assuming they have any requisite permits. You have yet to spend a single holiday dinner lecturing everyone assembled about how angry it makes you to see Hindus on TV or wearing Indian forms of dress in public.

You also don’t insist that Hindus are not really capable of marriage since marriage is only real when vows are exchanged in the right way before the right God and with the right theological interpretation, while Hindus worship the wrong gods and don’t carry out ceremonies the true God would recognize or believe the same things about marriage you do. For an alternate analogy, if you have little problem thinking that Hindus can have a “real religion” even though you think they’re worshipping the wrong God by your understanding, why can’t gays have “real marriages” even if you think they’re doing it in the wrong way. Surely, worshipping the wrong God is an bigger deal than marrying someone of the wrong gender as far as mistakes go, no?

In a nutshell: if both Hinduism and homosexuality lead to hell, why are you only in favor of so many forms of suppression of gay expression but not Hindu expression?

Again, none of your civic decency towards Hindus means that you think being a Hindu is the right thing to do.You likely even think that all your fine upstanding fellow citizens who happen to be Hindu are destined for destruction in the afterlife for not believing in Jesus and that by bringing up their children in the Hindu faith they’re risking their children’s souls too. Or you might graciously remind yourself and others that ultimately it’s God’s place to judge and not yours, so you don’t know for sure that Hindus (or any given Hindu) are going to hell. Either way, you think worshipping other gods besides the true one is clearly a serious sin (it breaks the first commandment) and you may believe other traditional Hindu beliefs deeply immoral (perhaps the infamous Hindu caste system?), but you extend to Hindus complete civic respect nonetheless.

In this context of civic respect, I think you may even come to genuinely love some Hindus, despite your differences of beliefs. And when I say you may love Hindus, you might love them more than in the tribalistic way of “holding out hope they’ll become Christians” or “laying in wait for a chance to evangelize them”. I completely believe that you can actually love them for who they are as people and have meaningful relationships with them without ever abandoning your theological worries for their souls. If you were here telling me that you love Hindus, I would give you the benefit of the doubt. But I don’t believe it when you say it about gay people, even if you’re perfectly kind and polite in any number of scenarios to them. You cannot love someone that you wish would be treated like a second-class citizen that you want to either see “cured” or  effectively quarantined from everyone else like they carry a contagious disease, with all sorts of legal and social pressure to repress themselves in a way that you, who are so on edge with paranoia about how any loss of Christian privilege apparently means you are being persecuted, would never yourself accept being forced to live. There’s a simple point to all this. If any part of the world Christians were being systematically denied all the legal, moral, and social acknowledgments that you want to deny gay people you would not hesitate to full-throatedly denounce it as unjust persecution.

Or, if you can’t bring yourself to love them, at least start showing some respect.

While I do think that the best moral arguments come down decisively against your claims that homosexuality is immoral, I respect your right to think for yourself and form your own conscience. I even respect your right to not to think for yourself and let the author of the book of Leviticus think for you. But if you want to love gay people you’re going to need to start loving them by doing unto them as you would have done unto yourself—or even just as you would have done unto your fellow Hindu citizens. Especially since so many gays, lesbians, and transgender people are even Christians too, who believe in one God and salvation through Jesus. You should at least be able to extend basic respect to your fellow Christians of differing denominations or theological viewpoints as well as you do members of religions not your own.

And, no, reasoning that what you would want done unto you is for someone to show you the way to Christ or proper obedience to Him doesn’t suffice. You wouldn’t like people turning you into second class citizens because they thought they knew better than you what was good for you. You need to go to another level of abstraction, respect the fact that gays are allowed their own self-identification, allowed their equal rights to housing and employment, allowed their equal civil marriages to yours, allowed their equal right to public self-expression to yours, allowed at least their proportional representation on television or film, allowed to be mentioned and treated with dignity in your kids’ schools, etc., etc. You would not accept any less than that respect. You wouldn’t call any less than that respect love. Love can only come if that basic respect is at least present at the foundation.

But, you ask, “How can I possibly still try to convince gay people or others that acting on homosexual desires is sinful even though you treat their gay identity and the gay community with so much legitimacy? This is my sincere, conscientious belief, how do you suggest I express it?”

This would require another entire post to treat thoroughly. To an extent my post on 10 Tips For Christian Evangelism (From An Atheist) should be a good starting point. In the meantime, there’s a simple principle that should guide your thought about this at every turn. You should go about arguing against homosexuality in the same way you would want someone who thought Christianity was evil to express that opinion to you when speaking directly to your face.

Your Thoughts?

For more on the ethics of homosexuality and its intersection with Christianity, see the following points:

How I Wish The Homosexuality Debate Would Go
The Gay Enemy Threat in the Christian Home
Why “Loving The Sinner But Hating The Sin” Is Not An Option When Dealing With Gay People

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.