Last week, the giant Christian charity World Vision announced that they were changing their rules to permit the hiring of employees in same-sex marriages. As an explicitly Christian organization, World Vision requires its employees to be Christian and to obey a code of conduct which includes no sex outside marriage, and they weren’t changing either of those rules. As they took pains to say, they weren’t even endorsing same-sex marriage. It was merely a statement that they no longer considered a person’s views on homosexuality to be a litmus test of Christian belief, given the reality that many mainline Protestant churches now perform and sanction them.
Even for such a small step toward tolerance, the backlash was immediate and ferocious. Many religious-right spokespeople raged against the decision: Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention called the decision “unspeakably cruel and, in fact, devilish“, and Albert Mohler called it “a grave and tragic act that confirms sinners in their sin [and] violates the gospel of Christ“. John Piper said it “trivializes perdition“. Trevin Wax of the Gospel Coalition wrote, “I hope you feel a sense of grief” for the children who will suffer “needlessly”, because World Vision’s donors clearly would have to punish those children by pulling their support… and so on and so on.
In response to the blowback and angry messages from thousands of donors, World Vision almost immediately caved in, issuing a groveling apology and reinstating its former rule. Progressive Christian bloggers who cheered the initial change were horrified and heartbroken, as well they might be. As Rachel Held Evans wrote:
This whole situation has left me feeling frustrated, heartbroken, and lost. I don’t think I’ve ever been more angry at the Church, particularly the evangelical culture in which I was raised and with which I for so long identified. I confess I had not realized the true extent of the disdain many evangelicals have toward LGBT people…
While I sympathize with their frustration and anger, I have to say that none of this should be even remotely a surprise. Has Evans really never noticed the depth of evangelical Christian hate for LGBT people until now? It’s not as if they’re subtle about it. What about the evangelical groups proposing laws to unperson gay people? What about the Christian groups praising Vladimir Putin’s pogrom to the skies, or their support for Uganda’s brutal Jail the Gays law? Why was this the straw that broke the camel’s back?
The word “Christian” ought to have more to do with World Vision’s gospel-driven service to the poorest than with the sanctimonious contempt of the white evangelical bullies.
But when the armies of hate are on the march, insisting that “We are Christians and we do this because we are Christians and because this is what Christians do,” then we have to recognize that the word is changing for the worse, whether we like it or not.
Similarly, I don’t think the meaning of the word “Christian” is changing to include anti-gay bigotry. I think it’s obvious that Christianity has been synonymous with homophobia for a long time. What may be happening is that the contrast is growing sharper: as tolerance and acceptance of LGBT people is fast becoming a cultural consensus, the holdouts become easier to spot, and their behavior seems more reprehensible.
I don’t blame progressive Christians for wanting and hoping for better things from their community. But the cold reality is that the evangelical gatekeepers, the people in positions of power and influence, have a solid lock on power and are immovable in their bigotry, while the more tolerant mainline Protestant churches continue to dwindle. No doubt this advice is tinted by self-interest, but I think it’s true nonetheless: trying to change Christianity from within is like banging your head on a stone wall. The best thing to do is to withdraw, to deny your support to the churches and religious institutions that have prejudice rooted so deeply in their fabric.
I understand the moral dilemma of not wanting to punish needy people who depend on help from World Vision. But my view is that doing that good doesn’t outweigh the harm of supporting religious hatred, considering that that same good could be accomplished by donating to secular non-profits which help people without perpetuating discrimination. We can’t let hatemongers blackmail us by using the poor and the needy as hostages. (In some comment threads, anti-gay apologists asserted that they’re not driven just by malice, that they really do believe that homosexuality is a sin, as if that matters or changes anything. Sincerely held bad beliefs are no less bad, as I’ve argued.)
From an atheist’s viewpoint, the real outrage is that World Vision is supported in part by public funding, meaning my tax dollars are going to support a sectarian charity that discriminates against people like me. Given their doctrinal qualifications for employment, that would be infuriating even if they hadn’t rescinded their no-married-gays policy, but their craven return to bigotry just makes it all the worse.