The following post is from Brent Bailey, a Master of Divinity student at Abilene Christian University. Brent is interning with us at The Marin Foundation this summer, and you can find his blog at oddmanout.net.
In my previous post, I described how public opinion on homosexuality in the U.S. has shifted rapidly, with the result that traditional Christian sexual ethics, which once synchronized with general societal attitudes, now often come across as intolerant and oppressive. Without a doubt, conservative Christian political activity in direct opposition to the movement for gay rights has contributed to a widely negative perception of Christians from those outside church walls, especially among those who support or advocate for gay rights. Nevertheless, I think Christians’ attitudes and behaviors outside the political arena are equally to blame for the perception that Christians are anti-gay and bigoted. Just like it pains me to encounter negative generalizations about the LGBT community, it pains me to encounter negative generalizations about conservative Christians, especially since the Christians in my life (yes, including the conservative ones) have tended to be deeply gracious, gentle, and compassionate. Because I’ve been fortunate to encounter the best of what Christians can be, I want to explore how Christians may have undermined their own reputation as a body characterized by God’s love for all people, specifically related to their interactions with the LGBT community.
First, many Christians have failed to feel the heavy weight of the relentless persecution, violence, and oppression sexual minorities have suffered throughout history. In some cases, that persecution has come from people claiming to act on behalf of religious commitments, Christian or otherwise. In other cases, Christians have stood by as others did harm to sexual minorities. Even if we overlook—and I hope we won’t—how a culture of silence and heteronormativity does harm to sexual minorities that don’t fit, we can’t ignore the profound violence people have perpetrated and are perpetrating against those whose orientation or gender identity was/is atypical.
Rather than consistently siding with those on the margins of society, Christians have often given the impression they’re more concerned with enforcing certain sexual ethics than they are with protecting the targets of abuse by vocally opposing anti-LGBT bullying measures, utilizing anti-gay language, etc. (Whenever Christians over-exaggerate how society has victimized them by denouncing their beliefs, it certainly doesn’t boost their credibility among those whose victimization has stung much worse.) So long as Christians refuse to acknowledge the harm the LGBT community has suffered and to hurt with them, professing sexual ethics that seem to contribute to that oppression further damages their reputation.
Second, Christians often haven’t worked hard enough to silence or counteract toxic messages about the nature of God and God’s attitude toward sexual minorities. Christian leaders have mostly moved away from the most vitriolic and homophobic rhetoric that was prevalent when the AIDS epidemic began, but they often haven’t gone to any lengths to insure a new message of love and empathy is broadcasting even more loudly.
For the last few decades, the dominant conservative Christian attitude seems to have been something along the lines of, “Everyone knows God loves them, but sexual ethics are changing in the country, so we need to re-assert traditional values.” I’d say we’ve reached a point in our culture when that approach needs to flip: Most people understand at least some version of the traditional Christian position on homosexuality, if they have any reason to care what it is, but the question of God’s love has become a matter of debate, especially with groups like Westboro (whose name, whether Christians like it or not, still utilizes the phrase “Baptist Church,” and whose signs still say “God”) receiving so much airtime. Christian teachings on sin, however they define the term, depend upon a foundational understanding of God as loving, gracious, and merciful, and if that foundational understanding of God is no longer a shared assumption among non-Christians, it may be time for Christians to refocus their efforts. In other words, is it more important that people believe God loves them or that people believe gay sex is sinful? (The common response from conservative Christians is that the concepts aren’t mutually exclusive, but unless they find a way to preach them in perfect harmony, one message is going to sink deeper into people’s hearts than the other.) When Christians give more energy and attention to a message of condemnation, it drowns out any messages of love.
Finally, Christians have tended to undermine their own theology for sexuality by describing and applying it inconsistently. Because the genders of the people involved in a marriage relationship is one of the most pressing debates in our culture, many conservative Christian voices have utilized a refrain describing the biblical view of marriage as “one man and one woman”—a description that may be technically accurate according to some Scripture interpretations, but one that is painfully limited and essentially ignores the vast, diverse wealth of Christian tradition and theology for marriage and sexuality. I think the biblical view of marriage is something much more beautiful and compelling and poetic than any short phrase could convey, and the tendency of many Christians to emphasize one aspect of a particular theology for marriage makes Christian’s opposition to same-sex marriage feel more like a selfish and frightened reaction to gay activism than a faithful commitment to a certain tradition rooted in history.
Furthermore, regardless of how internally consistent or inconsistent the traditional Christian sexual ethic may be, Christians have become notorious for applying it inconsistently, overlooking the sexual sins of heterosexuals in favor of demonizing gay sex and people who identify as gay or lesbian. There are plenty of possible explanations for why this happens—maybe they’re uncomfortable confronting sins that have become so common among us, maybe they’re eager to find a scapegoat to relive their own guilt, maybe they’re nervous about the direction in which our country is headed—but the end result is that any appeals to a higher theology of sex ring false when that theology of sex doesn’t seem to apply to anything other than gay sex and gay people. Were Christians as concerned with the other behaviors they perceive as sexual sin as they seem to be with homosexuality, their stance on same-sex relationships might seem at least more coherent and consistent, even to those who flatly reject any sort of Christian worldview.
So, where do we go from here? I don’t believe the broadly negative perceptions that exist towards Christians were an inevitable outcome of our culture’s evolving understanding of sexuality. In order for us to bring into existence a reality in which conservative Christians might peacefully exist with same-sex couples, Christians must come to terms with the fact that they live in a culture that increasingly affirms and celebrates same-sex relationships and condemns those who don’t affirm and celebrate them. (In light of that fact, they might do well to scrutinize their sexual practices in conversation with the living God they worship, and they might similarly do well to scrutinize how well their political action is accomplishing the ultimate aim of their Christian mission.) Recognition of that fact means re-imagining what it means to demonstrate the compassionate love of Christ to people from all walks of life in light of new insights and new attitudes about marriage and family. The good news of Jesus remains as relevant today as it ever has been, even as the manifestations of that love continue to adapt.
[This post is connected to a recent series on Brent’s blog, oddmanout.net.]