Support Sojourners? I Decline.

You work for Believe Out Loud, a group which seeks to promote full LGBT equality within Christian churches.  It’s approaching Mother’s Day, and you want to send a message saying that, whoever you are, you should be welcome in Church that Sunday. You put together an ad showing two women, holding hands, walking their smiling son down the aisle of a church, past the disapproving starres of the congregation, until you reach the front of the nave. The priest looks upon his flock, then at the young couple, and declares “Welcome, everyone!”, gesturing towards a pew close by. The couple take their seats, the picture fades, and a message appears in antique script: “Open Your Hearts”.

It’s a great ad, with a positive message, and you’re proud of it. You want to promote it widely, and to support your Million Strong Campaign, to “show the world you can be Christian AND believe in LGBT-inclusion.” So you buy up ad space on Sojourners, famed “progressive Christian” website and movement, and wait for your call for love, inclusion and acceptance to light up the web.

And Sojourners spits in your face.

According to Rev. Robert Chase at Religion Dispatches, this was the enlightened answer from the ad people at SoJo:

“I’m afraid we’ll have to decline. Sojourners position is to avoid taking sides on this issue. In that care [sic], the decision to accept advertising may give the appearance of taking sides.”

The voice of “progressive Christianity speaks! They “decline”. They decline. They “decline” to air a message of welcome to LGBTQ couples who wish to go to church on Mother’s Day. They “decline” to ask believers to open their hearts. They “decline” to offer a seat in the pews to the lesbian couple and their cherubic son. The “decline” to stand up to the bigots and homophobes in their own community who might take offense at such an anodyne ad.

No, they’d rather “avoid taking sides” on the issue of love and acceptance.

To be fair to SoJo, it is a difficult decision. On one side you have a group of people who believe that some human beings, because of who they love, should not be welcome in a church. And on the other, you have people who think that Jesus’ message of love was meant for all people, even the least of these, including even queer people. It’s hard to know which way to go in such a profound moral quandary, isn’t it?

And they have been real good friends to the gays in the past! As Christopher LaTondresse of Recovering Evangelical and my good friend Chris Stedman of Non Prophet Status point out in a Huffington Post article, the “backlash” against Sojourners really “misses the point”. We should, apparently, be lauding Sojourners for their “public stance on LGBTQ inclusion” (no gay marriage, homosexuality is a “lifestyle”); its “decades-long history of defending equal protection under the law for LGBTQ individuals and couples” (protection for “basic rights” that is, and again not full equality, and 17 years – the article linked is from 1994 – is hardly “decades”); its “support for civil-unions” (a so-called “middle way” which would enshrine discrimination in law and call it a victory, just as has happened in the UK); its “call for the repeal of DADT” (I’ll give them that one); and “Jim Wallis’ (SoJo’s founder) personal participation in anti-bullying campaigns this past fall” (oh, he’s against bullying? What a moral giant!).

You see, as LaTondresse and Stedman aver, SoJo have a coalition to maintain. Apparently, “Sojourners‘ big tent includes moderate to conservative evangelicals and Catholics who hold these views”, and it is “misguided” and “counterproductive”  to criticize their anti-equality position as it would risk breaking apart this marvelous band of religious “liberals”. The fact that Jim Wallis is on record as not supporting equal marriage rights for everybody, and that his organization closed their hearts in response to this ad’s call to open them, should not be mentioned, for fear of disturbing the delicate sensibilities of those “progressives” too mired in prejudice to welcome everyone to church.

Even worse, argue the two Christophers, calling SoJo out on its bigotry and moral cowardice threatens relationships between evangelicals and queer people everywhere! In a passage scarcely believable for its rhetorical exaggeration, they claim that:

Those who question the integrity of an organization that adopts a moderate position make it more difficult for many evangelicals to find common ground with the LGBTQ community, in the same way that bullying tactics used by conservative organizations like Focus on the Family under the leadership of James Dobson made it difficult for many of our queer friends to ever believe that they could build authentic relationships with or find common cause with evangelicals.

So I, in pointing to Sojourners’ spineless and sniveling refusal to air Believe Out Loud, am acting “in the same way” as Focus on the Family‘s James Dobson, and am indulging in “bullying tactics”? The mind boggles.

How different the Humanist message is. How much firmer and stronger our call for compassion and acceptance. How much clearer our commitment to all human beings. The second Humanist Manifesto, written in 1973, states unequivocally that

“In the area of sexuality, we believe that intolerant attitudes, often cultivated by orthodox religions and puritanical cultures, unduly repress sexual conduct…we [do not] wish to prohibit, by law or social sanction, sexual behavior between consenting adults. The many varieties of sexual exploration should not in themselves be considered “evil.” Without countenancing mindless permissiveness or unbridled promiscuity, a civilized society should be a tolerant one. Short of harming others or compelling them to do likewise, individuals should be permitted to express their sexual proclivities and pursue their lifestyles as they desire.”

There’s a “decades long” commitment to equal rights and dignity for all people, years ahead of any religious organization I know. We can say as Walt Whitman said, as Sojourners couldn’t say,

“Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you,
Not till the waters refuse to glisten for you and the leaves to
rustle for you, do my words refuse to glisten and rustle for you.”

Whitman, a queer man in an age where queerness wasn’t invented, found acceptance from Humanist Robert Ingersoll, who gave his funeral oration. Ingersoll lauded Whitman as the “poet of Love”, saying

“He was the poet of Love. He was not ashamed of that divine passion that has built every home in the world; that divine passion that has painted every picture and given us every real work of art; that divine passion that has made the world worth living in and has given some value to human life.”

As Humanists we are not ashamed of love, that “divine passion”, however it expresses itself. If you are as sickened by the pathetic weakness of Sojourners in rejecting this magnificent ad, if you are a liberal Christian who can no longer take the abuses and excuses from your so-called allies, if you seek an unambiguous message of love and acceptance for all people, regardless of sexual orientation, then on behalf of Humanists everywhere I say “Welcome, everyone!”

Support Sojourners? I’m afraid I’ll have to decline.

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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.