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.

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.

  • Ophelia Benson

    Well said. And so quickly, too!

    :- )

    Unity is fine for some things. A big tent is fine for some things. Ignoring differences of principle is fine under certain conditions (i.e. when the principles in question are not at issue). But ignoring differences of principle *when the principle itself is what’s at stake* – no way.

  • Jonathan P. Figdor

    I used to respect Jim Wallis and Sojo. I even thought of asking Jim to come out and help me launch my future chaplaincy. But I don’t want an anti-gay bigot associated with me and my work, so I think I’ll pass. And this time, I fear the term “accommodationist” has been truly well-earned by the two Christophers.

  • Stephen Goeman

    Hey James– One point by Chrisx2 which I don’t think was paid attention to was this: Sojo is as progressive as Christian organizations get. It is difficult for Sojo to remain this way because of the polarized nature of Christianity. If we support Sojo when they concede even a little bit in terms of being gay-friendly in the past, it would help to build up a future true ally– if we don’t do this, we will not have organized friends on the Christian side of the divide.

    I’m not persuaded by this point– I think it is correct, and by speaking out against Sojo we are pushing ourselves away from a would-be ally. However, I don’t think that this means we should backpedal on the great moral struggle of our time. I would love to see your input as I think you are the only level-headed critic in the blogosphere. Great post– I’m convinced that even us bridge-builders need standards. And we can reserve the right to say “not good enough”– I think that is a powerful lesson.

  • truthspeaker

    If they’re not going to take sides on this issue, then they should stop calling themselves the voice of progressive Christianity.

  • truthspeaker

    “Sojo is as progressive as Christian organizations get”

    Except there are plenty of Christian organizations that support same-sex marriage.

    “y speaking out against Sojo we are pushing ourselves away from a would-be ally”

    They’ve publicly stated that they are not your ally and don’t plan to be. Take them at their word. False hope is poison.

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  • LucienBlack

    “But ignoring differences of principle *when the principle itself is what’s at stake* – no way”

    What she said. I really need not say any more (I might anyway, just not here :D )

  • Isabel

    Yeah, Ophelia nailed it with a big spike.

    I commented that their logic was flawed and hoped they’d come up with a bridge-building response, rather than contributing to the meme of attack.

    I’m sure Chris will be coming out of detox any day now … heh. Tasteless, I know. I can’t stand that he published something so stupid & want to find an excuse for him. Not my job.

  • Isabel

    @Stephen Goeman — You speak as if scolding Sojourner for this would destroy the relationship. If so, they’re not a potential ally — see truthspeaker’s comment on false hope — they’re the political version of the self-serving, deceitful jerk who says whatever it takes to get you into bed then takes off when he’s done, leaving you with nothing but soiled sheets and a whole lot of questions.

    If Sojourner is committed to maintaining a relationship with the queer community, then they need to suck it up when we tell them they have hurt us badly. No constructive relationship is seamless; there will be conflict. Success means negotiating that conflict effectively.

    If this furor entrenches them in their resistance to full inclusion, then, as I said, they don’t really want us or love us and we’ll have to recognize that and move on.

    If they learn the limits of our tolerance for being marginalized — excuse me, slammed out to the edges — then they will find a way to try to rebuild some of the trust they have shattered.

    Resistance to inclusion is historically doomed. Unless my wacky Oakland neighbor is right and we are all going to get vaporized on the 21st, this too shall pass. Sojourner will either grow up or will be relegated to the dustbin of antiquated social props for inflexible geezers who want others to think they care. The queers aren’t going anywhere; we’re built in. New ones born every day.

    Before long, the queer community will be choosing our friends, not waiting to be chosen. Personally, I see no reason to imagine that we’re negotiating from a position of weakness. It’s right and proper for us to hold Sojourner responsible for being such a bad friend.

  • Isabel

    @Stephen Goeman — I read too fast and wrote too soon … Allow me to apologize and deliver some heartfelt props for this:

    “I’m convinced that even us bridge-builders need standards. And we can reserve the right to say “not good enough”– I think that is a powerful lesson.”

    Amen! heh .. as it were.

  • Minogaade

    Touching thoughts, all around. I’m sympathetic towards SoJo on one level, but the darker problem is that groups like Focus on the Family scapegoat gay people as a symbol of their hatred of modernity. They commit hate crimes & their attitudes, as so astutely pointed out in many places on this blog, represent a primacy of text over life. THEIR texts, OTHER people’s lives. Sexual laws in the west are still mired in the Iron Age. It is deeply sad.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      This is extremely well-put: “THEIR texts, OTHER people’s lives.” Thank you for that pithy summation of the entire problem!

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