“Coming Out Christian” Is Not A Thing

Fellow Patheos blogger Adrian Warnock has responded to my piece arguing that Christians are not persecuted and hated in the UK. The title of his post is “Coming out: Is “Evangelical” the new “Homosexual”?” I am tempted to respond to with a simple “no”. And, perhaps, “don’t be silly”. It’s an absurd and insulting suggestion, frankly.

When I walk down the street holding my boyfriend’s hand I am not worried that someone will write a strongly-worded article mocking my choice in partner – I am afraid that someone will shout vile epithets, follow us with violent abuse, attack us, kill us.

When gay people come out at work, in much of the world, they aren’t so bothered at finding a offensive cartoon depicting them in the local newspaper. They are much more afraid of being dismissed summarily from their position just because they are gay (which can still happen in many US states).

When kids come out to conservative parents they may not be so concerned with their response being incredulity and bafflement – they are terrified of being disavowed, being thrown onto the street being beaten up, their bones and teeth broken.

The conditions faced by contemporary Evangelical Christians – even in the most secular parts of the UK – are not remotely similar to the conditions faced by gay and transgender people. Even today so much of our culture screams in favor of heterosexuality and norms of sex and gender, and gay and trans kids often still struggle through torment at school and at home in the fight to accept themselves.

Even if you’re lucky enough to live in one of the truly accepting bubbles of society, coming out queer affects profound changes on your life. It immediately puts you in the position of second-class citizen, stripping you of the equal protection of the law. It makes you less safe on the street. It affects one of the most significant areas of our lives – our romantic relationships – in dramatic way. You cut your dating pool down, making it harder to find someone to build a relationship with. You may become nervous to hold hands and kiss in public. You have to worry about finding “gay friendly” hotels and neighborhoods.

To equate “coming out Evangelical” with coming out queer is to diminish the experiences of queer people and to claim a level of discrimination which Evangelicals do not face. It shows a startling lack of empathy, compassion, and understanding of the struggle of queer people.

Adrian claims that he is “afraid to tell people I meet that [he is] a practicing Christian”. Adrian also works on the leadership team of a prominent Christian church, writes a blog from an explicitly evangelical perspective on Patheos, has a website dedicated to spreading his Christian faith, engages in public debates with other Christians which he promotes on that website, and has written a book titled Raised With Christ.

He will, I hope, will forgive me if I raise an eyebrow in skepticism regarding his fear of identifying himself publicly as Christian.

Sure, I can imagine a certain level of reticence, when speaking with people he hasn’t met before, to reveal this important part of his identity. I still, sometimes, feel a little nervous to out myself as gay, even after two years of speaking and writing publicly on the topic. But 1) I almost always decide to do so, because I consider it my duty to be as out as possible in order to help any others who are struggling with their sexual identity, and 2) I judge my reasons for reticence (fear of physical harm, disgust, abuse) to be more compelling than the ones Adrian offers (criticism, mockery, ridicule).

So much for that.

Adrian’s other points fare little better:

“people are strongly encouraged to keep their faith out of their workplaces and out of the public square”

I’m not sure this is really true. Certainly, the open avowal of religious faith is met with more puzzlement in the UK than it is in the USA. The USA, despite its secular constitution, is more culturally religious, and religion plays a much more forceful role in public life. Nonetheless, I do not believe it true that Christians in the UK are “strongly encouraged” to be silent about their faith. Sure, they are expected not to proselytize or to let their faith interfere with their work, but I don’t think the simple statement that one is a Christian – even an evangelical – carries much threat of negative response.

“I think we are at a tipping point, or possibly beyond it on both sides of the Atlantic, where what was once the majority perspective and unfortunately did oppress others, is no longer in that privileged position. For sure nominal Christianity may still be privileged, but if you dare to put your head above the parapet these days you will be admonished pretty quickly.”

Let’s assume this is true. Notice how Adrian’s claim has diminished significantly in comparison with his previous post: Christians are no longer hated and persecuted, but in danger of being “admonished pretty quickly”. Big deal. Adults living in a civil society must be ready to receive admonition of their views. I say again, criticism and disagreement are not persecution.

“It does seem likely to me that unless we can somehow get to the point where we can all get along without forcing people to agree, then the group that once did the oppressing, will itself be genuinely oppressed.”

I suppose it’s possible, but I think it unlikely. Religious freedom is an extremely important part of our political makeup. Even in the US, among the most committed atheist groups, I frequently hear strong defenses of religious liberty. Those who criticize the church do not wish to see it genuinely persecuted. Even those who wish to end religion wish to do so through persuasion, not persecution.

Adrian then raises the interesting question of what concessions should be offered to religious individuals who feel they cannot perform some aspect of their job due to their religious commitments. That question merits a whole post, but essentially my view is that non-religious and religious people should be treated absolutely equally in these matters. If non-religious people are able to get an exemption from some task due to their beliefs then, broadly speaking, religious people should be able to get an exemption too. But, too often, what is requested are special exemptions for religious belief only. And this is clearly unfair.

A further question is whether the job in question is supported by the state or a purely private practice. If you are taking taxpayers’ money you must not discriminate against any person or group or refuse any service you are obliged to provide. That strikes me as a basic requirement of any public servant.

To conclude: it is increasingly common for Christian groups to claim they are being marginalized and persecuted when what is in fact occurring is the mere loss of illegitimate privilege. It is incumbent on those who have for too long clung on to privilege to find the grace to let go gently, so that the rest of us can share the cultural stage as equals.

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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.