For nearly half a century, American Christians have, to greater and lesser degrees, embraced the role of culture warriors.
As evangelicals began to stake a claim on American culture and politics, they invoked the language of rights while lamenting the purported decline of “Christian America.” They pushed back against encroaching secularization and federal government “overreach” as they sought to carve out space to live out their faith in the manner they saw fit. Issues such as abortion, the ERA, school desegregation, school prayer, and media censorship were but a few of the flashpoints in the culture wars.
A short time ago it seemed as if conservative culture warriors were on the brink of defeat. The cultural sea change on gay rights in particular caught many conservatives off-guard. Even their own millennials seemed to be giving up the fight. In 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges seemed to seal the deal, enshrining same-sex marriage as the law of the land. Even the White House joined in the celebration, glowing with the hews of the rainbow to celebrate the achievement of “what we always knew in our hearts,” in the words of Valerie Jarrett.
But a lot can happen in a couple of years. Reports of the end of the culture wars, it turns out, had been greatly exaggerated.
The election of 2016 put to rest any such notion. Threats to religious freedom motivated many of the 81% of white evangelicals who threw their support behind Trump, and for many, the election emerged as a critical battle in the larger war.
In many ways Obergefell served as a catalyst for this resurgence, inducing panic among conservatives that they were not only losing their hold on American culture, but their very place in it. And on a practical level, it introduced same-sex marriage to red states that were unequipped with sufficient religious exemptions on the books. (With same-sex marriage illegal in those states, there had been no need to craft religious exemptions).
Religious freedom and LGBTQ rights were at loggerheads, it seemed, and the LGBTQ community appeared to have the upper hand, in the courts, and in the court of public opinion. A sense of impending catastrophe was heightened by new assaults on the freedom of religious institutions of higher education to prohibit same-sex relationships among students and staff. The identity and viability of religious institutions appeared to be at stake.
But then Donald Trump won the election. Suddenly, the threat to religious freedom didn’t seem so dire. (With Betsy De Vos installed as Secretary of Education, the danger to educational institutions appeared to further subside.)
Indeed, if the rumors prove true, Trump is set to sign a religious freedom executive order today granting expansive religious-freedom exemptions, a move already being characterized by opponents as a “license to discriminate against women or LGBT people.” With the ACLU and LGBTQ activists gathering their forces, religious freedom and LGBTQ rights are once again pitted against each other in a zero-sum game. But this time it’s the LGBTQ community on the defensive.
Given the circumstances, it may come as a surprise that the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) is choosing this moment to extend an olive branch of sorts to LGBTQ rights activists.
The CCCU is about to go forward with a legislative initiative called Fairness for All, an effort to secure greater protections for their own religious institutions, while also expanding protections for LGBTQ persons. Essentially, FFA would ensure legal protections for LGBTQ persons in areas of employment, housing, restaurants, financial services, and jury duty, while also expanding religious exemptions in those areas.
The initiative seeks to enhance religious liberty and LGBTQ protections, rather than setting one against the other. In this way it avoids neglecting the concerns of both parties, which distinguishes this initiative from other efforts like the Equality Act, which seeks protections for sexual orientation and gender identity to the Civil Rights act without accompanying religious exemptions, or the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), which promises broad protections for people or organizations defining marriage as between a man and a woman without addressing LGBTQ rights.
Why would the CCCU move forward with this delicate balancing act when they might well press for more expansive religious liberty protections without tradeoffs at this political moment?
There are pragmatic reasons, to be sure. If the political winds change, religious liberty may once again be under siege. And then there’s the matter of public opinion. Highly publicized conflicts over religious liberty and LGBTQ rights can be bad for all involved, stoking hostility against the LGBTQ community in some quarters, and against religious institutions, and individuals, in others. (And, in the case of Indiana and North Carolina, conflict around these issues can take a significant economic toll. Or, in the case of Gordon College, public conflict can end up estranging a religious institution from its surrounding community).
But this is not merely a question of pragmatism. As Shapri LoMaglio, the CCCU’s vice president for government and external relations, argued at Calvin College’s Henry Symposium on Religion and Public Life last week, this is a moral question as well. By putting forward FFA, Christians “would be signing off to rights for jobs, for housing, really common grace kind of things. Things that promote human flourishing.” This is simply a way for Christians to care for their neighbors’ wellbeing.
She was joined in this sentiment by Robin Fretwell Wilson, a University of Illinois law professor who helped put together the Utah Compromise—a model of collaboration between religious freedom and LGBT activists. Wilson insisted that Christians ought to think about what they’re messaging: “If you continue to say LGBT people are not worth of respect, it will look like the face of hate.” And by using the courts to push through expansive religious liberty protections without also looking out for the rights of the LGBT community, she warned, “we will continue to hurt faith in our society.”
This legislation will not please everyone. Many LGBTQ activists would prefer legal protections without broad religious exemptions. Some conservative organizations, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, think that advocating for LGBTQ protections in any way is imprudent. But Shirley Hoogstra, president of the CCCU, sees it otherwise. The Constitution, she explains, provides an array of rights that sometimes collide. When they do, government steps in to provide lawful exemptions based on constitutional principles. In this way, exemptions serve “a cartilage function”—provide flexibility between two opposing rights.
It seems that Christian colleges may be especially well poised to offer a different path forward. As institutions that take faith commitments seriously, that are committed to the idea that a robust religious life can contribute to a rich and diverse citizenry, and they are also communities where LGBTQ students make their home. As institutions of higher education, they are not (arguably) primarily in the business of dictating beliefs. Rather, they are spaces where the exchange of ideas can take place within a religious framework, and within a supportive community.
By backing down from the culture war stance, by giving as well as receiving, Christian colleges may well find themselves better suited to serve their students, the church, and perhaps their country as well.
What might it look like if culture warriors—on both sides—looked for opportunities to defuse the culture wars? If they refuse to see battles over rights as necessarily a zero-sum game. If they seek to be peacemakers rather than warriors?
What if Christians see this moment, one in which they may have the upper hand, as a moment not to press their advantage, but rather to put away their swords and look out for the needs of their neighbors? As Mark Galli urged his fellow Christians recently in Christianity Today, “If it really comes down to a choice of protecting our liberty or the civil rights of others, a long stream of Christian ethics beginning with Jesus (e.g., Mark 8:34-35) argues we should deny ourselves.” Although Galli believes “the nation will be stronger if people of faith –and not just of Christian faith—are free to teach and enact their beliefs in the public square without fear of discrimination or punishment by the government,” in the end, this is a question of Christian witness. Perhaps, if asked to bake a cake for a gay wedding, “we might offer to bake two (Matt. 5:41).
If the culture wars do come to an end, perhaps it will not be an end marked by one-sided victory or defeat, but rather an end brought about by a truce. A truce that balances the protection of rights with love of neighbor, a commitment to peaceful resolution that seeks to promote human flourishing across cultural, political, and religious difference.