All this “religious liberty” stuff going on nowadays is eerily familiar to me. It might seem like it is coming out of left field, but it really isn’t at all; this bizarrely self-serving and disingenuous argument has its roots in the “no compromise” movements of the 1970s and 1980s. And I had the misfortune of having been involved with a version of Christianity that really got fired up about the idea of not compromising.
When I was Christian, when someone talked about compromise what came to mind was the Keith Green song “Make My Life a Prayer to You”:
Make my life a prayer to You
I wanna do what you want me to
No empty words and no white lies
No token prayers, no compromise
And that is what came to mind for a reason. Compromise went up there with empty words and white lies, and with token prayers and living a life that was not a prayer to Jesus. It was one of the nastiest words there was for us. We existed in a religious world that was trying to inject Jesus into every single inch of a believer’s life, and because every inch of life had to have Jesus in it, being asked to have an inch that didn’t have Jesus permeating it was like being asked to dance naked on a rock-concert stage to Satanic lullabies while doing drugs. (Yeah, we didn’t have much of a concept of halfway measures either; why do you ask?)
Compromise–that healthy give-and-take between two people or groups–was hugely, deeply distrusted in my ideology and religious outlook, and it was to be avoided at all costs. It led to “lukewarmness,” which in our parlance meant a Christian who wasn’t totally dedicated to, hardcore about, and gung-ho for Jesus, and we all knew what lukewarmness led to: getting spat out of Heaven. We told ourselves that it was better to be totally cold–or rather, hostile–to Christianity than to be lukewarm about it. Nothing was scarier than the specter of lukewarmness; few accusations hurt as much as that one. So compromise, that Satanic force that led straight to lukewarmness, had to be avoided. There had to be a huge difference, visible at first glance, between us TRUE CHRISTIANS™ and the secular, non-Christian world. Christians were supposed to be rigid and unbending in their faith and practices, right? That meant we never compromised. The world might hate our rigidity, but it also (we mistakenly thought) admired our resolve, and besides, Jesus would reward us for not compromising so who cared what anybody thought?
But I’m starting to realize that I had a hugely dysfunctional relationship with compromise. Like my peers, I didn’t really understand what it was about, and I really didn’t understand how I was using the term in two totally different ways: on a societal and on a personal level.
The first way involved my beliefs and practices in the context of my participation in society, of course, and that’s how Christians today are using the word when they talk about “religious freedom.” They don’t get that their religious practices are their own, and that nobody’s asking them to do anything they don’t want to do religion-wise–just to keep it to themselves and treat everybody in the public sphere with fairness and civility. But when they think being a Christian involves them shoving their beliefs and practices in other people’s faces and being unfair and uncivil to those they think are ickie, the only compromise they can possibly offer is to start acting a little more like adults in the face of differing opinions, which is not much of a compromise because we expect everyone to do that anyway, in return for us at least pretending they’re still in charge.
In reality-land, a compromise is a tactic or resolution that gets both parties at least some of what they want without costing either party more than they want to give. But that isn’t how Christians are using it. It’s like they have this vague idea that compromise is required for adults to get along in a civilized world, but have no idea how to do it. They have been told for decades now that compromise is bad, so what they do know of it they deeply dislike and distrust; when they seem to cooperate with the idea, it’s only dishonestly and grudgingly, and only until they can think of some other way to exert control or try to obtain what they want. Yes, they’re like movie villains that way.
This misunderstanding of the word “compromise” is exactly how we get right-wing toxic Christian politicians nowadays like Ben Carson magnanimously offering to “compromise” about equal marriage by saying gay people “can do what they want to do,” but in return for letting them “do what they want to do,” LGBTQ people in general have to stop accusing Christians of bigotry, everyone has to let Christians legally discriminate against people they don’t like, and obviously same-sex couples still can’t be allowed to get married. When this gracious gesture to quit being petulant, meddling, judgmental bullies is rejected, because obviously it’s not up to them what other people do as long as everybody’s of-age and consenting, then they can bluster, all wide-eyed, that they tried to compromise, GYAHH, JEEZ, what else do people even want from them? Everyone is just meaniepies to the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ of society who dare to stand up against SIN!
Except they’re not standing up against sin. They’re just trying to control others’ lives.
There’s a reason why these one-sided offers of “compromise” seem to stream from toxic Christians’ mouths like snakes and toads from that girl’s mouth in the old fairy tale. And it ain’t a pretty reason. These gambits let such Christians feel like they’re at least making an effort to seem reasonable, but that they’re getting rejected at every turn by an increasingly-secular culture that won’t put up with anything short of Christians making themselves totally lukewarm. That these concessions aren’t theirs to give in the first place, and that these gestures are largely meaningless if not downright offensive doesn’t even occur to them, locked as they are in a culture war that utterly depends upon them seeing themselves as a persecuted minority and with seeing the outside world as totally in the wrong. They go about compromise like angry little children go about cleaning their bedrooms when it’s either that or lose some valued toy: only when it’s come down to that wire, and then with as much half-assed, foot-dragging passive-aggression and sullenness as can be summoned, and then they react with utter innocent outrage when their deliberately-insufficient efforts are refused as not anywhere sufficient.
Unfortunately, the natural checks and balances of self-delusion don’t work here. Normally, when we see someone doing something bees-headed and counterproductive, we can tell that person so, and at some point it sinks in. But “no compromises” Christians don’t generally accept any criticism from anybody; they’re doing their god’s work, they think, and expect others to object to their “loving” paternalism. In response to us telling them that what they’re doing isn’t loving, they’ve evolved dozens of redefinitions of the word “love” that allow them to try to control other people’s lives.
And there is an insidious power dynamic going on with their offers, as well. These non-offers are made by people who view themselves as superior to those they are making these non-offers toward, and these non-offers are made with an eye toward enshrining privilege back into its accustomed place–or at least giving the once-dominant party the illusion of being back on their throne. That’s why most of their non-offers involve the rest of us shutting up and letting them have their way. What they see as the grandest possible concessions to the unwashed masses are seen by us as “what they should be doing anyway.” There’s a serious mismatch between how both parties view what is being offered and demanded by Christians.
Maybe it’ll help us to remember that toxic Christians want a return to the Good Ol’ Days when nobody questioned their dominance over others. They genuinely believe that their efforts will pay off by getting them back into that dominance–either by supernatural means, through their god miraculously answering their prayers to magically strong-arm everyone into changing their mind about something, or (more practically) through force of law. Whatever appeasement they get in service to their ultimate goal, they’ll just seize it and run as hard as they can with it, all the while demanding more and more and more of it. We can’t appease zealotry or make zealots happy with half-measures. We can only call out these extortion attempts for what they are, and to refuse them.
Stop me if this sounds familiar:
“So you’ll quit trying to control women’s bodies so much if women would quit doing things with their bodies that you don’t like.”
“So you’ll magnanimously allow gay people and atheists the right to exist free of your meddling and control if they’ll only melt back into the background so you never have to see or think about them again.”
“So you’ll keep your grabby, grubby little paws out of politics–which religious leaders and systems should be doing anyway–if the political system will only give you everything you want, including total control over the most intimate aspects of total strangers’ lives.”
Looks a lot less loving and charitable when it’s laid out like that, doesn’t it?
These Christians want us to buy our freedom from their control and dominance by demanding that we comply with their control and dominance, and it doesn’t work that way.
They don’t have the right to force us to do anything they want us to do, and certainly their offers to be a little nicer about forcing others to fall into line with their whims doesn’t actually sound compelling to a society that is increasingly savvy about just what healthy compromise looks like–and what is, and what is not fair to ask of others. We’re starting to realize that there is no compromise around some things, like equal marriage, that involve not giving all Americans the same rights; there is no reasonable compromise that involves denying people fair treatment in any way. There is no either/or position here; there is no “well maybe the bigots/misogynists/science deniers have a point” way of looking at stuff like equal marriage, education, and reproductive rights; there is no argument except “this is what I want everybody to do” that stands against the denial of equal rights or allows for religious overreach, and that ain’t much of an argument in a civilized world where everybody has to get along.
It’d be almost comical, almost hilarious, to behold such Christians’ utter tone-deafness and self-delusion if it wasn’t impacting so much about my society on the grand scale. They literally can’t understand that we’re not pushing back against their religion or their religious devotion, but rather against their attempts to control everybody else–something I don’t think many sane people would think is intrinsically Christian at all. Christians whose behaviors and thinking are too informed by those “no compromise” pushes from decades ago have grown into zealots who view even one inch of peeled-back, unwarranted privilege as some kind of massive persecution and maybe the end of the entire world. But I have hope that it’s getting better; every single baldfaced grab for power and every single half-assed “compromise” they offer drives more and more people away from their causes. It’s got to suck when someone’s such a control freak that the only way that person has to respond to lost privilege is to do more of the stuff that got that privilege lost in the first place, don’t you think? But when one’s toolbox only has a cordless drill in it, then everything starts looking like drywall.
And we’re losing patience with Christians’ reluctance to grow up and join us in the real world. There isn’t much time left for them to rescue their religion from irrelevance. It’s up to them at this point to find a way to reconcile themselves with the knowledge that they’ve lost dominance: that someone, somewhere is doing something without a single care in the world about what they think or want. We are not the ones who need to work with them; they are the ones who must work with us. We are not the ones who must learn from them; they are the ones who must learn from us. This unkindest cut of all is theirs to resolve, not ours, but I can tell you this: their offers so far of fake compromise–being as they are offers to be less upset about their overreach being refused so long as they get their way anyway–are going to continue to fail and worse, to alienate people from their causes.
Ah, but then we get into the second meaning of compromise: the one that exists on a personal level, between individuals. That’s where things get even messier and more unpleasant, and that’s where we’ll take up next time–see you then!