My fellow Patheos blogger Ryan Bell has written a great post about something the Christian leader Tony Campolo said about LGBTQ people that I think really highlights something about the mindset of fundagelical Christianity: the divide between Christians who are finally coming to grips, however faintly and reluctantly, with the new reality of our new understandings about compassion and morality, and those Christians who are steadfastly riding their bigotry train all the way to the total irrelevance at the end of the ride.
The reason I think this topic is well-suited for a blog about recovering from harmful religion is that so many people in the LGBTQ community today were raised in Christian homes and suffered hugely at Christian hands. For many others, Christian hatred, homophobia, and bigotry were a big part of what initially drove us to start questioning our beliefs and examining our loyalties. The culture wars Christians started have resulted in massive fallout in our society, and often when those damaged by those wars finally stagger to their feet, they’re still left trying to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong. So I want to offer this analysis of the two approaches we’re seeing lately in right-wing Christianity toward the idea of equality for LGBTQ people.
Tony Campolo is a Christian minister. For at least the last couple of years he’s been a disturbingly progressive-sounding thorn in evangelicalism’s side. Though he was what he called “personally conservative,” he recognized even in 2013 that it’s not loving at all for Christians to say they love gay people but then work to prevent their ability to access their civil rights. Recently Mr. Campolo came to the conclusion that even that “personally conservative” outlook had to go and began calling for “full acceptance” of the LGBTQ community into Christian churches. That means an end to Christianist condemnation, bullying, and harassment, as well as embracing same-sex couples in all aspects of church life.
Now, we could certainly criticize Mr. Campolo for his change of heart–and lots of folks are. The timing of his about-face, so soon after Pew Research Center‘s 2014 Religious Landscape Study showing that Christianity is facing staggering losses of membership, could be gently characterized as convenient. And we’ve known for a while that Christians are becoming more and more comfortable with the idea of equal marriage, though you’d never know it to read comment sections on Christian-leaning sites or to hear the mewlings of Christianist leaders about needing “religious freedom” to curbstomp other people in the name of Jesus. Now that Christian leaders (and members!) know that Christians overwhelmingly favor equal rights for all Americans, and that Christianity is facing some serious challenges because of its bigotry and cruelty toward others, it’s a lot safer to come clean as a supporter of LGBTQ equality. So it’s hard not to read a certain amount of self-interest in Mr. Campolo’s announcement. He knows where his bread’s buttered better than his ministerial friends do, clearly. And he isn’t the only big-name evangelical Christian who’s starting to come around.
Now, he’s not actually using the M-word anywhere that I can find. Last year while discussing the shuttering of one of his ministries, he said he thought that all marriages should be civil unions and the government shouldn’t be involved at all, and I thought that opinion was a perfect example of how Christians get pissy over not being the most-special-est kids on the playground and have to drag everybody else down so they can feel superior with their church-blessed, church-sanctioned TRUE MARRIAGES™ while all the heathens and gay people have to put up with civil unions and pine with big wistful eyes over what they can’t ever have. Nobody outside the evangelical crab bucket was fooled; as the saying goes, nobody asks their one true love to civil union them, and after thousands of years of state-sanctioned marriages being a thing in societies across the world, moving backward like that would function only to create two tiers of marriage to specifically exclude people Christians don’t like. Their attempt to create an extra level of restrictiveness in marriage to make their marriages seem more special and delicious than heathens’ marriages hasn’t caught on, so instead they want to take it away from everybody else. Nobody is fooled.
We don’t know exactly how far Mr. Campolo’s vision of unity and embracing goes, and often a Christian who makes a big lot of noise about love and compassion turns out to be all hat and no cattle; that love and compassion are not meant to be truly meaningful but to fool everyone into thinking that love and compassion happened without changes to one’s stances or thinking. Remember that thing that happened a few years ago when it turned out that Christians holding signs apologizing to LGBTQ people for their vicious oppression actually refused to take any firm position on LGBTQ dignity or equality, making their gestures largely meaningless and empty? (You can even see this wishy-washy flim-flammery on that group’s own website, where they flat-out refuse to give a clear answer to anything and think that because Jesus was infuriatingly vague, they should be too.) It doesn’t do any good to chirp about inclusion and compassion if someone’s still having trouble explicitly saying that a group deserves full equal rights including marriage. That word needs to be said often, and loudly, and proudly in any and all discussions regarding LGBTQ rights. The elephant in the room needs to be acknowledged and lit in sparkly neon. That said, Mr. Campolo has gotten a serious lot of flak for even the incomplete way he’s expressing his views.
Indeed, one minister is outright accusing him of lying about his personal feelings to boost book sales, even taking potshots at his expertise in the study of the Bible now that he’s saying something this guy doesn’t like–because as we know, there is always one authoritative, definitive way to interpret any given Bible verse, and that way is always the one favored by the Christian making that claim; it’s the most amazing thing, really, how every single fundagelical in the world is totally positive that he or she has the one single perfect way to look at the Bible and that everybody who differs is wrong.
Other Christians are simply attacking and insulting Mr. Campolo, which is to be expected; any time any Christian says “hey guys, maybe we shouldn’t be cruel to people or try to viciously control their lives anymore even if it’s totally for their own good,” you can expect other Christians to wring their hands and shriek over “missing the mark,” “condoning sin” and “becoming lukewarm” to rationalize why they simply must keep doing exactly that. It’s like the comments on any news article or post asking Christians to quit being bastards to others completely justify the need for the article or post’s existence. The whole kerfluffle makes one want to pull out every single “YOU’RE NOT HELPING” image in existence.
Along with Ryan Bell, I find myself wondering why it is that a religion that claims to hold a monopoly on morality, that claims that it is informed by the supreme source of objective morality, that insists that non-believers are inferior in every single way and possibly even incapable of such basic human emotions as love, could possibly be struggling this hard to figure out what is right and wrong. It doesn’t take much for someone empathetic and compassionate to know that the Religious Right’s current climate of homophobia and bigotry is wrong, immoral, hateful, and cruel, or to see that fundagelicals are way behind the curve. I don’t need a deity or a holy book to know that it’s the right thing to do to give all citizens equal rights and let them live their private lives without oppression and harassment. But Christians have to struggle their way to that understanding–and it isn’t hard to see why: their holy book and culture do not understand consent or human rights very well.
But better late than never. It’s a start, and a startling one indeed for a man of Mr. Campolo’s years and reputation. Evangelical culture seems like it is always about 50 years behind the rest of society, and the older the evangelical, the stiffer the resistance to cultural changes. We should not dismiss out of hand the attempt being made here but rather carefully give him some rope to see if he’ll throw it to those drowning or use it to hoist himself by his own petard. It doesn’t matter to me what he thinks in the privacy of his own heart; what matters is how he treats people. If he continues to treat LGBTQ people as lesser human beings, or allows his brethren and peers to continue to mistreat them, then we’ll know how many cattle he has.
That’s one side of the coin. Here’s the other.
Gleefully Riding the Irrelevance Train.
A lot of Christians really don’t like how the world is changing. One of them recently had what Raw Story called–and could only rightly call–a “meltdown” over the idea of a gay pride parade. In his “Facebook freakout,” the Christian–a state-level lawmaker named Jason Rapert in Arkansas–knew he couldn’t object to gay rights themselves, so instead he got upset because the parade was being held on a Sunday, which this esteemed
man-child lawmaker thought was obviously meant as a specific insult to his specific beliefs. It’s always about him, you see. Always. It couldn’t possibly be what one commenter surmised, just a day when more folks are off work and when traffic wouldn’t be too disruptive to the area. Nor could it be that even back in 2013, while Tony Campolo was beginning his journey toward inclusivity, New York magazine was calling Mr. Rapert a bigoted, racist liar. But he’s a bigoted, racist liar who is well aware of where his bread’s buttered too, and he has only gotten better at honing his warped message to appeal to the lowest common denomination in this country: fellow bigoted, racist liars who are just as convinced as he is that the world is ending because they’re losing some of their unwarranted privilege.
Not only is it always about Senator Jason Rapert (Republican, as if you needed me to say), but clearly he isn’t this protective of secular celebrations that take place on Saturdays, which is holy to Jews, Seventh-Day Adventists, and some other groups. His tribe is the one he thinks is being insulted–by a parade that happens to fall on the day he prefers for his religious observances, a day I might add that many Christians think is an abomination for that activity (and btw that is one of the funniest things I’ve seen lately). Hell, there are places in his neck of the woods where I’ve personally seen billboards declaring that Sunday worship is evil and advising Christians to do church on Saturdays! If Sen. Rapert had belonged to one of those religious groups, do you suppose he’d have his meltdowns over parades that happen on Saturdays instead and would be totes fine with the gay pride parade taking place on Sunday? Or would he–oh, I dunno–find something else to freak out about? One rather suspects so.
And someone told this Arkansas lawmaker exactly that. Refusing to let him continue his pretense of being upset over the day of the week the parade’s being held on, this person called him out for what his real problem is: simple bees-headed bigotry.
Obsess some more. Let us be all you can think about as you make a desperate attempt to attack strangers over the Internet because you know the world is changing and there is nothing you can do about it. I hope it bothers you day and night, stewing, in your tiny, petty little mind until the day you come out of the closet.
And I’m sure that it does bother Jason Rapert very much that he governs a state in a secular country where his childish, poorly-understood personal beliefs and his petty narcissistic rants don’t carry much weight anymore, except to get him mocked and to lose his religion even more of its vanishing credibility.
One might also question how this fellow even got elected when he also went on to whine about how upset he is about an anti-discrimination law protecting LGBTQ people “even though they represent just 3.8% of the population.” There’s this thing called the tyranny of the majority that Senator Rapert is clearly in blissful ignorance about (among a great many other things, like Matthew 18:22). In reality it doesn’t really matter how many or how few or many LGBTQ people there are in his area, but as far as he’s concerned he doesn’t need to protect a small group.
This rant is exactly the kind of totally hypocritical bullshit one would expect from a guy who doesn’t realize that his religion is failing as hard as it is. He’s counting on there being enough Arkansas bigots for him to find an audience for what he’s shoveling. If it was his group that was solidly in the minority in his area, I wonder if he’d be so quick to advocate for his group’s rights to be brushed aside by the majority? Because that day is coming, and I doubt he’ll be so trusting of majority rule when he’s not the majority anymore. Like a lot of egotistical abuser types do, he’s pushing at society’s boundaries as hard as he can to get attention and it very clearly feeds something in him to offend and hurt others. But like a host of his peers have discovered, there does come a time when he’s going to push too hard, and one hopes this was it.
Mr. Rapert shows us exactly why his flavor of Christianity is failing. He cloaks his frothing hatred in Christianese, but it’s still hatred–and even in his state, people are noticing and deciding not to associate further with a religion that only seems to produce division and cruelty.
Two Fundagelicals Walk Into a Bar…
So here we have the two ways that right-wing Christians are dealing with the culture war they started but are unexpectedly losing.
On the one side, Tony Campolo has realized that he was wrong to pursue policies of exclusion against LGBTQ people and has made whatever start, however incomplete perhaps, that he can to rectify his mistake.
On the other, Jason Rapert drills down all the harder on bigotry while clearly expecting approval from his tribe.
And the funny thing is, the writing’s on the wall. Most fundagelical leaders are well aware that opposing equal rights for all people is a losing battle at this point. They’ve known it for years. Not long after that Christian Post article came out, Rachel Held Evans wrote one in 2012 called “How to Win a Culture War and Lose a Generation”, but even she didn’t realize just how badly fundagelicals had lost their culture war even back then. Not only are the youngest Christians simply rejecting the message of hatred their leaders espouse, but they are leaving rather than constantly fighting with their bigoted brethren over it. Jason Rapert and the bigots like him are just kicking against the pricks at this point–which I’m sure just enrages them worse.
As for me, I am semi-content knowing that in 50 years, if Mr. Rapert doesn’t experience a serious change of heart for the better, he is going to be thought of in much the same way we think of mortifyingly ignorant, hateful, racist old coots today who still haven’t gotten over the Civil Rights Act–with curiosity and revulsion, and more than a little sad sympathy for a soul locked into blind hatred at a young age and taught to venomously stomp on others, and one that never fluttered its way out of that pit.