To My Evangelical Friends Upon the Legalization of Gay Marriage

To My Evangelical Friends Upon the Legalization of Gay Marriage June 26, 2015

handholdingDear evangelical friends,

As you have almost certainly heard, earlier today the Supreme Court announced a 5-4 victory for supporters of marriage equality and a defeat for Team Evangelical. I implore you to take a step back for a second in order to look at this situation in a different light from the one to which you have become accustomed.

The cheerleaders for Team Evangelical have gotten everyone worked up into a lather over this, but I suspect much of their zeal has been misplaced. Over the past couple of weeks we’ve read of one straight couple in Australia who say they will divorce if gay marriage is approved by their government, we’ve read of a pastor who essentially offered to set himself on fire or be shot in order to prevent it from coming to pass, and Glenn Beck has said that he has upwards of 10,000 pastors on hand ready to die in order to resist this single change.  Whoa, there, hold your horses, folks!  Can we put down the cray for a second and talk some sense into this situation?  Please?

I do see one or two legitimate losses for you in this outcome, but I also see some imaginary ones and I’d like to offer my perspective as to which ones are which.

Four Ways in Which Nothing Will Change

1) No one is going to make you be gay.  Now that SCOTUS has finally declared that discriminating against people on the basis of their sexual orientation violates their basic rights, they are not saying that you have to become gay now yourself. This approval of same-sex marriage at the national level does not mean that you now have to get gay married, okay?  So let’s get that part out of the way first.  It also doesn’t mean that you can’t teach your own children to judge other people for their sexual orientation. You’re still free to do that, no matter what. It’s your right.  It’s a part of your religion (or at least of your particular version, just don’t ask the other people in your religion who don’t see it the same way), so the United States government is not going to take that away from you, I promise.

2) Preachers will not be forced to marry gay people. Thanks to the same First Amendment that keeps your religion from taking over everyone else’s lives, those churches which do not approve of this move will remain free to disapprove of it—and to speak publicly about their disapproval—for as long as you still care about this issue.  What’s more, that constitutional protection has enabled churches to refuse to marry anyone they choose despite every new national advance in the fight for civil rights.  You don’t want to marry an interracial couple?  That’s actually your right.  Always has been, always will be.  Your churches will remain free to reject as many kinds of people and relationships as you please.  This is a well-established protection that will not budge no matter what those who disagree with you wish were the case. Even if somebody tries to take you to court over it in the future, they will fail because your constitutional protections overrule their personal views.  That’s how this works.

3) It will not become illegal to be a Christian. Ever the opportunist willing to stoke the fires of evangelicals’ persecution complexes,  Mike Huckabee continues to spout warnings that once LGBT folks are given the same rights as the rest of us the government will begin putting people in jail for openly disparaging this move.  He continues to capitalize on evangelicals’ irrational fears that the Christian faith will soon be criminalized like it was back in ancient Rome under a completely different kind of government.  Huckabee used to run the entire state of Arkansas, but I honestly can’t tell if he just really doesn’t get how the US government works, or if he’s being intentionally dishonest in order to whip his potential base into a frenzy just to get their vote. Either way, you shouldn’t listen to him because he’s misleading you.

4) God isn’t going to destroy America. I can’t really tell if my Christian friends seriously think this will happen even though they use the rhetoric a lot.  Most American evangelicals I know harbor a deep sense of exceptionalism which leads them to believe that God needs America in ways that would prevent him from wiping us out.  But even people who are free from that notion don’t realize the Bible itself singles out other sins as the cause of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Ezekiel says this:

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.

Funny, that’s never what you hear evangelicals say will be the reason for our impending destruction. And yet even when Jesus threatened a locale with the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, it apparently had nothing to do with their sexual orientation and everything to do with their lack of hospitality.

Now, obviously as an atheist I’m not really looking for fire and brimstone to fall from the sky, consuming America or any other country for that matter.  But I’m not so far removed from my own evangelical upbringing that I can’t remember how to think like a Baptist. Yet even when I put my faith cap back on and look at this from that perspective, I fail to see how this above all other moral issues would merit fire from heaven. Like I keep saying, for some it would seem that the most important thing about you is what you do with your genitals.  Even in my devout days, I couldn’t go along with that way of looking at people. It feels so incredibly dehumanizing and reductionistic.

Alright, now that I’ve gotten those things off my chest, here are a handful of things that I do believe are legitimate concerns, and the evangelical church will have to wrestle with these inevitabilities now that marriage equality has become the law of the land.

Four Things That Really Will Change

1) For-profit businesses run by Christians will not be free to discriminate because of people’s sexual orientation. Can you stop for a second and acknowledge the difference between a business and a church?  The rules and protections for each are different, although I can’t say that I blame you for sometimes failing to see the distinction. With churches and pastors raking in billions of dollars a year (all tax-free) and schools and businesses enforcing the religious beliefs of their owners on employees, the lines get very blurred. The bottom line is that as long as an organization operates on a for-profit basis, it remains subject to state and federal laws governing businesses, which means they are not free to discriminate on the basis of race, creed, or even (from this point forward) sexual orientation.

2) Negative public opinion toward churches who oppose this move will become solidified, placing you on the losing side of the culture war on this matter. Now we’re getting at the heart of the matter for evangelicals.  Today’s defeat in Obergefell v. Hodges signals that public opinion has shifted away from the traditional evangelical view, and it serves as an emblem of a sea change that you’ve been anticipating and lamenting for decades. This is a further indication that evangelicalism has lost some of its grip over the surrounding culture so that now those who oppose this change will be looked down upon by those who are supposed to be beneath them, not above them.  Listen to Southern Baptist seminary president Al Mohler in this remarkably transparent admission:

Here’s what he said:

Let’s be honest, there’s not really a danger that the sheriff’s gonna show up and say, “You have to do this.” So far as I know, no pastor has been sued successfully for refusing to marry someone on other grounds. That’s not the real danger. The real danger is we’re going to pay an enormous social, cultural price for not doing a same-sex ceremony. We’re going to be considered morally deficient. Let’s admit it. We’re much more accustomed to being accused of being morally superior. They’ve said we’ve been “stand-offish” meaning better than them, now a large part of this culture thinks we are morally deficient. And we’re going to find that’s a very different way to do ministry.

3) You will indeed lose a bit more of your privilege. I’m convinced the real loss in today’s decision for evangelicals is that it signals a loss of power over the surrounding culture, and that’s a power you’ve enjoyed for a very long time. As a friend of mine, Mark Caddo, recently said:

The problem with being privileged your whole life is that [after] you have had that privilege for so long, equality starts to look like oppression. 

Stated in terms that are perhaps more sympathetic to my friends, it upsets you that your children and grandchildren will grow up in a world that accepts as normal something you have been taught to believe is immoral.  Who would want that for their children? Honestly I can see how that would be upsetting.  All I can do in response to that is to ask:  Are you willing to acknowledge that this principle about which you are so certain might not be as important to God as it has become to you?  I know that it has become a singular focus for your church tradition, but you prayed and you sought God’s mind and you told him “thy will be done,” and this is what resulted. Is it not possible that this was in fact what he wanted?  Have you forgotten the verses that say:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

Do you believe this also applies to the Supreme Court of the United States?  Will you speak out against your state and local officials when they encourage sedition and nullification as they did in the days of the civil war?

4) Fifty years from now evangelicals will claim they helped bring marriage equality to pass. You read it here first. I would bet my life savings on it (okay, so maybe that’s not saying much).  Just as the same conservative Christian traditions that opposed the abolition of slavery now claim credit for making it happen, I’m going on record in predicting that 50 years from now evangelical churches—whatever they have evolved into by that time—will be claiming today’s victory as their own. As soon as the memory of all the bitter opposition to this development has gone to the grave with this generation, revisionist historians will look back on people like Brandan Robertson and Matthew Vines in order to argue that the evangelical church was out in front of social progress, calling for the equal inclusion of their LGBT brothers and sisters in the name of Jesus. They will have completely forgotten that in our day it was the evangelical churches that issued all the ultimatums and spoke in dire apocalyptic terms about this change in public opinion.

Take a deep breath, folks.  It’s going to be alright.  You say you believe that God is in control, right?  Do you really believe that?  Or are you worried that you have to somehow make that mean anything at all through your own actions?  If his power over the world is entirely dependent upon yours, maybe you need to find a bigger God.  Or better yet….well, you know, maybe reconsider if you really believe what you say you believe.

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