Where Are the Liberal Christian Voices?

Where Are the Liberal Christian Voices? December 27, 2012

Dan Savage recently said the following in a video:

Sometimes I forget to qualify “Christian” with “fundamentalist evangelical right-wing bats–t Christian.” And I’ll write something taking “Christians” to task for their abuse of queer people. And I’ll get emails and I’ll get calls from liberal Christians, whispering in my ear, “We’re not all like that. Psst, we’re not all like that.” I call them NALTs now, for Not All Like That Christians. NALT Christians.

But the reason so many of us have the impression that you are all indeed like that, and why Christian has become synonymous with anti-gay, is because of these loud voices on the Christian right. And they’ve hijacked Christianity, with your complicit silence enabling their hijacking of it.

And you know what? Liberal Christians, you need to do something about it. You need to tell them you’re not all like that. We know — liberals, lefties, progressives, queers — we know that not all Christians are like that. The religious right: They don’t know. Tell them.

So stop writing me and telling me that you’re Not All Like That, and start doing something about it. Start telling them you’re Not All Like That.

Now, Dan Savage must know that 70% of self-identified LGBTQ individuals identify as Christian. He also must know that there are numerous straight liberal Christians out there who have been working in the trenches of gay rights activism for decades. He must know that there are hundreds of Christian congregations across the country that purpose to be LGBTQ friendly and inviting. He can’t not know this. Therefore, I’m going to assume that he does know this, and that his words here are an attempt to criticize liberal Christians who have only recently come to support gay rights and who are more concerned about not being seen as bigots than they are about actively working to further gay rights.

But I think these comments are worth addressing, because there seems to be this idea held by too many in our society that being Christian goes hand in hand with being anti-gay. Now, I’m not a Christian. Why, then, do I care about this? First, I suppose, because I care about accuracy, but also because I care about gay rights and I think challenging the idea that being Christian means opposing gay rights is important in furthering the cause of equality in what is after all a majority-Christian nation.

So, first, I want to address Dan Savage’s comment that anti-gay Christians don’t know Christians who support gay rights exist. The thing is, when I was an anti-gay conservative Christian deeply involved in the Christian Right, I knew that not all Christians were anti-gay. I knew that there were whole denominations that weren’t anti-gay, and that there were large numbers of liberal Christians who weren’t anti-gay. In fact, we heard all the time about liberal denominations taking steps toward LGBTQ rights. However, as conservative evangelicals we didn’t consider those liberal Christians to be truly saved. Rather, we believed that liberal Christians were deluding themselves and that liberal churches had left true path of Christianity and become heretical, and we took their support of gay rights as one more sign of this.

While Dan Savage is wrong in his assertion that anti-gay Christians don’t know that there are Christians out there who support gay rights, that doesn’t mean I don’t think Christians who support gay rights don’t have anything they need to be saying to anti-gay Christians. Anti-gay Christians already know that there are Christians who aren’t anti-gay. What they may not know as well is why. Liberal Christians have found ways to harmonize their faith with support for gay rights and marriage equality, and they need to be taking this case to their more conservative co-religionists. They need to challenge the conservatives on their own theological ground. They need to make the Christian case for gay rights and marriage equality. They need to be working to change the conversation. Some are currently working to do this, and I sincerely hope more follow their example.

What about Dan’s comments about anti-gay Christians hijacking Christianity, and about liberal Christians being complicit in this? I think we need to take a moment to examine both history and the way media today works in order to examine this.

First, conservative Christians got where they are today by learning how to use media to their advantage. As Joel Carpenter has described, in the 1930s fundamentalists began a love affair with mass media as they used radio and parachurch networks to make up for the fact that they lacked the denominational structures liberal churches already had. Over nearly a century, they and their religious relatives and descendants have been spending their resources building media empires, and I don’t think we can fault liberal Christians for not thinking of that. (This article by Rick Perlstein on how conservatism in general did this same thing is, I think, relevant, especially in examining the hucksterish aspect of all of this.) And beyond that, I also don’t think we can necessarily expect liberal Christians to correct their huge disadvantage they clearly currently have overnight.

Next, the media chooses to report is selective. When First Methodist opens a second soup kitchen the same week Faith Baptist declares that they have found a new cure for gays, which do you think makes the news? Our news media today is set up to privilege the extreme, the weird, and the crazy. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, if the idea we get from the media is that Christians all spend their time threatening to burn Korans and talking about how legalizing gay marriage is a step toward banning Bibles. The simple and sad reality is that it’s the most extreme positions that get the most press.

Finally, I think it’s important to remember all that liberal Christians have done over the past decades to further the cause of gay rights and marriage equality. For example, the Episcopalian church appointed a gay bishop in 2003, which set off a bit of a church split as conservative parishes sought to leave the church. In other words, the leadership of the Episcopalian church was willing to lose members if that was the price of making a statement in favor of gay rights. Furthermore, denominations like the Evangelical Lutherans and Presbyterian Church of the USA have been moving toward full endorsement of gay marriage, pushed step by step in that direction by the ardent efforts of members who believe in gay rights and marriage equality.

Further, numerous progressive Christian churches have been working for decades to be open and welcoming places for LGBTQ individuals and many progressive Christians have been working in the trenches of gay rights activism for longer than I have been alive. To name a specific example of progressive Christians’ gay rights activism, the Illinois legislature, which is currently considering allowing gay couples to marry, just received a letter endorsing marriage equality signed by 250 religious leaders in the state. In other words, the idea that liberal Christians have been sitting on their hands here is flat wrong. And it also bears pointing out that 70% of self-identified LGBTQ individuals identify as Christian.

I think Dan Savage is absolutely right that liberal Christians would be better off working to correct the negative image Christianity in general has on issues like gay rights rather than spending their time trying to make sure people like Dan Savage know that not all Christians are anti-gay. After all, actions speak louder than words. In this vein, liberal Christians need to keep pushing their denominations toward full acceptance of gay rights, to keep campaigning for marriage equality, and to keep working to make their churches welcoming places for LGBTQ individuals. They need to be doing these things vocally, and they need to be pushing back against their anti-gay co-religionists.

But I also think it’s unfair to ignore or gloss over the fact that many liberal Christians have been working in support of gay rights for years, and it goes too far to call them, as Savage does, “complicit” in the hijacking of Christianity. Why? Because this is a majority Christian nation, and as long as people believe that being Christian goes hand in hand with being anti-gay, that will serve as a rock in the path of society’s progress towards accepting both equal rights and marriage equality. Pointing out the actions of liberal Christians over the last several decades, in contrast, counters this narrative.

***post edited for clarity***

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