On the occasion of Equality Ride‘s visit to Oral Roberts University this next week, some further discussion of the issue of Christianity and gay rights is warranted. In case you’re wondering, I’m aware that ORU officials will probably read this post. While I have enjoyed my time at ORU and respect the institution, let it be clear that I am an independent thinker who fully intends to speak his mind on issues of import, even if my thoughts contradict the ideological status quo at the university where I study. I welcome a discussion, but any attempt to prevent free and open discourse on this issue will be met with respectful defiance. Also, I’ll probably offend every persuasion somehow with what I say here, so it’s all good.
On a side note, I apologize in advance for the length of this post; I just had a lot of things to say that I felt were important.
For the uninitiated, Equality Ride is an annual cross-country road trip sponsored by Soulforce, an organization committed to nonviolent protest as a means of countering social and political discrimination against LGBT people. Equality Ride came to ORU once before in 2006, though that visit was far less than cordial with several arrests allegedly taking place.
The first and most important point I’d like to make is that Equality Ride’s primary grievance—or at least what appears to be their primary grievance—is inaccurate as it pertains to ORU. Contrary to what they and probably many people at the university might believe, there actually is no policy banning gay students from attending. What is banned by the Honor Code is extramarital sexual activity, which includes but is certainly not limited to homosexual intercourse. With all “letter of the law vs. spirit of the law” tripe aside, that is what the Honor Code says; nothing more, nothing less.
Furthermore, saying that LGBT students are required to “suffer in silence” is also inaccurate, as is the statement, “[i]f they [LGBT students] come out they are subject to expulsion and can even be forced into harmful ‘ex-gay’ or ‘reparative’ therapy programs.” Both of these prior statements appear on the Soulforce website. As a student leader, my understanding is that the university’s primary concerns are violations of the Honor Code. As a result, an ORU student coming out might be awkward given the atmosphere on campus, but it certainly is possible to do so without being breaking the Honor Code. That said, I would still advise current students against that action as university policies can be changed at administration’s discretion.
On this matter, it’s crucial that people understand the distinction between being gay and engaging in homosexual activity. Christians often conflate the two (“s/he’s gay, so s/he must be having sex”), which is just as inaccurate as conflating being straight with heterosexual activity. Being gay is an orientation and is rooted in exceedingly-complex and little-understood psychological, sociological and biological bases. Again, contrary to popular belief, there are devout followers of Christ who are gay (celibately and otherwise) and despite what your friendly neighborhood fundamentalist might tell you, being gay is very often not something people can be “delivered from” or “healed of.” I recommend the book Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill for people wanting to know more about life as a celibate gay Christian.
Speaking more generally, I’m going to use this opportunity to make three points regarding Christianity and gay rights. They deal both with Evangelicals and Conservative fundamentalists on one hand and the gay rights activists on the other and I’ll discuss them at length in succeeding sections.
It’s Time for Christians to Police the Voices Speaking on their Behalf
Events like the Equality Ride provide an opportunity for Christians to pause and reflect on how the Church has handled the issue of homosexuality, as well as the terminology and tone that define the current discussion. For example, two prominent Republican candidates for president have spoken on the ORU campus in the past few weeks; both are against expanding gay political rights and one has partially built his career on making vile and degrading statements against LBGT individuals and pandering to the irrational fears of evangelicals. There are plenty of people who society believes speak for the Church who say things about LGBT people that are utterly reprehensible and accomplish nothing more than to drown the message of Christ in an endless stream of hateful rhetoric.
This has to stop.
Homosexuality might be wrong, but so are a lot of other things that go on in Christian homes on a regular basis. That doesn’t justify any of it, but it helps to put things in perspective. My experience has shown that the Church has traditionally had three general ways of addressing the issue of homosexuality:
- Ignore it.
- Welcome it.
- Vilify it.
In other words, some Christians pretend it doesn’t exist, others have altered their beliefs to accommodate it, and still others spend their time spreading hate and stoking fear.
As far as vilification is concerned, this isn’t limited to the Westboro fanatics; not by a long shot. Televangelists, church pastors, Christian scholars, conservative activists, and others continue to make disparaging and hurtful statements about LGBT people       . So let me state, in no uncertain terms, that prominent people (whether we’re talking about public figures or congregational pastors) who use their platforms to spread anti-gay hatred or homophobic fear—intentionally or otherwise—are little better than the bullies who push gay teens to commit suicide on a regular basis across this country. If you are one of these, you are not my brother and I despise you.
The Church has a responsibility to make sure the message of Christ, which is one of healing and love, is not being lost in a fetishistic preoccupation with one particular vice; one particular vice out of many.
The Need for Christians to Mature in their Understanding of the Purpose of Government
Rick Santorum is currently campaigning for President on a platform that includes support for an amendment to the Constitution that would permanently ban gay marriages. Even though the chances of such an amendment passing are thankfully remote, the fact that this man enjoys the support of so many social conservatives (many, if not most, of them evangelicals) demonstrates that Christians, on the whole, understand very little about the role of government in society. I’ve said this many times, but it continues to be true: the government of the United States is not now nor was it ever intended to be an extension of the Church.
It should also be noted that campaigns to ban gay marriage are only part of the problem. Also included on this list of bad public policy are things like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which was thankfully repealed last year, along with opposition to legislation that would extend more protection to LGBT people from discrimination and hate crimes.
The role of government—any government—should be solely thus: regulate the interactions between the people living under its jurisdiction in a fashion that allows them to pursue their own lives in ways that don’t interfere with or inhibit one another. The United States is a multicultural society containing people of virtually every ethnic, religious, and cultural background. That’s to be expected, especially since the founders of the Republic designed it in such a way as to be (theoretically) inclusive and welcoming of people from all walks of life. The idea was to construct a culture wherein people would be free to worship their God (or gods) of choice and live the lifestyle of their choosing so long as those choices didn’t interfere with their neighbor’s attempts to do so. Obviously it’s taken a long time for that ideal to be more fully realized and we still have a long way to go but the goal has always been the same.
So, in that light, socially conservative Christians have to ask themselves this question: “Would the decision of two men or two women to marry and enjoy the full legal status of a married couple legitimately interfere with our lives or livelihoods?” Despite what others might say, I say, “No, it wouldn’t.” Societal acceptance of gay marriage doesn’t prescribe Christian acceptance and I’ll revisit this later in greater detail.
Hijacking the vehicles of government to impose so-called “Christian morality” on the multicultural and multireligious population of the U.S. is profoundly medieval in character and directly contrary to the principles of the New Covenant, which include changing behavior by changing hearts. Hearts cannot be changed by moralistic legislation; people have to be free to make their own choices. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the much-praised Nobel laureate who is president of Liberia, recently made news by saying she would not decriminalize homosexual intercourse in her country because doing so would contradict the nation’s “traditional values.” Glittering generalities aside, this action basically amounts to using government to impose one group’s set of morals on other groups and is a misuse of political power. In a word, it’s wrong.
Distinguishing Between a Fight for Rights and an Attempt to Violate Religious Freedom
Shifting gears slightly, it should be noted that gay rights activists deserve criticism as well. While many want simply to see political recognition extended to their relationships, others seek also to force religious institutions to recognize and sanction them. Were the government to take this action, it would be a violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of religion and should be opposed.
While I support confronting bullying and bigotry wherever it exists, the issue that I take with efforts like Equality Ride is that in many ways they are an intentional attempt to back religious groups and institutions into a corner on the basis of their beliefs. The inescapable fact remains that according to the Christian faith, sexual intercourse outside marriage of one man and one woman is wrong. So, while I will fight for the rights of individuals to live life however they choose, I will not support actions that limit the Church’s ability to disseminate it’s teaching concerning homosexuality.
The ideas I’ve spelled out might appear to conflict each other and it’s because the relationship between Christians and the battle for gay rights really is a paradoxical one. Christians can continue to believe and teach that homosexuality is wrong (without being bullies or hatemongers) while still supporting the rights of people to live the lifestyle of their choosing, even and especially if that lifestyle conflicts with their own. That’s the nature of living in a democracy. The ever-present goal is to create a society in which everyone is free to make their own decisions without having a set of “values” or “morals” imposed on them by belligerent activists. To be clear, the latter applies to all people with a political ax to grind.
You might be wondering why all of this is important, so let me tell you why. There was a time in the history of the Church when Christians faced daily persecution and lived in fear of their lives and, indeed, many followers of Christ still live in such circumstances. For the first three centuries of the Church’s existence, it was relentlessly persecuted, first by Jews who refused to follow Christ and then by the Roman Empire. After the imperial persecutions, which were incredibly gruesome, their murderous legacy was carried on into the Middle Ages and even into the modern era; sadly, many of these persecutions were carried out by the Church, either against different Christian sects or against people of other faiths. Many of the first colonists to America were people who were fleeing discrimination in the Old World who just wanted to find a place where they could live their lives as they chose in peace and freedom. That desire is not so different from the desire of gays and lesbians who really just want the ability to freely live their lives as they wish without society treating their relationships as second-class.
America’s track record when it comes to freedom and acceptance is far from perfect and there is still much work to be done to build a nation that is truly free. That said, our legacy is also full of victories; most of them were small and incremental, but they were victories nonetheless. My only hope is that Christians would understand the true impact their actions would have if they approached the issue of gay rights with this mindset: “While we believe the lifestyle you are living isn’t what God has in store for you, we will fight alongside you for your right to live it if it’s your choice.”
Sure, it’s contradictory, but what about the Christian walk isn’t contradictory?
Love your enemies?
Pray for those who persecute you?
Die to yourself so that you may live?
If there is anything to be learned from this mess, it’s that there are often far more important things than just being right. Sometimes Christians have to do things that might seem to undermine their goals but that, in the end, show that they truly believe what we say they believe.
Note: Oral Roberts University has an unofficial alumni association for LGBT students called ORU Out. You can visit their blog here.