Friday, June 26, 2015

What Should Christians think about Today's Historic SCOTUS Decision?

Actually, I don't intend to answer that question here. I can't. To do that, I'd need to write a book--well, probably more than one. (And I intend to.)

What I can do here is warn against certain sweeping claims about what Christians should think. More precisely, I want to warn against an all-too-common practice among Christians today when it comes to homosexuality and same-sex marriage: The tendency to think that all Christians, to be truly Christian on this matter, must agree with us.

First, an obvious point: While Christianity might have something to say about who we should and shouldn't have sex with, it isn't a religion about who we should and shouldn't have sex with. Christianity is about who God is and what God has done, who Christ is and what Christ did. Christians are followers of Jesus. And Jesus said nothing about gay sex.

The Christian debate about homosexuality and same-sex marriage is not a debate about the heart of the faith.

Beyond this obvious point, Christians need to move past false or overgeneralized claims about the motives of their Christian opponents.

Conservatives have a tendency to portray Christians who are progressive on this issue as sell-outs to secular culture. In doing so, they ignore the fact that Jesus' command to love our neighbors as ourselves sits at the heart of progressive Christian arguments on this issue.

By contrast, I have liberal Christian friends who dismiss conservatives on this issue as ignoring both Christ's command that we love our neighbors as ourselves and Christ's call not to judge, lest we be judged ourselves. But in offering such a sweeping assessment, they ignore my Christian friends who earnestly wish they could support the intimate relationships of their gay friends, who are pained by what they see as a divine requirement to condemn those relationships--who wish it were otherwise, but who can't see another way to interpret what they take to be God's word.

Let me be clear: There are plenty of conservative Christians who are not motivated by love for their gay and lesbian neighbors. There are plenty who invoke the slogan "Love the neighbor but hate the sin" without paying any attention to what comes before the "but". There are plenty of Fred Phelpses in the world. Many are just less honest and open about their bigotry.

But this doesn't mean that all conservatives on this issue are homophobic in their hearts. It doesn't mean that every conservative is insincere about the desire to love their gay and lesbian neighbors.

I believe, and have argued, that their belief about homosexuality operates as an impediment to their expressing that love properly--that they are unwittingly feeding their gay and lesbian neighbors poison based on the false belief that it is medicine. But I also believe that these Christians would weep and repent were they to realize that the doctrines informing their relationships with gays and lesbians really are as soul-crushing and anti-Evangelical as my experience with gay and lesbian friends teaches me they are.

Where I disagree with these Christians isn't at the level of their intentions and their sincerity. And while I take today's ruling to be a cause for celebration, I don't think every Christian who believes otherwise is therefore a bad Christian. I think they're mistaken, but that doesn't mean they aren't striving to live by the law of love as best they can.

Likewise, let me be clear that there are surely plenty of progressive Christians who haven't wrestled deeply with the issue of same-sex intimacy in the light of their Christian commitments and values, who are just going with the flow, following the prevailing trends. But to treat such motives as the core of the progressive Christian stance is to ignore or fundamentally misunderstand what progressive have been arguing for years.

The birthplace of progressive Christian support for same-sex marriage isn't found in secular culture. I would argue--and in fact have argued--that the causation moves in the opposite direction: Secular culture has come to see same-sex relationships differently because the spirit of agapic love has taken root there.

Gays and lesbians are not only a minority, but an easy out-group to scapegoat and marginalize. If you're straight, then a prohibition on gay sex is no prohibition at all. Hence, such a prohibition has, for the majority, the effect of offering easy righteousness. "I can feel morally superior without expending any effort, because whatever I do at least I'm not one of those fa**ots."

If there's a reason why our broader culture has moved away from this, it isn't because of an anything-goes secular permissiveness that would allow the heterosexual majority the moral freedom to have sex with people they have absolutely no desire or inclination to have sex with. It's because of empathy. It's because, over the last forty years, gays and lesbians have been really heard for the first time in history. People have put themselves in their shoes. They have asked themselves the question at the heart of the Golden Rule: What would I want done to me, if I were in their place?

Christian reformers on this issue argue that when we really pay attention to our gay and lesbian neighbors, it becomes increasingly clear that "How do we love the sinner while hating the sin?" is the wrong question.. The right question is this: What can we take to be a sin while still loving our neighbors as we should.

And loving attention to our gay and lesbian neighbors teaches us that calling all same-sex intimacy a sin is doing harm to them, the kind of real harm that love must stand against. Contestable biblical interpretations and natural law arguments must give way before what loving attention teaches, or we end up loving our own beliefs more than we love our neighbors.

This progressive view isn't about selling out to secular culture. It's about trying to live by Christ's command to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Christians may disagree with my take on these issues, just as I disagree with them. But these lines of disagreement can't and shouldn't be treated as the dividing line between real Christians and sell-outs, or between real Christians and homophobic bigots wearing the cloak of Christian righteousness to justify their prejudice.

All Christians should strive to love their gay and lesbian neighbors as themselves, and should wrestle sincerely with what that call to love demands. All Christians should strive to rise above the whims and vagaries of secular culture, informing their life and values in relation to God, not Hollywood.

But there are Christians celebrating today's SCOTUS decision who embrace both of these things. There are Christians bemoaning it who embrace both. Recognizing these facts should be a starting point for any serious attempt to decide what Christians should believe about today's historic decision.

If we don't start there, we will model pugnacity and prejudice instead of Christian love.


  1. Eric - I'm a newcomer to your blog. Thank you for the balanced post on this topic.

    Unfortunately, I feel like the dividing line (as you put it) has been drawn. Its been carved deeply into the cornerstone of the Church. If you're at all in touch with current affairs you find yourself choosing sides.

    I think its largely due to the conflation of politics and religion. They are beyond interwoven. So how do we unweave the two?

    1. That's an excellent and challenging question, and I don't have a good answer. Maybe we need to look to a power great than ourselves.

  2. Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry: "Saudi Arabia opposes any resolution for gay rights. Saudi Arabia reaffirms its support for human rights, and respect towards all international conventions, as long as it is in accordance with Islamic law."

    You: "But in offering such a sweeping assessment, they ignore my Christian friends who earnestly wish they could support the intimate relationships of their gay friends, who are pained by what they see as a divine requirement to condemn those relationships--who wish it were otherwise, but who can't see another way to interpret what they take to be God's word."

    How are they different, in your view?

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    2. My point in the quote is to challenge the sweeping claim that all Christian opponents of same-sex marriage are motivated by homophobic bigotry and characterized by a lack of love for their gay and lesbian neighbors. I think this assessment of what lies behind Christian opposition to same-sex marriage in this country doesn't do justice to the more complex reality. I'm not qualified to speak to the motives behind Muslim opposition to same-sex marriage in Saudi Arabia.

      In both cases, however, I think I have compelling reasons for believing that the opponents of same-sex marriage are dead wrong, and dangerously so. I think we have compelling moral grounds for doing what we can, within moral bounds, to ensure that their agendas don't prevail in the long run. I do not for a moment believe that those who would stand in the way of equality should win the day, even if they're sincere and mean well and aren't motivated by hate. I don't think conservative Christians should impose their restrictive view on who can access civil marriage in the US. Likewise for other countries and other faith traditions.

      I have been fighting for this day, and I am glad that it has arrived. I grieve the fact that in other places in the world, gays and lesbians still experience profound social marginalization and injustice, sometimes even to the point of fearing for their lives. My point here is that conservative Christians--who I think are dangerously wrong about same-sex marriage, in a way that is deeply harmful--sometimes have a genuine love for their gay and lesbian neighbors.

      I've known many of them. They wish they didn't "have to" stand against the love relationships of gay friends, etc., but feel as if they must do so out of allegiance to what they honestly perceive to be the will of God, even though they don't understand why God wills this.

      Others appear to be sincerely convinced by natural law arguments that I find utterly uncompelling--arguments that end up treating same-sex intimacy as something that is harmful, and that therefore lead them to conclude that love for gays and lesbians requires them to urge them to abstain from acting on their sexual orientation. They really believe this, AND they really love their gay and lesbian neighbors.

      It is a mistake to dismiss them as hateful and judgmental, even if we think they are dangerously wrong (and so should work diligently to ensure that their beliefs don't prevail). If someone sincerely thinks that a certain poison is medicine and so, out of love for their child, tries to give it to them, two things are clear to me: first, I should do what I can legitimately do to stop them from giving it to their child; second, they are not deliberately malicious. That they mean well doesn't mean I shouldn't try to stop them. It does mean I shouldn't vilify them.

      Not every opponent of same-sex marriage means well. There is plenty of homophobic bigotry out there. But to universalize that assessment is a mistake.

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    5. No, trust me, I get that. One of my Muslim friends once told me, a gay Muslim, that though he wished nothing but love and happiness for me, if I were to be arrested by an Islamic authority he would not -- indeed, he could not -- in good conscience object to it because doing so would amount to protesting God's law. "Even if I were to be stoned to death?" I asked. "Yes," he said. "Even the Prophet would cut off his own daughter's hands if she were to be found guilty of theft," he said, referring to a famous tradition (hadith) about the Prophet's unrivaled sense of fairness and justice (cf. Qur'an 24:2 : "Let not compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by Allah, if you believe in Allah and the Last Day; and let a party of the Believers witness their punishment"). Now, this guy ( is one of the nicest, kindest Muslim guys you'd ever meet. He's college-educated, religiously literate, a golden boy by any measures. He's basically your average Muslim, one of those "peaceful, moderate Muslims" that Western liberals like to talk about. And I do not for a second doubt his sincerity, whether of his beliefs or of his love for me. But there he was, saying what he said, straight to my face. In your moral universe, he is not a homophobe. His intentions, entirely absent of all malice, absolve him, in your eyes, from such ignoble an appellation. Now, I get that. You're hardly the first person with such a generous, panoramic moral view. But do you think it makes any difference whatsoever to the hundreds of millions of sexual minorities like me? Do you think it makes any difference to Shireen Baratheon that her own father would burn her to death on religious grounds despite his love for her? These aren't rhetorical, by the way. I really, genuinely wonder what you think.

    6. Harm done in the name of sincere belief is just as harmful as harm done in the name of malice. In that sense, it makes no difference. In another sense, harm done in the name of sincere belief is worse. When a good person does something awful because they have been convinced of an ideology according to which it isn't awful, the victim's suffering is compounded by the fact that the perpetrator doesn't even get what it is that they're doing.

      And there is a further difference between those who are motivated to do this awful thing by the belief that what they're doing is good for the person they're doing it to, and those who are motivated to do it by some invocation of "justice."

      These things make a difference in terms of how we engage with those who are doing the harm. Those who are gripped by ideology are, in a sense, victims too--victims of the ideology. If the ideology teaches that what is being done is not a harm, that it is demanded by love for the victim--and if the one doing the harm is sincerely motivated by love--then there is hope that the ideology can be cracked open and eventually shattered by inviting the one doing the harm to do the range of other things that sincere love requires, such as empathetic listening. If some invocation of justice is at work, that may have no impact. In this sense, I think your Muslim friend poses a different kind of challenge than the Christian friends I am talking about.

      Here's my point: You KNOW, in a personal and existential way, how damaging these religious teachings are to sexual minorities. When those who are bigoted use these teachings as an excuse to justify their bigotry, trying to convey to them your experience likely won't make a difference. But when the teachings are paired with an ethic of love that is more central (I hope) than the harmful teaching, conveying the harms in a clear way actually has some hope of making a difference.

      But it isn't likely to make a difference if the out-of-the gate move is to vilify the one who believes these teachings, to mischaracterize them as bigots, etc. That will be more likely to trigger a defensive response. And from that defensive posture, they are less likely to listen to and be responsive.

      So, the motive of those who are doing harm to us doesn't make a difference in terms of the harm done (except insofar as knowing that the motives can generate an additional layer of anguish). But it can make a very big difference in terms of the kind of response that will make sense.

    7. Here's an analogy that may be of some use. Suppose you have been in a boating accident and you are floating on a piece of flotsam somewhere off the coast of San Francisco.

      Now suppose that those in a position to rescue you, based on the best evidence available to them, believe all passengers were lost when the boat went down. And from where they are situated, that may be the reasonable belief. You, bobbing in the water, know that it's false. But since they don't have access to what is blatantly obvious to you, they aren't doing anything to rescue you.

      Now imagine that those who are in a position to rescue you want you dead. They are delighted when the evidence suggests that you've been drowned with everyone else on the ship. They're high-fiving each other about it. Were they to come to know the truth about your plight, it would have no effect on them at all. They would do nothing to rescue you and would bury the truth as best they could.

      In terms of your plight as such, it makes no difference whether those who can rescue you are mistaken or malicious.--especially if there's nothing you can do to correct the mistake. Whatever their motives, your situation looks grim: days of suffering before you drown, die of thirst, or get gobbled up by sharks. Whatever their motives, their failure to keep looking for you is horrible, and were there a way to change their behavior, we should try to change it. But in the first case, that would mean changing their beliefs. In the second case, it would mean changing their character.

      If I'm your ally on land and I have my own evidence that you'e alive, it would make little sense, in the first case, for me to accuse your would-be rescuers of being bad people who don't care about you and don't want you to survive. That's wouldn't be the way to get them to spend the resources to keep looking. Instead, I should engage with why they believe you've been drowned and share with them as best I can why I am convinced you're still alive.

      On the other hand, if they aren't launching a rescue because they want you to drown, my go-to strategy would be to take the decision-making power out of their hands and put it into the hands of those who have your best interests at heart. That might be what I'd need to do in the first case, too, if I am unable to convey what I know in a way that will convince them--but the two scenarios are still importantly different. In the first secenario, those who are giving up on rescue may perceive me, given what they know, as needing to be convinced to let go and move on rather than keep expending resources. And I will need to acknowledge that from their perspective, this seems true. And so I will need to sincerely engage with their arguments. To convince them that they are fallible and might be wrong, I will probably need to concede that I am fallible and might be wrong--even though, granted the evidence available to me, I am quite confident I'm not wrong and quite sure that an honest and fair assessment of the evidence will make this clear.

      This is an imperfect analogy, but I hope it helps clarify my meaning.

    8. A word on "homophobia." I actually think the term "homophobia" has come to be used in a sense analogous to "racism," but that not everyone has caught up to this usage change. In its original meaning, "homophobia" was a private psychological trait--a fear of gays. But racism is in its basic meaning a social reality--a system of oppression. People are called racist to the extent that they support this system. Ideologies are called racist if they imply this system. If homophobia is treated as analogous to racism, then religious beliefs can be homophobic to the extent that they imply exclusion of sexual minorities from full access to the goods of social life, and well-meaning Christians who love their gay neighbors and aren't afraid of them are homophobic if they endorse these beliefs and their implications.

      But this usage isn't well understood by conservatives. Of course, many people don't understand what "racism" means, either.

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    10. Ah, your clarification is an apt reminder of the importance of definition in discourse, for that systemic, societal sense of homophobia is precisely the usage I'm talking about here. After all, neither your Christian friends nor my Muslim ones are personally hateful towards sexual minorities, but their intent practically is beside the point: the consequences are, hence my genuine wonder(ing) above. Indeed, it has never been lost on me that many of the people who are opposed to LGBT rights are perfectly good people (otherwise), so to speak. And this is true regardless of whether they are Muslims ( or Christians ( At the end of the day, however, Maureen Dowd's sentiment remains my own: "Maybe a frown is more honest." Thank you, all the same, for your relentless generosity in word and deed.

  3. Funny how Obama's opposition to gay marriage wasn't important back in 2008. Oh yeah, he "evolved". In 2006 he was for it; in 2008 he was against it. Now he's for it again. I can see why he has so many devotees.