Talking Christian Cake

This is Part 2 of a some stuff I wrote about the Masterpiece Cakeshop “gay wedding cake” case.  See here for Part 1.

Talking cake

I suppose there should be crosses, so that it’s a Christian cake.

 

“Should a religious baker have to create a cake for a same-sex wedding? Imagine a Jewish baker having to put a swastika on a cake.”

So reads a recent tweet from the Chicago Tribune, with a link to their editorial on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case (as you might guess, supporting the cake shop, not the gay couple). I’ve seen this slippery slope type of argument come up a lot in discussions (or rather shouting matches) about this issue. Setting aside the fact that Nazis aren’t really in a class protected by nondiscrimination laws, this gotcha! retort demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what nondiscrimination laws prohibit. It’s not that the baker can’t refuse to include an offensive message on a cake; rather it’s that he can’t refuse services he would normally provide to everyone else (whether it’s all services, or even just certain services) to someone based on their being a member of a protected group.  For instance, if the baker is willing to provide a wedding cake to a gay couple, but refuses to include the message, “Suck it, Christians! We’re getting gay married!” he’s not discriminating against them for being LGBTQ+. He’s willing to provide the wedding cake, he’s just not willing to create a message he finds offensive. He wouldn’t create that message for anyone, so there’s no disparity of treatment based on the clients’ sexuality. The clients can have a wedding cake, just like everyone else, but they can’t have the offensive message, just like everyone else.

And this brings us to the heart of the matter in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. While the gay couple maintain that the baker refused a particular service to them because they’re gay, the baker is claiming that he was really just refusing to provide a message he finds offensive.  Here’s how each side is framing the issue:

Gay couple – The baker provides wedding cakes (among other baked goods) to the public.  But the baker refuses to provide a wedding cake to this particular couple because the couple is gay. This is unlawful discrimination.  If there’s any sort of limiting of personal expression (and if there is, it’s quite minor, since a cake is not a message in any real sense), this is merely incidental to a law that is focused on eliminating discrimination, not on limiting speech, and is therefore not a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech.

Baker – The baker provides baked goods to the public, including the gay couple.  However, messages in support of same-sex marriage violate the baker’s beliefs and he finds them offensive, so he won’t create such messages for any client, including the gay couple.  Providing a cake for the gay couple’s wedding, in and of itself, is creating a message in support of same-sex marriage, and refusing to provide such a cake is merely refusing to create a message he finds offensive.  It’s not discrimination since the gay couple is being treated the same as all other clients – they can have any pastry, he just won’t create a message for them in support of same-sex marriage.  And being forced to make the cake is not just “an incidental limitation on personal expression,” but rather the government forcing him to create a specific message, which violates his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

The gay couple provides support for their argument from past Supreme Court cases that have found that nondiscrimination laws do not violate a person’s right to free speech or free exercise of religion (i.e. there’s no Constitutional right to discriminate), as well as cases that have found that laws that only incidentally restrict speech as a result of regulating other types of conduct do not violate First Amendment free speech principles.  For instance, in the case Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic & Institutional Rights, Inc., the Supreme Court noted:

It has never been deemed an abridgment of freedom of speech or press to make a course of conduct illegal merely because the conduct was in part initiated, evidenced, or carried out by means of language, either spoken, written, or printed.  Congress, for example, can prohibit employers from discriminating in hiring on the basis of race. The fact that this will require an employer to take down a sign reading “White Applicants Only” hardly means that the law should be analyzed as one regulating the employer’s speech rather than conduct.

(citations omitted).  And, of course, what argument would be complete without the ever present slippery slope (in lawyer lingo we also call this the “parade of horribles” – as in the all the horrible things that could happen if the other side wins).  In this case, those who support the Colorado nondiscrimination law as it was applied in this case argue that if making a cake is protected speech that trumps nondiscrimination laws, then any number of other made-to-order items and other services would also qualify as speech – a carpenter making a chair, a dressmaker making a dress, that snooty bartender and his “personally crafted cocktails,” a sandwich made by a Subway sandwich artist, etc (not necessarily the examples used in their arguments).  And if any of these people can use free speech claims to avoid complying with nondiscrimination laws, then the effectiveness of these laws is severely compromised.  It would be a giant step backward for civil rights.

Slipper Slop

A penguin discovers this “slippery slope” everyone keeps talking about.

 

For his part, the baker provides support for his argument from past Supreme Court cases that have found government-compelled speech to be a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech and therefore can only be justified if the law is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest (there’s that strict scrutiny again, which, as a reminder, means that law has to be really, really important or the government who passed the law loses).  One of the more famous of these cases is Wooley v. Maynard, where a New Hampshire couple decided they didn’t actually want to “Live Free or Die,” thank you very much, or rather they didn’t want to display this state slogan on their government-issued license plate.  The court in this case found that:

[W]e are faced with a state measure which forces an individual, as part of his daily life — indeed, constantly while his automobile is in public view — to be an instrument for fostering public adherence to an ideological point of view he finds unacceptable. In doing so, the State invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control.  … The First Amendment protects the right of individuals to hold a point of view different from the majority, and to refuse to foster, in the way New Hampshire commands, an idea they find morally objectionable.

Live Free or Die

New Hampshire isn’t messing around.

 

For his “parade of horribles,” the baker contemplates that if nondiscrimination and other laws trump free speech, then artists of all types could be forced to produce works that convey messages they find repugnant: a Jewish painter forced to create a mural of Christ’s resurrection for a Christian church, an atheist poet forced to write a poem extolling the virtues of God for display in a Jewish synagogue, a Democratic sculptor forced to sculpt a statue of Ronald Reagan, etc. (also not necessarily the examples used in their arguments).

In response to these “forced speech” concerns, those on the side of the gay couple make a distinction between artists who create their own works and then sell these works in the public marketplace (nondiscrimination laws don’t apply to the subjects and themes in these artists’ works, they are free to choose to write/paint/sculpt about whatever they want) and artists who offer their artistic services in the public marketplace (painter-for-hire, poet-for-hire, sculptor-for-hire, etc. who are all subject to nondiscrimination laws and therefore cannot turn down a client in a protected group just because they believe creating art for this client forces them to convey an undesirable message related to the client’s protected group).  

One last issue to consider in this case is that of “strict scrutiny.”  The gay couple and their supporters argue that, even if the court were to find that requiring the baker to make the cake for the same-sex wedding is forced speech and covered by the First Amendment, the state of Colorado has a compelling interest to protect the LGBTQ+ community from discrimination and the state’s ruling should still stand.  In other words, the couple argues that the nondiscrimination law survives strict scrutiny because it’s really, really important.  The baker’s (and all those supporting him) response is basically, “Nah.”  He argues that the LGBTQ+ community isn’t as marginalized as other groups and in doing so distinguishes nondiscrimination laws for LGBTQ+ from racial nondiscrimination laws, which he says would likely survive strict scrutiny.  In this way, he addresses the slippery slope concern; free speech doesn’t give people a pass on racial nondiscrimination laws because those laws are really important (i.e. survive strict scrutiny) while LGBTQ+ laws… not so important.

We’ll find out in June whether the Supreme Court considers a cake to be protected speech and, if so, whether the baker’s right to that protected speech trumps Colorado’s LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination law.  From my perspective, I think the “cake as speech” angle is a stretch, I think there’s validity to the gay couple’s parade of horribles (if cake is speech, then I think a lot of people will start claiming all sorts of things as “speech”), and I’m very much bothered by the claim that nondiscrimination laws protecting the LGBTQ+ community really aren’t all that important.  On the other hand, I do think that when it comes to artists who create expressive works of art (paintings, photos, writing, sculptures), there is a free speech aspect to consider, even when these artists offer their services in marketplace (more on that in the third and final – I promise – post).  Unfortunately, it seems this issue defies easy answers and tweetable slogans (“Why do you want to force Jewish bakers to make Swastika cakes??!?!!”).  The lesson here is to avoid looking closely into issues as a general matter, and stick to “Like”-ing and Retweeting – it makes life much simpler.

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You Can’t Make Me Stop Believing!

Every time I read about Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (the gay wedding cake/non-discrimination/religious freedom/free speech case which went before the Supreme Court this week), I’m almost completely overcome by an overwhelming craving for pastries.  Just seeing the word “cakeshop” makes me want to stuff my face with eclairs and petit fours – not at all helpful for a gay man of a certain age trying to watch his weight.  Nevertheless, as a person of faith, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and as a husband in a same-sex marriage, I have many thoughts on the issues involved in this case and feel I absolutely must share them with you, no matter the danger to my ability to fit in tight jeans.  And as a lawyer, I obviously also feel that my thoughts on the matter are much more important than what all you insignificant, non-lawyer people think (I mean, it’s a court case after all), so if you find yourself disagreeing with me, it’s most likely because you’re ignorant swine and you need to educate yourself.

Petit-Fours_2

These are what petit fours look like, in case you were wondering.

Since I have SO MUCH to say on this, I’ll have to use more than one post to say it all (assuming I don’t get lazy and just quit after this post).  I’m obviously writing this from my perspective as someone who supports LGBTQ+ anti-discrimination laws, but I will endeavor to be fair-minded in my discussion of the legal issues, at least.  I will likely fail at this, but I want it noted that I tried.

Let’s begin with this argument, which often comes up in any discussion of religious freedom versus non-discrimination laws:

“No one should have to give up their religious beliefs just because they open up a business!”

It’s a bit dramatic and overwrought (no one’s talking about forcing people to believe or not believe anything, the controversy is about limiting actions based on beliefs), but I get what they’re trying to say: should someone really be forced, through government regulation, to run their business in a way that violates their religious beliefs?  

The only honest and true response to this question is unsatisfying – there can be no absolute answer.  If your religion requires human sacrifice before any commercial business endeavor, then I think we can all agree that you’re SOL, the government’s responsibility to keep people alive wins over your religious practice.  On the other hand, if state regulations require you to sign a document renouncing belief in any deity before you’re allowed to sell items to the public, I think we can all also agree that the government is overstepping here.  But what about the vast majority of clashes between religious freedom and laws regulating commerce that fall somewhere in between these two extremes?  How do we determine who wins?

The answer, from the perspective of current legal doctrine concerning the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, is that deference is given to the government.  And we have [GASP!] Justice Antonin Scalia to thank for this.  Yes, it’s true.  Scalia wrote the opinion that significantly limited judicial deference to religious freedom claims.  Before the Employment Division v. Smith Supreme Court case in 1990, courts generally applied a strict scrutiny analysis to laws that burdened someone’s religious practices.  Strict scrutiny analysis meant that if a law burdened an individual’s free exercise of religion, it had to be justified by a “compelling government interest” and the law must accomplish its purpose by the “least restrictive means necessary.”  In plainer English, the law had to be pretty damn important, and the demands of the law that burdened religious freedom had to be the only reasonable way to accomplish what the law was supposed to accomplish. Otherwise, the law couldn’t be enforced against the individual whose religious freedom it burdened.

In Smith, the Supreme Court (with Scalia writing the majority opinion) jettisoned strict scrutiny for cases involving the Free Exercise Clause.  Instead, the court found that the “right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability.”  In other words, as long as the law doesn’t target any or all religion specifically (neutral) and applies to everyone in the same way (general applicability), then you don’t get a pass, even if the law requires you to do something that violates your religious beliefs.  The reasoning behind this change was that, according to the court, applying strict scrutiny to Free Exercise claims results in the “constitutional anomaly” of “a private right to ignore generally applicable laws.”  Because courts are in no position to determine whether a religious belief is genuine or legitimate, applying strict scrutiny means that courts have to give deference to all manner of religious beliefs, and only in cases involving the most important of laws would the person claiming a religious exemption be forced to comply.

Huzzah!! cry all us liberals.  Since non-discrimination laws are neutral and apply generally, we win and the baker must bake the cake no matter what his religious beliefs (and how delicious that we win on a legal doctrine instituted by Scalia).  For the baker’s Free Exercise claim, that seems the likely result (the baker does argue that the Colorado non-discrimination law at issue isn’t actually neutral and of general applicability, but the argument is a pretty weak one, in my opinion, though others disagree). But the baker’s case is actually more centered on a free speech claim, rather than free exercise.   More on that in the next post.  Right now,  I want to note the dark side of the Smith decision.

Though Scalia’s neutral/general applicability analysis works to the advantage of a marginalized group (LGBTQ+) in this particular instance, generally it’s not so good for religious minorities.  This is because both state and federal governments have the option of providing religious exemptions to laws they pass, if they want to limit any burden the law might have on religious exercise.  And if the government happens to be dominated by one religion (say… Christianity), then it will certainly be careful that this particular religion is not restricted by its laws; yet it might not be so careful about the free exercise of other, less predominant religions.

Case in point, during the Prohibition era, Prohibition laws always exempted alcohol for religious uses (i.e. sacramental wine for Christians). Yet that same courtesy was not extended to Oregon’s prohibition of peyote, though it was sacramental to the Native American Church (this was the law at issue in the Smith case).

peyote-4

Peyote

It was this concern for religious minorities that, at least in part, was the impetus behind the passage of federal and state Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, or RFRAs, in response to Smith. RFRAs basically achieve an end run around Smith by legislatively requiring the use of strict scrutiny in determining whether a law that burdens an individual’s religious exercise can be enforced against that individual. Unlike the Free Exercise Clause, RFRAs only apply to the jurisdictions that create them (the federal RFRA applies only to federal laws and a state RFRA only applies to the state laws of the state in which it’s passed).

While RFRAs can be used to exempt individuals out of laws we might support (the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case concerning the ACA contraception requirement was decided based on the federal RFRA), they can also be used to protect religious minorities. For instance, some religions require head coverings, and laws that prohibit covering the head in certain circumstances (like driver’s license photos) can create significant hardships for these communities. If a RFRA applies to the prohibition in question, then these communities have a much better chance in legally challenging the law to create a religious exemption that allows them to wear their head coverings in accordance with their religious beliefs.  

So it seems that, as far as Constitutional law goes, religious practice is at somewhat of a disadvantage when it collides with the law.  However, federal and some state governments have tried to correct this imbalance a bit legislatively by passing RFRAs and by including religious exemptions for certain laws. As governments and courts continue to wrestle with balancing religious freedom and the duty to enforce laws effectively and fairly, the challenge for those of us who value religious freedom for all religions, including non-Christian faiths, but who also value the protections only robustly enforced non-discrimination laws provide, is to find a way to maintain protections for religious minorities without compromising the ability of non-discrimination laws to protect marginalized groups.

So endeth my thoughts for this post.  I realize that the Masterpiece Cakeshop case didn’t feature as heavily as the intro seemed to indicate, but it seemed helpful to discuss the religious freedom aspect of this issue, even though Masterpiece Cakeshop is much more focused on free speech.  If you all are extremely lucky, I will further enrich your lives with a follow-up post discussing the free speech issues involved (a post that’s certain to be tons better than all the other articles out there discussing the same thing).  Stay tuned (Or don’t.  Whatever.  I don’t need your attention or affirmation.)

 

Term Limited Existence

In what was an extremely sensational election year, one of the less exciting items on my election ballot was whether to term limit our county commissioners.  I voted no; I’m generally against term limits because it seems odd to yank someone out of a job just as they start to figure out what they’re doing.  Lately, as I plunge headlong into my 40s, I’m realizing how much life itself is frustratingly term limited.  There seems to be so much for us to do – a lot of crap in the world that need attending to, not much time to do anything about it.

And just as we start to figure out what we’re doing, just as we begin to understand how to be somewhat effective in doing what we can do, to the best of our abilities, to make the world a slightly better place… sorry, our term is up.  Time to make room for younger folks who will hopefully at least build upon what we’ve done, but just as likely will do their own thing and forget we ever existed.

term-limits-photo

The whole damn arrangement, where, if we’re lucky, we exist for just enough time to figure out what we’re doing (kinda) before our existence is snuffed out completely, is so very cruel, unfair, and … inefficient.  How are we supposed to hang on to any sort of institutional memory if everyone just keeps dying?  Who came up with this stupid system?

As a Christian, I guess I’m supposed to have an answer to that question.  But it doesn’t really help much, except to provide a focus for the anger and frustration.  What the hell, God?  What were you thinking?  There’s so much shit to get done in this world and you give each of us a mere handful of years to do anything about it?

And while we’re at it, why IS there so much shit in this world to get done? So many diseases to cure.  So much poverty to address. Figuring out how to protect ourselves from nature while also being careful not to destroy nature in the process.  And, of course, none of us can agree on how to tackle these problems.  Hell, we can’t even agree on what is and is not a problem.  Really, I’m amazed it only took us thousands and thousands of years for us to get this far.  What kind of god would create such a ridiculously screwed up existence?

The question of how a supposedly loving God could create such a fucked up world has been so much a thorn in the side of Christian theology over the centuries that it has its own name: theodicy – the attempt to justify God in the face of evil.  But to me the whole endeavor of explaining the existence of evil seems quite hopeless for a religion that claims God is omnipotent.  Whatever the explanation, the response will always be, “Pssh. Whatevs. If God really is all-powerful, God could’ve made it work.”

For instance, free will figures prominently in many, if not most, Christian discussions on theodicy.  The running theory, generally, is that God wanted a creation that could choose to love God and “do right” of their own free will, and not mindlessly follow commands like programmed robots.  If there’s no evil, no “wrong choice,” then we are compelled to make the right choice.  With only one option, we have no free will.

spock

This is all very reasonable and logical.  But didn’t God create reason and logic?  If so, then God’s not really subject to them, right?  Or maybe God IS subject to the reason and logic God created because, after having made the rules, God has decided to play by them.  But then why did God make reason and logic to operate they way they do in the first place?  In the end, if God really had wanted us to exist in an evil-free universe, while at the same time possessing free will, God should have been able to make that happen, as impossible as that is for us mere mortals and our limited understanding to comprehend.  It’s like that logic problem used to challenge theists who believe in an omnipotent God, the one that goes something like: If God is omnipotent, can God create a boulder so heavy that God can’t lift it?  The Christian answer, I think, is “yes,” but God can also still lift the boulder.  God simply isn’t bound by human logic.

So I just don’t think we can really explain the existence of evil with a mixture of theology and reason; not if we proclaim an omnipotent God.  On the other hand, another aspect of an all-powerful, omnipresent creator is that this creator is not bound by time or space or dimensions or even timelines (Community and Flash fans know what I’m talking about).  God occupies every bit of space in existence and knows everything that has ever happened and everything that will ever happen in our universe, and in any parallel universes that might exist.  So while we can’t really see a purpose to evil with our very limited perspective on time and space, it’s quite possible that somewhere beyond our view, beyond our point in space and time (and dimension?), there is an explanation as to why our existence must be the way that it is, evil and all.  I think we Christians more or less have to believe this is the case.  

timeline

I know this sounds like a cop-out, like we’re letting God off the hook, but to me it makes a certain sort of sense.  If there is really some sort of all-powerful, all-knowing being that created the entire universe and all the laws of science, do we really think we can somehow get in this being’s head and understand what motivated it to do all this creating, and why it created the universe the way it did?

OK, yeah, it still sounds like an all-too-convenient out to a very tough question.  Sigh.  I make for a very poor Christian apologist (as this post is making abundantly clear).  On any given day, if one of my atheist or agnostic friends (I’m a gay man living on the east coast – most of my friends are atheist or agnostic) were to ask me, “Why should I believe?,” there’s probably a 50% chance I’d respond with “I don’t know, maybe you really shouldn’t, actually.”  If the question is turned on me, as in “Why do you believe?,” the simple answer is that I just can’t fathom that all of this – humanity, earth, the universe, etc. – is merely an accident.  I have this unwavering conviction that there’s a purpose to all this existence.  Maybe it is just wishful thinking, but whatever the case, I honest-to-God (ha!) can’t shake it.  I’m not claiming that deep down everyone feels this way, or that everyone even SHOULD feel this way, it’s just where I’m at, where I’ve always been, and I’m fairly certain where I’ll always be.

But believing that there’s some greater purpose to existence, and even an explanation for evil, is a far cry from knowing what that purpose or explanation is.  I can live with the idea that some things, like the existence of evil, might just be permanently beyond our grasp.  But it would be nice to have at least a peek, a preview, a clue as to why we’re here and where this is all going.  We don’t get much from what we can see, even using a microscope or telescope.  There’s not much in the observable universe that provides us with a sense of any ultimate, overarching purpose.  And this is soul-crushingly frustrating.  Once again, I find myself yelling at the heavens, “What the hell, God?”  Give us something to keep us going, at least!  Just a little taste of what we’re all here for.

stormtroopers

And this, for me, is the very essence of Advent.  A period of waiting, where we’re all crying out, desperate for some sort of clue to our existence.  And in just a few more days, God provides an answer.  

Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis.  “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14, KJV).  I think this is the most amazing verse in the Bible.  The idea that this all-powerful creator being came to us, as one of us, to personally deliver a message about what we’re all doing here, it’s either insane or beyond incredible.

And it wasn’t some horrid message like, “Grab onto as much power as you can for as long as you can.”  The very circumstances surrounding Jesus’s birth foreshadow a very different sort of missive.  The message delivered to us by the Word made flesh is that God’s plan for existence isn’t based on power and control, but on love, compassion, and service.  And that, ultimately, this plan will be completed.  We don’t know how long it will take, or why the process of getting there has to be such a damn pain-in-the-ass struggle, but we do know that at some point, God’s going to finish making existence the way it’s supposed to be.  And that, in the meantime, we can, rather we should and must, get a start on things.  Progress may be slow, and in some years we might even backtrack a bit (I’m talking to you, 2016!), and each of us may not get as much done as we’d like, but we’re promised that the universe (multiverse?) will get there, no matter what we do to forward or impede progress.  God will make sure it all happens.

And this is only half of the story.  When Holy Week rolls around we get more – a message of healing for us personally and for all the horrible shit in the world generally, and how, no matter when our time here on earth is up, God’s bringing us all back to experience the finished product, to experience what all of this existing is leading up to.

But I’m getting ahead of things.  Right now, in Advent, we cry out, we scream in frustration at the futility of existence.  It is a time of [sometimes painful] reflection.

advent-wreath-3

But very soon comes Christmas, when God hears all those agonizing screams and cries… and answers.  Personally.  In the flesh.  With glad tidings of comfort and joy.  Though right now, I just really need the comfort part.  I need the part where we’re told that there’s a purpose to all this seemingly meaningless existing.

As the 41st Christmas in my term-limited time here on Earth approaches, at a time of my life where I’m beginning to realize how very little I, or any of us, are able to accomplish in our lifetimes, this is the comfort that Christmas brings to me.  That what little I am able to do is not for naught, but part of something larger, part of a plan that will eventually be brought to fruition (even if I and everyone else fuck up sometimes, or a lot).  When I find myself screaming into the seeming-void about why anything exists at all, I hear millions of Christians from over two millennia speaking back to me in calm and reassuring tones that there is a reason, there is a plan, a purpose, and you are a part of it – rest easy in that comforting message.

No, We Can’t All Get Along

But we don’t have to be such jerks about it!

political-fisticuffs-001

Worst.  Election.  Ever.  Probably the only thing that Americans of all political persuasions can agree on.  And it’s not just that so many people think both candidates are particularly disappointing this time around (though this certainly is one very huge contributing factor), it’s also the polarization and divisiveness of this election that’s causing nationwide depression.

I feel like 2016 for America is that moment in a troubled marriage when the couple realizes that there’s no salvaging the relationship.  Soon liberals are going to start sleeping in the basement guest room while conservatives spend more time at their sister’s place.  And we’ve certainly given up on the notion of keeping up appearances, of pretending to be one happily united nation, content instead to air our dirty laundry, screaming and yelling at each other in full view of the neighbors, prompting poor Mexico and Canada to lower their blinds and turn up the TV.  

I’ve always been the annoying guy who, in the midst of conflict, whines about how we all need to try and get along.  But I’ve learned that getting along isn’t always possible, and at times isn’t even desirable.  Many of the issues that divide us these days go beyond politics; they involve diverging moral and ethical world views.  And I can’t imagine that it’d be healthy to sweep such conflicts under the rug to sit and fester in silence.  Better that we talk, shout, fight, protest, disrupt, etc. until we can figure this shit out and find a way forward, if that’s possible.  

hc-op-thorson-political-conflict-obscures-fact-001

But still…  

I get that we can’t all get along.  I really do.  But do we have to be so horrible in how we go about not getting along?  

When I read conservative articles, blogs, posts, comments, etc., I expect to hear about how wrong, ridiculous, and calamitous my liberal beliefs are.  That’s just the nature of conflicts over politics and morals.  But what surprises me nowadays is reading about how I don’t actually believe and support what I claim to believe and support.  Apparently, my political and moral convictions, wrong as they are, are really just a front for something even more sinister.

I’ve discovered that my support for (and participation in) same-sex marriage isn’t about my and others’ ability to marry the person we love; no, that sort of talk is just theater.  My real goal is to weaken the institution of marriage and society’s sense of the importance of family, to make it easier for the liberal elite to manipulate the population for our own perverse purposes.  My support for social welfare programs like Obamacare?  Not really about caring for the poor, I just want people dependent on the liberal-controlled government.  Environmental regulation?  Not all that concerned about climate change, I just want more government (i.e. liberal) control over business and industry.  LGBTQ+ anti-discrimination laws?  Not really interested in protecting LGBTQ+ access to jobs, housing, and services, I just want to coerce conservative Christians into believing what we leftists tell them to believe.  

These sorts of revelations are a bit panic inducing.  Did I miss something?  Is this all true?  I can see how a lot of this might be inferred from the rhetoric coming from some of the more irritating talking heads of the liberal movement.  But if this is what being a liberal is about, then I, and most liberals I know, are the worst liberals around.  I actually really do love my marriage, and I’m not interested in weakening it or anyone else’s.  I really am concerned about marginalized groups in society, and I do believe the government has a role to play (though not the only role), in protecting marginalized groups and endeavoring to un-marginalize them.  And as much as my conservative friends frustrate me with some of their beliefs, I have no interest in forcing them to believe or behave in any certain way.  I value the freedom that allows them to speak and act according to their consciences.  

And I really have no interest in a liberal plot to take over society.  I think political diversity in the running of our government is a good thing.  Also, I watch Game of Thrones; I know what plotting entails.  That shit looks exhausting, and pretty dangerous, actually.  I have a family, I have a job, I have friends, I have social commitments.  How the hell do I also fit in planning for a new liberal world order?

To make sure I really am doing this liberal thing correctly, I turn to liberal articles, blogs, posts, and comments where I’m relieved to find out that I actually am on the right track – no evil ulterior motives required.  But I also learn that, as it turns out, it’s really the conservatives who aren’t who they say they are.  Surprise twist – they’re the ones with the evil ulterior motives!

Their opposition to same-sex marriage doesn’t stem from a concern about the family and society.  Really, they just see the LGBTQ+ community as a threat to the traditional dominance of white Christians that needs to squashed.  Their opposition to government regulation?  Not about free markets, but about their ability to take advantage of marginalized groups without government interference.  And their concern for religious freedom, not really about religious freedom at all, but rather about tightening the now-weakening grip that Christianity has on society.

Well now that’s super helpful.  No more hand-wringing over how individuals I thought to be good, decent people could have such wrong beliefs.  It turns out that none of them are good and decent.  Problem solved – I can enjoy brunch with a mind untroubled by moral ambiguity.

Except, unfortunately, as much as all of that seems to ring true for so many big-name conservative leaders I read and hear about, none of it jives with what I know of the conservatives who are my friends and family.  First of all, if Facebook is any indication, in general they seem a lot more interested in and concerned about things like raising their kids, doing their jobs, church functions, and the like, than they are in reestablishing Christian hegemony over American society.  And in the occasional instances where they do get political, I’m pretty sure they’re quite sincere in their concern for family, religious freedom, and government overreach.  As much as I believe them to be so very wrong about so very many things, I also believe that they are quite sincere and good intentioned in their convictions.      

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But wait …

If there’s one thing this election has taught us, it’s that there really are groups of people out there using extremely questionable (or rather, completely illegitimate) policy concerns as an excuse to inflict harm on other groups of people in order to assert or regain some sort of power and control they feel belongs to them.  Something about this campaign season has brought them all out of the woodwork.  So yeah, there’s definitely a moral responsibility there, to not only oppose and expose the policies they propose for the horrors that they are, but to also question their stated motives, and challenge them to consider the bigotry and prejudice that is driving their politics.

But the fact that these groups (and the candidates they back) exist doesn’t mean that everyone on the other side of the political divide from us has some covert malicious motive for every single one of the policies they support and the morals they claim to hold.  And really, assessing motives is a tricky business.  I don’t think anyone can claim their motives for any belief or action, no matter how altruistic, are 100% pure good.  So it is probably healthy for each side to challenge the other side’s motives on certain issues; a lot of growth and insight can result from self-examination of the reasons we believe and act the way we do.  But “challenging motives” is a far cry from proclaiming that the other side is an abomination whose every belief originates from the depths of hell.     

It’s so very simple, comfortable, and self-satisfying to just assume that those who disagree with us on important issues believe the way they do because they are bad people with bad motives.    After all, the alternative is quite messy.  To accept that someone who we believe holds wrong beliefs, even harmful and hurtful beliefs, is, at least in part, well-meaning in those beliefs, that someone can have all the wrong beliefs for right reasons, requires that we let go of any sort of “good guy vs. bad guy” world view.  It forces us to recognize that sometimes good people believe and do wrong things and that separating humanity into “good” and “bad” isn’t really as straightforward as we’d like (if it’s possible at all).  

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Yes, so much easier to just conclude that everyone who believes differently than us does so because they are corrupt and wicked.  This kind of thinking provides a very appealing sort of Star Wars-ification of our political struggle.  The “good” side becomes the plucky Rebel Alliance fighting against the all-powerful evil Empire, who must be stopped at all costs. The problem is that it also dehumanizes those on the “bad” side.  They’re no longer a group of individuals who, though misguided (or even a bit selfish) in their politics, are still capable of love, kindness, and other human emotions.  Instead they become a malevolent force, only capable of hate and anger.  Something to be feared and defeated.

With this view of the other political party in mind, we can say or do anything we want to them without worrying about inflicting emotional harm; after all, they have no emotions.  We can call them all sorts of names – libtards, deplorables  – it doesn’t matter, they’re unfeeling beasts.  And of course the name-calling is quite justified because the stakes are so high – we’re fighting the most unspeakable evil in the universe.  Actually, we’re justified in doing pretty much whatever it takes to stop this horrible menace.  So go ahead and call for the execution of the other party’s candidate, bomb campaign offices, actively work to prevent the “wrong people” from voting, these means are all justified if the end result is defeat of the menacing plague that is the other party.

And this is what I mean about being so horrible in how we don’t get along.  This election seems to have so skewed our thinking about our political opponents that we sometimes don’t see or treat them as human beings anymore.  And that’s obviously troubling.

Sometimes I almost think it’s unfortunate that divorce isn’t an option for America.  It seems like it might be easier if each side could go live in its own part of the country and generally do its own thing.  We’d run into each other from time to time, conservatives and liberals, and have some fairly superficial chit chat about how things are going, carefully avoiding any sensitive subjects, and maybe even laugh about some of the good times we had together, before things got bad.  But generally we’d be happier living out our separate lives.  

Of course, divorce isn’t an option, and would probably be much more problematic than how I imagine it.  So instead we have to learn to live with each other, despite our differences, and despite our sometimes radically conflicting morals and ethics.  And that’s going to involve a lot of continued fighting and “not getting along.”  But to make all this conflict bearable, or at least non-lethal, we should maybe try to keep in mind that our struggle is with actual human beings, not Darth Vader and an army of brainwashed clones.           

Nearing the end of this horrible election, my Facebook feed is swamped with mostly political posts.  I’ve noticed that the only non-political posts that seem to stick out in the sea of partisan yammerings are posts about significant life events, both good and bad.  Friends and family celebrating new jobs, weddings, and births, or struggling with disease, divorce, and the loss of loved ones.  Whether that’s intentional on the part of Facebook or not, it seems appropriate that these events, at least, rise above politics.  I find that in my most politically frustrated, totally fed up moments, reading about these events, especially as they are experienced by friends and family with politics completely different from my own, always provides perspective, reminding me that those on the other side of the political divide are still just people.  I’m hoping that I, and the rest of everybody, can keep this perspective, even after this long, horrific election.

I’m Gettin’ Hitched to a Dude!

gay-cake-ornamentIn just a few days I’ll be marrying the man I love in a chapel on the grounds of a seminary run by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  In a parallel universe, where social media doesn’t exist and where all my former conservative Lutheran college classmates don’t already know, through Facebook, what’s going on in my life, such an announcement would be the cause of much surprise and consternation (I like to imagine making a grand pronouncement at the class reunion, as the room erupts into a cacophony of gasps and murmurs).  Surprise and consternation, not so much because I’m gay (which some college friends already knew, and others, I’m sure, suspected), but because I’ve left the comforting bosom of the conservative Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) for the theological wasteland of the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).  

For all you non-Lutherans out there who might not be familiar with the almost Game-of-Thrones-esque world of competing Lutheran denominations, you should know that the rivalry between the theologically conservative LCMS and the much more liberal ELCA is super intense; and I mean House Stark vs. House Lannister intense.  So intense, in fact, that it made its way into pop culture in the late 80s by way of this episode of Cheers.

But in all seriousness, there does seem to be an ever widening rift in American Christianity (not just Lutheranism) between those holding to a more conservative theology and more theologically liberal Christians.  And same-sex relationships are a major flashpoint in this conflict.  There are a multitude of stories out there describing how LGBTQ+ Christians, and many other Christians from conservative backgrounds, made the journey from conservative to progressive Christianity.  Adding mine to the pile is probably a bit redundant.  But since I’m about to tie the knot, and one major impetus in my crossing over to a more liberal theology is directly related to why I look forward to being married, I think telling just a little bit of my story is appropriate.  And anyway, it’s my wedding week and I can do what I want.

A lot of stories about LGBTQ+ individuals who grew up in conservative Christian households speak to how these persons felt a sort of crushing guilt because of their LGBTQ+ identity; a feeling that God didn’t love them because of who they were.  These stories are heartbreaking and they need to be told.  But they’re not my story.  I never really questioned my faith, questioned whether God loved me, due to my attraction to members of the same sex.  I think Lutheranism’s focus on grace, focus on justification by faith, not works, and the idea that Christians are always simultaneously saint and sinner, kept me from going down that dark path.  I never really figured that something I had no control over would somehow jeapordize my faith.  And my closest friends, the ones I told about my sexuality, were super supportive – they understood the difference between sexual orientation and sexual behavior.

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t think same-sex intimacy in any form wasn’t a sin (sorry for the triple negative).  I believed strongly that it was, and that any attempt to reconcile same-sex relationships with Christianity were corruptions of Scripture, and therefore corruptions of the Gospel, and ultimately far outside the bounds of true Christianity.

Thus my struggle wasn’t really whether God loved me or not, but rather what kind of life I was to lead knowing that a same-sex relationship was not an option.  At first I tried to just force myself into heterosexuality.  I dated women, and when that didn’t work I joined the local chapter of Exodus International, an organization that promised to lead gay men and women back into opposite-sex attraction. But alas, this too failed and my only other honest option was to resign myself to a lifetime of celibacy.  Difficult to do in today’s world that is obsessed with finding “the one” and then “focusing on the family,” but not impossible. However, as I endeavored to lead a “celibate lifestyle,” I was also curious as to what same-sex relationships were really like.  I mean, if the Bible was so dead-set against them, they must be pretty horrible, right?

I freely, even gladly, admit that conservative Christianity has a great many strengths, and this post isn’t in any way meant to be a condemnation of all of conservative Christendom.  But I must say that conservative Christians have never really been good at addressing the nature of same-sex relationships.  Of course, they are certain of what they’re not (they’re not marriage).  And they are very eloquent on what these relationships are missing (there’s no male/female complementarity).  They can be quite loquacious on the characteristics of the individuals in the relationship (men and women who have turned their backs on God, etc.).  But in describing what same-sex relationships actually are, they typically resort to rather indefinite terms of condemnation: sin, abomination, perversion of nature, not part of God’s plan, dysfunctional, etc.  Sometimes they might cite to flawed studies that contain a list of “more likely to’s”: more likely to cheat than those in heterosexual relationships, to have open relationships, to be abusive, etc.  Even if one ignores the flaws in these studies and takes them at face value, “more likely to” doesn’t equal “always.”  Which means that, flawed studies notwithstanding, there are still many same-sex relationships out there without all those terrible “more likely to” characteristics.  What about those?  What are they like?  Why, specifically, are they so terrible?  I’ve never really heard a good answer to these questions.

I get the feeling that a lot of Christians assume that a same-sex relationship is really just a close friendship with sex thrown in.  Just bros or gal pals who happen to sleep with each other.  As someone who can now speak from experience, our relationships are much, much more than that.

I’m a 40 year old man with a full-time job and other activities that keep me busy; I can tell you that there are plenty of moments when sex is the last thing on my mind.  But on those occasions, where my interest in sex is absolute zero, I still experience Chris as something more than a good friend.  There’s a comfort level I have with him that exceeds what I have with my closest friends, as dear as they are to me.  There’s a connection between us, a sort of understanding that makes it easy for us to share with each other our joys, our failures, our worries, and our frustrations with very little filtering. We both glean comfort and strength merely from holding each other, no words necessary.

I’m not trying to contend that there’s something uniquely magical about our relationship.  When we first met, there was certainly an initial physical attraction, coupled with a more-than-usual number of common interests and a shared perspective on a great many things.  But the closeness we now share is the result of an intentional process of getting to know each other.  In other words, our relationship progressed as any heterosexual relationship would, and led to the same outcome – a desire to commit to each other.

And commitment is another aspect of our relationship that distinguishes it from friendship.  Chris and I are not the perfect couple (despite what I just wrote in the previous paragraph); we argue, we irritate each other, we’re inconsiderate sometimes.  But ever since our engagement, and even before, we’ve had an understanding that we will work through the irritations, arguments, and frustrations.  That we won’t just walk away.  That we’ll continually endeavor to do, and be, better for each other.  Sure, I do have a somewhat similar commitment to my friends, but it’s not the all-encompassing, we’re in this for good, we make our life decisions together now, commitment I have with Chris.

And in addition to our shared commitment to each other, we share a commitment to the world around us.  We recognize that we both have a calling, and we are committed to helping each other fulfill that calling.  I know that Chris is going to make an amazing pastor, and I plan to do all that is within my power to support him in that.  And Chris also inspires me to do more to fulfill my vocation.  We are united in taking seriously our call to serve and recognize that as a team we are more effective in our calling than we are as individuals.

I’m not so egotistical as to think Chris and I are unique in the nature of our same-sex relationship.  In fact, I know from experience that we’re not.  I’ve known many, many gay and lesbian couples whose relationship functioned in much the same way.  And it was in getting to know and know about these couples that I initially began questioning the idea that there was something inherently wrong with same-sex relationships (coming full circle back to the original topic now).  These relationships were not the dysfunctional abomination I had been told they were.  They seemed pretty much the same as heterosexual relationships.  Confronted with the realization that what I had been taught about the nature of same-sex relationships (as vague and indefinite as that was) was wrong, I began to question whether the absolute prohibition of same-sex intimacy, as taught by my church, might also be wrong.  And if they were wrong about that, what else might they be wrong about?

Of course, the discovery that same-sex relationships were healthier and more stable than my church had led me to believe is not by itself a sufficient basis for changing one’s theology.  But it did get me questioning, which led to a quest for understanding.  I read the Bible, read books on how to read the Bible, read books on homosexuality and the Bible, talked to people, argued with people, prayed, and cried.  And this quest, this journey, which certainly isn’t over, has led me where I am today.

As I mentioned earlier, the purpose of this post isn’t to complain about conservative Christianity.  I realize that most people were well intentioned and sincere in what they told me about gay and lesbian relationships, even if they were mistaken.  Rather, I just wanted to offer an explanation, to give some background, as to why I’ll be marrying a dude this Saturday, despite my conservative Lutheran upbringing – not because I owe anyone an explanation, but because it’s a story I really wanted to share.  I approach the wedding with excitement, awe, and feeling a little bit overwhelmed by it all.  But no part of me thinks this might not be right.  There’s no nagging feeling in the back of my head that this sort of thing, this marrying of two people of the same gender, is somehow wrong.  Saturday afternoon I will marry someone I truly love, and not only will we be the better for the union, but so will those around us.  I couldn’t be happier!

We’re Not Out to Get You

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Mom and dad taught me that being a sore winner was even worse than being a sore loser.  So now that all the rainbow dust has started to settle from last week’s Supreme Court decision and the celebrating is winding down, I feel like I should respond to all my friends out there who were disappointed, saddened, or even angered by nationwide marriage equality – not to gloat or harass (sore winner), but to be conciliatory, or at least try to assure you that we’re not all the horrible monsters bent on persecuting the crap out of Christians that many would have you believe.

Along with everyone else who was celebrating, Chris and I were thrilled at this big step forward in advancing equal rights for a marginalized group in society.  But for me, on a personal and practical (and kinda selfish) level, the decision also affords me peace of mind.  The various tragic stories of the treatment of same-sex married couples in states that didn’t recognize same-sex marriage horrified me.  If, for instance, God forbid, something were to happen to Chris while we were travelling in another state and he ended up in the hospital, I would probably actually lose my mind if I weren’t allowed to see him, to be there for him, to hold him, to comfort him, just because the state didn’t recognize me as his family.  In light of last week’s decision, I feel better about our legal rights, protections, and recourse in those kinds of situations.

With these thoughts in mind, I must admit that I was at first impatient and annoyed at your posts expressing sadness, disappointment and anger at Friday’s decision.  I was sorely tempted to respond in indignation.  Did you not want me to have the right to visit Chris in the hospital?  How could you want to refuse us the right to marry without knowing us?  Without knowing the thousands of other same-sex couples in healthy, stable marriages, many raising well-adjusted, happy kids?  How could you make pronouncements on the nature of our relationships, and the rights and protections we do or don’t deserve, without substantial first-hand experience with the people in those relationships?

Of course, the response I can already hear from you is that this isn’t about our relationships, it’s about the institution of marriage, an institution that’s foundational for a stable society.  By “redefining” what marriage is, by changing its nature and function in society, we’re threatening society’s stability.  And then my response would be that marriage has never really functioned in the way you portray it, never really served the purpose you say it’s always served, and that by expanding marriage we’re making society stronger.  And then you’d respond again, and then I’d respond, and eventually a heated argument would ensue, joined by others, somebody would start calling people names, and finally Hitler would be brought up and then all sorts of blocking and unfriending would occur.

I really didn’t want to mar what was a day of rejoicing with snarky online arguments.  Actually, I don’t want to mar any day with that kind of snarky online argument.  So my message here isn’t a rehashing of all the reasons we should support same-sex marriage.  Rather, I wanted to address the “issues surrounding the issue.”  I saw a lot of posts about what the decision really means and what we in the LGBTQ+ community are really after, and most of what was said was inaccurate (in some cases) or just plain wrong (in most cases).  I feel the need to respond to this kind of misinformation, even if you likely won’t find my response convincing (or even read this response at all).  But I’ll try to respond in a way that takes into account the issue from your point of view in the context of your beliefs.

Of course, understanding someone’s point of view does not mean agreeing with them, or even necessarily finding some sort of common ground.  We obviously have fundamentally different views on the issue; I believe that the affirming of same-sex relationships and marriage is a large step in the right direction toward making the world a more just and loving place, while you believe such affirmation is a leap in the wrong direction, toward making the world more corrupt and less stable.  For most of us, no amount of discussion, debate, or argument is going to change our minds on where we stand.  We’re just going to have to figure out a way to continue living together in relative peace, even as we continue to nudge, push, pull, and drag church and society in completely opposite directions on this issue.

However, I can recognize that where you stand stems from your faith and religious beliefs, and not from hate for the LGBTQ+ community.  I know this because I used to be one of you, I used to belong to a conservative Christian community and had the same views on this issue as you do, stemming from a desire to be faithful to my God, not from any hate in my heart.  I also know this because I know you, and I know what loving people you are.  And the fact that I think you are very, very wrong on this issue does not mean I suddenly believe you to be unloving.

I can also empathize with the disappointment you’re feeling right now, and not just because I used to believe the same as you do, but because of the setbacks and defeats we in the LGBTQ+ community have also suffered.  I’ve felt similar kinds of anger and sadness when, for example, states voted to amend their constitutions just to prohibit people of the same gender from marrying each other.  I know what it is to be frustrated that certain groups seem to be hijacking your town, city, state, country, and even church and taking it down the wrong path.  It totally sucks and I really am truly sorry you feel that way.

Even more than anger and sadness, I saw a lot of fear and concern in your tweets and posts.  So many of you were predicting a maelstrom of coming religious persecution.  I think most of my LGBTQ+ companions and allies feel that this is really just a lot of bluster to paint the LGBTQ+ community as a group of scheming, malicious individuals out to destroy decent, God-fearin’ folk.  And certainly there are people out there using these dire predictions as a way to make us seem super horrible.  But I also know that much of the fear and concern is genuine.  It’s understandable that you might be a little fearful.  You hold what, in many places, is considered to be a very unpopular opinion (though there are still many, many areas in the U.S. where supporting same-sex marriage is the unpopular opinion).

We in the LGBTQ+ community are quite familiar with having unpopular opinions and fearing persecution.  Just 15 to 20 years ago, we were the unpopular kids.  People advocating for same-sex marriage were called perverts, sickos, and much worse (just as you’re sometimes called bigots and haters nowadays).  In many places today, we’re still called those things.  Back then we feared being sent to jail, fired from our jobs, and kicked out of our homes just for living out our belief that same-sex relationships were right and healthy for us.  And still today, in many places LGBTQ+ people fear being fired, refused services, or kicked out of housing merely because they identify as LGBTQ+.  Even in our supposedly super accepting society, there’s only a few places in the U.S. where I feel safe and comfortable holding Chris’s hand in public.

All of this is to say that I can empathize with your fear of persecution.  However, I also feel that you have much less to fear than many of you seem to think.  First of all, the idea that, “Well now that we have same-sex marriage our right to the freedom of defining marriage the way we want is in jeopardy,” creates a false dichotomy.  Legalized same-sex marriage does not have to mean that everybody must now sanction same-sex marriages (with churches and pastors being forced to perform same-sex weddings, etc.).  We can have both legal same-sex marriages and the right not to sanction such unions.  Actually, that IS what we have right now.

Of course, the more precise fear isn’t what the law is now, but that the LGBTQ+ community will now push to alter the legal landscape so that people who do not sanction same-sex marriage will have a very difficult time of it, that our real reason for pushing for same-sex marriage and other legal protections is to eventually force everyone to accept us, whether they like it or not!

First, let me say there are a whole host of reasons for wanting marriage, other than to persecute Christians into loving the gays.  The legal protections in the event of an emergency, as I mentioned above, are hugely important to us.  Also, so that our kids aren’t taken from us, so that we can take care of our spouses even after death, etc.  This isn’t just about having super fun weddings.

Second, I can assure you that I personally do not want to legally force or coerce Christians into supporting same-sex marriage.  I fully support your rights to preach against same-sex relationships in your homes, in your churches, and especially in the public square.  And most LGBTQ+ persons that I know similarly support such rights.  The ACLU, for instance, an organization that fully supports us and in turn is supported by us (and many LGBTQ+ individuals work for that organization), represents Westboro Baptist Church in its fight for free speech rights, so they can say awful things about us.  There are plenty of LGBTQ+ folk out there who support very strong protections for freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

I do realize that a lot of times when you speak up about your position, you are often attacked with accusations of bigot or hater or worse.  That, in many arenas, there’s such antipathy displayed against those who would voice their views against same-sex marriage that you feel you’re being forced into silence.  I would suggest that, for most of us, such vehemently negative responses aren’t a reaction merely to the beliefs you hold, but because many who hold those same beliefs have acted on them in very hurtful ways.  Not only have we in the LGBTQ+ community been cast out of our churches, but we’ve been kicked out of our homes and families, ostracized by our friends, called much worse names than bigot, and have been physically beaten, and in some cases killed.  Not to mention, there are people who would take our children away from us if they could, deny us the ability to visit our dying spouses in the hospital, and refuse to rent us an apartment.  All of this in the name of the belief that identifying as LGBTQ+ is wrong, that being in a same-sex relationship is wrong.  So you can see why we might react emotionally to these opinions.

Yes, it is a mistake to assume that all Christians who oppose same-sex marriage act on their beliefs in this harmful manner, and we in the LGBTQ community need to understand that not every Christian who teaches that same-sex relationships are sin is full of vile hatred.  And we should try to keep this in mind when discussing the issue with you all, so that we can more often respond with calmness and grace.  But in return, we’d like you to understand that our emotionally visceral responses and reactions concerning this issue stem from the pain that has been, and continues to be, inflicted on us because of our beliefs and “lifestyle,” not just because we want to force everyone to like us.  In other words, for most of us, this isn’t about forcing our beliefs on you, rather it’s about our reaction to the perception (and all too often the reality) that you’re forcing your beliefs and lifestyle on us.

“Ah,” I hear you say, “but if you’re supposedly not trying to impose your beliefs on us, then why are you forcing us to bake cakes and take pictures for your weddings?”  And here we finally get to the real heart of the current debate surrounding the LGBTQ+ community, which is non-discrimination laws, not same-sex marriage.  I do understand how you might view these non-discrimination cases as indication of a movement to force you into seeing things our way.  But again, our push for non-discrimination laws isn’t about making YOU do something, it’s about protecting ourselves.  It’s about living without the fear that we can be fired from our jobs, kicked out of our homes, or refused services just because we identify as LGBTQ+, or just because we’re in a relationship with, or married to, someone of the same gender.

I have to say that I find the idea that Christianity requires Christians to refuse to sell items or provide services for use in a same-sex wedding a bit strange.  I mean, isn’t a Hindu wedding, that literally calls on other gods, just as idolatrous as a same-sex wedding supposedly is?  Then why haven’t I heard of Christians taking a stand against religious non-discrimination laws by refusing to bake a cake for a Hindu wedding?  If Christianity requires Christian clerks to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, then shouldn’t Christian civil servants also be required to refuse to issue a building permit for a Buddhist temple, or an assembly permit for an atheist gathering?  What about a Christian architect who designs a Hindu temple?  Or a Christian car dealer who sells a van to a mosque?  Why are these instances of “participation in idolatry” OK, but not “participation” in a same-sex wedding by selling a cake or issuing a license?  There are inconsistencies and hypocrisies here that seem to point to a certain animus directed at the LGBTQ+ community, rather just “trying to live according to my beliefs.”

The issue of not baking cakes for weddings aside, I get your concern for being able to believe, preach, teach, and live according to your beliefs.  If it’s any consolation, no legal scholar of repute, either liberal or conservative, could envision a scenario where the Supreme Court would uphold a law that forces a church to sanction and perform same-sex marriages or prohibits them from calling same-sex relationships sin.  Laws that would treat churches that prohibit same-sex marriage differently than churches that sanction same-sex marriage by allowing benefits to one but not the other (such as tax exemptions) would similarly never pass constitutional muster.  Even churches that prohibit interracial marriage, which is far more unpopular than prohibiting same-sex marriage, are not refused the benefits enjoyed by churches who do not forbid them.

And even more important than the legal arguments is that, as I mentioned above, we’re not actually out to take away anyone’s freedom to worship, preach, and teach as they please.  I know it’s rather convenient and comforting to believe that we are, to see us as “the bad guys” out to destroy you, because then you don’t have to deal with the messy idea that good people can still significantly disagree on very important issues.  We certainly do the same thing to you all, and for the same reasons.  But I think it would do us all a world of good if both sides worked harder to resist the temptation to vilify the other.

None of this is to say that there aren’t significant non-discrimination issues that we’ll be arguing about and working out in the future.  How non-discrimination laws should apply to church-affiliated universities and charities, for instance, will likely be the subject of many court and legislative battles.  But, in the midst of these fights, as we try to keep in mind that you all are genuinely concerned about your religious freedoms, even if we disagree about the extent to which religious freedom extends, we also ask that you keep in mind that we are genuinely concerned about our rights to live according to our beliefs, even if you disagree about the extent to which those rights should be protected.

Finally, even as I write “we’re not out do to this” or “we don’t really think that,” I know that there are people in the LGBTQ+ community who are out to do this or who really do think that.  I’m sure there are people who hate Christians, who really would like to abridge religious freedoms such that Christians are forced to sanction same-sex marriage in their churches, who call you things like bigot and are otherwise cruel to you simply because they’re mean fucks.  Just like there are Christians out there who really are bigoted, who really do hate individuals that identify as LGBTQ+, who would rather see us put in jail or worse, and who really do still call us all sorts of horrid names.  Such fanatics on either side are not representative of their group as a whole, even if they do get a disproportionate amount of media attention because they make for a much better story than “Rational People Calmly Discuss Their Disagreements and Differences.”

Anyway, that’s all I had to say.  Basically, I get that you, well most of you anyway, don’t hate us LGBTQ+ folk and I hope that you in turn understand that we, well most of us anyway, don’t hate you Christians who hold same-sex relationships to be a sin and that we’re not out to get you.  I am more than certain that last week’s Supreme Court decision wasn’t the end of this issue, by a long shot.  And there will be continued online discussion, argument, fighting, (virtual) screaming and shouting, etc. in the future. There’s a lot of emotion involved on this issue, so getting angry and upset is natural, I suppose, and it’s probably better to vent by getting snarky online than to, say, punch someone in the face.  So I won’t be that guy who constantly tells everyone to calm down.  But I am suggesting that we all resist the urge to turn this into a fight between the good guys and the evil empire, to make those who would disagree with us into horrible monsters.  This isn’t Lord of the Rings.  The “other side” isn’t an orc horde from the deep out to destroy you and all of humanity.  They’re human beings, same as you.  Just something to keep in mind.

Thou Shalt Not Bear False Testimony against the LGBT Community (Sorry, we’re just not that scandalous)

swearing in

It’s an exciting time to be me.  I seem to be living on the cutting edge of current events, getting same-sex married in the same year the Supreme Court is set to rule on whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.  And not content with regular ole’ gay marriage, I decided to marry a seminarian and soon-to-be pastor.  And the ceremony is taking place at… the… seminary.

Obviously, all of this entitles me to a position of importance whenever the topics of same-sex marriage or the LGBTQ community & the Church come up.  “WELL, as a gay man about to marry a preacher… [sudden hushed silence] I think that …”

Of course, marrying a person of the same gender isn’t all fun, excitement, and current eventy self-importance-ness.  There are a lot of people out there who would rather I not marry Chris, and they’re doing all they can to discourage same-sex unions from happening.

A couple of years ago, one such same-sex marriage detractor wrote an article suggesting that the reason same-sex marriage was gaining so much support was that people were too focused on distractions like love and commitment, so that they’d forgotten just how gross gay sex really is.  His proposed solution is that opponents to same-sex marriage include explicit descriptions of gay and lesbian sex when discussing the issue.

Now this article is several years old and near as I can tell nobody took him up on that suggestion, so it’s rather pointless to get all up-in-arms about an article written literally ages ago that apparently had no effect on anything.  But while the article and its message are pretty extreme, its underlying assumption, namely that there is some sort of ulterior motive to the push for same-sex marriage, is fairly commonplace.

This, I think, is what is meant by the term “the gay agenda.”  That what we really want isn’t marriage; our real purpose is more sinister.  There seem to be differing opinions as to exactly what the real purpose is supposed to be; usually it’s something about wanting to destroy the institution of marriage by making it meaningless.  Or sometimes we’re just out to force everyone to accept “our sinful lifestyle,” the defining feature of which, according to that article, is having lots of gay sex.

It’s a wonder to me how these people claim to know what the LGBTQ community’s motivations are.  Have they spoken with each and every one of us?  Can they read our hearts and minds?  Do they imagine we’re one monolithic group, with the same purpose and goal?  Perhaps some in the community want to destroy marriage and/or have lots of gay sex.  But is it so unfathomable that some of us just want to be a family with the person we love, with the person that we know will make us a better person (and vice versa), with the person we want at our side as we struggle to serve our purpose in this world?  I can say with some certainty that anyone who observes Chris and I cuddled on the couch, stuffing our faces with Thai take-out, and binge watching Ugly Betty on Hulu will be disabused of the notion that our relationship is really just about gay sex.

These “I know what your real motivations are” type accusations are often leveled at LGBTQ Christians in the form of claims that our reading of the Bible as affirming of same-sex relationships is just an attempt to twist Scripture in such a way as to support … what else but … our sinful lifestyle.  It certainly couldn’t be a result of prayerful study of Scripture and theology.

But alright, same-sex oriented Christians do have a pointed interest in the same-sex marriage debate, so I can see how some people might be suspicious of our motivations.  However, these same accusations are also leveled at our heterosexual allies.  Their supposed hidden motive is, to put it simply, popularity.  Apparently they twist Scripture so that they can “conform to culture” or “fit into society.”  In other words, they want to hang with the cool kids so they’re going to drink, swear, and rat their theologically metaphorical hair.  Such accusations make me wonder what these people think happens when a Christian comes out as affirming of same-sex marriage.  Do they imagine that affirming pastors previously sat at home on weekends with nothing to do, year after year, until finally they caved into pressure, stuck a rainbow flag on the church marquee, and now they’re invited to all the exclusive parties?

Sure, some people might sell more books or advance further in their career if they show support for the LGBTQ community, but the vast majority of LGBTQ allies in the Church are average, everyday people who have nothing of significance to gain by supporting same-sex marriage.  In fact, many face considerable opposition from family, friends, and their church for their views, even in today’s supposedly “super accepting” society.  To portray a conviction that, for many, is a result of years of Biblical study, conversation, and prayer, as a mere ploy to gain a seat at the popular table is both insulting and pathetically juvenile.  In most cases it’s also a lie. (Does anyone care about the 8th Commandment anymore?  I think Luther said it best – “put the best construction on everything.”)

Now before I get any more caught up in my self-righteous indignation, I must admit that we in the LGBTQ community often do the same thing.  We, or rather I (best I just speak for myself) tend to label any person who cannot square her religious convictions with same-sex marriage as a bigoted jerk.  Yes, some people opposed to LGBTQ rights are hateful bigots.  But not everyone who feels the Bible prohibits same-sex relationships is full of hate.  Many people struggle with reconciling the sexual morals they’ve been taught since… well, basically birth… and the desire to be loving and supportive of LGBTQ folk.  It’s unfair, and unproductive, to be screaming “BIGOT” at people caught in this struggle.

I suppose it’s human nature to want to vilify those who disagree with us.  For my part, I blame Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, which taught me that, generally (with a very few notable exceptions), the people on the bad side are bad people and the people on the good side are good people.  But really, this tendency to vilify the opposition is counter-productive to gaining support for whatever “side” we’re on.  LGBTQ allies are going to run into conservative Christians at work, family events, civic events, etc. and realize that they’re not all the monsters we sometimes portray them to be.  And we lose credibility when this happens.

Similarly, opponents of LGBTQ rights will have family or friends or friends of friends who identify as LGBTQ, and will find that many of us are not out to destroy marriage with gay sex.  That we really are loving people in loving relationships who just want to be able to live our lives without having to worry about being fired from our jobs, refused services, forbidden to see our family members in the hospital, having our children taken from us, etc.  Seems to me that it becomes more difficult to support a stance if you discover that its proponents are lying to you about what the other side is like.

I’m not trying to minimize the magnitude of disagreement between supporters and those who oppose same-sex marriage; the two sides have very different beliefs on this issue and how they act on these beliefs have very real and significant consequences for individuals and our society as a whole.  But it is possible to believe that someone is very, very wrong in their convictions, and yet understand that these flawed convictions flow, at least in part, from good intentions.  It’s possible for someone to be completely wrong for all the right reasons.

For the most part, family and friends have been very supportive of my upcoming nuptials with Chris.  A few are uncomfortable but still supportive, and there are a very few who are just unable to support it at all.  But even those who are unable to give their full support due to religious beliefs know that there’s nothing sinister behind our desire to marry, no ulterior motive or hidden agenda.  And I, in turn, understand that their disagreement with the marriage, wrong and misguided though it be, comes from a place of concern for our spiritual well-being, not because they just hate gay people.

I find all this civility and empathy quite disappointing, as it affords me no opportunity to have a dramatic episode (How dare you!   How DAAAARRRE you!!!!!), and therefore no possibility for subsequent dramatic recountings of the dramatic episode (Can you believe what she said??!!  I mean, can you even BELIEVE what she said???!!!).  But I guess dramatic excitement must take a back seat to the 8th Commandment and Christian love.  No matter, really.  This summer the Supreme Court is poised to make marriage equality the law of the land and I will be marrying the man I love; there’s plenty of other things to be excited about.