The Christian Right’s Pitiful Rearguard Action

The cause du jour among some conservative Christians is maintaining their sacred entitlement to discriminate against people of unauthorized sexual orientation — LGBT — in public matters. And if they aren’t allowed to discriminate as they please, they honestly believe this amounts to discrimination against them.

Let us be clear, much hysterical rhetoric to the contrary, that no one is proposing churches must perform same-sex marriages or accept homosexual congregants. But in the public realm, in business and housing and employment, no one gets to discriminate against other citizens. Period.

As Eliel Cruz wrote,

You can’t victimize yourself in a situation you started in the first place. Christians, in general, have a hard time remembering that as we choose to oppress, due to our sincerely held religious beliefs, yet cry “discrimination” when we feel a push back. This is especially true when those people are queer. Within the Christian community, there are those who believe we are being discriminated against. However, no one is pushing legislation that excludes Christians from basic legal rights in the U.S. (such as job protection and marriage). Nor is anyone physically assaulting Christians due to their religious beliefs or advocacy. Christians are not facing actual tribulations, rather, the “discrimination” they cry comes from not being allowed to discriminate [against] others. It’s a double standard and they keep crying wolf. Or we, I should say, since, like many other LGBT people, I am also a Christian.

In this and many other “culture war” matters, the Christian Right wants to frame the issue as Christians versus non-Christians, but that isn’t accurate. It’s really cultural reactionaries, some of whom are Christian but some not, versus everybody else, including other Christians.

The most recent example of attempted religious overreach involves a fight over anti-LGBT discrimination laws in Houston. A new city ordinance bans anti-gay discrimination among businesses that serve the public, in private and public employment, in city contracting and in housing. The ordinance also exempted religious institutions from having to comply.

In spite of the exemption, several churches gathered signatures to get the ordinance recalled. They thought they had enough signatures to put the repeal on the November ballot, but the city attorney disqualified many of the signatures, so the petition drive fell short. Some of the Christians sued the city. The city attorney subpoenaed documents related to the signature gathering effort from five pastors not involved in the lawsuit but who were thought to be involved in the ballot petitions. Apparently the point of this was to find out what instructions the pastors had given people regarding how they would collect signatures.

According to several news stories the original subpoena mentioned sermons, although this has since been revised. Nevertheless the usual howlers on Fox News and elsewhere began to howl about the subpoenaing of sermons — leaving out the details, of course — and holding this up as an example of the abuse of innocent Christians at the hands of godless unbelievers. For example, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, got on Fox News and flat-out lied about the fact of the situation, falsely claiming that the city was trying to “dictate what pastors preach.” The commandment about “bearing false witness” seems often overlooked.

A theology professor from Georgia named Dr. Joel McDurmon, writing for a Christian “Biblical worldview ministry” website, pointed out that Christians cannot file lawsuits and expect to be treated differently from anyone else filing lawsuits.

The headlines read as if the city has made some move to start monitoring all pastors’ sermons, and this simply is not the case. It also gives the impression that this is some out-of-the-blue, general attack tactic by the activists upon the pulpit. It is not. It is not out-of-the-blue, it is not broad and general as far as the implicated pastors goes, and it should not be a surprise at all.

The City is not making a move to monitor sermons. The city is merely responding to a lawsuit against it and using standard powers of discovery in regard to a handful of pastors who are implicated as relevant to the lawsuit. The issue is here: once you file a lawsuit, you open up yourself and potentially your friends and acquaintances to discovery. This is the aspect that has not been reported, but it is an important part of the context.

A commenter to Dr. McDurmon wrote,

Thanks Dr for the very needed trusting-in-Christ reasonableness.

What I’m always mystified by, is one: how we evangelicals/christians think we can have (or demand) a laundry list of special privileges/exemptions etc, yet we are a minority who claim to follow a faith/religion that is so at odds (or should be) with the society we live in – yet we expect to carry on as before, unmolested in anyway whatsoever? That’s illogical. That’s never happened before in the history of humankind – yet we act as if it’s our right to be otherwise! If we have any understanding of church history or Scriptures we should know better…and be a lot more grateful about what we do have and less complaining about the few annoyances that come our way…

Second: How we think we can keep getting away with over-hyping and misrepresenting/mischaracterizing (and nearly lying sometimes – a la “death panels”) situations like this and not pay a price? When you cry wolf or in this case “persecution” over and over again; when in relative terms compared to real persecution; it is anything but persecution… Then how do we expect to be taken seriously, EVER!

I point this out to make it clear that some Christian conservatives get it, and understand that they actually have to recognize they live in a pluralistic society.

However, the other conservative Christians are thumping their chests and declaring they are doing God’s work by trying to stop civil rights protections for LGBT folks. But, y’know, they said exactly the same thing when the issue was race, not that many years ago. And they said the same thing when the issue was equal rights for women. What we’re looking at here isn’t so much a slippery slope as it is, in Freud’s words, a “pitiful rearguard action.”

In the past conservative Christian groups in the U.S. not only defended slavery, they also opposed such things as Catholicism, women’s suffrage and allowing women to have anesthesia during childbirth. This list is far from complete. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries American Christians were active on both sides of many social issues, including such matters as prohibiting child labor, and both sides claimed a mandate from the Bible for their position.  The progressives won many of the battles, but one could argue they lost the war. These days conservative Christians have managed to persuade much of the public — and much of news media — that they alone speak for Christianity.

But they don’t.

And there is no doubt in my mind that if people were allowed a dispensation to discriminate against whomever because of religious convictions, large parts of the country would revert to Jim Crow laws and male-only professions before the next “war on Christmas” season.

This isn’t just the Golden Rule; it’s acknowledging that we live in an enormously diverse country, and if everyone were given carte blanche to discriminate as he liked there would be chaos. And I have no doubt if conservative Christians ever get the discrimination permission slip they are demanding, new religions would suddenly appear whose core belief is that Christians are evil and must be discriminated against.

Is this a slippery slope argument? Consider that recently some groups identifying themselves as Satanists have demanding that if Christian symbols are displayed in public buildings, Satanic symbols must be displayed also. One suspects this effort is less about devotion to Satan than it is about pushing back against right-wing Christian tribal dominance in America.

Must Satanists be recognized as a religion? The government is loathe to get into the business of determining what is a religion and what isn’t, mostly because most religions look ridiculous to outsiders who aren’t used to them, and such determination would no doubt freeze out many legitimate minority religions. So, recently a few people have insisted on wearing pasta strainers on their heads for their official driver’s license photos, saying they are “Pastafarians” and followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and the government can’t say they aren’t. 

Can of worms, folks? Do we really want to have the government regulate and license what religion is supposed to be? I certainly don’t.

We have a reasonably clear, bright line that says government can’t go into churches and temples and determine who can be married and receive communion. But in the public sphere citizens don’t get to discriminate against other citizens. This is workable. It is the least government-intrusive solution to our problem of respecting both religious freedom and civil rights. No one is saying you can’t believe as you choose, but if your religious beliefs say you cannot do business with LGBT customers, don’t go into the wedding catering business.

Weirdly, the conservative Christians barred from exercising exclusive discrimination privileges complain that they are victims of government overreach.  They are too myopic to see that the same policies actually protect them from government overreach.

Ultimately, if you can’t handle life in a socially, religiously and culturally diverse nation, buy an island and live as you like. There is also an old and time-honored American tradition of allowing religious groups such as the Amish or Hasidic Jews  to build exclusive communities and more or less operate as laws unto themselves. But you can’t live among people who don’t believe as you do and carve out privileges for yourself that don’t apply to everyone else.

Why is this so difficult to understand?

Read more about religious/political conflict America in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.

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