NB: I was at a conference this week and so didn’t have time to draft a proper newsletter for today. In lieu of that, here’s 1300 words of comments that I gave at the conference on the relationship between evangelicals and the LGBT community.
Beneath the spectacular legal conflicts over non-discrimination ordinances and religious liberty lie competing narratives about the nature and origins of our grand cultural struggle. Social conservatives are convinced that the LGBT community are aggressors in the culture war who are eager to ‘punish the wicked’ for their opposition to gay rights. I gather that many LGBT advocates think the pursuit of protections for religious dissidents to the prevailing sexual orthodoxy is merely a desperate attempt to preserve the cultural privilege conservative Christians have long enjoyed. These competing narratives set the context in which our responsibility toward our neighbor takes shape: what it means for a Christian to both love and obey God and love our LGBT fellow is inextricable from the history of social interactions that have undermined trust and generated animus between our communities.
As an evangelical Christian, taking history seriously means beginning with something like confession. If the LGBT community is in fact motivated to constrain religious expression out of vindictiveness, the question naturally arises whether we Christians deserve it. Any sober answer can only acknowledge the misuses and abuses of power and politics by conservative Christians in their defense of traditional marriage. As legitimate as concerns about the importance of marriage to the common good are, the argument was sometimes pursued by activists and ordinary citizens (even if not by lawyers or other leaders) in ways that undermined our credibility with those we were ostensibly seeking to persuade. At the same time, our failures to uphold appropriate sexual norms within our own communities—such as the Catholic sex scandal, or rampant divorce within evangelicalism—made us too easily susceptible to charges of hypocrisy. Moreover, we required instant transformation of gay and lesbian individuals within our own communities, burdening them with wildly unrealistic expectations and subsequently exhausting them.
Such failures, I think, are animated in part by an anxiety to bring about the Kingdom of God with our own hands. Evangelical Christians have long been possessed by a sense of urgency about the need for immediate social change, which has drawn them to seek it by nearly any means necessary—especially the law (remember Prohibition). As such an anxiety is fundamentally a departure from the confidence that God is seated on His throne while the nations rage, it could only transform into outright fear for our own communities once it became clear we had lost the struggle against gay marriage.
In order to love our neighbor here and now, then, Christians must recognize that we helped create the conditions of our own marginalization. We stand in need of grace—in need, we might even say, of mercy. Beginning with such a confession places us in the position that evangelicals have long claimed all God’s children are in, for one reason or another: our sins and trespasses have made us debtors in need of forgiveness, from both God and from the LGBT community. The good news is that God’s grace is real: in Christ Jesus he demonstrates the depths and lengths of his longsuffering love toward us, and in so doing opens a path to a new political life by empowering us to love our neighbors without fear.
For God so loved the world, the Bible tells us—which is to say, He loved the world in this way, by dying for it in Jesus Christ. The forbearance of God toward sinners comes at an extraordinary cost. God is willing to accompany us even as we spurn and scorn him. This love and forbearance is the content of the command of God to love our neighbors. Only within the endlessly patient love of God can it be true that the meek will inherit the earth, and that those who suffer may rejoice. God’s gracious patience toward humanity demands our own forbearance toward our neighbour, even and especially those who would be our enemies.
Forbearance, though, is neither affirmation nor approval: it cannot require us to celebrate or condone same-sex unions, for instance. If anything, forbearance is a recognition that a person is engaged in activity one thinks is morally wrong—yet is doing so as a free agent, and so as one who deserves respect. Forbearance is a form of hope: in accompanying our enemies as far as we can, we invite them into a common life and good that enmity would otherwise inhibit. It may well be offensive to those who are members of the LGBT community to be spoken of in such terms. Speaking about loving our neighbors this way seems damnably patronizing, and even insulting: no one wants to be thought wrong about such questions, even if one is ostensibly loved. Yet such a response only reveals that forbearance must be mutual, if we are to find a common good at all.
Neither, though, does the Christian’s responsibility to forbear with our LGBT neighbour exonerate the LGBT movement’s embrace of an illiberal hostility toward those who hold to a traditional sexual ethic. For my money, it seems the LGBT movement has learned the wrong lessons from their triumph in Obergefell. The perfectionist right has been replaced by an equally perfectionist Left, that increasingly requires conformity to its moral outlook. Its instruments of coercion are many, and spread across the central institutions of civil society: universities, corporations, and even Taylor Swift have raised the social costs of articulating traditional moral views. This is not, I hasten to add, a complaint: those who follow Christ’s love in forbearing with their neighbour should, of all people, know that the story requires us to join Him on the cross.
Loving our neighbour, then, means seeking avenues and opportunities to accompany them even while we clearly delineate those areas where our disagreements preclude our participation. A religious community might, for instance, accompany LGBT individuals in pursuing anti-discrimination ordinances in housing and employment—while still declining to celebrate or participate in the celebration of unions that we think our faith names as morally illicit. Legal resolutions to such questions, though, must be secondary to re-establishing social bonds. At its best, the law mitigates social conflicts, rather than resolving them, by giving those with complaints an authorized outlet to voice them. The courts function as pressure valves: when they are working properly, they reduce social hostilities by offering judgments that are just and fair for everyone. The opposite, though, has transpired in disputes about religious liberty. As long as the underlying social relations between the Christian and LGBT communities are marked by enmity, cases about the bakers and photographers can only continue to enflame hostilities.
Forbearance is fundamentally anti-perfectionistic, then: those who show it recognize the limits of their freedom to coerce others. Such restraint is founded in part upon the fact that perfectionism tends to create backlashes. As the defense of sodomy laws generated a progressive backlash against conservative Christians, so forcing Christians to sell cakes led evangelicals into the arms of Donald Trump. Few impulses are so politically potent or enjoyable as martyrdom. But the deeper reason for such forbearance is normative: such a virtue is simply charity inflected by humility. When we forbear with those we think are wronging themselves, us, or even others, we recognize that they have their own conscience that places them immediately beneath the command of God. The freedom of others to pursue their own course of life is neither formless nor unbounded. But those who would seek to coerce others ought recognize that we are judged by the standard with which we judge, and so seek to accommodate each other as much as we can.
My suggestion, then, is that our responsibilities to obey God require and include the recognition that we ought accompany those who would seek to do us harm, and to search for common goods that we might both enjoy. After all, such individuals are our neighbors. The grammar and logic of the culture wars has institutionalized enmity between LGBT individuals and traditional Christians. Our immersion in it has not only eroded social trust, but has caused us to forget that the people across the way are not in the final instance foes but those whom God has placed in our paths to know and to love.