Thanksgiving is a time when millions of Americans come together to celebrate cherished, time-honored traditions: gathering with those we hold most dear, scarfing down unhealthily large meals, and, of course, arguing with loved ones.
For instance, let’s say you are sitting at the dinner table, eating delicious stuffing and having a pleasant conversation about The Hunger Games, when suddenly your conservative Christian uncle launches into the following rant:
I’m telling you, the “homosexual agenda” is coming after religious freedom in this country. Did you hear about that Christian florist who is being sued for not selling flowers to a gay couple? Next thing you know, they’ll be forcing pastors to perform gay weddings. I mean, anyone who reads the Bible knows that you can’t be a Christian and support homosexuality.
Okay, that’s a lot. But don’t panic — we’ve got you covered. Here are a few bits of info (including some biblical arguments) you can use to respond to your evangelical uncle’s diatribe:
Claims that “religious liberty” is under attack in America are overblown, although the refrain is likely to be repeated ad nauseam by many religious conservatives over the next few years. Many “religious liberty” advocates cheered the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, for instance, where judges ruled that the craft store giant could be granted religious exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. But despite assertions that the ruling protected all religious groups, a substantial majority of almost every major U.S. Christian group actually disagreed with Hobby Lobby’s position. What’s more, the decision arguably hurt people of faith overall, because it only privileged the religious views of people who own and operate corporations — and not the faiths of their employees.
As for the florist your uncle is probably referring to, she runs a store in Washington that refused to provide wedding flowers to a gay couple last year — even though they had been frequent customers at the shop. Although the florist cited her religious beliefs as justification, her business offers public services, and her actions violated established Washington state nondiscrimination policies — policies that were in place before the state embraced marriage equality. Those lawsuits — which were filed both by the couple and the state — are still ongoing.
None of this has any real impact on clergy doing explicitly religious work. Pastors already retain the right to refuse to marry anyone, and shouldn’t be compelled to let people use their worship spaces so long as their church is classified as a non-profit (which almost all churches are).
Religious liberty works both ways. LGBT people are religious too, and millions of Christians now openly support same-sex marriage. Several major religious groups — Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Unitarian Universalists, and many Jews, among others — now ordain LGBT people and allow their pastors to officiate same-sex unions. Meanwhile, some denominations such as the United Methodists and the Mennonites are currently embroiled in internal debates over the issue of LGBT inclusion, with faith-based advocates passionately pushing their fellow churchgoers to embrace equality. Even Southern Baptists and other evangelical groups are experiencing a growth of pro-LGBT theology within their ranks, and Pope Francis famously made headlines last year when he responded to a question about gay priests by saying, “Who am I to judge?”
This shift, which was decades in the making, has resulted in an explosion of faith-based LGBT rights advocates. When North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage was struck down earlier this year, for example, it was through a court case brought by progressive clergy and other people of faith. In addition to blasting the ban as unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment, their lawyers argued that prohibiting same-sex marriage violated the religious liberty of progressive clergy, because it criminalized what they considered the religious act of marrying gay couples. The judge ended up ruling only on the Fourteenth Amendment claim, but the point remains: if America is going to respect religious liberty, it has to respect the religious liberty of progressives as well.
The idea that you can’t be Christian and support same-sex marriage simply isn’t true. Over the last few decades, a slew of theologians have insisted that the classic biblical arguments against homosexuality are overly simplistic, noting that they are based on a handful of disconnected passages, most of which are taken out of context or used uncritically when spouted by anti-gay Christians. The Genesis story about a group of men from Sodom threatening to rape other men, for instance, was about hospitality, not homosexuality. And it ends with the main character offering his daughters up for rape instead of his male guests — not exactly the best exemplar for sexual ethics. Meanwhile, passages from Leviticus referring homosexuality as an “abomination” sit alongside long-abandoned prohibitions against things such as touching the skin of a dead pig (a difficult thing for many to do during football season). And while the apostle Paul supposedly condemned sexual activity between members of the same gender, many scholars argue that the modern concept of homosexuality — namely, a committed coupling of two consensual partners — was completely unknown to Paul, and thus not directly addressed in his writings. Plus, Paul advocated for things most Christian communities dismissed centuries ago, such as his declaration that it is “shameful” for a woman to speak in church.
Does this mean that pro-LGBT Christians are simply throwing out the Bible to justify their position? Of course not. If anything, they’re taking scripture more seriously. Most Christians, whether they take the Bible “literally” or not, use the example of Christ as the chief interpreter of scripture. Jesus’ actions and teachings are meant to embody a perfect Christian life, and he repeatedly insisted that his followers welcome and love the outcasts of his day — the poor, women, tax collectors, people from other religions, and even those who were the “sexual other,” such as eunuchs. Jesus never specifically mentioned homosexuality, but he did mention loving one’s neighbor and radical concepts of inclusion.
Ultimately, of course, there will be people who disagree with homosexuality because of religious concerns no matter what argument they hear. But religious liberty is a right that should apply to all, and must also be upheld alongside other Constitutional rights, lest it be wielded as a tool to oppress others — such as when “religious liberty” was used as an excuse to justify segregation and racial bigotry.