Over the past few weeks, the United States has been locked in a heated debate over whether religious business owners have the right to discriminate against others — specifically LGBT people — by citing their spiritual beliefs. The discussion centered around “religious liberty” laws in Indiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Georgia, but many supporters of the bills rooted their arguments in a specific example: should a Christian florist be forced to provide services to a couple who has a same-sex wedding?
The latest articulation of this talking point comes from Melissa Jeffcoat, the owner of a small flower shop in rural Georgia. Earlier this week, Jeffcoat told CNN journalist Gary Tuchman she would refuse service to a same-sex couple, prompting Tuchman to inquire whether she would sell flowers to someone who has had an affair, since adultery is forbidden by the biblical Ten Commandments.
“Yes,” Jeffcoat said.
Tuchman then asked the obvious followup: “Well, why would you serve them but not serve someone who is gay?”
Jeffcoat’s response: “It’s just a different kind of sin to me and I just don’t believe in it.”
Jeffcoat’s simple, matter-of-fact answer gives voice to the core theological fallacy embraced by those who try to use Christ to discriminate against LGBT people: that one’s Christianity is measured, almost entirely, by one’s resistance to LGBT rights. The problem, of course, is that this isn’t what Christianity is all about. Before the 1940s, virtually no serious theologian, conservative or otherwise, cogently claimed that homosexuality was “worse” than, say, adultery or murder.
Not that this has kept opponents of marriage equality from parroting this supposed truism for years — especially during the recent legal battles over religious liberty. When discussing last week’s dust-up around Indiana’s religious freedom law on Thursday’s edition of the “Washington Watch” radio show, Tony Perkins, president of the right-wing Family Research Council, asked former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee when he thought the movement for LGBT equality will “stop.”
“It won’t stop until there are no more churches, until there are no more people who are spreading the Gospel,” Huckabee replied, “and I’m talking now about the unabridged, unapologetic Gospel that is really God’s truth.”
Anti-LGBT Christians such as Huckabee often claim this kind of ancient “orthodoxy” to support their views, but the current conservative Christian discourse — where the validity of one’s faith is measured by how fervently one crusades against same-sex marriage — is a new invention that has arisen out of our modern context. They point to scripture as proof that early Christians would have backed their beliefs, but religion scholars are hard-pressed to find examples of Christian faith communities arguing that homosexuality is somehow a graver sin than any mentioned in the Ten Commandments, assuming they would have considered it a sin at all. On the contrary, early Christian communities were far more concerned with conversion and survival, and some sociologists argue that Christianity’s unusual inclusiveness is precisely what helped it to grow so quickly, what with it famously expanding its ministry to both Jews and gentiles and its relatively robust inclusion of women in worship compared to other religious traditions in the first three centuries CE. This spirit is also encapsulated in Acts 8, the story of the first convert to Christianity. In it, Philip the Evangelist converts an Ethiopian eunuch, someone who was considered sexually “other” at the time, and who otherwise would have been excluded from some Jewish worship services.
Yet conservatives still claim that only “true” Christians oppose LGBT rights, and that any win for equality is an inherent loss for Christianity. This is the subtle insinuation at work when conservatives claim that “Christians” are “under attack” from “secular leftists,” as if Christians who support equal rights either don’t exist or, more likely, aren’t “actually” Christians. And it’s also why the Catholic Church in the United States has seen fit to fire soup kitchen employees for being publicly gay, but not for being publicly Lutheran (the two faiths have fought wars over theological differences that had nothing to do with homosexuality). Indeed, millions of conservative Christians — riled into a fury over same-sex marriage and coopted by the political ambitions of the Religious Right — have spent the past few decades hedging more and more of their religious identity around anti-gay theology, precariously balancing their faith on an odd interpretation of a few select verses in what amounts to a weak biblical claim.
The ubiquity of this thought isn’t too surprising, given that Christianity has a long history of believers mistakenly centering their theology around horrible things. During the lead up to the American Civil War, southern preachers framed Christianity as an inherently pro-slavery faith, with the Richmond Enquirer running an editorial in 1820 that read “if one, or more decisions of the written word of God, sanction … the acquisition of a servant by inheritance or purchase, whoever believes that the written word of God is verity itself, must consequently believe in the absolute rectitude of slave-holding.” And just as today’s spiritual conservatives tout their version of biblical literalism to justify anti-gay bigotry, so too did Christian supporters of slavery incessantly rebuke broader appeals to Christ’s love. Richard Furman, a prominent Baptist minister in South Carolina, renounced those who cited Christ’s Golden Rule as reason enough for ending the ownership of people, writing, “Surely this rule [was] never to be urged against the order of things [meaning slavery], which the Divine government has established.” Instead, he argued, slaveowners should simply use the rule as a model for their interactions with slaves, treating them as they would wish to be treated if they were slaves.
This sort of twisted rhetoric usually holds up for a time, and can prove powerful to those who claim it — we fought a Civil War over slavery, after all. But the love-centered faith of abolitionists ultimately beat out slavery-centered theology, and recent decades have seen the flimsy spiritual latticework of LGBT exclusion crumble in the face of Christ’s greatest pursuits: love and justice. This is why roughly half of religious Americans see no conflict between their faith and homosexuality, and why so many of America’s oldest, most historic Christian traditions — the Episcopal church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — have all moved towards equality over the past decade, embracing the ordination of LGBT people and allowing ministers to officiate same-sex marriages. They have been joined (or predated) by an ever-expanding number of other faith traditions, and there are now growing LGBT equality movements in Catholicism, Evangelicalism, and even Mormonism. These contexts are different, but their fight is the same: reminding the church of Christ’s charge to love all of God’s people fiercely, fully, and equally.
Over the next few years, people like Jeffcoat and Huckabee will likely continue to argue that their faith is under attack. And in a certain sense, they’re right: if the bedrock of their entire faith is rooted in a narrowly-constructed theology that is laser-focused on opposing LGBT equality, then yes, the ability to lord that position over others in the public sphere is being challenged in the courts — and rightly so. But it is also being challenged in their sanctuary halls and Sunday schools, where fellow Christians are already asking “is this really all Christ means to you?” Christianity is nothing if not complex, but if this Easter weekend reminds us of anything, it’s that Christ’s ministry was never founded on simple exclusion — it was founded on radical, sacrificial love for all.
Ultimately, the fear of Huckabee and others is somewhat well-founded: their anti-gay “gospel” may not endure the next few decades. But it’s a safe bet that Christ’s Gospel, preached by Christians who oppose discrimination and choose love over hate, will.