Monday, March 14, 2011

Homophobia and Christianity

I recently saw a statistic that said that 91% of non-Christian young people (I suppose this means something like those under 30) view evangelical Christians as homophobic. The person who cited this statistic said that this should sadden evangelicals and that it is not a wholly unfounded opinion, given the behavior of evangelicals towards the homosexual community.

Now, certainly Christians have not behaved with perfect Christ-like love toward the homosexual community, and there is always room for improvement on this count. Any Christian that treats homosexuals badly is without excuse, and whoever is guilty of this should certainly repent. However, should the 91% statistic really trouble us as Christians? I don't necessarily think that it should for two reasons.

First is that people often say 'homophobic' when they don't actually mean 'homophobic' especially when answering a question in a survey about a faceless, abstract group of people. That is to say many non-Christians use the term 'homophobic' to apply to anyone who takes any issue with homosexuality whatsoever, rather than only to those who 'fear and/or hate homosexuals', which is the proper definition of the term. If the vast majority of non-Christians use the term to mean 'any person who does not fully approve of all aspects of homosexual lifestyle/behavior', as I believe is probably the case, then we should be quite happy to have 100% of non-Christians apply that term to us, if that's what they understand it to mean.

Secondly, even if we have full assurance that the responders to the question are using the term 'homophobic' in its proper sense, there is still the fringe lunatic effect on popular perception that must be accounted for. Those Christians who are extremely vocal and strident in their disapproval of (and disproportionate concern about) homosexuality are the ones that get portrayed in the media and become the model for what people think of when they think of 'Christians' and 'homophobia'. This effect combined with the fact that almost all Christians believe homosexuality is a sin is more than enough to cause non-Christians to link 'Christian' and 'homophobic' in their mind--none of which reflects anything negative about the vast majority of Christian's beliefs or actions as they pertain to the homosexual community. Thus, the statistic should not come as a surprise, nor does it suggest that the vast majority of Christians need to change anything about their attitudes, beliefs or behaviors with regard to homosexuals and homosexuality.

I don't know about you but I can hardly remember homosexuality being preached about from the pulpit. I've heard many, many more sermons about sexual sin in general and heterosexual sin specifically. Is it common at your church on a Sunday to hear small talk, while waiting for a donut or coffee, about "these queers destroying our society"? It never was at any church I've ever been to. Aside from the real nutjobs, like Fred Phelp's church, the worst that can be said about some Christians and Christian organizations is that they expend a slightly excessive amount of energy and capital on anti-same-sex-marriage rhetoric and ballot initiatives. So a possible problem of priorities. Maybe. At worst.

The official position of most Christians is that homosexual sin is a sin like any other--including heterosexual sin--and their actions towards homosexuals in the majority of cases reflect that belief. Virtually no Christians are out campaigning to keep homosexuals out of their congregations. Virtually no Christians are proposing ballot initiatives to make public displays of homosexual affection illegal. Virtually no Christians are advocating, either implicitly or explicitly, hatred of homosexuals. Virtually no Christians believe homosexuality is a worse sin than any sexual sin, or act as if it is. Virtually no Christians encourage or commit violence against homosexuals. All Christians believe that God loves sinners--even if he hates sin--and thus believe that they are called to love sinners (and thus homosexuals). The vast majority of Christians don't need to undergo any intense reflection or repentance on this topic because the vast majority of Christians already have it right. Which is not to say that we always act in accordance with these principles perfectly or that we couldn't be more pro-active about acting out that love, of course, but it is to say that the 91% figure reflects much more about the responders to the survey, a fringe minority of Christians, and the media than it does about the vast majority of Christians.

Though I should qualify this by noting there may be an age and geographical prejudice in my perception. In parts of the deep south and among teenager (or very old) Christians, for example, the anti-homosexual rhetoric or fear or hatred may be far more pronounced. Though, even accounting for this bias, I think this effect is not enough to change what I've claimed to be generally true.

"But what about the vast majority of evangelical Christians being opposed to same-sex marriage?"

First off, the rhetoric used in this question is loaded. Christians are only opposed to same-sex marriage as a logical corrolary of the fact that they are in favor of traditional marriage. 'Same-sex marriage' is effectively collateral damage of a pro-traditional-marriage perspective, rather than the end itself. Secondly, to the extent that Christians do oppose same-sex marriage, what of it? Is opposing same-sex marriage inherently 'homophobic'? I would argue that it isn't. Being in favor of traditional marriage is completely compatible with being loving toward the homosexual community.

"But how is it loving if you're denying them their basic right to equality under the law?"

Because we aren't. Homosexuals, in all 50 states, can obtain marriage licenses already. Right now. Today. Yes, in some states in order to do it they have to find someone of the opposite sex to enter into a marriage license with, but marriage licenses do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation explicitly. There is no section on a marriage license that looks like this: "MARK ONE: [ ] Heterosexual, [ ] Homosexual". No individual's rights are currently being violated as all individuals have equal access to the institution. Also, note that this is not analagous to the situation with interracial marriage when it was illegal. At that time certain men couldn't marry certain women and thus equal access to the institution was denied on illegitimate grounds, whereas today any kind of woman can marry any kind of man--of any race, religion or sexual orientation.

In addition, an entirely analagous question can be formulated in this manner: "How is it loving if you're denying those without driver's licenses equal protection under the law?" Yes, those without driver's licenses are treated different under the law than those with them. Yes, those without marriage licenses are treated differently under the law than with them. Neither driving nor marriage is a fundamental right. Equal access to them must be granted in a sense (though the senile and those with very poor eyesight are routinely 'discriminated against' at the DMV), which it is, but equal treatment of those who do not choose to abide by the guidelines of the road, or the guidelines of the definition of marriage, is not required of the law in order to be fair. It is entirely within our right as a society to make these judgments and requirements and it does not violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Public safety is not the sole guiding principle that society is 'allowed' to consider when defining the parameters of a particular institution or license.

I'm sure many would find this to be a disingenuous or semantical argument, but if the issue is equal protection and the government's enumerated duties, then it is entirely valid. Even if you don't accept this argument, though, then at worst some large percentage of evangelicals (though not all of them) are in favor of denying homosexuals their 'right' (which isn't a right) to marry. Which is so devious a belief as to have virtually no practical detrimental effect on any person's life anywhere, whatsoever. A lost tax benefit here or there not withstanding, in the majority of states (and especially those housing the largest populations) homosexuals can still legally cohabitate, adopt, partake in 'marriage' ceremonies, obtain hospital visitation rights, file joint tax returns, etc. I have little patience for the notion that this dire state of affairs amounts to some substantive civil rights violation. If you're truly concerned about homosexuals and serious human rights violations then print yourself some educational materials and board the next flight to Ghana and get to civilizing the savages.

In conclusion I don't think any widespread rebuke or widely held negative belief about a group of persons--in this case evangelicals-- is necessarily indicative of any wrongdoing on the part of that group. There are many prominent factors that influence popular perception which are unrelated to the group's beliefs or behavior. To the extent that Christians have treated homosexuals unfairly or without Christian love we do need to repent and ask forgiveness and to right our ways. But we also need to be mindful of, and account for, the corrosive tendency of fringe elements and sensationalized media to paint false images and so to misrepresent who and what we actually are to begin with. And also to not forget the possibility that, even if we were to act in perfect accordance with our mandate to love our neighbor (and thus the homosexual community), this will never be enough in the eyes of the world as they take issue with our very essence and mission as Christians. Our job is not to be pleasing to their sight but to God's.

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