Fairness For All

I listened last week to the Braver Angels podcast on LGBTQ rights and religious liberty.  It was a moderated conversation between an atheist gay activist and a director of a Christian pro-family ministry. Because I am myself a committed Christian who led a lobby to preserve the traditional definition of marriage, I expected to be backing the religious side of the conversation. Yet, it was the gay activist whose points seemed bang on to me. Why?

Because gay activist and Brookings Institute Fellow Jonathan Rauch was pushing Fairness For All, a legislative compromise that corrects injustice toward LGBTQ people while also protecting religious liberties. And because Glenn Stanton, of Focus on the Family, opposed it. 

Despite their differences, the men have a long-standing friendship. In fact, Stanton said that if all gay rights activists were as reasonable as Rauch, a compromise would be workable. But they're not. Instead, they're extremists who won't be happy until people like Stanton, who regard homosexual practice as immoral, have as much standing in society and law as the KKK. 

In other words, the reluctance to compromise is based on fear. It's the "Give a Mouse a Cookie" mentality applied to gay rights. 

What Stanton doesn't understand is that holding the line on gay rights is the worst possible strategy for combatting the extremist agenda he rightly fears. Because every extreme movement rides piggyback on a just cause. Redress the injustice and extremism has lost its legs. But perpetuate or deny the existence of the injustice, and you've set yourself up as the enemy. Prepare then to be trampled by an army of justice-seeking soldiers who are so intent on eradicating your brand of extremism that they have no idea their generals are extremists too. 

In this case, the extremist movement is the thought police. It's the push to ban dissent as discrimination, to force religious organizations, for example, to hire LGBTQ personnel, provide housing to same-sex couples, perform same-sex weddings and facilitate adoptions to same-sex couples, or lose their tax-free status.  We live in a pluralistic society. That means we need to be free to disagree on matters of morality. We need to be free to speak in accordance with our beliefs. And religious organizations need to be free to hire, house, and solemnize consistent with the morality they teach. 

What gives that extremist movement legs, though, is the persecution and pervasive discrimination experienced by LGBTQ people. Stanton says he doesn't have any friends who would want to protect the right to fire someone because he's gay. That's encouraging, but it also means he's out of touch with the injustice that LGBTQ people regularly face. 

I get it. I used to be there too.

My wake-up call came almost 30 years ago, when I was a young reporter sent to check out public responses to a regulatory body's proposal to ban hate speech against gays on the airwaves. I was working for a conservative publication. We were concerned that broadcasts of religious programming that defined homosexual practice as sinful could run afoul of the proposed regulations. We suspected that the call for public input was mere showmanship. My job was to see what the public really had to say and to hold the regulatory body accountable to the will of the people. 

I went to their office and was handed a heavy binder full of letters. I read them with growing horror. They were characterized by a deep loathing toward gays and by demands that they not be granted human rights. The level of hatred I encountered there was stunning to me. It put the occasional news story about gay beatings into chilling perspective. Suddenly, I understood that there was good reason for the proposed regulation. It wasn't just a conspiracy to turn televangelists into lawbreakers. It was to protect a vulnerable population from genuine risk of real harm.

Fast forward to just five years ago. My youngest son, then in sixth grade, objected to the way his friends insulted each other with phrases like, "That's so gay." He said that kind of talk could really hurt someone who felt attracted to someone of the same sex. His friends protested that being gay is sinful. No, Calvin said. It's doing the deed that's sinful. The orientation is not. They told him they'd drop a best friend if they found out he was gay. One of them said, "If I found out I was gay, I'd kill myself." 

So what happens to a child who's attracted to the same sex and hears talk like that among his friends? What happens when he goes home and hears his parents say that gays are trying to wreck the country? That they aren't entitled to civil rights? How is this kid supposed to navigate puberty? And if there's a conflict between his sexual orientation and his personal faith, what hope does he have of reconciling the two? More likely, he'll burn his bridges in pursuit of a place where he's accepted. But he'll still live under the threat of persecution and perhaps loss of employment and housing. 

The hatred is as real today as it was five years ago.  Just this month, I was informed by a friend that, when Jesus comes again, I will burn for loving gays. 

I live in a small town (not in Utah) where the overwhelming majority of the population belongs, like me, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. My children and I have tried to refer our friends to the Church's official outreach to build attitudes and habits of inclusion toward people who experience same-sex attraction. Often, even the idea of the Church having such an outreach is met with resistance. The issue is politically polarized. People feel defensive, and, as a result, they harden themselves against the extremism of the other side. Unfortunately, that defensiveness prevents them from seeing the personal anguish of individuals and the  injustices that are crying out for correction. 

It appears that things are different in Utah, where the global headquarters of our church is located. In a recent US-wide survey, Utah ranks second of all states on support for gay rights. That's right. Second. With 77% of the population supporting laws that protect LGBTQ residents from discrimination, Utah is 8 percentage points above the national average. 

Why? According to Rauch, it's because Utah worked out a groundbreaking compromise that balanced LGBTQ rights and religious freedoms in 2015. As a result, a solidly conservative and exceptionally religious state leads the country in its friendly attitudes toward LGBTQ people. 

I'm sure there are proponents of the thought police in Utah. But they'll have a hard time moving their cause. They can't make much of an argument that the Church's doctrine on sexuality (that it belongs to marriage between a man and a woman) needs to be repressed. Not when the same church supports LGBTQ rights and headlines its teachings on LGBTQ issues with "kindness, inclusion and respect for all God's children." 

Kindness, inclusion and respect for all, including those with whom we disagree, is a just cause. So is the freedom to teach righteous principles.  Both causes fill the biblical mandate "to loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free" (Isaiah 58:6). It's time to champion every just cause, because they're just. The fact that doing so is our best defence against extremism is a very happy bonus. 


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