How Do You Solve a Problem Like A Bigot?
It was about 15 years ago that I saw firsthand how love of enemy and justice for the oppressed clashed with each other. I was in seminary at the time and one Sunday afternoon, I went to a discussion held at a local Lutheran church. The then-Bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod of the ELCA, Mark Hanson (who is now the denomination’s Presiding Bishop) was in attendance. The topic was on LGBT inclusion. Bishop Hanson was trying hard to stress the unity of the church amidst diversity. He tried to talk about how churches that were opposed to having non-celibate gays as pastors and those who advocate for it are brought together and have a place at Christ’s table.
The audience gathered was having none of this happy talk. A few in attendance talked about LGBT folk they knew who were no longer in the church. More than once I heard this phrase which was accompanied with tears: “People are dying!”
I never knew what that phrase meant. Was it literally or figurately? I don’t know. What I did know is that the people wanted some sense of justice for LGBT folk right now-unity be damned.
In the ongoing debates on the role of LGBT persons in the life of the church, we normally see these two important aspects of our faith, love and justice, collide into each other. What I’ve observed over time is that you can’t really bring these two concepts together or at least not perfectly.
This collision of two Christian values comes into focus for those us who favor LGBT inclusion. Many of us tend to use an early struggle as our template-that struggle being the issue of race. There was a time when I could see the parallels. Actually, I still see the parallels, but part me wishes I couldn’t.
Why? Because I can see where such thinking leads, I don’t know if I want to go down that road.
Let me explain. Methodist Pastor Adam Hamilton wrote an oped recently in the Washington Post expressing his changing opinion on homosexuality. He likens some of the objections to objections made by those who supported slavery:
There are a handful of Scriptures (five or eight depending upon how one counts) that specifically speak of same-sex intimacy as unacceptable to God. Conservatives or traditionalists see these as reflecting God’s timeless will for human relationships. Progressives look at these same scriptures in much the same way that progressives in the nineteenth century looked at the Bible’s teaching on slavery. They believe that these verses capture the cultural understandings and practices of sexuality in biblical times, but do not reflect God’s will for gay and lesbian people…
For many Christians today, particularly young adults, the handful of Bible verses related to same sex intimacy seem more like the 100 plus verses on slavery than they do the teachings of Jesus and his great commandments to love God and neighbor. Their gay and lesbian friends are people, just like them, in need of love and community. I believe that in the years ahead an increasing number of Christians, not only progressives, but also conservatives, will read the Bible’s passages regarding homosexuality as all Christians today read the Bible’s passages on slavery. And the sermons preached from America’s pulpits decrying the rights of homosexuals today will sound to future generations much like the pro-slavery sermons sound to us today.
I understand where Hamilton is coming from and I tend to agree with him. But I am also hesitant because what is being said in this article is that those who oppose homosexuality are bigots. That may well be true, but we should stop what we mean when we say explicitly or implicitly that someone is a bigot for opposing homosexuality. To paraphrase a Simpson’s line, the word bigot can be used so much that it loses all meaning. But the term is not one that should be used lightly.
As Megan McArdle said recently, our society has rightly deemed that being a racist is something reprehesible. I would add that bigot falls into the same category. In a good post about crime, McArdle notes that there are consequences for calling someone a racist:
Some crimes should be viewed as so morally horrific that they cut one off from decent society. But society also needs to be careful about who it cuts off. It is very terrible to let a child molester keep working on new victims. But it is also very terrible to destroy the life of an innocent adult–to brand him with a label that will probably keep him from ever associating with decent people again.
This does not, by the way, apply only to legal crimes. We’ve stigmatized racists in much the same way: to be a racist is almost by definition to be a terrible person, or at least, a person who has very terrible thoughts. But now liberals complain that they cannot have a discussion about race with conservatives without the conservatives taking horrible offense and acting as if the accusation of racism were worse than racism itself.
But this is the natural result of making racism into something so terrible that to utter an obviously racist remark is to brand yourself as an outcast. You can’t have it both ways–say that racism is so terrible that even subtle manifestations deserve to be stigmatized by all right-thinking people, and then turn around and say that everyone’s a little bit racist and you’re just trying to have a conversation about how we can all pull together to build a more race-tolerant society.
That taboo is a good thing in many ways; I believe that social sanction keeps quite a bit of racism from being expressed, or acted upon. But the flip side is that there is no such thing as an accusation of “mild” racism, any more than there are moderately bad child molesters. If you call someone racist, you are invoking a huge social taboo. (Something that, I must confess, I don’t think all the complaining liberals are entirely unaware of.) But inherent to a taboo’s power is the fact that it’s only rarely invoked.
I’ve seen this when we talk about sexuality. On the one hand people like to talk about how everyone is welcome at Christ’s table, even those who disagree. But we also say that the church needs to repent of its homophobia. We aren’t yet at the point where being a homophobe is equal to being a racist, but we are close. If we call someone a homophobic bigot, aren’t we saying that they are on par with slaveholders or a segregationist? Would we really welcome such a person in our congregation?
Social conservatives usually get a bit ruffled when someone calls them bigot or compares them to Bull Connor. It’s easy to blow this off, but I think they understand stakes. They know a racist is a horrible person and they don’t see themselves as the modern equivalent of George Wallace.
Rod Dreher, a social conservative that I read often, understands this as well. Here he talks about how newspapers view folks like him:
I remember once speaking with a senior executive at another big newspaper about his paper’s agenda-driven reporting on homosexuality and the marriage issue. This wasn’t an accusation on my part; he admitted the bias, and was proud of it. I brought up the likelihood that his paper’s bias could alienate many socially conservative readers, at a time when all of us who worked at newspapers were hemorrhaging readers. The executive said, indignantly, “We don’t need bigots for readers.”
Well, he certainly has a lot fewer of them today than he did when we had that conversation. So does the Washington Post. I wouldn’t claim that newspapers have lost readers because of their bias on reporting the marriage issue, but to the extent readers have lost confidence in the ability of newspapers to report the news with as much fairness as is possible (knowing that total fairness isn’t possible), and are therefore unwilling to spend their money to be lied to and to have people like themselves defamed, then yes, it plays a role.
Over the years, talking to fellow conservatives about media bias, it has usually been my place, as one who worked in mainstream media, to tell conservatives that they’re wrong in some significant way about media bias — not its existence, but the way it works. Most reporters and editors, in my 20 years of experience, do not set out to slant stories, and in fact try to be fair. The bias that creeps into their coverage is typically the result of a newsroom monoculture, in which they don’t see the bias because everybody, or nearly everybody, within that culture agrees on so much. In the case of gay rights and the marriage debate, though, they don’t even make an effort to be fair. I have heard some version of the “error has no rights” claim for years now. They honestly believe they are morally absolved from having to treat the views of about half the country with basic fairness in reporting. And they are shocked — believe me, they really are — that these people view them and the work they do with suspicion, even contempt.
Dreher can be overly dramatic, but there is some truth in his bluster. If we are equating folks like Dreher to racists, then frankly, I can’t talk to them or read their blogs. I can’t do any of that because being a homophobe is taboo and people like Dreher has crossed the line.
Which is why I’m hesitant to paint those who might be against same sex marriage as bigots. Because doing so is serious. The Great Evangelist Charles Finney barred slaveholders from receiving communion because owning another human being was crossing a line.
Maybe this is the wrong choice. Maybe I shouldn’t care what social conservatives think. I just don’t know if I’m ready to tell people that they are no longer welcome because of their refusal to repent of their sin. Because if I’m calling someone a bigot, that’s exactly what I’m doing.