1. As a Christian, as a gay man, and as someone who believes the first two identities do not conflict inherently, let me say it clearly: I affirm Marriage Equality for my friends in the United States, and continue to affirm its existence in Canada, where I live.
2. I have recently been involved in difficult discussions about marriage equality (and Christian objections to it) that have been very saddening to me; it is possible that I may lose important friendships, though I will work and pray against that possibility.
3. Let me continue to be candid. Most Christians in the world read the Bible, in both the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Testament, as condemning all forms of homosexual sex and sexual relationship. This interpretation has a long history, and until about 1954 or so was also argued for on strictly rational grounds by ‘secular’ state authorities in the West. Most Western people, until recently, felt that natural law, medicine, and sound social function required objection to homosexual acts, even between consenting adults. For Western Christians, the objection has or had an added force because the “Word of God written” objected, and in fact explained why the ‘secular’ consensus found why homosexuality was so destructive. Something that God says is wrong will have real-world, negative effects.
4. The issue for me as a Christian becomes: Christians’ objections to homosexuality are based on a bad reading, a misinterpretation, of the words, historical context, and pastoral application of Scripture. In other words, Scripture cannot be applied directly to all, or even many, of the manifestations of same-gender sexual relationships or activities that we see in the Western World, today.
5. Yet, as my sisters and brothers in the US will note, most of the opposition to marriage equality in the civil arena comes from theologically conservative Christians, whether fundamentalist or evangelical. (The distinction often matters, but that’s another conversation) In fact, there are myriads upon myriads of stories and research studies that demonstrate how destructive conservative Christians and their churches have been in the lives of gay, lesbian, bi, trans, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) people. A belief that causes widespread destruction needs to be challenged, and that is what the gay rights movement has been doing for the past forty years or so. In fact, as evidence that homosexuality can be profoundly healthy mounts, it seems logical to afford people who have been stigmatized as a class the same protections that other citizens have–and marriage, whether common law or civilly registered (not to mention blessed by the Church!) is one of the most comprehensive forms of protection that the state can give pair-bond. (Such a protection also means that bodies are more easily managed by the State, but that’s a different discussion, for another time.) Thus, gay activists have been pushing–more and more successfully, it seems, for the extension of marriage as a basic social good to non-heterosexual people who want to attempt the same kinds of stable and life-giving relationships that their hetero neighbors do.
6. In spite of all the evidence marshaled by LGBTQ people, however, there are still people and powerful organizations which oppose this extension even of civil marriage, primarily on religious grounds. Here, then, is the question: are people who oppose marriage equality bigots, in much the same way we would apply the label to racists or those who hate people on the basis of gender or religious faith?
7. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a bigot as “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.” It strikes me that the disagreement about the label “bigot” among LGBTQ people when applied to conservative Christians might be about where one places the emphasis: is bigotry more about “obstinacy and hatred” or about “intolerance”?
8. People who place the emphasis on “intolerance” are right, in a liberal democratic context, to object to conservative Christians who object to a change in the definition of civil marriage. Why do I say this? Because if Christians have learned anything from our history, it is inappropriate to try to gain coercive influence in society when a great many of your fellow citizens have not been convinced by your worldview or your arguments. Though I object to any conception of the State as “ideologically neutral,” liberal democracies nevertheless consider it a basic good that multiple communities are able to live together without harming one another. Christians who object to civil marriage for LGBTQ people because they hope to coerce the nation “back to God” or at least “to the way I see things” are forgetting something theologically important: Christians are not responsible for taking over the government or shutting out objections to the Christian worldview, but rather for forming radical and persuasive communities that clearly offer something distinct from and even better than “life under the sun”–the status quo as we know it. Conservative Christians, on the other hand, who concede that extending the definition of civil marriage is consistent with allowing people to object to the Gospel (or to our interpretation of it), are no longer “intolerant.”
9. For my money, the key factor in whether or not someone is a bigot (or holds a bigoted view) has more to do with obstinacy, or what some logicians call “invincible ignorance.” In my life, there are clearly people like this: there are people, usually theologians and major pastors, who should know better than to disseminate things about homosexuality or GLBTQ people that are, even on the face of things, patently false (never mind when you bring sound scholarship into the debate!). Unfortunately, there can also be a great many more lay Christians who spout off something like the slogan, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” This is typical fundamentalist view, perpetuated from the top down and then reinforced by the way that future generations are taught the Bible. The civil sphere is controlled by the Devil, and if Christians manage to maintain godly values in the civil arena, it represents a victory for God that will facilitate spreading the Gospel of Christ. If one is in such a warfare or siege mentality, it is understandable why “invincible ignorance” becomes such a huge problem: bending even a little bit capitulates to evil. Bigotry in this sense is very real and harmful.
10. Perhaps I am in a unique situation, but I rarely meet intolerant conservatives (who want Canada to withdraw equal marriage); nor do I usually meet conservatives who are invincibly ignorant, who are unwilling to engage in conversation–and thus sometimes deliberately perpetuate harm against LGBTQ people. Rather, I meet people who are aware of the (sometimes profound) wounding on both sides, who increasingly are willing to bare their fears in front of one another: “This is what I’m afraid of, if you win…” Are conservatives who want to learn from conversation with LGBTQ people bigoted? I would argue not. Real-world conversations–over food and face-to-face, not by means of position statements and political stump speeches–are actually occurring, even while Marriage Equality seems to be gaining momentum.
11. Everyone has their own story to tell, formed by the own unique yet shared matrix that involves gender, race, religion, politics, sexual orientation, educational level and many other aspects. Imagine if we were to drop phrases like “conservative bigot” and “liberal whoremonger” from our conversations, and got down to the business of amassing evidence in the public realm and of sharing stories about why we are so invested in the positions we take!
12. There are bigots in the world, who spread false and evil poison abroad in society. They must be confronted. When we sit down at a table across a severe ideological divide, we must be willing to hear of pain, harm, agony, and suffering at the hands of those who only appeared to be willing to talk, or who deliberately took shots that ripped our lives apart. Bigots exist on both sides of the marriage equality debate–and the ones on the conservative side can, in real terms, inflict far greater destruction. But it is important to note that, while victims are allowed be explosively angry, it is the hardening into bitterness and hatred that perpetuates the cycle of bigotry: angry queer people react angrily to angry Christian conservatives, who conclude that the angry queer is a menace that must be stopped, and so on…
13. Very simply: I affirm Marriage Equality; most conservative Christians are not in fact bigots; and dropping inflammatory rhetoric in situations where people want to have a respectful conversation seems necessary to actually having one!
14. The take aways: Regardless of your position on Marriage Equality, assume that an opponent who really wants to learn from you is not a bigot. I also believe that conservative Christians opponents of Marriage Equality need to do most of the work. Stop complaining about the queer agenda, and open your ears: if you hear screams, it may be because they are mostly our fault.