Have you been paying attention to the news out of Indiana this week? Gov. Pence just signed their Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law despite a loud outcry and threats of losses to the economy over what many perceive as granting the “right to discriminate”. They may have a point, since the bill was proposed shortly after Indiana legalized same sex marriage, and the law effectively gives businesses the right to refuse service to gay customers on religious grounds.
But there’s more to religious freedom than this one cultural behemoth – same sex marriage – isn’t there? I’ve been reading article after article on Indiana’s new law and on similar laws in 19 other states, and the federal law which preceded them all, signed into law by President Clinton in 1993. Maybe, I kept thinking, these laws have real importance for protecting religious minorities. Maybe we should be talking about that, about how to protect Sikhs and Muslims and Orthodox Jews, and all of the other groups in this country that are vulnerable to religious oppression. Why must this be framed as the anti-gay bill? Why must we always go straight to the narrative that tells us that Christians are out to get gays?
And then I was reminded of what happened just over a year ago. March 26, 2014, World Vision – the massive Evangelical child sponsorship non-profit – reversed its decision to open hiring to gay Christians in same sex marriages. That policy of openness had lasted only two days. As soon as the decision to hire gays was announced a tsunami of criticism hit World Vision, with high profile Christian leaders accusing the organization of rejecting biblical authority and caving in to the “homosexual agenda”. Richard Stearnes, the president of World Vision and a man who had devoted his life to serving the poor, was now a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Within the first 24 hours the Assemblies of God had counseled its members to disassociate from the ministry.
And disassociate people did. Before it was all over, World Vision had lost 10,000 child sponsorships (Update: World Vision’s end of the year report now calculates between 15,000-19,000 sponsorships lost due to the controversy). Think about that: thousands of Evangelicals weighed priorities in the balance and decided that the battle against same sex marriage was more important than feeding, clothing and educating children that Jesus might well have called “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine”.
I was heartsick and angry then, and I said so. In a comment on a blog post I said that I was no longer comfortable calling myself an Evangelical because of episodes like this. And to be clear, I was upset both by what was happening to innocent children and by what that said to our gay brothers and sisters. I remember one gay Christian writing, “It’s as if thousands of people have just said, ‘We hate you so much we’d rather starve children than let you have a job in a Christian organization.'”
I know what will be said. “This isn’t about hate, but about truth. We are just trying to uphold traditional marriage. We won’t compromise. We may hate the sin, but we love the sinner.”
It felt like hate, even to me as an observer. I’ve watched people rush to Phil Robertson’s defense after he said vile things (repeatedly), and brutally attack Jars of Clay lead singer Dan Haseltine after he had the temerity to express sympathy for civil same sex marriage. I’ve seen Christian pastors council parents to shun their gay children and I’ve heard this defended as a loving choice – even while the stats on homelessness and suicide in the young LGBT community pile up.
So last year the reaction to World Vision felt like the last straw and I said, online, that I wouldn’t call myself an Evangelical anymore. I wanted to be an ally for my LGBT brothers and sisters, I said, and it seemed there was no room for someone like me in the Evangelical movement. I said things I shouldn’t have said, and I was held to account for my words. It turned out to be kind of an ordeal, and I got through it only be clinging to Jesus and telling the truth. But whatever flack I took for losing it online was nothing in light of the losses to World Vision and the pain suffered by gay Christians.
And here I am a year later thinking, “No wonder so many outside the church think Indiana’s new law is targeting gays.” I remember last year, I remember the clear priority of so many people who call themselves Christians, and I want to mourn. If the world sees the church as anti-gay even more than pro-Jesus, well, who is to blame for that?
I am still an Evangelical in the best sense of the word, but I’m afraid that the best sense has been swallowed up by politics and hostility and fence building. If it seems crazy or paranoid to you that gay people in Indiana are afraid that Christians will oppress and ostracize them if given the chance, just remember this time last year. There were 10,000 votes sending that very message.