Christianity and tolerance in the public square

Feb 21, 2015

In Washington state, a florist who has employed and served gay people for years, but who declined to arrange flowers for a same-sex ceremony, faces the potential forfeiture of her home and life savings.

In Atlanta, a decorated fire chief lost his job for self-publishing a book that dared to offer an opinion on sexuality that historic Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all affirm.

In Oregon, the owners of a bakery face up to $150,000 in penalties for declining to bake a cake for the wedding of a gay couple.

There are countless other examples that could be shared, but they all follow this pattern: Run your business or institution according to your faith; or publicly express moral or religious convictions that don’t celebrate homosexuality or gay marriage, and you’re liable for very real consequences such as fines, lost employment, and the harassment and intimidation that follows from media exposure.

According to this rigid ideology, indecent views that run contrary to so-called “mainstream” and enlightened opinions on sexuality cannot be tolerated or given quarter in the public square. Though supposedly guided by a blind relativism that denies any ordered purpose to our sexuality, this dictatorship of sexual relativism is very insistent that you comply with its demands as a matter of moral obligation and justice because, as political theorist Matt Franck presciently warns, “there is no good reason for the new legal order to make room for ‘conscientious’ religious dissenters, for clearly their consciences are malformed and unworthy of respect.”

A 2009 paper from the Heritage Foundation explained just how traditional marriage proponents would be pushed out of the public square:

Arguments for same-sex marriage, although often couched in terms of tolerance and inclusion, are based fundamentally on the idea that preserving marriage as unions of husband and wife is a form of bigotry, irrational prejudice, and even hatred against homosexual persons who want the state to license their relationships. As increasing numbers of individuals and institutions, including public officials and governmental bodies, embrace this ideology, belief in marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman likely will come to be viewed as an unacceptable form of discrimination that should be purged from public life through legal, cultural, and economic pressure.

This prescient quote brings us to our current moment, where we see, increasingly, the targeting and marginalization of religious persons by a community that foretold of a laissez-faire approach to sexuality.

Those of us who believe that marriage is the exclusive, unalterable union of a man and woman were promised that all that the LGBT community wanted was equal treatment like everybody else. They advertised a “live and let live” mentality that would supposedly allow for difference in viewpoint.

We were told a lie, many of which knew was a lie to begin with. As the LGBT activist wing reveals its true intentions, there can apparently be no grand bargain where religious conservatives who disagree, civilly, on important matters of sexuality can co-exist alongside gay persons who desire to live free lives as well.

History reveals that when one group gains cultural favor over another, it typically overreaches, going to extremes to mercilessly subjugate their enemies to whatever table scraps are left over. That’s the phase we’re in now. In these circumstances, détente is discarded. Instead, embattlement and entrenchment passes on to the next generation.

It is the activist wing of the LGBT community that has settled the terms of the current debate, pitting the gay community against religious conservatives, wishing to extract every last pound of flesh they can from who they view as their troglodytic oppressors.

Religious conservatives don’t desire this. We want freedom for all. We desire magnanimity, tolerance, and compromise. That means, under reasonable standards, allowing all persons, religious or not, the freedom to live according to their sincerest convictions. It means instead of filing suit against a Christian florist, allowing for the free market to solve the problems of needing a floral arrangement for a gay wedding.

That also means freedom for gay persons to live meaningful lives, too. It means acknowledging that gay persons are citizens. Though the favor hasn’t been returned to religious conservatives, it means not coercing a baker to bake a cake with a religious belief about marriage that she does not agree with. It means recognizing that hiring or firing on the basis of sexual orientation, rarely, matters as a condition of employment eligibility. Religious conservatives stand ready to live at peace. Yes, we welcome the debate about whose vision of sexuality maximizes human flourishing, but that debate can be persist without punishing those who disagree. Public debate by private citizens is what makes America so unique and exemplary. Let’s not litigate public debate out of existence.

Tragically, all we've seen thus far is the vanquishing of those whose beliefs are different, but we will not beg for the constitutional rights that are inalienably ours. We will not assent to the dhimmitude of the Sexual Revolution. The unknown is whether the LGBT community will accept this.

Those who believe in a religious or moral conviction that marriage is conjugal, meaning between a man and woman, should continue to advance the cause of why the conjugal view of marriage is rational, true, and best serves the needs of civil society. They should also pursue every policy mechanism that protects against encroaching, coercive legal strictures that turns ordinary, hard working citizens into litigants and law-breakers.

Pluralism and true tolerance requires magnanimity. The culture wars grow colder as these disputes pit Americans against Americans, not just Christians against the community. As Christians, one of the most loving things we can bring to society is an advocacy for a genuine civic pluralism. But we’ll need the other side to play, too.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is the Director of Research and Senior Fellow in Christian Ethics at the ERLC. In his role, he researches, speaks, and writes about the intersection of Christian ethics, public policy, and the church’s social witness. He also... Read More