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In Debate Over Gay Rights and Religious Freedom, Who Decides What Is 'Christian'?

04/10/2015 11:59 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015
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Frank Bruni's column in The New York Times this past weekend, "Bigotry, the Bible, and the Lessons of Indiana," has swiftly generated a fair amount of criticism. Bruni argues that "homosexuality and Christianity don't have to be in conflict in any church anywhere." Citing a short litany of changed cultural and theological perspectives, Bruni suggests that any debate over "religious freedom" in relation to gay rights should also include as well "a conversation about freeing religions and religious people from prejudices that they needn't cling to and can indeed jettison, much as they've jettisoned other aspects of their faith's history, rightly bowing to the enlightenments of modernity."

Many commentators haven't taken too well to that suggestion. Writing for The American Conservative, Rob Dreher takes Bruni's putative suggestion that Christians be forced to "repudiate our beliefs" as a declaration of war -- and it's a declaration that Dreher seems all-too-eager to accept. "It is really useful to learn where the lines are in the current and coming battle," he writes. "Don't say you weren't warned, readers. Prepare."

More measured but still displeased, Matt K. Lewis in The Week notes that, although Christians should certainly be open to change, such change "should not be based on political expediency, or because public opinion has shifted." Lewis is clear that that's not an excuse for discrimination, but "[n]one of that means Christians should change their fundamental beliefs to allow things that have been sins for 2000 years to suddenly be a-okay." Writing for Religion News Service, Jonathan Merritt takes Bruni's column as an indication that "[h]e and many liberals have now seemingly abandoned their desire for reasonable debate -- something this important issue deserves -- and adopted strong-arm tactics to force their opponents to capitulate. And this is deeply troubling."

Fair enough that Bruni's choice of words in places (e.g. "rightly bowing") often leaves much to be desired, but to reduce his argument to a "secular," "liberal" attack on Christianity misses the point. In fact, as he points out in his column, his argument is one that many individual Christians and Christian denominations have already come to accept.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), for instance, recently joined a growing list of other denominations and religious groups in sanctioning same-sex marriage, and a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in September 2014 found that 60 percent of mainline Protestants now support same-sex marriage.

To chalk that growing acceptance up to "political expediency" is, well, politically expedient. It ignores the long, often divisive debates that already have occurred over the issue in many Christian denominations and the theological rationales behind decisions for acceptance and inclusion. It also ignores the fact that acceptance of same-sex marriage and equal rights for individuals who identify as LBGT ultimately comes out of a desire to remedy past injustices and to be faithful in the present and the future. As Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, put it in a recent statement on LGBT Rights:

Our advocacy work continues to build support for the full human rights and dignity of all persons, irrespective of gender, race, national origin, creed, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability or inability. To do less is effectively to repudiate our membership in the human community. No one of God's children is worth less or more than another; none is to be discriminated against because of the way in which she or he has been created. Our common task is to build a society of justice for all, without which there will never be peace on earth. Episcopalians claim that our part in God's mission is to love God fully, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That means all our neighbors.

Critics may contend that all this amounts to giving up the proverbial ship. As Lewis says in his criticism of Bruni, "Change Christianity too much and it is no longer Christianity." A fair point, again, but here's the thing: cultural and religious conservatives don't get to decide on their own what counts as Christianity. I think it's safe to say that a good number of Christians actually side with Bruni's basic position, because they've already had the "debate" -- meaning that what is at stake is not so much a "secular" war on Christian beliefs but rather the meaning of those beliefs and who gets to make decisions in regard to them.

The fact of the matter is: the cultural and theological tide has already shifted in many quarters in favor of full equality for LGBT individuals -- and it will continue to shift in that direction. And that's a good thing. Bruni quotes the evangelical ethicist David Gushee, who himself has recently come out in favor of full equality, as saying, "Conservative Christian religion is the last bulwark against full acceptance of L.G.B.T. people." He's right, but it also maintains that position at its own peril. For, as Bruni reminds us, what counts as faithfulness in one time and place often gets labeled as "bigotry" in another.