08/08/2013 05:50 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2013

'Don't Say Gay': What American Christianity Can Learn From Vladimir Putin

A skinhead group in Russia has been posting personals to gay dating sites in order to lure young men to remote locations, torture, and humiliate them. Then they post the video online as a warning to others: It's not safe to be gay in Russia! (Read the full story.) Vladimir Putin is an Orthodox Christian who claims to pass legislation consistent with the teachings of the church, but recent episodes of homophobic violence in Russia should serve as a cautionary tale for the rest of us, particularly my sisters and brothers on the Christian Right. Sometimes laws that intend to promote a vision of Christian morality can lead to immoral and unchristian outcomes.

Let me be clear that I am not trying to suggest that we can somehow redeem this story by finding a moral in it. Torturing gay people, or anybody else, is abhorrent! I have no intention to play Pollyanna and try to find the silver lining in all of this. There is no silver lining! No moral! Only blood! But when blood is shed, it is irresponsible to do nothing more than shake our heads in disbelief or wag our fingers in condemnation. We should rebuke Russia, but we must also look inward, because Russia is not exactly a special case.

Vladimir Putin seems to have been reading the playbook of the Christian right when he signed legislation that limits "gay propaganda" toward minors (my own state has tried to pass a similar law, but more on that in a moment). Like the late Jerry Falwell, he has played into fears that gay people are out to recruit kids (which also implies that they may be pedophiles, an accusation the skinheads echo). Putin has identified a "moral evil" in his country and taken a direct route to abolishing it. This tactic is not unlike how Christians in America often think that the best way to prevent abortions is to ban abortion, or how they try to stop the "spread" of the "gay lifestyle" by banning gay marriage.

Of course, skinheads are ideologically committed to violence and hate, so some might say that they would target gay people no matter what, but Russia seems to be experiencing a spate of violence against LGBTQ individuals. The skinheads are just one example of a large and disturbing trend. While it is true that every society has hate groups, sometimes the state can act in ways that will embolden those groups. This was certainly the case for much of the history of the American South. There were laws on the books against murder, but with little fear of enforcement, the Ku Klux Klan lynched young black men with impunity.

My home state, Tennessee, has tried twice now to pass a law like Putin's. The so-called "Don"t Say Gay" bill also stokes fears about "homosexual activists" targeting minors. The most recent version of the bill not only bans public school teachers from discussing non-heterosexual issues, but it also requires school personnel to report suspected gay students to their parents. The "Don't Say Gay" bill promises to make not just the schools, but probably the entire state, a hostile environment for gay youth. Just like Russia.

Laws that identify groups of people as unofficial enemies of the state and a threat to social decency send the message that violence against such people will not be prosecuted. Or at least it will not be punished very severely. In Russia, Putin has given hate groups a cause to fight for and a set of values to defend. Whatever their intentions, the political philosophy of the Christian right threatens to do the same.

Proponents of the "Don't Say Gay" bill may truly believe they are protecting children, but the outcome will create an environment that may kill kids. Gay teens are already more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers, and one recent study found that this risk increases in more socially conservative areas, where gay youth are more likely to be bullied. This suggests the obvious truth that kids need to be loved and accepted, and an environment that threatens and marginalizes them promotes depression, despair, and death. The Christian right claims to be "pro-life." The "Don't Say Gay" bill is not.

Whether violence against gay people is an unintended consequence of Putin's law (I think not) or part of his own Machiavellian political gamesmanship (probably), events in his country illustrate the danger of attempting to promote a Christian moral vision through direct legislation. We need to think not only about whether the wording of a law seems Christian. We need to ask ourselves, "What will the outcome be?"

I am not suggesting that we do politics without a moral compass. Laws that purport to be amoral are often satanic, but the same can be true of laws that intend to be Christian. "And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light" (2 Cor. 11:14). The politics of Putin, and the politics of the Christian right, repeat the sin of Eden because they are full of pride. Both begin with the presumption of moral superiority. When we attempt, through legislation, to fashion others in the image of our own self-righteousness, we reveal how much we believe ourselves to be "like God" (Gen 3:4).

The best of Christian political theology has recognized that the purpose of law is not to make people better. Only the grace of God can do that. Rather, the law exists to mitigate the violence that comes from our own pride. Original/ancestral sin means that we presume the universe revolves around us. It is our "default setting," so to speak (for proof of this, spend five minutes with a toddler). We tend to lash out (like toddlers) when other people threaten that belief. The law cannot make us good because to be good means to love God and others more than we love ourselves, and love cannot be forced. It cannot even be encouraged. But (like a "time-out") the law can make us think twice before we act upon our basest impulses. It can discourage us from exercising our pride in violence toward others.

Love is the only truly Christian moral vision, and love does not single out villains against which we might uphold our own alleged superiority. Love is not guided by passages from Leviticus, taken out of context, and thrown into the face of "sinners." Love knows that, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief" (1 Tim 1:15, emphasis mine). So maybe instead of trying to protect ourselves from the sins of others, we should work harder on protecting others from our own sins. Rather than marginalizing groups of people, our laws must defend the marginal, because the image of a loving God is imprinted upon each and every human being. Even the gay ones.