I’ll never forget the first time I fully grasped the extent to which even well-educated fellow Americans simply don’t grasp the origin or intent of traditional, orthodox Christian sexual morality. It was the late Nineties. I was in the midst of a debate over the presence of a Christian student group on campus, and an activist said, with sincere, emotional conviction, “But if we let the Christian fellowship on campus, we’ll have to let the Klan on campus.”
The meaning was clear. Christians weren’t just wrong; they were actual evil bigots.
Yesterday, I wrote a piece defending Karen Pence for teaching at a private Christian school that upholds the same biblical sexual ethics I was defending those many years ago. They’re the same sexual ethics that have dominated church teaching for 2,000 years. And in response to that piece, the same argument cropped up. Karen Pence is a bigot. The school is bigoted. For example:
So sad that people are intolerant of bigotry. https://t.co/NtdtxMyJ1i
— Joshua Holland 🔥 (@JoshuaHol) January 17, 2019
You see this sentiment in the Colorado Civil Rights commissioner who called Jack Phillips’s religious-freedom argument in support of his right to refuse to custom-design a cake for a gay wedding “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to — to use their religion to hurt others.” To that commissioner, Phillips was hateful. His arguments were a mere tactic used to justify discrimination.
Here’s the reality. While there are certainly individual Christians who are bigots, the theology itself is founded in and based on love — love for the God who created us, and love for the people we want to see enter into relationship with their Savior. The biblical sexual ethic is based on a sincere conviction that it is best for human flourishing and is even symbolic of the sacred relationship between Christ and His Church.
These points are certainly debatable and subject to criticism — even (of course) intense criticism. Most Christians I know welcome a sincere and good-faith debate about the origins, substance, and morality of their faith. Critically, not all Christians are united in their beliefs about sexual morality. The debate within the Christian faith is extraordinarily robust.
Consider this analogy. People of different faiths have fundamentally different views on matters as important as the fate of our eternal souls. Religious identity is every bit as important as (or, to many people, more important than) any other identity, including identities based primarily on race, sex, or sexuality. But when I meet a person who sincerely disagrees with me on matters so profound, should I immediately consider him a bigot?
Of course not. I have countless meaningful friendships with people of different faiths and world views. I know they care for me, and I care for them.
Moreover, I not only fully support (and vigorously defend) their legal right to, for example, form schools and other exclusive associations to propagate their worldview. I recognize that the ability to do so peacefully and with mutual respect is a great gift of a functional, pluralistic democracy. In fact, interfaith cooperation on this basis is a hallmark of American life.
Yes, there are bigots in every faith tradition. There are hateful Christians in this country. I’ve met too many of them. Not every Christian school is valuable or even decent. But if a person tells me they love me — or, at the very least, if people treat me with dignity and respect — I won’t consider them bigots if they disagree with me even about the things that matter the most.
In an important cultural moment, Justice Anthony Kennedy, the constitutional architect of gay marriage in this country, responded to the comments of the Colorado civil-rights commissioner with this strong and appropriate rebuke:
To describe a man’s faith as “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use” is to disparage his religion in at least two distinct ways: by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical — something insubstantial and even insincere. . . . This sentiment is inappropriate for a Commission charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s antidiscrimination law — a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation.
“Insincere.” That’s the key word. When I see critics respond to a Christian by telling them that they’re a bigot because of their loving beliefs, they’re telling that Christian he’s a liar. They’re telling that Christian he’s insincere in the origin and purpose of his deepest convictions. Every Christian can and should be prepared for questions about his faith. In fact, it’s a biblical imperative that Christians “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”
The claim of bigotry, however, is wrong. When it is used to attempt to drive Christians out of the public square, to block them from public offices, or to shame them out of even their own ministries, it’s an instrument of injustice. It’s intolerance in the name of tolerance — and, yes, sometimes it’s even hate in the name of love.