Earlier this week, Slate‘s Mark Joseph Stern wrote a piece asking incredulously “Do Anti-Gay Christians Really Face Employment Discrimination?” Mr Stern cites blog posts by Princeton Professor Robert George and The American Conservative‘s always interesting, often apoplectic blogger Rod Dreher about a survey in which investment bank JP Morgan-Chase recently inquired into its employees positions with regard to the rights of sexual minorities. Finding the survey a perfectly routine bit of corporate boilerplate, Mr Stern shows impatience with the concerns that Professor George and Mr Dreher voice. “All of this is extravagantly silly, and I respect Dreher and George’s intellects too much to believe that they’re actually taking it seriously,” he writes.
I would agree that Professor George, Mr Dreher, and their fellows have made many hyperbolic statements regarding this and similar matters. At the same time, I do think they are onto something. I would refer to an item the retired Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, the Right Reverend Mr V. Gene Robinson, posted on The Daily Beast several months ago. The Rt. Rev. Mr R, himself the first openly gay person consecrated a bishop in a traditional denomination, denied that anti-gay Christians in the USA are the targets of anything that should be called “persecution.” At the same time he did acknowledge that they are coming to be a minority, not only numerically, but in the sense that they bear a stigma which sets them apart from the mainstream:
Here’s what victimization looks like: every day, especially in some places, LGBT people face the real possibility of violence because of their orientation or gender identity. Young people jump off bridges or hang themselves on playground swing sets because of the bullying and discrimination they face. In 29 states, one can be fired from one’s job simply for being gay, with no recourse to the courts. In most places, we cannot legally marry the one we love. Some of us have been kicked out of the house when we come out to our parents, and many young LGBT people find themselves homeless and on the streets because of the attitudes of their religious parents toward their LGBT children. And did I mention the everyday threat of violence?
Compare that to the very painful realization that one’s view of something like homosexuality is in the minority after countless centuries of being in the majority. It may feel like victimization to hang a shingle out to sell something or provide some service to the public, only to find that the “public” includes people one disagrees with or finds immoral in some way. It may feel like it has happened practically overnight, when it has actually been changing over a period of decades. Being pressed to conform to such a change in majority opinion must feel like victimization. But as a society, we would do well to distinguish between real victimization and the also-very-real discouragement felt by those who now find themselves in the minority.
I do not mean to brush aside as inconsequential the feelings of those who find themselves in the minority, whether it be around the topic of gender, race, or sexual orientation. But I do mean to question characterizing such feelings as discrimination, violation of religious freedom, and victimization. It’s time we called out our religious brothers and sisters for misunderstanding their recently-acquired status as members of a shrinking minority as victims.
I would amplify the good bishop’s remarks about “the feelings of those who find themselves in the minority.” I would say that “feelings” is perhaps an unfortunate choice of words here, being as it is a word that often figures in non-apology apologies such as “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings,” which is a polite way of saying “I wish you hadn’t become upset when I was doing what any sensible person would regard as that right thing, you crybaby.” The beliefs that motivate people who disapprove of homosexuality may be wrong; I am quite sure they are wrong, as a matter of fact, though I am chastened by Mr Robinson’s* own willingness to suspend final judgment on the theological ins and outs of the issue. However, it is hardly reasonable to expect the members of this new minority group not to share the experience of every established minority group, who are from time to time frustrated when the image of the world that is presented to them in every movie, every book, every TV show, every presidential address, every classroom, every other place where the voice of The Mainstream is heard, is so much at odds with what they have seen and heard and felt in their own lives, from their own point of view, that it begins to seem as if they have been transported to a parallel universe.
I believe Mr Robinson would be quick to agree with this. I heard him make a speech a few years ago in which he told an audience made up primarily of same-sexers that “we will never be anything other than a small minority group in society at large, no matter how large a majority we may form in this room at this moment.” He went on to talk about the challenges inherent in minority status, especially the sense of not being heard that comes when an element so central to personal identity as one’s sexuality takes a form that is basically alien to most of the people one meets on a daily basis. So when he tells his opponents that their new status as members of an unpopular minority does not by itself mean that they are victims of injustice, he is not trivializing their experiences or concerns. Rather, he is suggesting that in the future he and they will have something in common. Anti-gay Christians may never again be anything other than a small minority group in society at large, no matter how large a majority they may form in their own worship spaces. And they can no longer expect culture high and low to be dominated by a worldview in which male and female are categories created by God and inscribed by God with specific meanings, meanings that include a concept of complementarity that exhausts the legitimate purposes of sexual activity. Nor can they even expect the average person to have the vaguest knowledge of what their views are, or to be at all interested in learning about them. They can hardly be faulted for considering this an unattractive prospect, yet it is no different from what any other minority group experiences. On Mr Robinson’s account, the reduced visibility and inadvertent exclusions that come with minority status do not by themselves constitute unjust discrimination.
I don’t want to put words in Mr Robinson’s mouth; I’m sure he would be the first to concede that there is such a thing as institutional discrimination, and that injustices no one in the majority intends to commit or even knows are happening can at times wreak horrific consequences in the lives of the minority. And while Mr Stern is blithely confident that laws against religious discrimination will give anti-gay Christians all the protection they need against any mistreatment they may suffer in the future, Mr Dreher’s American Conservative colleague Samuel Goldman** links to a recent article raising the question of whether “religious freedom” is even a coherent category in our current legal system. So I see more grounds to the fears of this new minority than does Mr Stern. I cannot be of much help to them; in the unlikely event that anti-gay Christians were to ask me how they could be sure of receiving fair treatment in a strongly pro-gay America, my suggestion would be that they abandon their false beliefs and join the rest of us in affirming the diversity of sexual expression in today’s world. I’m sure that would be about as pointless as a Christian telling Muslims that if they don’t want to be smeared by association with terrorists, all they have to do is to be baptized.
*To avoid confusion, let me explain: The customary form in which the names of Anglican clergy are presented is “[Ecclesiastical Honorific] [Courtesy Title] [Proper Name]” at first reference, and “[Courtesy Title] [Proper Name]” at subsequent references. That’s why I introduced Mr Robinson as “the Right Reverend Mr Robinson,” then switched to plain “Mr Robinson.” My wife works for the Episcopal Church, and I occasionally read the novels of Anthony Trollope, so I’m aware of all these things.
**Like Mr Dreher, Mr Goldman is always interesting. Unlike him, he is never apoplectic.