The sudden spurt of suicides related to anti-gay bullying has shocked our country. What is more shocking to me, however, is the vast difference between the responses of the secular communities and those within the Christian community. There are Christian voices that have spoken out in defense of the marginalized, bullied, mentally and physically tortured, gay children. But it is impossible to ignore the often louder voices on the Christian right backed up by their own interpretation of Christian
What we have in the wake of these tragedies, then, is an example of two dangerous trends in modern American society: the inability for the Christian religious right to engage in productive conversation with the left and the impossibility to create public discourse between the religious and non-religious due to a lack of common language.
For example, in response to the outcry against anti-gay bullying, Tony Perkins, the president of the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council, wrote an article in The Washington Post entitled, “Christian compassion requires the truth about harms of homosexuality.” Perkins, who was a member of the Louisiana legislature for eight years before becoming president of the FRC (whose slogan is, according to their website, is “Advocating Faith, Family, and Freedom), argued a shift of blame from the teachings of Christian conservatives against homosexuals to the conduct of the bullies themselves. The root of the problem, according to Perkins, is not the fact that society is still violently resisting homosexuality, but that homosexuals innately experience higher rates of mental health problems in general, unrelated to “society’s general disapproval.”
So far, any right-wing anti-gay politician, regardless of religious conviction, could have written this public response. There is no religious language; it is intelligible to the entire American public. But the problem for productive public discourse arises in the undergirding religious language in his argument. After citing scientific evidence for his position, he continues to write, “The most important thing that Christians can offer to homosexuals is hope-- hope that their sins, just like the sins of anyone else, can be forgiven and their lives transformed by the power of Jesus Christ.” This sentiment only communicates to Christians, leaving all non-Christians and those unfamiliar with Christian theology oblivious to its meaning.
With respect to open, inclusive public discourse, however, the religious left is not a better alternative. For example, in his religionsdispatches.com article “Why Anti-Gay Bullying is a Theological Issue,” Cody Sanders offered these comments by Boston College professor Dr. M. Shawn Copeland to the anti-gay bullying conversation:
“If my sister or brother is not at the table, we are not the flesh of Christ. If my sister’s mark of sexuality must be obscured, if my brother’s mark of race must be disguised, if my sister’s mark of culture must be repressed, then we are not the flesh of Christ. For, it is through and in Christ’s own flesh that the ‘other’ is my sister, is my brother; indeed, the ‘other’ is me…”
The point is clear – even the language from the religious left can hope only to converse with the opposing language of the religious right, and vice versa. They are not engaging with the wider American public, and if they are, the majority of that public is most likely not receiving the intended message. Certainly, when, on a national quiz of basic Christian and Biblical knowledge given by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the highest scoring denomination gets 60% of the questions correct, one can hardly expect any type of theological argument to be understood by more than small percentage of religious Americans.
However, on the basis of free speech, it is impossible for me – and, ideally, for any other American – to claim that these voices should be silenced. Nevertheless, when the language of these personal ethical convictions becomes unintelligible to the secular community, it can be destructive. My concern here is not the destruction of public morals or discourse. Rather, the involvement of religion – specifically, Christianity – in political discourse threatens its sacred integrity.
My concerns are rooted in the admonitions by two monumental political philosophers: James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville. In a remonstrance against a bill proposed by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia entitled, “A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion,” Madison argued for the separation of church and state not only to protect the personal religious convictions of the people from the meddling of the state, but also to protect the state from religion, condemning employing religion “as an engine of Civil policy,” claiming that such an act is “an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.” Likewise, in his book Democracy in America, de Tocqueville examined the roll of religion in American culture, warning:
“when a religion chooses to rely on the interests of this world, it becomes almost as fragile as all earthly powers… Hence any alliance with any political power whatsoever is bound to be burdensome for religion. It does not need their support in order to live, and in serving them it may die” (298).
Such profound admonitions, therefore, should encourage one to condemn the use of religious language in public, and specifically political, conversation.
Still, as the predominant Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas points out in his essay “A Christian Critique of Christian America,” “our religious convictions cannot be relegated to one sphere of our lives and our social and political activities to another” (462). Nevertheless, he maintains the same fear that excessive participation in the secular community threatens to degrade the prophetic and salvific power of Christianity. One partial remedy to this problem, according to Hauerwas, is that Christianity shed its Constantinian status and permanently relegate itself to a position as a “diaspora religion,” where it can speak prophetically about social and political problems without corrupting its traditions as a means to personal salvation.
It seems, therefore, that American Christians have a choice. The first is to continue religious discourse in the public conversation. The second is to restrict it to the private sphere. The first solution risks continued association due to common opposition, as in when matters of social morality become national topics of heated contention simply because of their inherent nature to be argued (i.e. gay marriage and abortion, as opposed to poverty rights and widespread hunger that rarely experience the level of heated national conversation), and the secularization and corruption of religion. The second risks complete exclusion of religion from the public sphere where it may be needed to provide both an opportunity for common association and a tool for moral action, such as in advocating for the rights of the poor or alleviating neighborhood violence.
I cannot hope to offer a cure-all. I can only hope that the religious left and right can find a way to speak to the greater American society without risking their own unique positions as prophetic Christian voices.