Do LGBTs Owe Christians an Olive Branch? Try The Other Way Around

What’s really needed are not more exemptions to laws, but more reflection on Christian persecution of LGBT people—past and present

Photo illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

Last week, Bruce Barron, a former staffer for Rick Santorum, invited “gays” to offer an “olive branch” to right-wing Christians, in the form of religious exemptions to civil rights laws. Gays have won, Mr. Barron said in his op-ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Christians are now “outlaws” and “martyrs.”

Although I am tempted to ridicule this invitation, as many of my colleagues have done, I’m going to take it. But the olive branch I offer is that Barron, and those sharing his views, press pause on the martyr complex, and do some authentic religious introspection into their positions.

As a rabbi, married gay man, and longtime activist and journalist covering issues of sexuality and religion, I offer the following four questions for sincere reflection on Mr. Barron’s part.

1. Are Christians really outlaws and martyrs?

As someone involved in the issue of religious exemptions for many years now, I am well aware that many Christians sincerely believe themselves to be persecuted.

Mr. Barron, you should be aware that everyone in the LGBT community—please stop calling us “gays” or “homosexuals” and please use the term we choose for ourselves—thinks this is ridiculous, if not offensive. When you make this claim, LGBT people just stop listening.

How many Christians have killed themselves because “gays” were persecuting them? How many Christian kids are bullied in school for being sissies or tomboys? What is the suicide rate of Christian teens relative to transgender ones?

(Answer to the last one: trans people are ten times more likely to attempt suicide than non-trans people.)

I have experienced this firsthand. When I was in the closet in my twenties, I considered suicide almost every day. I was told that God hated me, and despite trying very hard to change my sexual orientation, I found that I could not. You can read my story in my book, if you like.

No matter how much Christians believe themselves to be martyrs, I submit that their actual persecution pales in comparison to my own story—and mine is a relatively benign one, compared to the tales of others.

There have been changes in our society on issues of sexual and gender justice. From our perspective, those changes are somewhat reducing the majority’s ability to discriminate against a minority. Yes, it was once okay to tell me I will burn in hell, and now it’s not okay. But that’s not persecution; it’s justice.

I invite you to reflect on the actual power dynamic between Christians and LGBT people in our society. Are “gays” really the bullies here?

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Before “we” might offer “you” an olive branch, you must offer one to us. You must atone, apologize, and beg forgiveness for the thousands of LGBT lives you have taken. In the 1980s, your community allowed hundreds of thousands of us to die because you believed AIDS was divine punishment. With your unkind and unjust words, you continue to cause harm to LGBT people in your religious communities. And as recently as last week, you urged Michigan’s legislators to pass a law that would enable paramedics to deny service to gays and lesbians.

We are waiting for that branch.

2. Is it Really a Sin to Bake a Cake, or Can Christians Render Unto Caesar what is Caesar’s?

Let’s next reflect on what your favorite martyrs—the cake-baker in Colorado, the photographer in New Mexico—are really being asked to do.

When the early followers of Jesus did not want to pay taxes to Rome, or use coins emblazoned with Caesar’s image, Jesus told them to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:13-17; cf. Matthew 22:15-22 and Luke 20:20-26.)

The same is true today.

First, let’s remember that the cases you cite are outliers. The truly problematic religious exemptions aren’t those for individuals like the baker and photographer. They are for corporations like Hobby Lobby, and vast hospital networks, and, yes, adoption agencies. We’re talking about large organizations here, and it’s misleading to keep mentioning Mom & Pop businesses.

But even in your strongest case, all that photographer is being asked to do is provide the same, secular service they provide to everyone who asks—fairly and without discrimination. They are not “participating” in or “facilitating” a gay wedding. They are baking cakes and taking pictures. They are not “embrac[ing] homosexual behavior.” They are doing their jobs.

When these small businesses advertise their services, they are entering the marketplace, and the marketplace has certain rules, non-discrimination among them. That is Caesar’s territory, not God’s. How individuals act in their homes, churches, communities, and even in public—that is up to them. But once they enter into the marketplace, they are regulated by the state, just as they were in Caesar’s day.

There is no sin in rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. This is not a “nightmare,” as you describe it. It is living in a democracy.

Will Christian pharmacists, county clerks, florists, and for-profit wedding chapels really withdraw from society, as you describe? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Thanks to the free market, I am sure they will all be replaced by Americans eager for good jobs and good wages—just as the Catholic Charities adoption system was replaced in Massachusetts, where, after a brief interruption, kids are being adopted by loving families—all loving families.

But I don’t think that will happen. Ask your kids. They don’t think that the focus of Christian life should be discriminating against gays and lesbians. They just don’t think it’s that big a deal. They’re more focused on Christian values like feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Maybe you should be too.

3.Are Religious Exemptions Really Harmless?

Now, you might say (and did say), what’s the harm in asking a gay couple to use a different baker or photographer. As you put it, “letting some business owners exercise their conscience would cause no harm to gays.”

First, let’s stop talking about wedding cakes. Your political allies are pushing for exemptions for pharmacists, doctors, and entire medical systems. In small towns, if a hospital “conscientiously objects” to honoring my marriage, my husband couldn’t make life-or-death decisions for me. The stakes are much higher than you let on.

Second, let’s play your idea out a bit. Suppose my hotel “conscientiously objects” to hosting a gay couple. Can they just put a “No Gays Allowed” sign on their door? And if so, why not a “No Interracial Couples Allowed” sign—as many sincere Christians believe that the mingling of races is against their religion? Why not a “No Jews Allowed,” since some Christians believe that Jews are responsible for the death of Christ?

Allowing some people to discriminate sends the message that discrimination is okay. We’re offended by the examples I’ve listed because we understand now that racism and anti-Semitism are not okay. A century ago, however, those very signs—no Jews, no blacks—were on country clubs, hotels, and drinking fountains.

And make no mistake; they were backed up by sincere religious beliefs. Basing themselves on the story of Noah and the “Hamite curse,” many white Southerners believed that God separated the races on different continents, and decreed that Africans must serve Europeans. (Genesis 9:25) You disclaim these voices from the past, but to LGBT people, your voice sounds a lot like theirs.

“Conscientious Objector” exemptions are not harmless. They would affect huge organizations, limit access to vital services, and perpetuate the idea that discriminating against sexual and gender minorities (and women) is acceptable.

4. Is it True that “Gays vs. Traditionalists are a Zero-Sum Game”?

Finally, speaking as a rabbi, I invite you to reflect on your claim that there is no bridge to be built between LGBT people and “Conservative Catholics, evangelicals, Mormons, Muslims, and others.” I invite you to visit the Gay Christian Network and the Reformation Project, two organizations doing just that. Read the books by their founders: Justin Lee’s Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate and Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian. If you like, I’ll even send you a copy of my book, God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality, which not only shows how the six verses in the Bible (6 out of 30,000!) used to condemn gay people actually have nothing to do with us, but how many more central religious values support our liberation, equality, and dignity.

Ironically, we LGBT religious leaders are your best hope. The latest surveys show that one-third of Millennials who left their churches did so because of the churches’ teachings on homosexuality. If I may say so, you need to get past this issue that is sapping your energy and demoralizing your followers. Instead of perpetuating your generation’s losing battle against love, I invite you to turn to the next generation. Freed from the prejudices you and I grew up with, they are the ones with the olive branch you seek—the sign of peace, and of the end of the deluge.