There is nothing intimidating about the building, other than its sheer size and the many millions of dollars it took to build it. In fact, it is one of the most welcoming places I’ve ever been. This conservative, evangelical megachurch, just outside San Diego, is a hive of activity on a Sunday morning. Upon entering, I’m drawn into the sophisticated café that makes Starbucks look like a 10-year-old’s sidewalk lemonade stand. I get my latte and am assured that I am welcome to take it with me to my seat in the church. I find a seat, which is plush and comfortable, and sure enough, there’s a cup holder for my coffee.
I am struck by the starkness of the worship space: no windows, all black, no cross or stained glass, and not a single sign that this is a place of worship. A drum trap set is the only thing on the massive stage. It’s hard to tell, really, when the service starts; it just seems to grow organically, with additional people coming onto the stage over the course of 15 minutes, everyone dressed in jeans and comfortable clothing. The sense of expectation grows minute by minute.
The crowd gathering in the congregation is old and young. Some members are alone, some coupled, and lots of families, with kids in tow. And virtually all white. Everyone seems excited to be here. When things actually begin, it is as professional as any Broadway show, with fantastic music by a small band, and everyone is singing. Although there is a brief prayer early on, the service seems oddly devoid of any mention of God, much less Jesus. And within the first 10 minutes, the head minister announces that the time has come for what we’ve all been waiting for: the collection, the chance to give for the work and ministry of this place. And everyone cheers. That’s right, cheers! Wild applause, enthusiastic delight at the chance to contribute to the ministry.
But soon, the mood turns dark. In between the uplifting songs, the message is: they’re coming to get us. One by one, the speakers lay out the parameters of the siege under which Christians live, attacked by liberal and godless forces on every side. An African-American minister from New York describes a change in policy in New York City to disallow churches to hold services in public schools, and his message is, “Beware. What’s happening in New York is headed your way! Get ready!”
The sermon is delivered by a guest preacher, whose main point seems to be the evils of feminism and sexual immorality. In the 40-minute “sermon,” there is hardly a mention of the Divine. “God” shows up about 30 minutes in, and Jesus is mentioned only once, at the last minute. The senior pastor delivers an additional message, imploring those present to return that evening for a debate about homosexuality (the reason I’m there—and to their credit, both sides are being represented). His explicit message is, “Come tonight! I cannot prepare you for the onslaught of immorality and anti-Christian fervor if you don’t come! There is a battle underway for your souls, and I intend to outfit you for a holy war!” Every message, action and gesture seems calculated to ratchet up the anxiety of those who are listening. And then it’s over. Just like that.
I honestly don’t know how typical such a service is among evangelicals, bent on making people fearful, but if you left that service feeling hopeful, at peace with God, and eager to help the poor and needy, then you weren’t paying attention. It is no wonder to me that many conservative, Christian people are fearful, and believe that there is a war on religion (especially Christians) in this country. After all, it is drummed into them every week.
This past week, the owners of Hobby Lobby argued that such laws as the Affordable Care Act, with its contraception mandate, are walking all over their “religious liberty”—and astonishingly, the Supreme Court of the United States agreed, and allowed the religious freedom of this corporation and its owners to trump the healthcare needs and rights of thousands of its employees. And still, these people feel oppressed.
Fear is a terrible thing. It does awful things to the people who feel it. Yet, it’s an effective way to bind people together and to make them feel that if they don’t band together, they will be overtaken by hostile forces. And fear is a difficult thing to counter, especially when their leaders are reinforcing that fear at every turn. The cynical side of me suspects that these leaders know exactly what they are doing, but I admit that it is indeed possible that these leaders believe exactly what they are teaching.
What can progressive people, and progressive religious people in particular, do to demonstrate that American culture is not trying to take away their freedom to pray, worship and believe as they wish? How can we speak to their fears in a way that gets them to understand that there is nothing to be fearful of? Vigilance, yes, is prudent and necessary in any free society, but fear bordering on paranoia—fear that is objectively unwarranted—is corrosive.
Religious freedom is something I would fight and die for. But I do not feel threatened by our precious separation of church and state in this beloved United States. That separation should not only protect religious people and communities from interference by the state, but should also protect the secular culture from unwarranted influence and control by the church, synagogue or mosque. Robert Frost got it right: fences make for good neighbors. And while church and state are good neighbors in America, it’s the fence between the two that make for real religious liberty.
Within only a day or two after the Hobby Lobby ruling, prominent evangelicals called upon President Obamato declare broad religious exemptions to his upcoming executive order banning discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people by federal contractors. Just stop and think about the image of religious people pleading for the “right” to discriminate against certain fellow citizens. What would Jesus do, indeed?!
I am keenly aware that such a view might be perceived by some as having a good dose of paranoia of my own. But I think that while oppression and discrimination against LGBT citizens can be demonstrated with ease and myriad examples, oppression of religious people by the government and society is much more difficult to document. Anti-gay sentiment is waning in American society, and with that forward progress, conservative churches will see a loss of credibility and a diminished effectiveness of their fear-mongering. That is as it should be. Neither the church nor the state is served by it.
The Right. Rev. V. Gene Robinson is the retired Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @BishopGRobinson.