Listening to all the verbiage on Social Media and the Pundits about “persecution of conservative Christians” for their views, I thought I’d weigh in with some reflections.
When Equality Feels Like Oppression
The bottom line for me is this: When a group of people have enjoyed privilege for a long time, when the playing field gets evened, even a little, it can seem to them like oppression. This doesn’t mean it’s true.
Here is analogy of what I think is happening. You probably know that there is considerable evidence that boys in Elementary and High School are called on more than girls, and have more roles in leadership. That’s one reason that I think same sex-education yet near enough to co-operate, like my own Brophy and its sister school, Xavier, are a valuable part of the educational scene.
I have learned anecdotally that teachers have run tests in co-ed classrooms where they rigorously call on boys and girls 50-50. Soon, they boys start to complain that they are being neglected.
I think that is what is happening here. Conservative Christians aren’t calling all the shots, and they miss that.
A War on Christianity in the US?
There is no widespread or systemic persecution of or opposition to Christianity in the United States. Look at ISIL and what they are doing to the Christians in the territories they control. That is persecution. Saudi Arabia does not allow its Catholic Filipino guest workers free exercise of religion. That’s persecution.
That having been said, yes, there are the new atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett who oppose all religion. That’s their right, and I don’t agree. I have atheist friends, no worries.
And too, even the ACLU, which I generally support, sometimes crosses the line. But overall I don’t see an actual, concerted War on Christianity in America. Instead, this is one of–if not the–most Church-going countries in the world.
And certainly there is not a systemic war on Christianity from the LGBT Community. Many, many Gay people are faithful participants and cultural contributors in a whole range of Churches and Religions.
What is happening in the United States is very different. Let’s take a step back in history.
Christianity in America
The United States was founded by a group of leaders who included Deists, and non-religious mystics such as Rosicrucians and Masons. Thomas Jefferson edited out all the parts of the Gospels that had to do with miracles, etc., and only kept the ethical teachings. He and other founders also hated the Jesuits, but admitted that Freedom of Religion protected them.
Of course, there were mainstream Christians among the Founders, like our own Charles Carroll, and the majority of the population practiced one form of Christianity or another. But the United States was formed precisely on the idea that the Government could not privilege one religion over another.
In practice, of course, it did: Anglican and Protestant Christians were the “mainstream.” Our own Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish immigrant families bore the brunt of that persecution: the KKK, “Irish need not apply,” and other Nativist movements.
A startling example of Anglican and Protestant ascendency was after the purchase of Alaska. As you probably know, Russian Orthodox Christians had evangelized the Aleuts, Innuits, Tlingits and other native peoples in Alaska since as early as 1648. In 1794 the Russian Orthodox Church set up a formal mission, and then ecclesiastic structures. Large numbers of the native peoples became faithful Christians. Many Saints come from this heritage. As is Eastern Christian custom, the Bible and the Liturgies were translated into these native languages, and the faith adapted to the native cultures. The Eastern Christians protected the native cultures.
When the United States purchased Alaska in 1867, the eradication of Native culture was the plan. Children were taken from their parents and sent to “Indian Schools” (like the one just down from Brophy at Central and Indian School Road), where only English was taught by Anglican or Protestant missionaries, and those forms of Christianity were taught to them.
Dr. Sheldon Jackson, with the full funding and support of the Federal Government, divided Alaska into mission regions for each of the major Anglican and Protestant Churches. There was certainly no thought to giving some to the Orthodox or Catholics. The American Government couldn’t even figure out that large numbers of the native peoples were already Christian—Orthodox Christian!
With the exception of the plight of those Christians who suffered under the ancient Romans and Persians, those under centuries of domination after the Fall of the Christian Roman Empire in 1453, and those who suffered under the Communist Yoke and other oppressions, no one has ever been better at persecuting Christians than other Christians. Our history is littered with martyrs on all sides slain by other Christians.
In the U.S., Catholic and Orthodox Christians, and Jewish faithful finally became mainstreamed. That process is not complete yet. Here is the story of a small Texas town whose public school had enshrined Baptist Christianity, and harassed Catholic and Mormon students: http://www.mormonstoday.com/000625/N1SchoolPrayer02.shtml. (I know that there are debates over the relationship of Mormonism and Christianity, but that didn’t prevent co-operation between those Churches on CA Prop. 8.)
Still, today, Christianity exercises a great deal of influence in the U.S., and most of it is for the better as far as I am concerned. Christmas and Easter are part and parcel of our national life. And everybody knows what those holidays are about: the Birth of the Son of God, and His Resurrection. Just because there are secular trappings about the holidays does not mitigate what the holidays are about. Christmas Carols are pretty explicit in their religious content. “Xmas” is not X-ing out Christ, it is the first letter in the Greek word Χρίστος—Christos, Our Lord’s title as the Anointed One. It’s just our mania for shortening words like thru and lite.
The vast majority of our leaders are Christian. Every President, including President Obama, has been a Christian. We we inspired recently by his Eulogy in Charleston. Well…Washington was a Deist, and as we know, Jefferson was not a believer in any kind of Christianity that accepts Jesus as both Divine and Human. But they “passed.”
Further, the Stock Markets close on (Western) Good Friday. Schools close. The TV is filled with specials about the Life of Christ, and religious subjects, especially at Christmas and Easter, but they are common all the time. Movies and TV programs are often on religious and Bible themes. Note the new series, AD: The Bible Continues and the recent movies on Noah and the Exodus. Those last two are Jewish, properly speaking, but they are also in the Christian Bible.
As an aside, I’ve always thought it was curious that conservative Christians want to have the Ten Commandments, the basis of Jewish Law, in Law Courts. I think it would be more appropriate to have the Ten Commandments, the Two Christian Commandments from the New Testament, along with other ancient world law codes, from other religious and secular traditions, such as the Negative Confessions to Ma’at from ancient Egypt, the Code of Hammurabi, etc. showing the diversity of the ways God has spoken to human beings.
That would follow rock-solid Christian doctrine, from the 2nd Century teachings of St. Justin the Philosopher (St. Justin Martyr in the West) who taught that God has seeded all cultures with the Spermatic Logos, and it is the Christian’s duty to find how the Holy Spirit has spoken in each culture.
Now Christian, of course, is a very broad term. It stretches from the liberal/progressive Episcopal Church of America and the United Church of Christ through Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Church of the East (of whom there are more in Detroit and Turlock CA than in Iraq and Iran because of the real persecution there), the Catholic Communion of Churches to the Southern Baptists, Evangelicals and Fundamentalists.
We are now an extremely diverse nation, with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Animists, Druids, Wiccans, and every other variety of religion here. I personally love it!
Reductio ad Absurdum: Going to Extremes
Personally, I would never patronize a company that didn’t want my business. If they sent me away because of some reason I considered to be prejudiced, I would let other people know and recommend that people take their business elsewhere. I’m not sure I would go to the lengths of a formal boycott movement, but boycotting is a venerable tradition that Americans of all sides use frequently. It’s Free Speech, and businesses need to know that they discriminate at their peril. It’s my money, and I can spend it as I choose. There is nothing unusual about Boycotting, it’s the same tactic used by many Conservative organizations for their interests.
A person or business’s stand on religious issues is susceptible to public opinion. There’s no exemption. For example, when times and mores changed, the Mormons allowed Black men to be priests. And more recently, the Mormon Church and the Roman Catholic Church (led by Bishop John Wester, a wonderful man and priest!) in Utah worked with LGBT groups to craft civil rights legislation in the state that also protected Church interests.
Now, of course, some Christians who run businesses will sometimes be sued for a number of reasons. That’s not persecution of Christianity; it is part of our litigious society. Likely as not, in the Indiana Pizza case, the gay couple might have been Christian too: I don’t know. The conservatives do not get to dictate who is a Christian.
My fear is that this kind of thing will get out of control. What if you went to a Greek Restaurant, only to be turned away because you recite the Nicene Creed with the Filioque, which the Roman Catholic Church inserted without consulting with its fellow Churches? Or from a Fundamentalist-run shop because you are a “Papist”? That way is social chaos.
It has Happened Before
It’s happened before. In Constantinople, the Roman Capital, around 431 and the Council of Ephesus, if you were shopping in the Market, you might well be asked “Is She Christotokos or Theotokos?” before the shopkeeper would sell you anything. This was the controversy over whether Our Lady was the Mother of only the Incarnate Christ, or the Mother of God. Theology is important, but should your position stop you from feeding your family? (I’m personally happy that Theotokos won out!)
If people want to run their businesses like that, go ahead. I remember every place used to have a placard “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” But there are consequences to every action. And in the current heightened polarized state of our nation, things like this catch fire. And that cannot include discrimination.
Here’s a very recent debate featuring my fellow Yalie and Sillimander, Evan Wolfson about this whole issue. Good Going, Evan!
As I said at the beginning, I would not patronize a place that didn’t want my business. But what happens when you live in small town, rural America (which tends to be more conservative)? There might be only one restaurant. One Tweeter said, “Where I live, all three ambulance services are private companies. Will they not rescue me because I am Gay?”
In America, we have decided that discrimination is not right. Now, many of us think that this should be extended to LGBT persons. My experience tells me that being Gay or Straight is a gift from God, and that’s how God wants it, and expects that we live and love accordingly.
Not everything the people vote on through their representatives is right. Two obvious examples were Slavery and Prohibition. We all know the first was horrendous. The second was thoroughly wrong-headed social engineering, was virtually unenforceable, and created chaos and crime from 1920-1933. The criminal infrastructure that was created still plagues us today.
A Very Difficult Task
The great experiment we are attempting in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and countries like us is to have a truly diverse nation in harmony. We are diverse in ethnicity, religion, cultures, orientations, you name it. We have a lingua franca, English, but many other languages co-exist with it. This is a very difficult task we have set for ourselves. Throughout history, most nations have been monocultural, monolingual, mono-ethnic and of one religion, or mostly so. No matter how many years you live in France, speak French fluently, and gain French Citizenship, you are only French if you are French ethnically.
Empires have been diverse, such as the Roman Empire, but they were held together with brutal force.
If I had to define what it is to be an American, I would probably say, “An American is one who supports, defends, and lives by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.” We (should) welcome everyone, and you can “become” an American.
Just as gradually over our history, various ethnic groups and religions have been mainstreamed, now LGBT people are being mainstreamed, and that is good for society. Businesses know that: diversity is good for business. Marriage is also a stabilizing force in society, and that is why having Marriage Equality is beneficial.
We have to create a balance. Here are some of the things I mean:
First, I stand firmly in the defense of any Church and religious group to regulate their own internal life. I would staunchly oppose imposing Gay marriage on the Catholic and Orthodox Churches or on any other Church or religion. Someday they may choose to do this on their own, as the mainstream Anglican / Episcopal Church and some others have, but that is their own business.
Second, Marriage is a civil institution. It became a Christian institution as Christianity, with increasing formality, accepted marriages by the Pagan magistrates. Later Bishops became the magistrates. Marriage therefore is a civil right, in addition to sometimes being a Christian Sacrament / Holy Mystery.
We also know that while not mainstream, there were same-sex unions in the past, even in the Byzantine and Syriac Christian Traditions. There are even (admittedly debated) adelphopoiesis rituals which may have been used for this, and are strikingly similar to the Marriage rituals of those Churches. As one of Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. who taught at the Gregorian in Rome says of the reality of the Women’s Diaconate (not just a setting aside but a real Ordination) in the Ancient Church (which still survives in some Orthodox Churches today): if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, it is a duck!
Third, where Churches and other Religious groups interact with civil society, especially accepting Government contracts, etc., as with Catholic Charities, the area is gray. Here in San Francisco, Archbishop Levada (no liberal he!) was faced with this when The City insisted that Catholic Charities allow domestic partners of employees to be insured under their coverage.
He made a wonderfully Solomonic decision. He said OK, broadening it to insuring any co-domiciled adult. His reasoning was that, while the Church does not approve of domestic partnerships, it does teach that access to healthcare should be universal. It was the good old principle of double-effect. He understood that compromise is not surrender. I enjoyed working under him at my Parish. He was fair.
Where it gets dicey for me is when, for example, we get selective refusal of service supposedly based on religion. Take this scenario:
Let’s say we have a firm run by conservative Roman Catholics. They refuse to cater an LGBT Wedding, or do the video for one, or provide flowers for one because such unions are “against their religion.”
However, just last week they provided their services to a couple who got married civilly, in which the bride was a Catholic, who had been married in the Church but was divorced and without an annulment. That’s two strikes: remarriage without an annulment, and marriage outside the Church. But the firm didn’t object to serving them on religious grounds.
I imagine there are conservative Christians (and other religious people) who are consistent in who they serve and who they don’t, but if my suspicions are correct, I think other religious and moral issues are let slip. This recent turmoil isn’t really isn’t about religious liberty, it’s about the perceived “ick” factor of LGBT marriages in some quarters, and about the perceived loss of control over things.
They are picking and choosing which teachings of their Church to deny service over. Not only is it inconsistent, it is bad business. I suspect they would gladly serve a Protestant wedding (heretics, from their point of view) or a Jewish Wedding (non-Christian). They don’t feel that serving those weddings compromises their faith. It’s just business.
How do we Proceed?
Honestly, I don’t know exactly where we go with this as a society. We have decided that discrimination is wrong, but sometimes, some people still want to discriminate and use religion as an excuse. We rightly support religious liberty, but what happens when my religious liberty and someone else’s, clash.
I think that’s why we have civil society. We agree to work with one another for the common good, regardless of our religious differences. As Arizona’s famous Senator Barry Goldwater once said, “To defend your country, you don’t have to be straight, you just have to be able to shoot straight.”
So, the Bottom Line
In urban environments, where goods and services are plentiful, there’s plenty of wiggle room. It’s a very unwise business that chooses not to serve a class of people or certain legal events on supposedly religious grounds and does not expect to be called out on it. Free Speech, you know!
This is a free country, and if a business chooses not to serve Gay Weddings, they can expect opposing and supporting Yelp Reviews, opposing Boycotts and supporting Fundraisers. That’s what happened in Indiana with Memories Pizza. That’s the American capitalist system at work.
I’m not exactly sure where I stand on lawsuits over this. Certainly if it is a government service being denied, or an essential service (such as ambulance transport) being denied, I’d think a lawsuit would be warranted. To my LGBT sisters and brothers, I support your right to use the legal system if you feel your rights are being infringed.
In small town America, it gets trickier as goods and services are less widely available. Goods and services have to be available to all. Shunning and un-neighborly behavior are un-American.
Final Thoughts–Wedge Issues: Cui Bono?
From my point of view, do not imagine for a moment that Politicians—of any party—are true believers. They are politicians, and using Aristotelian terms, their Final Cause is to be elected and stay in office, and to gain higher offices. If they saw political advantage, Republican politicians would be on the rainbow bandwagon immediately. The Right Wing GOP politicians are using Conservative Christians for their own political benefit. They do not really care. Nor, I think, do all Democrats who use other constituencies. Of course, there are some politicians that believe what they say, but I’m not sure how many. I love the title and content of Progressive Evangelical Jim Wallis’s book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.
These “wedge issues” are keeping those who otherwise would be allies from facing the gigantic challenges we face as a Planet.
This is exactly what happened in Boston in the School Bussing crisis of the 1970s. It was in the interest of the Boston Brahmans who run the City to keep poor Blacks and poor Irish at each other’s throats. This kept them from uniting against their real enemies, the Filthy Rich Crony Capitalists.
At least as I interpret it, I think the Pope, as a true Jesuit, is calling us to that kind of cooperative work. He is certainly not a supporter of Abortion or Gay Marriage. But he knows that the world is in a time of crisis, and the Church is the MASH Unit to help all who need it. I am very much interested to hear his speech before Congress this year.
Thank you for listening. I look forward to your comments online.
Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant