Gay Rights & Religious Liberty


*NOTE: This message was delivered at the Q Cities conference in Denver on September 27, 2012. My actual comments may have been slightly different from what is written here. Q restricts present


ations to a maximum of 18 minutes, so this message could only skim the surface of the very complicated intersection of gay rights and religious liberty.

When I was a freshman in college the GLBA–the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexaul Alliance–organized an annual Gay Awareness week. What I remember most was “Jean Day.” The student leaders of the GLBA posted signs all over campus announcing that students could express their support for gay rights by wearing jeans on Thursday. Of course denim is a second skin for most college students, and it was obvious the GLBA was seeking to inflate their perception of support. The tactic was so transparent few people paid attention— until a conservative Christian student group began putting up their own signs. Their flyers called students who did not support gay rights to “wear a shirt on Thursday.” The battle lines were drawn. The silliness of the GBLA’s scheme was matched and surpassed by the stupidity of the Christians’.

Thursday came and members of the GBLA went to class in blue jeans and topless. (Some women wearing only bras.) The conservative Christians marched to class wearing khakis and in some cases multiple shirts, proudly doing their part to “uphold righteousness.” Eventaully the two groups got into a heated shouting match. The shirts accused the skins of being godless and immoral. The denims accused the khakis of being bigots and homophobes. As I watched the scene unfold, the voice of my high school teacher echoed in my head. “Just remember,” he’d told me, “college isn’t the real world.”

Sadly the real world has proven to look more like my college experience than I would have hoped, only now the shouting between the gay community and Christians happens on cable news, talk radio, outside courthouses and in school board meetings. Still there are many of us–both gay and straight, Christian and non-Christian, supporters of same sex marriage, and those like myself who hold to the church’s traditional definition–who do not identify with the culture war rhetoric emminating from either side. We stand on the periphery wondering, is there a better way? Must we view every advancement in gay rights as a defeat for religious liberty? And is the presence of religious values in the public square automatically threat to gay rights? How do we elevate the conversation from the shouting match it has become?

I confess to you that in many ways I feel unqualified to address this topic. I am not a constitutional expert or a civil rights scholar. I am not a sociologist or a public advocate for either side. What I am is a pastor; a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is from that identity that I can to speak to you, and from that identity I want to ask–What does it mean to enter into the public square, into the tension between gay rights and religious freedom, dressed not in denim or khakis, shirts or skins, but clothed in the Gospel and bearing the image of Jesus Christ?

If we are to bring his presence into this issue I believe we must do three things. First, we must reframe the current debate. Second, we must rethink a long-held theological assumption. And third, we must reaffirm our committment to public witness.

In order to understand the way the debate is currently framed we must go back to 1976. Newsweek famously declared it “The Year of the Evangelical.” After 50 years on the edge of the culture, the social upheval of the 1960’s and the legalization of abortion in 1972 brought evangelicals out from the shadows. They feared the country had taken a rapid turn away from Judeo-Christian values and intervention was necessary. That year the seeds were planted for the emergence of the Religious Right and the alignment of “values voters” with the Republican Party.

1976 was also the year Harvey Milk was appointed to the San Francisco city counsel. Milk was the first openly gay political official in the country. Until then gay and lesbian Americans had been a largely hidden minority. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders, togehter with Harvey Milk’s political success, it marked the gay community’s emergence from the closet and into the public square.

So, we can look at 1976 as the year when the tension between gay rights and religious liberty really began. In the 36 years since then, evangelicals have primarily seen the issue as a conflict between values. Society will either be shaped by traditional Christian values or progressive secular ones. There can be no middle ground. One group will win and the other must retreat to the perifery of society from which it emerged.

For the church this framing have been costly. According to Gallop, in the 1970s 66 percent of Americans said they had a strong or high confidence in the church. Today it is only 44 percent. In 1994 only

27 percent supported same sex marriage. Today it is over 50 percent. David Campbell and Robert Putnam report:

The data points to a rich irony about the emergence of the religious right. Its founders intended to bolster religion’s place in the public square. In a sense, they have succeeded. Yet at the same time…the movement has pushed a growing share of the population to opt out of religion altogether.

Looking back, the decision to frame the issue as a battle over values was a severe mistake. In reality, the tension between gay rights and religious liberty had far more to do with identity than values. Consider Jesus’ words in Luke 6: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned.” It is one of the most abused and misunderstood verses in the NT. Jesus is not saying we shouldn’t discern between right and wrong. (In fact later in the same chapter he tells us to do exactly that.) He is telling us not to devalue a person as irretrievably guilty or condemn their identity as worthless. We are to believe that all people, including our LGTB neighbors, are made in the image of God and are inherently worthy of his love and ours.

By framing the issue as one of competing values, and then attacking those values, Christians were seen as condemning the core identity of their gay neighbors. When confronted, they might say, “We hate the sin but love the sinner.” But to a culture that understood the issue as one of identity rather than values, this was nonsensical and it opened Christians to accusations of hypocrisy and homophobia–which are the two words young adults now associate with Christians more than any other. If we are to bring the image of Jesus forward, we must reframe the issue and admit that the gay community has been right from the beginning–this issue is not simply about values; it is in fact about identity.

Rather than asking Whose values will dominate the public square? we should be asking: Whose identity is welcomed into the public square? Do we believe an LGTB citizens ought to bring their identity into government, business, the media, and education without fear or discrimination? And likewise, do we believe a Christian holding traditional beliefs should be able to bring their identity into the public square without fear? Framed this way, the issue ceases to be about winning or losing, or which group gets control and which is pushed back into the closet, and it becomes about learning to share the public square as Americans with different beliefs about marriage and sexuality but all possessing inherent God-given worth.

This reframing of the issue, however, will require the church to rethink a deeply held assumption carried by many Christians. That assumption has its roots in a sermon preached by John Winthrop, the governor of the Massechussetts Bay Colony in 1630. While sailing aboard the Arbella, he inspired the Puritan settlers by applying Old Testament promises given to Israel to their colony. If they kept God’s laws, he said, they would be blessed, and if they disobeyed they would see his wrath. “The eyes of all people are upon us,” he declared. The New World would be a “city upon a hill.”

These ideas, and even his words, would be recycled by American religious and political leaders for centuries to great effect. As a result many still believe America has a special covenant with God. If the country adheres to biblical morality, it will be blessed. If it deviates, it will be cursed. This was on display following the attacks on 9/11 when Jerry Falwell blamed the “pagans, the abortionists, the feminists, the gays and the lesbians” for the tragedy. They had pushed America toward secularism and broken our covenant with God.

As long as American Christians hold to this belief, which has no basis in Scripture, we will never be able to reframe the gay rights/religious liberty issue away from a battle of values toward one of a shared public square. There are two reasons. First, if we believe God’s judgment will come upon us for extending rights to our gay neighbors, then we cannot possibly accommodate their identity into the public square. While the sensible path is to recognize the presence of our LGBT neighbors and cooperate with them to draft laws that ensure their rights while simultaneously protecting religious liberty, instead we risk remaining locked in a winner-take-all battle for social control while the religious liberties of Christians get under-represented in the courts and legislatures. It is a self-defeating posture that must be abandoned.

Secondly, beliving America has a special covenant with God mobilizes Christians through fear rather than love. When leaders, both political and religious, seek to inflate Christians’ fears about their gay neighbors they are not inspiring us to be more Christian, but less. They are not leading us toward faith in Christ, but away from him. Because where the fires of fear and anger are fed, the inviting glow of Christ-centered faith and love cannot long endure. Such rhetoric is not leading us to love our gay neighbors as ourselves, but instead causing us to believe that our wellbeing necessitates their misfortune. The “us or them” view is antithetical to everything Jesus taught and modeled. In other words, believing a false and unbiblical doctrine–America’s covenant with God–is causing Christians to act contrary to a true and biblical one–the call to love our neighbors.

Finally, bringing the presence of Christ into this issue means not only reframing the issue and rethinking America’s covenant with God, it also means reaffirming our commitment to public witness. The Christian presence in the public square is facing challenges from two sides. One is pushing it out, and the other is pulling it. First, by framing gay rights as an all-or-nothing values war for three decades, Christians have given opponants a reason to push them out of the public square. Lawsuits agianst individuals, businesses, and groups holding to the historic Christian teaching on sexuality and marriage are mounting. We are reeping what we have sown.

But Christians aren’t just being pushed from the public square, many are choosing to leave it. Over the last 36 years the church has made many mistakes. We see it in the data, we feel it in the culture, and hear about it from our neighbors. And this is causing some Christians to withdraw from public manifestation of their faith in favor of a private devotion. “If the Religious Right has taught us anything,” they say, “it’s that faith should stay out of politics and business and education.” I believe this is precisely the wrong response. The question is not whether Christians should carry their faith into the public square, but how should we carry it. Will we carry it on the shoulders of fear and anger as a weapon to defeat our enemies? Or will we carry it on the shoulders of love and mercy as a cross that brings healing and comprehensive flourishing to our communities?

In 2006, then Senator Obama addressed this question in his speech on faith in the public square. He said:

Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity.

For the common good, we must not allow our Chrisitan witnessed to be pushed or pulled out of the public square, and neither should we retreat into enclaves of private devotion. Followers of Christ must publically advocate that all people (whether gay or straight, religious or non) be free to live out their identity without fear or violation of their conscience. That means being free to carry one’s faith into school or business. It means not forcing religious organizations to pay for health services that violate their faith, and protecting a business owner being threatened by government officials for holding an unpopular belief. But it also means affimring a Mulsim girl’s right to wear a hijab to school, and the right of her community to build a mosque in their neighborhood. And it means not denying LGTB citizens access to the same legal protections enjoyed by other Americans.

We must ask ourselves, what kind of public square do we want to create? If we desire a public square where all identities are welcomed, then as Christians we must not abondon our place within it, but strive to shape a public square where all people and ideas are welcomed. Where this freedom exists not only are religious and gay communities more likely to coexist in peace, but I believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ is also more likely to advance. The public witness of the gospel does not simply depend on Christians defending their own religious liberties, but upon our willingness to defend the liberties of those we disagree with.

As Christians, as those clothed in the gospel of peace, we cannot, and should not, demand that everyone share our beliefs. But we can, and should, demand that everyone share our freedoms. When this happens, we will find the courage to take off the armor of the culture war and put on the image of Christ. When this happens, we will find the grace to put aside fear and take up love. When this happens, we can be assured that Christ will be lifted up in the public square and draw all people to himself.

  • Pingback: Skye Jethani on Gay Rights and Religious Liberty | Rookie Pastor

  • Pingback: Recommended Reading | Echo Hub » Posts

  • Brad Grammer

    Thank you for your thoughtfulness in writing about these challenging times, especially in regards to the discussion about homosexuality and our culture today. I think we often forget, as followers of Christ, that Paul reminded us in 1 Corinthians 5 that we are not to judge “outsiders”, meaning anyone who does not believe in Jesus Christ. However, we are to judge our own in the Church. My personal belief is that homosexuality has become a battle between Christians and non-Christians because Christians have already traveled down the path away from being a true disciple. We have forgotten what Christ has called us to and thus end up having ‘values-battles’ with the culture rather than walking in line with what Christ called us to. We are called to love well — letting the world know that God loves them. We are to forgive quickly and seek to be reconcilers in a world where hate will dominate. We are called to suffer — in sharing the message of hope in Christ we will encounter hatred and rejection. We are called to care for the widows and orphans and sadly, Christians lack tremendously in obedience to this call. In fact, a Christian speaker I heard spoke of how the gay community only encompasses 2-3% of the population and only 10% of this percentage are actually involved in activitism. He asks the question, ‘why would such a small minority have such a large influence in the moral beliefs of our culture?’ His answer: because we are experiencing the consequences of disobedience to the first and second commandment. Just because we are Christians does not mean we will not experience consequences for disobedience to God, even though we will still be saved. So I’m in agreement with this speaker and believe that Christians are called to obey God and pay attention to all of the details that we have forgotten — valuing and living out his Word; fulfilling the call to make disciples rather than run church services; ministering to people by sharing the gospel and praying for healing for people; and caring for the poor. Until we make those our primary goals, we will keep fighting battles over values and pointing the finger at people instead of fulfilling our primary call to follow and obey Christ at all costs.

  • Pingback: People of Worth | Christian Lesbians

  • Brian

    You write:

    It means not forcing religious organizations to pay for health services that violate their faith, and protecting a business owner being threatened by government officials for holding an unpopular belief.

    I’ve heard this written by many, many evangelicals lately, especially in reference to birth control and chick-fil-a. It works most of the time, too, until we realize that government has, and will continue to, enforced laws that prevent religious organizations from doing what their respective religion states they ought to, or can, practice. An easy example would be polygamy, which was only outlawed in Utah in order for Utah to become a state. Most evangelicals would state taht polygamy is wrong, but would we say that the government has the right to enforce a law that violates the Mormon faith? Or, where I live in New York, Mayor Bloomberg wants to enforce a requirement for parental consent for the controversial practice of metziza bipeh. (Metzitza b’peh is a practice where in the mohel applies direct oral suction to the still-open circumcision wound) Why? Because it’s potentially dangerous for the child, and the Supreme Court stated in 1944 that “the right to practice religion freely does not include the liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill-health or death,” so the reality is the government can, and will continue to, “violate” our religious liberties in ways they feel best serve the safety of our country.

    I’m not really arguing with you, but simply stating that it seems like we want religious liberty in the areas that serve us best, but are okay with the government stepping in when we agree with their decision.

    This is a well-written article and I think it is a much better discussion surrounding the important issues it addresses than most that I’ve read or heard. Thank you for adding to the discussion something valuable.

  • MrPete

    I agree with much of what you write.

    However, I wonder if you’ve considered the implications, and recognized the already-existing consequences, of failing to uphold both values and identity. I believe that while there is great loss in failing to nurture all identities, there is equal if not greater spiritual loss in failing to uphold Godly values.

    A couple of thoughts in that direction:

    - There are huge arguments over nature vs nurture in the GLBT realm. Yet in a different realm, proclivity toward violence, there is no such argument. We don’t say abusers should be let off because they have a genetic inclination toward violence. This touches both on identity and on cultural values. Seems to me the Gospel ought to have something clear to say.

    - It is very popular today, and in fact for as long as I have been an adult, for the “mature” Church to focus on a welcoming perspective, a love-them-into-the-Kingdom perspective. And in many ways that’s valuable and truly Biblical. Yet at the same time, Jesus never compromised on values. Nor did the founders of this nation: an atheist could not testify in court because they did not believe they were held to account by any higher being.

    - In a more modern context, I was very sobered to discover the Frankfurt Declaration of 1970. This was written “before my time.” What is astounding to me: it is one of, if not the only, modern faith declaration I’ve seen that clearly states both a set of affirmations, and specific values that are therefore opposed. And sadly, many of the things opposed are “leaking” into today’s Church, perhaps because we have failed to bring clarity to such questions.

    Bottom line: Jesus “truthed in love” — He lovingly affirmed identity while very clearly proclaiming a set of values that challenged the status quo at every level. We would do well to follow in His footsteps.

  • MrPete

    One further thought. You write:

    we cannot, and should not, demand that everyone share our beliefs. But we can, and should, demand that everyone share our freedoms.

    Unfortunately, while we would not demand shared belief in one sense, is it not important to recognize that some beliefs are truly incompatible?

    Radical Islam for example would take advantage of freedom… to eliminate freedom.

    Likewise, there are many who believe they can and should use not only the freedoms of this nation, but our good-hearted (and/or lazy) willingness to avoid contention, to unconstitutionally implement policies that destroy the very freedoms on which the nation was founded.

    These are not simple issues. May God help us all!

  • Pingback: Gay Rights vs. Religious Liberty :: Tim Deatrick

  • Nate

    We are to believe that all people, including our LGTB neighbors, are made in the image of God and are inherently worthy of his love and ours. Ahem… None of us DESERVES God’s love. I can love them, and God expects me to, but deserving God’s love? You and I, Skye, do not deserve it.

  • Paul Wilkinson

    Heard you mention on this on the Phil Vischer podcast, of which I haven’t missed a single episode.

    Will your talk eventually be available on DVD? On the podcast you compared Q talks to TED Talks and I’m wondering if some will appear on YouTube anytime soon?

  • Rick

    Brother Sin is Sin and being Gay and Lesbian is a Sin and a choice and should not recognizable and acceptable, we are a Republic in this nation and as this continued action will give cause for “Blue Laws” to re-emerge (and all preparations are done/made) of and from a government that parades itself as a religion to impose these laws that will cause the gay and lesbian “culture” to return to the “closet” but not without first many, many, many live lost… Generations of families will be eliminated… A gay/lesbian I would hope would ask themselves is their choice much more important to them than the lives of their own family their mother, father, brothers and sisters their family unit? One day maybe not in their lifetime IT WILL BE THAT IMPORTANT OF A QUESTION… For example when this REPUBLIC was being birtthed maybe you have heard this expression “MY HOME IS MY CASTLE” or something to that effect? Well when them words were first said many lives were taken because those words were spoken… Huh? What does that have to do with this? The point is this culture is an abomination to god and when “Blue Laws” come back this god will be apeased with the cultures life/being and the family unit will pay a penalty for it being. If I may make a suggestion to please read an Oath… An Oath when taken is very special when taken and most Oath’s are unto death… This Oath is such an Oath and it is unto death,,, some who read it will think it is a short story with odd charaters and some will think it’s just a fool hardy piece of paper with no value in it or some will just ignore it and all the above IS EXPECTED so it can be CARRIED OUT lol irony that’s FEAR in the readers choice… It’s done everyday today and working that’s how this culture is getting this done today, same theme… Here’s the link

  • Pieder Beeli

    Mr. Jethani writes, “As a result many still believe America has a special covenant with God. If the country adheres to biblical morality, it will be blessed. If it deviates, it will be cursed. This was on display following the attacks on 9/11 when Jerry Falwell blamed the “pagans, the abortionists, the feminists, the gays and the lesbians” for the tragedy. They had pushed America toward secularism and broken our covenant with God.

    “As long as American Christians hold to this belief, which has no basis in Scripture, we will never be able to reframe the gay rights/religious liberty issue away from a battle of values toward one of a shared public square.

    But there is a thing called “natural law.” When we fail to call evil, “evil,” we give sanction to violating both natural law and the basis of our unalienable rights. Bradley Manning and Sandusky pathologies correlate to their homosexuality. We wrong the Mannings and Sanduskys–as well as their victims–when we fail to recognize the “self evident” natural law.

    So I’m not saying that America has a special covenant with God like Israel had, but every country has the choice to submit to God or to fight Him. There is no neutrality. Countries that choose to submit to God will evidence a better culture and a greater capacity for self-government. “If any man comes to God, the man must believe that God is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). Surely if a bunch of people recognize Rom 1:18-32, blessing will be upon them. Consider, “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Rom. 1:21). Do you think Jethani is one of those foolish, darkened hearts described by Rom. 1:21? I do.

  • Jeffry Butter

    Skye, this is a thoughtful and insightful discussion of the challenge. And I think the approach that you describe is wise. I assume that the optimism reflected is based on your own experiences with the LGTB community (& Muslims). I would like to hear a discussion about how we should respond when a (Christian) business owner is not protected but prosecuted, when a religious (Christian) organization is not given equal access, but is oppressed. I think that we (Christians in America) are reaping some of what was sown in the 70′s, but I also think that we may be entering a time of oppression (sort of like what the Confessing Church faced in Germany in the 30′s). Thank you for the brave work that you do!

  • Stephen Morris

    Hi Skye, I heard you mention this on the Phil Vicher podcast and came here to read the rest of it. What you say is good and thoughtful, but I do have to take issue with you over the whole “values vs. identity” thing. We usually use ‘identity’ to label something which is immutable – being black, being (heaven help us) Welsh, being from a particular social background. To use it in to describe being gay is to yield too much to those who claim it is something genetically determined, and so (ironically) to be unloving towards those who wish to escape from their homosexuality in order to follow Christ. 1 Cor. 6:11 couldn’t be clearer: “such were some of you”. That’s not to say that people who are still subject to homosexual temptations can’t be Christians, any more than people who are subject to alcoholic or adulterous temptations. Gay people can and do become Christians, and when they do they deserve our love, support and affirmation. Seeing their homosexuality as an identity rather than a value choice seems to me to make the barrier even higher and harder to overcome.

  • thomas wesley

    Dear Skye:
    Thanks for addressing this tough issue with a thoughful piece. I’ve enjoyed your comments on Phil Vischer’s podcast and came here because of that. I’ve been trying to conceive of what a different response to the emergence of homosexually into the public square other than the culture war would have looked like. I’m not sure I agree with you that most of Christian response against it has been motivated by a belief that America has a special covenant with God that we dare not violate. “Righteousness exhalteth a nation and sin is reproach to any people” is the proof text for that idea but it quite evidently applies to “any people”, not just Americans. Instead, I think most of us want to be salt and light to the culture that we live in, and we believe this involves saying no to sin and exposing it for what it is.
    But of course that is much harder than how I just made it sound because we are all sinners and none of us are righteous on our own. I think you are right to say we have condemned the identity of gay people in our efforts to stand for the truth. In doing so we’ve created the impression that we have it all together and, of course, its quite evident that we dont. So we come across as hypocrites. Sometimes it seems that the only sin our culture can’t tolerate is hypocrisy.
    Having said that I think its naive to think that had we welcomed the gay community into our culture that our message would have been better received by the culture at large. Canada really hasn’t had much of a culture war but pastors are being arrested there for preaching homosexual acts are sinful. The Bible seems pretty clear that most people are going to reject the good news. Its only good news if you believe you are sinful and need a savior and most aren’t accepting of that idea.
    Somehow we need to communicate that all persons are loved by God but not all behaviors are good, and we are the worst among sinners. A little humility on both sides of the issue would go a long way.

  • kkirby

    We love the person not the sin. Homosexuality is a sin and it is stated very clearly throughout scripture. God’s ntention, starting in the Garden of Eden, is for sex between one man and one woman in the covenenant of marriage. It doesn’t get any more clear than that. We love our gay and lesbian neighbors and welcome them into our church commnuity and then love them and restore them to who God intends for them to be.

  • Bill

    We are living in a culture of desire, a culture that elevates desire to something that carries its own justification. If i have a desire, it ought to be fulfilled. No objections allowed. And we have reached a place where there is no place to stand, outside our desires,, from which we can locate our identity. This is most clearly seen in the self-identity of one who has homosexual desires. He is what he desires. But as a christian i know my desires are not my identity. I have a place from which my identity can say no to my desires which is of course the very nature of what morality is – the ability to say no to my desires. It is a very terrible deception to locate your identity in your desires. If I must avoid speaking of a moral position, a moral value, because someone hears that as an attack on their identity, I will have lost any voice in the public square.

    We probably all find our identies in the wrong place to some extent. We feel personally threatened by voices that oppose our values because we our identity is too closely associated with whether we find men approving of us. We all need to find our identity in what God has said we are, how he looks at us.

  • Mrs. E

    I think you are closely linking two important issues together, but they are separate issues each with different variables. I don’t believe the LGBT community is the driving force behind the removal of Christian references “in the town square”. I also don’t think that most people who believe it is a slippery slope to grant certain “rights” to groups of people who behave in certain ways with certain preferences are necessarily acting out of “fear” or some belief in a special American covenant. Personally, I see too many people making assumptions on both sides of these issues. If I state that I am a Christian, please do not make assumptions about me or my opinions. I will try my best to embrace you (LGBT included) with the same grace I have been afforded. But these are complex issues with many implications – let’s not oversimplify things just to make a point.

  • Pingback: Farewell, Louie Giglio? - SKYEBOX

  • Ms P

    Why does the church focus so much on the “Gay” part? If anyone is not truly born again, then everything they do is sin. They need salvation whether they are Gay, straight or something in between.

  • Pingback: Same Sex Relationships | Jackie Always Unplugged