October 18, 2019 Jesus and Politics, Jesus Amidst the LGBT/Religious Freedom Conflict

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October 18, 2019 Jesus and Politics, Jesus Amidst the LGBT/Religious Freedom Conflict

Editorial Note: On October 17-19, 2019, Andrews University hosted a conference entitled Jesus and Politics: Christians, Liberty, and Justice Today, “featuring experts in church history, theology and activism, seeking to translate biblical teachings to our day through careful study, thought, and dialogue.” For more information about the conference please visit https://www.jesusandpoliticstoday.org.

Author’s Note: The following summary includes a mixture of my words and those of the panelists without indicating direct quotation. It has also been edited for clarity and conciseness. It may not capture the actual or expressed views of the panelists in their nuance and detail. It is presented here for educational purposes only. -David Hamstra

Opening Remarks

The Jesus and Politics conference, LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) and religious liberty issues panel, Jesus Amidst the LGBT/Religious Freedom Conflict, was convened on the morning of October 18 by conference-organizer Melissa Reid, NAD Associate PARL. Todd McFarland of the GC PARL opened the proceedings with an explanation of where the Adventist Church is coming down on this issue and why, both legally and theologically. Adventists agree with evangelicals on the theological substance of the issue, but we have set ourselves apart from most of evangelicalism in that we think we shouldn’t use the power of the state to improve society and make it more Christian. We were concerned with the Moral Majority trying to insert specifically Christian views into society with the power of the state. The Adventist Church filed a Supreme Court brief in Obergefell stating that we don’t take a position as a church on the issue as far as the state is concerned. We just want a space to practice our beliefs. Adventist and the Mormons both come from histories of persecution, and that leads us to take this distinctive view.

Next, Dale Carpenter, a law professor, spoke about his work with the American Unity Fund. The American Unity fund works for the freedom and equality of LGBT people within the Republican Party. Why would someone who is a strong advocate of LGBT equality and rights engage with people who come at it from a very different perspective? Dale supports LGBT rights, because he believes American individuals ought to be able to define and decide for themselves the moral content of their lives. They ought to be able to bring their full selves everywhere. That causes Dale to embrace both LGBT people and people of faith. Religious freedom is an important American principle. Dale has no desire to alter a doctrine of any particular church, no desire to drive religious social service organizations out of the public square, and doesn’t even have a desire to have a baker who doesn’t want to bake his wedding cake bake the cake, or else. That doesn’t need to happen for him to bring his full self to the public square. Dale works with Todd to bring legislation like that to the table.

There has been a lot of distrust between the LGBT equality advocates and religious liberty advocates, and that had to be dispelled in various ways. That required getting into a room where they could talk about real issues, discussing how to make their core concerns work. Their religious freedom partners had to accept (1) that there was in fact a problem of LGBT discrimination around the country—in housing, employment, and business—(2) that that was in fact wrong, and (3) that it could be corrected without undue interference. If you disagree on those premises, we can’t get anywhere.

As a matter of pragmatic politics, LGBT partners have had on the table for thirty years proposals that would protect the rights of LGB and then T people in Congress that never got anywhere. This means that some kind of purity test cannot be applied, or the legislation will never pass. Further, the Supreme Court is not going to say that Title 7 covers LGBT people. Legislation is the most long-lasting solution. Dale hopes that he and his partners can produce a piece of legislation they can be proud of and hopes that most members of congress will be able to support it.

Lastly, Gregg Chenoweth, President of Bethel University, spoke from a religious liberty perspective. He posited that whatever the church puts underground grows. The church hasn’t been courageous enough, and, having placed the topic of same-sex attraction underground, it has grown. The pulpit has been too silent about the reality of same-sex attraction in the church, Pastors privately complain about the way things are polarized, but won’t publicly affirm their theology. Gregg has talked to senators who say that they could go public with support for legislation that upholds LGBTQ rights and religious liberty if only they could reference a figure in the conservative, Christian community who supports it. Gregg also thinks Christians have failed to affirm singleness.

Gregg recommends the books, The Relevance of Religion by John Danforth, Letters to an American Christian by Bruce Riley Ashford, and Confident Pluralism by John D. Inazu, and Free to Serve by Monsma and Carlson-Theis. The theme in these books that has been helpful to Gregg is to acknowledge that pluralism is a fact. We have incompatible worldviews in our society and need to find a way to live together. Some people talk as if the future of the church is dependent on our theology being legislated. But “confident pluralism” means that we are not working on moral agreement, we are working on civil peace.

There are laws being made that are threatening to organizations like Bethel University. Christian college presidents like Gregg have to spend more time lobbying in Indianapolis and DC to protect their institution’s very necks. It’s just reality that the church needs to be more articulate and thoughtful about the reality of pluralism. We are not complicit in the behavior of those who have the religious liberty to practice other than we do. There is error and profound drift in trying to legislate the practice of our theology.

Moderator’s Question & Answer

After the opening remarks, Melissa Reid facilitated a question and answer session.

Q. What is the legislation you are partnering to work on, the Fairness for All legislation?

Dale: What it does is add, in a comprehensive way, LGBT categories to existing civil rights law, for example, the fair housing act of 1968. It also expands the categories of businesses that would be covered under the 1964 anti-discrimination act. It would prohibit social services that receive funding from discriminating against their clients on the basis of sexual orientation.

Todd: What we were working on was to get exemptions for people of faith. We mostly tried to do that structurally, but we had to write in a few specific exemptions. If this law were to pass, religiously owned organizations would be able to maintain their hiring preferences. For example, Andrews would be able to continue to mainly hire Adventist professors and staff. Or if we owned a hall, we would be able to maintain the choice of who we rent that out to (unless it’s a purely secular space). The specific exceptions are in the area of higher education. That’s because the organizations that accredit are private.

Gregg: A regional accrediting body in the northeast threatened to remove a college’s accreditation because of their statement of beliefs in sexual orientation. Fairness legislation would include protection for tax-exempt status, speech, retaliation from states and from accrediting bodies. The precedent is not that if an organization receives state money it becomes a state actor. Many have that misconception, but that is not the case.

Q. What about the Utah compromise and other state laws that have stepped in to protect LGBT rights and how is the equality act different than Fairness for All?

Dale: Fewer than half the states have protections for LGBT rights. In addition, some cities like Dallas have put protections in place that go beyond their state. In the states that have the protections, you almost unvaryingly have protections for religious groups, because that’s how the law got passed. The equality act has LGBT protections, but no religious protections. It passed the House but has gone nowhere in the Senate.

Todd: Generally speaking, federal law overrides state law, except in the civil rights law, where the states can have more protections than federal law provides. What a federal Fairness law would do is give protections in red states where LGBT protections are least likely to pass. And LGBT individuals are over-represented in red areas of the country. So that is where these laws are most needed.

Gregg: Thinking of the Defense of Marriage Act on the one hand and the Equality Act on the other, they have extreme positions that make them unlikely to become law. Regarding the Fairness Act, a person can ask, Why are you Christians so intent on discriminating against LGBT people. But we have a long history of legalizing discrimination to protect religious people. For example, an Amish boy or girl does not have to go to high school. We have religious exemptions for the draft or medical professionals who do not want to perform abortions.

Q. Religious freedom for a long time was hard to get people to talk about. Now the media is talking about it, but it’s not defined in a way I am comfortable with. Something that was once an American value is now a partisan issue. RFRA (Religious Freedom and Restoration Act) was passed in 1993 nearly unanimously and signed by Clinton. Just two decades later, many Democrats and much of the public see it as a tool for discrimination. So how do we take back religious freedom?

Todd: The split started in the late 90s due to a conflict of rights. What has happened is that in secular society, religious freedom means only an excuse to discriminate. The Fairness Act would redefine these boundaries so that religious freedom wouldn’t only come to mean discrimination.

Dale: Religious freedom has become identified with the Republican party and a specific wing of the party. We represent LGBT rights and religious freedom on polar ends. A lot of people of faith support equality for gay people because of their faith. A lot of gay people are people of faith and believe in their faith. We can have a policy that is not based on retribution but reconciliation.

Gregg: I was in Vice President Mike Pence’s office when he signed the Indiana RFRA as state governor. I walked out and maybe three people were protesting. Then it was on CNN. And there was such pressure that it was amended. We start with freedoms to express, assemble, believe; and if there is a disturbance of the peace because of how people exercise those liberties, it is the government’s responsibility to demonstrate that it needs to intervene. If religious liberty is going away what does it mean? I’m trying to save my institution’s neck, but from God’s point of view, he’s probably more concerned with souls than he is with religious liberty. I was in Brazil, and I met a guy from China, who was persecuted for his faith. And he’s talking about 10,000 people a day in China where there is no religious liberty. Remember that what you shove under the ground will grow. Maybe Christianity thrives more where there are losses of religious liberty. Maybe we should be focusing more on the kingdom and less on the empire. Wouldn’t it be something if by God’s permissive grace allowing some things to happen, the kingdom of God were to grow more than if it had protection.

Q. What is the evangelical objection to Fairness for All?

Todd: There is a practical objection that says we are setting a precedent that could come back to bite us, as happened in DC where it was used to get LGBT rights passed and then they stripped out the religious protections. Theologically, there is a belief that the law is a teacher, and that by protecting something that is wrong, you are signaling that it isn’t really wrong. There is a sense that it weakens the church’s message. The responses to those: (1) On the practical side, the left has limited energy. But giving them something that they view as good but less than perfect, it will free up their energy to focus on something else. And if they had the power to strip out protections, they would have the power to enact their own law in any case. (2) It doesn’t reduce your moral authority to proclaim Sabbath by equally protecting all holy days of worship.

Gregg: I recall an incendiary conversation with the president of another Christian college, trained as a lawyer, with experience in this. One of his arguments was speculation that this was a first move for a bigger move later. Give an inch, take a mile. The theological argument is complicity in behavior I disagree with if I stand up for the right to engage in it, as long as it’s not on my campus. Jeremiah: seek the peace. Paul: strive for peace. Civil rights flow from the image of God in all and thus we are called to affirm them. Religion cannot be coerced anyway. Loss of religious liberty does not increase the chances of someone coming to faith.

Q. What is the LGBT objection to Fairness for All?

Dale: The objections we’re getting from the left are the same objections in form as you heard from the right. One is the practical concern that if you give these groups an inch, they’ll take a mile. First it will go to the religious college, but then the business owners will want the same exception. The second objection is that the law has a teaching function, and if you grant exceptions it will signal that LGBT people are less and that has a terrible effect on LGBT people. I think that once we have set the threshold of acceptable discrimination and release the pressure of unacceptable discrimination, I think that most LGBT people will be satisfied with those protections and will go on leading their lives. To have all these religious groups come out and say that there is a practical and moral principle involved in not denying an LGBT person and job and a home, there is a teaching function to that as well. These are symmetrical responses and objections.

Q. This election cycle is unique for having a primary candidate who is LGBT and a person of faith and is injecting that into the debate. He said that any freedom in this country has limits when it comes to harming people. I’m interested in the use of the word “harm” rather than discriminate. Some people would argue that harm can be subjective, that your theological views can harm people whether you intend them to or not.

Todd: That town hall was a commercial for Human Rights Campaign. Warren made fun of people of faith. Buttigieg’s response was one of the better ones, but that shows how low the bar is. Harm is interpreted by the left in an expansive way. That is how LGBT protections in the Fairness Act would likely be interpreted.

Dale: That debate did show how far the Democratic party has moved from where the Republican party stands. Beto said that religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage ought to lose their tax-exempt status. Buttigieg said that you should not strip tax-exemption from religious organizations. That’s what we would protect in Fairness legislation.

Gregg: I’ve talked with Pete quite a bit. Out of that relationship, I set up a phone conference with an LGBT policy committee. They gave me full-time: an hour and a half. They were given to listen, diplomatic. And nothing came of it. His Catholic identity is still in him, and he does differ from some of the field. He came out as gay after he was elected for the second term. He said that what most people in the city care about are the roads and the garbage.

Dale: You do get the sense that you are in the presence of a thinking human being with him. That’s a refreshing thing for people in national politics. He’s getting flack for not being gay enough.

Gregg: What constitutes harm? Wouldn’t it be a narrowly restricted thing?

Dale: It depends on how the law is written. Courts are willing to recognize on occasion dignitary harm. Not just that you have to find another baker, but that there is harm in being told “no” because you’re gay.

Todd: There was one case where a person got transferred to a different position that wasn’t as cushy, and that was found to constitute retaliation.

Questions and Answers from the Audience

After questions from the moderator were answered,  Melissa opened the floor for questions from the audience.

Q. What kinds of protections do your religious institutions have for LGBT people who maintain the doctrinal standards of their churches, but run into problems with employment?

Todd: For pastors there is little protection in the law and there is never going to be. The church has affirmed in its statements that people can be employed regardless as long as they adhere to the standards. As a functional matter, it’s up to the local conference.

Gregg: Our standards distinguish attraction from practice. If someone is same-sex attracted, they are employable. We had people who identified as same-sex attracted, and their employment was protected. In my experience, the theology and the policy has resulted in support for the person. I did run into a situation where a man was married to a woman identified as gay, claimed to be in a mixed-orientation marriage, but on social media was found to be practicing otherwise. We ended up firing him.

Dale: You cannot underestimate the impact of people of faith standing up for LGBT rights.

Melissa: When I go into rooms and people see that I am partnering with Dale, they are shocked.

Q. I struggled with transgender ideation as a child until I came out as homosexual. Today, there would be nothing to stop me from getting a sex change. That would have been a disaster once I matured. People justified gay marriage as a steppingstone to the dissolution of the family. Isn’t this a fight for cultural supremacy?

Dale: You can find voices on either side that are extreme. If we can establish a Peace of Westphalia, the pressure will be released. After Obergefell, the organizations devoted to same-sex marriage largely went away and didn’t push for dissolution of the family. The same thing will happen when we get a Fairness Act. The movement for civil unions was a threat to marriage as the primary venue for partnerships. The extreme left was very disappointed in the outcome of Obergefell.

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David Hamstra is a ThD student (theological and historical studies) at Andrews University. He previously served as a pastor to Seventh-day Adventist churches in northern Alberta, Canada. David is married to Heidi, and God has blessed them with three sons and a daughter. He enjoys cooking, running, repartee, and road trips. David writes at apokalupto.blogspot.com and tweets @djhamstra.