Dialogue or Demonization? Where Gays are Concerned, Focus on the Family Wants it Both Ways

Silence can be disturbing—at least according to one conservative Christian group in California. Last Friday, when the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) sponsored its annual Day of Silence, in which students take a vow of silence “to call attention to the silencing effect of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools,” SaveCalifornia.com staged a walkout, urging parents to protect their kids from “indoctrination” by keeping them away from school on the day of the event.

While this type of clamor is expected from groups like SaveCalifornia.com, more troubling are the shifting discourses of other religious groups around LGBT concerns. Rather than counter the Day of Silence with walkouts, Focus on the Family attempted another tactic—this week, the premier right-wing evangelical parachurch group sponsored what they called a Day of Dialogue™. (And yes, they claim to have trademarked the phrase.)

Silence, Truth, Dialogue: What’s in a Word?

A brief background: the Alliance Defense Fund started the day in 2005 with its original name, the Day of Truth, which was traditionally held on the very same day as the Day of Silence (it’s always nice to have a silent audience when you’re trying to preach the “Truth”).

The purpose was to provide students the opportunity to “respectfully share a biblical perspective when issues like homosexuality are brought up and celebrated in their public school.” In 2009, Exodus International, the world’s largest “ex-gay ministry,” took over sponsorship of the Day of Truth. But curiously the event became too divisive and confrontational for Exodus, as that group shifted its focus to the practice of “biblical tolerance” in the wake of increased media attention to anti-gay bullying after a string of highly publicized gay teen suicides late last year.

The Day of Truth didn’t end there, however. In 2010, Focus on the Family became the new official sponsor of the event with one major (discursive) shift: the Day of Truth became the Day of Dialogue. No longer held on the same date as the Day of Silence, the Day of Dialogue intends to “encourage peaceful, student-initiated conversations and ensure there is a safe space for different perspectives.” Another shift in discourse around this renamed event is the increased attention to a guiding principle of “protecting others” from being harmed or bullied.

But even while the language and the tone of these groups is beginning to shift, the reality is that while the language of anti-bullying has been adopted by these groups, the theological and ideological currents that produce the reality of anti-gay bullying remain unquestioned.

This posture of unquestioning theological assumptions causes me to wonder if dialogue is even a possibility.

The further trouble I see in the Day of Dialogue and the shifting discourses of religious groups opposed to LGBT sexualities is the lack of attention to how to listen to others. Amid discussions of student’s legal rights to participate, parental advice, and access to ready-made conversation cards and posters, there is scant attention to the meaning of the day’s very title: “Dialogue.” (That is, with the exception of a page dedicated to “Responding to Challenges” students might encounter and the advice to avoid speaking in overused slogans like “hate the sin, not the sinner.”)

So in response to this “Day of Dialogue,” we might do well to ask a few fundamental questions upon which our very ability to communicate with one another is predicated:

Question #1: With whom are we engaging in dialogue?

This is perhaps the most important question of all.

When entering dialogue, how we construct the “other” (our dialogue partner) will determine just how much dialogue is even possible. 

Ultimately, it is the way we conceive of the “other” that is at the root of physical violence against LGBT persons. While the adoption of anti-bullying language is an astute political move on behalf of groups like Exodus and Focus on the Family—seemingly an attempt to gain control of the anti-bullying discourse heretofore “owned” by groups like GLSEN—it does little to address the theological and ideological precursors to physical violence.

The shift in discourse fails to ask, “Why are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons made the targets of violence in the first place?”

When the LGBT “other” is conceived as embodying some “sinfulness,” “unnatural abnormality,” or “pathology” that is contrary to “God’s design for sexuality,” a debilitating violence has already been performed at the very level of existence, or being. This linguistic violence is supported by strong theological presuppositions that assaults another person’s way of being in the world. When this kind of violence takes place with enough regularity, it becomes much easier to engage in, justify, or simply overlook the physical violence that often follows.

Pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty puts the matter eloquently in his 2003 essay “Religion In the Public Square: A Reconsideration”:

These ministers sometimes try to distinguish themselves from the gay-bashers by saying that even though sodomy is an abomination, Christians must be kind and merciful even to the most disgusting and shameless sinners. The gays and lesbians, however, persist in thinking that if the churches would stop quoting Leviticus and Paul on the subject of sodomy, would stop saying that tolerance for homosexuals is a mark of moral decline, and would stop using tax-exempt funds to campaign for repeal of pro-gay ordinances and statues, there would be fewer gay-bashers around.

Organizers of the Day of Dialogue have already defined the “with whom” question to the detriment of any potential interlocutors even before the conversation starts. Their language says it all.

Question #2: What is the language of dialogue?

Oppositional language—good/bad, dark/light—is the norm in religious debates regarding sexuality. A good example: “But the good news is that when darkness increases, it creates an opportunity for the light of God’s love to shine even brighter.” The “darkness” pointed to here is the promotion of “controversial sexual topics… such as homosexuality, transgenderism and gay marriage.”

The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), founding organization of the Day of Truth which still provides pro bono legal assistance to students engaged in the event, still holds a visible place on the website of the Day of Dialogue. The ADF page on “Marriage and the Family” provides a further example of the problematic rhetoric surrounding the (im)possibility of dialogue:

The homosexual legal agenda is one of the greatest threats to religious freedom in America today… Christian views on marriage and human sexuality will be challenged if same-sex ‘marriage’ is accepted by law. If this happens and God’s plan for marriage is dismantled, then your religious freedom—and the God-given, constitutionally protected rights that enable you to freely live out your faith—will virtually collapse… There is no doubt that God’s plan for marriage is under an all-out, full-scale attack by advocates of same-sex ‘marriage’ and the homosexual legal agenda.

Supposed “threats to religious freedom” and the language of “all-out, full-scale attack” produce war-like images that serve only to demonize those with whom one is to dialogue. It becomes a bit clearer why the Day of Dialogue site offers no assistance to students who wish to listen to the views of their dialogue partners. When the (LGBT) dialogue partner is constructed as the “enemy” whose way of being in the world is fundamentally evil, corrupt, pathological or anti-Christian, there is really no need to dialogue.

Since the language of “threat to freedom in America,” the corrosion of “constitutionally protected rights,” and “full-scale attack” is the language typically used when trying to justify engaging in the violence of war, one wonders if “dialogue” is just a polite cover for a more insidious intention.

While Focus on the Family has tempered their language about LGBT persons on the Day of Dialogue website, it only takes three clicks of the mouse to navigate directly from the Day of Dialogue site to the ADF “Marriage and the Family” page quoted above. This certainly doesn’t seem to be language conducive to genuine dialogue and does little to increase the credibility of the organizer’s newly visible anti-bullying stance.

But it begs another question: What exactly are we talking about?

Question #3: What is the subject of dialogue?

The Day of Dialogue website states, “The event gives you, as a student, an opportunity to express the true model presented by Jesus Christ in the Bible—who didn’t back away from speaking truth.” It would seem that the subject is a “biblical” model of marriage and sexuality. But the subject is proposed in a way that sets up another false binary division, suggesting that the dialogue is between those who believe in the “true model” presented in the Bible and those who do not.

This seems an attempt to control the discourse on (“Christian”) faith and sexuality by purporting to hold the self-evident “true view” of God’s design for sexuality—discursively denying the mere existence of myriad other readings of the biblical text within the context of Christian religious groups who support and affirm LGBT sexualities and relationships. Not only does this way of defining the subject deny the pluriform nature of Christian understandings of sexuality and marriage, but also entirely cuts from the (public!) conversation persons from other religious groups (or those with no religious affiliation) who would not appeal to the biblical text to justify their views and beliefs concerning sexuality and human relationships.

When one dialogue partner defines gay marriage as a “controversial sexual topic” contrary to “God’s truth” prior to engaging the views of the other, what possibilities exist for dialogue? An a priori assumption about what constitutes the “true view” of the Divine (which is, of course, the view one already holds) disallows the necessity of actually listening to and engaging the views of other dialogue partners.

Stop Playing the Transcendent Trump Card

While it may seem that I’m pointing to what, for many readers, is obvious (i.e. that the Day of Dialogue may not really about “dialogue” at all), the questions this discussion raise hold importance for us beyond this particular day. The critiques offered here are not simply critiques of one event, but serve as a reminder to us all that dialogue is a vitally important but very difficult undertaking. This is especially true when theology and sexuality are engaged in the public square. Again, Rorty is helpful:

It is one thing to explain how a given political stance is bound up with one’s religious belief, and another to think that it is enough, when defending a political view, simply to cite authority, scriptural or otherwise… What should be discouraged is mere appeal to authority.

If we are to seriously engage in dialogue with one another about the realities of diverse sexualities and human relationships, we must do more than appeal to particular interpretations of (our) authoritative religious texts. We must speak with other human beings, face-to-face, willing to listen with rapt attention.

We must commit ourselves to speaking about our views and about those who hold different views in ways that do not employ transcendent trump cards. And we must hold the life of the other with a greater sense of sacredness than we hold our ever-shifting perspectives and opinions.

Dialogue is, after all, not just about increasing our understanding of “issues” or trying to hear all of the relevant voices and perspectives. Above all, dialogue—genuine human conversation—is about our ability to live with one another without resorting to violence. Our very ability to exist in the world may depend on it.

Cody.J.Sanders@gmail.com'

Rev. Cody J. Sanders is an ordained Baptist minister and a Ph.D. Candidate in pastoral theology and pastoral care at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. He is editor of the forthcoming revised edition of Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Resource for Congregations in Dialogue on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity published by the Alliance of Baptists, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.