“My parents always taught me that love was the trump card. And they always told me that Jesus loved you no matter who you are or what you did,” Jay Bakker told a group gathered in Durham, North Carolina a couple weeks ago. Bakker, pastor of the Brooklyn-based Revolution NYC, had traveled south to his home state—the state that, decades ago, witnessed firsthand the rise, and then the fall, of his televangelist parents’ PTL ministry—to speak out against a ballot initiative up for vote tomorrow.
If passed, Amendment 1 would modify North Carolina’s constitution to declare “marriage between one man and one woman” as “the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized.” In other words, if passed, Amendment 1 would not only ban same-sex marriage in North Carolina, but it would also prevent state validation and recognition of civil unions and domestic partnerships.
Despite these wide-reaching implications, the discussion surrounding the amendment has taken the shape of a simplistic ideological battle over homosexuality and religion. “It’s as if some Christians feel like they have permission to discriminate or hate,” Bakker told me,
“And they get so obsessed with it that they ignore the fact that it would harm children, it would harm women, it would harm people in domestic partnerships. It’s like they’ve just become blind to that because they’ve built up such resentment towards gays and lesbians. And that’s really, really frightening to me.”
According to a recent poll, only 31 percent of voters could correctly identify what Amendment 1 would actually do, while another 34 percent admitted they didn’t know its consequences. The poll also found that 28 percent of voters think the amendment would ban only same-sex marriage, and that 7 percent think it would legalize same-sex marriage.
Steve Knight, co-organizer of the Charlotte Emergent Cohort, believes that the unclear wording is likely an intentional strategy employed by those trying to get this legislation, the most extreme of any state thus far, passed as quickly as possible. He agrees with Bakker that a deep-seated anti-gay ideological position is clouding people’s judgment about the other ramifications of the amendment, adding that people are so theologically polarized over homosexuality that they can’t even imagine voting in a way that would put them in the same camp as the LGBT community.
Knight, a member of Open Hearts Gathering Church in Gastonia, and other Christians in North Carolina have attempted to draw attention to the fact that the campaign against Amendment 1 is broad and bipartisan, that voting against the initiative does not necessarily imply one is pro-LGBT equality. He even cites several conservative Christians, including two key promoters of California’s Proposition 8, who have spoken out against the amendment but, at least for now, the misinformation and confusion surrounding the initiative seem to winning out.
And although many Christians are positioned against the amendment, including coalitions such as Clergy for Equality and Pastors Against Amendment One, Knight points out that conservative churches far outnumber progressive ones in North Carolina. “They’re encouraging their folks to vote as much as we are,” he said. “It remains to be seen who’s going to be motivated and mobilized to get out there and do it.”
As far as media coverage is concerned, Bakker laments that the same-old anti-gay Christian perspective is still the easy go-to. “It’s a strange phenomenon,” he told me:
“I really do think that in the long run it’s going to hurt the church, and shrink the church in numbers. We’re supposed to be known for our love for one another, and for our compassion, and this is just not it.”
Many younger Christian communities around the country would agree with Bakker, and have adopted the kind of positive, inclusive messages he refers to, marking a definitive shift away from the type of pro-Amendment 1 voices heard in the debate. But—unlike Bakker, who is outwardly gay affirming—these young Christians also tend to remain quiet when it comes to homosexuality and marriage equality. They shy away from politics, and are they particularly hesitant to enter into the same culture-war debates as their predecessors.
So it hasn’t come as much of a surprise that the vast majority of Christians participating in the campaign against the amendment seem to be older, more traditionally affiliated, and familiar with the same rhetorical language that’s been used for decades. One need look no further than 93-year-old Billy Graham’s endorsement of Amendment 1 to realize that the terms of this debate are firmly rooted deeply in the past. “For me, it’s heartbreaking that we’re still having this conversation,” Bakker said, noting conservative Christianity’s continued insistence on law and regulation and divisiveness. “I wish people lived life on life’s terms instead of turning the Bible into a cruel, old book.”
Bakker’s emphasis on love and compassion has come under attack in light of his recent participation in the campaign against Amendment 1 in North Carolina. Referring to Bakker’s theological “feel-good stance” as “cheap grace,” Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League attributed Bakker’s preaching of a “toxic and counterfeit gay-affirming gospel” to being injured by the church as a child.
“In some ways he’s right,” Bakker told me in response. “It’s called empathy.”
“Every time someone accuses me of cheap grace, I go back and say no, it’s free grace. Grace is free. The reason I understand the Bible the way I do is probably because I interpret through the pain that I’ve been through. But it’s not me compromising. I know what it’s like to hurt, to suffer. Empathy plays an important part and I think the church could use a lot more of it.”