Out of Options: Christians’ Losing Battle Over Equality

In the months since the Supreme Court’s decision to make marriage equality the law, conservative Christian thinkers have followed two tracks. On the one hand, writers like Rod Dreher and Ross Douthat have used the language of war, battle, and struggle as a call to retrenchment. If we just went back to what the Bible intended for marriage and sexuality, in their thinking, Christianity might be able to steer itself back toward a central place in American culture and morality.

However, most conservative Christian thinkers are also aware that if this is a battle, it’s a losing one. And in fact, it has probably already been lost.

In Christianity Today, Michael Gerson and Peter Werner write about what they describe as “The Wilberforce Option,” using the model of the 18th century British abolitionist to push the notion that instead of retreating, as in Dreher’s Benedict Option, Christians should focus on “the relentless defense of human dignity in the course of human events.”

Gerson and Werner argue for a more compassionate model of engagement, stating that “much about the perception of evangelical Christians in our time will be determined by how they treat the victims of the sexual revolution.” Putting aside the problematic notion that social problems they list, like sex trafficking, are directly related to the sexual revolution (correlation, after all, is not causation), the argument they make is relatively simple to break down. Marriage equality is the law, evangelicals and Catholic leaders have long placed too much emphasis on same-sex attraction, and this has caused Christianity to lose “cultural power.”

A plethora of statistical and empirical evidence would support that idea. But where Gerson and Warner depart from Dreher in their Option* is not in the sense that Christianity is losing its influence in America. They depart in their argument about what that means for Christians. Gerson and Warner argue that “Christianity’s greatest period of vulnerability and political weakness was the time of its most explosive growth,” and that a more compassionate approach to issues of gender and sexuality might create a more attractive model of Christian life than retrenchment, bitterness, and lashing out.

Dreher, in his response to Gerson and Warner in the same magazine, says that Christians should work with LGBT groups on “causes both sides support” (interestingly, he lists no examples). However, he adds that many LGBT people and their allies “see orthodox Christians as the equivalent of straight-up white supremacists” due to the “obsessive promotion” of equality in the media. “Why should those who stand on the issue where all Christians stood for nearly two millennia,” he writes, “surrender to the radical innovators?”

It is in Dreher’s insistence that “affirming homosexuality” would not only mean rejecting scripture but also rejecting “sexuality itself, and even what it means to be fully human” that the ultimate post-Obergefell apocalyptic scenario is revealed. Our human nature, in this view, denies not only the same-sex attraction that demonstrably occurs across species, but also the gender fluidity that does the same.

Much the same might be said of Ross Douthat and other columnists’ reactions to the Synod on the Family and its discussion of communion for the divorced and remarried. Douthat’s sense of the definition of marriage can sound more fundamentalist than Catholic. In America, John Martens says that Douthat’s reading of Catholic ideas of marriage is potentially reductive. “Scripture,” Martens reminds us, “is not self-interpreting. He adds that “the positions taken by the Roman Catholic Church on divorce, remarriage and communion are not self-evident, but the product of numerous interpretive moves.”

As a former Catholic, Dreher might also do well to remember that Catholics are not biblical literalists. The rich, two-millennia-old tradition of theology, scriptural interpretation, and Catholics’ understanding of the importance of historical and cultural contexts for the Bible means that at its best, Catholicism is able to see Scripture as a living and evolving document, rather than a rigid and unchangeable set of expectations most Christians would fail to meet.

Arguments about scriptural interpretation aside, however, what the current squabbles over Christian identity mean both for evangelicals and Catholics is the same. Equality won. Women claimed and earned a place in the national dialogue about religion. The spectrum of gender identities that we now recognize as normal is becoming a topic of mainstream discussion, and while much trouble still lays ahead for the passing of laws that might offer protection and rights to those across the LGBT spectrum, the fact of the matter is this: Americans are becoming less religious, but the majority of Christians are becoming more accepting of same-sex relationships.

And this has put churches into a bind. Should they welcome women as leaders and same-sex families and trans individuals, they risk alienating some of their most committed members (and donors). Should they reject those same notions of parity, they risk losing (and in many cases have already lost) the majority of Gen X and Millennials, who have grown up with feminism as a given notion and LGBTQ equality as the civil rights issue of their generations.

Churches also risk what Douthat and Dreher see as the hill their faith will live or die on: the notion of a single, defined sense of a Truth that cannot change. What we see in their writing of late is the shattering of that notion. It’s emotionally difficult to witness, in many ways. The defensiveness, finger-pointing, and circular arguments amount to the same thing: a sense of fear, devolving into resignation over the loss, shifting into ad hominem attacks (in Dreher’s case, he has gone to the extent of digging up information on the theologians who signed the letter to the Times about Douthat and attacked them in his blog, but he has focused his wrath only on two individuals who did so. Interestingly, both are women).

Talk to any person raised in a fundamentalist or orthodox family who lost their faith when exposed to notions that women might actually be capable of the same things men are, or who experienced a crush on a person of their gender, or who tried on their sister’s dress knowing that boys are supposed to wear pants, and you will hear much the same pattern. Anger, rejection, fear. And then gradually, if they are lucky: acceptance, tolerance, welcome. The latter things usually came from individuals, not institutions. They came from encounter.

In the newest Pew survey, it’s revealed that Nones in America—who formerly often said that they believed in God but chose not to belong to a single religion—are becoming increasingly secular. Nothing, I would argue, is more effective at driving people away from religion than watching its most elite representatives—the whitest, malest, straightest, most educated, with the biggest platforms—devolve into kindergarteners, ganging up on others, bullying, preaching a Gospel of intractability and exclusion.

If this is the Christianity they want, perhaps it is time for that Christianity to die, because it has very little to do with the person who started it.


*And here I insert an authorial plea: Please stop calling things “options.” Thank you.