Public Gospel

In response to the passage of the Indiana RFRA, our sign changed from advertising our holy week services to this:

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An Open Letter to Indiana Governor Mike Pence

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 2.34.41 PMThe Religious Freedom Restoration Act (a name that makes me throw up a little bit every time I hear it) has been passed by both chambers of our state legislature and now sits on the desk of our governor for his signature. His veto is the only way for Indiana not to make a name for itself for legalizing discrimination in the public sphere. It’s incredibly unlikely, but you never know. Occasionally, public leaders surprise us with their moral courage…

Dear Governor Pence,

Despite the political costs that a veto would incur, I invite you to join the winning side and veto RFRA. Even though signing the bill seems like the smart political move today, tomorrow the celebrations of the extremists in your party will have ended and the hangover of moral regret will settle in. Your name will settle right alongside leaders like George Wallace in the history books as so-called “leaders” who traded what was morally right for what was politically expedient in the grossest way: by capitalizing on fear and bigotry at the expense of a minority, all the while claiming to stand on religious ground.

This is a dream situation for a power-hungry politician: exploitation of the minority dressed up to look like protection against some nebulous threat. This is the exact opposite of courageous leadership.

And, with sad irony, all this is happening exactly fifty years after the rally in Montgomery at the end of the march from Selma. We pat ourselves on the back for that progress at the same time your signature on RFRA will legalize discrimination in Indiana. Shame on us.

Religious freedom in America always comes with limits, and discrimination in the public sphere is one of them. When our nation decided to desegregate water fountains, buses, and lunch counters, when our nation decided to allow all people to vote as equals, when our nation decided to decriminalize interracial marriages, we didn’t leave it up to local communities to decide whether they believed in desegregation. We didn’t allow counties or towns or states to choose whether they would serve blacks, because we declared discrimination un-American. We didn’t leave room for objection on religious grounds at any level; if you were a public business or service, you would serve all. Individuals and whole communities disagreed, saying they were following their religious beliefs, claiming discrimination was their right.

But if America was to be the land of equality we aspired to be, equality must apply everywhere, even if equality was against some citizens’ religion. As a nation, we chose our common value of equality for all people over some people’s ‘religious’ value of discrimination. Those who objected to equality lost their right to discriminate.

RFRA is regressive, and history will judge this signature, Governor Pence. Do you have the stuff to be a courageous leader? Show us by joining the winning side. Veto RFRA.

An Open Letter to Christians Who Support RFRAs

Note: this post was written for the Reconciling Ministries Network blog. RMN is active within the United Methodist Church, working for the full inclusion of all people in all aspects of the UMC. It’s here on their site.

The so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” (RFRA) have become law in 19 states and are in process in several more, including my own Indiana. Proponents argue that they are necessary to protect conservative Christians from being forced to serve gay people. Sure, there are better-sounding, well-polished explanations/obfuscations, but let’s be real: it’s about making sure discrimination against gay people is legal. And supporters of these laws are using Christianity to justify it.

To my Christian brothers and sisters who are claiming this legislation is necessary and right, I say:

First, stop using Christianity to justify your fear, judgment, mistreatment, and abuse of gay people. Your religion may justify such things, but any religion that leads to discrimination is not Christianity rooted in Jesus Christ. Discrimination and exclusion are not values of Jesus, though they are apparently values held dear by many Christians. That’s not new, though. These were core values of some of Jesus’ opponents, purity-obsessed members of his own religious group that fought Jesus at every opportunity. They were disgusted at Jesus’ lack of morals, at his libertine social boundaries, and at his disdain for the rules of his own religion. They were disturbed by his willingness to associate with the filthy and the despicable. They insisted on their right to refuse service to the unclean, to marginalize those contaminated by what they self-righteously labeled ‘sin’. They loved interpreting scripture in ways that led Jesus to call them hypocrites for worrying about specks in ‘sinners’ eyes while ignoring logs in their own. Perhaps their perversion, which mutated what was surely a sincere pursuit of faithfulness into its exact opposite, should cause you to reconsider your support of RFRA and of your sense of ‘purity’ that calls on you to discriminate against gay people in general.

Any use of Christianity to justify discrimination is evidence of a misunderstanding about who Jesus was and what the good news Jesus lived means for humanity.

Second, stop claiming victimhood as some sort of oppressed minority. The fact that the culture as a whole is no longer in agreement with your moral compass (as it was in some ways in the mid-20th century) is not evidence that you’re being oppressed. Being denied the right to discriminate is not the same as suffering discrimination. Being denied your hegemony of the public sphere is not an infringement on your religious freedom.

Finally, if you wonder why we Christians have such a reputation as hypocrites, RFRA is only one example in a long, long list. We talk about love and grace, sin and forgiveness, and then we push for a law that allows us to behave like racists in 1940. Really?

I’m grateful to live in a nation that will likely check my bigotry when it appears on the surface and hold me to account for discriminatory behavior, even if I try to justify it as part of my religious commitment. May we, the Church, learn to recognize and call out misguided religion today with as much clarity and fire as Jesus did.