Mediating and Discussing LGBTQ+ Experiences in the Church

VWCI was recently invited to speak at Virginia Wesleyan College on the topic of “The Challenges of Mediating and Discussing LGBTQ+ Experiences in the Church.” This talk was part of a religious studies course on Mediating Religious Conflict in the Center For the Study of Religious Freedom.

In developing a handout, I listed a few things I suggested students avoid (“vices”), along with some “virtues” to cultivate. Some vices included demanding respect, dehumanizing others, and setting exclusive goals. In contrast, I recommended building goodwill, seeing/relating to people, and identifying superordinate goals whenever possible. I shared a few examples of what we try to do in our research institute, including past volunteer work with local HIV/AIDS organizations (that are often staffed by LGBTQ+ persons) to work to reduce rates of infection in the local area.

When I talk about dehumanizing, I am thinking about ways in which we look past the person in order to convince others of the veracity of our position. People need to be seen by you, and one way you do that is by entering into a sustained relationship with those with whom you disagree. Along these lines, no one wants to be seen as a project. Even if you feel led to engage the topic, you are also engaging real people who represent that topic in the real world. Toward that end, it’s important to see the person in the exchange.

It has been helpful to move past winning an argument or entering into debate. It has been more productive to listen (more than talk), to enter into dialogue (more than debate), and to identify the moral logic in my own reasoning and that of those who are dialoguing with me. In fact, this was part of the “frame” of the talk: How do I become a better dialogue partner?

This question came out of a recent experience. This past year I was part of an event in Cincinnati hosted by LoveBoldly in which I was on a panel with a celibate gay Christian, a liberal or progressive gay Christian, and a transgender Christian. At the close of the event, one of the other panelists leaned over and said, “If you are ever looking for a dialogue partner, keep me in mind.” It had me thinking: What makes a good dialogue partner?

The kinds of suggestions I was offering to the students and guests at Virginia Wesleyan College were suggestions based on what I’ve learned over the years in becoming a better dialogue partner and what I look for in people I agree to be in dialogue with in front of an audience.

The Barna Group on Attitudes Toward LGBTQ Rights

The Barna Group recently reported on changes in attitudes among Americans over the past 10 toward LGBTQ rights. They looked at attitudes from 2003 and then again in 2013, just after the Supreme Court rulings on DOMA and Prop 8. The hold outs on rights appear to be practicing Protestants more so than any other group. Barna also asked about what people think are the goals of the LGBTQ community and equal benefits and gay marriage topped the list.

changing_attitudes_titleWhen asked about marriage, most Americans (52%) in 2003 viewed marriage as defined by one man and one woman. In 2013, the shift was to 48% of Americans holding that view. That may not seem like much of a shift, but it is important, particularly when you look at the differences by age range, where only 39% of Americans under the age of 40 define marriage as between one man and one woman. Most practicing Christians still hold to this traditional view as well.

When it comes to whether Americans view same-sex relationships as morally acceptable, nearly half (47%) of Americans under 40 do, while only 30% of Americans over 40 see same-sex relationships as morally acceptable. Only 25% of practicing Christians under 40 and 18% of practicing Christians over 40 view same-sex relationships as morally acceptable (but both of these percentages are an increase from 22% and 11% ten years ago).

What about evangelicals? Barna puts evangelicals at 8% of the population “based upon their statements to various religious and theological questions, such as belief in the authority of the Bible, their rejection of salvation through good works, and their focus on talking about their faith in Jesus with others.” Apart from their more favorable views of gay adoption (12% in 2003 to 18% in favor in 2013), evangelicals have, if anything, been more opposed in some key areas. Here’s a quote from Barna:

Evangelicals remain very unlikely to favor changing laws to support LGBTQ lifestyles (declining from 12% in 2003 to 5%).

They continue to be extremely supportive of defining marriage as one man and one woman (inching up from 90% to 93%).

And they roundly reject the moral acceptability of same-sex marriage (up from 95% to 98%).

Here are some money quotes from Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group:

bible…the data shows that evangelicals remain countercultural against a rising tide of public opinion. If the sands have shifted under evangelicals’ feet in the last 10 years, we at Barna predict it will seem the ground has completely opened beneath them during the next 10. In part, that’s because the very belief that same-sex relationships are morally wrong is deemed by many to be discriminatory and bigoted.

The Christian response to these issues [marriage, ethics, human flourishing, and so on] has to be rooted in a deeply relational ethic—that sexuality is a relational and interconnected aspect of our humanity. That relationships matter, including those between people who disagree.

Our research on younger Christians shows many leave the church over questions on these complex issues. And unless they are given a robust and compelling vision for why they need to hold to those views—and how to embrace them in a humble-yet-livable way—we expect even more disaffection between young adults and the Church in the years come.

This last quote is particularly interesting to me. When I speak at different venues (a local church, a Christian university), I am often struck by how few people seem to be able to articulate why they believe what they believe. (Granted, I am not having that specific conversation often, but when it comes up in discussion…) This can be the case on either side of the moral debate about same-sex behavior, but I suppose I run into in a little more among traditionalists. That is, they do not themselves have nor can they articulate what Kinnaman refers to as a “robust and compelling vision” for a traditional sexual ethic.

I understand why people may not have thought through all of the details. After all, most Christians accept any number of doctrinal positions (e.g., the trinity) without personally studying the topic in-depth. They essentially trust that others who have expertise in the field have done that scholarship. But, as Kinnaman points out, there will be a need for a more compelling argument around a traditional Christian sexual ethic if younger Christians in the U.S. are going to maintain such a belief in the years to come. (I added “in the U.S.” because I don’t see this as the same concern in many nations around the globe where Christianity is growing and vibrant and the debates about sexual ethics are not nearly as controversial.)

In any case, I think there is interesting data here from Barna. Christians would do well to understand the findings, to recognize the trends that are seen in the data, and to prepare to engage a rapidly and dramatically changing culture in a meaningful way.