By Stephanie Whiteside / current.com / @stephgwhiteside
Editor's note: In recognition of LGBT Pride Month, The Underreported Story presents "Homophobia, the church and politics," a four-part look at the religious right's hijacking of political discourse, who's behind it, which religious voices are going unheard and what it means for future generations. Please look forward to a new installment each Wednesday in June.
- Part I (June 6): Homophobia, the church and politics: How the religious right seized political power
- Part II (June 13): Homophobia, the church and politics: Broadcasting hate
- Part IV (June 27): Homophobia, the church and politics: The generation gap and changing views
When religious protesters gather to rally against same-sex marriage or endorse a conservative candidate, it follows a familiar script. "Christian" becomes shorthand for conservative, anti-abortion, anti-gay beliefs. But as cultural views around homosexuality have shifted, there has also been an increase in voices on the religious left (yes, they exist), who are stepping forward to challenge the religious right.
The organized nature of the religious right has given it an advantage when it comes to spreading its message. But attempts to redefine the Christian label to equal the views of the religious right requires the suppression of other voices.
"This redefinition can only succeed when evangelicals are kept securely within a subcultural bubble that doesn't acknowledge the possibility of any other way of being Christian. I don't think that bubble is sustainable now that all those other possibilities are just a Google search away on anyone's phone," Patheos religion writer Fred Clark, who runs the blog Slacktivist, told Current. "When the only source for an answer to the question 'What does the Bible say about homosexuality?' was the pastor or the local Christian bookstore, then that answer could be controlled. But it can't be controlled now."
Although it's given less spotlight, progressive Christianity, which includes inclusivity among its core principles, is receiving more interest. Joseph Ward, director of Believe Out Loud, which organizes Christians working for LGBT equality, told Current the group has seen unprecedented growth in recent months.
"There has always been this false dichotomy of God versus gays, and where we are at present, you have a Christian community coming out and saying that's not true," Ward says. "We're not conceding a faith, a religion, a value that we hold deeply to people who are on the other side."
The movement is not new; many denominations have been ordaining gay clergy or blessing same-sex unions for years. Ward credits increasing visibility of the LGBT community with helping spur interest in inclusivity.
"The face of the LGBT community is becoming a household face," Ward says. He points to President Barack Obama's recent vocal support of gay marriage and the way the president shared his faith and personal process. "In many ways, the president is so representative of the average American; there's a conflict they have on this issue, but there's a path forward."
But it's not been without struggle. As evangelicals and fundamentalists have worked abroad to encourage a conservative understanding of religion, forces from abroad have pressured U.S. groups who want to make changes that support gay rights.
The United Methodist Church canceled votes on same-sex marriage and gay clergy at its general conference this year after churches from Africa and Asia blocked attempts to soften the position. The Episcopal Church, which is based in the United States, has faced pressure from the worldwide Anglican communion over its progressive stance on gay rights.
Progressive leaders have been persistent in attempting to make their voices heard and become involved in the conversation.
"So many of the arguments against LGBT equality come from people of faith," the Rev. Susan Russell, senior associate at All Saints Church in Pasadena, Calif., said. "The best antidote is a mobilized message from the religious left.
The religious right has fought back by doubling down on attempts to redefine "Christian" to mean conservative, evangelical fundamentalism. The faith of those who interpret the Bible differently is called into question. Recently the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of noted evangelist Billy Graham, said he was unsure if President Obama was a Christian.
Those on the left see the issue differently.
"On the left, to love someone and be a person of faith, welcome is not a question. It's a basic and fundamental value and human right that everyone should have," Ward says. "What we question about the right is not their faith, but we question their love."
The debate isn't just about theology, it's about tactics.
"We believe that every American has the right to read and believe the Bible the way they see fit," the Rev. Thomas C. Jackson, president of Oasis California, the LGBT ministry of the Episcopal diocese of California, said. "Our objection is that they extend those beliefs to others."
Grabbing the Megaphone
When it comes to the fight over gay marriage, it's often painted as opposing forces: religion versus secularism, morality versus hedonism. That's the frame that has been shaped by the religious right, and it's picked up traction as the dominant way of thinking about the debate over gay rights.
"The right has Fox News, and Fox News lite, which is CNN," Jackson said. "They have the great conservative echo chamber lined up on their side. Those who disagree have a limited megaphone."
The religious right has spent decades building up networks and infrastructure, organizing followers to form a well-disciplined voting block that can be mobilized around issues. The left, on the other hand, is playing catch-up.
"Conservative theology is easier to put on a bumper sticker," Russell said. "We get into living into the nebulosity of ambiguity. It's easier to soundbite the religious right."
Mainline churches — the voices that tend to be more moderate or liberal — are also traditionally wary of getting involved in political issues or asking members to fund political initiatives.
"There are conservatives who are willing to pour millions into conservative religious right groups," Jackson said. "There are not an equal number of progressive millionaires and billionaires willing to do the same."
The left is finding new ways to adapt. Jackson notes that now, when there are marches against California's Proposition 8 and civil disobedience movements, clergy can be found in prominent roles. Russell's church, which has been blessing same-sex unions for more than 20 years, passed a resolution that it would not act as an agent of the state for civil marriage until it could do so for all couples.
But unlike the right, which has been eager to jump in bed with fundamentalist religious groups, the left has been slower to form alliances with faith groups.
Russell compares organizing liberals to herding cats and notes that liberal coalitions are a challenge to form regardless of the issue.
"The fact that there are progressive people of faith is news to some," she said. "We are looked at with some suspicion."
As public opinion has shifted toward support of gay marriage, the religious right has shifted tactics. The latest conservative arguments against same-sex marriage paint the issue as one of religious freedom.
"It's the last gasp of patriarchy, and it's a very loud one," Jackson said of the religious freedom argument.
It's an argument that denies the freedom for other faiths or denominations who view the issue differently. That's what is so frustrating to those on the religious left, who don't hear their voices represented.
"At the end of the day it's not what you think about God but what the Constitution says," Russell notes. "Equal protection isn't, unless it protects everyone equally."
(Photo: Getty Images)