Taking a stand in one of the great civil rights battles
Our government and too many churches contribute to the culture of discrimination against gay people that exists in America. I’m taking a stand because it’s time that we put an end to that discrimination.
From the moment the pastor of Albuquerque’s Legacy Church, Steve Smothermon, told me in January that Gov. Susana Martinez had embraced the “homosexual agenda” by appointing a gay man to the Public Regulation Commission, I’ve been wrestling with this column.
In Smothermon we have a pastor who probably believes passionately in what he preaches and cares about people. And yet, with his belief that Christians are battling for souls driving him to fight a culture war, Smothermon has advocated for discrimination and fostered a culture of hate.
This is evident in his recent public criticism of Martinez for selecting a supremely qualified but gay man to serve on the Public Regulation Commission.
As someone who has been plugged into evangelical culture for more than 12 years, I’ve watched kind-hearted people on both sides of this issue struggle with it. I’ve wrestled with the arguments that come from all sides.
When it comes down to it, I don’t think discrimination is ever appropriate, whether it be in government or a church that preaches the teachings of the loving, personal God in whom I believe.
In that context, there are two issues I want to address: how our churches treat gay people and how our government treats gay people. Both contribute to the culture of discrimination that exists today in America.
Commanded to love everyone
I’ll start with the first: During a recent Facebook discussion with others who attend my church, I shared a personal hope that is a radical idea in some corners of Christianity.
I want to be part of a faith community where people don’t all look and think the same, I told them – a church where “gay people and conservative evangelicals who don’t approve of their lifestyle worship side by side.”
“For people on all sides it’s a radical idea, but if we’re all committed to loving each other, shouldn’t we be able to do that?” I asked. “To work through those other issues, to disagree, to struggle, but to still come together on Sunday to worship God together as one community? Isn’t that love?”
After all, Jesus commanded us to love everyone – even our enemies. And love, for Jesus, is not a passive word that lets us sit back and proclaim affection from afar. It’s a verb that requires action. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” he said. Then he died for everyone – his friends, his enemies, gay people, those who protest in front of funerals holding “God hates fags” signs, and everyone else.
What about statements condemning homosexuality in the Bible, you ask? This column is already too long for me to get into the complexities of that and other tough theological issues here, but the short answer is that, when I come across a specific passage that seems to contradict the primary command to love, my conscience tells me I should go with my understanding of what it means to love, and that’s what I do.
Most Christians – even those who say they believe the Bible is inerrant – choose to reject at least some statements in the Bible. They eat shrimp. They get tattoos.
Churches are free to interpret the Bible to say homosexuality – or at least acting on it – is a sin, even if I do not. But, in my opinion, they should still welcome gay people and treat them with respect.
A social contract to work together
The question of how government should treat gay people is simpler.
Being an American citizen, in my view, is entering into a social contract to work for the betterment of every single one of us. It’s a commitment to work together in spite of our various backgrounds and views to find common ground for the good of all.
Government has a duty to intercede on behalf of the minority when the majority shirks that responsibility. It’s never appropriate for the government to sponsor discrimination.
That’s why I believe, if government is going to be in the business of marriage, that it should allow gay people to marry. Or it should get out of the business of marriage and instead sanction civil unions for all.
And I don’t believe people should ever be passed over for appointments to important government jobs simply because they are gay.
Pastor Smothermon has a different view.
Doug Howe, the gay man Martinez appointed to the PRC, is part of a culture of “militant homosexuality” that uses prominent positions in government to push the “homosexual agenda,” Smothermon told me. But Howe hasn’t made a public issue of the fact that he’s gay. In fact, Smothermon didn’t even know Howe was gay until I told him.
I asked how that was militant and didn’t get much of a response. It didn’t seem to matter to Smothermon.
It also didn’t seem to matter to him that Howe is quite possibly the most qualified PRC member in the state’s history. The man has advised governments and companies in the United States, Europe, Africa and Asia on energy issues. He led a project to design the regulatory agency for the Emirate of Dubai. Could he help clean up a scandal-plagued agency and redesign it so it better serves New Mexicans? You bet.
But this is what Smothermon thinks is important. This is what he told me:
“With a governor who looked me in the eye personally and said she’s socially conservative, she believes that marriage is between one man and one woman, who said she wouldn’t espouse the homosexual agenda, I think this goes against that. These aren’t the people we voted for you to appoint. We voted for you to appoint people who think like we do.”
The pastor added that he’s “not against the human being, but the lifestyle and the political power that the homosexual agenda has today, as a lobbying agenda, that’s what I begin to come against.”
‘Not against the human being,’ but still discriminating
Smothermon has an apparent belief that gay people, no matter how qualified, shouldn’t hold government jobs. There’s another example involving City of Albuquerque staffers whose hiring Smothermon allegedly opposed because they are gay.
Smothermon also told me he opposes domestic partner benefits and has been lobbying Martinez to rescind the previous governor’s executive order granting them to state employees. Through his words and actions, Smothermon is trying to push gay people to the fringes of society.
One has only to look at any ethnic minority group living in America today to understand the ways in which such discrimination does unconscionable harm to people.
Smothermon can say – and might actually believe – that he’s “not against the human being,” but when he advocates policies that make it difficult for gay people to get jobs and benefits, he’s discriminating against human beings. He’s also contributing to the climate of hate that makes America unsafe for people like Matthew Shepard.
I recently heard Shepard’s mother talk about his 1998 murder. She was in Las Cruces to rally gay-rights supporters. Listening to her speak, I was struck by how far we’ve come since her son was murdered in 1998. I was also saddened by how far we still have to go.
‘The church is complicit… in anti-gay bullying’
The more I’ve thought about this issue in recent months, the more I’ve come to believe it is one of the great civil rights battles of our time. Author and blogger Rachel Held Evans wrote this recently about people she’s spoken with after giving talks at Christian colleges:
“Most feel that the Church’s response to homosexuality is partly responsible for high rates of depression and suicide among their gay and lesbian friends, particularly those who are gay and Christian.
“Most are highly suspicious of ‘ex-gay’ ministries that encourage men and women with same-sex attractions to marry members of the opposite sex in spite of their feelings.
“Most feel that the church is complicit, at least at some level, in anti-gay bullying.”
It isn’t just the deceived (or deceiving) pastors who call for gay people to be rounded up and put behind electric fences until they die who are guilty of bulling. Every church that fights against people in committed same-sex relationships having the right to share benefits or make end-of-life decisions for each other contributes to bullying, depression and suicide. Every pastor who oversees a church that doesn’t welcome gay people to worship as they are does as well.
A core evangelical belief is that people who don’t accept Jesus as their personal savior before they die are going to hell – in other words, will spend eternity separated from God. Following that line of thought, anti-gay bullying that leads to increased depression and suicide can actually contribute to people – in the common evangelical view – spending eternity separated from God.
And yet, in spite of the eternal consequences they preach, too many churches bully anyway. How tragic.
Equally tragic are efforts by Smothermon and others to teach the next generation the same way of thinking and acting.
Times are changing
The good news is that times are changing. More of us personally know gay people, and that connection makes a difference. Evans also found this in talking with students at Christian colleges:
“And most…I daresay all…have expressed to me passionate opposition to legislative action against gays and lesbians.
“‘When evangelicals turn their anti-gay sentiments into a political campaign,’ one college senior on her way to graduate school told me, ‘all it does is confirm to my gay friends that they will never be welcome in the church. It makes them bitter, and it makes me mad too. This is why I never refer to myself as an evangelical. Ugh. I’m embarrassed to be part of that group.’”
I’ve found at my own church that there’s division on this issue. Some agree with me. Some share Smothermon’s views. Many are in between and conflicted. But there’s at least a conversation happening, and attitudes are shifting.
I’m still not sure what my church thinks about my hope for my faith community – that it would be a church where “gay people and conservative evangelicals who don’t approve of their lifestyle worship side by side.” But I’m at least working on sparking a conversation. And speaking out.
It’s in taking a stand – with our words and actions – that we can help change a cultural belief that is deeply held by many in America. It must change. And now, in this generation, is the time.
That’s why it’s so important that Martinez appointed Howe to office. It’s why it is important that President Barack Obama ended the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and came out in favor of gay marriage.
It’s why I’m speaking out today.
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