Thursday, November 10, 2011

Where Are The Progressive Prophets?

By Becky Garrison

Back in October when Jim Wallis, CEO of the evangelical social justice organization Sojourners, accused unnamed liberal journalists of distorting evangelicalism, he cited how they depicted evangelicals as engaged in a dark conspiracy to take over the world. In response, fourteen religion journalists countered this argument in an open letter to Wallis whereby they asserted that they have not thought or written such sweeping generalizations about evangelicals. Nevertheless, this group affirms that exclusionary Christian movements such as Christian Dominionism are “real, overlapping, and significant in evangelicalism and in our political and electoral culture at large.” In a similar vein, the Southern Poverty Law Center urged voters to boycott the 2011 Value Voters Summit held the first weekend in October in light of two of its sponsors' efforts to demonize LGBT people with false propaganda.

Wallis bolstered his claim that Sojourners speaks for a wide swatch of evangelical Christians by engaging in dialogues with Richard Land at events like the National Press Club and Union Theological Seminary. While I did not attend the NPC shindig, I was present for their conversation at Union which was held in conjunction to the book launch for  Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics. According to Wallis, this book co-authored by Lisa Sharon Harper, Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners, and The King's College professor and Tea Party supporter D. C. Innes, demonstrates that two authentically evangelical voices can hold very different views across a wide range of political, economic, and social issues.

During this book launch, these authors, along with Wallis and Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, debated varying biblical interpretations regarding the role of God in government and race relations before a somewhat responsive audience of about 250 people. In this collective discussion, they seemed to be more concerned with finding “common ground” in Christ than debating controversial and polarizing issues such as same sex marriage, abortion rights, and gender non-discrimination legislation that will grant basic human rights to trans individuals. Then again, when Sojourners rejected an LGBT welcome ad sponsored by the Believe Out Loud campaign, Wallis justified this decision on the grounds that “LGBT issues may not be our primary calling as our work against poverty and hunger, and for peace.”

The subsequent outcry over this decision raised the question of whether one can claim to be a progressive Christian leader if they do not stand solidarity with their LGBT brothers and sisters. For an increasing number of liberal Christians, the answer is a resounding “no.”

When Dan Savage, sex columnist and founder of the “It Gets Better” project, spoke at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in early October as part of a conference titled “Pro-Queer Life: Youth Suicide Crisis, Catholic Education, and the Souls of LGBTQ People,” he attracted about double the number of attendees who gathered to hear Wallis. This somewhat younger crowd of mostly mainline Protestant and social justice Catholics engaged in lively conversation about how the Catholic church as the largest provider of private school education in the United States can take responsibility for protecting against the culture and attitudes that contribute to LGBTQ suicide.

At a press conference prior to his talk, Savage described evangelicals like Wallis who might affirm LGBT people but refuse to grant them the same civil rights and liturgical rites as everyone else as “the same old hate in a brand new bag. It's God Hates Fags with a big smile.” Savage also predicts the demise of this outdated mode of thinking:

You look at polls of younger evangelicals and they're over it already by wide margins. Increasingly, when people are forced to choose between their gay and lesbian friends, relatives and co-workers and their church and their faith, they're going to choose their gay and lesbian friends, as well they should. So as [Christian leaders] puts their chips down on taking us back to the 1940s and 50s—they are such great decades—they’re going to lose the battle.

Also in mid-October, Union Theological Seminary moved this conversation forward by hosting the “Compass to Compassion” consultation. This event represented a small step towards confronting the intersection of compassion with oppression, particularly when the ongoing oppression is influenced and funded by groups of Americans who call themselves Christians even though they target LGBT people globally. This conference shed light on the effects of fundamentalist ideology known as “dominionism” on the further criminalization of homosexuality in 76 countries in particular where consensual same-sex relationships are illegal. 

For religion journalists, clergy and leaders of faith-based organizations to remain silent in light of this epidemic against LGBT people is not only irresponsible, it's deadly.

Becky Garrison is a panelist for The Washington Post's On Faith column and contributes to a range of outlets including The Guardian, The Revealer, American Atheist magazine and Religion Dispatches.. Her books include Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ, Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church, and Ancient Future Disciples: Meeting Jesus in Mission-Shaped Ministries.