Published April 9, 2014
By now most readers of this site know about the controversy that erupted in the aftermath of the forced resignation of former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. His offense? A half-dozen years ago he gave $1,000 to support Proposition 8, an effort by California citizens to prevent the redefinition of traditional marriage. (It passed with 52 percent of the vote.) The Mozilla decision has elicited a lot of commentary, much of it good and much of it coming from proponents of gay marriage – including to their credit Andrew Sullivan (here and here), Damon Linker,Conor Friedersdorf and Jonathan Rauch.
At the core of what’s driving this effort by some supporters of gay marriage is the belief that holding traditional views on marriage is akin to being an anti-Semite and a racist. That is, holding views that until 15 years ago were almost universally embraced and that have been held by every major religious faith since their founding is now deemed not only wrong but also so offensive that those who hold them must be punished. Their views are deemed so malicious – so obviously and unequivocally evil — that if held there must be a cost.
Christian Rudder, president of OkCupid, the online dating service whose campaign to boycott Mozilla if they kept Eich helped lead to his departure, described those who oppose gay marriage as “our enemies, and we wish them nothing but failure.” Mr. Rudder admitted he “wanted to show the many would-be Eichs out there” what could happen to them if they don’t conform to liberal cultural attitudes.
This fanatical cast of mind is quite problematic for a free society, where we have to learn to live with those with whom we have deep differences. It is one thing to proclaim a person’s views to be wrong and to show why; it’s quite another to declare those views illegitimate and those who hold them to be persona non grata. We’ve seen this sort of thing take hold in the academy, the most close-minded institution in American life today. It’s now spreading through the rest of American society. And it’s not good.
The successful effort to force Eich out, then, is a significant cultural moment. It revealed an illiberalism and a level of intolerance within some quarters on the left that is chilling but not wholly surprising. And if this current of thought is not checked and challenged, it will create ruptures and divisions that will hurt everyone, those who favor gay rights no less than those who oppose it.
Let me speak from a perspective within my own faith community. Based on conversations and having written and taught classes on the subject of Christianity and homosexuality, my sense is that many evangelical Christians are working through how to approach the issues of their faith and the gay rights movement with a good deal of care and integrity. They are attempting to be faithful to Scripture in a way that is characterized by grace rather than stridency. Even as they continue to oppose same-sex marriage, they are asking whether their own attitudes have been distorted by their own cultural and political assumptions and that the focus on homosexuality is, as I’ve put it elsewhere, wildly disproportionate to what one finds in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Particularly among younger evangelicals, there’s a palpable discomfort with the approach taken by prominent figures over the last few decades – people like (but not exclusive to) Franklin Graham, James Dobson, Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell. They are not the spokesmen they want to represent them or their faith. In terms of public policy, there’s discussion about shifting focus from opposing gay marriage to protecting religious liberties.
I’ve had discussions with faithful Christians whom I deeply admire who wonder whether their approach needs to be refined – not completely jettisoned but refined — in light of a fuller and deeper understanding of the Christian faith. A thoughtful friend of mine, a pastor, wrote to me last week, asking, “How do you live in a broken world? How do you adapt in a way that maintains faith in God’s character, in ethical standards, and yet maintains an attitude of grace and mercy in a world in which there is a lot more gray than we’d like to admit?… you are certainly correct when you suggest that in focusing on this issue [homosexuality], we ignore matters (like greed; like caring for the poor, etc.) that appear to be much more important to Jesus. And these we blithely sweep under the rug because they are too uncomfortable, and we’ve learned to live with compromises and filter them out.”
The response of those who don’t share this view is that they’re standing for truth in an increasingly depraved time. The danger comes from those who are diluting Scripture to accommodate the world. And gray is just another word for capitulation. This isn’t an easy thing to sort through, then, as anyone who has honestly faced these issues can tell you.
What’s not reasonable or realistic to assume is that millions and millions of Christians will simply toss aside what they view as the clear teachings of the Bible because those who have contempt for their views and faith tell them to do so. And what won’t work is for the gay rights movement to try to intimidate into silence those with whom they disagree. To break their will. And to force religious organizations – including parachurch institutions and eventually churches – to embrace views they believe are at odds with the teachings in Scripture. A faith whose central symbol is the cross is not going to collapse or surrender in the face of pressure by progressives and secularists. (Historically the church has often thrived under persecution.)
This all could get pretty nasty pretty quickly, and intensifying the culture wars isn’t in anyone’s interest. Civility is, as Stephen Carter has written, a precondition of democratic dialogue. There ought to be rules of etiquette, even (and perhaps especially) in public and political discourse. Asking for civility is quite different from insisting on agreement, and absence of agreement is a case for further (and better) debate, not putting an end to it.
When the dust finally settles, we still have to live together and occupy the same nation, the same airwaves, the same soccer fields and schools and workspaces. Surely treating others with a certain degree of dignity and respect shouldn’t be too much to ask of those who oppose gay marriage and those who support it.
“Come now and let us reason together,” the prophet Isaiah said. That counsel beats a lot of alternatives, including targeting and destroying those who don’t conform to the beliefs of our new cultural commissars.