The Common Good

The End of Bully Christianity

On May 14, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill allowing same-sex marriage. It was a remarkable and surprising political event: Just last fall a constitutional amendment barring marriage equality looked likely to be approved by the state's voters.

by Eric Austin / Flickr.com
Protestors gather during Minnesota's Senate marriage equality vote, by Eric Austin / Flickr.com

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Something dramatic happened here, and part of it was an over-reach by conservatives. Hoping to drive out the Republican vote, they promoted this amendment with an appeal to Christianity and tradition. In the end, they largely succeeded in bringing to the polls people on the other side. One side-effect of this was a flip in the legislature; both houses switched from Republicans to Democrats (or Democrat-Farmer-Labor, as they are called in Minnesota). Those new DFL legislators, once in office, passed the bill that will now allow gays and lesbians to marry the people they love.

It was not an isolated event. Minnesota is the 12th state to allow same-sex marriage, and the third this year to embrace the idea of marriage equality. 

A tipping point has been reached, not only on the issue of marriage equality, but on the broader political force of bully Christianity, a pernicious brand of the faith that tells people who don't have conservative social and political views that they "aren't Christian." That model has now failed where it used to work reliably; Waterloo has been reached.

To be clear, not all of those who sought to protect traditional man-woman marriage were bullies. Many acted out of a principled and consistent sense of their own faith, and stayed away from defining the faith identity of others. I am fortunate that the same-sex marriage opponents I know best avoided that tactic and amid our disagreement never suggested that I was no longer a part of the diverse and complex body of Christians. 

Still, it is undeniable that many advocates for traditional marriage actively used the bullying tactic of asserting that there was only one "Christian" position on this issue, and that the Christian viewpoint rejected marriage equality. Unfortunately, their voices have too often been the loudest, and the ones to which the press is most attracted.  That tactic has now been exposed as something worse than unprincipled, politically: It has been shown to be ineffective in the public arena. 

Some will see this tipping point as a huge loss for Christianity, but it might instead be the faith's salvation. Bullying was always a terrible form of evangelism. 

Now, the church and the faithful will be driven by necessity to actions that should have defined us all along. Instead of focusing on in-and-out political distinctions, we are forced into genuine dialogue. The people I love who support traditional marriage will likely not change their view, but they will necessarily be channeling those views to a quieter, less threatening dialogue that has much more to do with community and hope, and less to do with political power.

Political power has never sat well with theology, anyway. That was one of the genius innovations of the framers of this nation, after all; they knew that allowing free exercise of religion while avoiding official sanction of religious belief was healthier not only for the state, but for the faith groups within it.

Moral persuasion in lieu of political power, though, was not just the framer's directive to churches. This was also the message of Christ, who claimed no political position but rather relied on a body of teaching that went straight to the individual, that emphasized personal restraint, and urged us to form communities of love and forgiveness rather than rejection and condemnation.

On the steps of the Minnesota Capitol, some traditional marriage proponents were grieving. They saw in this state's actions a rejection of the Christian faith, even as priests and people of good faith celebrated opposite them. They need not grieve. Christianity was never constructed as a theology of power, but rather one of influence, not of the majority but of the noble minority. This shift away from bully Christianity pushes us towards our better selves, on both sides of this toxic debate.

Bully Christianity was never very Christian, of course. Its slow fade from the political landscape will be good for the world, for those who have been oppressed, and for we Christians, too.

Mark Osler is a Professor of Law at the University of St, Thomas Law School in Minnesota. A graduate of the College of William and Mary and Yale Law School, Prof. Osler is a former federal prosecutor whose work has consistently confronted the problem of inflexibility in sentencing and corrections.

Image: Protestors gather during Minnesota's Senate marriage equality vote, by Eric Austin / Flickr.com

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