The Specter of 'Normalization' | Sojourners

The Specter of 'Normalization'

Image via Rene Bach / Flickr / RNS

In the fight over gay rights, conservative Christians have a new enemy. No, it isn’t a politician or activist or organization. It isn’t a noun at all, but rather a verb: normalize.

In Albert Mohler’s forthcoming book, We Cannot Be Silent : Speaking Truth to a Culture Redefining Sex, Marriage, & the Very Meaning of Right & Wrong, the president of the flagship Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., discusses the normalization of same-sex relationships a whopping 39 times.

“The normalization of homosexual relationships and the legalization of same-sex marriage” is, in Mohler’s words, “the debate of greatest intensity of our time.”

He is not the only one calling Christians to fight against the normalization of same-sex relationships — not by a long shot.

An article by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission calls believers to “consider what is at stake in the movement afoot to normalize homosexuality.”

The Family Research Council’s senior vice president argued that the movement of “evangelical advocates” who want to normalize same-sex attraction is an “offense to God and the Gospel.”

Pastor and best-selling author John Piper called the trend “the new calamity” in America.

But where did these Christians get this idea? Even if one believes that same-sex relationships do not align with God’s design for human beings, it does not necessarily follow that one must work to dispose of those who engage in it.

To normalize means to accept something or someone as usual or normal. The word is a cousin to the word tolerate. So these Christians believe that anything that might communicate that homosexuality is normal is wrong or evil. Anything that would increase tolerance of homosexual relationships should be resisted.

Many of these Christians root their thinking in the belief that the Apostle Paul called same-sex relations “unnatural” in his epistle to the Romans. Whatever Paul means to communicate with that word, he is not instructing Christians to band together and work to exclude anyone from social structures and institutions. Unlike Paul, when conservative Christians speak of normalizing LGBT people and relationships, they are using it in a social rather than theological sense.

Consider the recent decision by the Boy Scouts of America to allow gay troop leaders. In 2013, when the BSA was considering the change, the Ohio Christian Alliance sent an email to 40,000 subscribers claiming that pressure was coming from LGBT activists who “want society to normalize and affirm their behavior.”

Originally, conservative Christians cast gay people as sexual predators and argued that allowing them to be troop leaders would endanger children. But as the public began to see such arguments for what they were — specious and hurtful — Christian activists started invoking the scary “normalize” instead.

Their fear was not that the existence of LGBT troop leaders would force conservative Christians to change their theology, but rather that the shift would cause society to see gay persons as respectable. Boy Scout troop leaders are seen as upstanding civic leaders, and this is a thought that many Christians cannot stand.

The same is true regarding the decision to eliminate the “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” policy. Conservatives first argued that allowing LGBT persons to serve in the U.S. Army would make soldiers feel uncomfortable and make servicemen and women less effective. When the military studied the issue and demonstrated this was not a risk, these individuals reverted to their favorite scare word. Again, their fear was not theological, but social. Military people are given respect, and this is something that conservative Christians do not want bestowed on people they consider to be abominations before God.

Asking the faithful to resist the normalization of homosexuality is a command framed in the negative. It only communicates what one does not want to occur. What about the positive? If one is resisting normalization, then what is one supporting?

The opposite of normalizing is marginalizing. It is maligning. It is sidelining. It is ostracizing. It is banishing. It is shunning.

Make no mistake that this is what is being called for. To resist the normalization of LGBT couples means working to push them to the margins, outside of circles of respectability.

Is this how we wish to be known — as a community that forced another community to the margins? This is the kind of goal at which if you succeed, you also fail.

And besides, this behavior is painfully shortsighted given the waning influence of Christians in America. If believers think they are becoming a minority group, it does not seem prudent to set a precedent that it is OK to socially marginalize minority groups.

But, of course, Christians need to ask themselves not only whether this way of treating people is prudent, but also whether it is biblical.

I’ve tried to imagine Jesus approving of such tactics. Jesus is a man who offers his disciples a glimmering gold standard for relating to others: “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.”

The most rigid religious leaders in Jesus’ day, like those in ours, complained that offering outsiders a seat at the table somehow legitimized them. But Jesus didn’t seem to care. He kept welcoming them to the table anyway.

Those the religious leaders rejected, Jesus received. Those whom the religious leaders pushed to the margins, Jesus welcomed to the center. Jesus was focused on building bridges while the religious leaders were focused on building barriers.

Some things never change.

It is time for the faithful to set aside the scare words, take the long view, look our neighbors in the eye and walk the way of Jesus.