“Never in my life has my very faith been called into question like this.”
That’s what young evangelical writer Jonathan Merritt told me this week. His statement followed a media firestorm, ignited when both he and Kirsten Powers, weighed in on proposed laws in Kansas and Arizona that would have allowed business owners to deny service to gay couples, based on conservative religious beliefs about homosexuality. Merritt and Powers each suggested that justifying legal discrimination against gay and lesbian couples might not be the best form of Christian outreach and raised consistency issues of whether discrimination would also be applied to other less than “biblical” marriages, or if just gays and lesbians were being singled out.
Their columns in both the Religion News Service and the Daily Beast have provoked intense responses from many Southern Baptists (where Merritt has his own heritage), those who call themselves Neo or “New” Calvinists, and other assorted critics from the political right.
Neither Merritt nor Powers took clear theological positions on all the sexuality issues involved. But both have been stunned by the responses from emails, tweets, and angry phone calls. The 1,200 Twitter notifications, messages, and calls from “leaders” that Merritt has received in the last few days include, “You only pretend to worship Jesus.” “You’re not a Christian.” “You are the enemies of Christianity.” “You’re marginalized now.” “You’re damaged goods.” “You’re on the outs now.”
Merritt and Powers were not questioning the gospel; they were “just asking whether we should discriminate against a whole group of people.” Both columnists believe Christians can honestly disagree on these complicated questions surrounding sexuality, but wanted to raise a discussion about whether passing laws that discriminate based on one religious point of view was wise, especially in this rapidly changing culture.
As proof of the cultural shifts that are underway, some striking new data in a report by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute came out this week. The report shows that most religiously unaffiliated Americans now support civil marriage rights for same-sex couples. But so do most white mainline Protestants, white and Hispanic Catholics, and Jews. The generational divide is even more dramatic: strong majorities — across the political spectrum — of 18- to 33-year-old millennials support protecting gays and lesbians in the workplace, and most, religious and not, support the right of same-sex couples to marry. The report even states that “White evangelical Protestant millennials are more than twice as likely to favor same-sex marriage as the oldest generation of white evangelical Protestants (43% vs. 19%).”
The PRRI polling also confirms earlier data showing that 70 percent of young people believe “that religious groups are alienating young adults by being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues.” More religious leaders are becoming painfully aware that this is one of the primary reasons that young people are leaving or not joining churches today.
That is why the articles by young Christian writers like Jonathan Merritt and Kirsten Powers are so important, and the vitriolic attacks on them by some of their elders is so alarming and sad.
Many argue that the heart of this debate isn’t sexuality, but religious liberty. Merritt addresses that concern, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s insightful distinction between private and public domain:
“I think there is a great difference between the two … I don’t think anybody should have the right to just come in my house that I may privately own …. But now if I turn my house into a store — if I turn it into a department store, if I turn it into a lunch counter, or anything like that — then I have certain obligations to the public beyond my particular whims … If a business is in the public market, then it cannot deny access …. [a business owner] should not have the freedom to choose his customers on the basis of race or religion.”
Differing theological views on important issues of sexuality will need time, patience, deep biblical reflection, respectful discourse, and religious liberty to be worked out in the churches. But the perception of Christian faith is in grave danger when Christians try to use the law to publically discriminate against those who don’t adhere to their point of view. I am a deep believer in religious liberty, but it must not be used as an excuse for discrimination in the public square or the public marketplace against people with whom we disagree.
And let me express my gratitude for a new generation of Christians who are trying to positively raise these tough issues for the sake of our witness in the world. As one of the few wise commentators said back to Merritt and Powers, “It’s hard to witness to people that you won’t serve.” Unlike what some of their critics have said, I say to these young voices: you will not be “on the outs” but rather, you are keeping many of your generation “in” the conversation about faith. Thank you.