From what I read and hear, conservative evangelical Christians are feeling victimized by developments in American culture and in the ways they are being treated under new anti-discrimination laws. In ever greater numbers, they are appealing to the courts to grant them “relief” from regulations that they feel violates their freedom of religion. “Religious liberty” has become the rallying cry for a legal “remedy” to the violation of what they see as their freedom to practice their religion.
It is understandable that religious conservatives would feel uncomfortable and unsettled by recent developments in the church and in the culture. But are they victims? Is there, as many would claim, a “war on religion?”
This is especially obvious in the changing understanding about homosexuality. In ever-greater numbers, and across every religious and cultural demographic, acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people is increasing. In American religious communities, across every denominational demographic, support for equal rights for LGBT people, and particularly support for marriage equality for gay couples, is on the rise. In most denominations, that rise has resulted in majority support even when the denominational hierarchy disagrees.
Why have we seen such a sea change? Twenty years ago, most Americans would have told you they didn’t know anyone who was gay. They may have been suspicious about certain family members or co-workers, but it was not something openly talked about or acknowledged. Now, is there anyone left in America who does not know some family member, former classmate, neighbor, or co-worker to be gay?
And the result of knowing someone gay is that most people are now unwilling to believe or accept all the negative things said about us. The sky has not fallen, nor have church roofs caved in, just because gay marriage is legal in 17 states, plus the District of Columbia. Life goes on pretty much as normal, and in fact, people are seeing that marriage equality strengthens the institution of marriage, rather than undermining it.
For those religious conservatives who see something sinister and immoral in gay and lesbian couples having the right to marry, it must feel as if the moral universe has gone awry. The reaction to this development has engendered a fear that cultural morality is veering out of control. Nothing is as it should be. And it must feel to them that if such a proposition as marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples is accepted, nothing will now stop the world from careening out of moral control. That would be a pretty scary place for a religious person to live.
Then, as if to confirm their worst fears, photographers are being compelled to offer their services for gay couples’ weddings (New Mexico), bakers are being made to provide wedding cakes for gay wedding receptions (Colorado), and florists must provide flower arrangements to beautify gay wedding celebrations (Washington). It is important to point out that this is only true for weddings in states where a non-discrimination law is in effect to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation—which, by the way, is only in 21 of the 50 states.
Appeals to the courts are being made for “relief” for this violation of the service providers’ “freedom of religion” and “religious liberty,” claiming that forced compliance with such anti-discrimination laws is a violation of the providers’ free practice of their religion. Indeed, the language used in defiance of these anti-discrimination laws takes on the language of victimization. These providers feel as though they are victims of discrimination themselves based on their religious beliefs.
But I have to ask: are religious conservatives confusing the pain of finding oneself “suddenly” in the minority with actually being a victim? Both feel uncomfortable, even painful, and are fraught with anxiety. But they’re very different.
Here’s what victimization looks like: every day, especially in some places, LGBT people face the real possibility of violence because of their orientation or gender identity. Young people jump off bridges or hang themselves on playground swing sets because of the bullying and discrimination they face. In 29 states, one can be fired from one’s job simply for being gay, with no recourse to the courts. In most places, we cannot legally marry the one we love. Some of us have been kicked out of the house when we come out to our parents, and many young LGBT people find themselves homeless and on the streets because of the attitudes of their religious parents toward their LGBT children. And did I mention the everyday threat of violence?
Compare that to the very painful realization that one’s view of something like homosexuality is in the minority after countless centuries of being in the majority. It may feel like victimization to hang a shingle out to sell something or provide some service to the public, only to find that the “public” includes people one disagrees with or finds immoral in some way. It may feel like it has happened practically overnight, when it has actually been changing over a period of decades. Being pressed to conform to such a change in majority opinion must feel like victimization. But as a society, we would do well to distinguish between real victimization and the also-very-real discouragement felt by those who now find themselves in the minority.
I do not mean to brush aside as inconsequential the feelings of those who find themselves in the minority, whether it be around the topic of gender, race, or sexual orientation. But I do mean to question characterizing such feelings as discrimination, violation of religious freedom, and victimization. It’s time we called out our religious brothers and sisters for misunderstanding their recently-acquired status as members of a shrinking minority as victims.
The Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and the IX Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. Follow him on Twitter @BishopGRobinson.