Christians and Don't Ask, Don't Tell

THE COMING repeal of our military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy has been greeted with predictable venom by Christian advocacy groups. The Family Research Council, for instance, predicts a significant rise in “homosexual assault” among service members. Focus on the Family follows suit, warning that repeal will “negatively affect troop readiness and unit cohesion, leaving the nation vulnerable during times of war.” The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer reaches straight for the Nazi card, suggesting that “Hitler was a homosexual,” and that he recruited homosexual storm troopers because straight soldiers were simply not “savage” enough.

If these comments feel unusually labored, they are. While no one is shocked that organizations like these oppose legislation like this, the constraints of the situation make for especially tortured reasoning. In order to maintain a uniform opposition to all elements of the “gay rights agenda,” many Christian organizations now find themselves defending a policy of legally-mandated dishonesty. A broad and simple axiom like thou shalt not lie must be made to not apply, at least not in this case, for these reasons—which brings us to Hitler. But in an age when pundits can go from zero to Nazi with unprecedented speed, these responses are notable not for their hyperbole, but for their grasping disparity.

Since the 2008 election, conservative Christian discourse pertaining to homosexual rights has achieved remarkable consistency. California’s Proposition 8 prompted nationwide discussion of same-sex marriage, forcing both proponents and opponents to sharpen and focus their arguments. Those who fought Proposition 8 in California spoke of equal rights and fairness. Unwilling to oppose equality overtly—who in their right mind would?—those in favor held the line alongside “religious freedom.” If villainous homosexuals are granted rights, the argument goes, Christians necessarily lose rights in proportion.

previously on patrol

David Sessions dissected an apocalyptic Focus on the Family fundraising letter from the 2008 election, examined dishonest fundraising schemes by Christian family groups, and responded to evangelicals’ hysterical case against Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. He also reviewed films that pander to the culture wars and one Derek Webb album that artfully confronts them. Jon Busch wondered why Christians blow sex out of proportion. Derek Webb encouraged Christians not to vote. The editors praised Chuck Colson for leaving the religious right and called on Christians to abandon the baggage-laden term “evangelical.” Alissa Wilkinson explained the limited implications of America’s “Christian” founding, and David Sessions spotted a case of Christian theology and American ideology being blended together.

The most succinct treatment of the issue comes from Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, who wrote in Christianity Today that “same-sex marriage and religious freedom are on a collision course.” Others were more dramatic. According to Prison Fellowship Ministries founder Charles Colson, the Prop 8 vote amounted to nothing less than “Armageddon,” standing before a slippery slope that would culminate in the loss of “freedom of religion.” Tony Perkins, president of the FRC, told an interviewer that the Proposition 8 vote was “more important than the presidential election,” adding “we’ve picked bad presidents before, and we’ve survived as a nation. But we will not survive if we lose the institution of marriage.” Donald Wildmon, founder of the AFA, said that the failure of Proposition 8 would mean that “the culture war is over and Christians have lost.” Further, “California is a big dam, holding back the flood, and if you take down the dam in California, it’s going to flood 49 other states.”

The severity of these statements seems intent to fulfill a prophecy made in 2006 by Institute for Marriage and Public Policy president Maggie Gallagher. Her Weekly Standard article warns of “the coming conflict between same-sex marriage and religious liberty.” In setting the stage for this showdown, Gallagher quotes American Jewish Congress attorney Marc Steyn saying that the situation is headed for “Armageddon,” as well as Charles Haynes of the think tank Freedom Forum, who calls the same-sex marriage issue “the battle of our times.”

In each of these statements – as in the famously ineloquent case of Rick Warren—we witness the consistent construction of the homosexual as threat, and the Christian as victim, to the tune of First Amendment protections. In other words, legalized same-sex marriage constitutes an instance of domination over dissenting Christians, who are invariably crushed by domination. By situating the issue within the jurisdiction of the Free Exercise Clause, these advocates invoke the authoritative mantel of the liberal state. We are guaranteed certain rights and freedoms, they declare, and now, if ever, we must defend them.

But exactly what freedoms are these individuals and groups defending? In each of these cases, as in more recent ones, the religious freedom argument insists upon the right to exclude homosexuals from public participation, at a time when national attitudes toward homosexuality are becoming increasingly tolerant. Since homosexuals are already marginalized in the United States, as evidenced by their relatively small population and lack of legal protections, the freedom argument becomes ironic: A dominant group—Christians— demands the freedom to discriminate against a subordinate group—gays—with apparently no regard for that group’s rights or freedoms. If nothing else, it’s a public relations disaster.

The strictures of liberal jurisprudence have relegated biblical indictments of homosexuality— call them “Sodomite arguments”—to the fringe, to be made by people who don’t really care about legal pragmatism. Those who do want to influence public policy are left with the language of liberties, and do their best with it. But every now and then an issue like the repeal of DADT comes along and leaves the makers of these arguments scrambling for justification. Having already drawn conclusions, it simply remains to invent premises; in this instance, poorly. Religious freedom is a noble value, and worth protecting. But it’s not a crutch, or a club, and its exploitation by Christians in recent years is embarrassing. Freedom should not be used to justify oppression.

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