On Mere Orthodoxy’s Delusion

Leading evangelical ethicist David Gushee – who in 2014 came to the position of LGBTQ inclusion, to the jeers and riotous attacks of conservatives everywhere – has written a piece on the quickly-vanishing middle ground on the matter of the full rights of LGBTQ persons in the larger culture. “It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it, and your answer will at some point be revealed. This is true both for individuals and for institutions. Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you.”

I found this piece intriguing, as I have been discovering the same thing myself in the last year. Nothing about Gushee’s observations here are false or incorrect. The issue is emerging as a defining issue of our time, and the middle ground is rapidly vanishing beneath our feet. The issue will come and find you.

I am bisexual. Obviously I find this to be a good thing.

Others disagree with that assessment.

One of those others is the supposedly-moderate, deep-thinking evangelical website Mere Orthodoxy. One of their writers, Jake Meador, penned an absurd, comical post in response to Gushee. I think calling it “absurd” and “comical” is fair; he called Gushee a coward in his piece, and has more respect for the sludge he scrapes off the bottom of his shoes than for progressive Christians. “It’s all par for the course for progressive evangelicals like Gushee, of course,” he sighs, with an implied eye-roll. Yes, we’re all a bunch of dum-dums, barely able to get food the narrow distance between our plates and our mouths, woefully oblivious to nuanced debate, facts, or the noble ancients they revere over at Mere Orthodoxy, the same ancients who were cool with slavery, the oppression of women, murdering Jews, and burning witches and pagans.

But I digress. Meador was meandering.

He takes umbrage at one of Gushee’s comments in particular, a comment that has thrown a number of my conservative evangelical friends into apopleptics online since Gushee’s piece was published. “(Religious conservatives) are organizing legal defense efforts under the guise of religious liberty, and interpreting their plight as religious persecution.”

This, more than anything, Meador dislikes. Presuming that Gushee has no knowledge of the lawsuits against conservatives refusing to provide service to paying LGBTQ customers, Meador reviews the (four) cases thus far. But far from not knowing about these cases, perhaps Gushee has a different perspective on them, one in which they are not actually religious persecution. This would indicate Gushee (and progressives generally) are not idiots, but simply see the situation differently, which would put the issue in the category of the pluralism to which conservatives like Meador pay lip service but don’t actually believe in.

Far from being the facts on the ground, Meador’s persecution narrative is just that – a narrative. As the smarty-pants over at Mere Orthodoxy should know, all events are interpreted. From Meador’s perspective, “if you tell a person ‘I am ordering you to choose between your conscience and your livelihood,’ you are persecuting them.”

But is this accurate? Is this a full or correct assessment of what is happening? What if, for example, the right to decline service on the basis of gender orientation is a privilege, and an unjust privilege at that? What if – just imagine for a moment – if LGBTQ people had been systematically oppressed, opposed, feared, and discriminated against from the beginning in American history? The imaginative leap is difficult, because we know how welcomed LGBTQ people have been from the founding of our nation down to the present. But just imagine. Imagine that we had a system in place that privileged certain belief systems – Christianity, for example, of a heteronormative persuasion – to have a privileged place in our political and cultural life? What if that was a violation of the first amendment and the separation of church and state? What if, say, churches didn’t have to pay taxes? What if churches were supposed to avoid political entanglements as part of their 501c3 status but regularly ignored this law and the state didn’t enforce it? And what if, just by default, most Americans thought this was totally normal and a public good.

In that case, would the state saying you can’t discriminate against people on the basis of gender orientation be persecution? Or the removal of an undeserved and unjust privilege you shouldn’t have had in the first place? Is that persecution? Really? Are you sure?

It is obvious this is the removal of a privilege to discriminate, not persecution. Nobody is telling conservative, exclusionary Christians what to think. Nobody is telling them what correct dogma is. Nobody is telling their churches what to preach, or what they can say. They are merely laying down guidelines for what a person can do, in the public square, that place of lauded pluralism which conservatives have, in the last six months, suddenly fallen in love with.

All of these supposed persecutions have come in the public square, or when private religious institutions are using public money to proselytize. The state is merely saying, “If you want state or federal money, you must abide by state and federal non-discrimination guidelines.” In an act of unspeakable arrogance and privilege, conservative religious institutions have said, “No, we (and we alone) must get special dispensation to not comply with state and federal standards.” Or, in the case of private businesses, “We must have special dispensation to discriminate on the basis of gender identity (as well as race, sex, and disability, if we want).”

If these religious persons and institutions were arguing for something they didn’t already have, something that actually took their rights away under the law, they would be persecuted. But they are fighting to preserve a special exemption from the cooperative pluralism with which the rest of us get on with our lives. And they have the audacity, the singular arrogance, to suggest that this is persecution.

That’s pretty fucked up.

Meador, though, isn’t done. He accuses Gushee of the same sin with which every social reformer is accused by every recacitrant traditionalist since the beginning of the Enlightenment period. The sin of automatic progress (gasp! orchestral sting!)

Gushee, he claims, is dishonest in his piece down to his very language, because his language forms the situation as abstract historical forces of inevitable progress verses the bigoted enemies of progress refusing to bend before the inevitable.

This is an absurd accusation, and for a couple of reasons.

1) just because Gushee is speaking of cultural movement now doesn’t mean he isn’t aware of the efforts of reformers to bring us to this place. Meador’s suggestion is so silly it almost defies words. Does he really imagine Gushee is oblivious to the blood and sweat shed by reformers to win key victories and bring about meaningful reforms? Of course not, he’s just counting on his audience to simply nod their heads at the pathetic silliness of those stupid progressives.

2) there is such a thing as the weight of history. Far from inevitable, of course, but cultural phenomenons become phenomenons because at a certain point they take on a life of their own. “Ideas have consequences,” as one conservative writer (Richard Weaver) once put it. Some call it “the long tail,” others call it “the tipping point.” Gushee is doing little more than suggest that tipping point has been reached, or will be reached very soon. Maybe he’s right and maybe he’s wrong, but his point remains. The middle ground is vanishing, and soon everyone will have to take their sides.

Reformers have forced the issue. I don’t deny that, and I doubt Gushee would deny it either. This is how change comes. A few people point out inconsistencies in the mainstream belief system. A few become a lot. The huddle of a couple voices at the outskirts become a din. The arguments which Meador is making now were the same arguments made against Martin Luther King by the conservatives of his day, and against the abolitionists in their day, against the suffragettes in their day and the feminists in theirs. “Radicals have forced this upon us,” they whined, in every generation.

Whine all you like, but the question still stands: “Are LGBTQ people actually people, and do they deserve full protection under the law?” That is the question that stands to hand right now, and the culture is increasingly cool with saying “Yes” to both aspects of the question. Not because radicals have duped the unthinking masses into changing their philosophical worldview, but because reformers have pointed out the fundamental inconsistency at the heart of what has passed for mainstream thought for the last several hundred years.

You see, all people are given inalienable rights by the Declaration of Independence, and all people are granted full production under the Constitution. If LGBTQ people are really people, then if we really believe “all men are created equal,” then we don’t get to discriminate against LGBTQ people in America. Not in our public life, not by our government.

Conservatives are unable to answer both sides of that question with yes. They must find a way to answer with “Yes” to the first part (because the weight of history has passed the tipping point on calling LGBTQ people less than human or not deserving of being treated like human beings) but “no” to the second (because it is the last line of defense for preserving their privileged discrimination).

Of course, by answering no to the second part of the question (“do LGBTQ people deserve full protection under the law”), the conservative must internally answer no to the first part of the question (“Are LGBTQ people actually people”). If we are people, we deserve full protections against discrimination. If we do not deserve full productions against discrimination, we must not really be people, not in the full, healthy, teleological sense. Disordered people, like women with their small brains and frail natures, like slaves with their need for white masters to care for them because they cannot govern themselves, don’t have full rights, because they are somehow full of wrongs.

Meador’s post is full of further absurdities. Like the suggestion that progressives are somehow tied in their ideological agenda to capitalism – I rarely laughed harder at a suggestion. But let’s end on Meador’s beloved pluralism. Gushee’s piece, you might recall, begins with the loss of the middle ground. The middle ground is all I have heard conservatives talking about in the last year, the disappearing middle ground and why can’t we get back to it. But what middle ground is there between full personhood and full protection under the law, and some personhood and some protection under the law? Or perhaps, more starkly, what difference is there between some personhood and some protection and no personhood and no protection at all? When the issue revolves around how much discrimination should be allowed, there is little room for compromise. It isn’t that we’re losing the middle ground, it is that we’re realizing there never was any to start with.

We’ve tried the middle ground between full exclusion and full inclusion before. The answer of the conservatives was telling at that time, because it is the same compromise they are offering now. “Separate, but equal.”