Maine, Gay Rights, and Religion: Can Gay Rights Groups Overcome Their Achilles Heel?
November 4th, 2009
[Justin Lee is Executive Director of The Gay Christian Network, an interdenominational nonprofit organization serving LGBT Christians and changing attitudes in the church. The opinions expressed in this article are solely his own.]
Last night, gay marriage advocates suffered yet another defeat in Maine, in spite of tremendous efforts and optimism.
Today, many of them are asking, “What went wrong?”
The legislature had already passed a bill allowing same-sex marriage, and the governor campaigned in favor of it. Gay marriage supporters, motivated by last year’s defeat in California, had outspent their opponents and worked hard to get out the vote and keep the message positive. Voter turnout was higher than expected, and everyone was optimistic.
So why, in a progressive state like Maine, in a country that so values civil rights, in a world where gay people are highly visible in the media and daily life–why did people turn out in droves to vote against what so many in our community see as a basic civil right?And why have they done so every other time it’s been on the ballot, in 30 other states across the nation?
There’s no single answer, but the simplest one can be summed up in one word: religion.
Religious organizations have poured millions of dollars into campaigns against same-sex marriage. Pastors preach against it every Sunday in churches across America. Ask people who oppose gay marriage why they do so, and you will regularly hear religious arguments and Bible quotes. In the aftermath of Prop 8 in California, much was made of the apparent racial divide in how people voted, but more telling was the impact of the Mormon Church and other religious groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council. Already, pundits are noting that 37% of Maine’s population is Roman Catholic, a statistic that likely influenced the outcome.
Frankly, anti-gay religious beliefs are the number one obstacle to almost every measure gay rights groups tackle. The single skill that could turn the tables in their favor is the ability to effectively reach people of faith.
So why are so many gay rights groups so shockingly ineffective on matters of faith?
Part of the problem is that many of us in the LGBT community have been so beaten down by religion that we now want nothing to do with it. Worse, some of us have come to see religious faith itself as the enemy.
But even if you have no faith of your own, if you think you’re going to take on American organized religion and win, you’re dead wrong. The vast majority of Americans believe in God, most subscribing to some version of the Christian faith. For many of them, their faith is deeply ingrained and a major influence in their lives. If we allow any issue to be set up as a contest between people’s faith and fair treatment of LGBT people, then we’ve lost already.
The Human Rights Campaign recognized this in 2005 when they created a “Religion and Faith Program” following crushing defeats in 11 state constitutional-amendment battles. Other LGBT groups have also reached out to faith communities in recent years. But it’s not enough. For real change to happen, there are four things the LGBT community must do.
1. Engage people of faith.
Anti-LGBT faith leaders want us to think this is a contest between faith and us. Don’t believe them. There are plenty of devoutly religious Americans who support the LGBT community, and we need to engage them and make sure they’re part of the discussion. Avoiding the subject only hurts us.
And it’s not just our supporters we need to engage, either. We must reach out to those who disagree with us. Remember Stephen Covey’s aphorism, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”? Even those who condemn gay relationships as sinful may still find common ground with us on civil issues if we take the time to understand them and help them understand us.
I should know. I grew up Southern Baptist, came out of the closet, and have spent over a decade building bridges with conservative evangelical Christians, a group many of my LGBT peers have written off as a “lost cause.” The truth is, they’re not homophobic monsters. There are many good, intelligent people in even the most conservative faith groups, and interacting with LGBT people is the only way they’ll grow to understand us.
In his 1993 book A Place at the Table, gay author Bruce Bawer wrote of some gay activists, “They think that their enemy is conscious oppression and that their salvation lies in the amassing of power, when in fact their enemy is ignorance and their salvation lies in increased understanding.” Sixteen years later, the observation is just as true.
2. Think beyond politics.
Yes, some LGBT rights groups are already reaching out to supportive faith communities as part of their overall strategy. But it’s not good enough to simply start with a political goal (say, a piece of legislation) and then shoehorn the faith community in. Those of us in the faith community are good for a lot more than just helping get out the vote.
Think for a moment: If the LGBT community truly has an “agenda,” isn’t it really for current and future generations of LGBT people to be treated fairly, able to live as we see fit, without fear of harassment, violence, and discrimination? That’s a big goal, and achieving it will take more than political action.
To be sure, legislation is an important part of changing the future for the better. But no bill or ballot initiative can eliminate homophobia, hate, or prejudice. Increasing the penalties for hate crimes won’t stop them if churches are preaching hate. And federal marriage rights won’t stop a gay kid from being pressured into a loveless straight marriage by his parents or church.
If we want to make the world a safe place for the next generation, we must do more than change the laws. We must change the culture. So instead of thinking of people of faith as just another voting pool, we need to think about all the ways that faith impacts culture, and how supportive people of faith can help make those changes. Because even if your goals are exclusively political, it’s worth noting that culture shapes the political landscape in big ways.
3. Listen to faith leaders.
As executive director of an LGBT-supportive Christian nonprofit, I’m often in contact with supportive faith leaders from across the country. Over and over again, I’ve heard stories from faith leaders who want to make a positive difference for the LGBT community but feel that their input or support somehow isn’t valued by leaders in the broader movement. But if anti-LGBT religious beliefs are one of the biggest obstacles we face, shouldn’t these supportive faith leaders be some of our top advisors?
Too often, we treat faith leaders as pawns in a political chess game, bringing them out for a photo opportunity or asking them to sign a letter in support of a cause. They are capable of so much more. They have insights into how people within their faith group think, and they could help us build strategies to reach those people. In some cases, they may already have strategies in place that need our help to be implemented. We just need to ask them and sincerely listen to what they have to say.
4. Tailor the message.
A politician running for office doesn’t just give the exact same speech over and over; he or she tailors it to the audience. A union representing blue collar workers in the deep South has different concerns from a group of wealthy business leaders in Los Angeles.
The same holds true for people of faith. Different faiths, denominations, and sects have different beliefs and different concerns. Reaching each of them requires learning to understand them and speak their language.
A common mistake many LGBT groups make is to simply put together an interfaith “panel” of leaders to represent many different faith traditions, then have them give a joint statement of some sort and think they’ve reached the faith community. But this approach is most likely to appeal to those who already supported the cause in the first place, not to win new converts.
Instead, it’s important to work within different faith traditions individually. A devout Mormon needs to hear from other devout Mormons, not from a Catholic priest. Even within the same faith, people care much more what leaders in their particular sect have to say; not all rabbis are equally influential with all Jews, for instance. This is why it’s so important to work directly with many different people of faith, because each can change minds that others can’t.
Yes, the world is changing. And we can build a brighter future for the next generation. But among other things, it’s going to take a more deliberate effort by the LGBT community to reach people of faith.