What religion are those religious exemption laws protecting?

What religion are those religious exemption laws protecting?
A baker refuses to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.

A county clerk refuses to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

A counselor learns his client is trans* and severs their work together.

Across the US, we are seeing a wave of “religious freedom” laws designed to protect this kind of behavior. All a perpetrator has to do is say that they are motivated by religious belief.

Opposition to these laws has come from the business sector; these laws are bad for business and harmful to the reputation of their states. People of good conscience oppose these bills, rightly seeing in them a license to discriminate.

My objection is more fundamental. As a priest, I can tell you: these behaviors aren’t Christian.

I mean a whole lot more than, “they aren’t nice.” It’s high time for those of us in the LGBTQ community to stop giving a pass to those who distort religion to justify bigotry.

How can you tell whether a belief or action is truly rooted in the Christian tradition? Here is a simple litmus test: authentic Christianity is and must be queer.

I’m not talking about sexual queerness. I’m talking about queerness as the impulse to rupture simplistic binaries that are designed to create false categories of “us” and “them.” Rupturing false binaries is the essential work of queer theory, and Christians are called to rupture binaries relentlessly.

Christianity is inherently about disrupting attitudes and beliefs that pit us against one another and interfere with our relationship to God. Jesus, in his person, queered false binaries between human and divine, between sacred and profane, between life and death.

Paul’s insistence that in Christ there is no longer male and female is the essence of queering, set in the midst of a passage that also queers the lines between Jew and Greek, slave and free. In his teaching and in his healing, Jesus constantly upended his followers’ assumptions about what it means to be clean or unclean, challenging them to crack open their minds and hearts and grapple anew with the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

Once you see the queerness at work in Jesus’ person and in his ministry, it’s not a surprise that the ethical path that he laid down for his followers looks an awful lot like the path that queer people walk every day. Queers and Christians are both called to perceive an identity, get honest about it even at personal cost, build community, and look to the margins to see who is not yet included.

The resonance between queer and Christian ethics is what puts the lie to the so-called “religious freedom” movement. These laws have little to do with any authentic read on Christian faith. In truth, they are about providing cover for people who want to avoid doing things that, in reality, for whatever reason, they just don’t want to do.

It is time for us to stop letting the haters and the bashers hide behind the fig leaf of a religion that they have essentially invented. Appeals to religious belief continue to be the biggest drag on our movement for queer justice. We could help to address this simply by refusing to hand the reins of religious authority to people who seek to harm us.

It is understandable that so many queer people assume that the Christian tradition is inherently hostile to queer experience and queer people. Many of us who were raised or identify as Christian have been burned by our experience of church. Most of us have some awareness of the “clobber passages” that appear to condemn same-sex sexual activity.

All of us, whatever our tradition or belief, have endured spiritual violence aimed at us by the faux-righteous. We bear on our bodies and on our souls scars that have been inflicted by people claiming the mantle of Christianity. But in the same way that those queerphobic teachings are telling a lie about us, they are also telling a lie about the true content of the Christian message.

When LGBTQ people casually assert that Christianity is inherently queerphobic, we give power to those who argue, wrongly, that Christianity is inherently queerphobic. We render queer Christians invisible, and we make it harder for religious leaders who see our inherent value to make their voices heard.

Our community has made remarkable strides in recent years establishing some measure of safety, our right to live and love openly, and even the right to marry. We have a long way to go. One crucial step that every one of us could take is to refuse to let our oppressors claim God’s blessing on their violence. Instead, we might exercise a little “religious freedom” of our own, and begin to see and proclaim just how queer the Christian tradition really is.

The Reverend Elizabeth M. Edman is an Episcopal priest and a political strategist who has been expanding people’s understanding of faith and sexuality for over twenty-five years. She has worked on the most pressing contemporary issues in the intersection of religion and sexuality, serving as an inner-city hospital chaplain to people with HIV/AIDS from 1989 to 1995 and helping to craft political and communications strategies for marriage-equality efforts. Her book, Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity, goes on sale today.

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