I am a Unitarian Universalist, and we consider ourselves the most tolerant of faiths. In the 19th century Universalist churches were known for opening their doors to dissenters of all varieties, and our modern-day UU churches have continued to provide space for those who cannot find a welcome mat elsewhere: atheists and agnostics, religious humanists, political dissidents. We UUs see ourselves as “broadminded,” and so tend to say things like, “There is truth in every religious tradition. We respect all religious beliefs.” In one of our services, you might hear a reading from the Bible, but just as likely from the Koran, Black Elk, Lao-tse, or Starhawk. However, in spite of our long history and tradition of tolerance, I am finding myself increasingly intolerant—specifically, of the theology and practice of many evangelical Christians.
I say this with some real sorrow, and some measure of guilt. I was brought up Southern Baptist, and the church nurtured me and cared for me as I grew up without a mother in a small town in North Louisiana. I owe that church a lot. Some of my relatives remain in fundamentalist-evangelical churches. A professor at a local conservative evangelical seminary has reached out to me in friendship and has asked me several times to speak to his World Religions class. He published my response to one of his essays in a recent book on Christology. He is a good man. He wants his students to know that our world is multi-cultural and to understand and respect the different faiths and ethnic groups they will encounter in the real world, outside the seminary. He and I have had long theological conversations over coffee, and because of his progressive beliefs about environmental issues, I suggested him as a speaker at our UU national conference a few years ago, where he was well received.
The last time my friend asked me to speak, however, I refused. I find myself in the strange position of being a liberal who is closed, in relationship with a theologically conservative evangelical who is open. I’m having to ask myself why.
I thought about my visits with his students over the past few years. To me, a seminary is a place where students open themselves to new ideas, where they question received beliefs. Seminary changes people who attend, sometimes radically. When I visited my friend’s class, I did not try to convince students that Unitarian Universalism was the faith they should adopt—I just gave a review of our history and tradition. But as I have tried to explain to my friend, during those visits I always felt like “an insect under glass.” The students were unfailingly polite. They smiled. They were not confrontative in the least. The closest comment that came to confrontation was the honest, halting expression of one young woman who closed out the discussion by saying, “I just wish . . . I just wish . . . you believed . . . more like I do.” I could see that she was concerned for me, maybe concerned even for my soul, which she no doubt thought would be burning in hell upon my demise. Each time I visited, I went away depressed and discouraged. I wanted curiosity, passionate discussion, even a reasoned rejection. Instead, the students put up a glass shield I couldn’t penetrate.
But my classroom experience is not the only reason I have lost tolerance for this brand of Christianity. Conservative evangelical Christians are sure that they are right about so much, but from my vantage point, much of what they believe is unloving and in fact destructive. I’m thinking about my two nephews. One is a handsome, talented, funny, warm human being who happens to be gay. His older brother is also handsome and talented, but he is a jock sports star and business man—and in his case, a conservative Christian who lives in the Deep South. The older brother will not speak to his younger brother, nor allow his four children to see their uncle, presumably because they might be adversely influenced. The brothers’ alienation is deeply hurtful to my sister, the boys’ mother. The older brother’s attitudes are culturally influenced in a region that is profoundly, fervently conservative, both socially and theologically.
Of even more concern is the preponderance of hate crimes being committed against gays and other minorities. There were 6,628 hate crimes reported in 2010 (the last year data was available), 47% race-related; 20% religion; 19% sexual orientation; 13% ethnicity or national origin. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 1,018 active hate groups were operating in the United States in 2011, a 60% increase since 2000.
Is it fair to blame these crimes on conservative Christianity? Not directly. No doubt, the great majority of people who commit hate crimes would not call themselves Christians of any variety. Indeed, conservative Christians typically say that although they may disagree with the sexual orientation or religion of another, they “hate the sin and love the sinner.” In fact, they may go so far as to say that they themselves are “sinners saved by grace.” However, I would maintain that these Christians, almost all of whom condemn gays for loving differently, support and perpetuate the milieu in which hate crimes take place. They contribute immensely to the cultural ground out of which prejudice grows and flourishes.
Ministers, respected authority figures in conservative evangelical churches and related institutions all over the country, are preaching their theology of singularity. To be sure, some evangelicals, such as my friend the seminary professor, are encouraging their people to be more like Jesus in terms of social justice and to be more protective of God’s green earth. These “new evangelicals” are a growing subset of evangelicals who are changing the religious conversation in conservative circles.
But my friend is a theological conservative, and so far as I know, all conservative evangelicals believe there is but one way to salvation: through faith in Jesus as your personal savior. That stance turns everyone else into an infidel. An unbeliever. A moral pervert. A sinner doomed by God to everlasting punishment. So if these “others” are offending God by their sins and are on their way to hell, what covert permission is being given to those inclined to act violently on their prejudices?
Oppression could be thought of as on a continuum, with one end of that continuum being genocide and the other being more “acceptable” forms, like jokes making fun of minorities, women, and gays. Somewhere in the middle is the silence, the refusal to speak out against prejudice, of which Martin Luther King said the following: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy . . . was not the strident clamor of the bad people but the appalling silence of the good people.”
All religious traditions are not equal. Some beliefs foster freedom, growth, and a deepening of compassion. Others are rigid and exclusive, warning of eternal punishment for those who don’t believe in the one true path to salvation, as they see it, or for those who love someone of the same sex. For the personal support the church of my childhood gave me, I remain thankful. I’m sure many conservative evangelicals today feel similar gratitude for their community. But for the damage that conservative Christianity does to people and for its perpetuation of prejudice and hate, I must reject this tradition. I believe those who teach it and preach it are doing great harm, and I in no way wish to be an ally.