Freedom of Conscience, Christianity, and the LGBT Ordinance

By Wayne Schow

This op-ed piece appeared in the Idaho State Journal on Sunday, May 4. Subsequently, in a referendum vote on May 20 Pocatellans narrowly defeated the effort to rescind the anti-discrimination ordinance. The population of Pocatello is roughly 50% Mormon.

Let me see if I understand this correctly.   Many of those who wish to rescind Pocatello’s LGBT Antidiscrimination Ordinance would do so in the name of preserving religious liberty and freedom of belief.  It can be safely assumed that the overwhelming majority of these Pocatellans so motivated adhere to one or another Christian faith.

In the abstract, defending freedom of belief is unquestionably a noble ideal, one that Americans should wish to preserve.  But one may fairly inquire about the basis of such religiously-based conviction—and particularly in this case ask whether the conscientious beliefs held in the name of Christianity are, in fact, at all consistent with the fundamental tenets of that faith as contained in the canonical gospels.  If the opponents of the Ordinance base their act of conscience on an inconsistent, incongruous reading of scripture, if their position misses the central thrust of the moral teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, then at best they promote an outcome unworthy of their professed faith; at worst they exemplify a self-righteous hypocrisy that should be an embarrassment to them.

The words of Jesus as they are reported to us in the Bible are in some respects paradoxical, even at times seemingly contradictory—he was after all as a teacher a spiritual provocateur.  But if we read the gospels holistically and attempt to identify the message that characterizes them centrally and predominantly, it is surely this:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  “So in everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.”

And then he gave us two sublime examples to illustrate these commandments.  Luke 10: 29-37:  When a lawyer, to tempt Jesus, asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered him with the familiar parable of the good Samaritan.  A Jew on a journey fell among thieves, who left him wounded and half dead.  A priest and then a Levite (of a priestly heritage) came upon him, but both quickly passed by, apparently unsympathetic or unwilling to become involved with him.  But then came by a Samaritan, of a people generally scorned by the Jews, a man who had every reason to feel animosity toward the Jews in return.  In pointed contrast to the others, the Samaritan compassionately bound up the wounds of the unfortunate man in need, and provided the means for his extended  recovery.  “Which now of these three thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves?”  asked Jesus.

His point: EVERYONE IS OUR NEIGHBOR!  They don’t have to belong to our tribe.  They don’t have to be like us.  Even if they are “the other,” they are our neighbors.   Our common humanity is the bond.  And particularly when they are in need it is our moral responsibility to succor them.  You don’t first ask, “How is this to my advantage?”  You don’t ask, “Can this be an opportunity to make ‘the other’ more like me (or my group)?”  You don’t ask, “Shall I ignore this person’s need because I am better than he?”   It’s not about “me”; it’s not about “my prejudices.”  It’s about removing stones from the path of, removing burdens from the back of, the one in need.  It’s about securing fairness for him or her.   That’s what you do for a neighbor, whoever she or he is.

In John 8: 3-11, the scribes and Pharisees, strict constructionists of the Hebraic law whom Jesus on occasion denounced as hypocrites, brought to him a woman taken in adultery and asked if they should stone her to death, as prescribed in the law.  His answer: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”  And we know the outcome, her accusers were ashamed, “convicted by their own conscience,” and they silently stole away.  “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more,” he said.  Note that though he advised her to amend her life, he did so without condemnation, compassionately.  He was not certainly recommending adultery, but he recognized a woman in great need, not just because her very life was about to be lost, but more subtly because she needed to be understood and accepted—and he addressed that need unhesitatingly, bravely, selflessly.

Who among “his neighbors” did Jesus find to be in need?  Generally speaking, his compassion focused on those marginalized in society, those not part of the hard-line religious establishment—the poor, the blind and lame, lepers, tax collectors, adulterers and other sinners.  His love and caring for them was spontaneous and genuine.  He did not require any of them to pass a litmus test of “worthiness” in order to qualify.

The intent of Pocatello’s LGBT Anti-discrimination Ordinance is to address legitimate “needs” of a significant group of our neighbors.  They have been unfairly stigmatized and marginalized like few others in our society.  They are members of our families, they are our friends, our co-workers.  And their legitimate needs are among the most basic felt by humans: the need for reliable shelter, for gainful employment fairly earned, and (what could be more humanly shared than this) the need from time to time to find a restroom.   Finally, underlying all of these, the need for fairness and acknowledgement of our common humanity.

What, indeed, would Jesus’ words and example say about this situation!  Are those so ready to judge and condemn this significant minority themselves worthy to cast the first stone?  Ought they not to remove first the beam from their own eye?
But didn’t Jesus say, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” and doesn’t that justify those who say (ingenuously), “I love homosexuals but I hate their lifestyle” (which lifestyle, pray tell, among many is that?)?   Doesn’t that justify them in saying something like, “I don’t want to photograph a gay wedding or provide the bridal couple with a wedding cake or wedding flowers [just to trot out the usual fearful examples] because their lives are ‘other’ in ways that offend my religious sensibilities”?

Well, in the first place, it was Mohandas Gandhi, not Jesus, who said “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”  But here’s what I think Jesus would say to them in response (and I paraphrase):  “Haven’t you been paying attention.  You’re missing the point.  It’s not about YOU and YOUR precious, self-righteous sensibilities.   Get over yourself.   It’s about recognizing your moral obligations to a neighbor.  It’s about recognizing his or her need for fairness and justice and about YOUR addressing that need helpfully.  At bottom, it’s about genuinely loving that neighbor.  And don’t be a hypocrite about love.  Don’t call it love if you’re more focused on yourself and are actually placing obstacles in your neighbor’s path.  Do I need to explain to you again about the Sadducees and the Pharisees?”

Let’s see if I’ve got this right.  Those who profess to follow Jesus must show by word and deed that they see their LGBT fellow citizens as neighbors in legitimate need, and that they are willing to respond as love and our common humanity require.  They cannot hide behind a smoke screen of a corrupted and illogical appeal to freedom of conscience or to a patent misreading of the Bible.  If they are honest and thoughtful about their bedrock Christian persuasions, they’ll see that they must support the Ordinance or, like the accusers of the adulterous woman, stand convicted by their own conscience.

Finally, to all those who understand these fundamentals of Christian morality, you cannot stay at home on the day of the referendum vote, passively on the sidelines as it were.  To do so is to be like the priest and the Levite.  You have a responsibility.  Your moral obligation is clear.  Your goodness can only be apparent if you show up at the polls and vote to support our LGBT sisters and brothers, OUR NEIGHBORS, by voting NO on the referendum.

–H. Wayne Schow

April 2014