As a committed Christian and a queer atheist who both work to advance interfaith and intercultural understanding, we’ve watched with heavy hearts as Sojourners and its evangelical founder Jim Wallis have been taken to task in the blogosphere this week for declining to run an advertisement sponsored by Believe Out Loud, an organization committed to full LGBTQ equality in Christian churches. The overwhelming reaction so far has mostly consisted of resounding condemnation, including from many people we both know and deeply respect.
The advertisement at the heart of this controversy links to a video featuring two lesbian women slowly walking their son down the center aisle of a church on Mother’s Day, past the judgmental stares of parishioners barely disguising their discomfort and contempt. From the front of the church the pastor says, “Welcome. Everyone.” simultaneously addressing the congregation’s silent judgment and creating a safe place for two mothers and their child.
At first blush, anger and disbelief at Sojourners‘ decision not to run the advertisement seems more than justifiable. After all, what decent human being could oppose welcoming a lesbian couple and their son into a church — on Mother’s Day no less? By declining the ad, it follows, the historically progressiveSojourners must have adopted a stance against welcoming gay people into churches. Furthermore, they clearly do not support LGBTQ rights. Right?
Unfortunately, this interpretation of Sojourners‘ decision and the resulting controversy is a gigantic oversimplification. It ignores Sojourners‘ public stance on LGBTQ inclusion, decades-long history ofdefending equal protection under the law for LGBTQ individuals and couples, support for civil-unions, call for the repeal of DADT and Jim Wallis’ personal participation in anti-bullying campaigns this past fall. Just as troubling, it also ignores the deeper issues at the heart of this controversy, stemming from cavernous divisions within the Christian world.
Within global Christianity, many, if not most, churches — even those welcoming gay people — still believe that this welcome should not extend to ordaining gay people as ministers or having their churches bless gay unions. Sojourners‘ big tent includes moderate to conservative evangelicals and Catholics who hold these views. Nevertheless, the organization has made huge inroads with these communities on issues of poverty, war and environmental degradation because of their strong commitment to pursuing scriptural integrity and maintaining biblical authority.
Sadly we live in a world where there are real bigots, too-many of them evangelical Christians, who actively oppose LGBTQ rights in the public arena. For this reason, to use this controversy as an opportunity to argue that Jim Wallis — who has said that true Christians have a duty to stand between homophobic bullies and the Matthew Shepards of this world — is against equal protection under the law for LGBTQ individuals and couples, or that he would oppose welcoming two mothers and their son into the pews of his church, is as misguided as it is counterproductive.
Those who question the integrity of an organization that adopts a moderate position make it more difficult for many evangelicals to find common ground with the LGBTQ community, in the same way that bullying tactics used by conservative organizations like Focus on the Family under the leadership of James Dobson made it difficult for many of our queer friends to ever believe that they could build authentic relationships with or find common cause with evangelicals.
The fact that we, a queer atheist and an evangelical Christian, are friends is evidence that it is possible to overcome the divisions between our tribes. Though we’re both from Minnesota (at one point, we lived less than a mile apart) our paths never crossed until years later. Why didn’t we meet? Because we both ran in different circles. While one of us attended a conservative Christian college, the other was an atheist disinterested in engaging with religious people. But we met years later because we both identified a value in fostering relationships with those who hold radically different worldviews. And along the way we learned that people’s hearts and minds — including our own — are transformed through relationships across lines of difference.
We don’t actually wish to defend Sojourners‘ decision not to run the ad. Nor do we intend to diminish the important work of Believe Out Loud. But we would like to defend Sojourners‘ right as an organization — especially one with a theologically and politically diverse constituency, who must walk an unenviable tightrope to broker relationships among an unprecedented diversity of Christian organizations and denominations with fundamental theological disagreements about what “full LGBTQ equality in the church” means — to make the kind of decisions necessary to hold their constituency together and advance their mission of seeking out common ground and mobilizing for social justice. We may not always agree with every decision an organization makes, but those disagreements shouldn’t eclipse the important work an organization like Sojourners has done and will continue to do, especially when the question here is not about whether Sojourners agrees that Christians should be welcoming but a question of their ad policy.
Both of us understand how emotionally charged this issue is for people on all sides. One of us has watched many friends and loved ones grapple with their sexuality within the walls of a conservative evangelical college, and now leads a national movement of young evangelicals. The other secretly struggled for years as a closeted, suicidal queer kid in a Christian youth group, and is today very active in queer dialogues around these issues and works to bridge the divide between the religious and the nonreligious. Because of our experiences, we both know how important resources that promote alternate perspectives on LGBTQ identity are of utmost consequence.
But we also agree that it is fundamentally important to foster desperately needed dialogue between the LGBTQ and evangelical Christian communities. The only way real progress will be made is if we seek out relationships with people who have different views than we do.
In a time when people in our neighborhoods and around the world are suffering and dying because of homophobia — from LGBTQ students bullied in our schools, to homeless youth sleeping in our streets, to the many individuals who live under daily threat of violence all around the world — we need to prioritize building coalitions to combat intolerance and injustice. These coalitions will need to include people who disagree on issues of theology and LGBTQ identity.
The two of us may be very different — a heterosexual man committed to Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior and a queer atheist who spends his spare Sunday mornings dreaming up new tattoos — but we share something more significant than our differences: a common desire to see compassion and reconciliation in the world between people of all religious and nonreligious perspectives. Sadly, controversies like these make it more difficult, rather than easier, to build these bridges and participate in the important work of healing the world’s bitter divisions.
We trust that Sojourners and Jim Wallis know this, and attempts to publicly shame them for trying to build broad coalitions make their job, and all of our jobs, that much harder.
Chris Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Managing Director of State of Formation, a new initiative at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. Chris received an MA in Religion from Meadville Lombard Theological School at the University of Chicago, for which he was awarded the Billings Prize for Most Outstanding Scholastic Achievement. A graduate of Augsburg College with a summa cum laude B.A. in Religion, Chris is the founder and author of the blog NonProphet Status. He is a panelist for The Washington Post On Faith, and his writing has also appeared in venues such as The Journal of College and Character, Tikkun Daily, The New Humanism, and more. Previously a Content Developer and Adjunct Trainer for the Interfaith Youth Core, Chris is a secular humanist working to foster positive and productive dialogue between faith communities and the nonreligious. He is currently writing a book on this for Beacon Press and speaks on it regularly both by invitation and as a member of the Secular Student Alliance Speakers Bureau. Chris also serves on the Leadership Team of the Common Ground Campaign, a coalition of young people standing up in response to the recent wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence violence in the U.S., on the Board of Directors ofWorld Faith, and as an advisor to the Foundation Beyond Belief‘s Challenge the Gapinitiative. Portland, Oregon’s GLBT newspaper Just Out called his work “brilliant” and labeled him an “emerging vibrant and youthful queer voice for the secular humanist movement.”