(This article was originally published in HuffPost Religion here.)
In the most recent presidential debate, Donald Trump stated that, if elected president, he would appoint Supreme Court justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia. Those familiar with religious liberty arguments and the gay rights movement will remember that Scalia expanded the definition of religious liberty more than any other justice since the 1960s and vehemently opposed gay rights.
To social conservatives, religious liberty has become a code word for opposing LGBTQ rights, often by suing to allow businesses to deny service to LGBTQ customers. At the Values Voter Summit last month, Trump promised:
(In) a Trump administration, our Christian heritage will be cherished, protected, defended, like you’ve never seen before… and that includes religious liberty – remember, remember.
That means businesses turning away LGBTQ persons in the name of religion.
In my home state of Arizona, representatives from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) suggest that religious liberty entitles business owners to deny service to same sex couples on religious grounds. ADF defended the business owners, two women who self-identify as Christians and sell customized art used in weddings. The owners are suing the City of Phoenix, claiming that the city’s anti-discrimination law, requiring their business to serve same sex couples, is a violation of their religious liberty.
I used to see this issue similarly to Alliance Defending Freedom, but I changed my mind.
I grew up in a conservative evangelical Christian home in the 1980s, with my views of the Bible, politics, and the LGBTQ community formed by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. While a student in high school, however, I discovered that two of my close friends were gay. Confusing to me, they simply did not fit the description that had been given to me by Religious Right televangelists, and I struggled to make sense of my religious views in light of my friendships.
After several years of dissonance between my fundamentalist upbringing and my life experience, I began seeking answers to the questions I had sidestepped earlier. My questions pertained to the authorship of the Bible and to the influence of ancient culture upon it. My search eventually led me to affirm the dignity and rights of same sex couples, and the church I founded welcomes same sex couples in full inclusion. The questions I asked then apply directly to the current debate surrounding religious liberty in America, and there are at least two points I believe Christians must consider.
First, in contrast to the view of the Bible I had been taught as a child, that the Bible was essentially written by God and that apparent contradictions could be harmonized to make the Bible read like a logically airtight divine term paper, I began to see the human influence on the Bible. In fact, the Bible is a collection of books written by various authors, more like a library than a term paper, and no one would expect the works in a library to agree with one another on every topic. While some may smugly assume their own view to be correct, the truth is that, within Christianity, there is a spectrum of views on God’s role in the inspiration of Scripture. An honest reading of the various biblical books and the existence of differing interpretations requires us to be humble when we interpret the Bible, recognizing that Christians throughout history have disagreed on important issues.
Second, regarding same sex relationships, compared to the level of controversy in our culture, the Bible says shockingly little about them. There are over 31,000 verses in the Bible — only six or seven of those appear to condemn same-sex relationships. Commonly called “clobber passages” because of their unfortunate misuse, they are informed by an understanding of sexuality common in the ancient world but different from our understanding in the 21st century Developed World. In contrast, over 2,000 verses in the Bible speak directly to the injustice of poverty. Those who seek to make laws based on the Bible would do well to begin by legislating economic equity.
In contrast to the current popular use of the term, the traditional American understanding of religious liberty has meant that we are each free to hold our own religious views without infringing upon the rights of others. In light of our history, this definition makes perfect sense. The pilgrims who settled the earliest American colonies were religious separatists who immigrated to the New World to escape a theocracy in which they were punished for not worshiping in the state sponsored Church of England. To them, religious liberty meant that they could practice their own religion instead of being forced to practice the religion of the state.
Thus far, courts have ruled that religious liberty does not entitle a business owner to deny service to a population. American religious liberty does mean, however, that Christian business owners have the freedom to wrestle with issues of biblical interpretation according to their own consciences, as long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others. In fact, it is the American concept of religious liberty that gave me the freedom to change my mind and lead the church I founded to welcome and serve same sex couples.