These are the concessions Christians should make on religious freedom laws
I've repeatedly defended Indiana's controversial new religious freedom law, and have been a pointed critic of its opponents. (Though the opponents seem to have won a small victory; on Thursday, Indiana lawmakers seemed to back down somewhat to progressive critics who said the law would discriminate against gay people.) But I also think the current fight is, if you'll pardon the expression, a come-to-Jesus moment for Christian conservatives.
First, let's consider how this debate must sound to many people who do not share our socially conservative perspective. These liberals have fought with us — or really against us — over the legal status of same-sex relationships for more than two decades. In many cases, they were the parties to those committed same-sex relationships.
When we appeared to have the upper hand, as late as when George W. Bush was reelected in 2004, or even when the top three Democratic presidential candidates all opposed same-sex marriage in 2008, we didn't want to compromise. Now that we've lost — and I suspect the depth of that loss has only begun to dawn on Heartland religious conservatives — we're saying, "But wait, what about our freedom?"
Given what we know about human nature, we really shouldn't be surprised that our liberal opponents are unmoved.
The Christian right has always been a multifaceted political movement animated by many things, including a commitment to defending human life in its earliest stages. But broadly speaking, Christian conservatives have tried to do two things: carve out a space to exercise their own faith privately and in the public square, and uphold certain public moral standards.
Sometimes the moral crusades were launched in explicitly Christian terms, such as D. James Kennedy's Center for Reclaiming America for Christ. Other times they spoke the language of family values and airwaves decency: Concerned Women for America, the Moral Majority, Morality in Media (since changed to the National Center on Sexual Exploitation).
We've had some success on the religious liberty front, conserving an active role for faith in politics. But we've almost completely failed on the public morality front, and that failure is starting to endanger our other successes.
The actual effect of RFRA bills like Indiana's will largely be up to the courts. Individuals will always be able to make whatever claims they want, but judicial interpretations will be heavily influenced by conservative Christian organizations' litigation, especially in conservative states.
We have every right to defend our religious liberty and stay true to our beliefs about marriage. But we don't have a right to be free from everything we disagree with or that offends us. It's not even possible to have businesses that withhold service from sinners, because we are sinners ourselves. Such a standard would require having zero customers.
Conservative Christians should focus their RFRA-related resources on defending people who can reasonably be described as being compelled to participate in marriage celebrations or ceremonies contrary to their faith. We shouldn't expend any resources on behalf of the inevitable fast food restaurant manager, egged on by misleading media coverage, who refuses to serve hamburgers to a gay couple.
Jesus spent time with prostitutes, drunkards, and tax collectors. That makes it hard to argue we are called to make sure only the most righteous people we can find get a Frosty.
While we should not surrender on that which we believe, nor capitulate on religious liberty, we need to think long and hard about the tensions between the culture war and the Great Commission. Christianity is about much more than sex, but many think its teachings boil down to, "Thou shalt not be gay."
As evidenced by Nicholas Kristof's recent sympathetic column in The New York Times, many secular liberal Americans don't know that much about Christianity — especially in its more conservative forms — other than the political. This matters for much more than PR purposes, if you genuinely believe what happens in this life has eternal implications.
Conservatives in my own United Methodist Church are talking schism because of noncompliance with the denomination's teachings on marriage and homosexuality — teachings that are unlikely to be changed in the foreseeable future in the absence of a schism.
Those are important issues. But these conservatives have stayed in the church throughout its membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and while it had bishops denying the divinity of Christ.
I'm not arguing for trying to mollify unappeasable political opponents. Scripture doesn't promise Christians cultural and political preeminence wherever they happen to live, and this week is as good a time as any to remember that people have suffered more for their faith than having to miss out on the revenue generated by junkets from Connecticut.
But there is more to being true to ourselves than not baking a cake.