Op-Ed: Religious ‘Progressives’ Can’t Have it Both Ways

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Last week, just before the Independence Day holiday, Sojourners founder Jim Wallis -- an internationally-known theologian, bestselling author, self-proclaimed “prophet,” and one of the most influential figures in progressive Christianity -- added his voice to the chorus of faith leaders weighing in on President Obama’s promised executive order that will ban federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT people in the workplace.

Wallis’ voice wasn’t added to the conversation on purpose, though; his views were revealed by BuzzFeed, which obtained a draft of a letter Wallis had penned to the President and was circulating among other religious leaders in the hopes they’d sign on.

So what is Wallis’s position on the issue? The words of the draft letter speak for themselves:

We believe that change in our churches is necessary in regard to welcoming LGBT persons and are committed to working on that. But we believe that government action in making those changes would be very counter-productive to our goals of change.

In particular, we are concerned about the real danger of handing the “tool” of religious liberty (a very legitimate issue) over to those who would use it against the LGBT community and your administration in pursuing equal protection. Faith-based organizations that have been trying to work on these issues internally would strongly react to the state telling them they must change their current beliefs publically — or no longer be eligible for federal contracts. Change is coming on the inside, but those changes could easily be reversed if they were perceived to be forced by the government…

If religious exemptions are removed, withdrawn, or seriously cut back from those in place, like in ENDA, the perception will be that your administration is attacking religious freedom and liberty… Just as freedom of speech is only meaningful if it protects all viewpoints, ensuring religious liberty must be respected for churches and faith-based organizations who believe that heterosexual marriage is the biblical norm. And the state should not require faith-based organizations to violate those beliefs in order to receive government contracts or grants.

When BuzzFeed’s Chris Geidner asked Wallis to explain the inconsistency between his liberal reputation and his belief that religion-based discrimination against LGBT people deserves special protections, he reportedly backpedaled on much of the draft letter’s contents and said that now it might not be sent at all.

Backpedaling aside, it’s clear that on LGBT workers’ rights, Wallis wants to have it both ways: he wants to be seen as an ally of the LGBT community, but he also apparently believes in the creation of a special “right” for businesses receiving federal contracts to discriminate against LGBT people on the taxpayers’ dime — until they magnanimously decide to stop, anyway.

While Wallis’s position is both a galling and insulting one for an alleged “progressive” Christian to take, it sadly isn’t surprising: this “prophetic” man could only manage a tepid statement of quasi-support for marriage equality last year — one in which he managed to never actually say he supported same-sex marriage at all. By Wallis’ own admission, he only got that far because young evangelicals forced his hand.

“Young believers, 62 percent of young evangelicals now support marriage equality,” Wallis said. And this “evolution” conveniently occurred at the precise moment when Wallis was hawking his newest book. I don’t call that “progressive” or “prophetic,” I call it blatantly opportunistic.

And that’s not even the worst of it: just one month after Wallis sorta kinda admitted that same-sex relationships deserve equal treatment, he threw LGBT couples under the bus in the battle over immigration reform. The maliciously cruel “Defense of Marriage Act,” which was still in force at the time, tore bi-national same-sex couples apart and ripped children away from their gay and lesbian parents.

But when Vermont Senator Pat Leahy proposed an amendment to the immigration reform bill that would protect such couples, Wallis opposed it, along with anti-gay groups like the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Wallis said it was the “wrong place at the wrong time" to even consider treating bi-national same-sex couples and families with dignity.

Marriage equality, immigration reform, workplace equality... Jim Wallis has managed to either fumble or drop the ball completely on virtually every major LGBT civil rights issue of the past several years. On what planet can such a person be considered a friend of the LGBT community? With “friends” like this, who needs enemies?

It’s time we send a loud and clear message to Jim Wallis-style “progressive” Christians: no more. When it comes to LGBT rights, you can’t have it both ways. You either fully support our equality — in all areas of civil society, without religious exemptions -- or you don’t get to call yourself an LGBT ally. The choice is yours.


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