Debates and discussions about Rod Dreher’s forthcoming book The Benedict Option have been popping up across my various social media streams. It is not my place (nor does it lie within my power) to discern the authenticity of another person’s assessment of their own vocation. Indeed, throughout history, God has always called some Christians to the desert, both metaphorical and actual, and others to the city. I suspect God continues to do the same today.
Rather than responding to a book I have not read, I would like to alleviate the fears that Dreher has expressed in blog posts and interviews. Dreher writes to prepare orthodox Christians (a group distinguished primarily by their support for what he terms “traditional marriage”) for a future in which their views are marginalized and their livelihoods threatened. Positioning gay rights and orthodox Christian liberty as fundamentally opposed entities, Dreher depicts them hurtling inevitably on a course of disastrous collision. According to this view, what one group gains in both protection from the state and acceptance from “the” culture, the other loses.
But, especially as portrayed in Dreher’s writing, the future Dreher fears for orthodox Christians looks a lot like LGBT people’s lived reality. LGBT people of all religious backgrounds hold much in common with orthodox Christians.
Dreher fears that someday Christians who express public opposition to gay marriage will encounter “hostile work conditions, including dismissal from your job.” LGBT people know this fear well. Verbally abused at nearly every type of workplace and job site, LGBT people have been fired for their jobs solely for failing or refusing to hide their gayness or transgender status. More than simply unprotected by the law, LGBT people have often been explicitly targeted by it. Entire municipalities in fact passed resolutions barring them from seeking certain forms of employment. Still today, in many states employers can fire LGBT folks at will.
Dreher fears that someday Christians who express public opposition to gay marriage will incur “all the legal sanctions that now apply to people who openly express racist views.”* LGBT people already know what it’s like to be denigrated and verbally abused upon stepping out of the closet. Many LGBT people still live as pariahs; largely for this reason, LGBT youth suffer disproportionately high rates of both homelessness and suicidal self-harm.
Dreher fears that that orthodox Christians will not be allowed to own businesses unless they submit to serving LGBT customers. But LGBT people of all religious backgrounds already know what it’s like to serve, live beside, and save the lives of people who openly espouse homophobic views. Orthodox Christians want the state to enshrine their right to refuse service to LGBT people, but open, un-closeted LGBT people already know what it’s like to have customers and clients refuse to patronize their shops and businesses.
Dreher perhaps most fears that someday progressive Christians “far in the future, should police come looking for dissident orthodox Christians hiding out from state persecution, the Rachel Held Evanses of the world will point helpfully and patriotically, and say, ‘They’re in the basement, officer.’” LGBT people have already lived this fear as well: those who dared to gather in public spaces have been hunted and harassed by police officers and other state agents.
LGBT people perhaps understand orthodox Christians’ fears even better than they do: the reality that LGBT people have already lived in fact proves much worse than the future Dreher fears. In addition to being fired, ridiculed, and hunted by state agents, LGBT people continue to endure evils that do not appear even in Dreher’s worst nightmares such as being beaten and killed, ostracized from and even kicked out of their families of origin, denied housing, unable to visit sick partners in hospitals, and disinherited. Dreher fears that orthodox Christians will lose the liberty to express themselves in public, but LGBT people have sometimes lacked the right to express themselves even in private. Subjected to arrest in their homes late at night for having sex in private, LGBT people have been beaten and attacked by family members in the homes that no longer provided them safe haven.
If LGBT people in this country experience less mistreatment today than in years past, it is in large part because they both need less protection from the culture and receive more protection from the state.
I want this same protection and acceptance for orthodox Christians like Dreher, should they become an endangered minority. I do not want orthodox Christians to experience any of the injustices inflicted upon LGBT people. I do not want people like Mr. Dreher to be ostracized from or shunned by their families of origin simply for announcing their intentions to marry a person of another gender/sex and remain faithful to her for life. I do not want people like him to have to leave their spouses at home when attending important family functions like weddings, birthdays, or funerals.
I do not want people like Mr. Dreher to be reduced to hollow stereotypes or punchlines in television and film; I want their humanity to be portrayed in all its messy and beautiful complexity.
I do not want him to have to hear religious authorities proclaiming that his opposite-gender, monogamous, and lifelong marriage will send him to Hell. I do not want people like him to ever fear, even for a moment, that they have to choose between membership in their chosen religious communities and their relationship with their spouse. I do not ever want them to be refused the right to adopt children or make end of life health care decision for his spouse in the event that (God forbid) she become incapacitated.
I do not want him to have to be afraid of expressing even the smallest sign of spousal affection in public out of a fear that in drawing attention to the heterosexual nature of his relationship, he many place himself at risk of being screamed at, beaned, or killed.
I want him to continue believing his sexual orientation “not constitutive of who [he] is” because society does not treat it as such. I want him to continue experiencing his sexual attraction to women as something obvious and normal.
Demonstrating the sincerity of these desires, I pledge the following to orthodox Christians:
If an employer fires you upon discovering that you are married to one woman and intend to remain so until death parts you, I will protest on your behalf.
If opponents of heterosexual, monogamous, and lifelong marriage single out people like you as targets, slurring, beating, and killing you, I will defend your dignity as an image-bearer of God. I will rage against your abusers. I will advocate that the laws be changed to recognize you as a special class, worthy of protection.
If members of your same sex unleash a campaign of corrective rape aimed at changing your sexual orientation, I will fight so that your attackers be punished to the full extent of the law.
If police officers start treating orthodox Christians like they do disproportionately black victims of the war on drugs or undocumented immigrants, barging into your houses with no-knock warrants served by SWAT teams or middle of the night raids waged by ICE agents hauling you away to unknown detention centers, I will protest your incarceration as I do theirs.
If your families of origin shun you or refuse to accept your spouses as full members of their families, I will work to change their minds. If that fails, I will make sure you and your always have a seat at my table on Thanksgiving or Christmas. If unorthodox parents kick orthodox Christians out on the streets, forcing them to choose between sex work and homelessness, I will fund charities that provide teenaged orthodox Christians a warm meal and a place to stay.
Of course, Dreher does not fear that orthodox Christians will be in any harmed for selecting a spouse in accordance with their sexual orientation or participating in a heterosexual, monogamous, and lifelong marriage. He fears only that orthodox Christians will somehow be punished for expressing their opposition to gay marriage in public. Put another way, Dreher resists a future in which orthodox Christians will have to selectively hide their true identity from certain employers, family members, and neighbors like LGBT people do. But recent history already proves that the legalization and cultural acceptance of gay marriage need not deprive orthodox Christians of even this right.
After all, the rights to divorce and re-marry have long been protected by the state and accepted by “the culture.” Yet the rise of divorce and re-marriage has not led to the persecution of those orthodox Christians who condemn these practices as immoral.**
In fact, while gay marriage has existed as a legal reality for a little over a decade, generations of Christians have grown up in a society in which divorce was common and often celebrated. Further positioning divorce and re-marriage as singular threats to orthodox Christian liberty, divorce and re-marriage occur much more frequently than gay marriage does. American culture has been gleefully flaunting the norms of orthodox Christianity for decades: divorced and re-married people have been completely normalized, they are routinely featured (and often portrayed sympathetically) on TV shows and movies. The United States has in fact elected two divorced and remarried people–Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump– as president.
Despite the grave threat that divorce and remarriage poses to orthodox Christianity, orthodox Christians have been baking cakes for second marriages without complaint for decade; they have enjoyed television shows and movies that portray divorce and remarriage as normal.
Dreher recognizes as much when he decries “LGBT activism [as] the tip of the spear at our throats in the culture war.” But in attempting to prove that orthodox Christians are not obsessed with LGBT people, Dreher ends up admitting that orthodox Christians are in fact obsessed with LGBT people. Dreher’s analogy would exonerate orthodox Christianity of any special anti-gay bias if it conformed to the facts. In truth, however, the legalization and cultural acceptance of divorce long preceded any substantive gains made by the LGBT rights movement. Following the logic of Dreher’s analogy, LGBT rights would seem to be the caboose on the freight train steam-rolling orthodox Christian liberty, not its engine.
Yet as Dreher’s own writing attests, orthodox Christians only recently began fearing a future in which they were treated like racists.
To Progressives, this seems like an unfair double-standard. One wonders why orthodox Christian entrepreneurs yearn for the right to fire only LGBT employees and not also divorced and re-married ones? Why do orthodox Christians assert the right to decline service to LGBT customers but not divorced and remarried ones? Why do orthodox Christians fear that priests will be forced to preside over marriages between LGBT people but not divorced ones? Why do orthodox Christians fear the violence transwomen might someday inflict upon cis gender women in public bathrooms but express nary a peep of concern about the well-documented and nearly routine violence transwomen endure in men’s bathrooms?
This discrepancy does not reflect LGBT people’s status as the first line of attack. If traditional marriage refers to a union that is not just heterosexual, but lifelong, then orthodox Christians should have been sounding the retreat eighty years ago. But they did not.
But perhaps these questions achieve less than we think they do. Maybe orthodox Christians’ uniquely intense concern about gay rights teaches a different, more important lesson. Rather than pointing out what appear to be hypocrisies among orthodox Christians or asking how they will survive a future in which they are treated like racists (let’s also hope for a future in which racists are treated like “racists”), perhaps we should be asking why the rise of divorce and re-marriage has not led to the persecution of those orthodox Christians who oppose it. Would the answer to this question not provide a path forward?
Legalized divorce did not jeopardize the liberty of orthodox Christians in large part due to the fact that divorced and re-married people and their allies know that they are safe and secure. With rare exceptions, divorced people are not fired from their jobs, ostracized from their families of origin, or stigmatized as a degraded class. They certainly are not singled out for violence: people do not roam city streets and rural byways looking to victimize divorced people like they do lesbians, gays, and transgender people especially. Divorced people quite simply are not a class in need of protection in the way that LGBT people are.
For these reasons, those who express public opposition to divorce inflict relatively little harm on actual divorced people. In contrast, those who express public opposition to gay rights often help to legitimize violence upon an already disproportionately violated group of people, regardless of their conscious intentions. This holds especially true given that Dreher sometimes seems to desire not just the right to express these opinions freely, but also that society return to a time in which these views constituted the norm. But as Dreher admits, the orthodox Christian past proved quite bleak for LGBT people of all religious backgrounds.
So does the orthodox Christian present. Indeed, all across the globe, a clear pattern emerges: places in which orthodox Christianity predominates both politically and culturally simultaneously qualify as places in which LGBT people enjoy limited access to human flourishing. Arguing that the world is now against orthodox Christians because it is no longer against LGBT folks, Dreher implies that orthodox Christian liberty necessarily would come at the expense of LGBT people’s lives.
No wonder some people harbor negative opinions about orthodox Christianity and doubt the contribution it makes to the common good.
Falsely locating it as “the tip of the spear,” Dreher argues that the gay rights movement will inflict a mortal wound upon orthodox Christianity. But it is that very gay rights movement that made it possible not just for LGBT people to enjoy unprecedented access to human flourishing, but also for him to admonish orthodox Christians to “own up” to their anti-gay past. What once seemed radical–that gay sex should not be criminalized or that LGBT people should be allowed to gather together in bars and meeting-houses–was pushed to the moral center only by the Herculean effort of the very gay rights activists Dreher condemns. Social conservatives did not meet the gay rights movement in this moral middle; they were dragged there.
Dreher exaggerates the threat that gay rights pose to orthodox Christian liberty because he misunderstands the source of their success. Dreher often bundles all of the products of what he terms “the sexual revolution” into one fetid package. Surely our country’s changing sexual mores have enabled certain people not just to self-indulge, but also to exploit and dominate others. But is this really why gay rights have acquired newfound support? Rather than turning their backs on “traditional marriage,” it seems more correct to say that most people have turned towards LGBT people. Indeed, more people desire the flourishing of LGBT people than ever before in this country’s history. Surely, Dreher thinks this is a good thing.
But even though Dreher implicitly depicts orthodox Christianity as bad news for LGBT people, gay rights do not have to be bad news for orthodox Christians. As demonstrated by the decades-old reality of legalized and culturally accepted divorce, the world need not be once again hostile towards LGBT folks in order to remain hospitable to orthodox Christians.
Rather than continuing on a course of panic, anger, or anti-gay actions, orthodox Christians can better safeguard their right to “publicly express opposition to gay marriage” without fear of being fired, arrested, or driven out of business by working towards a reality in which LGBT people enjoy the security and safety that divorced people do. If orthodox Christians begin to treat LGBT people the way they currently treat divorced people, then it seems likely that progressives would treat orthodox Christians the way they currently treat people who condemn divorce.
Dreher can do even more to secure the liberty of orthodox Christians living in parts of the world in which they no longer comprise the political or cultural majority by working to awaken the consciences of those who still do. Orthodox Christianity ought to “own up” not just to its anti-gay past, but to its anti-gay present as well. The historical injustices Dreher laments continue to occur still today. Dreher encourages other orthodox Christians to disengage/pull away from a society that will not let them speak freely, but what about those LGBT people who cannot hide from the orthodox Christians who remain in control?
Let’s continue to debate and wrestle over the shared Christian faith we both love. But let’s also move forward.
Will orthodox Christians like Dreher pledge to do for LGBT people of all religious backgrounds what I have pledged to do for orthodox Christians?
*Here I do think Dreher overestimates the difficulty such people have in participating in public life. In addition to narrowing the definition of “racist views” so that it captures only the most egregious and explicit instances of it, Dreher ignores the fact that “expressing racist views” in fact helped our current president win the election and did nothing to keep our current attorney general from assuming office. Come to think of it, Presidents Reagan and H.W. Bush too “openly expressed racist views” as a part of a winning electoral strategy. This admission says nothing of the many racist policies and practices that still structure our country. It is admittedly much easier to preserve a racist status quo than express racist views. But then again, one would think that a racist would willingly sacrifice the latter if it allowed her to hang on to the latter. If orthodox Christians will soon be treated like those who “openly express racist views,” (see, for example, attorney general Jeff Sessions) they should have no problem seizing the reigns of political power.
** Here I am not denying the marginalization divorced and re-married people experience within the Catholic church with respect to access to the Eucharist and employment in Catholic institutions.