Hug an Evangelical

I’ve argued often that gay marriage should be legal and that conservative Christians should show a tad more divine love for homosexuals.

But there’s a corollary. If liberals demand that the Christian right show more tolerance for gays and lesbians, then liberals need to be more respectful of conservative Christians.

One of the most ferocious divides today is that between evangelical and secular America. Some conservative Christians are all too quick to sentence outsiders to hell. And liberals denounce stereotypes of Muslims but not of “Christian nuts.”

It’s encouraging that the right is less hostile to gays and lesbians than it used to be. President Bush argued in his 1994 run for governor that gay sex should be illegal, while now he feels comfortable hitting up gays for campaign contributions.

On the other hand, the left seems more contemptuous than ever of evangelicals. Sensitive liberals who avoid expressions like “ghetto blaster,” because that might be racially offensive, blithely dismiss conservative Christians as “Jesus freaks” or “fanatics.”

Take Ted Turner. He has called Christianity a “religion for losers” and once ridiculed CNN employees observing Ash Wednesday as “Jesus freaks.” Later, he apologized.

Then there are the T-shirts: “So Many Right-Wing Christians . . . So Few Lions.”

Of course, it’s fair to criticize the Christian right’s policies. Regular readers know I do so all the time, for religion is much too important an influence on policy to be a taboo. For example, while we’re on the subject of gay marriage, one question for fundamentalist Christians is this: What’s your basis for opposing lesbianism?

Granted, the Bible denounces male homosexuality, although it strikes me as inconsistent not to execute people who work on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2) and not to crack down on those who get haircuts (Leviticus 19:27) or wear clothes with more than one kind of thread (Leviticus 19:19).

But there’s no clear objection in the Bible to lesbianism at all. And since some fundamentalists have argued that AIDS is God’s punishment for gay men, it’s worth noting that lesbians are at less risk of AIDS than straight women. So if God is smiting gay men for their sin, is he rewarding lesbians for their holiness?

Those kinds of pointed questions are fair, but sneering is not. And in polite society, conservative Christians — especially Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses — are among the last groups it’s still acceptable to mock.

That scorn is deeply resented. A poll this month found that three-quarters of evangelicals believe “the mass media is hostile,” and nearly half agreed that “evangelical Christians are looked down upon by most Americans.”

This resentment is global. In a Tyndale Lecture in England last year, Cristina Odone complained: “The chattering classes . . . pride themselves on being tolerant. . . . Yet they share one prejudice that turns them into rabid persecutors: Christians.”

There’s also an odd lack of intellectual curiosity within the secular left about the Christian right. After 9/11, intellectuals rushed out to buy books about Islam. But on many campuses, it’s easier to find people who can discuss the Upanishads than the “Left Behind” books about Jesus’ Second Coming — which, with more than 40 million copies, are the best-selling American novels of our age. To be worldly, one should understand not only Tibetan Buddhism but also red-state Pentecostalism.

Liberals often protest that they would have nothing against conservative Christians if they were not led by hypocritical blowhards who try to impose their Ten Commandments plaques, sexual mores and creationism on society. But that’s a crude stereotype, and it ignores the Christian right’s accomplishments. Polls show that evangelical Christians are more likely to contribute to charities that help the needy, and in horror spots in Africa Catholics and other Christians are the bulwark of the health care system.

Moreover, saying that one will tolerate evangelicals who do not evangelize — well, that’s like Christians saying they have nothing against gays who remain celibate.

It’s always easy to point out the intolerance of others. What’s harder is to practice inclusiveness oneself. And bigotry toward people based on their faith is just as repugnant as bigotry toward people based on their sexuality. 

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The New York Times, USA
Apr. 24, 2004 Opinion
Nicholas D. Kristof

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday April 24, 2004.
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