Last week, my sister tore off the front bumper of her car leaving a parking lot. We were able to hoist it back into place with a few bungee cords, but the car has other serious problems: It’s old, riddled with dents and has an engine that might implode at any minute. The bungee-cord fix will keep it running for a short while, but my sister’s car is in desperate need of some serious tinkering. She may just need to buy a new car.
All of this was happening as I read about Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the debates surrounding it. Religion’s presence in public discussion of late has hardly been a positive one. The subject of extremism and discrimination fill national and international issues alike. Indiana and other states’ RFRAs are the most recent manifestations of public scrutiny.
The law was denounced as a go-ahead for religious groups to discriminate against LGBT people. Both sides of the aisle have fanned the flames of the debate, either through asserting a right to religious objection or a competing civic right.
Unfortunately, most people taking up airwaves and column inches are ignoring the complexity of this issue. We’ve been down this road many times; the Rev.John Courtney Murray, S.J. recognized the crux of the problem in an article for America magazine in 1963: “Within organized society no human right, not even the right to religious freedom, is unlimited in its exercise. Hence the essential question is: what are the principles according to which the social exercise of the right to religious freedom may be justly and legitimately limited?”
While Murray highlights the legal complexities in church-state relations, Douglas Laycock, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, argues that both sides of the debate are missing the point entirely. He cites the story of Mary Stinemetz, a Jehovah’s Witness who needed a Medicaid-funded bloodless liver transplant. The state of Kansas was slow to respect her religious faith, and Stinemetz died as a result. There are other cases of Sikh men being able to wear a turban in the workplace. But the conflict between the pizza shop and a gay couple has little to do with the RFRA. As Laycock puts it, “None of the incredible denunciations of the Indiana RFRA are based on a real case; they are all talking about things that have never actually happened.”
So if this isn’t really about a florist who would deny service for a gay wedding, where has the outcry come from? Is it, as Indiana Governor Mike Pence has suggested, simply a problem of perception?
The debates may have little to do with legal merit, but they give evidence to a different tension: that Christianity eventually needs to own up to its stance on homosexuality. American Catholics and Evangelicals alike need to either restate a theology that is increasingly losing touch with the larger society or develop a new theology that goes deeper than the recent changes in tone. After all, Pope Francis’ remark, “Who am I to judge?” remains within a Church that still defines homosexuality as intrinsically disordered.
As columnist Andrew Sullivan points out, the sexual theology developed by Pope St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI “is a theology that seems crafted from solitary introspection into a perfect, abstract unity of belief.” Yet while such a theology is valid and rational, “It is so perfect it reflects a life of withdrawal from the world of human relationship, rather than an interaction with it.”
Take another example from a Catholic high school in Iowa that refused to hire a substitute teacher full time after finding out from his Facebook profile that he was engaged to a man. The Diocese of Des Moines issued a seemingly sound and coherent argument explaining why its decision was justified, but the Dowling Catholic High School community was devastated. Sometimes logical answers are not enough to satisfy what people feel in their bones is wrong.
That is not to say such repair is impossible; both Protestants and Catholics used theology and scripture to justify racial enslavement. But a change in the Church’s stance on homosexuality is not as inevitable as some might like it to be, either. There’s an element deeply embedded within Christianity to “move the world, rather than move with it.” The Church’s comfort in counter-culturalism can have its benefits, but it can also slow changes that might be proddings of the Spirit.
Seekers of change and justice need to be prepared for lengthy repair work, if it is to come. Just like my sister is going to need work on her car that goes beyond bungee cords, the Church needs some work done “under the hood,” so to speak. The bungee cords allow her to drive from point A to point B, if she’s careful. But if she hits any bumps, the entire front end is likely to fall off.
Zac Davis is a contributing columnist