Should you stay, or should you go?
It continues to be one of the major crises for religious believers today. What should we do with “these people” whom our denomination has marginalized for centuries?
For some it’s LGBTQ+ people. The United Methodist Church, for example, continues to lose congregations for which anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination is as comfortable as sitting in the same pew every Sunday morning.
For others, such as the Roman Catholic Church or the Southern Baptist Convention, it’s not only their affirmations of continued bigotry toward LGBTQ+ people, but also their refusal to allow women to be equal partners in the leadership of their well-ensconced patriarchies.
The Southern Baptists just reaffirmed their historic male-dominated hierarchy. The Catholic Church is under pressure from its membership to do something about both.
Some denominations, such as the Christian Reformed Church or conservative Lutheran groups such as the Missouri Synod, have just kept their anti-LGBTQ+ stands. A breakaway American right-wing group of Episcopal churches calling itself the Anglican Church of North America has aligned with African Anglicans to call for a crackdown on progressive moves by the Anglican Church in these matters.
Meanwhile, the rise in popularity of nondenominational evangelical churches including those hipster churches seeking to appeal to younger people, might include more than organ and piano music, but often hides the same bigotry toward LGBTQ+ people beneath well-curated veneers only to be discovered after one is hooked on their vibe.
Sadly, it’s too often a life-or-death question
With too many examples to list here, churches around the country who take public stands against all this bigotry are finding themselves vandalized for doing so.
All of this continues to beg a larger, ongoing question that religious people must work through in their own lives: Which is more important, a stand for human rights or the unity of some church body?
This continues to be a life or death question for LGBTQ+ people in a society where open bigotry and violence against them has become popular again due to right-wing politicians who’ve made anything that is progressive in the field of equal rights as fodder for their culture-war themed political ambitions.
Anyone who is a victim is often still counseled by well-meaning allies to put up with it, realize that the time isn’t right, or have patience and understanding of those condemning believers. But, how long should they hold on and support these institutions through their membership and financial donations?
As an outsider to the denominations, from the Mormons to the Methodists and beyond, it’s not my question to answer, though it’s always a question to ask people to think about consciously. Answering for religious people isn’t as easy for them as it looks to outsiders. It calls church members to search their own souls, their relationships, and their familiar life-styles.
I’ve seldom heard any response to this larger question that doesn’t assume the answer before the question is asked. If one believes that the unity of an institution is a transcendent value, then women, all people of color, and LGBTQ+ members, will just have to be the ones to accept it, suck up the resulting tragedies in their own lives, and make guilt-ridden choices about leaving their familiar religious communities.
An apology for bigotry, 150 years in the making
In 1847, the Baptist Convention split over the question of slavery. The new Northern Baptist Convention (now the American Baptists) opposed slavery while the Southern Baptists supported it under the familiar and now well-worn and selectively-used “states’ rights” catchphrase for retaining bigotry.
Back then each side, of course, believed that it possessed the true understanding of the Bible. The pro-slavery pastors argued correctly that they were supporting the traditional understanding and that abolitionist interpretations were a revisionist reading of their scriptures.
There in fact is no command to free slaves in the New Testament, after all, while there are many cases where slaves are advised that the Christian thing to do is obey their masters even if they’re abusive to them. Reinterpretation of their texts was for Christians to fight over while the dominant interpretation supported the status quo.
After the split, the Southern Baptist Convention became the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. In spite of its beginning in supporting slavery, it continued to have the nerve to claim it is a moral voice for the whole country by rejecting civil rights, women’s leadership, and LGBTQ+ acceptance.
Finally, in 1997 — 150 years later! — its annual convention apologized for its stance on slavery. In the meantime, how many human beings had suffered and died while waiting for change?
Both sides in that fissure had to face whether their ethical stance was worth the split. The unity of the entire nation would then be maintained through a bloody civil war that claimed to have religion behind it on both sides.
President Lincoln might have hit the nail on the head when he responded to a question of whether God was on the side of the North in the war with: “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”
So, who should suffer until real change happens?
Then, as now, the conservative side always thinks that their values are actually worth a breakup. It’s usually the liberals who opt for unity rather than immediate progress in human rights in the belief that they will eventually change any holdouts.
But the question remains: Who should suffer until change takes place? Today, for example, should an LGBTQ+ person remain in a currently abusive institution to work to change it or should they move their support to the many and variant alternatives that aren’t abusive and go on with their lives in the limited days they have on the planet?
Are the people who are repressed by churches responsible for changing them? Should they even feel responsible? Should they be made to feel responsible by anyone else?
Should they be willing to be studied further like specimens in a laboratory? Should they be willing to be thought of as the problem rather than it being the larger homophobia, transphobia, gender role sickness, toxic masculinity, or other issues of those who think it still needs further study.
Are the abused making excuses for these institutions similar to those abused spouses make for their abusers?
These are major questions. They ought to be asked. And choices must be made.
But in the meantime, those who remain to fight, and maybe eventually win, should be careful not to condemn those whose spiritual paths say: Leave now.
There are right now, after all, alternative communities (even religious ones) that won’t treat them like objects needing further study, but rather as the valuable human beings they’ve always been.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.