This is probably the most political thing I will ever post on this blog, but in spite of the fact that it was inspired by a recent political debate, this isn’t actually a political post. It’s actually about people, and how we respond to these sorts of polarizing political debates.
As you may know, I live in North Carolina, which until last night was the only state in this region of the country not to have adopted a constitutional amendment permanently banning same-sex marriage. North Carolina law already states that “marriage” in the eyes of our state is only between a man and a woman, so the general sentiment seemed to be that there was no need to go further and amend our state constitution on this polarizing issue.
But times change, and after the election two years ago brought about a change in which party had local power, an amendment was put on the North Carolina ballot to permanently enshrine the state’s opposition to same-sex marriage in the constitution. The proposed amendment was known as Amendment One, and if you’ve been watching the news, you already know that it passed last night.
There’s been a ton of moral outrage about this on all sides, much of it from outside of the state. This latest political fight came to symbolize so much about the culture war for folks on both sides, that it almost seemed irrelevant that this was about North Carolina.
So as a lifelong North Carolinian who is also one of the most outspoken gay Christians on the internet, I have something to say about this.
First of all, it shouldn’t be any surprise that I opposed the amendment. I think same-sex couples should have the same legal rights as other couples, and even if I didn’t, many experts have argued that the wording of this amendment is dangerously vague, not only banning same-sex marriage and civil unions, but also affecting heterosexual couples, children’s health insurance, domestic violence victims, and other important issues—all to ban something that was already banned to begin with.
Maybe you agree with me; maybe you disagree. But that’s not the point I want to make.
After last night’s vote, I heard a disturbingly large number of my friends, national commentators, and others suggesting that this vote just proves that North Carolinians (or at least a giant percentage of us) are bigoted, homophobic, backwards people who are so filled with hate that we oppose equality for certain groups just because we can.
And see, that’s just not the case. Yes, I voted against the amendment, as did many of my friends and hundreds of thousands of other NC residents. But I also know people who voted for it, and I know that they are not simply bigoted, homophobic, backwards people. It’s way more complicated than that.
Is there a lot of prejudice in North Carolina against LGBT people? Absolutely there is. But it’s not, as some have imagined, just a matter of “bigoted homophobes.” By and large, the prejudice that exists is a matter of a lack of understanding. Many of the folks I’ve talked to honestly believe that people choose to be gay and could choose not to be. They think that giving legal recognition to same-sex partnerships would increase the number of people choosing to be gay, and would therefore encourage more people to turn away from God’s plan for their lives. When they talk about homosexuality as a “perversion,” they’re not trying to be bigoted or mean; they’re being quite literal about it.
Those folks aren’t the only ones who supported the amendment, but in my experience, they make up the lion’s share of those who were most vocally in support. My Christian friends who understand what my life has been like as a gay Christian may not support same-sex marriage, but they tend to be way more thoughtful and careful about these questions, and they are the ones who felt most torn about this amendment and all the legal and moral issues it raised.
That’s why I posted to Facebook: “Yes, my state’s vote tonight saddens me. But it is not, as some have imagined, about intentional bigotry. It is about a lack of understanding, pure and simple—of who we are, what we want, and why it matters. Education is needed, and that is what I will keep dedicating myself to, every single day of my life.”
Some of my friends pushed back on this, saying that it is about bigotry and that I shouldn’t be so quick to give people excuses. I understand where they’re coming from, but I think we have to be very careful before we write people off as bigoted caricatures of themselves.
As I’ve said before on this blog, everyone is the protagonist of their own story. Almost always, we do the things we do because we think they’re going to bring about something good. The people on both sides who voted on this amendment honestly believed they were doing the right thing. Whichever side you’re on, if you caricature those who disagree with you as merely bigoted, stupid, homophobic, sinful, or evil, you’ve greatly underestimated them as people.
Okay, so maybe you’re angry and/or hurt about the vote (or some other related issue). I am too. Maybe you’re thinking, “Look, why should I care what they’re thinking? Bigotry is bigotry. I don’t have to understand them; I just have to oppose them.”
I get it. When you’re angry, it’s virtually impossible to try to see things from the other person’s perspective. It’s way, way easier to just see them as the villains. (And of course, they see you the same way.) But if you genuinely care about changing things, that’s the most dangerous thing you can do.
Here’s the thing: People are fallible, and people are sinful, but most of us aren’t just purely evil. The people who oppose you on this or any issue are complex people who, in most cases, just haven’t fully understood where you’re coming from or why it’s important. If you dismiss them as evil/bigoted/homophobic/stupid/whatever, what you’ve just done is to destroy your own ability to change their minds. The only effective way to change people’s minds is to first do the work to understand where they’re coming from and then work to educate them about the things they don’t yet understand.
“Yes,” you may be saying, “but they have to be willing to change. They have to have open minds in the first place. And these folks clearly don’t.”
And see, that’s where you’re right—and where you’re wrong.
Yes, people have to have open minds… sort of. It’s true that if someone refuses to be educated about an issue, then there’s nothing you can do. Remember the parable of the sower, throwing seed on different kinds of ground? There’s no way he can sow the seed to force the bad soil to accept it, and there’s no way you can argue well enough to convince every person to change their mind on the issues you care most about.
Most of us don’t begin with open minds on issues we think we already understand. Most of the time, our minds have to be opened by circumstances, experiences, stories, and people who are patient with us. And if you honestly believe that over half of North Carolinians are so prejudiced that they would refuse to open their minds to patient people who take the time to understand them and then lovingly educate them about the lives of LGBT people, well then I’m afraid you may be the prejudiced one.
Taking the time to see things from the other side’s perspective is important because it’s the way of Jesus. But it’s also important for the very practical reason that it’s the only real way to change minds. You can’t change people’s minds—or their voting habits, or the way they treat people—if you don’t have any clue why they disagree with you to begin with, or if you think that it’s just because they’re inherently bigoted/hateful/wicked people.
So yes, it feels gratifying to look at the people on the other side and dismiss them as stupid, hateful bigots. It makes you feel better about yourself, and it gives you an outlet for your anger. (And likewise to those who look at LGBT and LGBT-supportive folks as godless, hedonistic lovers of sin.) But as soon as you let that attitude settle in, you’ve lost your chance to make a difference. You’ve guaranteed your own inability to make change. It’s the equivalent of the high school student who gets frustrated, shouts, “I hate this stupid homework! It’s impossible!” and flops down on his bed.
Gratifying, yes. But you’re not going to make any progress that way.
My challenge to you, however you felt about this amendment and however you feel about LGBT/Christian issues in general, is to force yourself to see your opponents as human beings who honestly believe they’re doing the right thing. Figure out what it is that’s really motivating them, and if the answer you come up with is simply “bigotry” or “love of the flesh” or “stupidity” or “rebellion against God,” keep digging, because you haven’t gone deep enough yet. Then once you really understand them—really, really understand them—find the ways you can reach out and begin to educate them, patiently and lovingly. That is how you make change in people’s lives.
Calling them names and dismissing them is way easier, of course. But since when has the work of Christ ever been easy?