By Joseph Ward
Originally published on Advocate.com January 17 2013 4:26 AM ET
In less than 24 hours after his appointment was announced, it was discovered that the Georgia megachurch pastor chosen to give the benediction at President Obama’s second inauguration preached antigay sermons over a decade ago. The Reverend Louie Giglio took quite a public lashing from progressives around the country and was quickly replaced by the Reverend Luis León, a D.C. Episcopal priest who, along with his 1.9 million–member denomination, supports same-sex unions.
The controversy has sparked a more fundamental discussion: Are antigay beliefs welcome in the public square?
The short answer is no, but this is not a wholesale rejection of Christian beliefs, or even “traditional evangelical beliefs.” At first glance, it may seem superficial to criticize Giglio based on a sermon he preached over a decade ago. Even the president of the United States has “evolved” on LGBT equality in the past year. But Giglio has given no indication that his views have changed.
In his withdrawal letter to the White House, he acknowledged that he doesn’t agree with the President “on every issue” (read: LGBT equality), and on his blog he asserts that the right to hold differing views on any subject must be “recovered and preserved.”
We do live in a society that should welcome vibrant discourse on a variety of subjects. But when it comes to affirming the human dignity of an individual, there is no room for compromise. It’s not up for discussion.
That’s why, on second glance, something was very wrong with the initial selection. The problem was not merely a difference of opinion on an “issue,” but rather, that the prayer to our nation would be offered by a man who might not fully affirm the human dignity of all Americans.
(pictured: Joseph Ward and Reverend Debra Peevey holding yards signs signed by interfaith clergy in Washington State)
I have no doubt that there are conservative Christian leaders who provide extraordinary ministry in the social justice arenas of their choosing. Reverend Giglio’s commendable work to combat human trafficking was the rationale for his selection. But our culture is shifting, and when it comes to LGBT equality, Americans expect more from our churches. The U.S. Episcopal Church, Metropolitan Community Churches, and the United Church of Christ are just a few of the denominations that are meeting this need.
Christians are consistently becoming more visible advocates for the full inclusion of our LGBT neighbors. Over the past few years I’ve had many conversations with friends and families, and I’ve seen folks move from antigay opinions to an unconditionally loving theology and everything in between.
Christianity does not have to be exclusive of LGBT equality, and when it is, people are leaving the church.
The Public Religion Research Institute found a significant increase in the number of college-age millennials who transitioned from being religiously affiliated in their childhood to religiously unaffiliated as young adults. A sizable majority view present-day Christianity as antigay and judgmental and believe that what makes America great is our openness to change and new ways of doing things.
As public opinion shifts, churches that do not fully affirm LGBT people will leave many in their flock behind. Scripture that is void of compassion is merely words, and our ability to have compassion for every human being is critical to our faith and in an increasingly diverse world.
If conservative Christians cannot stomach this evolution, they should not be surprised if progressive Christian traditions, like the U.S. Episcopal Church, gain more traction in society. For some, this is a necessary consequence to maintaining their biblical interpretation on homosexuality, but this shift should not be depicted as a decline of Christian beliefs in our society.
The exclusion of Reverend Giglio is not a matter of banishing conservative theology from the public square; it is a matter of the public demanding more from our churches — more compassion, more understanding, and more dialogue about our biblical texts.
While I have and continue to appreciate the president’s efforts to reach across the aisle, it is clear that his inaugural committee initially missed the mark on this one. It isn’t a problem to have an evangelical conservative give the benediction, but at the very least, a pastor who blesses our nation must fully affirm the human dignity of all Americans — that includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans.
JOSEPH WARD is the director of Believe Out Loud. This op-ed was originally published Thursday on BelieveOutLoud.com.