Houston, Texas, is supposed to be the most ethnically and religiously diverse city in the United States. Its mayor, Annise Parker, is the first openly lesbian mayor of any major city in the country. She has recently supported an ordinance barring anti-gay discrimination in any business that serves the public and/or has contracts with the city. Nothing original about this: Entities from the federal government on down have issued similar rules. In Houston as elsewhere, there was a “religious exemption” clause–in other words, the bakery of a Catholic monastery that delivers rolls to the city jail may do so despite the fact that gays cannot be monks–but not the bakery of O’Brien and Sons which, for reasons of Catholic conscience, does not hire gays. Of course there has been litigation about this exemption–gay activists tend to resist any form of exemption. However, as Religious News Service reported on October 14, 2014, a new phase has now opened in this little drama.
I am not up on Texas anti-discrimination laws, but it has been claimed (needless to say, by opponents of HERO, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance) that it would be possible now for a transgender individual to file a discrimination complaint if barred access to a bathroom (perhaps in the city jail?). Be this as it may, opponents of the ordinance organized a ballot measure to repeal the ordinance. The city attorney rejected the measure because, allegedly, there were not enough valid signatures. Of course there is now a court case about that. At this point, it seems, the city attorney went berserk. He issued subpoenas to five local pastors, opponents of HERO, to submit “all speeches, presentations, or sermons (my italics) related to the Petition [that is, the move to repeal the ordinance], Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity proposed by, delivered by, or approved by you or in your possession”. This document must surely be a landmark in American legal history! It was too much of a landmark for the state attorney general, and he ordered the city of Houston to withdraw the subpoenas. Mayor Parker stated that the notorious text was composed by outside attorneys acting pro bono on behalf of the city (which, I suppose, means that they were motivated by conviction rather than a fee). She also claimed (not very plausibly) that she did not know that the subpoenas had actually been served until informed after the fact. She agreed that the scope of the subpoenas was too broad, and that in coming court hearings the scope would be narrowed. The case will obviously drag on. In the meantime all hell broke loose.
Not surprisingly, there was a wave of outrage among groups concerned with religious freedom and by representatives of churches; given the geography where the incident occurred, most “first responders” were generally Evangelicals and Baptists in particular. Prominent among these was Russell Moore, who heads the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Protestant denomination in the US); the Commission is in effect the major voice of the SBC in the public arena. Moore cannot be faulted for lack of eloquence. In his blog he posted a statement headed “Houston, we have a constitution”. The statement begins as follows: “During the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy traveled to Houston to assure Baptist ministers there that he was, in fact, committed to religious liberty and separation of church and state. The fear was that he, as a Roman Catholic, might not recognize the principle. He did. Turns out, the Houston ministers should’ve been less worried about the Vatican and more worried about, well, Houston”. Moore expressed his amazement that officials of an American agency of government should arrogate to themselves the power to investigate sermons. This assault on the First Amendment should “never, ever” be accepted. It should be defied just as the Apostle Paul defied the magistrates of Philippi, who had thrown him in jail for preaching the Gospel (Acts 16).
This episode in the heart of the Bible Belt can be placed, first, in the national context of the Obama presidency, and then in a broad international context and its odd linkage of homosexuality and religious freedom. I’m not sure whether President Obama still has a “bully pulpit”; at this moment even close political allies of his don’t want to listen to his sermons, if they don’t flee from the congregation altogether. All the same, every presidency creates an institutional culture, which trickles down all the way to city halls in the provinces. This administration has shown itself remarkably tone-deaf regarding religion. This was sharply illuminated at the launching of Obamacare, when the administration was actually surprised to discover that Catholics (strange to say!) actually care about contraception and abortion. Eric Holder’s Department of Justice has repeatedly demonstrated that it cares less about religious freedom as against its version of civil rights. Perhaps one reason for the widespread failure to perceive this attitude toward the First Amendment is that Barack Obama is seen through the lens of race–“the first black president”. I think a better vision comes through the lens of class–“the first New Class president”–put differently, the first president, at least since Woodrow Wilson, whose view of the world has been shaped by the culture of elite academia. This is evident across the spectrum of policy issues, but notably so on issues involving gender and religion.
If one thinks of these issues in an international context, coincidentally the issue of The Economist dated October 11-17, 2014, has its cover story entitled “The Gay Divide” about the divergent attitudes to homosexuality in the West and in many non-Western countries. In Europe (with the important exception of Russia) and in North America recent decades have witnessed a victory march of the gay movement and its affiliates in the so-called LGBT community. The widening acceptance and legalization of same-sex marriage has been the iconic victory thus far. Even the U.S. Supreme Court recently capitulated (at least for the time being) when it refused to hear cases in which state laws banning same-sex marriage had been challenged, thus letting stand the pro-gay decisions of lower courts. As far as Europe is concerned one may take as a metaphor a video produced by the Dutch government, which applicants for citizenship are obligated to watch in order to acquaint them with the value system to which they should adhere from now on. Among other depictions of alleged Dutch virtues, the video showed a scene of lesbian love-making. I have written about the Western development of the gay movement before–from the struggle to be left alone (which I applauded, ever since the famous Stonewall Inn riots, when the patrons of a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village beat up policemen that had been harassing them), to the struggle to get official blessing of their lifestyle (which I hesitate to applaud without reservation), to the more recent campaign to intimidate critics (which I deplore) by destroying their livelihood (say, by revoking the license to operate a bakery), or by criminal prosecution (for discrimination or “hate speech”).
This is not the place to speculate about the discrepancy between the West and much of “the rest” regarding gender and religion (often but not always linked). The facts are quite clear. The website of the Saudi Ministry of Religious Affairs, which enforces the fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islamic law throughout the Kingdom, describes its mission in a phrase that occurs a number of times in the Quran, commanding individual Muslims and Muslim states “to enjoin good, to forbid evil”. The “religious police” in Shia Iran understands its mission in terms of the same Quranic commandment. Saudi Arabia and Iran are the key actors in the current conflict between Sunnis and Shia in the Middle East. Whatever differences there may be between them, there is little difference in their treatment of homosexuals: Saudi Arabia stones them, Iran hangs them. Religious freedom is zero in both countries. It seems that Annise Parker also understands her mission as Mayor of Houston as “enjoining good, forbidding evil” (though of course there is, shall we say, a slight difference between her and the Saudi understanding of good versus evil).
Please note: No moral equivalence is implied here. Mayor Parker, I will stipulate, has no intention of stoning anyone (not even pastors who preach that homosexual behavior is sinful), and that she thinks that her subpoenas do not violate the US constitution. (Though the word poena/”punishment” in her legal document implies the threat of prison). I have never visited Saudi Arabia, but I have been in both Tehran and Houston, and I would much rather live and would feel much safer in the latter.
The difference between the West and much of the rest of the world in the attitude toward homosexuality is striking. It is of course most striking in virtually all Muslim-majority countries. But there are many non-Muslim countries in which anti-gay attitudes are fierce and are increasingly enshrined in law. In sub-Saharan Africa one country after another has passed anti-gay legislation (with the exception of South Africa). The most ferocious was in Uganda, where the anti-gay campaign was actually initiated by fundamentalist Protestant missionaries from America (the death penalty for the most “aggravated” cases was removed from the proposed law after some Western countries threatened to withhold financial aid). India: Homosexuality is a crime under section 377 of the Indian penal code. It was that since 1860! (Are British colonial administrators responsible?!) A legal challenge to this law was rejected by the highest Indian court in 2013; the law continues to be in force. Quite apart from the courts, anti-gay sentiments are deeply embedded in the culture, periodically enforced by mob action—as in the practice of “rape therapy”, a group of men raping a lesbian to make her adjust her sexual preference.
Russia: In 2013 the State Duma unanimously passed a law prohibiting “advocacy for a denial of traditional family values”, targeting any form of public gay voices. This move was strongly supported by the Russian Orthodox Church, which has enjoyed ever closer ties with the government under the Putin administration. The ROC, headed by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, has been a centerpiece of Putin’s use of Russian nationalism to legitimate his regime and its policies (including the invasion of Ukraine). Religious freedom, especially of Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics, has been under threat.
What is the opposite of a “sore thumb”? Both in terms of gender and religion the countries of North America and the European Union stand out (to coin a phrase) like a “healthy thumb” as compared with much of the rest of the world. Both gay activists and Protestant pastors should daily thank the divinity of their choice for the First Amendment and the federal courts which (by and large reliably) stand guard over it.