Recently, a friend sent me an article about the larger religious context of the Jason Collins “Coming out” story. In it, the writer addresses the odd (but, sadly, predictable) response that many conservative Christians helped propagate in the wake of the historic announcement by Collins: The media has forsaken Christians in an effort to be supportive to homosexuals. More simply it looks like this:
As flawed as that argument is (Tim Tebow’s Christianity didn’t hold him back, his lackluster ability did), it follows a popular narrative that as groups who conservative Christians oppose gain more acceptance in the larger cultural landscape, it proportionately chips away at the acceptance of conservative Christians themselves. It’s not accurate but it must be tempting because of how prevalent it is. As an example, Men’s Rights groups love accusing women of doing the same thing, as was brilliantly illustrated (and refuted) by this animation that went viral recently.
Going back to the article I mentioned earlier, the author argues that while Tebow’s faith has been endlessly talked about and has been heralded as the face of Christian youth in this country, Collins’ faith has been largely ignored; at first, because he was never anything more than a hardworking but average basketball player, and next, because the media’s current sound bite driven culture doesn’t allow for more than one stereotype to be explored in any one person. Extending that further, the author makes the claim that African American athletes more generally have been ignored when we talk about religion in sports. It’s a claim I don’t entirely agree with. Many African American sports figures have talked about their abilities being God given, or that they are blessed, but I can’t deny that it takes a much more unassuming form than that of a Tim Tebow or a Kurt Warner: They make commercials for Focus on the Family, Robert Griffin III makes commercials for Subway.
All of this is context for what happened immediately after Collins’ article was published on Sports Illustrated’s website. Someone on ESPN thought it would be a good idea to put a known homophobic (and he is homophobic, I don’t care how many gay friends or former teammates he has, you can be homophobic and have gay friends) contributor named Chris Broussard onto their segment covering one of the biggest announcements in sports in recent memory. Broussard didn’t take long to completely derail the topic and turn it into a condemnation of homosexuality more universally, stating flatly that homosexuality is a sin (I know, yawn, right?) but then he said something that needs to be explored: Unprompted, Chris Broussard shared that he did not consider Jason Collins a Christian. That is important.
If you want to know why it is a big deal when a public figure comes out as gay, even when it seems like, culturally, we have already made gay acceptance a foregone conclusion its because people like Chris Broussard say that they tolerate it. Tolerating homosexuality exposes the nearly universal assumption that homosexuality is objectively wrong but that an enlightened society can allow people the right to be objectively wrong as long as they aren’t hurting anybody else (hate the sin, not the sinner). Aside from being condescending, I take issue with this assumption on the grounds that homosexuality is even wrong. What, precisely, is “wrong” in the moral sense about being gay? What moral law does it violate? Don’t say God’s law because you won’t like what I have to say next.
Gay rights can never fully be successful until the ground we build its foundation on is not the sands of tolerance but the bedrock of understanding. We have to come to terms with the fact that, while progress has been made, this episode with Jason Collins exposes an underbelly of deep, deep homophobia that is ingrained in even progressive minds. A fuller understanding of sexuality and the spectrum that we all fall onto at different points (Hint: It’s not a dichotomy) will give us a more nuanced perspective when we approach topics such as what it means to be gay or what it means to be a sexual being and what that means for all of us.
Invoking God or the Bible or religion when it comes to condemnation is a dangerous game because it opens oneself to analysis of other parts of the Bible that are ignored, or dismissed, or downplayed depending on the trends of the culture we live in. Finding passages that encourage behavior that seems ludicrous today (slavery anyone?) shows that people use the Bible because they are homophobic, not homophobic because they use the Bible. For an example, while I can’t speak for Chris Broussard or his thoughts, I will bet that he would never go onto an ESPN segment about a basketball player’s extramarital affair or dating rumors and accuse them of not being a Christian. He did that to Jason Collins. He would also never go onto an ESPN segment about an athlete’s Catholicism and accuse the player of not being a Christian. But again, he said that about Jason Collins. He wasn’t even criticized for that aspect of his interview. Instead, twitter and facebook launched into a spirited debate about whether or not what he said was fair, or homophobic, or appropriate. Before you call me out, I am aware that he also accused adulterers, and fornicators, and other people with names straight out of an episode of the 700 club, of also being sinners but my point is that our culture wouldn’t “tolerate” an ESPN analyst to make sweeping statements about those groups without immediately demanding a resignation. Instead, we have unspoken rules when it comes to accusing someone of not being a Christian:
Anything about cheaters, sex between unmarried couples, and particular Christian Sects (with one exception) are OFF LIMITS unless cited in passing as an excuse to justify condemning homosexuals.
Anything about homosexuality, Mormons, and Obama are free to be discussed in the open forums of the Internet and ESPN segments.
Which brings to the point of all of this. The gay rights movement doesn’t need any more tolerance. In an article on http://www.caffeinatedthoughts.com that is kinda, sorta right for all of the dumbest reasons, a columnist argues that Chris Broussard was actually really very tolerant to the gay community and Jason Collins, saying:
[Broussard’s comments are] true tolerance. It is showing grace and acceptance for somebody as a person without sacrificing truth and betraying what he knows to be true. I’ve said before that you can only tolerate somebody when there is a disagreement, an impasse. Agreement with a person is not tolerance. It is agreement. Yet that is how many on the left will define tolerance.
Yes, it’s those darn progressives that are TRULY intolerant because they demand that we Christians not just allow gays to exist but also like it. How horrible. But that statement about a disagreement being required for tolerance is accurate and it shows when you see how the media and our society handle gay rights. Deep down, people still feel uncomfortable with homosexuality. When you are being asked to show tolerance for another group, you are saying they are different than you. In this case, the subtext is that they are the ones that are wrong but you are the ones who can “be the bigger man” about it. When viewed through that lens it suddenly doesn’t feel very enlightened to preach tolerance for homosexuality. It feels downright intolerant.
My view is that if a person identifies with a religious faith, then it’s hard to argue against them. Jason Collins says he’s a Christian, it might be a different type of Christianity than Chris Broussard, but unless I missed something, Chris Broussard isn’t an all-knowing demigod capable of singularly identifying the precise definition of what should and shouldn’t be considered a Christian. Religions are messy because beliefs are messy. They are fragmented and reconfigured, influenced by environment and culture, discussed and picked at, and to think that you have an absolute understanding of your faith is not only foolish theologically but historically. That being said, Christians, I will tolerate your opinions on all manner of things, but I draw the line at “Tim Tebow is a good quarterback”.