Liberals, think WWJD!

Progressives need to stop thinking of Christianity as something against to battle against.

Jason Ketola

The world is full of polarization, bifurcation and dichotomization. One of the most distressing examples of this is the way secular liberals have been pitted against Christians, or rather, the way liberals have pitted themselves against Christians and vice versa. Through the constant recapitulation of tired stereotypes, opportunities for solidarity have been lost and divisions have become further entrenched. Recently, I had the privilege of seeing a movie which epitomizes this problem.

In early February, The Bell Auditorium featured a test screening of a very preliminary version of “Freak of Nature,” a documentary by Amanda Taylor about the science of animal homosexuality. The film showcased many species, from penguins to sheep, in which same-sex partnerships emerge or in which individuals have been observed to only engage in sexual activities with members of the same sex.

Of course, gender and sexual orientation are complicated enough to have whole fields of study devoted to them, so we should be careful in applying our contemporary notions of homosexuality to animals, something which the film makes clear. But, the simple observation that there are animals that will pair bond with members of the same sex or will only engage sexually with the same sex has clear social implications. This point is not lost in “Freak of Nature,” which includes commentary from historians, biologists, psychiatrists and social critics along with interviews of many laypeople.

The film has great potential as a thought-provoking conversation starter, which problemizes a lot of what the religious right, in particular, says about homosexuality. Social critic and advice columnist Dan Savage, for instance, points out the way conservative Christians have “moved the goalposts” on gays, first saying they were destroying the institution of marriage for wanting to wear leather pants, dance shirtless in clubs and have promiscuous sex; and yet when gays wanted to get married, move to the suburbs and start families, that was destroying marriage. The experts in the film provide a lot of fodder for thought like this; the discussion of how sexual orientation has been understood over time being especially striking.

The film’s potential is lost, however, at the point when the question is broached of why we are so uncomfortable about homosexuality in America. In a totally unsophisticated manner, Taylor presents a several-minute montage of laypeople lambasting Christianity, culminating with Dan Savage calling the religion “bullshit” that was made up by “some guy in a desert a few thousand years ago.” Granted, many Christians aren’t exactly gay-friendly, and there’s a history of some Christians doing extremely hateful things to homosexuals, but referring to someone’s cherished beliefs with expletives isn’t the greatest way to make friends.

The Michael Moores of the world already have made enough self-congratulatory films for progressives. If any movement is to be made in increasing tolerance of homosexuality, we as liberals need to stop attacking Christianity outright and instead focus on the values of compassion and love which are common to us both. Many progressive brands of Christianity exist that do not demonize gays, and there are movements within fundamentalist denominations to become more tolerant. Taylor would do well to include a bit of this balance rather than paint such a crude picture of a nuanced and varied religion.

Fortunately, “Freak of Nature” is far from being a finished product, and Taylor has time to make changes. Sadly though, the glaring problem with “Freak” that I’ve elaborated on here is far from isolated. Progressives all too frequently rant against the stereotype of Christians as naïve bigots. In caricaturing the faith, they miss the fact that many Christians are deeply concerned with ethical issues and with proper treatment of other people and the planet. Think WWJD.

Every group has its fanatics who say and do things the vast majority of us find pretty despicable and Christianity is certainly not wanting in that department, but if we can get beyond that minority, there’s a great opportunity for collaboration on social issues. Making compassion and tolerance the bedrock of discussions of sexual orientation is a place to start. In “Freak of Nature,” Taylor has shown us how to bring those conversations to a grinding halt. Our task is to avoid falling into the old us-them thinking, which is the very kind of thinking we’re hoping to change.

Here’s the bottom line: There are a lot of conservative Christians in the world and a lot of secular liberals. If we want the world to be a better place, we should start looking for common ground rather than waste our time attacking each other.

Jason Ketola welcomes comments at [email protected]