In June of 2017, in a post called “LGBTQ Advocacy in Oklahoma Classrooms Part II,” I wrote, “LGBTQ issues are non-debatable in classrooms of districts with inclusive nondiscrimination policies. Space should be made in all classrooms (especially Social Studies classrooms) for student expression of a variety of opinions on numerous civic and political issues. There are certain opinions, however, that should not be allowed to be heard.” Brandon Dutcher, Senior Vice President at Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), responded on the blog Choice Remarks by concocting a fictional student’s comments during what he calls a “robust, healthy discussion of LGBTQ issues.” Then he asks, “Would Mr. Baker consider that young lady’s discourse to be what he calls ‘anti-gay hate speech?’” Let’s find out.
Dutcher’s imaginary student starts off well enough talking about “the image of God” and “inherent dignity.” Then the comments elevate to the oft repeated evangelical talking point that “all of us—heterosexual and homosexual alike—are sinners.” This, of course, is always followed by a shift in tone punctuated by the word “but.” The student addresses “anyone who is in bondage to same-sex intimacy” when she says, “I hurt with you over your sexual brokenness.” And then the punchline, “But it is through tears that must I warn you that, if you do not repent, you will fall into the hands of an angry God and be cast forever into ‘into the outer darkness [where] there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
Any civic discussion involves some sort of moral imposition. All the positive changes that have taken place in U.S. history have originated from an absolute view of morality and justice. I am certain that Dutcher would agree with me that relativism does a poor job at changing the world. But the real question is “What exactly does my moral or religious belief impose on others?” In the movement for LGBTQ equality what is being imposed is a recognition of the humanity of LGBTQ people. Liberation movements have always challenged the religious belief systems of the ruling class. This is not new, and no one is even saying it is easy, but it must occur. Christianity in this country has been re-imagined on multiple occasions, twice specifically over the racial issues of slavery and segregation.
At my school, it is district policy that, as I like to say, “It is okay to be gay.” In my class, we don’t debate LGBTQ issues the way we might debate guns, technology, or North Korea because the issue has already been settled. LGBTQ people are welcome here. My students feel free to disagree concerning LGBTQ related public policy. We may discuss gay marriage or transgender military service. But policy statements and moral judgments, though related, are distinct. It is one thing for a student to say they do not think gay people should enjoy the same legal status as heterosexual married couples. It is an entirely other thing for a student to describe a gay relationship as “bondage to same-sex intimacy.”
And then there is hell, that distinguishing feature of any conversation that once introduced becomes the filter through which all future words are understood. It changes the very nature of the conversation. Now what is being imposed on someone else is eternal damnation. Opinions that include anyone burning in a literal hell forever are not welcome in my classroom. Telling someone they are in danger of hell is the worst kind of bigotry. It is like saying to them, “Even after we are both dead, I will still be judging you.”
In the movement for LGBTQ equality what is being imposed is a recognition of the humanity of LGBTQ people.
Christians who believe in a literal hell do well to also believe that they do not have the right to decide who qualifies to go there. Students and teachers alike have the right to believe whatever they wish concerning life (or no life) after death. What is inappropriate in a classroom setting is when one explains how their belief becomes the determinant for someone else’s eternal existence. Religious bigotry in the classroom should be handled the way any inappropriate comments are handled, with patience and understanding and with a view toward language transformation. Teachers may be inclined to not confront the kind of comments described by Mr. Dutcher, but religious bigotry must be challenged in any classroom environment that seeks to promote tolerance and acceptance.
Bio: Aaron Baker grew up Free Will Baptist, dabbled in reformed theology in seminary, and now attends Joy Mennonite Church in Oklahoma City (Mennonite Church USA). He was a youth pastor for ten years before beginning his teaching career. He received a BA from Welch College (formerly known as Free Will Baptist Bible College) in Bible and Missions. He received an MA in Theological Studies from Covenant Theological Seminary in Saint Louis, Missouri (Presbyterian Church in America).