Love Thy Neighbor, Part 2

Two pairs of feet standing on a welcome mat

Culture watchers have long warned that when same-sex marriage is embraced, religious freedom will be sacrificed. In this new environment, how do we effectively go about loving our neighbors as ourselves?

To answer that question, Citizen turned to some emerging experts and culture watchers; we'll be bringing you these conversations in an occasional series over coming issues.

This month's is with Chelsen Vicari who, at just 26, is the director of evangelical action at the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), a think tank in Washington, D.C., and author of the forthcoming book Saving Evangelicalism (Charisma House Publishers, September 2014). She recently attended a conference aimed at stimulating discussion on sexuality and same-sex marriage between different factions of the Church—and found herself almost alone in defending the biblical view of marriage.

Most interesting of all? She did it on purpose.

Citizen: Tell us more about the conference you attended.

Chelsen Vicari: It was a weekend retreat at a convent in Pennsylvania. Because I write about faith and culture, I thought it was really important to go. All the individuals professed to be Christians. Some were straight, some said they were gay, some were liberal. It was a dialogue between 12 individuals who were OK with talking openly and bluntly about our different perspectives.

What was that like for you?

It was hard. I am a professional, and I squirmed in my chair for most of the 12-hour dialogue. It was hard to get through, because there were a lot of assumptions made that we had to work through. The overall emphasis seemed to be embracing homosexuality in the Church, so as a 26-year-old conservative woman, I definitely stood out. I just had to keep praying for strength. It was very intense, to say the least.

Do you think that's something God may be asking of us as conservatives who increasingly find our views unaccepted? Get out there and be uncomfortable, and love anyway?

Absolutely. We can't wait to formulate our response. If we do, we might spout off Bible verses out of context, and maybe unintentional criticism and judgment, too. We have to show love, and in doing that, we provide the hope that Jesus gives. Showing hate or rejection will just cause more harm than good. What happens is that these individuals will run back into the waiting arms of the LGBT community, which is full of people who are acting as moms and dads to Christians who've been rejected.

I am not soft on the defense of marriage—but demonstrating love toward our homosexual neighbors is just that. It's not about compromise, it's about compassion. The church—evangelicals—cannot ignore the suicide rate of teenagers who are dealing with same-sex attraction. They are several times more likely to attempt suicide than straight teenagers (for many reasons, including the fact that they are often sexually abused before the age of 12, and prone to substance abuse), so it's even more important for the church to know how to handle the same-sex issue with love and compassion toward those who are in a state of fear.

You mentioned not being "soft" on policy. It seems like that's a phrase that gets used a lot by some Christians when others mention the need to love people who oppose biblical ideals.

The LGBT community does paint conservative Christians in a negative light for political reasons. And there have been some conservative Christians who've demonized homosexuals in order to gain political ground. But this is not the overall model that we're following. I know the Religious Right of the '70s and '80s had a different tone, and there was a time and a place for that. I think the dialogue is changing. This isn't a new idea. This is something my parents taught me. We were taught to stand up for our convictions, but also to love our neighbors as outlined by the Bible. This shouldn't be a new idea.

It seems like it's hard for some of us to be both truthful and loving at the same time. Why do you think that is?

I can really speak to young evangelicals on this. It is fear, stemming from not knowing enough on the issue. Not knowing how to look at marriage and sexuality from the biblical perspective, not knowing how to defend it, and not knowing how the Holy Spirit transforms.

None of us is perfect, and we only achieve perfection through Christ. So what we need to continue doing—what I think my generation is starting to do—is love everyone despite their choices, but also boldly speak up about what the Bible says on the hard topics, like the sanctity of life, marriage and religious persecution.

Simultaneously, we cannot be afraid to walk beside others on their journey. Jesus plainly instructed, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." He didn't say, "Love your neighbor if he looks like you and goes to the same church." There are no stipulations in Matthew 27:40. It's just "love your neighbor as yourself." Even if you know all the social science, historical Christian teachings and the public policy, you still have to go back to the Scripture and love them.

What do you think we will face individually as we walk this out?

It's going to be a long journey, but there is light at the end of this tunnel. As we start to tear down the walls between the church and the LGBT community, we are going to have to realize that people with same-sex attractions have been hurt by the church, and they are going to have to realize that we won't surrender our convictions in order to love them. But what that looks like, I dare not say.

What were some of the specific things that were said to you at this conference that you remember most?

Probably when it was insinuated that I want to "take America back to the 1950s" because I believe God created marriage to be between one man and one woman. I find it interesting because now it's mature Christians whose attitudes are changing, and even evangelical Christians are abandoning biblical sexuality and marriage. I'm 26. I have no idea what the 1950s were like. I'm just trying to obey what Scripture tells us.

That's a very good point. Polls say support for same-sex marriage is highest among people in your age group. How common do you think the biblical view of marriage is among young evangelicals?

Unfortunately, the defense of biblical marriage among young evangelicals is very rare. It's sad. In addition to working at IRD, I'm a Sunday school teacher at my Southern Baptist church. The kids in my class are very rambunctious and bright. They're not afraid to talk about anything, except homosexuality. When I mention it, suddenly the room falls silent and nobody wants to talk anymore.

Their parents are probably thinking, Why is she talking about such a controversial issue with middle schoolers? But the reality is they're already being forced to face it and accept it in schools. These Christian conservative kids are participating in gay Days of Silence, seeing same-sex ceremonies during the Grammys. They're being forced to see it as the norm and accept it because they want to be accepted by their peers. Being called a gay basher is very difficult for a young person, so they just accept it. I fear they won't accept the Church's teachings on this issue because they simply don't know enough. I'd encourage pastors to speak about it more from the pulpit. It is really contentious, and we're not going to please everybody. But in not facing it, they're embracing it.

That's sobering.

Yes. Before I worked at IRD, I worked at Concerned Women for America. I went from focusing solely on public policy and Congress and legislation to calling out the evangelical community to be a stronger public and social witness. I've found my niche in this area. I love working with the church and Christian campus ministries and raising awareness about how the grownups in the room can encourage younger evangelicals to defend biblical truth in the face of criticism.

We saw what happened with the mainline denominations and how they embraced modern pop culture and denied orthodox teachings, and how that failed them. We saw such a vast decline in their membership that these church communities are now referred to as the "sideline" denominations in America. But now the same trends that brought the decline of the mainline churches are infiltrating evangelical churches. Homosexuality, feminism, the life issue—those are all large factors trickling into the evangelical churches. It is important to preserve evangelicalism in order to keeping our nation on track to prosperity. The two go hand in hand.

What's it going to take to save evangelicalism?

It's going to depend on what I call the grownups in the room—the generations before us must train Millennials to stand up and speak out. What's happened is that liberal evangelicals have targeted young Millennials. They speak our language and send us clear messages about what our viewpoint should be. So that's why I'm so thankful Citizen is talking about the homosexual issue in a way that will make sense to young Millennials.

At the end of the day, does it come down to saving evangelicalism? Or does it just come down to holiness and being the body of Christ?

At the end of the day, it comes down to standing up for our faith and representing Christ well, and being bold yet compassionate. That's a major challenge, but one I hope my generation will be willing to take on.

What effect does governmental recognition of same-sex marriage have on the church?

Already we see the government finding itself in a conundrum that makes it difficult to protect the religious convictions of Christians while also advancing homosexuality. You can't have both. When it comes to the "separation of church and state," marriage is truly an issue that the government should have never determined to redefine.

Now, the progression will likely pour into lawsuits surrounding pastors who refuse to officiate same-sex marriage or rent out sanctuaries for ceremonies. This clash will continue until the government chooses a victor, which means there will be a loser. Unfortunately, the church has never been on the popular side of history.

Gov. Jan Brewer's veto of a bill seeking to protect religious freedom in Arizona was a huge blow. What do you see happening as a result?

It's interesting that 11 legal analysts from various political and ideological backgrounds wrote a letter to Gov. Brewer explaining that the media, activists and academia got it wrong when it came to the Arizona bill. The amendment was not "anti-gay" legislation, but rather contained "anti-religious discrimination" language that would protect individuals—whether they be Christian, Muslim, Jew or atheist—from violating their convictions or facing lawsuits for upholding those convictions. By vetoing the bill, Gov. Brewer left Arizonans' right of conscience defenseless.

It seems the temptation for many conservative Christians, in the wake of these events, is to let their love grow cold. The arm of government has proven short, and they are bitterly disappointed—and yet the commandments given to us by God remain unchanged. In light of all these things, how can individual members of the body of Christ respond? What advice would you offer to help them think through these issues?

The body of Christ cannot surrender marriage and sexuality to the incapable hands of the government. The challenge will be, however, to defend marriage and freedom of religion while simultaneously obeying God's commandment to love our homosexual neighbors. This will look like the church's bolder social and political witness, gentleness and compassion. A big task that will also take much prayer, because what America needs now is the Holy Spirit to work through us all.

Originally published in the June/July 2014 issue of Citizen magazine.

© 2014 Focus on the Family.