We need to debunk the argument that achieving “unity” means everyone will get their way. That’s not logically possible.
This fallacious thinking is emerging as a primary conservative critique of the new administration in Washington, D.C. And once again, it is an argument that derives from a need to control the rights and behaviors of other people while ignoring one’s own blind spots.
For example, the Washington Post reported on reaction to President Biden’s first-day action reaffirming civil protections for those in the LGBTQ community that had been stripped away by the prior administration.
Said Biden: “Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports. Adults should be able to earn a living and pursue a vocation knowing that they will not be fired, demoted or mistreated because of whom they go home to or because how they dress does not conform to sex-based stereotypes. People should be able to access health care and secure a roof over their heads without being subjected to sex discrimination.”
That sounds like a good American ideal, right? Except not to religious conservatives who remain hell-bent on controlling the behavior and rights of people they want to demonize or don’t understand.
Here we go again with the unfounded argument that women are somehow going to be assaulted or traumatized in a public restroom by the mere presence of a transgender woman. Of course, there’s no consideration of how traumatic it is for a transwoman to be forced to use the men’s restroom or locker room. And there’s also no evidence that transwomen are assaulting or scaring anyone in a public restroom. This is not a real-life problem.
Nevertheless, the Post reported this reaction from Ryan Anderson, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation: “On the same day he called for healing and unity, President Joe Biden signed a radical divisive transgender executive order that threatens the privacy and safety of women in single-sex facilities, equality and fairness in single-sex sports, and good medicine based on the reality that males and females are biologically different.”
“To be a bona fide conservative these days, you’re obliged to throw in the word ‘radical’ at every opportunity.”
See how he turned that from being about granting rights to a minority group to instead being all about protecting the privilege of the majority group? And to be a bona fide conservative these days, you’re obliged to throw in the word “radical” at every opportunity. The definition of which appears to be “anything I disagree with.”
And here is the itch that can never be scratched for religious conservatives in particular: Victory requires everyone else to adhere to their beliefs. Always. Without exception. It is a totalitarian mindset. Compromise is not valued.
Southern Baptist Convention ethicist Russell Moore also was quoted last week as looking for unity as defined by his own view of things. He told the Post he does not believe anyone should be mistreated, that all Americans should be treated with dignity and respect. However, he said, Scripture makes clear “you are male or female.”
We could stop here to pick apart the exact language of Genesis 1, which actually says God created “male and female,” not male or female. Thus, there is a good argument to be made that creation is not merely binary, just as God created day and night but we also know the reality of dawn and dusk. But that deserves a separate column.
“We could stop here to pick apart the exact language of Genesis 1, which actually says God created ‘male and female,’ not male or female.”
What Anderson and Moore and their followers fail to understand about the transgender community is that the vast majority do, indeed, identify as male or female. It’s just that their birth anatomy may not match that identity.
The same problem afflicts discussion around racial justice. Jonathan Chait, writing last week in the New Yorker, reported on conservative politicians who were offended by Biden’s inaugural address — a speech routinely described as “normal” and “customary” and even “vanilla.”
It wasn’t vanilla to Rand Paul, however. He went on Fox News to complain: “If you read his speech and listen to it carefully, much of it is thinly veiled innuendo calling us white supremacists, calling us racists.”
And Heather MacDonald, a scholar with the Manhattan Institute, picked up the “but-he-said-unity” card with this comment: “It’s an odd way to seek national unity: Call a significant portion of the American public white supremacists, racists and nativists.”
Yet nowhere in the speech did Biden say or imply that any of these offended people are racists. They seem to be outing themselves by their protestations.
“They seem to be outing themselves by their protestations.”
Chait gives us the back story on the word “unity.” He wrote: “Historically, unity has been used as a device to encourage white Americans to come together while ignoring racism.”
Because Black Americans have a justifiable suspicion of calls for “unity” still excluding them, Biden had to be specific in denouncing racism and white supremacy as not part of his vision for unity, Chait explained.
Now we’re to the bedrock problem: Is it morally acceptable to exclude some behaviors and attitudes from a unity platform? The answer must be “yes,” and conservatives know this because they’ve already argued for it. They want to exclude equal rights for the LGBTQ community from their vision of unity, but they don’t want the other side to exclude racism and racists from a vision of unity.
Yet a high school civics student should be able to see that these two issues are not alike. There is a difference in excluding views and actions that are actually harmful to people compared to excluding views and actions that are merely not liked by some people.
“There is a difference in excluding views and actions that are actually harmful to people compared to excluding views and actions that are merely not liked by some people.”
Except when you believe you are on a mission from God to police actions and attitudes of others. Then, your views become God’s views and you feel empowered to become God’s spokesperson on earth. That’s the plight of conservative Christian evangelicals. From this vantage point, “unity” is always getting what you want, because that’s clearly what God wants.
Maybe that’s why there was no conservative concern for unity when Justice Antonin Scalia died and Mitch McConnell blocked the president’s rightful nomination of a Supreme Court justice. Or when Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and McConnell didn’t even wait for her to be buried before rushing through a nominee to satisfy the religious right. There certainly was no unity in those events.
The reality is that it is rare to hear religious conservatives espousing “unity” except when it has been promised by others and they feel excluded from the unity or when it sounds good to appeal to unity to block progress.
We see this play out in churches as well as in national politics. Back to the LGBTQ issue as an example. Many church members who affirm the full inclusion of gay and lesbian members have served faithfully in non-affirming congregations for years, realizing at the time that their views were not the majority view of the congregation. They were willing to compromise for the sake of unity in the church. But when the tide turns and the majority view in the congregation tilts toward inclusion, the traditionalists almost always cannot abide compromise and leave. Because to compromise is to abandon their understanding of God’s law and God’s will. They like “unity” as long as their view is the unifying bond.
“They like ‘unity’ as long as their view is the unifying bond.”
While we might have more compassion for the divide on LGBTQ inclusion because this remains such a contested issue in the church, the harsh reality is that unity also remains elusive on issues that ought to be more settled. The chief example of that is racial justice.
There are not two valid ways to read Scripture on the issue of race. From beginning to end, our Scriptures make clear that God loves all humanity equally and without prejudice and wants us to work toward a level playing field. And yet, too many pastors when preaching this word of the Lord still get pushback from their white congregants, who refuse to acknowledge the reality and “inconvenience” of systemic racism.
And so these critics continue to block racial justice progress while claiming to be concerned about the unity of the church. They are not concerned about unity; they are concerned about maintaining the status quo and not having to adjust their own lives to the word of the Lord for our time.
Is true unity possible in the church and in our nation? At this point, I’m doubtful. Because we can’t even agree on a definition of the word “unity.” Congress is clearly broken, but the church and our personal relationships do not have to be so broken.
Perhaps the start is to consider whether “unity” is the wrong word, the wrong goal. Might it be wiser instead to seek simply cooperation, which is a necessary prerequisite to unity?
Unity is elusive right now because we see the world so differently. But cooperation on at least some things should be possible since the world has so many needs. A hyper-partisan Congress isn’t going to help us on this either, but we could make a difference from the ground up, if we choose to.
Amid our disunity, what is something we can cooperate to do together for the common good?
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global.
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Bonhoeffer Moment No. 3: When conscience fails and hypocrisy prevails | opinion by Bill Leonard