Christian Discriminators May Not Know They’re Anti-Gay

Demonstrators gather at Indianapolis’ Monument Circle on March 28, 2015, to protest Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Photo by Nate Chute/Reuters

In the latest development in a stunning week of anti-gay drama in Indiana, Memories Pizza, a Christian-owned pizzeria has announced that it will not cater same-sex weddings after the state passed a so-called “religious freedom” law. As a “Christian establishment,” said an owner, “if a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say no.”

For advocates of equality, it has been simply delicious to watch the train wreck Gov. Mike Pence has brought upon his state as massive resistance to the law has swept in and spurred a de facto boycott of Indiana. As a gay person, it’s been heartwarming to feel the enormous wave of support from corporations, professional sports associations, local governments, and celebrities who have united to express their abhorrence of this law.

It can be tempting to pile on the scorn for the O’Connor family, who own Memories Pizza, as they tell the news media with a straight face that refusing to serve gays is somehow not discrimination if it’s based in religion. But watching the news clips of the O’Connors and seeing the rush to pan their pizzeria on Yelp to retaliate for their bigotry, I almost felt sorry for them and the millions of other anti-gay Christians who seem genuinely not to understand how their views could be problematic in 2015. Indeed, as fun as it can be to watch and contribute to the pillorying of anti-gay Christians, reductive name-calling may actually be hindering progress for people on both sides of this issue.

First, let’s clarify what the new law does and doesn’t do: Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act is designed to let individuals and businesses opt out of any law that they can show unduly burdens their religious freedom. The law does not explicitly create a right to refuse service to LGBTQ people, but it didn’t need to; that’s already legal in Indiana—unless you live in one of a small number of municipalities that has local anti-discrimination protections. In those cases, the new law could be invoked to exempt religious people from treating gays equally (but a judge would have to determine that doing so is a substantial religious burden). An amendment proposed this morning would walk back those broad protections for discriminators but still leave LGBTQ Hoosiers without statewide protections.

Although modeled on a federal law and numerous state laws that are similar, the language, purpose, and impact of Indiana’s law is broader and far more radical than those laws, which were designed not to enable anti-gay discrimination but to protect true minorities like Native Americans, Jews, and Muslims from unnecessary government interference (think, for instance, of the use of peyote or the wearing of head coverings or beards in restricted places). It also comes at a time when federal court rulings have heightened the practical impact of such laws—legalizing gay marriage in Indiana to the chagrin of social conservatives and expanding the application of existing religious freedom laws to protect not just individuals but businesses.

So the law and its impact can only be properly understood in context. In a state with full protections against anti-gay discrimination, this type of law could be largely limited to barring religious persecution. In a state like Indiana, with no statewide anti-discrimination protections and with the broadest language yet, it is nothing but an effort to license discrimination in the name of religion.

Gov. Pence and other supporters of the law, like the owners of Memories Pizza, insist this isn’t so. “This bill is not about discrimination,” Pence has said repeatedly, “and if I thought it legalized discrimination I would have vetoed it.” Such claims are factually incorrect, as this trio of law professors showed in Slate, and as this exposé of the bill’s chief lobbyists reveals.

Gov. Pence surely knows this. But watch the video of Crystal O’Connor explaining her family’s decision to deny service for gay weddings, and you might agree with me that you’re watching someone offer her sincere understanding of her religious tradition. “We’re not discriminating against anyone,” she says, noting that opposing gay marriage is “just our belief, and anyone has the right to believe in anything.”

Now, just because it may be sincere does not make it right; it’s still discrimination. Indeed, it’s abundantly clear to anyone who thinks about it that citing religion in asserting anti-gay beliefs is prejudice pure and simple—just ask them for evidence of giving divorced people the same litmus test as gay people, and you’ll have proof of cherry-picking religious texts to suit a bias. Where, for instance, is the outcry to let adherents of the Old Testament stone adulterers to death?

But here’s the thing: Millions of people still haven’t thought about it. And even when they do, according to a growing body of research, their biases can lie beyond their own awareness. As I’ve described here and here, prejudice is largely unconscious. This applies especially to homophobia (though it also helps explain the crushing persistence of American racism long after the overwhelming majority of polite society has deemed it unacceptable). To cite just one example of the research on this phenomenon, Yale University psychologists were able to measure people’s self-perceptions of their views on homosexuality and then empirically measure their actual levels of tolerance. There was a significant gap between the two. The resulting point should be obvious but seems not to be in our cultural discourse: What people say (such as, “I don’t discriminate”) is often quite different from what they actually do or think—and not always because they’re being deceptive but, rather, because they’re being delusional.

Prejudice is universal, but particular prejudices are learned in particular contexts. This is what too many anti-gay Christians seem not to realize—there is no religious reason why the Bible’s anti-gay passages should have come to dominate the hearts and minds of Christian conservatives more than its passages condemning divorce or environmental degradation. Christianity doesn’t require actually withholding services for same-sex weddings any more than it requires stoning adulterers. This fixation on blocking gay equality is nothing but a rationalization for feelings and beliefs that many people hold quite apart from religious traditions (another fascinating body of research has tied both conservatives and anti-gay sentiment to heightened disgust sensitivity). These attitudes are, in certain circles, culturally learned and socially reinforced—not mandated by the Bible.

There is no doubt that many Christians truly think that by refusing to cater to same-sex marriages, they are simply being faithful to their religious tradition. They’re wrong. But they’re wrong because they lack self-knowledge, not because they are expressing socially unpopular views. And as fun as it may be to publicly sneer at their ignorance and to attribute it to malice, it may be more effective to nudge them toward self-examination, to offer a kind of amnesty for their sins of omission.

“Prejudice,” Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has written, “rises not from malice or hostile animus alone. It may result as well from insensitivity caused by simple want of careful, rational reflection.” This is a man the LGBTQ community and its allies will be keenly attuned to this month when the court hears oral arguments on whether same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. These words, too, should remain at the front of our minds.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act.