Sarah Gonzalez: I'm Sarah Gonzalez from NPR's Planet Money podcast. We tell stories about money and the economy. I'm in for Tanzina Vega this week, you're listening to The Takeaway.
The Equality Act is stuck in limbo. Not a single Republican in the Senate has signed on to the civil rights bill, which needs 60 votes to pass. One of the reasons cited by opponents is that the Equality Act would infringe upon religious freedoms. That's long been a common refrain from the Christian right when it comes to LGBTQ issues. According to recent polling from the Public Religion Research Institute, most people of faith, including Christians, actually support LGBTQ anti-discrimination protections like the Equality Act. About 75% of religious people in the US are in favor of these policies.
Media coverage surrounding the Equality Act has often pitted LGBTQ rights versus religious rights. What explains this rift between some lawmakers and their Christian constituents? Here to discuss all this and more is Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart, the director for Faith-Based and Interfaith Affairs for the City of Philadelphia and an adjunct professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University. Reverend, welcome to the show.
Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart: Thanks, Sarah. Good to be here.
Sarah Gonzalez: Also with us is Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, a fellow with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Guthrie, glad to have you with us also.
Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons: Thanks for having me on and covering this important topic.
Sarah Gonzalez: Yes. Guthrie, let's start, will you just share a bit about your own experiences as an LGBTQ member growing up in a Christian church, what kinds of messages did you hear from the pulpit?
Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons: Sure, thanks for that question. I'm fortunate to have grown up in a family and a church, a Methodist Church, where I didn't hear any message of condemnation from the pulpit. Then actually in high school, and then in college from my campus minister, when I was in the process of coming out, I heard pro-LGBTQ messages from the pulpit and heard about this wonderful movement of Christians who followed Jesus by loving their neighbor and welcoming LGBTQ people. Now my husband is a Presbyterian pastor, and we're surrounded by amazing queer Christians. I realized that that's my own personal bubble that I've grown up in, and feel an obligation to do this advocacy and make that the norm.
Sarah Gonzalez: Reverend Naomi, same question to you.
Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart: Yes, I too, grew up in a religious environment that was conservative but was not explicit in its anti-LGBTQ stance. That meant that sexuality, all kinds of sexuality was off the table. That's a particular kind of erasure that causes trauma and causes pain. I didn't know that I should be a sexual person. I thought that my body was a problem. I thought that my desires were a problem for my faith.
While I didn't grow up with virulent homophobia in my religious communities, I did grow up not understanding that my body was indeed a gift from God, and so was my sexuality. It wasn't until I was grown and in seminary that I met out Black LGBTQ+ folks of faith. I started to participate in congregations that were radically inclusive in an explicit way. Then I understood that not only was erasure a problem but that the silence was a tacit approval or consent to anti-LGBTQ sentiment.
I feel grateful that I didn't have to hear that I was an abomination necessarily while I was growing up, but I understand that it took me a long time to develop and come to myself as a queer person because sexuality just wasn't on the table.
Sarah Gonzalez: Reverend Naomi, with no Republicans signed on yet, it's unlikely that the Equality Act will move forward. Why do some in the Christian right think that this bill threatens religious freedoms? What's their argument?
Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart: I think it comes from a very narrow interpretation of what it means to be faithful, that religious rights, the right to express one's religious belief, one's religious understanding, without impunity, is somehow in conflict with these other very, very important civil rights. I think the bottom line is that people don't know any queer folks and have been taught that queerness is itself a sin. That is fueling much of the political sentiment that is hindering progress, particularly related to this Equality Act.
I think that what we're seeing is a culture shift, even religiously, that many Christian congregations specifically are now radically inclusive. That means that those congregations, those people of faith are going to have more and more voice, more and more say in what happens in the public square. The bottom line is that many folks feel like their power is being undermined, and they don't want that to happen.
Sarah Gonzalez: Guthrie, you have looked at how religion and LGBTQ+ rights are covered in the media. How are religious rights often pitted against LGBTQ rights in the media?
Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons: It's a sad, but I think it's a story that sells well that there are these God-fearing anti-LGBTQ advocates on one side. First, the secular LGBTQ activists want to destroy religion. That's a story that sells. The truth is that there's a growing movement for LGBTQ dignity in this country that includes the majority of people of all religious groups, and that's the story the media should be telling.
Sarah Gonzalez: Guthrie, does support for LGBTQ+ civil rights shift depending on denomination?
Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons: I think there's differences and every different denomination, and there's polling, but the story overall is that however you break it down, the support is consistent across religious groups, and it's grown just in my own lifetime. That's something to celebrate as a Christian and for people of all faiths and no faiths who value LGBTQ equality.
Sarah Gonzalez: Reverend Naomi, you've said that the Christian right has weaponized faith against the LGBTQ+ population, and the right has been able to successfully claim religion over the left, at least politically, right?
Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart: I think that depends on how you look at it. I think that there have always been progressive people of faith, but I think that the more resourced arguments are the ones that get prominence in the national discourse. What I'm excited about is that more and more people are coming out as it were, as supportive and allies and accomplices of the LGBTQ+ communities, and the more queer folks are coming out as people of faith. The monopoly on that political voice is closing, is ending. I think with more resources, with more platforms, we too can wade into the conversation and have some influence.
Sarah Gonzalez: Guthrie, this poll showed that most religions actually support the Equality Act, which would add non-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Before this poll came out, did you feel like this was the case? Did you feel like you were hearing from more religious people supporting the LGBTQ community than not supporting them?
Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons: We have over 120 faith-based organizations now that have endorsed the Equality Act. There is a petition delivered to Congress that had over 17,000 people of different faiths voicing their support for the Equality Act. I'm also seeing allies speak out more and more. There's been a lot of commentary about people who have left non-affirming churches, and we see some decline in religious affiliation because of that.
I keep hearing from allies who say they want to be in a church that affirms the dignity of all. That's been surprising to me in a wonderful way to see people want to embrace this mission that doesn't even affect them personally but it may affect a family member or a friend so they're voicing their solidarity.
Sarah Gonzalez: Reverend Naomi, it certainly feels like there is a hard line between the religious right and those who support LGBTQ+ protections. Are lawmakers like all of the Senate Republicans who have not signed on to the civil rights bill, are they just not hearing from all of their religious constituents? Are they hearing from just a vocal minority of Christians? How is there this disconnect?
Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart: Yes, I do think that there's a problem with our ability to project into the public space, those of us who support the Equality Act, and any measure that protects LGBTQ+ people. I think that it behooves our lawmakers to listen fully to their constituencies, and not just the same voices that have dominated the conversation so far.
Sarah Gonzalez: Guthrie, when we think about how the news media has helped perpetuate the idea of religious freedom versus LGBTQ+ rights, is the issue here that this is just an old narrative that there used to be a pretty clear line but that now there's more widespread Christian support for LGBTQ issues and the news media just hasn't reflected the changing landscape?
Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons: That's certainly part of it, but I think another aspect is that conservative Christians have such a hold and their toxic relationship when former president Trump on the Republican party. That's a pretty easy story to tell. Progressive faith is much more diverse and complicated, you have progressive Christians of different denominations. You have people of different faiths. You have a very large and growing unaffiliated religiously community in the United States that also tends to be more progressive.
It's a more complicated question, which I think is a harder story to tell but it's an important one because the news media does have an obligation to reflect the accurate views of our religious communities in this country. We put out a study in December from the Center for American Progress that showed anti-LGBTQ religious voices are disproportionately cited by the news media. I do think the onus is on progressive people of faith to voice, to speak up, and on the news media to improve its coverage and I'm glad you're having this conversation again.
Sarah Gonzalez: Reverend, what are the consequences of the perceived divide?
Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart: Well, I think about for LGBTQ+ people who are seeing this play out in public, more and more of us are experiencing trauma and re-trauma due to these religiously harmful messages. I want every queer kid, every trans kid, to know that God loves you and that you are indeed a gift to the world. Regardless of what's going on politically, I want folks to know that and that faith should not be used against you. Faith should only be used to welcome you and include you. We really need to look at the implications for these political debates on the hearts and minds of queer and trans kids everywhere.
Sarah Gonzalez: Guthrie, to be fair, there is a very real history of harm against the LGBTQ+ community within some Christian communities, I don't want to minimize that.
Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons: Many LGBTQ people have good reason to not want anything to do with the church and we have to honor that harm and why people leave. At the same time, churches are changing, churches are more fully living out the gospel. Across this country in large communities, in small communities, people are more fully embracing that love of all. Both of those things are true and we can talk about them both and make sure people are aware of how Christianity is changing in a very good and positive way in this regard.
Sarah Gonzalez: Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons is a fellow with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress and Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart is the director of Faith-Based and Interfaith Affairs for the City of Philadelphia and an adjunct professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University. Thank you both for joining us.
Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart: Thank you.
Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons: Thank you.
Gayle Turner: This is Gayle Turner from Richmond, Virginia. I'm what you'd call a progressive Episcopalian. I believe God instructed us to love one another, no exceptions. On top of that, doesn't our constitution promises equality for all?
Rev. Julia Wright: I'm Rev. Julia Wright. I serve as the College Chaplain in New Concord, Ohio. I fully support the Equality Act and any LGBTQ+ civil rights legislation. I spend nearly half of my pastoral care time counseling students through the trauma of unsupportive families and churches. I believe that as a nation, we need to get over the idea that there's something wrong with our LGBTQ+ siblings and acknowledge that they are in fact, the beloved children of God.
Kate: This is Kate in Eugene, Oregon. I am Roman Catholic, and I believe that we should love one another and see the face of God in all our fellow human beings.
Speaker 6: [unintelligible 00:14:03] from Quilcene Washington. I support all civil rights. Any person of faith should, it's ludicrous to think that any child of God, no matter what color, what sexual orientation, should not be treated equally.
Mark Manheimer: I very strongly support the equality act as every one of us, including LGBTQ individuals should have the exact same civil rights. It is absolutely absurd that we even need to create such legislation. I am endlessly appalled that anyone of faith or otherwise would deny equal rights to anyone in this or any country. We are all exactly the same. We are people. We are human beings. Thank you. This is Mark Manheimer from Bradford, Massachusetts.
Sean Tomlinson: My name is Sean Tomlinson. I live in Newton, Kansas. To answer your question of whether or not I support the Equality Act for LGBTQ people, I do. I'm a practicing Mainline Christian, Methodist. I believe that Jesus came for all people. It's not up to us as who is equal or not. Everyone is equal in God's eyes and everyone deserves protection.
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