The Power of Conversation

Bettina Krause July/August 2023
Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Ground zero for religious liberty conflict in America today is the ongoing clash between religious freedom rights and LGBT rights—in the courts, in the media, and in our social media feeds.

For a growing number of Americans, “religious freedom” has become merely code for bigotry. From this perspective, those who seek religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws are using religious freedom as a “sword” to harm others.

Yet for others, religious freedom claims have become a last-ditch defense against what they believe is a hostile majority that’s trying to force them, and their traditional religious beliefs about human sexuality, to the cultural margins.

Clearly these two perspectives are irreconcilable. Aren’t they?

In recent years some religious liberty and LGBT rights advocates, along with representatives of some religious denominations, have been working to challenge that assumption. They’re advocating for a piece of federal legislation called Fairness for All. This legislation would provide important protection for LGBT people in housing, employment, and other areas, while providing strong religious freedom protections for those who hold to historic religious views of sexuality. The goal of this unlikely coalition is simple. It’s not to change people’s beliefs, but rather to find the best way for all Americans to live together as good neighbors.

Tyler Deaton, senior advisor to the American Unity Fund.

Bettina Krause, editor of Liberty magazine, recently spoke with Tyler Deaton, senior advisor to the American Unity Fund, a conservative LGBT and religious freedom advocacy organization.

Bettina Krause: There’s an almost inescapable narrative around questions of LGBT rights and religious liberty that says these two things are not compatible. They’re fundamentally at odds with each other. Is that your experience?

Tyler Deaton: I think there are many people on the political extremes who make a living by being extreme. They make a living by saying we can’t find a compromise, we can’t reconcile, we can’t work together. There are whole political cottage industries around absolutism. But most Americans live between the 20-yard lines—they agree on most basic things, including dignity, respect, and equal opportunity. Most of the time the people who are loudest aren’t necessarily speaking for the greatest number of people. They’re just loud.

In my experience, many gay and trans people are people of faith who grew up in church. Probably many of them have complicated relationships with their church and with their religious upbringing. But most people I know, they’re not angry about it. They’re still happy in their families, with their parents, their grandparents, and their siblings. They know there are many things they’re going to disagree on, but they still love each other.

So I think this is what drives the Fairness for All project. At its core there’s this sense of love for one another. It was inspired by a practical experience in the state of Utah, where in 2015 gay rights groups and religious groups came together to pass legislation. And this is good news. We’re not talking about something that’s purely theoretical. We’re not just saying, “Oh, let’s all get along and sing Kumbaya.” No, this is something that has already been done successfully. The engagement across faith lines and across communities has been proven to work.

It also worked in Congress last year, where people of faith came together with some gay rights groups and passed an amended version of the Respect for Marriage Act that provided some of the broadest protections for religious freedom in the past 30 years. And that was done with gay rights leaders and religious leaders finding common ground on a narrow issue, a public policy issue, and making it happen.

I understand the skepticism. I think people should be skeptical. They’ve seen a lot of conflict over these issues, and it’s gotten worse during the past 30 years. But after being appropriately skeptical, we should then take a look at what’s actually happening in American politics and recognize where working together has made positive gains. This should give us hope; a reason to believe that the Fairness for All approach is sustainable and could continue to grow.

Bettina: When I talk to people about Fairness for All, the most frequent concern I hear is a fear of moral compromise. There’s a perception, perhaps, that legal or political compromise always equals moral compromise. And this isn’t a fear just on the right, among those who may be conservative and religious. I also hear it from the left, where some believe that any legal accommodation for religious freedom on issues of human sexuality is morally unacceptable. You’re saying, though, that in the coalition you work with, there are individuals who hold very different beliefs on these issues. Yet you’re still working together.

Tyler: I’m working with people who tell me that they don’t agree with my marriage, and that’s OK. I disagree with all sorts of things that my coworkers and my friends do, but I’m willing to accept that we make different choices. That doesn’t always define everything about who we are. And it certainly doesn’t define everything about our working relationship with one another. We can limit our work to the areas where we can find common ground.

Is a legislative compromise a moral compromise? No, not necessarily. It could be, and that would be a very bad legislative approach. But we have never asked anyone we work with to change their view on marriage, or to change a single theological position.

We’re not asking anyone to change what they believe. Instead, we’re narrowing the question to what’s right for public policy.

Look at it this way. Religious freedom protects the freedom of everyone to believe according to their conscience. It protects the right of someone to believe things that I might not necessarily like or agree with. But I certainly wouldn’t want to see members of other faiths discriminated against or in any way demeaned because of their faith views. When you wrap your mind around what that looks like, it’s clear that we already tolerate a lot of potentially offensive views in the name of religious freedom. I think this can make it easier to understand what the Fairness for All project is about. We’re not asking people to bend their faith or change a single thing that they believe, but simply to accommodate the worldviews of other people whose beliefs may be radically different but are just as sincere.

Bettina: So why do you think this particular public policy discussion generates so much acrimony—from both the left and the right?

Tyler: I think there are two halves to that problem. The first is there’s not a lot of trust between those who are negotiating these issues—whether you say that’s Democrats and Republicans, or gay rights groups and religious denominations. There’s not a lot of connective tissue. People come to the table assuming negative intent from the other side. So you’ve first got to build the connective tissue, build some trust, build some relationships. Again, I believe that’s what happened in Utah with Fairness for All. That’s what happened last year when Congress passed the Respect for Marriage Act.

But the other half of the problem is that everybody wants to solve everything all at once. There are a lot of issues that need to be worked through, and if you’re going to try to deal with everything at once, you’re never going to find agreement.

In some ways this is a bigger problem than lack of trust. When people aren’t willing to narrow the scope of the question or address a narrower problem, that creates a challenging environment. But if you can say instead, “Let’s just fix civil rights protections, employment protections, and housing.” Or “Let’s just talk about what’s happening with federal financial aid on religious college campuses.” Then you can start to really figure how to address these narrow, defined challenges.

For instance, Christian colleges want their students to be eligible for every possible opportunity that students would have at a secular college. And that makes sense. There’s nothing divisive or discriminatory about that. At the same time, gay people don’t want to lose their job just because they’re gay. And so if you can simply crystallize a conversation around specifics, it’s a lot easier to find common ground.

This is an important starting point: knowing that we’re not going to agree on everything and we’re not trying to agree on everything. Instead, we’re trying to agree on a narrow set of values around religious freedom and LGBT rights, looking for a solution that satisfies and respects everyone.

Article Author: Bettina Krause

Bettina Krause is the editor of Liberty magazine.