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Chris Steadman

Chris Stedman is an atheist, interfaith activist. (Photo credit: Blogspot)

By Rick Plasterer

The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University hosted a conservation and panel discussion with Harvard LBGT activist and atheist Chris Stedman concerning current developments with sexual orientation on college campuses on Friday, February 15. Stedman writes for the Huffington Post Gay Voices, and has recently authored a new book, Faithest, concerning how believers and unbelievers can relate to one another. This was followed by a discussion and question time with Chris Geidner, senior political reporter at BuzzFeed, and Sivagami (Shiva) Subbaraman, Director of the LGBTQ Resource Center at Georgetown University.

The spirit of the event, like that of the LGBT movement generally, showed why homosexual liberation cannot coexist with traditional Christianity. Stories of personal struggle with faith and sexuality engender sympathy, appeals to the dignity we share as human beings (and the consequent demand for acceptance in the group, which doesn’t really follow from our shared dignity), and finally the concept of rights that cannot be taken away where acceptance is resisted, and these were all apparent in the conversation. Stedman related his personal story, in which coming from a strictly non-religious family, he became an Evangelical Christian, finding in an Evangelical youth group structure, security, and a way to make sense of suffering at a time of his parents’ separation. This came apart two months later when he concluded that he was homosexual, and he ultimately rejected the faith, finding its claims to truth unbelievable. But he still sees value in “inter-faith dialogue,” which has informed much of his thinking. This has value in challenging “tribal boundaries” and will “build a more inclusive world.”

Stedman sees civil dialogue in a “safe space” as the way ahead for relations between believers and unbelievers on college campuses. But he sees “theonormativity” (a common social assumption that belief in God is proper) as a barrier to this. On the one hand, he finds a growing “theonormativity” among LGBT groups, and the use of “theonormative” language in these groups has the effect of marginalizing non-religious LGBT individuals. He remarked on the irony of having felt excluded at LGBT meetings when he considered himself a Christian (particularly when he wore a cross), and now seems to feel the same marginalization because of his atheism.  He also complained that the 2013 Presidential inauguration reflected growing theonormativity. Obama’s 2009 inaugural had referred specifically to non-believers, whereas the 2013 inaugural did not. Additionally, the invocation prayer included what he felt was exclusivist language in addressing a deity (“we pray for your blessing”). “If you listen to what he said … its very exclusive” of non-believers, Stedman said. On the other hand, Stedman felt that atheists can be too exclusive, alienating many in the wider society. But a relevant question for the requirement that group ideals be inclusive, making no one feel alienated, is how they can be ideals at all, since the very concept of an ideal is that deviation from it is wrong.

Outside of the government sphere, in private associations and educational institutions, homosexual groups and atheist/secular groups continue to struggle with acceptance, it was claimed. The Supreme Court’s decision against the Christian Legal Society (in which the court said that Hastings Law School could deny CLS recognition because it requires Christian belief and morality of its leaders) was applauded, claiming that the underlying idea the court used was that campus groups should further the educational experience. This seems to imply that “inclusivism” and acceptance of homosexuality should be doctrinal standards of educational institutions.

Sivagami (Shiva) Subbaraman discussed the experience of organized LGBT activity on the Georgetown campus. She said she was “not Catholic,” but had had extensive Catholic education in India.  She also said that her work is done through the lens of education, not theology, presumably meaning an education more comprehensive than theology. She said that developing the LGBTQ Resource Center at Georgetown was like “dancing through the minefield.” Many students do see Catholicism and LGBT identity as “conflicting identities,” she claimed. Consequently, many LGBT students leave the faith. But “thoughtful and powerful Jesuits” at Georgetown have been very helpful in her activities. It was noted that a common claim made by Christian educational institutions is that recognizing LGBT groups is contrary to the institutions’ mission as a religious institution, and the best strategy against this is for such groups is emphasize the rights of students. At Georgetown, appeal was made to the “rights to the fullest range of … humanity.” It was noted in an exchange with an LGBT student that LGBT activities would be more difficult at other Catholic institutions.

The relentless spirit and logic of inclusivism really raises the question of whether homosexual liberation and secularism will leave a “safe space” for exclusivist Christianity, exclusivist Catholicism, or any other exclusivist position. Stedman clearly thinks that such ideals as “safe space” and “inclusion” are good for society at large, and for public and private institutions within society. Neither Harvard, Georgetown, or Hastings Law School are exclusivist institutions, but where acceptance of homosexuality is achieved by appeal to the “rights” of students, likely a small minority of students, education and society will have moved a long way toward “inclusion” as a state doctrine from which there can be no dissent, denying the right of exclusivist Christians and other exclusivist groups to have their own “safe space” in a truly pluralistic society.

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