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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Dan Savages the Bible and Christians on Anti-Gay Bullying 

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

This video of the popular syndicated columnist Dan Savage speaking at a high school journalism conference in Seattle is generating some impassioned (to put it mildly) comments on YouTube. The creator of the “It Gets Better” video project spoke to aspiring young journalists on April 13 about “alternative media, social media, and creating a movement against bullying,” which turned into a bit of a profane rant against the core source of belief for Christians: the Bible. A number of students walked out; a number of students laughed and cheered.

In response to the backlash from believers and non-believers alike, Mr. Savage responded on The Stranger's Slog blog, “I would like to apologize for describing that walk out as a pansy-assed move. I wasn’t calling the handful of students who left pansies (2800+ students, most of them Christian, stayed and listened), just the walk-out itself.”

Here’s a transcript to accompany the video. Decide for yourself whether Mr. Savage’s comments were out of line or appropriate for the situation. Or, by upping the divisive rhetoric, I have to wonder if he furthered his aim of helping gay children and young adults from being harmed:

"The Bible. We’ll just talk about the Bible for a second. People often point out that they can’t help it. They can’t help with the anti-gay bullying because it says right there in Leviticus, it says right there in Timothy, it says right there in Romans that being gay is wrong.

We can learn to ignore the bulls**t in the Bible about gay people. The same way we have learned to ignore the bulls**t in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity, about masturbation. We ignore the bulls**t in the Bible about all sorts of things. The Bible is a radically pro-slavery document. Slaveowners waved Bibles over their heads during the Civil War, and justified it.

The shortest book in the New Testament is a letter from Paul to a Christian slaveowner about owning his Christian slave. And Paul doesn’t say, ‘Christians don’t own people.’ Paul talks about how Christians own people. We ignore what the Bible says about slavery because the Bible got slavery wrong.

Sam Harris in Letter to a Christian Nation points out that the Bible got the easiest moral question that humanity has ever faced wrong: slavery. What are the odds that the Bible got something as complicated as human sexuality wrong 100 percent.

The Bible says that if your daughter is not a virgin on her wedding night, if a woman isn’t a virgin on her wedding night, she shall be dragged to her father’s doorstep and stoned to death. Callista Gingrich lives. And there is no effort, there is no effort to amend state constitutions to make it legal to stone women to death on their wedding night, if they’re not virgins. At least not yet. We don’t know where the GOP is going these days.

People are dying because people can’t clear this one last hurdle. They can’t get past this one last thing in the Bible about homosexuality.

Umm, one other thing I want to talk about is… [laughs to himself] So you can tell the Bible guys in the hall that they can come back now because I’m done beating up the Bible.

[applause and cheers from audience]

It’s funny as someone who’s on the receiving end of beatings that are justified by the Bible, how pansy-a**ed some people react when you push back. So I apologize if I hurt anyone’s feelings… but, I have a right to defend myself and to point out the hypocrisy of people who justify anti-gay bigotry by pointing to the Bible and insisting we must live by the code of Leviticus on this one issue and no other.”

In spite of everything that’s gone before, the last 12 months have been the happiest and most special of my life. To become a parent is a blessing I never imagined might be bestowed upon me until recently. It’s an awe-inspiring responsibility and both David and I are determined to fulfil that responsibility — not just to our son but to his generation. We want him to grow up in a Britain where every young person is not just loved as much as we love him, but is afforded fair treatment and respect. However, as we start thinking about Zachary’s future education, it’s clear that this Britain doesn’t exist yet.

Elton John on Comment is Free, "I want Zachary to grow up in a world without homophobia"

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor


The Key to Relationship? Good Old-Fashioned Conversation about Everyday Topics

by Krista Tippett, host

Anthony Appiah(photo: © Beowulf Sheehan)

Of all the "Civil Conversation Project" voices we’ve interviewed, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s credentials are the most erudite and global. He is the president of the PEN American Center, a Princeton philosopher, and an American citizen raised and educated between the country we now know as Ghana and the United Kingdom. He has written sweeping, fascinating, and influential books, including Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers and The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. In his latest work, he analyzes the real-world ingredients of social change and “moral progress” in disparate times and places — the end of foot-binding in China, for example, or of the slave trade as a social and economic staple of the British Empire.

Anthony Appiah also has a rare kind of personal moral authority with which to analyze such things, and that makes him the kind of voice I love.

His intellectual passion is leavened by life experience. He is the product of a seismic cultural shift that seemed unimaginable but then transpired within a generation. Every culture has had these. In my lifetime, there is the fact that black people were still sitting in the backs of buses in American cities. And the interracial 1953 marriage of Anthony Appiah’s African father and British mother — the daughter of a former chancellor of the exchequer — was condemned as morally repugnant, the stuff of global headlines.

I pursue a bit of a thought experiment with him for the purposes of this conversation. What if we considered the breakdown of civility in American political, media, and cultural life as a moral crisis — a condition fed by our worst instincts and destructive of our highest ideals, which will rot us from the inside if we don’t address and correct it? How might Anthony Appiah’s knowledge about moral change inform our words and actions moving forward?

For all the gravity of that question and the scholarly intelligence Anthony Appiah brings to it, his response is a relief. Sometimes we need to address difference head-on, he says, but often the best way is to “sidle up to it” — to accept and live it without forcing agreement or even addressing it head on.

He echoes a point made forcefully by Frances Kissling on this program, speaking from the context of the abortion debate, that our rush to come to agreement can get in the way of really understanding each other. But Anthony Appiah brings this closer to the ground. He muses on how differences retain their vitality within extended networks of friendship and family — not going away, often, but also not presenting a stumbling block to relationship. Appiah is a gay man, and he relates in his personal history experiences of family who may not accept his sexuality as moral, but with whom he can stay in loving relationship.

What we need more than agreement, he says, are simple habits of association with different others, encounters that breed familiarity. There is real social and even moral value to be had, he suggests, when we connect with others even on the most mundane topics of who we are and how we spend our days — whether it be soccer or football, shared hobbies or parenting. In fact, Anthony Appiah says, this kind of human exchange — as much a matter of presence as of words — is the old-fashioned meaning of the word “conversation.”

The trick in our time, of course, is that the world is conspiring against human presence even as it gives us a million new ways to connect. We have to work particularly hard to seek out those who are different from us. Anthony Appiah’s analysis on this point is provocative and helpful, one other piece of the puzzle of what has gone awry in what we used to call “common life.”

Yet even here, his prescriptions are doable. He tells a story of one especially formative relationship from his early life that he calls a great piece of good fortune. As a left-leaning student activist, he formed a friendship with an arch-conservative neighbor. He agreed with this man on virtually nothing, yet they conversed in a spirit of neighborliness and friendliness. This experience of connection that held and contained difference, he says, has shaped his movement through the world ever since. These, surely, are the kinds of encounters we could all begin instantaneously to nudge into existence, to sidle up to, and to do so with our children. I for one will be looking, with relief, for such good old-fashioned conversation.


Are Theological Conversations on Homosexuality Really Pointless?

by Jared Vázquez, guest contributor

Communion - Easter 2008At Wallingford United Methodist Church in Seattle, Washington, the pastor invites everyone to the communion table on Easter Sunday. (photo: © Michael Spencer/Flickr)

I admit that I was taken by surprise when I saw this tweet summarizing theologian and biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann as saying that theological conversations about homosexuality are futile. As I have read some of Mr. Brueggemann’s writing and have a great deal of respect for him and his prophetic calls to justice, I promptly went about listening to the interview in question:

"I’ve asked myself, ‘Why in the church does the question of gays and lesbians have such adrenaline.’ And I’ve decided, for myself, that that means most of what we’re arguing about with gays and lesbians has nothing to do with gays and lesbians. It is, rather, that the world is not the way we thought it was going to be. There have always been gays and lesbians; we’d have to acknowledge them.

It’s not fashionable any more to protest pushy blacks. It’s not fashionable to protest pushy women. Those battles are lost, or won. But you can still have great moral indignation around gays and lesbians.

And so I think what has happened is that we’ve taken all of our anxiety about the old world disappearing and we’ve dumped it all on that issue. So, I have concluded that it’s almost futile to have the theological argument about gays and lesbians any more because that’s not what the argument is about.” 

You see, I’m a seminary student, and I’m gay. This, for me, has meant that all of my academic work has surrounded the need for dialogue regarding this very issue. In most denominations there remain deep divisions on issues about whether or not gays should be ordained, whether they should be allowed to marry, or whether they are even welcome in churches.

I took Mr. Brueggemann to mean that such conversations are futile in that issues like homosexuality should be a non-issue — that churches should be able to move past this issue. However, this position ignores the cry of gay people for justice that remains unrealized in many places. As long as theology and biblical scripture are used to marginalize gay people (or anyone for that matter), the conversation is anything but futile! Churches can’t move past this issue because it is still an issue.

Walter Brueggemann has an advantage that I as a gay man do not have; he does not live with the very real threat of homophobia. Enjoying one of the highest places of privilege in our society (straight, white, and male), he has the luxury of being unaffected. He will likely never be hollered at from across the way with insults about whom he shares his bed with. To not have a conversation about the theological basis for the hate that many Christians direct at gay persons ignores our oppression at the hands of those Christians.

But why take the time to dialogue with those who believe my lifestyle is wrong? Because I believe that conversation matters. It is true that there may always be those who are uninterested in conversation. They desire shouting matches that rarely prove anything aside from who can shout the loudest. Still, I believe that most everyone can be drawn into dialogue that does not aim to convert, but rather to foster understanding of one another.

Hans-Georg GadamerIn Truth and Method, German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer wrote that the most important thing in human relationships is to experience the other in a way that allows them to really speak to us. In this kind of communication, says Gadamer, we do not merely listen and then leave unaffected. Rather, we are changed by way of this experience with another individual.

For this kind of change to occur, for us to be affected by another, we must be open to accepting something from them. I believe that the simple act of pausing in order to have such a dialogue demonstrates an openness to this relational experience that is already present; though it may be deeply hidden.

For those who stand with the oppressed, who seek to bring about justice, taking advantage of that pause, and engaging in dialogue, is essential if justice is to be realized. The challenge is that we must also be willing to be affected by that other individual. For those of us who have experienced blatant hate, this is a scary thought because it asks us to remain vulnerable in front of those we may perceive as enemies. Yet, that openness is what I find so valuable in dialogue. It teaches us to coexist, hopefully in peace.

Let me use metaphor familiar to Christians. The communion table is a place where the church gathers and there represents the community of Christ. Though Christians hold differing ideas about what happens at communion, a common understanding is that in that sacrament there is a deep — even mystical — connection to each other and the divine. It represents the highest form of community for Christians.

Can that image not translate to dialogue, even a theological one, whose aim is to bring about understanding of the marginalized and thus promote justice? Can churches create spaces of communion in which theological conversations about homosexuality are not futile, but are instead catalysts for social justice? Can these conversations lead us to a deep connection to one another and even to the sacred?

I think so. More than that, I think that is precisely what we are called to do.

Jared VázquezJared Vázquez is a third-year Masters of Divinity student at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Jared’s research interests lie in embodiment, identity, and intersectionality. He plans to pursue a Ph.D. in social ethics with focus on latina/o queer experience. Most recently Jared has been accepted to the 2011 class of the HRC’s Summer Institute for Religion and Theology.

We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.


A Home for Middle Eastern Gay Men to Celebrate Both Identities

by Andrew Khouri, USC graduate journalism student

Club NurOn the dance floor at Club Nur in Los Angeles. (photo: Andrew Khouri)

“The hookah breaks the ice,” said the man behind the bar.

A collection of old, silver-painted water pipes styled as light fixtures hang above his head, bathing in gold a crowd of men as they puff away on flavored tobacco below. The pulsating beat of Arabic music wafts onto the outdoor patio from inside the bar, where throngs of gay men dance together, and scantily clad male go-go dancers gyrate on stages.

A similar scene of rhythm, smoke, and liquor plays out nightly throughout Los Angeles, a city revered for its immigrant and gay cultures. But for party-goers at this weekly romp, the atmosphere was a new one. Most hailed from the Middle East, where homosexuality carries social and sometimes even legal punishment. In Saudi Arabia, homosexual sex carries a maximum penalty of death, and even in Lebanon, which has a burgeoning gay club scene, “sexual intercourse contrary to nature” is illegal.

Read More

It is not an overnight cure. We can’t force the boys to change, but we want them to know what their choices are in life. Some effeminate boys end up as a transvestite or a homosexual, but we want to do our best to limit this.

Razali Daud, education director of the Malaysian state of Terrengganu

Malaysian authorities, the Telegraph reports, has ordered 66 Muslim schoolboys to attend a reform camp where they will receive religious classes and “physical guidance.” At the four-day camp to promote Muslim morality, the boys, who were identified as their teachers as being effeminate, will receive counseling on masculine behavior to discourage them from being gay.

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor


The Passing of Thomas Merton’s Mentor at Gethsemani

Father Thomas Keltyby Krista Tippett, host

Beautiful, beautiful article by Louis Ruprecht at Religion Dispatches on the death of Fr. Matthew Kelty, long-time fellow monk and mentor of Thomas Merton at Gethsemani Abbey.

Lou retells some of Merton’s story here, in a fresh and human way, but also some of the story of this lesser-known light of Gethsemani. I’ve heard from monastics across the years how great a teacher on the deepest meaning of celibacy this gay man was.

(photo: Peter Jordan)


The Consequence of Cohabitation

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

Conservative Political Action Conference 2011A participant writes on a “Why Are You Conservative?” poster at the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, DC. (photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

"The pro-life movement is definitely very appealing to younger evangelical Christians. … Definitely pushing the whole gay marriage thing, that’s more toward older folks. I don’t feel like our generation really cares about that at all."
Josh Kunkle, a senior at Manchester College on NPR

While some conservative mainstays boycotted the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this year to protest the inclusion of GOProud, an advocacy group “representing gay conservatives and their allies,” younger attendees came in droves. Polling data shows that Millennials — those born after 1980 — are more likely than any other generation to support gay marriage. This trend was reflected at CPAC, too.

Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah characterizes this attitudinal shift as “the consequence of cohabitaton.” He says today’s college students are less homophobic because they’ve grown up knowing other gay peers — people they may or may not have liked, but who are nevertheless “just part of the normal range of what’s around” and therefore “the idea that these people are particularly horrendous is just not one that you can sell.”


Listener Demands Apology and a Civil Exchange Results

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Civility Saves
(photo: Metal Chris/Flickr, reprinted with Creative Commons license)

Chad Smyser, a listener from New York City, took us to task for our editorial decision to broadcast and podcast a recent show featuring Evangelical leader Richard Mouw. He wrote:

I am so disappointed in last week’s episode.

This broadcast was ill-timed in the wake of the hate crimes in New York and the suicide at Rutgers. In addition, at a time when SOF is transitioning its brand identity, one would think the choice of material would be less divisive.

I have listened to your show for years. It has brought great comfort and understanding into my life. I will continue to listen, even in the wake of what I consider to be a giant gaffe from a show that I deeply respect. Would the show have given voice to someone who supported Virginia’s anti-interracial marriage laws in 1967, no matter how civil the voice? In my mind, this is what “On Being” did, translating it to 2010.

But civility in the political and religious arena is such an important topic! I wish it had been explored in a way that didn’t highlight one man’s disapproval of gay marriage. I long to be respectful of other folks’ beliefs, struggles and communal aspirations. Regrettably, it is impossible for anyone who believes in equality to reconcile Mr. Mouw’s beliefs on gay marriage. How is it civil to deny someone his or her right to marry the one he or she loves? An on-air apology to your gay and lesbian listeners would be most welcome.

The language used on one of the Facebook posts (“No matter what your opinion on gay rights”) was appalling. While I’m sure it was unintentional, I feel that the show really needs to clear the air.

All the best,
Chad Smyser

This critique echoed many other listeners’ reactions to the show. And, we answered as many as we could. But, it was the following exchange between Kate Moos, our executive producer, and Chad that offers an example of what quality conversation can be when we are honest, open, and vulnerable with one another:

Dear Chad,

Thanks for taking the time to write. I’m sorry the show disappointed you. There has been some follow up on our blog, and there will likely be more. Our internal editorial process was quite fraught along some the same lines of question and concern you describe. The program itself was not designed to be—and wasn’t—a show about the gay marriage and gay civil rights issues. It was aimed at the broader topic of civility. But Mouw’s position on gay marriage colors his authority—in many peoples’ view—for other topics of moral weight.

We argued about this and wrestled with it. Ultimately, we felt it was important to factor in the people with whom Mouw is in a distinct position to have high authority: other conservative Christians, whom he is taking to task and challenging to greater compassion, humility and civility. In fact, we received an email yesterday from one of those conservative Christians who has been paralyzed in her relationships with 2 close family members who are gay. She wrote to thank us because she was heart-broken and felt Mouw gave her a way to be in relationship with them, and in some sense, gave her permission to love them. So that is another impact of this program.

We would not have a guest on our show who would defend inter-racial marriage laws. And yet your point is taken—theological thinkers and religious people have erred badly in the past, and continue to err on matters of central moral gravity, things like slavery, voting rights, and marriage. Some people clearly put Mouw in that category.

The idea was to challenge all of us to keep listening through our most profound disagreements.

Chad, I am a lesbian who is long partnered, and who went to Canada to be married a few years ago—believe me I was challenged in producing this show, to keep listening to a point of view that I find in its essence a condemnation of my life. I am also related to people who share Mouw’s view of gay-lesbian marriage, and of the essential sinfulness of homosexuality. I struggle mightily to keep an open heart for them. This is where we are living, all of us, in this kind of contention.

I am not writing back to you to counter what you say but perhaps to amplify it. We will be posting reflections on this show in the coming days that might help “clear the air.” If you have other thoughts on how we can do that I’d love to hear them.

Thanks for writing, and peace.
Kate Moos

And Chad’s reply:

Dear Kate,

I am deeply touched and grateful for your thoughtful, heartfelt reply. Perhaps this episode struck such a dissonant chord with me because, like you, I struggle with the issue of civility and open mindedness in dealing with folks in my own family and circle of acquaintances. It was Mr. Mouw’s views on homosexuality in the context of creating an open dialogue amongst people of vastly varying viewpoints that really caused my disappointment.

Also, I look to SOF/Being as one of my touchstones to a spiritual life. I was raised evangelical and threw out all things spiritual when I came out. I thought that the two were mutually exclusive. It was really your show that allowed me to find a way back to belief in something bigger than myself. Through SOF I discovered the quiet revolution of Thich Nhat Hahn. I started uncovering the secular movement toward well-being via Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness and Andrew Freear’s architecture. I even felt a deep kinship with Shane Claiborne, although his views on homosexuality certainly aren’t akin to mine. Nevertheless, his spirit of subversive inclusiveness and social justice really appeals to me.

I am moved by the response of one of your conservative Christian listeners who struggles to find a way to have a relationship with her gay relatives. Perhaps this one outcome is worth all the confusion and anger gays and lesbians may have felt. Furthermore, I suppose this episode has truly challenged my views on civility and dealing with those whose views I know are empirically wrong when it comes to homosexuality, yet with whom I must find a way to reconcile. There is nothing more human than failure. I would be well advised to accept others’ failure as well as my own.

I continue to look forward to the journey from “Faith” to “Being.” Airing your and the staff’s own struggles with this episode would be a great help to your gay and lesbian listeners. Understanding your journey has profoundly affected mine.


Of course we are sensitive to these types of personal conversations, so I requested Chad’s permission to publish the exchange, to which he replied with a graceful note:

Dear Trent,

Yes, you may publish our correspondence. I am very grateful for Kate’s response, and I imagine that it will speak to others. It really helped me to understand the spirit behind Krista’s conversation with Mr. Mouw, along with the editorial struggles that went into its production.

All the best,

American Christians Believe Church Teachings Contribute to Negative Messages of Gay and Lesbian People
by Anne Breckbill, associate web developer
Our recent show on civility with Evangelical leader Richard Mouw elicited many impassioned responses from our listeners, especially on his comments about homosexuality. Some questioned whether Mouw can truly strike a civil tone and see LGBT people as “a work of art by the God whom I worship” while still condemning homosexuality as a sin and opposing laws that would grant the same rights to same-sex couples as heterosexual couples currently receive.
Last Thursday, the Public Religion Research Institute released findings from a poll showing that two-thirds of Americans see a connection between the negative messages that come out of places of worship and the suicide incidence among LGBT youth. The pie chart above illustrates how Americans view the relationship between negative religious messages about homosexuality and the incidence of gay suicides.
This same poll shows that less than one in five Americans believe churches have done a good job dealing with homosexuality. Who feels that they do the best job in handling this issue? I found those results particularly interesting:

"Of all religious groups, white evangelicals are most likely to give their own church high marks for handling the issue of homosexuality. Three-quarters of white evangelicals give their church an "A" (48%) or "B" (27%). Among white mainline Protestants and Catholics, only about 4-in-10 give their church an "A" or "B." Catholics were most likely to give their churches negative marks, with nearly one-third giving their churches a "D" (15%) or an "F" (16%).

If you’re interested, you can view the topline questionnaire on the PRR website.

American Christians Believe Church Teachings Contribute to Negative Messages of Gay and Lesbian People

by Anne Breckbill, associate web developer

Our recent show on civility with Evangelical leader Richard Mouw elicited many impassioned responses from our listeners, especially on his comments about homosexuality. Some questioned whether Mouw can truly strike a civil tone and see LGBT people as “a work of art by the God whom I worship” while still condemning homosexuality as a sin and opposing laws that would grant the same rights to same-sex couples as heterosexual couples currently receive.

Last Thursday, the Public Religion Research Institute released findings from a poll showing that two-thirds of Americans see a connection between the negative messages that come out of places of worship and the suicide incidence among LGBT youth. The pie chart above illustrates how Americans view the relationship between negative religious messages about homosexuality and the incidence of gay suicides.

This same poll shows that less than one in five Americans believe churches have done a good job dealing with homosexuality. Who feels that they do the best job in handling this issue? I found those results particularly interesting:

"Of all religious groups, white evangelicals are most likely to give their own church high marks for handling the issue of homosexuality. Three-quarters of white evangelicals give their church an "A" (48%) or "B" (27%). Among white mainline Protestants and Catholics, only about 4-in-10 give their church an "A" or "B." Catholics were most likely to give their churches negative marks, with nearly one-third giving their churches a "D" (15%) or an "F" (16%).

If you’re interested, you can view the topline questionnaire on the PRR website.


How Do We Live and Honor Each Other Despite Our Differences?

by Krista Tippett, host

Restoring Political Civility with Richard Mouw

"Restoring Political Civility: An Evangelical View" with Richard Mouw was as hard as any show in my memory to produce, edit, script — and even to justify, as news unfolded while we were creating it.

I have known Richard Mouw for 15 years and interviewed him on this program in its early days. Other Evangelical Christian leaders have been more visible in American political and media life: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ted Haggard, James Dobson, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and on the more progressive side Jim Wallis and Richard Cizik. I have followed them, but I have also always kept my ear and eye on quieter figures like Richard Mouw. As president of Fuller Theological Seminary, with more than 4000 students from 70 countries and over 100 denominations, he is training generations of Evangelical and Pentecostal pastors and global leaders.

And in this political season, in which values have once again — and with a new edge of hysteria — come to be a rallying cry for viciousness, I wanted to speak with him again. A book he first wrote in 1992, Uncomon Decency, has just been released in a revised version with the subtitle, “Christian Civility in an Uncivil World.” Mouw has long been a kind of bridge person — theologically conservative on some issues and more progressive on others — but he most fervently insists that the way people are treated is a greater measure of Christian virtue than the positions one takes.

I’ve wondered rhetorically how our political life would have evolved differently if the Christian re-emergence into politics in the late 20th century had modeled a practical love of enemies. My own deepest despair at present is not about the vitriol and division per se — as alarming as they are. It is about the fact that we seem to be losing any connective tissue for engaging at all, on a human level, across ruptures of disagreement. Across the political spectrum, many increasingly turn to journalism not for knowledge but to confirm individual pre-existing points of view. What we once called the red state, blue state divide is now more like two parallel universes where understandings of plain fact are no longer remotely aligned. This leads to a diminishing sense of the humanity of those who think and live differently than we do. And that is the ultimate moral slippery slope, for everyone on it and for the fabric of our civic life.

Richard MouwRichard Mouw lays out the imperative to all kinds of Christians for gentleness, reverence, humanity, and “honor” of the different other at the heart of the Bible and the life of Jesus. But this is not a feel-good plea for harmony. Even as he calls for civility and gentleness, Mouw reasserts his public and private opposition to gay marriage and civil unions. The civility he calls for would not minimize difference, at least at the outset, but would create a different space for discussing and navigating it — indeed for bringing differences into public life with virtue and vitality of expression. Picking up on a phrase coined by Christian historian Martin Marty, Richard Mouw builds upon this idea of “convicted civility.”

We had impassioned and difficult discussions on our production team about his ideas, and the complications and contradictions they present. When he says that, as a Christian, he sees other human beings as “works of divine art,” can that genuinely apply to a person whose sexual identity he defines as fundamentally wrong? And then, in the thick of creating this show, the Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide — one of a string of suicides of gay youth. This sharpened a question of whether religious views condemning homosexuality — however civilly expressed — inevitably fuel hateful, even fatal, behavior.

With all of this on my mind, I was struck by an open letter the Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler wrote in direct response to those teen suicides. Though Mohler is to the right of Richard Mouw theologically and culturally, his letter takes an unexpectedly kindred tone. Mohler leads the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, and one of the most conservative. He spends the first few paragraphs of his statement reiterating his firm theological conviction that homosexuality is a sin. But in words that echo a search for a new way of “convicted civility,” Mohler confesses, “Much of our response to homosexuality is rooted in ignorance and fear.” And he asks, of the faithful and of his church leaders, “What if Tyler Clementi had been in your church? Would he have heard biblical truth presented in a context of humble truth-telling and gospel urgency, or would he have heard irresponsible slander, sarcastic jabs, and moralistic self-congratulation?” I read in Mohler’s statement a profound shift of tone, if not of position — and an opening to new ways of being.

This all drives towards a question I pursue in so many of my conversations: How does social change happen? We will not all be “on the same page,” as Americans like to be, on sexuality or many other issues for generations to come. The 21st century has opened up questions Western civilization thought it had put to rest. Some of them are intimate and raw, terrifying in every life at some point and therefore all the more unsettling when we are forced to ponder them out in the open together. Same-sex marriage is but the tip of an iceberg of human redefinition: What is relationship? What is marriage? What is friendship? What constitutes a family? In this messy moment, we retain our rights and responsibilities as human beings and citizens to discern our truths and live by them. But we have no choice, at the same time, if we want this to end well, to search for new ways to discern our multiple truths while living together.

Richard Mouw suggests that we need to start some of our conversations again from the beginning, certainly the conversation about sexuality. He believes that only by naming our hopes and our fears, articulating them among ourselves, revealing them to each other, can we begin to recreate something called a common life, which can contain, and not be destroyed by, our differences. I want to believe him, to believe that this is one answer to the question of how social change happens. If I didn’t believe that a new kind of conversation can also be a starting point for walking forwards together — living together, differently — I would not do what I do.

And yet, maybe another reality we have to live with is that these critical new conversations will start small, in many places, compelling us to connect dots for a while in lieu of convening the sweeping dialogue we might hope for. I’d point to a few that we’ve pulled together at onBeing.org with this show, including Albert Mohler’s letter in its entirety as well as a Religion Dispatches report about an historic meeting between a senior Mormon elder and LGBT Mormons.

1990 Ordination of Gay and Lesbian PastorsWe’ve also posted a piece we admire by fellow journalist Sasha Aslanian titled "Sex, Death, and Secrets" — featuring an interview with two lesbian pastors who’ve experienced a roller coaster ride of discernment within their own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

And we’ve posted another kind of contribution to civility, an act of care for “despairing LGBT kids who are being bullied and harassed, kids who don’t think they have a future” — Dan Savage and Husband Terry from "It Gets Better" Projecta video project called “It Gets Better” that was created by syndicated columnist Dan Savage and his husband Terry. Both come from families with conservative religious roots, and we see photographs that bespeak the embrace they’ve both received as members of these families. They are photographs of love that has overcome convictions — or chosen to live in a gracious, loving tension alongside them. This too is possible. Please add your thoughts, stories, and pictures — your dots, if you will — to this difficult, dispersed, essential conversation.


Sex, Death, and Secrets: A Reporter’s Notebook

by Sasha Aslanian, guest contributor

First OrdinationOn January 1, 1990, Jeff Johnson, a gay man and pastor of First United Lutheran Church, and Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, lesbian pastors of St. Francis Lutheran Church are ordained in San Francisco. Both churches were suspended in 1990 and expelled by the ELCA in 1996. (photo courtesy of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries)

My old English prof used to say “The Victorians were obsessed with death. We’re obsessed with sex.” I made an unexpected discovery on a recent assignment: sex and death have something in common: secrets.

In August of 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as pastors. As a reporter for MPR News, my assignment was to follow up a year later on the impact of the vote. I stumbled into a news story: the church was in the process of reconciling with partnered gays and lesbians who had previously been unwelcome. In July of this year, the ELCA added seven people back to its roster in San Francisco. Then, this September, they did the same with three women in Minnesota.

1990 Ordination of Gay and Lesbian PastorsTwo of the Minnesota women, Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, were the first lesbian couple to be ordained without the blessing of the ELCA in San Francisco in 1990. They invited me to their home for an interview.

For the next 70 minutes, their story spilled out, spanning a sweeping slice of a social revolution moving rapidly through in our times. They told of coming out, falling in love, losing jobs then gaining them, and feeling God work through them during the AIDS crisis and hospice chaplaincy. Their story transcends Lutheranism. It’s personal, yet tethered to movements on both coasts, inside churches, seminaries, universities, courthouses, and workplaces.

"When you’re a change agent," said Frost, "you act where you are. Some people do in the secular arena: political activists, social activists. Our arena was the church. I’m third-generation Lutheran clergy."

For me, the unexpected part of their story was how they connected their work in hospice with the battle for inclusion in the Church. Zillhart and Frost began their ministry in San Francisco just as AIDS was ravaging the city. As they plunged in to help the men, their partners, and their families prepare for death, the two women saw opportunities for forgiveness, reconciliation, respect, acceptance, and love.

The “tape” at the top of this post is my favorite, but I had to leave it out of the final radio version. My news piece needed to cover the ordination, expulsion, and eventual embrace — already a tall order — and I wasn’t sure my editor would let me wander into end-of-life stuff at all. Thankfully she did, and it gave the story more depth. I think it also showed what Frost and Zillhart have been striving to show all along: there’s more that unites people than divides them. We all have secrets. Death is a universal unburdening of secrets.

Sexual orientation can be just one of them.

Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart"There isn’t a family that doesn’t have a secret that they yearn to share and talk about the hurts and hopes we all have," said Zillhart. "Our difference is more obvious, more politically charged, people do a lot of fund-raising around how scary we seem — that feels electrifying — but the differences we have are all among us. The commonalities are so much deeper."

Frost adds with a note of amused exasperation, “I would love to get past being an issue in the church as a lesbian. I’ve been a professional Lutheran lesbian all my life. It’s time to be meeting one another in deeper ways than that affords.”

Frost and Zillhart show just where that depth can take us.

Unedited Interview with Frost and Zillhart (mp3, 71:00)
This interview is what I call “a spigot interview” — the story spilled forth with very little coaxing. Their narrative connects their individual lives to a larger canvas of social and religious history.

Sasha AslanianSasha Aslanian is a reporter for MPR News and creator of MPR News’ Youth Radio Series. From 2000 to 2008, she produced documentaries for American RadioWorks, the national documentary unit of American Public Media. Aslanian has won awards named for famous news men: Edward R. Murrow, Lowell Thomas, Heywood Broun and Eric Sevareid. She is a graduate of Grinnell College.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.


It Gets Better Project

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

The YouTube project called "It Gets Better" is a noble effort to help save the many young gay and questioning children and teenagers out there right now who are struggling, who are contemplating suicide. The project tries to show those “despairing LGBT kids who are being bullied and harassed, kids who don’t think they have a future” that adults who were in their same situation as them have endured and emerged in a safer, happier place. They are examples that life goes on, that situations do improve.

The video above of Dan Savage, the author of the syndicated sex column “Savage Love” and who started this project after Billy Lucas’ suicide, and his husband should be a vivid reminder to all of us about the true virtue of civility and kindness. No matter where you stand on the gay rights issue, this video should appeal to the need for a common decency for all people.

And for all of you Project Runway fans, Tim Gunn has recently released his contribution to the project with a troubling story from his own childhood: