Note to the Church: Mistakes Not to Make Again!

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note to the church  mistakes not to make again
An ice cream cone on the ground at a child's feet. Used with permission.

How did the evangelical church end up with such a bad reputation among Canadians when we do so much good for Canada? Looking back over the last 40 years, mostly through the lens of the gay rights debate, it’s evident that we shot ourselves in the foot again and again and again, suffering major setbacks and strengthening the gay movement in the process. The topic of this post isn’t the LGBT issue itself, just how we responded to it. I will highlight five mistakes from the gay rights debate and one from the 1988 abortion debate.

The main resource for this post is a book called How the Religious Right Shaped Lesbian and Gay Activism by Tina Fetner. The author analyzed primary private and public documents, and conducted interviews with leading personalities from that time period.

Sadly, few evangelicals talked with the author, which was another mistake. The author admits the book is more sympathetic to the gay movement than the evangelicals partly because of her own leanings, but also because gay activists were quite willing to answer her questions and tell their story. The few evangelicals who gave an interview didn’t answer her questions, but instead tried to convince her that they were right. They were still fighting the battle. Their non-cooperation meant that Fetner’s own misconceptions about evangelicals were not corrected, and she had no access to what the evangelicals’ thinking was, which she did have from the gay activists. Because we didn’t participate, evangelicals come across as cardboard characters who do all these awful things against members of the gay community.

Mistake #1: The Great Withdrawal

By the 1970s, we had a very strong supportive network of Christian schools, Bible colleges, radio and television stations, magazines and books, retreat centres, and camps that supported our faith. Christians knew they were safe inside the bubble. The bubble reinforced what was taught in the churches, but it had some serious negative effects:

  1. The evangelical withdrawal from society (I call it The Great Withdrawal) had been going on since the early 20th century when the mainline churches went liberal. We adopted a fortress under siege mentality. Evangelicals largely disappeared from society; and unfortunately, out of sight, out of mind!
  2. Living in a bubble that never challenged our beliefs
    • dulled our critical thinking skills, and
    • minimized the chance for critical engagement with society.
      We decried and protested the world out there, but rarely reflected on how we should engage and operate in it.
  3. Our exit from the political and social mainstream of society meant we became out of touch with it.
  4. Evangelicals effectively created our own enclaves with few, if any, bridges to society. Aside from evangelism, we were virtually incommunicado, out of contact on all other matters.
  5. Finally, withdrawal meant we could not be a light in the darkness, yeast in the bread, or salt preserving the meat. We had little witness and no influence outside our community. The significant exceptions—Billy Graham, the Salvation Army, and inner city missions—let us feel we were out in society, but our presence was mostly on the margins and the exceptions masked our isolationist spirit. We had missionaries all over the world, but we did not have a presence as evangelicals in the mainstream of our own country.

When gay rights became an issue, gay activists believed we had all the assets to fuel a formidable campaign. Unfortunately, these assets were designed to meet only our internal needs. We weren’t equipped to venture out of our fortress, and we had no goodwill outside the fortress even if we did venture out. When gay activists portrayed evangelicals in caricatures, the public had no reason to see how wrong the caricatures were.

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Mistake #2: We Became Exhibit 1 to Prove Our Opposition’s Point

Gay activists tried unsuccessfully for a decade to get their agenda into the public arena. Prior to 1977, activists framed the gay issue as one of justice and equality. The tone was educational, and when referring to the gay and straight communities, they used ‘we’ language, trying to position people who are gay and straight as one society.

Anita Bryant’s 1977 campaign against a municipal ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation changed everything. The gay rights issue was now framed as protecting a threatened minority. They used ‘us and them’ language. And the tone was angry. All the gay activists had to do to prove their case was point to the hostile evangelical campaign against them. Tina Fetner writes:

The emergence of the Christian anti-gay movement, far from defeating the lesbian and gay movement, actually reinvigorated social movement organizations’ calls to action, secured the national media attention lesbian and gay activists were unable to secure on their own, and provided the movement with a resonant and familiar symbol of oppression that they could use to capture the message of their claims.

Before Anita Bryant, the gay activist organizations were small, under-funded, disillusioned, and wondering if they should give up. Anita Bryant’s campaign single-handedly revitalized gay activism. A gay activist says “We were blessed to have the hateful, bigoted opponents we had, particularly in the early years before we alone had the clout to push our issues to a vote, let alone center stage.”

I’ve found no indication that the evangelical church ever thoughtfully addressed what its strategy should be from a sociological or biblical-theological perspective. Why do we treat one sin differently than another when all sins have the same consequence? They charged ahead with no more thought than that homosexual sex is sinful. Since we all thought alike in our bubble, we couldn’t imagine how our actions would be interpreted from another perspective and actually help the opposition.

I’m not sure if it could have been any different in 1977, given that for the previous 60 years our primary focus had been holiness and purity. Confronted by a lifestyle that we considered a choice that was so blatantly antithetical to God’s design, there was never really a chance for dialogue or for nuance. And once both sides resorted to caricatures and labelling, ratcheting down the hostility was almost impossible.

My question is, “Which hot issues of our day demand more theological reflection?” Given where we are today, can we do better going forward with topics such as human sexuality, without compromising our faith?

Our mistake was to charge into battle suffering from groupthink and thinking tactically, rather than strategically.

Mistake #3: We Made Assumptions

Both sides thought the other was better funded, better organized, and very dangerous. Gay activists thought we had unlimited volunteers and controlled politics. One gay activist complained, “The right always picks the fight. They always pick the issue.” A gay activist remembers, “When our efforts are evaluated against the sophistication and skill of our enemies, the gay movement must admit to a continuing failure. Our Fight the Right efforts are as weak as theirs are strong, as scattershot as theirs are coordinated, as insignificant as theirs are effective.” Notice how she refers to evangelicals as “our enemies.” Their terminology and ours distanced our communities. Everything the activists said about us is what we thought about them. We both assumed the other was more powerful and felt forced to escalate.

Even Tina Fetner, the author, makes assumptions about evangelicals. She writes that our financial resources dwarf those of the gay community by looking at the revenue of churches and agencies such as Focus on the Family, but she assumes all the revenues are dedicated to the anti-gay campaign, which isn’t true, then or now.

Gay activists used sarcasm against evangelicals, but because it played into our fears about them, we didn’t take it as sarcasm but assumed it was evidence that our concerns were valid. An example would be placards carried in gay parades that read “We’re here to recruit your children.”

Misunderstandings like these kept the war going. And in some ways, war was convenient, because it was a great fundraiser for both sides. We actually had a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship, but for the evangelicals, it was beneficial only in the short term!

Because we didn’t talk with each other, neither side knew the other. In future, the evangelical church would do well to talk with its adversaries.

For example, last spring, CCCC held a legal forum that attracted lawyers from around the world who are completely at odds with each other over the place of religion in society and its legal protection. Personally, I am in conversation with a gay activist and we are both learning from each other. Christians should build bridges rather than barricades.

Mistake #4: We Treated All LGBT People as a Single, United Group

If you paint everyone with the same brush, then the loudest, most extreme members of the other community come to represent the entire community. When both sides see the fringe as the whole, it’s hard to see how they will ever talk.

We need to understand our opposition and distinguish between the radical fringe and the moderate mainstream. Progress can likely be made if the opposing moderates talk. The radical fringe on both sides usually want to destroy the other side, but their position is considerably weakened when moderate people show something can be worked out. Even if it is not a completely satisfactory solution, it may be a solution both sides can live with without compromising their convictions. At least something positive is happening. A good example of this involves Ontario’s new sex-ed curriculum:

I was on Lorna Dueck’s Context show recently, and saw a taping of another episode on the new Ontario sex-ed guidelines. A Christian group has written a curriculum that meets the guidelines and that Christian parents are happy with. School principals like this Christian curriculum too, saying it is a positive contribution that is much more effective than protests. The protesters are unlikely to accomplish anything, while more moderate Christians have accomplished what they wanted.

Mistake #5: We Fought a Negative Campaign

The gay movement enjoyed great success as public opinion took a massive swing towards supporting gay rights. The evangelical community, despite its ability to raise money and mobilize volunteers, had little or no effect on public opinion. The difference was that gay activists waged a positive campaign, arguing for something, while evangelicals fought a negative campaign, standing against something.

The jury is out on whether negative campaign ads work or not. They are memorable, but it seems they do not sway people’s opinions to the negative side. In fact, the 2015 Canadian federal election would seem to indicate just the opposite—that voters realized the negativity conflicted with their sense of common decency towards others. This is exactly what happened in the gay rights debate, because the evangelical strategy played right into the “threatened minority” narrative put out by gay rights activists. In addition, the negative evangelical campaign worked in favour of the gay movement because the very things that we campaigned against suddenly became the centre of attention and caused people to think about them. Gay activists then swooped in on those issues with a positive gay rights campaign that led people to agree with them on the issues that we raised.

In future, we must frame issues positively and stand for, rather than against, something.

Mistake #6: All-or-Nothing Thinking

The final mistake is “all-or-nothing” thinking. As John Stackhouse notes in Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World, many of us see anything less than total victory as a sellout. Total victory, John reminds us, is only achieved when Christ returns. Until then, we must think incrementally. If we are moving closer to total victory, any forward movement is better than a loss.

The epic fail illustrating this mistake is that Canada today has no abortion law and no prospect of ever having one. Why? Because when a compromise abortion bill was introduced in 1988, it was defeated when Christians said they were against the early term abortions that would have been legal. We should have taken what we could get, and waited for a better time to improve on it.


Evangelicals today engage society on many issues: poverty, euthanasia, sexuality, environment, human trafficking, refugees, and reproductive technology among them. We can greatly improve our effectiveness by avoiding the mistakes of the past.

Key Point: We need to be much more strategic and thoughtful in how we address public issues.

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