On Sunday, the day that South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg officially launched his presidential bid, the Washington Times published a commentary by right-wing university president Everett Piper under the headline, “Pete Buttigieg doesn’t get to make up his own Christianity.”
Piper is president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, and has made a name for himself and his school in recent years by aggressively attacking familiar targets of the right wing, like “political correctness.” Piper pulled his school out of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities a few years ago because the association’s leaders did not immediately kick out two colleges that accepted faculty members who are married to someone of the same sex.
Piper’s dislike for Buttigieg, a gay Christian, is hardly surprising: In another Washington Times op ed that ran about a year ago, Piper compared what he considers the immorality of the LGBT movement with that of ISIS.
In his recent column, Piper postured as a reasoned voice even as his own words betrayed him. “Mr. Buttigieg, has it ever occurred to you,” wrote Piper on Sunday, “that the ‘Mike Pences of the world’ don’t have a problem with who you are,’ but rather we just disagree with what you do?”
Using this familiar formulation, Religious Right leaders draw a distinction between a person’s homosexual orientation and living accordingly, as Buttigieg has done by marrying his husband. Piper repeatedly chooses dismissive words like “proclivities” and “peccadillos” as he makes his argument that there is no gay identity, only gay “sexual appetites.”
Piper makes another unconvincing argument when he tries to position the Religious Right on the side of privacy and a live-and-let-live approach to sexuality:
The thing about obedient and faithful Christians is this; we consider someone else’s private life to be just that — Private. Please stop telling us what kind of sex you like. We don’t want to know. If you want us to stay out of your bedroom, please shut the door. Stop opening it up and forcing us to applaud and celebrate.
Where to start with that one? First, Buttigieg has not told us anything about what kind of sex he likes, any more than Piper has by mentioning his wife in his official bio on the OWU website.
Second, the idea that gay people have nothing to fear from religious conservatives as long as they stay silent and closeted is unquestionably false. There is a long and ugly history of institutions, including the federal government, investigating people’s private lives, with devastating consequences.
Religious Right legal and political organizations fought the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in Lawrence v Texas, which overturned laws criminalizing sex between consenting adults. Yes, in the United States in the 21st Century, Christian conservative groups defended state laws that made gay people de facto criminals, laws that were used to take people’s jobs and even their children away from them. And even today, Religious Right activists are not only hoping to reverse the Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality ruling, they are supporting laws around the world that impose long prison terms on gay people. “Shutting the door” is no defense against the deadly hostility these laws generate in the name of Christianity and “traditional values.”
In his Sunday column, Piper seemed particularly upset about what he characterized as Buttigieg’s “ridicule of the vice president’s religious convictions.” And then Piper went on to ridicule the religious convictions of Buttigieg, who has said that his marriage has brought him closer to God.
“What gives you the right to redefine a sacrament of the church?” asked Piper. “You don’t get to make up your own Christianity.”
Turns out Buttigieg didn’t have to “redefine a sacrament of the church.” He attends an Episcopal church that extends the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples.
Here’s a bit of news for Piper: A lot of American Christians share Buttigieg’s view of marriage. In fact, about two-thirds of mainline Protestants, white Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Hispanic Catholics support marriage equality—along with a majority of white evangelicals under the age of 30.
Perhaps Piper, like some other Christian conservatives, believes that liberal Christians—those who support LGBT equality or defend a woman’s right to have an abortion or advocate for government action against poverty and hunger–are not really Christians.
Certainly, religious freedom is about people’s right to embrace the version of Christianity—or another faith, or no faith at all—that speaks to their own heart. The wide range of Christian expressions in the United States includes left-leaning “social gospel” Protestants as well as Trump-supporting dominionists as well as Catholics who span the political spectrum.
Did Piper’s spiritual forbears, leaders of the Protestant Reformation, get to “make up” their own Christianity? Or what about people like David Barton, who argue that the Bible opposes minimum wages, progressive taxation, and unions?
While Piper has plenty of opinions, he probably would not characterize them as such. One of his talking points is that “opinions are dangerous” but “truth sets us free.” Some of Piper’s opinions might indeed be considered “dangerous.”
Piper was listed as a member of the education committee of the secretive, influential Council for National Policy—a network of right-wing religious leaders—which produced an “education reform” agenda for the Trump administration. It promoted the long-term goal of doing away with public schools in favor of “free-market schools, church schools and home schools as the normative American practice.” It called for dismantling the Department of Education as unconstitutional and illegal. Among the assumptions on which the committee said its report was based: “Religious neutrality is a myth perpetrated by secularists who destroy their own claim the moment they attempt to enforce it.”
During the Obama administration, Piper criticized the White House for being “more aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood” than with Franklin Graham. He has declared that people like him who oppose cultural and legal acceptance of transgender people are “the true feminists today.” Piper gave a rousing culture-war keynote at the 2015 World Congress of Families in which he declared that “the rainbow banner of tolerance has become a dark flag of tyranny.” The following week he characterized critics of the WCF as “hateful people who hate anyone who dares stand in their way of hating God.”