Culture At Large

The missional opportunity of Obama’s LGBT executive order

Stephen Woodworth

On Monday, President Barack Obama signed an executive order amending a 1965 mandate that prohibited discrimination in the hiring of federal employees based on their “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” Obama’s new order now includes “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as federally protected categories as well. During a press conference at the White House the president announced, hyperbolically, “Thanks to your passion and advocacy and the irrefutable rightness of your cause, our government … will become just a little bit fairer.” For many, the president’s conclusions remain debatable.

Although the order retains a George W. Bush-era provision that allows religious organizations to hire employees "of a particular religion,” many religious leaders still view the move as a serious blow to religious rights. As an employee of a religious nonprofit I can empathize with the lament of many who question whether the policies of the current administration will erode our ability to fund our mission or fulfill it with any sense of integrity. Indeed, this was the concern highlighted in a letter signed by 26 Council for Christian Colleges & Universities presidents, urging Obama to “protect the rights of faith-based organizations that simply desire to utilize staffing practices consistent with their deep religious convictions.”

However, I also find in Obama’s LGBT executive order an opportunity for religious organizations in America to embrace new paradigms for missional living. While there are certainly many positive aspects of governmental support of the freedom of religion, historical data also demonstrates there can be dangers. Today, regions in which religious freedom has traditionally been defended are the very same countries experiencing the highest rate of secularism and atheism. While a variety of reasons have been suggested for this shift, one contributing factor is certainly the lack of religious commitment necessary in such environments. Paradoxically, in many of the countries of the world in which practicing the Christian faith presents the greatest danger, the church is expanding at incredible rates. Researchers like Philip Jenkins have well documented the global movement of Christianity away from the West towards the South.

Christians can fight to regain the coveted position of influence they once held in American culture, or they can become missionaries.

In response, Christians can fight to regain the coveted position of influence they once held in American culture, or they can become missionaries. The erosion of Western Christendom demands that believers confront the reality that they are living in a society that looks increasingly like the world many of their brothers and sisters in the faith have been forced to live in their entire lives. In such environments people have learned to practice “creative access” in order to bring the Gospel into places where their mission faces hostility.

Could it be that “faith-under-fire” here in the West might produce the same environment, in which religious institutions are forced to think more creatively about their hiring and funding? I, for one, could imagine, and welcome, a more robust vetting process for employees that goes beyond checking boxes and backgrounds. Some, like missionary and author Mike Kuhn, have argued that the almost myopic fixation on homosexuality on the part of some has allowed culturally acceptable sins like consumerism, vanity or materialism to slip into the back doors of our churches and organizations, almost unnoticed. Furthermore, the loss of governmental funding might actually fan the flames of philanthropy driven by individuals and families whose passion aligns with the missions of the organizations they support. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, in the wake of Obama’s LGBT executive order every institution that bears the name of God can reflect on the nature of dependence and the source of our ultimate hope. Remember, even the money printed by the United States government has the same motto written across the front: “In God we trust.”

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