Why you should care
Because sometimes persuasion and dialogue work better than criticism.
For a man who gets more death threats than water bills, Gene Robinson sounds remarkably serene — giddy, even. As he sees it, the hate mail is the price, at least for now, of being an openly gay Episcopalian bishop, and the idea of choosing between his faith and his heart just doesn’t compute. “God doesn’t make mistakes,” says Robinson, from his home in New Hampshire. “People do.”
This story is inspired by Chelsea Shields’s TED Talk — click above to watch.
For Bishop Robinson and countless other religious reformers, change comes from inside the walls of the temple. In eras past, those who disagreed with fundamental matters of church doctrine had to “love it or leave it.” But today, those torn between their earthly ethics and spiritual convictions are taking a different tack: trying to reconcile them. Rather than leaving their homes of worship and abdicating their faith, more are aiming at dialogue, persuasion and change. Is homosexuality a sin? Can women be spiritual leaders? What, really, is jihad? In pushing for discussion, these latter-day reformers are pushing the boundaries of belief and community.
It is not easy to influence a religion. “We were rejected from the communities we loved because we wanted to make them better,” recounts Chelsea Shields in a TED Talk that co-premieres on OZY today. Shields, a Mormon feminist, is among a group of activists who are trying to raise the status of women in the Mormon community. Although they’ve attracted a good deal of scorn, Shields argues that believers have a duty to try to influence their religions for the better. Besides, she adds, they’ve made progress. “The words women and priesthood can now be uttered in the same sentence.”
To be sure, religion has always been dynamic, and even the most orthodox faiths have changed with the times. But globalization and changes in the structure of families have arguably accelerated the pace of change — and, to many, heralded a time of immense possibility within religious institutions. Plenty of injustices in religious institutions likely would not be tolerated in political or financial organizations, Shields notes above. A Ms. Foundation for Women poll recently showed 82 percent of Americans think that women should have equal rights — and 77 percent of Americans are religious. What’s more, in the U.K., there is almost no difference between the opinions of Christians and those of the general population with regard to LGBT rights.
It’s worth noting that many religious institutions are under demographic pressure to change. Growth in religious giving has stalled, according to Giving USA, while the Pew Research Center found that the proportion of Americans who don’t identify with any faith grew from 16 percent to almost 23 percent. The voices of rabbis now echo in once-packed synagogues, and priests play Candy Crush while waiting for someone to show up for confession. Religious scholar Linda Woodhead argues that “if religious elites don’t catch up with the times, their followings will dwindle.” Which may help explain why Pope Francis sometimes sounds like an Occupy Wall Street protester.
Some would-be reformers, of course, believe dialogue goes only so far. Among them: Jacqueline Straub, a 25-year-old Catholic who wants to be a priest. She’s making her appeal to the grassroots — not to the leaders of the Church — reasoning that if she gains enough momentum with millennials on Facebook, then leadership will have no choice but to change gears or lose their flock. Progress is inevitable, she argues. “It’s no longer a matter of if women will ever have full rights, it’s a matter of when,” she says. Her bet? Twenty years.
Still, for every action there’s an opposite reaction. And according to Matthew Francis, who edits an academic newsletter on radicalization, backlash is inevitable. “It’s a reaction to change. And the faster the progress, the more violent the reaction,” he says. Taking a soft, collaborative approach may help minimize backlash, but discussion can’t solve everything. In her TED Talk, for instance, Shields suggests that all the respect and dialogue in the world hasn’t overcome her parents’ belief that she won’t join them in the afterlife. We’ve “been walking this tightrope, explaining our sides, respecting one another — but actually invalidating one another’s basic beliefs by the way we live our lives — and it’s been difficult.” And these beliefs often come at a great personal risk, from harassment to excommunication.
For Shields, Bishop Gene and scores of others, there’s no choice. “I defend my people, but the struggle is real,” says Shields. “How do we protect someone’s religious beliefs while still holding them accountable for the harm their beliefs cause others?”
The answer could change the world. No pressure.