9 Musings on the Giglio Story

With the news that Evangelical pastor Louie Giglio elected/was forced to drop out of a commitment to deliver the benediction at President Obama’s inauguration due to a mid-90s sermon he gave that offends gay rights groups, the internet and social media have exploded with responses from both sides.  Permit me to make a few disconnected contributions to that explosion with the following observations:

Giglio’s role was to pronounce a benediction, meaning he had agreed to give a blessing to those present, gay and straight alike.  Some people didn’t want him involved at all because that sermon he gave 20 years ago strikes them as bigoted.  But since he was supposed to give a blessing to all those assembled for the inauguration – regardless of whether or not they share his theological and/or political views – his exclusion from the ceremony actually denies him the opportunity to be inclusive on the most visible platform he could ever occupy in life.  In what sense does this count as a win for tolerance?

Giglio’s job is to speak in public; few people could speak that often and for that long without saying something that would be problematic 20 years later.  Do you remember anything you said in the mid-1990s and haven’t repeated since?  If you could, what are the odds you would articulate it exactly the same now as you did then?  Such an unforgiving standard is no credit to the cause of progressivism.

The argument that words spoken 20 years ago negate years of altruistic and supererogatory action since is both craven and risible.  So we’re clear, Jonathan Capehart is wrong.  Deeds matter more than words.  That’s how the world works, and to argue otherwise is unserious.  Just in case, however: Louie Giglio said something that some people find offensive while others take to be God’s absolute truth 20ish years ago, and hasn’t repeated it since as near as anyone can tell.  What he has done since is devote his life, his considerable influence, and his resources to stopping human slavery.  The world needs more doers, and to revile one for political reasons is truly odious.

He’s a religious figure who holds religious views.  Not everyone differentiates between religion and politics, but just so we’re clear, Louie Giglio is not a political activist.  He has used his influence among evangelicals to try to stop slavery, but the last time I checked that issue disappeared from American political platforms in the 1860s.  Apart from this solitary anodyne advocacy issue, Giglio restricts himself to the standard pastoral roles of speaking, interpreting scripture, and encouraging his flock.  The second coming of Jerry Falwell he ain’t, and he should count among the last evangelicals society chooses to demonize.

The list of who can’t pray at American inaugurations suddenly looks shockingly discriminatory.  Some Christians hold other views, which makes it possible to argue (wrongly, by the way) that Giglio is an extremist, but what if he was a Muslim?  There’s not exactly a huge divergence of Islamic opinions on gay rights, which would seem to preclude that entire faith from participation.  The same could be said, it seems, for Orthodox Jews, the Amish, and those Catholics who actually care what the Church teaches – to name just three groups in addition to Muslims and Evangelicals.  How can the interests of tolerance and diversity banish participation from such diverse and numerous religious traditions?

Doesn’t this mean that not even Pope Benedict himself is qualified to pray at an inauguration?

I have no idea whether or not I agree with Giglio, and neither do you.  For one thing, sermons lose much of their meaning without context, and it’s basically impossible to understand the context of a sermon from 20 years ago.  Also, who knows whether or not his views have changed?  I realize we’re all assuming Giglio probably adheres to the evangelical party line on gay rights, but the operative word here is assuming.  Absent actual knowledge of what Giglio believes right now, how can anyone take sides on his views?  More importantly, why does it seem like everyone has?

Giglio took the high road in his withdrawal.  His statement displays infinitely more class, tolerance, and grace than have the denunciations of him.  He could have been defensive.  He could have used the spotlight to hammer his views (whatever they are) home and start a major fight.  He could have groveled and left us all to wonder whether or not he was apologizing sincerely.  He could have been sullen and terse about it.  Instead, he emphasized that this is not and never has been a major emphasis of his teaching, and that he would like to remain focused on stopping human trafficking.  Hate him if you want to, but he’s doing good things and refusing to be drawn off course in the midst of intense public shame.

Many of the Evangelical defenses of Louie Giglio seem suspiciously hypocritical.  Look, nobody reacts well to being called a bigot and treated like a leper, so I understand why so many evangelicals are so emotional in defending Giglio’s right to his views.  I understand why people feel like the United States does have a state religion, and it’s one that devalues evangelicals as well as our principles.  But as I read responses on blogs and on social media from the evangelical masses, I can’t help but wonder how many of them would be livid if a Republican president had asked Gene Robinson (yes, I know President Obama did in 2009, but imagine if it was a Republican) or Jeremiah Wright to pray.  Or a Muslim.  Or an atheist to give a non-theological benediction.  I’m guessing in such cases the reaction on the right would mirror the current row, which gives this the smell of hypocrisy.

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