When Governor Mike Pence signed the discriminatory RFRA bill into law, I reacted like any other gay man--with sadness and anger at the rejection of lgbtq individuals based on someone’s notion of a religious ideal. But my anger has given way to a sobering realization: I am not as different from the Christian religious Right as I would like to think.
When repeatedly challenged, Governor Pence dug in his heels and worked hard to avoid acknowledging how this bill enables citizens of his state to discriminate. For months as this issue has reared its head in similar legislation in this country, I have seen this kind of reaction many times in interviews and conversations with those on the religious right.
Every time I see this behavior--otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people desperately avoiding acknowledging the truth--I recognize it fundamentally. I have been there. For forty-five years of my life, I lived in a closet that I had made for myself. There was nothing in the world that I wanted more than to deny the truth of who I am. I honestly believed that the truth was unthinkable, a betrayal not only of who I wanted to be in the world, but of all those I loved. The more life showed me who I really am, the more I clung to a false personal narrative of who I desperately wanted to be.
In the story of Passover, the Torah says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart for the first five plagues. Surprisingly, for the final five, it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart. It would seem that Pharaoh lost his free will, that he became a puppet of God’s will. I read this differently. When the text says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it means that Pharaoh’s reason for hardening his heart shifted. Instead of merely reacting against Moses, Pharaoh, on some very deeply-felt level, began to understand that Moses was in the right, and that he himself was wrong. The more the undeniable truth confronted him, the more he denied it from a place of fear and desperation. For Pharaoh, the Truth was unthinkable: that there is a God, higher than any human being, who demands justice for oppressed, a world of ever-increasing compassion for those who suffer. In this way, it was the Truth (God!) that hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
There are many kinds of closets in our human experience. Some closets are about sexuality, others about religion, others are about power. The Torah doesn’t use the term “closet.” Instead, it is called a “hardened heart.” The religious right is in a closet of religious sensibilities and denial that they are now desperately using as a weapon of discrimination. Make no mistake, their behavior is identical to that of Pharaoh and his hardened heart. Their hearts are hardened because of a desperate fear of losing their cherished version of a world that they want so badly to be true, a world and a truth narrowly defined by their pastors along Biblical precepts.I have come to see that the Bible is not inherently synonymous with truth. Rather, the Bible is a precious tool to help us to find the truth in our lived experience. Another name of God is Truth, no matter how unthinkable and frightening that truth may be. God, the Truth, can never be reduced to a text. God, the Truth, is bigger than we are, bigger than any stories or ideas we can project about what we want life to be. I have come to see that all closets and hardened hearts--no matter how well-intended--bring about far worse plagues than the truth that we feared to be so unthinkable. The inevitable reality is that the truth is on the side of anyone who stands up for the oppressed. The religious right knows this at the core of their being. That’s why they are so frightened and their hearts are hardened. Like Moses, may we stand and act courageously in the face of all those with hardened hearts. And may we watch the modern-day version of the miracle of Passover unfold in our time.