Why Evangelicals Are Wary of the Government

The subpoenas Houston Mayor Annise Parker issued to five of the city's pastors highlight the larger tensions in state involvement with religion.

In Houston, Texas, a conflict has been developing between evangelicals and the city over religious speech, LGBT rights, and the power of the government.

Last April, Mayor Annise Parker proposed a city ordinance aimed at defending Houstonians against discrimination based on a number of factors, including sexual orientation and gender. As part of this ordinance, which was quickly passed by city council a month later, individuals would be allowed to use the public bathrooms they felt most comfortable with based on their gender identification. The ordinance was immediately opposed by many in Houston, particularly those in the Christian community who had concerns about how their churches and businesses would be affected. In response, they wrote a petition to repeal the ordinance. According to those behind the petition effort, they managed to get fifty thousand signatures, many more than the seventeen thousand required by the city. The city attorney, David Feldman, disqualified the petition, claiming that a majority of the signatures were invalid. The petitioners sued the city, denying Feldman’s claim.

It was during the discovery process of this lawsuit that the city issued subpoenas to five Houston pastors who had been active in promoting the petition. The original subpoenas were issued on September 5, demanding a broad set of documents, including emails, text messages, and sermons that mentioned homosexuality, the mayor, and gender identity “in connection in any way” with the petition. This would include private emails between congregants and pastors, as well as any sermon that condemned gay marriage, for example—even though the city ordinance was not about gay marriage at all.

On October 14, several conservative news sites began writing about the subpoenas, and that sparked a swift and loud national evangelical response. The more outraged responses came from a number of evangelical pundits who have made careers out of blowing the bugle of petty culture wars. But others came from leaders who are not known for exaggeration or sensationalism, like the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore, who politely but firmly asked the mayor to rescind the subpoenas and respect the pastors’ rights.

Taken together, it’s interesting to note how rapidly the evangelical narrative of persecution developed. It was as if Christian leaders had been anticipating a time when the government would come into their churches and pronounce their views illegal, and now that time had finally arrived. Some even claimed to have predicted this very event. The narrative was cohesive and dramatic: They want to silence us, they want to outlaw our beliefs, and if we do not act now, we may not have a church in America tomorrow. This response betrayed deep fears about government intrusion into the church and the personal lives of believers.

Seen this way, this conflict was not just a local church-state conflict; it’s part of the larger, on-going American drama of religious freedom and pluralism. Evangelicals perceive that the culture they inhabit is shifting radically; the basic assumptions they make about the truth of existence and moral behavior are no longer the cultural consensus—and, often, even viewed as barbaric, bigoted, and evil.

In some ways, this was just another incident in the so-called culture wars—conservative Christians finding themselves at odds with changing laws and policies. But the details of the case actually reveal something much more complex.

For example, a number of legal scholars came out against the subpoenas. As Gene Volokh discussed in his coverage of the subpoenas for the Washington Post, the city had no legal ground to ask for such a vast number of documents with only tangential or no clear relevance to the case. He also noted that despite what some evangelicals were claiming, pastors’ sermons can in fact be subpoenaed in certain situations, but in this case, it was not clear how sermons that mentioned homosexuality were pertinent to a case about the validity of petition signatures. Even more troubling, there is a long history of using subpoenas coercively to punish or intimidate people, he argued, suggesting that the evangelical community’s concerns about the subpoenas were legitimate.

On October 17, Parker announced that the city would narrow the scope of the subpoenas so that they focused clearly on documents directly pertaining to the petition. In interviews, a number of lawyers said this is part of the normal negotiation process in a lawsuit: One party issues a subpoena; the other asks a judge to quash it; and the subpoena is narrowed—repeat as necessary. But in this case, the stakes were extremely high. In the eyes of the evangelical community, this wasn’t just about a local ordinance; these subpoenas were about how evangelicals would be treated by their government when their beliefs were no longer popular or socially acceptable.

It’s unclear how much the revised subpoenas were actually limited in scope; even though the section requesting documents on homosexuality and gender identity was removed, another, nearly identical section remained unchanged. But unsurprisingly, the pastors, their lawyers, and the evangelical community were not satisfied by the revisions. The protests expanded: The Family Research Council and several other evangelical political organizations scheduled a rally in opposition to the mayor for November 2. Conservative figures from Todd Starnes and Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson to politicians like Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz spoke publicly about the case; Huckabee called for Christians to mail the mayor Bibles in protest of her actions, which they did—by the hundreds. Although some of these reactions were excessive and overly sensational, the strong response also probably helped make the pastors’ voices heard—perhaps in a way they wouldn’t have been, otherwise.

On October 29, Parker announced in a press conference that after speaking to several local and national pastors and religious leaders, she decided to pull the subpoenas. Not, she insisted, because they were illegal. She had already admitted that the original subpoenas had been “overly broad,” but the revisions made them “legal, valid, and appropriate.” Instead, she said, “I did it because it was not serving Houston.” She said she was struck by faith leaders’ serious concerns about what such subpoenas might mean for the Christian community and its relationship with the government—and how politely and calmly church leaders had explained their concerns to her. While she denied intentionally infringing upon religious freedom, it was clear that she understood the gravity of the original subpoenas’ overreach: "It was never our intention to interfere with any members of the clergy and their congregants in terms of sermons, in terms of preaching what they believe is the word of the God that they serve. ... My whole purpose is to defend a strong and wonderful and appropriate city ordinance against local attack."

One of the local Houston pastors Parker spoke to was Chris Seay, the pastor of an evangelical, non-denominational church called Ecclesia, who spoke with me about his meeting. Seay had published an open letter to the mayor in Leadership Journal asking her to drop the initial subpoenas. But in an interview, he spoke critically of anyone calling Parker a “bully” or pushing her to step down. His concern, he said, was with the health of Houston—and particularly the relationship between churches and the city.

Before the mayor announced the ordinance in April, she had not sought the input of religious leaders in the city, Seay said, and this was no small oversight. Pastors oversee parishioners who had real and deep concerns about how the ordinance would affect them and their businesses as Christians. In trying to protect and support people who face discrimination, the mayor used the bluntest tool available: the force of law. By not seeking the input of religious leaders, Parker treated the perspective of these pastors and their congregants as irrelevant, which ultimately shaped their response—they feared exclusion from political discussions about issues that deeply mattered to them.

And when the mayor issued the subpoenas, which targeted those leaders for their beliefs on those very issues, they saw their fears as justified. Parker never fully acknowledged the threat she had posed to these pastors, said Seay—for him, the greatest concern was that the subpoenas demanded personal and confidential correspondence between pastors and parishioners. It’s common, he said, for people to email him with intimate, personal confessions about sexuality, and it was not merely “overly broad” to demand such documents—it was deeply offensive to the pastors’ calling to give personal spiritual guidance.

Pluralism is easy when all members of a community share the same basic beliefs, only then it’s not really pluralism. The outcry and initial impasse in Houston is an example of what may happen when groups with profoundly different beliefs struggle to live together peacefully. This case also shows the deep concern the evangelical community has about secularization and what it might mean for the community’s freedoms in the future.

But the interesting thing is that, for all the disagreement between people like Seay and the mayor’s office, both used the same kind of language: They expressed a desire to see Houston heal and move on. By speaking and listening to one another with respect, the mayor and these religious leaders were able to agree that these subpoenas were harmful to the health of the city—a tone that often wasn’t mirrored by the national figures who used the case as evidence of a black-and-white culture war. Some of those figures will read the outcome as evidence that using hyperbolic rhetoric and flooding public offices with Bibles is the way to protect the interests of evangelicals, but a more careful look shows that a few hours of civil dialogue accomplished what these extreme methods could not. Conversation can’t resolve every issue, and it’s particularly difficult on topics like this, when each side may see the other’s perspective as disgusting or bigoted. Even so, when people with different perspectives fail to speak and listen, conflicts fester and grow, feeding on ignorance—and, perhaps, amplifying the fear that both evangelicals and the LGBT community feel about threats to their rights.