Gays, Religious Traditionalists, and the Feeling of Being Under Siege

The illusion of a shared culture can make empathy harder in the age of social media.

After hearing from dozens of traditionalist Christians and as many gays and lesbians about recent clashes, I can report that many members of both groups feel under siege—and many don't really get why members of the other group feel besieged, too.

If you're a religious believer surrounded by coreligionists and exposed to their Facebook feeds, your notion of America's cultural landscape is shaped by stories of traditionalists being denounced as bigots, compared to segregationists, and having their ability to provide for their families threatened for publicly opposing gay marriage. Many sitcoms, dramas, and newscasts you watch on national television portray social liberals as enlightened and relatable, and religious people as hateful yokels. Hollywood movies are very unlikely to reflect your world view. The substance of your positions is mischaracterized so often you think it must be deliberate. The culture tells you, "you're on the wrong side of history." And you wonder if, say, your ability to home school your children or your church's ability to qualify as a nonprofit organization will be threatened or taken away.

What you're unlikely to see is America as it looks from the perspective of many gays and lesbians. You're unlikely to see inside homes where parents react to kids coming out of the closet by emotionally abusing them. You're unlikely to see what it's like for a gay kid to walk the halls of the local high school. You're unlikely to know anyone who committed suicide due partly to hate to which they were subjected. And you're even unlikely to know about aspects of gay life that are public facts.

For example, here's a fact that may surprise religious traditionalists who feel under siege. Take all the hate crimes perpetrated against Jews. Add all the hate crimes perpetrated against Muslims. Add all the hate crimes perpetrated against Christians. Add all the hate crimes perpetrated against all other religious groups too.

Combine all those hate crimes in 2013, the most recent year data is available.

The number of hate crimes perpetrated against gays that year is still higher, despite the fact that religious people far outnumber gays. So if you're gay and looking at your Facebook feed, it will likely include controversies about whether Christians should be punished for not selling stuff to same-sex weddings. But instead of seeing such controversies as would a traditionalist who, rationally or not, earnestly fears for his job or the future of his family business, you're more likely to see them through the lens of prejudices and risks that you face. If you pay attention to the fact that gays like you are victimized, your Facebook feed might include these stories:

All those articles are from the first few days of this month.

In turn, people whose media consumption skews toward stories like these are comparatively unlikely to have been exposed to or reflected upon the worries of Christians targeted for their religious beliefs by antagonistic supervisors at work; academic hiring committees that look askance at candidates who are openly religious; or Child Protective Services caseworkers whose prejudice against religious parents causes them to wrongfully remove kids from such households.

I could go on and on citing instances of both groups being mistreated.

But the point of this exercise isn't to pit the unjust treatment of religious traditionalists against the unjust treatment of gays (or vice versa) and to decide who has it worse. Nor is it to assert equivalence between the abuses each group has faced. Readers may disagree about that calculus—but that doesn't matter here.

What everyone ought to be able to understand is why some members of both groups feel under siege—and why members of both groups understandably don't always empathize with one another. It is due to the fact that there is no such thing as a fully shared American culture: Life here is an amalgam of lots of subcultures that only partially overlap. People pay disproportionate attention to what affects them personally.

Americans receive different upbringings in different families of different faiths, while living in different neighborhoods of different cities in different regions, and are then thrown onto the same social-media platforms. These platforms afford an illusion of a single culture, as if public controversies are grounded in common experiences and assumptions. But Americans have never understood one another.

And basic questions about which groups have what degree of power are as complicated as ever. Were you a manager at a tech firm in San Francisco or San Jose, it would be much easier to be gay, out, and post photos from a pride rally than it would be to openly practice orthodox Christianity and post photos from a pro-life rally.

Were you gay, driving cross-country, and stopping for the night in Walkerton, Indiana, you might be unsure about the local vibe and nervous about openly holding your partner's hand. "Will that get us harassed by the cops or beat up by a local in this neighborhood?" There are lots of neighborhoods in America where you'd be at risk of being insulted or even assaulted, something the typical straight person never considers before holding their partner's hand. Had your trip taken place last year and the pizzeria owner in Indiana mentioned that he felt nervous, as a traditionalist Christian, voicing his opinions, you might have regarded him as paranoid and thought about how much power Christians wield in red-state politics. Yet he would've been a news story away from a barrage of death threats.

America has always been made up of far flung communities and hundreds of subcultures. More than ever before, we're all in tangential contact with, and we've become potential targets of, nearly every other subculture. That vulnerability could prompt us to increase our mistrust ... or our empathy. The latter course would serve us better.