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Evangelical and conservative Christians can be counted upon to exhibit outrage and dismay over just about any attempts to treat gays like equal citizens. I'm not talking about gay marriage here, an arguably difficult and controversial issue. I'm talking about something much more basic: whether or not gays should be protected from discrimination when it comes to things like hiring, firing, housing, and financial transactions.

Non-evangelicals and non-Christians will typically find opposition to such anti-discrimination laws to be puzzling. At most one might try to argue that they aren't necessary, or perhaps that all anti-discrimination laws are wrong, but evangelicals go much further and argue that such anti-gay discrimination should be expressly allowed even when it is not permitted in the context of race or gender.

To understand why this is so, we must bear in mind that evangelical Christians don't treat homosexuality as an orientation, they treat it as a behavior. In essence, they are speaking a different language when talking about gays. For them, being gay is like being addicted to cocaine: you can stop if you really want to and try hard enough. Once you stop, you may continue to feel the urges to use the product, but so long as you don't give in to the temptation, you're okay (you're no longer a cocaine user, you're no longer a homosexual).

This means that to them, laws against discrimination of gays aren't a matter of being told "you can't refuse to hire a person simply because he finds other men sexually attractive." That would be no more objectionable than being told "you can't refuse to hire a person simply because he finds women other that his wife sexually attractive." Consider the following comment from Hal Lindsey:

There were homosexuals in the Corinthian Church Ð just as there were fornicators, adulterers, thieves, drunkards, etc. All of these were forgiven and justified before God when they received the gift of pardon purchased for them by Jesus Christ. But just as the thief, the adulterer, the fornicator and the drunkard were required to change their behavior, so the homosexual had to change his lifestyle.

Laws banning discrimination against gays are, for evangelicals and fundamentalists like Lindesy, a matter of being told "you can't refuse to hire a person who engages in the sinful activity of gay sex." They see that as being substantially the same as being told "you can't refuse to hire a person who engages in the sinful activity of being a thief."

What this means is that getting them to accept laws banning discrimination against gays requires making thrm understand that homosexuality is a sexual orientation, not simply a type of sexual behavior. They need to realize that a person can be gay even without engaging in sexual behavior with a person of the same gender - and that a person who does engage in such behavior isn't necessarily gay.

But that seems rather unlikely. For evangelical and conservative Christians, homosexuality needs to be a behavior in order to fit in with the principle that it is a sin which can be overcome. Under the traditional Christian conception of morality, sins are behaviors which we all choose and which, at least in theory, we can choose not to engage in. It is true that we can't choose not to be sinners and so we cannot choose never to sin at all, but we are still personally responsible for individual sinful acts which we commit.

Thus, being attracted to a member of the same sex is not a sin, it's simply a temptation to sin. A person doesn't choose to be tempted, althoug a person does choose whether or not they end up in situations where the temptation is likely too be stronger. So long as the temptation is resisted, a person remains free from actual sinning. Thus, if homosexuality were defined as an orientation, it would be very difficult to maintain the idea that it is a sin (the Roman Catholic Church, which accepts the conception of homosexuality as an orientation, gets around this problem by describing homosexuality as a "disorder").

Evangelical Christians also need to view homosexuality as a type of behavior in order to accept the existence of an ex-gay movement of people who have indeed overcome homosexuality. A homosexual orientation that isn't your choice isn't sinful and can't just be set aside through a 12-step program - it's a part of you, just as heterosexuality is a part of other people.

This also explains many people's disbelief that someone really can become an "ex-gay." It isn't necessarily that they stop finding members of the same sex attractive, although they may avoid being put in a situation where such attraction can develop. Instead, they develop stable relationships with members of the opposite sex. So long as their sexual activity is confined to a marriage with a member of the opposite sex and never occurs with members of the same sex, then they are no longer giving in to sin and hence are no longer gay.

It should be clear that the opposition of evangelicals and fundamentalists to anti-discrimination laws that address sexual orientation is based largely upon their misunderstandings of homosexuality - the same misunderstandings that form the basis of so much of their reaction to homosexuality in general. It seems to follow that if these misunderstandings could be cleared up, quite a lot of the rancor which currently exists between evangelical Christians and gays might also be cleared up. Unfortunately, the prospects of this would appear to be quite dim.

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