URBANA, Ill. — Bryce Tune wants to win elections someday. But he has a problem: his core beliefs are a complex mix of conservative and liberal values.
He's Christian and he supports the LGBTQ community. He's pro-gun and in favor of Medicare for all.
Tune, a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, worries he'll have to choose a side to succeed in politics. But it's politics that really needs to change, said Robin Fretwell Wilson, director of the school's family law and policy program, during a Sept. 17 event on campus titled "Religious Liberty and the Culture War Over LGBT Rights: Can University Students Make a Difference?"
"People think, 'I have to side with this value. I can't side with that one,'" she said. "Culture war conflicts (create) an either/or. Well how about 'and'?"
Wilson and other speakers at the event advocated for a more tolerant form of politics, which would feature searching for common ground instead of drawing strict battle lines. We should celebrate people who empathize with both sides in clashes over LGBTQ and religious rights, not make them feel out of place, said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
"I think one of the most important, maybe the most important, challenges facing LGBT people right now is finding a way to bridge the gap with conservative people of faith," he said.
People like Tune remind us that our country could be less polarized if we give tolerance a chance, Wilson said.
"I think the challenge for us is to find a new chapter of American pluralism," she said.
Seeking better solutions
Wilson has shared this message in state legislatures and on college campuses across the country, promoting policies that protect the LGBTQ community and people of faith at the same time. Her vision of "fairness for all" caught on in Utah, which passed compromise legislation in March 2015. Elsewhere, a winner-take-all mentality still dominates.
"In 28 states, the public square is essentially controlled by or dictated by the interests of people of faith with little thought for the interests of LGBT persons. … That's legal but it's wrong," Wilson said during her remarks at the University of Illinois. "In the remaining states, we can think of the public square as being dominated by concerns for LGBT persons and religious people can be told effectively to get out. That should be unacceptable to us, too."
But that's apparently not unacceptable for many policymakers, who continue to propose laws that protect LGBTQ people or religious people, not both. State legislatures considered nearly 150 bills related to religious freedom and LGBTQ rights in 2018 and the vast majority were one-sided, according to a recent Deseret News analysis.
Similarly, this year's high-profile Supreme Court case involving a Christian baker in Colorado who for religious reasons did not want to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple made it seem as if a compromise between LGBTQ and religious rights was out of reach.
There are also legal and legislative conflicts playing out in child welfare policies. State and local governments have been sued for allowing faith-based adoption and foster care agencies to receive government funds while opting out of serving same-sex couples for religious reasons.
"The culture war never seems to end," Wilson said. That's why she's started looking outside state legislatures for solutions.
Last year, she helped launch Tolerance Means Dialogues, a series of discussions on college campuses about the relationship between LGBTQ rights and religious freedom. This week's program at the University of Illinois, sponsored by a mix of conservative and liberal groups, was the latest event.
The strength of this approach is that it brings high-level policy debates down to a human level, wrote Thomas Berg, a law and public policy professor at St. Thomas University, in an email.
"Activist groups on both sides … often push uncompromising positions that hamper reaching solutions for living together long-term. Making personal connections is a sort of 'bottom-up' way to forge those solutions," he said.
Each dialogue includes presentations from leading religious freedom and LGBTQ rights advocates, as well as two or three university students, who are selected through an essay contest. The goal is to pair wonky policy talk with the lived experience of people choosing tolerance over hate, Wilson said.
"When these essays come in and I'm reading them, I just feel proud of the world sometimes," she said. "You read one of these essays and you think, let's turn the entire kingdom over to these kids. It would go better."
Elizabeth Kazmierczak, one of the student speakers during this week's event, focused her essay on the difficulties and benefits of being a bisexual Catholic. She struggles to accept that some people in her church would reject her if she acted on her interest in women, but she also takes comfort in God's love.
"I’m not going to get my church to fly the rainbow flag anytime soon but talking to the people in my faith about being part of the LGBT community can foster some kind of dialogue," wrote Kazmierczak, a senior who majors in natural resources and environmental science.
What dialogue does
Dialogue and tolerance can seem like the wrong choice when the other options are lawsuits and legislation, Minter said. Inviting people into a conversation rarely allows you to name a clear winner and loser.
However, dialogue does address fear and misunderstanding much better than legal cases or one-sided bills, he added, noting that he has embraced opportunities for conversation in his personal and professional life.
"When you have a chance to sit down face-to-face and have conversations, people can share their fears and talk about them. Then, a lot of them go away," said Minter, who was part of the legal team that successfully argued in favor of same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court in 2015.
Minter, a transgender man who grew up in a conservative community in east Texas, adopted this approach with his own family in recent years.
"It was not hard once we started talking to get to a much better place," he said.
Dialogue cuts through the tensions threatening the campus environment and broader political life in this country, said Robert J. Jones, chancellor of the University of Illinois, during his opening remarks at this week's event.
"We have problems and challenges that must be solved. But we cannot start to resolve them if we cannot talk about them in a respectful and thoughtful way with those who we assume will disagree with us," he said.
In a conversation, people move beyond old stereotypes about who is Republican or religious or gay, said Blake Gibney, a University of Illinois law student who also spoke at this week's event.
"I think we need to come into a situation with an open mind and not have preconceived ideas," he said.
Wilson chose to bring her work to college campuses because she believes today's college students are generally more open-minded than other Americans. From a young age, they've had to navigate racial, religious and sexual diversity.
"They're working things out. Whatever's in the air (around them), we want to figure it out, distill it, bottle it and sell it across America," Wilson said.
Kazmierczak said it took coming to college for her to recognize that there's room for the LGBTQ community in the church and vice versa. A gay friend from church helped her rethink whether religious and LGBTQ people have to be in conflict.59 comments on this story
"He was gay and he would go to church every Sunday. At first, I was super confused by that," she said. "He was a big influence on how I changed my perspective."
By giving students like Kazmierczak a platform to share their experiences, Wilson hopes she can help other Americans have similar realizations.
"In some sense, all of us have been hijacked by the culture war. This is an opportunity for people to take a step back and say, 'This is not how we should live,'" she said.