Science can change dialogue on LGBT rights and religious freedom

By the Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen and Derek Monson. Reprinted from Huffington Post.

What do advocates for LGBT rights and religious freedom have in common? According to science, both have a tendency toward prejudice and intolerance. Fortunately for society, there is also hope for overcoming these human failings and living together peacefully, with our rights equally protected.

We, the authors, as individuals – one a tireless advocate for LGBT rights, another a passionate defender of religious freedom – have learned for ourselves what Living Room Conversations teaches every day: engaging in genuine dialogue is a big part of the answer. When listening becomes as important (or, ideally, more important) than speaking, it leads to unexpected agreement and can overcome human propensities being discovered by science.


Psychology research in recent years – both individual studies and meta-analyses of individual studies – points toward a fascinating scientific consensus in human psychology: Intolerance and prejudice exist equally among liberals and conservatives.

Ideology directs discrimination against particular groups, with “liberals [being] as discriminatory toward conservative groups as conservatives were toward liberal groups”; education teaches liberals and conservatives to avoid disclosing biases and prejudices in their speech (i.e., political correctness); and “open-mindedness” translates to discrimination against groups seen as closed-minded. Some will deny these hard, scientific realities. But that is itself an expression of another psychological phenomenon: confirmation bias.

For advocates of LGBT rights and religious freedom, these scientific facts mean both groups are prone to the prejudice and intolerance that encourages legal discrimination against “the other.” They suggest that both sides are guilty of driving the social division and political polarization connected with the political debate surrounding LGBT equality and religious freedom.

Yet, the science also offers hope for a solution to the human predisposition to intolerance: “One of the most consistent ways to increase tolerance is contact with the other side and sharing the experience of working toward a goal.” In other words, one thing America desperately needs is elevated dialogue – conversing with and listening to each other, instead of sheltering ourselves among talking points.

Dialogue will require humility from both sides: taking a hard look in the mirror and accepting that the problems caused by political and social division begin inside ourselves, not in others. It will mean disagreeing with the desired political and policy outcomes of another, while acknowledging within them a motivation other than hate and fear.

To have such a dialogue, both sides will also need to extend to the other the benefit of our greatest values – equality and love. We will have to see that claiming rights in the name of our cherished values, while denying rights to others (in either direction), promotes inequality and undermines love.

Genuine equality requires mutual accommodation of each other’s core beliefs and identities. True love means respecting the human dignity in others that we claim for ourselves. In either case, reason demands an end to “culture war” tactics of attacking and demonizing those whose primary offense is a desire to think and live differently than us.

For some – particularly those who are ideologically or organizationally addicted to division – the application of true equality and genuine love to “the other” will spark fear. That is a normal response when a growing understanding of our values illuminates a need to change our thoughts, words and deeds.

But engaging in genuine dialogue leads to unexpected agreement, like the need to address and prevent LGBT youth homelessness and suicide, regardless of one’s politics. Dialogue produces practical solutions to political and social problems, such Utah’s law that blends nondiscrimination protections for LGBT individuals in housing and employment with free speech and religious freedom protections for employees, licensed professionals and government officials who must perform marriages.

Most importantly, genuine dialogue reveals our shared humanity and elevates us above our individual prejudices and biases – something no one should fear.

The Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen is executive director of Parity, a faith-based LGBTQ-focused organization based in New York City. Derek Monson is executive director at Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank located in Salt Lake City, Utah.