Joseph Backholm had a choice to make.
Do I want to do this or not? he wondered. Sitting with friends in late 2008 at an Aberdeen, Wash., coffee shop, the 30-year-old attorney put his dilemma into words: “I don’t know that I want to be ‘Anti Gay-Marriage Guy’ in the state of Washington.”
But as Backholm considered whether or not to accept the offer to become president of the Family Policy Institute of Washington (FPIW), he sensed God saying, “What I want you to do is surrender your reputation.”
Backholm made his choice. And for nearly 10 years now, he has been on the front lines of fighting for Biblical truth in a state as hostile as any in the nation toward Christian values.
In 2012, Washington became the seventh state to legalize same-sex marriage, three months before President Barack Obama endorsed the concept. The state successfully sued Richland, Wash., florist Barronelle Stutzman when she declined to design floral arrangements for a same-sex wedding. The Washington Supreme Court later unanimously upheld the ruling against Stutzman. Washington bans counselors from helping people who have unwanted same-sex attraction. Marijuana use is legal for those 21 and older. And last November, the state legislature passed a bill requiring state insurance plans that cover maternity care to also cover contraceptives and abortion services.
Add to this the increasing reluctance of churches to take a stand on such issues publicly, and it’s clear that influencing public policy from a Biblical standpoint is a tall order in Washington. But Backholm continues, undaunted—a fact that doesn’t surprise his parents one bit.
“I see him hard-wired for what he’s doing,” says his father, Devin Backholm. “He just grew up thinking Biblically.” Devin, a former pastor, explained that the Backholm household was centered around the charge to parents in Deuteronomy 6:7 to teach God’s ways diligently to their children, to “talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.”
Even when Joseph was young, Devin and his wife, Jane, could see glimpses of what he might become. Joseph and his older brother and sister had been home-schooled and then attended Christian schools, but before Joseph’s seventh-grade year, the family faced the possibility of putting the children in public school.
Joseph relished the idea. “I really want to go to public school so I can debate the science teachers on evolution!” he told his parents.
“He was serious, and he was good at it,” Devin recalls. Jane says one of her proudest moments came when Joseph spoke at his high school graduation ceremony. Despite having been warned by school officials to leave God out of his comments, Joseph said: “I want to thank my mom and dad for showing me Jesus.”
“His goal,” Jane says, “was to thank us—but also to make Him known.”
Joseph continued to stand for Christ at the University of Washington, where he joined the debate team. Devin chuckles as he remembers how Joseph’s teammates nicknamed him “Zorg” because, hearing his Biblical views, they would say, “We don’t know what planet you’re from.”
The ridicule their youngest son faces today is not so good-natured. But the Backholms keep in mind the words of Jesus: “Blessed are you when men revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad” (Cf. Matthew 5:11-12).
“Our greatest desire,” Jane says, “was to see our kids be in the center of God’s will, even if it does include suffering, to whatever degree. And this is a smaller degree of suffering, comparatively. … Nothing could please me more than to see them doing what He created them to do, using it for His glory and not just what they want.”
Over the years, Joseph Backholm has seen a dramatic shift toward contempt-filled barrages from progressives. “The left has kind of moved to a point where anyone who disagrees with them does not deserve the respect associated with dialogue,” he says. “A significant percentage of them actually believe that. Not everybody, but a significant percentage, and the activists usually do.”
He has come to view the name-calling and scorn as “just noise” that adds nothing to the debate about the issues. And he recognizes that Christians often fall into the same trap in their treatment of the secular left.
“It’s very human to want to identify somebody who disagrees with us as the enemy,” Backholm says. “But Ephesians 6 makes it very clear who we’re actually wrestling with, who the real enemy is. If we misidentify who the problem is, then we’re going to treat people poorly. But if we see people as God sees them, being kind and patient, then avoiding ad hominem attacks isn’t that hard.”
What is hard these days is finding churches and leaders who are willing to take a stand for God’s ways. “The organized churches in Washington state, for the most part, have ceased trying to have a voice in the community when it comes to public policy,” Backholm says.
He explains that in 2012, the FPIW had identified some 4,000 Bible-believing churches in the state, of which about 1,000 participated in the organization’s efforts to fight same-sex marriage. By last year, when FPIW sought support for rolling back the state Human Rights Commission’s locker and bathroom rule—which allows use of facilities that correspond with gender identity rather than biological sex—only 54 churches were willing to participate.
“One of the most common questions we get when it comes to supporting our efforts is, ‘Is anybody going to know about this?’” Backholm says. “So, rather than seeing the florist and the baker and the print shop cases and saying, ‘Hey, we need to defend them; that’s my brother, that’s my sister,’ it’s, ‘Wow, I’m going to make sure that never happens to me.’ So everybody is retreating inside their little shell, building the walls of their bunker a little thicker, and deciding that as long as the bully can’t see them, they’re going to leave the bully alone.”
The retreat of the church is the biggest burden on Backholm’s heart. “I don’t think every person in the world is called to be a front-lines activist on these things,” he says, “but the general culture within the church, and certainly within the pastorate, is one of sadness that it’s happening, but that they have absolutely no energy to be part of the process. I think the church is completely entrapped by their desire to have the same people who hate God, like them.”
As Backholm sees it, part of the problem is fear. But there is also ignorance of our historic context and the fragile nature of freedom.
“We want to believe that freedom is the natural state of being, but it’s not,” Backholm says. “Most people who have lived and died, did not live and die in freedom.” The founders of the United States created a new order that produced unprecedented good. And out of that freedom, churches have introduced marriage ministries, adoption ministries, homeless ministries and more, helping untold thousands. But if secular progressives have their way, the days of such ministries may be numbered.
Backholm asks: “Why is the United States the greatest philanthropic engine and propagator of the Gospel that the planet has ever seen? It’s not random. It’s because we created a system of government that made it possible. And that system of government is about to go away. Now, we can either back up and do a little maintenance on the system so that we can continue doing this for the next hundred years—or we can decide it’s not worth it and then just tell our kids what it was like when we were free and could do stuff like that.”
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version.