The white evangelical rejection of gay rights has created a zero-sum game. More rights for gay Americans means fewer rights for evangelicals. Gay people are regarded as an affliction, a form of persecution, a plague of biblical proportions.
Like the biblical Samson, Trump will eventually bring the entire edifice of American conservatism crashing down around him. Some species of evangelical religion will ultimately rise from the rubble, but it will be greatly curtailed, politically irrelevant and, I pray, more recognizably Christian.
Since the presidential election of 2004, when the Christian Right was widely credited for handing George W. Bush a narrow victory, moderate and liberal religious leaders have been fussing about the “God-Gap” that gives the religious right a leg up on the secular left. Why can’t the Christian Left energize liberal politics? Why haven’t more progressive expressions of evangelicalism taken root in America?
George Lakoff teaches progressive politicians to learn the language of moral values so they can appeal to religious voters.
Since the 2004 election, a cadre of young, post-partisan evangelicals has been challenging the marriage of evangelical theology and small-government conservatism that passes for mainstream Christian piety in America. Christians should stand in solidarity with the poor, the new evangelicals say, they should embrace “creation care” and work for racial reconciliation.
Dr. Lydia Bean, a former Baylor sociology professor who is now organizing Black and Latino evangelicals in Texas, sympathizes with this quest to close the God-Gap, but her intense study of evangelicalism in the United States and Canada makes her wary. Her new book, The Politics of Evangelical Identity: Local Churches and Partisan Divides in the United States and Canada (Princeton University Press) explains why American evangelicals became so closely aligned with the Republican Party.
“Partisanship and political attitudes are anchored in social group memberships and networks,” Bean says.
When Christian Right frames resonate, it is because they are woven into everyday religious practice, reinforcing a powerful connection between religious identity and partisanship.
if other movements want to challenge the Christian Right for their own constituency, it will not be enough to engage in top-down messaging about faith and values. New moral issues will only take on a sacred quality if they become part of the lived religion of rank-and-file evangelicals, who are embedded in local congregations.
Liberals may be doing a poor job of translating their message into the language of faith and moral values, but that isn’t the real problem. Until we can create new forms of religious community in which solidarity with the poor, creation care and racial reconciliation become sacred through integration into the everyday community life of real congregations, we can’t compete with the Christian Right.
Dr. Bean returns again and again to a simple affirmation: the close association between religious piety and political partisanship is a carefully cultivated phenomenon that doesn’t flow from the core tenets of evangelical theology.
When she compared evangelical congregations in the United States and Canada, Bean discovered a stark contrast. Let’s begin south of the border. (more…)
By Alan Bean
Alan Chambers became an evangelical superstar by telling people what they wanted to hear. White evangelicals can’t maintain the moral high ground in the great American debate over sexual orientation unless people make a conscious choice to be gay or straight. If that’s true, folks in the LGBT community can go straight if they want to. Homosexuality, in this view, is a chosen “lifestyle” that can be sloughed off at will. Alan Chambers claimed to be a gay man who had been prayed straight. If it happened to him, it could logically happen to anyone. Exodus International, the ministry he founded, was dedicated to doing precisely that.
White evangelicals celebrated Chambers’ work because it saved them from a moral impasse. Conservative Christians (and until recently liberal Christians as well) have taught that homosexual behavior is a sin and that it is God’s nature to hate sin. Westboro Baptist Church’s “God hates fags” battle cry was a tad crude for most evangelicals, but deep down they agreed with the sentiment. Their theology left them no choice.
But what if homosexuals don’t choose their orientation? What if they come of age sexually desiring members of their own sex? Wouldn’t that mean that sexual orientation, gay or straight, expresses the creative will of God? And if that’s the case, how can God condemn a condition for which he (and/or she) is ultimately responsible?
There are just two ways of resolving this conundrum. Either God doesn’t consider homosexual behavior to be inherently sinful after all, or God makes everybody straight and some people, for some perverse reason, choose to defy the creative intentions of the Almighty.
Evangelicals opted for the second solution.
This didn’t create too many problems in a day when homosexuality was considered too shameful for public discussion. Since western culture disapproved of homosexuality it only seemed natural that God would concur–we can’t be more moral than the Creator, after all. Even though the Bible has remarkably little to say about sexual orientation (and, so far as we know, Jesus uttered nary a syllable on the subject) a few texts in Leviticus and the letters of Paul the Apostle have been used to prove that God is just as intolerant of homosexuality as we are–maybe more so.
This line of argument never jibed with the facts, but so long as open public discussion of human sexuality was considered verboten the facts didn’t matter. But objective study of human sexuality has gradually demolished the theory that sexual orientation is chosen. True, some people appear to be sexually ambidextrous (Alan Chambers may fit into this category–see the article below); but none of us can alter the fundamental shape of our sexual desires.
In recent decades, biblical scholars have examined the biblical teaching on sexuality more objectively. As a result, there is no longer any scholarly consensus on what the Good Book does and doesn’t say on the subject. But one assertion can be made with confidence: the God who burns with hatred for the LGBT community cannot be reconciled with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. You can believe in one God or the other; but you can’t believe in both.
Just this week, Alan Chambers, the founder and President of Exodus International, admitted to the world that 99.9% of the human population can’t change their sexual orientation and that thirty years of trying to do the undoable have created immense human pain.
Where does this leave evangelical Christians?
It leaves us with the grace of God; which is exactly where we need to be. God doesn’t hate people for who they are. In fact, God doesn’t “hate” vices like anger, sadism, exploitation, cruelty, faithlessness, and lying. God doesn’t hate! It ain’t in his nature. God loves sinners just as much as saints; in fact, it could be argued that God has a particular affection for broken people (see, for instance, Jesus’ parable of “the ninety-and-nine” in Luke 15:4)).
This doesn’t make God a radical relativist. Most of the old vices and virtues that Christians have embraced from the beginning remain in full effect. But God loves us all, forgives us all, and welcomes us all to the kingdom banquet regardless of all the things we cannot change about ourselves (gender, race, religion or sexual orientation). In fact, God loves us in spite of all the not-okay things we could change, if we weren’t so messed up. God is love. God is grace.
We can be glad that Alan Chambers finally admitted the obvious and had the guts to close down a “ministry” that, however well-intentioned, has damaged countless lives.
Now we’ll see how American evangelicals respond to the news.
Exodus International will close after 37 years. Its leader, who last year renounced the idea that homosexuality could be ‘cured,’ apologizes for the ‘shame’ and ‘trauma’ the group had inflicted.
While Exodus claimed to have purged thousands of people of sexual urges that tormented them, its leaders recently began expressing doubts about the mission. Last year, its president, Alan Chambers, renounced the idea that homosexuality could be “cured.”
This week, the organization abruptly announced it was closing down. Chambers offered a dramatic, public mea culpa, refuting decades of Exodus’ teaching and apologizing for the “shame” and “trauma” the group had inflicted.
FOR THE RECORD:
Exodus International: In the June 21 Section A, an article about the closing of Exodus International, a ministry in the “gay cure” movement, mistakenly attributed a quote, “In more and more communities, churches are grappling with homosexuality in more open terms. These are the cultural realities around us.” The words should have been attributed to Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, not Ross Murray, director of news and faith initiatives at gay rights group GLAAD. Also, the headline indicated that Exodus International was based in Anaheim; the group was founded in Anaheim but later moved to Florida.
The demise of the gay cure movement underscores the growing acceptance of homosexuality in society, even in the evangelical Christian community. Polls show increasing support for gay marriage, and leading conservatives, including Dick Cheney and Rob Portman, have expressed support for gay rights. A May Gallup poll showed that 59% of American adults said gay and lesbian relationships are morally acceptable, up 19 percentage points since 2001.
“Evangelicals are not immune to this,” said Randall Balmer, chairman of the religion department at Dartmouth College. “They get swept along with the cultural currents as well.”
Chambers’ statement won praise from gay-rights groups, who long criticized his views. But some were quick to point out that Exodus had been losing influence among evangelicals in recent years as gay conversion became increasingly out of the mainstream.
“I think there’s a tendency to see Exodus folding as a parable of Christian capitulation and ethic,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “That is not what’s happening. Instead what you have is an organization that has some confusion about its mission and purpose…. What is not happening here, is an evangelical revision of a biblical sexual ethic.”
Chambers discussed his change of heart in an interview with the Los Angeles Times on Thursday as well as in a lengthy statement and speech to a religious convention in Irvine.
“We need to change the way we do things,” he said.
Chambers said that gays had been wrongly made to feel rejected by God, and that Christians should accept them even if they believe homosexuality — like pride and gluttony — is a sin.
“I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change,” Chambers wrote in a statement on his website. “I am sorry that I … failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know. I am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine.”
Chambers, who is married to a woman and has two adopted children, told The Times he is still attracted to men and comfortably lives with that tension, but that others may be unable to do so. He said that 99% of people who went through gay-conversion therapy did not lose their same-sex desires.
Chambers’ apology was welcomed by gay rights activists, who called it a “big surprise.”
“I think it is demonstrative of the major shift that we as a society have gone through in terms of our understanding of who gay and lesbian people are and how they live,” said Ross Murray, director of news and faith initiatives at gay rights group GLAAD.
“At one time, it was pretty mainstream to have those thoughts and feelings about gay and lesbian people. Over time, Exodus and people who have promoted change programs have been more and more marginal or fringe.
“In more and more communities, churches are grappling with homosexuality in more open terms. These are the cultural realities around us.”
Chambers first made his apology Wednesday night at Exodus’ annual conference in Irvine and in advance of a show that aired Thursday night with journalist Lisa Ling in which he is confronted by “ex-gay survivors.”
“It was excruciating,” he said. “They told their true stories in a way that I will never forget. They told stories of abuse and pain, missed opportunities, awful words that were spoken to them. Stories of abuse and pain from the church and even from Exodus.”
Linda and Rob Robertson came from Redmond, Wash., to speak at the conference. Strict evangelicals with four children, they shared their own torment with the Bible’s teachings and their son, Ryan, who came out to them when he was 12.
She said she and her husband forced him to choose between God and being a gay man, and for the next six years he tried everything possible. He went to reparative therapy with Exodus, but nothing worked.
At 18, with no answers, he became addicted to drugs, his mother said.
“We didn’t intentionally, but we taught Ryan to hate himself,” Linda Robertson said.
Although they later tried to form a more accepting relationship, he ultimately died of a drug overdose in 2009.
Since then, the Robertsons have become advocates for gay and lesbian young adults who feel shut out by the church.
“We have to stop warring,” Rob Robertson said. “We’ve got to stop fighting.”
Times staff writers Joseph Serna and Paul Pringle contributed to this report.
By Alan Bean
This is good stuff! In a NYT op-ed, UNC history professor Molly Worthen draws attention to one of the primary forces driving the immigration debate in America–the counter-intuitive coalition between white and Latino evangelicals.
It is easy to regard this fragile network with skepticism. When over 70% of Latino voters pulled the lever for the blue team, savvy Republicans knew they had to edit their immigration talking points.
True, but it goes deeper than that.
Worthen argues that Latino evangelicals don’t share the libertarian, small government leanings of their white counterparts. Moreover, a large and influential cohort of educated young white evangelicals is embracing aspects of the old social gospel with its focus on social or systemic sin. This is not a cosmetic shift from the old evangelicalism, Worthen insists; it represents a fundamental shift in theological focus:
For a Christian, the question of whether an undocumented immigrant is a criminal or a victim trapped in an unjust system depends on how one thinks about sin and human responsibility . . . There are signs that evangelicals’ softening on immigration reform reflects a changing theology of sin and Christian obligation: a growing appreciation of how unjust social and legal institutions and the brutality of global capitalism trap the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses. This may be particularly true of younger evangelicals who are disillusioned with their parents’ Christian right. (more…)
By Alan Bean
American Evangelicals are gradually joining the push for immigration reform and the impetus behind this shift in emphasis is most apparent in Focus on the Family, a para-church organization founded by the controversial James Dobson. But Dr. Dobson has yielded leadership of Focus on the Family to the irenic Jim Daly, and the difference in approach is beginning to show.
James Dobson started out as a Christian psychologist with a mission to teach Christian parents how to discipline their children. As anyone who has ever spent low-quality time with undisciplined children knows, Dobson was scratching where a lot of families were feeling the itch. Originally, Dobson stayed on message and his avuncular and often humorous presentations were warmly received in Christian churches across North America. As a young pastor, I used his films on Sunday evenings. Parents felt overwhelmed by the challenges of parenting and Dobson seemed to have the answers. (more…)
By Alan Bean
Evangelical organizations from the left-leaning Sojourners to the right-leaning Focus on the Family, have joined in a plea for immigration system. If you’re curious, you can find a list of all the signatories here (scroll to the bottom of the page).
Critics will note that there are few concrete policy proposals mentioned in the brief list of principles released by the Evangelical Immigration Table. But the fact that conservative religious leaders are calling on political leaders to “welcome the stranger” is noteworthy. Here’s the statement: (more…)
By Alan Bean
I have never met Lisa Sharon Harper, but she’s been reading my mail.
Why, she asks, was Franklin Graham unwilling to apply the term “Christian” to president Obama?
Graham has trouble seeing the president as a fellow believer, Sharon Harper argues, because white Christians are rarely forced to wrestle with systemic injustice and are therefore uncomfortable with Christians who make this issue front and center.
I have a few minor quibbles with the argument below.
Many, perhaps most, black evangelical churches are just as fixated on personal salvation as white evangelicals. Martin Luther King didn’t enjoy the enthusiastic support of most black Baptist churches in the South, and his social gospel remains suspect in many corners of the black church.
Secondly, Franklin Graham’s daddy, the iconic American evangelist Billy Graham, wasn’t quite as racially advanced as this post suggests. True, he did open his crusades to black worshippers before most white evangelicals were comfortable with integrated evangelism, but as Darren Dochuk points out in his excellent study of California evangelicalism, Graham realized that segregation was becoming an embarrassment in America and thus an impediment to evangelism. (more…)
Three Friends of Justice people are attending the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference at the Drake Hotel in Chicago this week. Melanie Wilmoth and I are here, as is the Rev. L. Charles Stovall, Friends of Justice board member and associate pastor at St Luke United Methodist Church in Dallas. Speaking of Methodists, a contingent of 40 United Methodists from across the nation, led by the indefatigable Rev. Laura Markle Downton, are in Chicago for the conference. These are the folks who recently convinced their denomination to divest from for profit prisons.
I was bone weary when we entered the old fashioned elegance of the Drake Room for evening worship, but I left pumped and inspired. The highlight of the evening was a stunning sermon on the familiar story of Daniel in the lion’s den from the Rev. Dr. Lance Watson, pastor of St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. Watson preaches in the traditional black style. In the final ten minutes, brief bolts of organ music punctuated every phrase. “I know it’s late,” he assured us, “and I ain’t gonna keep you long. And I hope you know that, coming from a Baptist preacher, that don’t mean nothing.”
Dr. Watson didn’t just preach in the old time fashion, he interpreted the scriptures in the old time style, literally. If God could deliver Daniel, the preacher told us, God can deliver you.
Normally, this would bother me. Isn’t this Daniel in the lion’s den thing just a folk story? I mean, it didn’t really happen, did it? And didn’t the author of the story refer to King Darius when it should have been Cyrus? And can I really believe that if somebody threw me into a den of hungry lions I would emerge unscathed?
I wasn’t the least bit bothered by Dr. Watson’s straightforward exegesis, and I’ll tell you why. So long as the preacher gets the application right, I don’t really care what school of biblical interpretation he follows. Watson talked about the lions of mass incarceration and felon disenfranchisement. He compared the steadfast obedience of Daniel to the grace Barack Obama has shown when the lions in his world insisted he produce a birth certificate. When Watson came to the part where knaves use flattery to appeal to a king’s vanity, Watson talked about black politicians who don’t realize they are being used until the game is over.
The story of Daniel, like so many stories from the Bible, is about remaining faithful in the face of oppression. Black America understands that message. Earlier in the day, Susan Taylor, Editor Emeritus of Essence Magazine and the founder of a nationwide mentoring program for at-risk children, told us about her visit to one of the fortresses on the African coast where, for centuries, men, women and children waited for the slave ship to come. In graphic detail, she described the horrors of the middle passage. She said African Americans need to teach these things to our children and, if we have forgotten, to ourselves.
This is precisely the kind of stuff that makes white Americans profoundly uncomfortable. All of that stuff happened so very long ago. It was awful, to be sure, but why talk about it in polite company; it’s divisive, it just stirs things up. I didn’t own any slaves and none of you have a personal experience with slavery so . . . let’s call the whole thing off.
Black America needs to talk about the stuff white America needs to forget. Or maybe we too need to remember, we just don’t know it yet.
Dr. Jeremiah Wright gave the benediction tonight. Yes, that Jeremiah Wright. Barack Obama’s former pastor. The guy who enraged white America by suggesting that America’s chickens might be coming home to roost. I was riding in a van with several black passengers when the towers fell in Manhattan. Their reaction mirrored Wright’s. Black and white Americans live in two different worlds, experientially and religiously.
There are plenty of white folks who share the ethical commitments of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference. We oppose the war on drugs, we think mass incarceration has been a disaster, and we want to address the conditions that foster violence and joblessness in poor urban neighborhoods. But you would never hear a white person who believes these things preaching like the Rev. Dr. Lance Watson. Most white progressives would be offended by biblical preaching. If religion must be referenced at all, let it be generic religion, devoid of narrative content. None of that Jesus stuff.
White progressives (with a few blessed exceptions) associate words like Jesus, Bible, prayer, salvation and deliverence with the religious Right. And, to be fair, the religious folk you see on the television and hear on the radio rarely reflect the kingdom priorities of Jesus.
Unlike their white counterparts, black progressives can, to paraphrase the Rev. Dr. Freddie Haynes, think and shout at the same time. “If you think,” he told us, “you will thank. Think about how great our God is and you can’t help but get your shout on.”
Why do white Christians have such a hard time mixing kingdom ethics with shouts of praise. I’m not sure, but the world would be a better place if we got over it.
Over at the Sojourner’s God’s Politics Blog, New Media Director Cathleen Falsani struggles to define the word “evangelical”. A recent conclave of purported “evangelical leaders” met in Texas over the weekend to ordain an alternative to Mitt Romney (they settled, after three contentious ballots, on Rick Santorum). Does it matter? Was anybody listening? Or is “evangelical” too elastic a term to work as demographic shorthand? AGB
By Cathleen Falsani
As someone who self-identifies as an evangelical Christian, I often begin to feel like the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary, particularly in the midst of a heated presidential election cycle.
It’s Evangelical Week here on Discovery! Travel with us as our explorers track the elusive evangelical in its native habitats. Watch as evangelicals worship, work and play, all captured on film with the latest high definition technology. And follow our intrepid documentary team members as they bravely venture into the most dangerous of exotic evangelical locations — the voting booth!
I understand the interest in us evangelicals, I really do. The way much of the mainstream media covers our communities in the news can make us seem like a puzzling subspecies of the American population, not unlike the Rocky Mountain long-haired yeti.
Are we really that difficult to comprehend?
In a word, yes. (more…)