Since Mark Driscoll’s last round of public queer and trans baiting, I’ve wanted to make a bingo card of some of the ridiculous excuses some Christians make for why Driscoll’s behavior is either acceptable or just not a problem they should have to deal with. Alas, I couldn’t find a bingo card generator, and I didn’t have the HTML skills to make one myself. But now! I have mediocre n00b HTML knowledge to
inflict on share with my readers :-D
And the timing couldn’t be better, since Driscoll appears to have gone and stuck another homophobic foot in his mouth yet again, like clockwork [eta: Molly points out in the comments that Driscoll wrote this in 2008, but it’s just getting attention now]:
First, masturbation can be a form of homosexuality because it is a sexual act that does not involve a woman. If a man were to masturbate while engaged in other forms of sexual intimacy with his wife then he would not be doing so in a homosexual way. However, any man who does so without his wife in the room is bordering on homosexuality [sic] activity, particularly if he’s watching himself in a mirror and being turned on by his own male body. (Dangerous Minds)
There’s really nothing that needs to be said about that, right? The man clearly has some personal issues to work through.
So, here it is: a handy guide to the absurd defenses of Driscoll fanboys and people who just find his public comments too inconvenient and embarrassing to handle honestly. What did I miss? Share your favorite example of ridiculous Driscoll apologism in the comments!
Mark Driscoll Apologism Bingo:
|No one respects women more than Mark. He hates violence against women.||Mark is just a provocateur.||People hate/persecute Mark because he preaches harsh bible truth.||You’re giving non-Christians excuses to slander and hate us!||People have come to Christ through Mark. Don’t lose sight of the big picture.|
|“Jesus wasn’t just a gentle peacemaker.”||This is sinful gossip and slander.||You’re turning Christians against each other and destroying our unity.||Mark is just rough around the edges. He’s refreshingly blunt.||Mark loves his wife and celebrates femininity, just not in men.|
|Mark really loves Jesus.||Mark isn’t in my/your church; he’s not my/your problem.||FREE
|You’re supporting worldly criticisms of Mark by unbelievers.||Why are you so emotional/angry/bitter?|
|Mars Hill is growing. God is really using Mark.||You haven’t listened to every sermon Mark Driscoll has ever preached.||You should share your concerns with Mark privately. Matthew 18!||Just pray for Mark and pay more attention to your own sin.||Mark just wants men to feel comfortable in church.|
|If we ignore him he’ll just go away.||You should be working towards love and reconciliation with Driscoll.||People who call Mark out are the real bullies.||You’re just as much of a sinner as Mark.||Mark is doing God’s work in godless, unchurched Seattle.|
The crux of the controversy over Ann Voskamp’s book revolves around accusations that she wants to have “intercourse” with God. Everyday Mommy, the blogger whose post sparked the debate, argues that the biblical image of the Christian church as the bride of Christ is solely an analogy that illustrates how different persons of the Trinity relate to each other, and how husbands and wives should relate to each other – except for the sex part. “The Biblical imagery of marriage between Christ and His bride has [nothing] whatsoever to do with sex,” and exploring any sensual or sexual aspect of this marital metaphor is “[imposing] our own fallen, fleshly views on scripture.”
Frankly I think this response points to a rather low view of sexuality as something to be ashamed of (“fallen” and “fleshly”), while divinity necessarily means being sexless – but also necessarily means being of male gender. The obsession with a power-hungry, violent and vengeful male God who is completely invulnerable to any kind of human need or desire, perhaps most especially sexual desire, is very revealing of the gender and sexual politics at the heart of complementarianism. It’s the sort of thing Freud would have had a field day with (and did, I think).
But as for the claim that the metaphor of “intercourse with God” is unscriptural and heretic, this would have been news to Puritan Christians. In his study of sexuality in colonial America, Richard Godbeer shows that Puritans found such imagery not only appropriate, but in fact necessary for understanding the proper relationship between God and the Christian soul. They believed that physical, sexual passion was not to be repressed, but rather channelled into heterosexual marriage and celebrated in that context; all sexual expression outside those boundaries was “unclean” and “disorderly.”
At the same time, even legitimate marital love could become a sin if it distracted a Christian from what should be their primary object of affection, namely, Christ. For many Puritans, the imagery of Christ as bridegroom to the Church, and the erotic language in which they rendered that imagery, wasn’t merely an analogy. It was an illustration that pointed to the very real spiritual passion a Christian should feel for Christ – a passion far more important than any human affection, and a passion that, pursued above any other, would lead to far greater and more lasting pleasure than any human relationship could. Puritan literature on the love between Christ and the Christian soul was full of talk of ecstasies, swooning, raptures, and even “seed” and “impregnation.”
We can see an example of this in the writings of Edward Taylor, a seventeenth century Massachusetts pastor. Taylor wrote to his future wife that his intense, “sanctified” love for her would nevertheless always have to be subordinate to the love “betwixt Christ and his church,” and spoke of this spiritual love in sensual and sexual terms. In his poems, Taylor described his soul as a “womb” which would be “impregnated” by “Christ the spermadote” with the “seed” of grace, and eventually give birth to the “babe of grace.”
Taylor’s spiritual poetry portrayed his relationship with Christ as a passionate, sexual encounter. He imagined Christ as a lover who was a “spotless male in prime,” and wrote of preparing “gospel pillows, sheets, and sweet perfumes” to welcome Christ into the “feather-bed” of his heart. Through union with Christ he expected to experience “love raptures” quite clearly orgasmic in nature: “Yea, with thy holy oil make thou it slick till like a flash of lightning it grow quick.”
Whew! Pretty hot and heavy, I’d say. Certainly far more explicit than Voskamp’s vague, generic longings to “make love to” or have “intercourse” with God. And as Godbeer points out, Taylor “was neither unique nor unorthodox” for his time in making use of such erotic language and imagery. Nor did Puritans consider it inappropriate for men to write about Jesus as a masculine, spiritual lover – to the contrary, his masculinity was emphasized in such writing. As I’ll discuss in a future post, the greater fluidity of Puritan understandings of gender (by comparison to 21st century Americans) made what looks to us like a queering of the relationship between Jesus and the church completely acceptable, even in a context where same gender love was roundly condemned.
Which is why I found this comment from a male reader at Everyday Mommy so ironic:
@Karen and the supporters:
Since this stuff is okay I’m going to write about how [Jesus is] *my* lover too. My soul longs for sweet, intimate, gay sex.
And if you protest I can just say it’s spiritual.
Or we could recognize that EverydayMommy is right about this is morally reprehensible.
Not to worry, dude. Edward Taylor was waaaaay ahead of you.
[Note: In this series of posts I’m paraphrasing and drawing on research by Richard Godbeer in Sexual Revolution in Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.]
Notice how only the husbands are interviewed about the retreat, while the wives say not a word? And that none of the women even have microphones on, kind of like it never even occurred to the powers that be that wives might have opinions on a marriage retreat, and/or that they might be interesting or relevant? And that every single married woman just stands by as smiling support? It’s a little creepy.
Of course, we can’t know what these couples’ marriages are like just from a few seconds of video. But I think this clip – with the each husband speaking exclusively for each couple, each wife standing in silent agreement with and adoration of her husband – illustrates attitudes and expectations about gender roles in marriage that I’ve seen so often in evangelical complementarian marriages.
When Mr. G and I were engaged, we had premarital counseling with a couple from my family’s SGM church. And by “counseling with a couple,” I mean counseling with a guy whose wife would say nothing until the very end of our meetings, when the husband would turn to her and ask if she had anything to add. She never did. Her husband had said it all, apparently. At our first meeting, she deliberately avoided shaking Mr. G’s hand until he had shaken her husband’s hand first.
At the time I was totally oblivious to what was going on – her husband was closest to me, so I naturally I shook his hand first, unaware of the maneuverings going on behind me. This was one of her ways, I guess, of respecting her husband’s authority over her; the chain of command had to be upheld by having our male leaders acknowledge each other first, before the ladies could be involved or acknowledged. I realized later that she probably considered me to be wildly insubordinate, or some such nonsense, because I had the audacity to shake her husband’s hand without waiting for my fiancé’s go-ahead, without acknowledging him as my “head” and above me.
And then there’s the fact that I’m much more talkative than my husband in unfamiliar company, which meant that I did the vast majority of the talking during our counseling meetings. We both noticed that counselor dude was irritated and offended by the fact that Mr. G wasn’t more forthcoming. I eventually pieced together that our counselor’s problem wasn’t simply that Mr. G didn’t say very much, it was also that I said so much more than he did. I wasn’t being properly submissive and letting my future husband take the lead that was rightfully his.
It perhaps doesn’t need to be said that our counseling meetings weren’t terribly useful or pleasant for anyone involved.
Bizarre as her behavior was, our counselor’s wife was just trying to show respect to her husband (whose behavior, it must be added, was no less strange – a story for another day). And of course, respect between partners is a vital part of a healthy relationship. But in complementarianism, respect is understood as being primarily the wife’s responsibility. This is based on gender essentialist assumptions that men need respect while women need love, and that women find it easy to love but difficult to show respect, especially to men, while men have an easy time treating people with respect but a hard time showing love, especially in the way women need (this is code for “men should treat women as delicate, hyper-emotional creatures incapable of logic and reason”). The complementarian notion of respect is perverted at its root by an insistence that only one gender needs respect in a relationship.
What respect is supposed to look like for a married woman is also quite strange. As our counselor told us, being a respectful, properly submissive wife means “affirming” the husband’s leadership in every. single. aspect. of the marriage. Naturally that includes conversations in public. For a lot of married women I knew at church, that meant they were expected to never contradict their husbands in public, much less argue with them; to never interrupt; to let them “take the lead” in mixed conversation, which meant speaking a good deal less than their husbands, often not until their husbands spoke to them first.
It also meant that women were expected to never complain about their husbands – and more than that, to constantly talk up their husbands as the best and most considerate spouses ever, no matter what. I can begin to count how many times I’ve heard women from church effusively praising their husbands for doing things that should have just been routine. For “releasing” them to go on a trip with friends. For maybe making one measly meal every few months, when their wives are expected to have homemade food on the table for their husbands and many children every night. For “letting” them sleep in or giving them the “morning off” from domestic and childcare duties (even when the reason for this is that the wife is laid up with an illness, or dealing with pregnancy nausea, or has a small infant).
I’ve seen women berate themselves for being justifiably angry with their husbands – for example, for putting their family in danger by repeatedly delaying getting a failing car checked out – because well, nothing serious happened and a wife should focus on their husbands’ strengths and her own sin, not his failings. And if there are few or no good things they can think of, it’s because they, the wives, have a sinful attitude, never because the husband might have any real failings. They are the ones who need adjustment; it could never be that a husband is neglecting or mistreating his wife so much that little positive can be said about his behavior or attributes.
Watching the clip above gave me same tight, sinking feeling I always get when I think about the girls I grew up with in church who are now married. It’s so emblematic of how so many complementarian women experience marriage: as cheerleaders expected to hang on their husband’s arms and words, silencing themselves and suppressing all authentic expression of emotions. When I think of people I used to be friends with living a life like that, so completely muzzled, I feel sick with worry and despair for them.
LDS (Mormon) owned Brigham Young University just dismissed Brandon Davies, a key player on their #3 ranked men’s basketball team, for violating the school’s honor code. Davies was apparently dismissed because he and his girlfriend had premarital sex. Amazingly, a number of otherwise liberal bloggers and mainstream media figures who are applauding BYU for “sticking to their principles” in this case (including Jon Stewart, for heaven’s sake). Many are also castigating Davies for breaking a “contract” and “letting his teammates down.” Um, no. Fail.
BYU’s right to define its own rules doesn’t make those rules or how they’re applied inherently right, or exempt them from criticism and scrutiny. There are undoubtedly quite a lot of sexually active, unmarried students at BYU. The honor code holds up standards the school must know a large proportion of the student body won’t be able to meet, and the vast majority of people will get away with breaking. According to one BYU alum, the rules are unevenly applied; Davies may be subject to a double standard because he’s part of a nationally prominent team.
As for claims that BYU showed “integrity” and “courage” by giving up potential wins for its principles – I’m sorry, but that’s utter bullshit. It doesn’t take “courage” to turn a 19 year old into a national spectacle. It would take more courage for such a conservative institution to acknowledge that not everything is black and white, and to take a nuanced, non-judgmental approach to the situation. Or to acknowledge that maybe there’s more than one way to deal with offenses, and the harshest way is often more self-righteousness and legalism than it is thoughtful adherence to “principles.”
In order to maintain their “integrity” as a religious institution, BYU showed appalling disregard for the welfare of two young people and their families. But even if Davies were a grown man, “rules is rules” would be a shitty excuse for throwing context, nuance, or basic human decency and compassion out the window. Is the purpose of a religious code of conduct to weed out anyone who doesn’t behave perfectly? An excuse to expose anyone who makes a mistake to national scrutiny and humiliation? Or to help people make better choices and live well? Insisting on rules for their own sake lacks compassion – it makes being human itself into a sin and a failing. Is this what passes for pastoral care at BYU?
Davies now feels he owes his teammates an apology for having consensual sex, which is just sad and awful. Funny how some churches claim to believe sexuality is an incredibly private thing but still put it on such public display. Apparently that’s only bad if someone chooses to express themselves sexually in a not entirely private context; exposing someone’s body or sex life to public scrutiny without their consent is just fine. One wonders if the famous BYU alums who are defending the school would be willing to have their sexual histories laid out for public consumption and examined to see if they held up the honor code as students. Somehow I think not.
The bottom line is what Brandon Davies and his girlfriend have or haven’t done sexually, assuming consent, is NO ONE’S BUSINESS BUT THEIR OWN. It’s no business of the coach, the team, or the university. It’s damn sure not the country’s business. This is an inexcusable violation of the privacy and dignity of Davies, his girlfriend, and their families. They are owed an apology. Davies didn’t let his teammates, his fans, BYU, or anyone else down. The adults and the institution who are supposed to be looking out for him let him down. The awful irony is that Davies is implicitly praised for apologizing for consensual sex in the same culture where Ben Roethlisberger and myriad other athletes with a history of rape or sexual assault are under little or no pressure to apologize for their behavior (thanks to @FearlessFemme for pointing this out).
Davies is a young black man at a predominantly white institution; he belongs to a predominantly white religion (in the U.S.) with a long, documented history of institutionalized racism and white privilege. The holding up of a young black Mormon as a national example of sexual transgression has to be understood in that context, and in the broader hypersexualization of black men and other men of color in U.S. culture. Rumors that Davies’ girlfriend is white have also fueled comments, which one doesn’t have to look hard to find, speculating about her judgment, self-esteem, and even body image and weight because of her decision to date and have sex with a black man. Such comments indicate the persistence of old, ugly attitudes about racial “miscegenation” in the U.S.. It’s worth noting here that the 100+ years ban on black men in the Mormon priesthood, lifted only in 1978, is thought to have been a response to an interracial marriage between a white woman and the son of a black elder in the early years of the LDS church.
There’s also a concerning pattern here of male athletes of color coming under university scrutiny over the honor code – now at least three in the past year. Harvey Unga, a Tongan football player, and Keilani Moeaki, a women’s basketball player, voluntarily withdrew from BYU in 2010 for honor code violations presumably sexual in nature, as Moeaki gave birth to their son three months later. Michael Loyd, another black basketball player, left BYU for reasons reported by the school and its supporters to be related to discipline problems and possible honor code violations. It’s unclear at this point whether Davies will remain at BYU – whether he will be expelled, as is reported to be a possible penalty for an honor code violation of this “seriousness,” or transfer elsewhere. If he is expelled, it will raise further questions about the disposability of young black men in higher education and athletics.
I find it telling that very little concern has been expressed for Davies’ girlfriend. She’s entirely out of the picture as a stock figure and sexual objected implicitly blamed for luring Davies into making a “mistake.” We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this young woman has had her sex life turned into fodder for national debate overnight. If, like Davies, she’s also a member of the LDS church, the scrutiny may be even more damaging; in cultures like conservative Mormonism, a man might be forgiven the “indiscretion” of premarital sex or even an affair because that’s just “how men are.” Women in such cultures, by contrast, are simultaneously constructed as asexual and as natural objects of male desire, especially if they are white (women of color are often depicted as naturally hypersexual and inclined to promiscuity).
In addition to being extremely misogynist and racist, this view of gender and sexuality is also extremely heteronormative. It’s as obvious that even a “good” young man would want to have sex with a young woman as it is that any “good” young woman wouldn’t want to have sex unless she were deceived or susceptible in some way. If she wanted to have sex, she must have been bad in some way. Obviously these ideas aren’t limited to religion, and they’re some of the ideas that constitute and perpetuate rape culture. Still, they’re more explicit in patriarchal religions like Mormonism, and even codified into official teaching.
There are rumors that Davies was found out because his girlfriend is pregnant; who knows if that’s true. This certainly seems to have been a factor in Unga and Moeaki’s departures from BYU, however, and it points to incredible hypocrisy on the part of a supposedly pro-life institution. Given the school’s past behavior, unmarried student athletes who find themselves pregnant must face external pressure to terminate in order to avoid losing their scholarships. If abortion is really and truly murder – the LAST thing a pro-life religious institution should do is punish someone for getting pregnant and and not terminating. People who make the tough decision to continue an unplanned pregnancy in a context where they will be vilified and potentially lose their reputations and jobs for being sexually active should be applauded by pro-life institutions as courageous and honorable by their own internal standards, not punished and shunned.
Davies and his girlfriend shouldn’t be ashamed of having consensual premarital sex. But BYU should be ashamed of violating their privacy, making their sex lives into a spectacle, and failing to show compassion. And BYU’s defenders need to learn that “rules is rules” isn’t actually a “principled” stance at all.
Trigger warning: rape/sexual assault.
You know, sometimes I feel like I’m exaggerating the awfulness of what I was taught about sex, like it couldn’t possibly be as bad as I feel it was. After all, in addition to all the warnings about premarital sex, I did also hear a lot about how sex is a beautiful gift from God to married couples, and how married people have the best sex (in retrospect, this is kind of a weird thing for married adults to be discussing with teenagers y/y?).
Maybe the fact that I had trouble with sex when I got married has more to do with personal and family hangups than it did with anything I learned at church. Maybe I’m assigning blame unfairly. Then again . . .
h/t Jesus Needs New PR (warning for some potentially fatphobic language).
Then I watch clips like this, and remember that this bullshit is EXACTLY what I was taught. That I’d be dirty and used up and unwanted if I had sex. I remember, and I start to think it’s a fucking miracle that I ever managed to have sex with my husband at all.
Small bloody wonder so many evangelical couples find the transition into marital sexuality awkward and even traumatic. How are you supposed to literally change your perspective on sex overnight? Sex one night before your wedding makes you like a germy piece of candy or a cup of spit, but one night after your wedding is a beautiful and glorious gift from God? What about the couples who buy into Joshua Harris’s ridiculous standard of saving their first kiss for their wedding day (seriously!)? How can a couple entering marriage with virtually no experience with being physically affectionate possibly be expected to navigate such a transition without major issues?
These kinds of teachings set couples up for lousy sex lives, which make for not so great marriages. Cis women in particular bear the brunt of teachings that they are being used and besmirched if they have sex, and many can’t magically shut off the effects of years of indoctrination. They aren’t going to feel any less used just because they’re married to the person they’re having sex with. They aren’t suddenly going to feel like their sexual desire or their husband’s sexual desire is any more legitimate than it was before they got married.
Abstinence advocates will say that they aren’t talking about married sex, of course. Just premarital sex – oh, and all non-hetero sex, and masturbation, and any sex involving trans or genderqueer people. Kids just need to remember that only hetero cis married sex is clean and safe, and everything else is dirty and perverted. Well. The problem there – apart from the big, hopefully obvious one of treating something almost all humans do as shameful and wrong in all of its forms but one – is that it’s very difficult to make such a statement not come across as a blanket condemnation of sexual activity (perhaps because, um, it basically is). The message people hear is that any sexual contact or activity is polluting and degrading, and the intense emphasis on maintaining virginity reinforces this powerfully. A few words here and there about how beautiful marital sex is doesn’t dilute the impact of that message. If virginity is a state of purity and self-control, then sexual activity – whether in marriage or not – is implicitly coded as impure and indulgent.
And as many survivors have attested, these teachings are incredibly damaging to people who have been raped or sexually assaulted. The abstinence movement’s concept of virginity is framed entirely around the notion of “purity” or “impurity” of the body and the mind. A virgin body is one that is untouched and unsullied: an unwrapped piece of candy, a rose with all its petals. A virgin mind is “innocent” – which often is a euphemism for “ignorant” – of sexuality. Whether sexual contact or knowledge is freely chosen or imposed on someone is immaterial in such a framework. Coerced sexual contact doesn’t make one any less of a chewed up piece of gum. Survivors of sexual abuse from evangelical or fundamentalist families often feel used, guilty, and worthless because they are no longer “virgins” or “pure” – and they are often treated that way by Christian loved ones and fellow church members. For example:
I had a good friend in college who had to gather a lot of courage to tell her serious boyfriend that she was not a virgin because she had been raped as a teenager. Her boyfriend then went on a tirade about how he thought he was getting something new but it turns out she was “used merchandise” and thus she cheated him. She went on to marry this guy. I still hate him.
I hope it’s been clear that my point isn’t to belittle people who choose not to have sex before marriage. That’s a legitimate choice to make. The point is that the way the professional abstinence movement frames virginity, premarital sex, and sexuality in general is deceitful and dangerous. It relies on shaming tactics and misinformation, and promotes an unhealthy, negative attitude about sexualities and bodies. And it’s not just wrong in the abstract; it’s not just a movement with terrible ideas. It has far-reaching, negative consequences for basically everyone who’s exposed to it unarmed with accurate information.
As I was writing the previous post, I kept wondering if I was being overly harsh in comparing mainstream conservative Christians to Fred Phelps – who is, after all, universally disliked, unbelievably odious, and, in my opinion, downright evil. The man is by all accounts a controlling, angry, and extremely abusive husband and father, who has brainwashed his family into thinking he is practically God, and who believes some very strange and dangerous things (the documentary Fall From Grace gives a pretty chilling picture of Phelps and the WBC – also on Netflix streaming. If you’re beginning to think that everything I watch is on Netflix instant watch, you’re not too far off).
Obviously not all conservative Christians are like Phelps in these respects – and I’d venture to say most are not. Most have good intentions – like most people in general. Many conservative Christians I know are loving parents and spouses, good neighbors, great friends. So I’ve been pondering whether the comparison was hyperbolic, or unkind, and pondering how it would come across to the people in my life – friends, family, all of whom I love, many of whom are lovely people whom I trust and respect – who are conservative Christians.
When I criticize conservative Christians and their beliefs, I’m not claiming that they are all or mostly evil people, nor do I believe that. That goes for any major demographic, really. But I hesitated to add a bunch of disclaimers about how Christians can be nice people to my previous post, because I didn’t want to water down the power of my point.
On further thought, I think this is actually quite an important point to address. In way it’s the central point: good people can, despite good intentions and sincere beliefs, despite doing much good in most other aspects of their lives, believe and say things that have horrible, awful implications. They can do terrible things that have devastating effects on others without intending to. Hardly anyone is mostly or all bad, much less consciously or deliberately evil; most people, I believe, are just trying to do their best to live decent lives. Most people don’t set out to do evil. Yet hardly any of us manages to avoid doing or enabling evil in one way or another.
Fred Phelps hates gay people. He makes no secret of that. While there are mainstream conservative Christians in this country who share his overt, conscious hatred of gay people, not all do. Probably most don’t. Many truly believe they are being loving by telling LGB people their orientations or lifestyles are wrong, by opposing marriage equality, etc.. But people don’t have to be conscious of hatred (or fear, contempt, self-loathing, and any number of other emotions that can fuel homophobia) for their beliefs about and actions towards LGB people to be hateful.
When I say conservative Christian beliefs on homosexuality are no different from Fred Phelps’, I’m not talking about the conscious intention behind those teachings. I’m talking about their implications. Their practical, real-world effects.
This is how oppression works. Systemic oppression cannot be sustained without the complicity of otherwise good people – through beliefs, actions, and inaction. And it cannot be sustained without the myths about human nature and behavior we buy into as a culture. We pretend that only bad people do evil things, and that it’s really easy to spot such people – as if there were some obvious marker distinguishing evil people from good. We desperately want to believe these things, because the reality that we’re all capable of doing and enabling evil is frightening, and requires that we scrutinize ourselves more closely than we’d like.
We all want to believe we’re good people who do good things, myself included; that’s understandable. But the idea that “those people” over there are the real bad people, and we’re all good, is an incredibly dangerous one. It’s what allows systemic injustice and inequity to survive and flourish.
This is what Christians who are puzzled and offended by accusations of homophobia and comparisons to people like Fred Phelps need to understand. Sure, it’s a good thing that you don’t picket funerals or scream at people about how they’ll suffer an eternity of torment in hell. But in the grand scheme of things, your beliefs about LGB people aren’t made any less harmful or hateful by the fact that they don’t act on them the way Westboro Baptist does. Your beliefs still fuel homophobic speech and behavior, and enable and support wide-scale denial of rights to LGB people. This is why claims that you “love the sinner and hate the sin” ring hollow. The implications and effects of your beliefs are not loving.
And really, this is what anyone called out for enabling oppression of any kind needs to understand. Being called out is not a comment on who you are. It’s not a comment on your intentions. It’s a comment on what you said, and what you did. We’re all capable of doing and saying things that support and even promote oppression without intending to do so, and without being evil. It’s unjust and enabling of oppression to demand that people evaluate us based on what we intend and not on the actual, tangible effects of what we do.
I recently watched The Education of Shelby Knox, a documentary about a high school girl of the same name from Lubbock, Texas, raised in a very Republican and conservative Southern Baptist family. (Definitely recommended, and it’s on Netflix instant watch.) The film tracks Knox’s unlikely evolution into a youth activist for comprehensive sex education in high schools and LGB rights. It was pretty interesting to watch another young woman work through some of the same questions that forced me to reconsider the beliefs I was raised with, and end up in more or less the same place (Knox is now a feminist organizer and blogger).
In one of the key moments in the film, Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church comes to Lubbock to “protest” student attempts to form a gay-straight alliance in the local high school. Out of the myriad hateful comments and signs there, I was particularly struck by a young woman smiling widely, carrying a sign with a picture of Matthew Shepard, whic read: “Matt: 5 years in hell.”
I’ve heard a lot of conservative Christians claim that Fred Phelps doesn’t speak for them, that they don’t agree with him, that his church preaches a God of hate, while “true” Christianity – their version of Christianity – preaches a God of “love.” And ok, there are some differences in belief, but these distinctions aren’t terribly impressive, unless one believes that cookies should be handed out for not yelling at people who are mourning their dead.
In it’s essence, what “mainstream” conservative Christians believe about LGB people is no different from what Fred Phelps believes about them. I don’t know (or at least, I don’t think I know) anyone from my old fundamentalist life who would walk around with a sign stating that a brutally murdered gay man is in hell, much less openly gloat about it. But apart from a very small handful of people, everyone I know from my former churches certainly believes that Matthew Shepard is in hell, along with anyone who died while living a “homosexual lifestyle.” The fact that they don’t walk around with signs declaring this doesn’t make their beliefs any less hateful.
I grew up around these folks. Many of the Christians I knew were willing to state openly their beliefs that homosexuality should be a capital crime, that LGB people are child molesters or rapists given the opportunity, or that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality. This wasn’t so long ago. Not everyone I grew up around believed such things, and I think it’s probably the case that such beliefs are on the decline in fundamentalist evangelicalism. However, I have no doubt that many in these circles still think similar things today, in private (they’re homophobic, not clueless). These beliefs have never been explicitly retracted or condemned in any of the communities I was part of.
A few isolated people – even some relatively prominent ones – have “repented” of being ignorant and fearful of LGB people, of being deceitful in their representation of them, and have even admitted to sinning in how they responded to the emergence of AIDS. And many prominent evangelical pastors today are downright skittish when it comes to the once ubiquitous rhetoric of “perversion” and divine punishment, favoring instead phrases like “sexual confusion” and “struggling with same sex attraction,” and talking about how homosexuals need “compassion” and “truth spoken in love” from Christians. They’re kind enough to teach that it isn’t a sin to be attracted to members of the same sex – just so long as you remain celibate for life or pray away the gay.
Considering how explicitly violent and vindictive conservative Christian rhetoric on homosexuality was not ten years ago, these are pretty significant changes, happening at breakneck speed. But they shouldn’t be mistaken for changes in core beliefs or outlook. They’re adaptive changes, made in response to rapidly changing attitudes towards LGB people in “secular” society. Conservative Christianity is nothing if not flexible. Fifty years ago pastors in Al Mohler’s position today were railing against racial integration; a hundred years ago it was women getting the vote. Curiously enough, folks back then also believed that the supposedly inerrant Bible clearly supported their reactionary views. Nowadays they pretend as though they were always opposed to segregation and always cool with female suffrage, all while citing the same Bible to prop up their homophobia. They’re incredibly good at erasing and rewriting their sordid history, and covering up nasty realities with a respectable face.
The only difference between WBC and its conservative Christian detractors is that the Phelpses publicly and loudly proclaim their belief that all LGB people will burn in hell, while the rest of the religious right recognizes that it’s no longer socially acceptable to air such beliefs in public, or in polite company. Given the cover of anonymity, or the privacy afforded by spaces where they are surrounded by like-minded Christians, folks on the religious right are much more candid. I was reminded of this as I was browsing through Jesus Needs New PR’s year end review and came across this comment on a post about Oral Robert’s gay grandson:
I do not believe that GBLT people are going to Heaven, sorry. I am not going to go up to a homosexual and scream and yell in their face that they are wrong. Jesus repeatedly loved the sinner, but hated the sin. If we as a church could show love to the GLBT community, maybe they would give a thought to turning from their ways. If God destroyed Sodom for what they were doing, what makes you think homosexuality is ok?
Which is better, yelling and picketing with a message that God will condemn every LGB person to torture in hell for choosing to be our authentic selves, or holding that belief in private, while claiming that you and your God “love” LGB people in spite of who they are and whom they love? The latter is no more loving, no more rational. It’s cynical self-preservation, conforming to accepted social norms in order to maintain the appearance of respectability. So please, conservative Christians, stop insisting that you’re any less anti-gay than Fred Phelps. You’re not.