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.
I admit it. When I was a teenager, a young man who saw the world in terms of black and white, truth and fiction, right and wrong, I used the bible as a road map to reality. And I used biblical verses to justify positions that seemed completely right to me at the time. I eschewed rational thought for easy, wholly incorrect textual answers.
In the abstract, you can justify damn near anything. When it’s concepts, verses, and philosophy, you can talk and rationalize yourself into believing anything.
But reality is harsh and wonderful. When I met gay and lesbian people who were unafraid to identify themselves publicly, the picture changed dramatically. Suddenly, it wasn’t so easy to assume a position of moral righteousness over actual people, who were loving, kind, intelligent friends.
I definitely identify with what he says. When I went to college, the number of out LGB people I knew personally was exactly zero. This changed literally as soon as I started my freshman year. On the first night of orientation, I noticed Kate, one of the girls in my dorm, wearing a shirt with the name of a church youth group on it. I’d been well taught that campus would be a hotbed of secularism and anti-religious bigotry, and Christians would be few and far between – especially Christians brave and faithful enough to broadcast their faith as publicly as this girl had. So I jumped at the chance to introduce myself to her; we struck up a conversation and ended up chatting for a few hours in her dorm room.
Over the course of the conversation it became clear that my new friend wasn’t exactly the sort of Christian I’d been taught to associate with (pretty much exclusively, though I was never that good at following that). And by not exactly, I mean totally different to the point of being alarming. She believed women could be pastors, and thought Paul was a sexist ass. She didn’t read the Bible literally (obviously), or believe that Jesus was the only way to heaven and that all non-Christians were headed for hell. This was concerning.
At some point I must have changed the topic of conversation and asked Kate where her assigned roommate was, since her room was obviously meant to have two occupants. As it turned out, she didn’t have a roommate. And the reason why she didn’t have one was because she decided, before school started, to be honest with her assigned roommate about her sexuality. This roommate was unwilling to share a room with a lesbian, and had her parents call the school to demand that her room assignment be changed.
Well. My reaction to this news was surprisingly (to me) very mixed. On the one hand, my immediate reaction to finding out Kate was lesbian was one of panic. I remember looking over my shoulder to confirm that the door to the hall was still open – worried, I guess, that she wouldn’t be able to control her wild lesbian desires and would jump me right there. This is a funny thing about homophobia – what is it that makes so many homophobic people assume all LGB people want to sleep with all people of their sex? Are straight people attracted to every single member of the opposite sex? This is a rather silly (and arrogant!) thing to assume, and actively dangerous – especially when it’s used to prop up hateful stereotypes of LGB people as sexual predators and pedophiles. It occurs to me now that I felt like I was in some sort of unspecified danger, which is another one of the most insidious and potentially dangerous effects of homophobia. People can react in all sorts violent and dangerous ways when they feel threatened, rationally or not.
Anyway, I began to feel panicked and was actively plotting ways to end the conversation and get myself out of the room as quickly as possible. At the same time, I felt sorry for Kate. It was sad that she was missing out on the experience of having a roommate when she hadn’t really done anything wrong. And part of me recognized that her assigned roommate’s response was pretty mean and, disturbingly, didn’t strike me as terribly Christian. If we were supposed to love everyone like Jesus loved, and still love the sinner even if we condemned the sin, how could it be right to just refuse to live with someone without even meeting them first? I knew that Jesus hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes – was it really the case that Jesus would draw the line at lesbians? Or was rooming with a lesbian as the same thing as rooming with a straight man (a thought I would also have been horrified by at the time, but now don’t think anything of)?
I didn’t know what to think. I understood and shared the roommate’s concerns, but was disturbed by the fact that acting on those concerns necessarily meant treating Kate like she was too evil to even share the same space with – like she was less than human. I’d never thought of gay person as a sympathetic figure before – never knew any gay people to sympathize with. They were always one-dimensional and unequivocally bad – yet so invisible in my world as to be almost imaginary. Suddenly being presented with a real person, with real feelings, and a Christian, no less, really shook my assumptions and beliefs (it’s impossible to be both gay and Christian, y’know)
A few weeks later a good friend of mine from high school came out to me as gay. Another shock.
My anti-gay beliefs didn’t change right away, but my image of LGB people as cartoonish villains was steadily being undermined. And the more LGB people I counted among my friends and loved ones, the less confidence I had that traditional teachings about homosexuality and evangelical assumptions about “the gay lifestyle” were right, or fair.
Opponents of marriage equality are afraid, in part, that same-sex relationships and LGBT people will come to be seen and treated as normal by society. This is something most opponents will openly admit (a small example: Al Mohler’s comment that the ruling striking down Prop 8 was “a significant step toward the full normalization of homosexuality within the culture”).
I’ve been struck by the particular horror of gay marriage opponents over the idea that children would be taught that same sex relationships are normal. “Protecting children” comes up as a recurring argument by the Yes on 8 campaign, by the pro Prop 8 lawyers, and many others. And it appears to be a quite effective argument; a recent analysis of polls leading up to the 2008 Prop 8 vote suggests that parents of school-age children – not African Americans as previously reported – were the key demographic in passing Prop 8, probably due to the effectiveness of Yes on 8 ads like the following:
I’ve been trying to figure what’s so frightening about the idea that children might read books that discuss the existence of LGBT couples without casting them as freaks or perverts. Ultimately I think it’s at least a fear of loss of straight privilege, i.e.:
– the unspoken and pervasive assumption that straight people and relationships are the norm and are superior to LGBT people and their relationships, and
– the institutional and societal biases in favor of straightness that are built on and perpetuate those assumptions.
More below the jump: