LGBT

Inside The Southern Baptists’ New, Media-Savvy Approach To Homosexuality

CREDIT: ERLC

Russell Moore speaking to the press during #ERLC2014.

This is the second in a series of posts about the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s conference on “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage.” Read the first post here.

NASHVILLE, TN — In 2013, there was a big leadership change at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. Richard Land, who had presided over the ERLC since 1988, stepped down, passing the baton to Russell Moore. Moore was praised for his media savvy even then, but the ERLC’s conference on homosexuality demonstrated just how much change he has already brought to both the tone and operations of the organization in his 18-month tenure.

Despite the anti-LGBT rhetoric, the tone was notably controlled — at least compared to the past — with Moore leading the way. Moore’s tact for negotiating tough talking points was on grand display during a special press breakfast on Tuesday. It was there that he first disavowed ex-gay therapy in response to a question from ThinkProgress before doing so again on the main stage later that morning, saying, “What many people mean by reparative therapy is a way of coming in and undoing the set of attractions that someone may have. I don’t think the Bible ever promises that.” He went on to say that the idea that a person can be freed of their temptations is “not a Christian idea.” “What faithfulness to Christ looks like does not mean the absence of temptation,” he explained.

That’s quite a juxtaposition with comments Richard Land made just this past April, suggesting that homosexuality is actually caused by the sexual molestation of children — a common talking point of ex-gay therapy advocates.

Moore’s focus on positivity was also evident when ThinkProgress asked Moore a pointed question about the psychological harm LGBT people could experience from the Convention’s theological messages that they should reject their identities. Moore disagreed with the premise, but focused his answer on ways that Christians could, in fact, still work toward minimizing harm to gays and lesbians:

I don’t think there’s psychological harm involved in the theology of the Gospel. Obviously, if we believed that, we would not believe the Gospel. I think that the Gospel is something that heals and saves and addresses all of us.

I think there is a lot of psychological harm that happens for gay and lesbian persons. I think that happens for an entire gamut of reasons. The idea that one is simply the sum of one’s sexual identity is something that is psychologically harmful ultimately. And I think also we have a situation in American culture where gay and lesbian people have often been treated really really badly. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve spent a lot of time trying to work specifically with parents of gay and lesbian kids to say, “How do you respond when your child announces, ‘I’m gay or I’m lesbian’?” And the answer to that is not rejection, the answer to that is not shunning, the answer to that is certainly not putting someone out of the house.The answer to that is loving your child and bearing with your child and if you disagree with your child, you disagree with your child. We have examples of that in virtually every family in the entire Bible.

So I don’t think the Gospel causes psychological harm to anyone. I think meanness does and I think that vitriol does, but that’s not what the Gospel is.

Listen to it:

While Moore still rejects how people experience their sexual orientation, his framing is still a far cry from his predecessor. Last year, when Land was still running the ERLC, he took to CNN to defend the Boy Scouts of America’s policy banning gay Scouts, insinuating that homosexuality is linked to pedophilia. Where Land would kick gay kids out, Moore has more concern for promoting their well-being.

Though Land did not speak at the conference (and may not have even been present), he did chime in about it, commending the first day’s speakers for framing “same-sex attraction and behavior” as “but one of many aspects of the fall [of mankind].”

Various ERLC employees boasted about Moore’s leadership to ThinkProgress during the conference. “He completely rebranded the organization,” one staffer excitedly told me, referring to changes to everything from the logo to the website to the very content the organization produces. Indeed, the mere fact that the conference was taking place was evidence of the change — it was the first of its kind that the organization had ever hosted, and it was a well-oiled machine at that.

But a theology that requires LGBT people to reject their identities — even if it’s through celibacy instead of ex-gay therapy — may still be too extreme and disconcerting for many young people. And of course, Moore is not in control of what other religious leaders in the SBC say. Many at the conference still sounded more like Land at times than Moore, and the talking points were not all on the same page. Nevertheless, the change in tone and tact is readily apparent, and if it results in fewer LGBT homeless kids on the street, it’s a change for the better.