It’s been more than two months since the deadliest mass shooting in American history — in which a gunman opened fire on Orlando’s gay club Pulse, killing 49 and injuring many more, traumatizing a nation in the process. With physical injuries still healing and emotional wounds barely beginning to scar, evangelical Christians are opening them fresh as they double down on their rejection of LGBT people.
Travis Weber, Director of the Family Research Council’s Center for Religious Liberty, encapsulated this new conversation on the right in a post he published Wednesday on FRC’s blog entitled, “How can Christians oppose same-sex marriage and yet pray and care for the LGBT victims in Orlando at the same time?” He answered the question in his opening line: “In a word: Love.”
After rehashing his beliefs about the evil of sin, Jesus’ sacrifice, and God’s plan for sexuality — no sex except in marriages between one man and one woman, of course — Weber eventually arrives at his core premise:
When we decline to agree that same-sex marriage (or any sexual conduct at odds with God’s standard) is okay, we are doing this for the good of those who may engage in that conduct which is harmful to them. When we pray for the well-being of the LGBT victims of violence in Orlando, we are doing it for their good. There should be no tension between the two for a Christian.
As ThinkProgress has previously reported, simply telling LGBT people that their lives are sinful can have severe mental health consequences. Wrapping that message up in God’s authority and a “for your own good” sentimentality doesn’t change its impact; it simply makes it even more recognizable as the emotional abuse that it is. But Weber did not publish this trite sentiment in a vacuum; it speaks to a renewed discussion among evangelicals about how to respond to the “sexual revolution” and growing public support for LGBT people.
Christian ethicist David Gushee spurred this debate when he wrote last week, “Middle ground is disappearing on the question of whether LGBT persons should be treated as full equals, without any discrimination in society — and on the related question of whether religious institutions should be allowed to continue discriminating due to their doctrinal beliefs.” Siding with the advance of LGBT equality, Gushee warned that there is no room left for “polite half-acceptance,” nor for “neutralist, avoidist, or de facto discriminatory” responses — let alone outright rejection. “Sometimes society changes and it marks decadence. Other times society changes and it marks progress. Those who believe LGBT equality marks decadence are being left behind.”
An evangelical pastor, Gushee came out, as it were, as pro-LGBT just two years ago. Other evangelical leaders have criticized him ever since, so it was no surprise that his “middle ground” piece elicited incredible negative feedback. It was enough that he responded to the criticism in a follow-up piece just a few days later.
His main clarification was that he wasn’t hoping the anti-LGBT forces are crushed, just observing that they probably will be — and they will only hurt people by fighting that inevitability:
Those digging in their heels against any rethinking of the LGBT issue believe they are standing with the saints and martyrs of the ages and facing persecution for doing so. As they set their faces like flint and narrow their steely eyes to peer into a hostile future, they feel brave, strong, and courageous, and they maybe look brave, strong, and courageous to the constituencies they are trying to please. Suffering for Jesus has its rewards.
But only God can judge who is suffering for him and who is instead causing suffering in his name. That sorting out will happen on Judgment Day, when every life is reviewed. Till then, I guess we will keep arguing.
Unsurprisingly, this follow-up didn’t do much to placate his critics. Indeed, they responded by not only doubling down on what their beliefs teach them about rejecting LGBT people, but by acknowledging that they weren’t even interested in finding middle ground. What seems lost on these evangelical leaders is how much their responses confirmed Gushee’s thesis.
The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, for example, confirmed Gushee’s argument that conservative evangelicals will self-victimize. “He is absolutely right in his read on the situation in American society,” Dreher wrote. “There is no intention on the cultural left of being tolerant in victory, and never was. They are going to bounce the rubble and tell themselves that they are virtuous for doing so.” He insisted that no matter how the church is pressured to capitulate, “it will be possible to resist, though not without paying a high cost.”
It seems odd how confident we are that folks can lose their unwanted sexual parts, but can't lose their unwanted sexual attractions.
— John Stonestreet (@JBStonestreet) August 25, 2016
John Stonestreet, President of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, was inspired to tweet the above skepticism about the validity of LGBT identities specifically because he read Gushee’s column. Like Dreher, he basically agrees with Gushee’s premise that the middle ground is disappearing, but opts to remain on the losing side of it. “So, where does that leave us?” he wrote. “God willing, it leaves us right where we are, at our posts, obeying Christ, loving God and our neighbors.”
Various leaders within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest Protestant body in the United States, also chimed in to rebuke Gushee and assure followers that the denomination will remain as anti-LGBT as ever. Among the first to respond was Denny Burk, a pastor and professor of Biblical studies at Boyce College who has spearheaded the SBC’s condemnation of transgender people. “More than anything, Gushee’s column fills me with grief,” he bemoaned. “There couldn’t be a bigger gap between what he would like to happen and what is actually happening among Christians right now.”
Burk is undaunted by Gushee’s warning. “We are not looking for ways to escape suffering by placating the spirit of the age. We are preparing ourselves to embrace suffering so that we can follow Christ,” he promised. No matter how many people leave the church, “we are praying for the strength and resolve to stand when the heat is on. It is not even on our radar screen to consider turning back, as Gushee would have us to do. We are on the narrow way with Jesus, and by the grace of God there will be no going back.”
Andrew T. Walker, Director of Policy Studies for SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, was a bit more incredulous. “Surely there is a middle ground that can be reached that allows for coexistence,” he opined. “The question, however, is whether such a middle ground can be tolerated.” According to Walker, the “structural integrity of historic Christian anthropology has much more credibility and intelligibility” than the claim that anti-LGBT Christians are “wrong and comparable to racists.” He hopes there can still be “a state of mutual respect that allows for different people to reach different conclusions about the purposes of human embodiment.”
But Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wasn’t interested in playing nice. He doubled down and then came out swinging. “I have to wonder if the sexual revolutionaries and their erstwhile supporters and theologians understand just what they have set loose,” he offered. Then, referring to a metaphor Gushee employed about approaching lava, Mohler outright threatened: “Ask not for whom the volcano erupts; it erupts for thee.”
These responses may not be surprising, considering that just days after Orlando, the SBC passed a resolution extending compassion to the victims and then — in nearly the same breath — a resolution insisting upon discrimination against same-sex couples and transgender people. But is that the “love” Weber — who himself thought Gushee was taking the side of the “thought police” — speaks of in his post?
What conservative evangelicals are saying is that there is nothing LGBT people can ever do to convince them that they are worthy of affirmation. This is a promise they make and intend to keep no matter how much society limits their ability to impose their beliefs on others, no matter how they are scorned and compared with other forms of intolerance, and no matter how many LGBT people are fired, evicted, bullied, abandoned, beaten, or massacred. They will subject every queer kid born into one of their church communities to the abuse of Biblical condemnation — the consequences be damned — and expect political exemption for the “love” they are showing.
“Many may not agree with my message,” Weber concludes. “But I want everyone to clearly understand my motive.” It remains unclear how that motive — however sincere — justifies the harm the message propagates.