The spectacular public downfall of Ted Haggard last month continues to reverberate through the media. And now, an aftershock: Paul Barnes, founder of the 2,100-member evangelical Grace Chapel in Colorado, has resigned after admitting he had engaged in homosexual sex acts. (Predictably, Barnes’ former church wasted no time in trying to erase his existence from their website, similar to the major religious right leaders who swiftly tried to downplay Haggard’s importance after his resignation.)
In a taped statement, Barnes said the following to his congregation (source):
“I have struggled with homosexuality since I was a 5-year-old boy… I can’t tell you the number of nights I have cried myself to sleep, begging God to take this away.”
This is a devastating admission. Atheists and other friends of gay rights should indelibly stamp these words into our memories, and bring them up every time some obnoxious religious bigot says that gays do not deserve the same legal protection the rest of us enjoy because their sexual orientation is a choice. Can anyone seriously believe that Barnes “chose” to be gay before the age of 5? And if his sexual orientation is a choice, why did he want to change and find himself unable to? Why did he remain gay even after repeated prayers for God to change him? And the same goes for Haggard.
These people lived at the center of the Christian world, immersed in church and worship every hour of every day, making it their life’s work. According to their own beliefs, no one would have less reason to want to be gay. And even they could not undo what was supposedly a free choice. What message does that send to run-of-the-mill evangelicals struggling with their sexuality? What hope do they have to change if even Ted Haggard and Paul Barnes could not muster the will to do so?
And these two are not alone. As mentioned on Pam’s House Blend, H.B. London, the head of Focus on the Family’s division of pastoral counseling, says that he gets “hundreds” of phone calls from pastors “struggling with the kind of sins that caused the downfall of Haggard and Barnes”.
It is bizarre to think of hundreds of secretly gay pastors throughout the Christian world, all engaged in a mutual conspiracy of silence and repression for no good reason, each of them refusing to say what all of them know, and each of them maintaining his hypocritical public crusade for fear of condemnation by the others. Such is the harm done by bigoted religious beliefs that falsely claim the most basic aspects of people’s identity are chosen on a whim, and that force people to keep silent about who they are and repress their own human desires. The completely needless suffering and self-denial caused by these beliefs must be beyond description.
And it is not just gay people who are harmed by irrational self-repression. Which American city would you guess ranks highest in the nation when it comes to Internet searches for pornographic and adult content? Is it diverse, multicultural New York City? The well-known West Coast liberal enclaves of San Francisco or Los Angeles? Is it that Sodom on the Atlantic, Boston, Massachusetts, which every day thumbs its nose at God by treating gay people like human beings?
Nope. The American city that outranks all others when it comes to search engine queries for sex, nudity and pornography is Salt Lake City, the heart of straitlaced, ultra-white, ultra-conservative, predominantly Mormon Utah, and the site of the Salt Lake Temple that is the spiritual nexus of Mormon belief. This statistic is especially impressive considering Salt Lake City proper has a population of less than 200,000, which means it does not even rank in the top 100 American cities by population. (As of the 2000 census, Salt Lake City was officially ranked 111th.) For it to outrank all others, including major cities more than ten times its size, there must be a lot of searches for pornography going on. Utah as a whole ranks 8th in the nation for pornographic searches, although in population it is ranked 34th.
This amusing statistic was reported by FBI Special Agent Jeff Ross at a recent Child Abuse and Family Violence Conference, and comes my way via Dr. Marty Klein’s Sexual Intelligence newsletter. Dr. Klein astutely notes that Utah residents “obviously have a love-hate relationship with their sexuality”, and the same could be said about Ted Haggard, Paul Barnes, or any of the other hundreds of pastors reported to be struggling with sexual temptation.
Christians often plead not to be judged by the transgressions of a few, but the more cases like this we see, the more likely it becomes that these vivid examples are not isolated aberrations, but instances of a larger pattern arising from a moral system that makes impossible and irrational demands on its adherents. Simply put, trying to deny one’s own sexuality does not work, and the harder a person tries, the worse things will be when it finally does break out. Like water behind a dam, we can let it out in a controlled way and use its power to our benefit; or we can try to shut it up, and be eventually overwhelmed. When sex is shunned and repressed in public and denied healthy outlets of expression, it will find less healthy ones, and that is exactly what we are seeing. How many more will have to fall, and how much more hypocrisy will we have to tolerate, before religious leaders wake up to the fact that their foolish crusade against human sexuality is not working? The more they impugn people for harmless consensual behavior, and the more they demand that gay people remain in the closet and consent to the abolition of their rights, the more Ted Haggards we will inevitably see.