Dan Savage, Jeff Chu, and Why the Christian Church Is No Place for the LGBT Community

This weekend’s edition of the New York Times Book Review has a piece by Dan Savage, talking about Jeff Chu‘s new book Does Jesus Really Love Me?

In the book, Chu, a gay Christian, writes about how he and others like him are working to reconcile their sexuality with their faith — and how it doesn’t always work out. Along the way, he offers a “sympathetic portrait” of the Westboro Baptist Church, visits a gay-welcoming church, and profiles a man who is gay but refuses to have a boyfriend because he believes doing so would keep him out of heaven. (How’s that for depressing?)

While it’s a valiant endeavor to cover the church’s spectrum of views of homosexuality from the inside, Savage really gets irate at the way Chu often lets certain Christians off the hook:

Chu goes easy on Exodus International, the largest “ex-gay” ministry in the country, despite the harm the group does to vulnerable gays and lesbians, particularly gay children. He gives an approving nod to the sneakily homophobic Marin Foundation, an evangelical group that shows up at gay pride parades holding signs that say, “We’re sorry!” and offering hugs to paradegoers who have been harmed by religion. But Andrew Marin, the group’s founder and public face, has urged his followers to target Christian teenagers struggling with “same-sex attraction” because they’re easier to talk out of being gay. Marin has refused to say that gay sex isn’t a sin, and he seems to believe that gay people can change their sexual orientation. The more you learn about the Marin Foundation, the more it looks like Westboro Baptist in the drag of false contrition: God hates you — now with hugs! Chu blasts [Metropolitan Community Church], but Marin gets a pass.

Harsh words for Marin, someone whose foundation tries to “bridge the gap” between the LGBT and Christian worlds but, if true, they’re well-deserved. I’ve criticized him myself in the past for refusing to take sides on the simplest of moral questions, but it’s part of their strategy: Don’t answer the big questions. They refuse to answer things like whether homosexuality is a sin (it’s not… not anymore than heterosexuality is, anyway) and whether people are born gay (it’s not a choice, that’s for sure).

The problem with that strategy is that it suggests both sides have valid arguments. They don’t. Furthermore, one side is fighting for equality and civil rights while the other side is trying to take them away or stop them from ever becoming a reality. There are not two acceptable stances on these issues, and millions of young people are rightly leaving the church because they know that truth better than their pastors do.

(As for Savage’s other criticisms, I reached out to Andrew Marin for a response. He said he’ll be responding on his site today and I’ll update this post when that happens.)

***Update***: Marin has responded to the claims and you can click the links to read his response and my rebuttal.

Anyway, back to Chu’s book. The ultimate problem with it is that it suggests Christians are still welcome in the church, if only church leaders would accept them back. But the most prominent churches, in their current iterations, are never going to be at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Certainly not the evangelical churches that are so popular. They’ll be halfheartedly-tolerant at best. They’ve been lagging behind the rest of us for so long that they’ll be lucky if they can even see us down the road over the next decade.

Chu says that churches are pushing gay people out because of the way they act. That’s not really what’s going on, though, as Savage explains:

My father was a Catholic deacon, my mother was a lay minister and I thought about becoming a priest. I was in church every Sunday for the first 15 years of my life. Now I spend my Sundays on my bike, on my snowboard or on my husband. I haven’t spent my post-Catholic decades in a sulk, wishing the church would come around on the issue of homosexuality so that I could start attending Mass again. I didn’t abandon my faith. I saw through it. The conflict between my faith and my sexuality set that process in motion, but the conclusions I reached at the end of that process — there are no gods, religion is man-made, faith can be a force for good or evil — improved my life. I’m grateful that my sexuality prompted me to think critically about faith. Pushed out? No. I walked out.

Preach it, Brother Dan.

It’s not just gay people who have those experiences, either. A lot of people are leaving their churches because of what they’ve heard their pastors say.

When it comes to LGBT issues, they’re wrong.

When it comes to women’s rights, they’re wrong.

When it comes to science, they’re wrong.

When it comes to politics, they’re wrong.

When it comes to characterizing non-Christians, they’re wrong.

When it comes to sex, they’re wrong.

Eventually, the entire façade comes crashing down, bringing with it all those other Biblical stories, and you’re left wondering why you ever believed any of it in the first place.

We’re all better off outside the church, but that goes double for LGBT people. The solution, while admirable, isn’t to fix the church. The solution is to convince the good people who are still in it to get the hell out of there because it’s just not worth saving.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Mackinz

    The sad part is, regardless of how the Christian Church isn’t a place for GLBT people, they will still go there.

    It’s unavoidable. They think that they can have faith in that god even though the other followers hate them for who they are (obviously, not some of them). It’s just like what happened when the slaves were freed and they were Christians, even though Christians had just spent countless years enslaving them to lives of hard labor.

    It’s just… so dumb. I can’t even begin to describe the depth of stupidity in people who turn to a religion that actually hates their guts.

  • http://www.travismamone.net/ Travis Mamone

    I think you might be right. Even within the progressive Emergent Christian movement, which supports marriage equality, the conversation is still dominated by straight people, so would progressive Christianity still be a good option for LGBT people? I definitely agree with you on the Marin. You can say, “I’m sorry” as much as you want to, but if you can’t bring yourself to join our fight for equality, then technically your apology doesn’t really count. No one can afford to stay on the fence about equality.

    • Doubting Thomas

      I have always supported Equal Rights for ALL Human Beings.
      Too bad atheists don’t.

      • Quintin van Zuijlen

        Goodbye.

      • Tobias2772

        Which rights are you accusing atheists of denying ??

        • allein

          The right to prevent other people from living their lives as they see fit, I’m guessing.

        • Stev84

          The right to force their religion onto everyone by the force of law, of course.

      • RobMcCune

        I support clear communication for ALL Comments.

        Too bad all you post is vague fragments.

      • Matt Delemos

        Is that speech intended for people outside your head?

    • Houndentenor

      If it were true, it would be a good place, I suppose. But I can’t encourage people to believe something that’s not true over something else that’s not true just so they can keep believing in something unprovable.

  • Artor

    Hell, add another one to your list. When it comes to talking about the Bible, they’re wrong too. I’m continually amazed at how few Xians have even read the damned thing. Several times I’ve been in online arguments with some brick-headed bigot; I cite something from the Bible, and he claims that’s not what it says, so I have to quote chapter & verse for him while pointing out the painful irony that an atheist is teaching him about what’s in his own holy book.

    • Rain

      It’s a survival thing. Christianity wouldn’t have survived if it actually took its Bible seriously. Can you imagine an entire religion that turns the other cheek all the time or kills everyone’s first born all the time? Yeah, wouldn’t last very long.

      • Artor

        True, but they’re pretty good at rationalizing away whatever’s there, and imagining the Jeebus would have been a conservative Republican or something like that. But they apparently don’t even read the fucking thing. I suppose I can’t blame them; it’s boring as shit, and if they ever read & understood it, they probably wouldn’t be Xians anymore. That’s what happened to me.

    • http://profiles.google.com/mrhackman Andrew Hackman

      Too true Ator…. I feel like I spend a chunk of these conversations explaining to believers what their own book teaches.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Never mind that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality.
    What this tells is that even if Christians agreed with you on all issues no common ground is possible.
    After all, that is what atheists in control have always tried to maintain, no matter how much they pretended to be “friendly” when they had no power.

    • Wild Rumpus

      It’s so cute when kids get on here and try to act all grown up.

      • Rwlawoffice

        With this trite reply you are calling doubting Thomas a child? Typical response from those that think an attempt at an insult is the way to silence disagreement.

        • Artor

          Uh, no. Doubting Thomas’s vapid commentary is still there for all to see. Nobody has silenced him; we can still see how stupid his comment is.
          He hasn’t actually made a rational point, so there’s no rational response to his blather. Ridicule is perfectly appropriate here.

          • 3lemenope

            How is ridicule appropriate here? He said he despairs of finding common ground because it seems like the other side doesn’t want to. Frankly, I’d read the situation the same way. There *isn’t* much interest, going by the day-to-day convo here and many other atheist hangouts, in finding common ground on pretty much anything. Those few of us who do strike an occasional note that direction get shouted down. It takes a startling lack of empathy to not see how the general attitude would be legitimately read by someone who disagrees with the prevailing opinion.

            • Artor

              Ridicule is appropriate because he’s tossing off poorly-aimed strawmen, and not making any clear point I can decipher except, “You atheists are all meanies! I’m not irrational; YOU’RE irrational!”
              Had DT actually presented a substantive point, then he would have gotten a rational discussion in response. He didn’t, so he got ridicule.

              • 3lemenope

                It’s a substantive point that you’re straining very hard not to get. The tone here could easily be read as “OK, so the church has been abysmal at GLBT issues. What if we fixed that? Oh, you still want us to die in a fire? OK then.”

                He garnished it with the perennially stupid Stalin!Pol Pot!Hitler! trope, which is a flimsy excuse not to take the underlying point seriously. Why would anyone who is a theist, reading much of anything here believe that if we got our way that they would be safe? Why *should* they make that charitable assumption? I know I don’t want to oppress Christians, but why should Christians believe it when I say it?

                • Carmelita Spats

                  Many of us have loved ones who are Christians. Why would we want to see our siblings, spouses, grandparents, parents, friends, oppressed? I would never want to take someone’s godsmack away as long as they don’t hurt others while skunk drunk, wide-eyed, and Jesus-addled on the Holy Spirit. If they insist on running with scissors, I would just get out of the way. Frying nonbelievers is the prerogative of the sociopath they call “god”. We are better than that. We don’t want to mirror their god’s moral attributes.

                • 3lemenope

                  That answer does not suffice. Many Christians have loved ones who are atheists, or are gay. That doesn’t, if they are inclined, stop them from being cruel to atheists or gay people; it is a rare person who can generalize their particular, familiar experiences to people outside their immediate circle in overcoming deep prejudices. It is certainly a capacity that cannot be assumed ahead of the game.

                  So, I believe you, but then again I risk nothing in being wrong. Why should *they* believe you?

                • Houndentenor

                  It seems to me that the ability to generalize those experiences is pretty basic to all morality. It’s why I know I can’t trust people who can’t do that. I only know one transgendered person and it’s just someone I worked with long ago and have seen maybe twice in the last 15 years. Even so, I can empathize with the situation of people who are treated poorly because they don’t fit neatly into our male/female binary assumptions. Why can’t other people do the same? Are they just lacking in empathy or compassion? That is troubling, if so. And it means they are people that I would not trust with any authority on any issue.

                • 3lemenope

                  To bring this full circle, then, I invite you to read a page like this one through Christian eyes, and then mull over which preliminary conclusions about the level of empathy on display might be plausible.

                  Part of this is complicated by the ambiguity of exactly what sort of space this is supposed to be. Is it a safe haven for atheists from the wider theist-dominated society, where we can talk freely about our frustrations and vent our spleens at the annoyances and occasional horrors that are perpetrated in this or that deity’s name? Or is it a space for engagement on issues meant to be inviting of people of different metaphysical opinions, where such venting is counterproductive? It’s very difficult for a space to be both, since the types of behaviors that would be encouraged for one would be deleterious for the other and vice versa. And the sorts of indicators of empathy one might expect to see in each space would be very different.

        • RobMcCune

          Doubting Thomas is a drive by troll with now interest in discussion and has posted this exact quote before.

          I have always supported Equal Rights for ALL Human Beings.
          Too bad atheists don’t.

          They have never stuck around to discuss anything or replied to any one who has tried to engage them in conversation. They also post using several unregistered user names.

          If Doubting Thomas were actually interested in having a conversation then you would have a point.

        • Wild Rumpus

          “With this trite reply you are calling doubting Thomas a child?”

          I’ll bet my hat, he’s younger than 25. He’s obviously got some ideas that he’s working on, and I admire anyone who starts trying to really think for themselves, and express those ideas.

          But with witty rhetoric like, “After all, that is what atheists in control have always tried to maintain, no matter how much they pretended to be “friendly” when they had no power.”

          …you know it’s just a kid.

  • Tain

    Progress is a lie, it obscures truth.

    • Octoberfurst

      So true! It is much better to live in the Dark Ages than the 21st century because modern science and a fact based world just tear down the “truth” handed down by bronze-age goat-herders. Idiot.

    • TheAnti-Coconut

      You like the view, chained up down in that shadowy cave?

      • 3lemenope

        They tend to like it so much they’re willing to brain the guy or gal who suggests they stop staring at the wall.

    • Drakk

      The irony of you typing that on a computer for display on an online blog does not escape anybody.

    • Matt D

      You’re a lie, here to obscure truth.

  • Kaylya

    You very frequently paint all Christians with the same brush of conservative evangelical biblical literalist Christianity as is popular in the US right now. Please do remember that there are groups out there that are not conservative and right wing – that are not anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-science, etc. I suggest you take a look at the United Church of Canada as an example of a large, liberal, Christian group, which spoke in favor of legal same sex marriages in Canada back in 2003, and has been ordaining gay people since 1988.

    • Kaylya

      To clarify, I’m Atheist, but my mom is a regular church goer at a more liberal church, so my personal experience is more with that end of it.

      • Jono H

        It’s not just fussy diners who have those experiences, either. A lot of people are leaving their fast food restaurants because of bad dining experiences.

        I hate it when people paint all dining experiences with the same brush.

    • http://www.facebook.com/eukota Darrell Ross

      I remain a bit divided on this topic. Part of me supports those who push to change the church from the inside – liberal progressive Christians.

      But another part of me wants to see religion go the way of the cuckoo. We don’t need religion. At all. It holds us back in so many ways.

      Why fight to save a failing organization? Is Christianity too big to fail? Why not just leave it and let it die out?

      :)

    • Houndentenor

      This is very true. Perhaps if you put in half as much time explaining why you ordain gay people to those fundamentalists rather than chastising the rest of us for not recognizing enough of a difference, something might get accomplished. I’m sick of the “I’m a Republican but I’m not anti-gay” kind of whining in this country. If you want people to know that not all Christians are anti-gay, tell the rest of the world, not the gay people. We already know who’s who on those issues.

  • http://twitter.com/arensb arensb

    When it comes to LGBT issues, they’re wrong.
    When it comes to women’s rights, they’re wrong.

    Cue NOFX’s You’re Wrong:
    “You’re wrong about virtues of Christianity
    And you’re wrong if you agree with Sean Hannity
    If you think that pride is about nationality, you’re wrong”

  • Troglodyke

    “We’re all better off outside the church, but that goes double for LGBT people. The solution, while admirable, isn’t to fix the church. The solution is to convince the good people who are still in it to get the hell out of there because it’s just not worth saving.”

    AMEN. YES.

  • http://twitter.com/freefall_mc Freefall

    “The solution is to convince the good people who are still in it to get the hell out of there because it’s just not worth saving.”

    I understand the anger against those who use their faith to judge and oppress others. But I think I shall never understand the desire to rid all of that which we do not understand or live by ourselves.

    “The worship of the Great Mystery is silent, solitary, free from all self-seeking….

    It is solitary, because we believe that God is nearer to us in solitude, and there are no priests authorized to come between us and our Maker….

    Our faith cannot be formulated in creeds, nor forced upon any who are unwilling to receive it: hence there is no preaching, proselytizing, nor persecution, neither are there any scoffers or atheists.

    Our religion is an attitude of mind, not a dogma.” -Ohiyesa

  • nikko

    Hemant, thank you for this article. I think you’re amazing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jim.henderson Jim Henderson

    “My” friendly atheist. I’m sure it will not surprise you to discover that I could not disagree more with your assessment of Andrew Marin’s work. He is simply not working in the problems you and Dan are interested in- ie being right – whose right etc. Im sure this will be irksome to you and many of your loyal readers but it is a fact. Dan however is on a mission to “stay in the room with difference” – he got this idea from Jesus whom both he and I aspire to follow. Neither of us are that interested in Christianity which is why you and I (and Casper) periodically co-belligerate to expose the parts of it that deserve critique. Dan’s critique is weak in that it is shrouded in his righteous anger. Being a Christian I’m very familiar with this cloak of righteousness masking as “truth telling” Hell you and your readers take Christians to school all the time over that kind of BS. What would be more interesting would be for Savage to take Marins invite to talk together seriously (remind you of anything?) and together find an interesting way to co belligerate for all the people out there who are looking for love and wisdom.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.calvani.7 David Calvani

    Hemant,

    First you complain that Chu is incorrectly claiming “that churches are pushing gay people out because of the way they act,” then state that “A lot of people are leaving their churches because of what they’ve heard their pastors say.” This seems contradictory. What pastors say is part of how churchs act.

    “Preach it, brother Dan”? Are you serious? Chu is writing from the perspective of a gay CHRISTIAN. You and Savage are damning the man for not adopting the perspective of a gay ATHEIST. Since Chu isn’t an atheist, what possible obligation could he have take such a point of view?

    ALL Christian churches are wrong on ALL matters related to human sexuality? On everything related to science? ALL of their political thinking is faulty? They ALL hold false views of non-Christians? Honestly? (You even suggest that all Christian groups hold that women have no rights or have fewer natural rights than men — this is certainly news to me.)

    I doubt very much, Hemant that I would completely agree with your views on sexuality (homosexuality or otherwise), science, religion (Christian or non-Christian), human rights, or politics — in spite of the fact that like you I agree with Savage when he writes “there are no gods, religion is man-made, faith can be a force for good or evil.”
    Your post amount to: ‘Christians disagree with Hemant Mehta on God, therefore they are wrong about everything.’ Get over yourself, man.

  • Aewyn

    Let me get this straight… the “friendly” atheist not only generalizes ALL people under the Christian umbrella to be unilaterally wrong about most major issues, but even suggests that “good” Christians exist despite the church, rather than because of it?

    If you want to be taken seriously, it’s a good idea not to stoop to the levels of those you criticize.

    • Anna

      I have noticed that Hemant writes about “the church” sometimes when he just means conservative Protestants or Catholics. It’s a generalization, but one that is not far from the truth. The vast majority of Christian denominations do not support full social, legal, and religious equality for LGBT people. Only a small minority are willing to perform sacramental marriage for same-sex couples, and the same is true for ordaining “practicing” homosexuals into the clergy.


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