Why Anti-Gay Christian Groups May Ultimately Be Good for America

We are still in the midst of the Kickstarter campaign for our book Queer Disbelief, written by Camille Beredjick, about why atheists should be advocates for LGBTQ rights. We’re more than halfway toward our goal, and anyone who would like to pre-order the book should do it now!

This week, we’ll be running a few excerpts from the book for anyone who’d like a better sense of what’s in it.

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In the excerpt below, Camille talks about why the most anti-gay Christian groups may ultimately serve a positive purpose.

There’s a reason many in the U.S. often associate religion with rabid homophobia. It’s because the most widely shared stories about the intersection between LGBTQ issues and religion are negative. Protesters at Pride parades hold up signs about God’s wrath, and religious groups are usually the first to argue against LGBTQ-inclusive legislation. Some “traditional family” advocates perpetuate vile myths about gay people harming children. Some Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) preachers publicly wish death upon LGBTQ people. These actions can be the work of extremist hate groups, but other times, they come from run-of-the-mill Christians who think they’re making the world a better place by tearing us down so brutally. You don’t have to be a card-carrying member of a hate group to spread hate.

The most famous example of poisonous religiosity is the Westboro Baptist Church, the group best known for picketing at military funerals, college campuses, LGBTQ community events, and anywhere else they’re bound to get attention. Westboro’s visibility reached new heights in 1998 when they picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was murdered in a brutal hate crime in Laramie, Wyoming. The “church” says of soldiers killed in action that war casualties are God’s punishment for America’s growing acceptance of LGBTQ people. Usually, they bring signs reading slogans like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags.” (The latter is both their charming catchphrase and the URL for their website.)

The internet loves to speculate about exactly why Westboro does what they do. One theory posits that it’s all an elaborate scheme to rile people up until someone attacks them, in which case they can sue for assault. Some people hope it’s just performance art. Westboro itself says their motives stem from God’s Word. They claim to preach a doctrine inspired by the principles of Calvinism and take issue with the message enshrined by (some) churches that “God loves everyone.”

“We adhere to the teachings of the Bible, preach against all form of sin (e.g., fornication, adultery [including divorce and remarriage], sodomy), and insist that the sovereignty of God and the doctrines of grace be taught and expounded publicly to all men,” reads their website. They boast a record of nearly 60,000 protests since 1991, even with a membership of no more than 100 and as few as 40 people. They claim to be Christians, but it’s a kind of Christianity that few people would ever admit to supporting. (Though that doesn’t mean Westboro sympathizers aren’t out there — they are.)

Though they’re loud and visible, aside from the occasional amicus brief, Westboro Baptist doesn’t work too hard to actually take rights away from LGBTQ people. Some raging homophobes do. When we’re faced with an extremist opponent of this kind, the objective isn’t partnership, but just the opposite: radical, intentional othering. Though it may seem counterintuitive, over-the-top portrayals of bigotry can ultimately serve the LGBTQ movement by illustrating what happens when you allow religious homophobia and transphobia to run unchecked.

For example: In 2015, a licensed attorney named Matthew McLaughlin submitted a proposal for a ballot measure in California called the “Sodomite Suppression Act.” It called for the mandatory execution of gay people — just for being gay, no other reason — by “bullets to the head” or “any other convenient method.” The proposal was hastily struck down as unconstitutional. Years before, McLaughlin had proposed a tamer (but still unconstitutional) measure to make the Bible required reading in public schools. McLaughlin fell off the radar after his proposal flopped, so he’s presumably still wandering around California, thinking about other ways he can try to legalize the murder of LGBTQ people. It’s scary to think about.

Then there’s a long list of pastors who definitely glossed over the “love thy neighbor” part of the Bible, preaching McLaughlin’s terrifying vision from the pulpit. Steven L. Anderson is the pastor at Faithful Word Baptist Church, an IFB church designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group, where he advocates for the death of LGBTQ people. (He makes clear that church members should never kill gay people themselves, but the government should formally execute them. They can even use a firing squad.)

One of Anderson’s disciples is Donnie Romero, the pastor of Stedfast Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. After the shooting at Pulse, Romero said he was praying that the survivors of the shooting would also die. He referred to the Pulse victims as the “scum of the earth,” and said he prayed “that God will finish the job… so that they don’t get any more opportunity to go out and hurt little children.” In a similar show of despicable rancor, Pastor Roger Jimenez of Sacramento — another IFB pastor — preached that Orlando was “a little safer” after the shooting. “Are you sad that 50 pedophiles were killed today?” he asked in a church sermon uploaded to YouTube. Then he answered his own question: “Um, no, I think that’s great! I think that helps society.”

And then there are people like preacher John McTernan and televangelist Pat Robertson. They don’t advocate for LGBTQ people to be put to death. But whenever there’s a major hurricane or tornado, you can count on them to claim that natural disasters are God’s way of punishing us for accepting homosexuality. (That’s at least two strikes against science, right?)

These talking heads don’t exactly make the case for allyship between LGBTQ people and religious groups; quite the contrary. To genuinely kind-hearted Christians, they’re perfect examples of, “Dude, you’re making us look bad.” These are anecdotes of religion gone terribly, terribly wrong, moments where a secular approach to social justice is undeniably more constructive.

It’s clear to most of us that these extremists don’t reflect the views of the majority of people of faith, particularly Christians. (In 2016, 27% of white evangelical Protestants supported marriage equality, as did 64% of white mainline Protestants, 39% of black Protestants and 58% of Catholics.) But even if the hatemongers are a fiery minority, they’re still out there, and they hold these beliefs fully and openly. Whether or not they have any influence outside their small circles is up for debate, but it’s terrifying to know they exist at all.

So why mention them here?

Because the absurdity of some of these groups works to the benefit of the LGBTQ rights movement. To a person who has no familiarity with social activism, catching a glimpse of a Westboro Baptist protest on the nightly news gives a very specific picture of what anti-LGBTQ activists look like: monsters. They intentionally disrespect and even “pray” for more dead soldiers, something that should cross a line for anyone, but especially diehard patriotic conservatives. They’re loud. They’re rude. And they’re not even the worst examples of faith-based homophobia out there.

In some ways, Westboro Baptist Church has strengthened the case for equal rights for LGBTQ people. When religious figures go over-the-top in their theatrical opposition to LGBTQ rights, they can actually turn out more people for the pro-LGBTQ cause. In some cases, it’s in the form of activists who plan successful counter-protests, like the Vassar College students who raised $100,000 for the Trevor Project in response to Westboro Baptist planning a protest on their campus. Other times, religious groups come to marches to support LGBTQ people, seeking to convey that some Christians are loving and accepting. (There’s no shortage of images online showing Christians at Pride parades holding up signs that read, “I’m sorry for the way my church has treated you.”) Finally, Westboro is a caricature of what can happen when anti-LGBTQ ideas multiply and mutate in the name of religion. Religious moderates considering joining the anti-equality brigade may see Westboro Baptist and decide that maybe they don’t want to be associated with that kind of philosophy after all.

But we’re living in a weird and uncertain time. Major victories for LGBTQ people are followed by unthinkable tragedies; certain politicians see equal rights as a threat, so they bite at the heels of our slow-moving progress with ugly determination. It’s easy to tell ourselves that violent homophobes like the Westboro Baptist Church and Pastor Anderson are few and far between, but we have no idea how many people they have influenced. And there are certainly elected officials in Washington eager to roll back any civil rights we’ve achieved.

That’s why the secular movement for LGBTQ rights is so critical. As long as religious opposition to equality exists — even if it does sometimes look like an absurdist street fair — someone will use it against LGBTQ people. It could come in the form of a discriminatory law, a hate crime, or a kid getting kicked out of her house, but sooner or later, it will show itself. It’s our responsibility not simply to disarm and denounce extremist hate groups, but also to call out any moment when religion is used to deny LGBTQ people equal rights. And though it seems contradictory, sometimes the publicity of radical religion gets more people fired up about the cause.

Please consider contributing to the Kickstarter here! We can’t do this without you.

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