No longer “praying the gay away?”

Exodus International is no longer trying to “pray the gay away.” At least that’s the word from The Associated Press this week:

MINNEAPOLIS — The president of the country’s best-known Christian ministry dedicated to helping people repress same-sex attraction through prayer is trying to distance the group from the idea that gay people’s sexual orientation can be permanently changed or “cured.”

That’s a significant shift for Exodus International, the 36-year-old Orlando-based group that boasts 260 member ministries around the U.S. and world. For decades, it has offered to help conflicted Christians rid themselves of unwanted homosexual inclinations through counseling and prayer, infuriating gay rights activists in the process.

This week, 600 Exodus ministers and followers are gathering for the group’s annual conference, held this year in a Minneapolis suburb. The group’s president, Alan Chambers, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the conference would highlight his efforts to dissociate the group from the controversial practice usually called ex-gay, reparative or conversion therapy.

“I do not believe that cure is a word that is applicable to really any struggle, homosexuality included,” said Chambers, who is married to a woman and has children, but speaks openly about his own sexual attraction to men. “For someone to put out a shingle and say, ‘I can cure homosexuality’ — that to me is as bizarre as someone saying they can cure any other common temptation or struggle that anyone faces on Planet Earth.”

The story prompted our esteemed head GetReligionista — tmatt — to note, “In all of my years covering ex-gays, I’ve never met anyone who actually claimed they could pray the gay away.” Regardless, Exodus International’s change in philosophy certainly seems to represent a significant shift, so AP got that part right.

A couple of paragraphs later in the story stood out to me.

– The first:

Chambers said the ministry’s emphasis should be simply helping Christians who want to reconcile their own particular religious beliefs with sexual feelings they consider an affront to scripture. For some that might mean celibacy; for others, like Chambers, it meant finding an understanding opposite-sex partner.

That one was interesting because in 2009 both the Wall Street Journal and Christianity Today reported on the American Psychological Association acknowledging that some same-sex clients may be distressed due to a conflict between their sexual orientation and their religious beliefs. The CT story, which I wrote, noted that the APA’s nod to the role of faith exposed a divide in the evangelical therapy community: between those who promote changing sexual orientation and those who embrace “sexual identity therapy,” which focuses on helping a person live in a way that is consistent with his or her beliefs.

– The second:

Exodus has seen its influence wane in recent decades, as mainstream associations representing psychiatrists and psychologists have relegated reparative therapy to crackpot status. But Exodus and groups like it continue to influence many evangelicals and fundamentalists, and gay rights activists said the damage they inflict on individuals can be deep and lasting.

That one was interesting because of the editorialization. At least the term “crackpot” impresses me as an opinionated description, especially without a named source making the statement. To its credit, AP does quote one of the crackpots later in the story (and graciously uses a title other than crackpot to describe him).

The AP story failed to note the 2009 APA statement speaking to some clients’ desire to reconcile their sexual orientation and religious beliefs. Nor did AP put the Exodus International shift in the context of the divide in the evangelical therapy community. If it had, a good question for Chambers might have explored the extent to which that debate prompted Exodus to change its outlook. What he told AP this week certainly sounds different than what he told CT in 2009:

Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, said it is wrong to assert that sexual orientation cannot change as a result of therapy.

“That flies in the face of the testimonies of tens of thousands of people just like me,” said Chambers, a married father of two who credits God and counseling for helping him leave a homosexual lifestyle. “That’s not to say that you can flip a switch and go from gay to straight.”

Wire service reporters, of course, deal with a finite amount of space. As a former AP writer, I feel the journalist’s pain in trying to report such a complicated matter in so few words.

For a more in-depth treatment of Chambers and Exodus International updating their message to gays, I recommend a recent interview by The Atlantic. The interviewer asks hard questions and provides ample space for Chambers to respond. A nice piece of journalism, in other words.

Image via Shutterstock

Print Friendly

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Bob Smietana

    This is old news. We ran a story back on 2011 on Exodus and other “ex-gay” ministries backing away from the claim that they could change people’s sexual orientation. John Smid, the former director of the ex-gay ministry Love in Action, based in Memphis, has apologized for making that claim in the past.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Thanks for the insight, Bob.

    That was my first reaction, too, that it was old news. But then I went back and read the 2009 CT story where Exodus still wasn’t budging, so to speak.

    My bad: Should have checked LexisNexis and done some more research.

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    It has long been my understanding that the Roman Catholic church’s position is that one’s “sexual orientation” isn’t sinful, but any sexual acts outside the context of heterosexual marriage are. Inclinations to such acts are called — oh, what’s the word, darn it, it’s right here at the tip of my tongue — oh, yes, temptations! Sounds like Exodus is not departing that much from the historic Christian view…. The “pray the gay away” has always been a snarky usage, anyway. Some people seem to think you’re some sort of traitor to the cause if you think your same-sex attractions need to be restrained for the sake of God’s commandments, in order to fully live into His love.

  • sk

    Firstly,it is not trying to “repress same-sex attraction through prayer” but through counseling and self control. Secondly, there has always been a focus on reconciliation of traditional beliefs with sexuality,often that of married men so there is no news there.It is merely a continuation of their earlier stand,not a retraction. It may be a retraction of the earlier view of Exodus in the media which was militantly,fundamentally against it.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Twenty years ago a friend of mine hosted Fr. Harvey, the founder of Courage, a Catholic ministry to help folks who experience same-sex attractions to live faithful Catholic lives. It was just an evening sitting around chatting but I remember Fr. Harvey noting that Courage differed from Exodus in this issue of fundamental change, Exodus believing that the change to heterosexual attraction was essential, while Courage acknowledged change happens, but didn’t push it. In fact, the Five Goals of Courage are about lives of faith, not sexual attraction.