Cure vs. change: Is there a difference?

If you believe The Associated Press and The New York Times, Exodus International has backed away from the idea that people with same-sex attractions can be “cured.”

As I noted in my recent “No longer ‘praying the gay away?’” post, AP reported late last month:

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.”

Similarly, in a story last week, the Times reported (with a barrage of “scare quotes”):

For more than three decades, Exodus International has been the leading force in the so-called ex-gay movement, which holds that homosexuals can be “cured” through Christian prayer and psychotherapy.

Exodus leaders claimed its network of ministries had helped tens of thousands rid themselves of unwanted homosexual urges. The notion that homosexuality is not inborn but a choice was seized on by conservative Christian groups who oppose legal protections for gay men and lesbians and same-sex marriage.

But the ex-gay movement has been convulsed as the leader of Exodus, in a series of public statements and a speech to the group’s annual meeting last week, renounced some of the movement’s core beliefs. Alan Chambers, 40, the president, declared that there was no cure for homosexuality and that “reparative therapy” offered false hopes to gays and could even be harmful. His statements have led to charges of heresy and a growing schism within the network.

Here is my journalistic question: Do AP or the Times have actual past quotes and/or documentation in which Chambers and/or Exodus used the term “cured” to describe their ministry and approach?

In reviewing media coverage of the ministry over the years, I found a number of cases where critics characterized Exodus’ approach as an attempt to “cure” homosexuals. But I did not find any actual quotes from Chambers or the ministry itself using that terminology.

In fact, in an AP feature on Exodus six years ago, Chambers disputed the notion of “curing” gays:

Chambers is quick to point out that Exodus isn’t about “curing” anyone or “turning people straight.”

In fact, many who go through the program might never have a heterosexual relationship, he said.

Instead, it’s about refraining from activities that violate their beliefs — in God or anything else — and addressing “unwanted homosexuality.”

“These are people who have identified that they struggle with same-sex attractions and are conflicted about that, and they want to find some sort of level of support and ability to overcome those feelings, move beyond them or live with them in conjunction with their Christianity,” Chambers said.

Does that sound much different from what he told the Times last week?:

In a phone interview Thursday from Orlando, Fla., where Exodus has its headquarters, Mr. Chambers amplified on the views that have stirred so much controversy. He said that virtually every ”ex-gay” he has ever met still harbors homosexual cravings, himself included. Mr. Chambers, who left the gay life to marry and have two children, said that gay Christians like himself faced a lifelong spiritual struggle to avoid sin and should not be afraid to admit it.

For years, ex-gay leaders have said that gradual change in feelings and behaviors is possible. Change is not the same thing as cure, right?

Perhaps it’s time for AP, the Times and other major media to throw out the “cured” terminology — or at least provide specific attribution to a source making that claim.

Image: Alan Chambers, via Exodus International

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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.

  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

    For years, ex-gay leaders have said that gradual change in feelings and behaviors is possible. Change is not the same thing as cure, right?

    Perhaps it’s time for AP, the Times and other major media to throw out the “cured” terminology — or at least provide specific attribution to a source making that claim.

    I too would like to see this. I actually don’t doubt someone claimed that homosexuality could be “cured”, even one of these groups. But I’d like to see the source.

  • http://www.newlifelynden.com Brendan

    To be fair, I watched some of the promotional videos published in the late 90′s by Exodus Int. Was the word “cure” ever used? I don’t recall though that was clearly the message. It was basically testimonial series showing all these church workers that were once gay and now they were in a heterosexual marriage with children and happy all thanks to Exodus.

    Exodus was clearly promoting something that could easily be called a cure.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Brendan:

    Not really. What they have said is — citing the Kinsey Scale and other scientific research — that human sexuality is a spectrum of behavior and that it is common for people to change or alter their behaviors.

    In 20-plus years of interviewing people on that issue, I have never heard a single Exodus leader use the “cure” language. Now, are there that groups out there THAT DO use that term? Probably. If so, then people should quote them — citing names, times, etc.

  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

    Brendan,

    Based on your description, no, that doesn’t sound like a “cure” to me. Showing someone in a happy heterosexual marriage, in that context, does not cash out to “See? Homosexuality can be cured!” It can still mean exactly what we’re seeing said in this article – that you can control your urges, even if not eliminating them altogether. Maybe you can foster new desires, and maybe you can’t.

    But like I said, I’m in the middle on this. For some reason I think it’s easy to believe that ‘cure’ language was thrown around. But as tmatt says, I’d like to know when and where.

  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

    Actually, since this site (BTW, I absolutely love it – you guys are sharp) often talks about ghosts in religion stories, I’d point out another ghost that always seems to show up when it comes to this sort of topic, particularly with Exodus.

    Wouldn’t the Exodus and like ministries naturally cater to bisexuals as well? But bisexuals never seem to get a mention. I just checked the AP and NYT stories, and the only mention of bisexuals I saw was towards the end, generally as part of the LGBT grouping. Actually, in general, bisexuals seem to disappear in these stories except as part of the LGBT tag.

  • http://www.youtube.com/newlifelynden Brendan

    You guys are playing a game of semantics. The Exodus promo videos paraded people who claimed to be once attracted to the same sex and are now married to a person of the opposite sex and have children. They were happy, serving in a church, and talked about how Exodus changed them.

    Elimination of homosexual desire + a new and “better” life = ?

    Was the word “cure” used? No. But if you had contracted Malaria and we eliminated your symptoms, reversed your health, and you were happy to free from malaria clearly moving away from the disease…what would you call that?

    “Cure” isn’t that big of a stretch.

    Simply because they weren’t able to “cure” everyone doesn’t mean they weren’t intentionally giving that image to conservative evangelicals.

    I’m sure some people will still want to split hairs.

  • dalea

    Part of the problem here is that Exodus has been around for a long time. In its earlier years, Exodus was aligned with old guard Fruedian psychiatrists who did use the word ‘cure’ in their writings and presentations. Under Alan Chambers, Exodus has moved away from a psychological approach and become an openly religious organization.

    This has been documented by Wayne Bessen both in his book and at his blog TruthWinsOut:

    http://www.truthwinsout.org/blog/2012/07/26974/

    Mike Airhart’s ExGayWatch covers the subject of both Exodus and other exgay groups from the perspective of exexgays, people who have left exgay groups and become openly gay.

    http://www.exgaywatch.com/wp/

    Through ExGayWatch and its links, one will find quite a few men and women who state that they were promised a ‘cure’ from various leaders and organizations, primarily Exodus but there are others.

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

    You guys are playing a game of semantics.

    Exactly. Because we believe the words and meanings matter in journalism.

    Also, since we’re proudly splitting hairs, the term “cure” would not require scare quotes in the context you just described it.

  • dalea

    Found this very helpful discussion of the story:

    http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/sexandgender/6142/is_change_possible_shifting_the_ex-gay_question_/

    It lays out the parameters of the situation and documents the journey Exodus has taken over the last 36 years.

  • MJBubba

    I can say that I have heard conservative Christians that are not connected with Exodus cite Exodus as proof that homosexuals can be cured. I have never heard such reckless talk from people that are connected with Exodus. I have heard Christian talk show hosts interview Chambers and others, and you can tell that they are frustrated at their inability to get the interviewee to deliver the sound bite that they are fishing for to satisfy their culture warrior listeners.

  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

    Brendan,

    Was the word “cure” used? No. But if you had contracted Malaria and we eliminated your symptoms, reversed your health, and you were happy to free from malaria clearly moving away from the disease…what would you call that?

    Alright, that’s fair. So let me ask: can you cite the source where this group said they’d eliminate all traces of homosexual desire, and replace them with heterosexual urges?

    Just because they show some examples of success stories with Exodus doesn’t mean that they were promising a “cure”, or even an “elimination”. Now, maybe they did say these things – I’m just asking for it to be sourced.

    I keep saying, I really expect Exodus to have said that at this point. I’m not sure why – maybe I bought the (biased?) reporting, but it just strikes me as likely. But saying “They said they could cure you! Well, okay, they showed some success stories. But c’mon they meant they could cure you!” just doesn’t cut it for me.

  • jloubelle

    Here’s one that refers to “healing” homosexuality. Healing implies a cure. They say “simply, homosexuality can be healed. That is, a homosexual can become a heterosexual; the homosexual orientation can be changed through prayer for inner healing and the power of the Holy Spirit.”

    http://www.christianhealingmin.org/newsletter/archives/healing/homosexuality.php

    Does it really matter that they didn’t use the word “cure?” They aren’t talking about a lifetime of repressing your true feelings and playing the role of the happy heterosexual, they are talking about becoming one.

  • Daniel

    Brendan,
    Is there a difference between explicit and implicit claims? In the malaria scenario you describe, I would call it remission rather than cure. Doctors are not splitting hairs when they use this language. And, as one who has experienced Christian therapy, I would say that through it I have experienced a level of healing rather than a cure. If you understand this as splitting hairs rather than clarification it means the concept of degree is entirely lacking, and the light is entirely bright or it is off. Whether I’m cured or not cured of my blindness is a harsh distinction, but whether I’m healed or not healed is a clarification.

  • Daniel

    We also need to understand the difference between sourcing interviews and promotional material.

  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

    jloubelle,

    Here’s one that refers to “healing” homosexuality. Healing implies a cure.

    Let’s take a look at a quote from that site: But there is a third position which we believe is the best solution: simply, homosexuality can be healed. That is, a homosexual can become a heterosexual; the homosexual orientation can be changed through prayer for inner healing and the power of the Holy Spirit.

    This is a splendid example. Yes, these guys are saying they can ‘turn a homosexual into a heterosexual’ as near as I can tell, no caveats or problems. They’re explicit. If something like this can be found for Exodus, I’d say outright, “Yeah, they changed their position.”


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