Guest Post: Exodus International and a Millenial Marketing Blitz

A guest post by Sarah Jones.

(Libby Anne’s commentary: I was in the middle of a project when Alan Chambers issued his apology to the LGBTQ community and announced that Exodus International would be closing down, so I didn’t end up blogging about it, though I wanted to. When I read Sarah Jones’ discussion of the issue, I found that she verbalized some of, and did so better than I could have had I tried. With her permission, I am reposting her thoughts, which originally appeared on her insightful blog, Anthony B. Susan.)

Alan Chambers’ apology and the closure of Exodus International have been hailed as the harbingers of a new, more conciliatory era for American Christianity. As always, the truth is somewhat more complex. The timing and cultural context of Chambers’ apology raise questions about the sincerity of his motivations. In this post, I’m going to deconstruct this cultural context and explain why I, and so many others, suspect that Chambers acts out of political pragmatism rather than genuine conviction.

1. The Prodigal Generation

Americans Evangelicals are aware they’re losing their grip on the latest generation to come of age in the church. As a prodigal, I am not particularly surprised that the first generation raised to adulthood by America’s Moral Majority is now the least religious generation in American history. Older Evangelicals, however, are simultaneously stymied and horrified by this demographic trend. The children trained from childhood to excel in apologetics and debate, the generation raised with the specific goal of reclaiming America for Jesus, now leave the organized Christian in droves. And worst of all: many of them listthe church’s anti-gay beliefs as a specific reason for their departure.

This is my story, too. I left the church at the age of 21. Exhausted by the church’s homophobia, sexism and over-politicization, I came to the conclusion that Christians showed no evidence that they’d really experienced the transformational redemption they preached from the pulpits. I didn’t realize then that I’d just joined the ranks of what author David Kinnaman calls the ‘prodigal’ generation: Millennials who abandon the church entirely in early adulthood. We represent a significant challenge to the American church. If we fail to return to the fold, the church shrinks and its political influence subsides.

So how to woo the prodigal? From a marketing perspective, the answer is fairly obvious. A generation alienated by the church’s strident homophobia requires a friendlier Christianity. Perhaps Alan Chambers read Blue Like Jazz, so popular among struggling Millennial Christians, and drew inspiration from author Donald Miller’s ‘confession booth,’ in which Christians confessed the sins of the church to Reed College’s heathen campus. Perhaps he thought that this is what Millennials want: a confession booth on a national scale. There’s certainly precedent for it; the popular Emergent figure, Shane Claiborne, issued a similar public apology for the behavior of the church. Perhaps this is conservative Christianity’s attempt at a confession booth. And I find it easier to believe that it is a marketing tactic, and not a real apology, because Chambers’ apology is not accompanied by a substantive ideological shift. Which brings me to my next point.

2. Narrative Control

Make no mistake, Alan Chambers and the staff of Exodus International have not actually changed their beliefs on sexual orientation. Even in his ‘apology,’ Chambers states that he cannot apologize for his beliefs on marriage and sexuality. Chambers remains anti-gay. His apology, and his decision to rebrand and reform Exodus International, represent a narrative shift, not an ideological shift. Had Chambers truly intended to work for the liberation of the queer community, he would have relinquished his position of cultural power. He would have acknowledged the validity of queer identities, and simultaneously, he would have stepped back from the conversation so that it could be driven by those most affected by its outcome. Chambers did not do this. His very public apology coincided with Exodus International’s national conference, and he will lead the ministry forming from its ashes.

Chambers’ public apology therefore keeps queer Americans in a precarious position. If they question his motivations or refuse outright to accept his apology, they appear ungracious, and their own motivations are questioned. It’s a subtle form of gaslighting. ‘Progressive’ Christians have flooded Chambers with praise since his apology became public; his decision is, according to many, a gesture of reconciliation. Those of us who have found ourselves the target of progressive Christian ire for questioning their true commitment to social justice are, in turn, familiar with the consequences of rejecting these superficial gestures of reconciliation. We are negative. We are uninterested in healing. We are bad for ‘community.’ And we are shunned. Our attempts to influence the prevailing narrative about our own identities are met with resistance.

3. Unrevolutionary Reconciliation

If Chambers, and the Christians who have rushed to support him for his apology, are truly interested in reconciliation, it is time for them to acknowledge that the damage they’ve caused to queer Americans isn’t simply due to reparative therapy, or even the tone of their rhetoric. These are symptoms only. The disease? Their core beliefs about sexuality. As long as Chambers and his supporters believe that it’s a sin to be queer, true reconciliation is impossible. You may as well expect black Americans to reconcile with whites who believe, sincerely, that they are the superior race. As long as Chambers retains his belief that heterosexuality is superior to queer orientations, he denies the equal personhood of queer Americans.

I am not straight. Not entirely, anyway. Thanks to organizations like Exodus International, I struggle with impressive cognitive dissonance about my own sexuality. The further I drift from the church, the more I find that I can accept my occasional attraction to the same sex, but even at the age of 25 it is a battle for me. It’s hard to state, simply, that I’m attracted to men and to certain types of women, too. My instinct is to interrogate myself about the legitimacy of my attractions. And I’m not ready to forgive Alan Chambers and the staff of Exodus International for the psychological damage they’ve inflicted on me and on so many others. I’m not prepared to pretend that he’s no longer a homophobe just because he’s apologized for the way he’s expressed that homophobia. I don’t think I ought to accept anything less than the public acknowledgement that my sexual identity is completely valid. Because really, what sort of change is it when Alan Chambers apologizes for trying to fix something that he still believes needs to be fixed? It’s not really reconciliation as long as it’s reconciliation on Chambers’ terms

So call me ungracious, and question my commitment to reconciliation. But this queer prodigal remains unconvinced that Alan Chambers wants anything but my church membership, and by extension, the survival of his brand of Christian.

  • MrRoivas

    Fuck Alan Chambers and anyone else who still believes harmful bullshit about GLBT people. His apology means nothing.

  • onamission5

    Thank you!

    Especially thank you for point #2. I am growing increasingly impatient with being told that I must meet people who deny my full validity as a person halfway, that I must extend an olive branch to them, and if I do not, then I am hurting my own cause. No. Screw that. Meeting bigots halfway gets you half the bigotry, and that’s still too much for me, thanks.

  • Baby_Raptor

    I read an interview he gave the same night that the announcement was made, and that was what destroyed any hope I had of this being a Good Thing.

    The man couldn’t admit that Exodus had done anything wrong. Sure, he’d force the words out, but he would immediately qualify them by insisting that vastly more good had been done than bad, and the good is what should be focused on.

    If you can’t just plain-face admit you Fucked up, you’re not sorry.

  • galacticexplorer

    I can only partially agree. I find Chambers’ apology meaningful to me because, while he does not recant his beliefs about homosexuality, he acknowledges that these beliefs are very personal and cannot be… SHOULD not be pressed on others. He recognizes that homosexuals can live fulfilling lives, can be spiritual, can love their partners. He has even admitted, a year ago, that he expects to find gays in heaven. This is truly a very large shift. Yes, part of this is probably a move for Christianity to rebrand itself, but I’m largely okay with that. I would not require anyone else to forgive and forget. Forgiveness is also a highly personal thing. But, for me, it is enough that Christians accept that my life is mine and that they do not know what is best for me, regardless of their personal beliefs on homosexuality. If more Christians could take that step, my life would be so much easier and I might still have a family.

    • Rosa

      Sometimes, when people are forced to behave like they think other people have equal rights, their thinking follows along eventually. I can see why Sarah doesn’t want anything to do with it, but just the fact that Evangelical groups are feeling such intense pressure on this makes me hopeful.

      • Mishellie

        I agree. I actually think this is usually what happens. Peer pressure isn’t always bad.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=141304249 Sarah Jones

        Hey! I think I can agree that evidence of pressure is cause for optimism. But I want to make sure that the conversation doesn’t stop here, and I’m worried that it will.

      • Rosa

        Totally. I think we can celebrate the victories and still be critical. Plus, for people who grew up inside movement Christianity or still hope to redeem something in the Evangelical churches, it’s important to not give in to that pressure to forgive and forget. Glimmers of hope are not the same as actually making amends.

  • antimule

    The problems with conservative Christianity are deep and until root causes are addressed, I am afraid that everything else will be a mere window dressing. First problem is rampant anti-intellectualism which won’t be fixed until Evangelicals admit being wrong on evolution.

    Second problem is that they have essentially morphed into a branch of the Republican party, that itself has morphed into a PR firm for rich and powerful. Until they stand against powerful private interests and renounce ultra-libertarianism, they won’t have much credibility. In my opinion, every true religion requires belief in environmental and economic stewardship. How are you going to convince anyone that you believe in some god if you don’t really act like you believe in anything larger than yourself?

    Third problem is Biblical literalism. How are you going to convince anyone that you are a serious thinker if you claim that Bible is infallible when everyone else can see that it isn’t? Biblical literalism is also a real motivation behind their opposition to homosexuality. Since Bible condemns homosexuality (on, like, two places) they have to condemn it too, or admit that the Bible has errors in it.

    • Christine

      I don’t know that they’d have to condemn homosexuality. If they can manage to say that being good stewards of creation isn’t a big deal, it’s obviously not a problem if they ignore parts, despite their literalism.

      • antimule

        Yeah, but unfortunately, they have preached against homosexuality for so long that backing of now would seriously impact their credibility, while their conservative audiences don’t seem to care about stewardship.

      • Rosa

        there’s not a lot of institutional memory in Evanglical circles. Like the acceptance of divorced people, and the shift into working with Catholics on abortion, once the churches become welcoming and the folks who hate that storm off to make their own churches, everyone will forget it wasn’t always like that.

      • Christine

        I was going to agree with you completely, until I saw Rosa’s point. Either way, it’s an entirely separate issue from the literalism.

      • gimpi1

        This lack of memory has always fascinated me. I’ll read things from people who, just a few years ago, were saying something completely different, and when I call them on it, they deny their own words, even if I can show them those words. Does anyone know why many Evangelical Christians don’t seem to remember their own recent past?

      • Christine

        It’s not just Evangelicals. The Catholic Church likes to ignore the fact that the theological justifications it gives for various things aren’t the reasons that those practices were started in the first place.

      • gimpi1

        Good point,Christine. That’s right. I know many Catholics who don’t seem to remember just how hard their church fought basic facts regarding biology and astronomy before accepting them. They also don’t seem to remember of just how hard-fought their current stance on birth control was. It could have easily gone the other way.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=141304249 Sarah Jones

      Maybe we can reframe the literalism–argue that you can take the Bible literally and still be pro-LGBT rights. IE, the Bible has been misinterpreted. But that, however, requires the ability to think critically, and the anti-intellectualism you’ve correctly addressed is an obstacle.

      • Scott_In_OH

        (Trying to re-type a reply that got eaten. It sounded better the first time!)

        I think this is probably what will happen, and it will happen fairly quickly. “Discovering” that “the Bible has been misinterpreted” is the main way Christianity is able to evolve.

        We discover that God actually doesn’t like slavery. We realize that Christian women don’t actually need to submit to the men in their lives. We find out that masturbation and birth control actually aren’t from the Devil. We were just misunderstanding the Book. Not everyone accepts the new interpretations, but they gain fairly widespread acceptance.

        I don’t think it will be very long (in historical terms; for individuals, it may come far too late) before LGBT people are as accepted in Christian churches as divorced people are, which will allow Christians who lean progressive to feel more comfortable in the church again. The difference at this point in history, I think, is that communication, especially the Internet, makes it easier for Christians who are questioning an issue within their religion to realize they can question the whole thing.

      • Stev84

        And a few decades later, they will pretend they’ve been pro-gay along and that things were never different.

      • The_L1985

        Do you mean the church, or the individuals? Because I’m not about to lie and say that I wasn’t once a homophobe. I’m not proud of it, but part of the reason I know that people can lose their prejudices is because I myself had my blinders removed.

      • http://kathrynbrightbill.com/ KB

        That’s the position I hold because I think it the correct one, however, I haven’t gotten anywhere trying to argue it with people. It seems as though what happens is that people reach the point where they *want* to be pro-LGBT rights and then go looking for a way to create scriptural justification for it, but I don’t know if it’s possible to argue anybody out of their homophobia using scripture.

        The nicest response I’ve gotten to that was the former assistant pastor who told me we wouldn’t agree because we had different presuppositions and then told me to go read Washed and Waiting.

  • JP

    It’s important to remember, too, that Alan Chambers is gay himself, or at least (since I don’t want to impose a label on someone who may not personally identify with it) by his own admission he continues to experience same-sex attraction. Which means he’s internalized, to a staggering and paralyzing degree, the messages about homosexuality and the kind of cognitive dissonance that Sarah refers to in this post. That doesn’t excuse his complicity in what Exodus International has done or how he’s handled himself in the wake of its collapse. But it does help to explain it. As those of us who have been confined to a similarly hellish prison of self-hatred and self-doubt can attest, liberating oneself from it can be a long, difficult and painful process. He’s obviously not there yet, and maybe he never will be. But I hold on to the hope that one day he might.

    Alan Chambers, as the representative of Exodus International, has been wrong and continues to be wrong, in thought, word, and deed. But he’s also a perfect example of what that culture can do to a person, how it can twist them inside out until they don’t even know themself anymore. As much as I denounce his stance, I can’t help but feel some compassion for him too.

    I also think he should stop talking now.

    • smrnda

      I think it would be good for him if he stopped talking and ceased to be a public figure. In many ways I feel like he’s been manipulated and exploited by others – I’m sure a lot of this started long ago when he internalized a lot of bad ideas about human sexuality, but too many people invested a lot in him as a poster boy for ‘change’ and I doubt that anything he can say is really going to be good for GLBT people. The other thing is, as long as he’s a public front for anything he’s not really free to think for himself, though I think that he probably *feels free* to do so. Chambers should just get himself a regular, obscure 9 to 5 thing.

      • Hilary

        I agree – there is more freedom on the sidelines then in he spotlight. He needs to gt out and have a private life to spend some time thinking on his own way from his culture warrior handlers and gate keepers.

  • Jeri

    I watched the Lisa Ling special (on Oprah’s network) about this subject the same week as all the announcements. Based on that piece, I’d say Chambers is losing the publicity advantage. The tears and pain and confusion of the gay victims of Exodus spoke too loudly. Chambers is trying to work out a narrative that fits all his interpretations of what the Bible means AND preserves his hetero marriage intact. If he’s honest, he might go completely crazy or he might walk away from the Bible. We can hope, right?

    Clearly, Chambers isn’t walking away from evangelicalism by announcing that gay is okay. But he’s still stands to lose power by admitting that the church is adding to the suffering of gays. And plenty are going to get the message: “we can’t fix you, even though we want to”, which may help in the long run.

    The Religious Right has bet everything on the idea that truth doesn’t change and Nothing “evolves”. This well-publicized “adjustment” is itself a challenge to that narrative. Time DOES “make ancient good uncouth”.

    http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/segment/lisa-ling-god-and-gays/51bb83a302a7603ed10001bc

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    I’ve been following some “progressive Christian” blogs and sources for a while because I’m always interested in understanding and working with anyone who shares my goals and values, even if they’re coming at them from a very different place. But this post touched on an issue about this particular progressive community that has long made me uncomfortable, although it took me a while to put my finger on what it actually was: it’s that, often, social justice seems to be portrayed as something secondary to “the unity of the Church.” Taking on the conservative evangelical attitudes on homosexuality is important not because those attitudes hurt people but more because “This whole gay thing is dividing God’s Church and also making people not like us so I guess we have to deal with it. Hey everybody, this isn’t worth fighting over. Can’t we find a way to all just get along? Remember, we’re the body of Christ, folks!”

    But it is worth fighting over. And sometimes doing the right thing means not getting along. Sometimes it means that people are divided, that churches and movements split. If progressive Christians are not willing to go there, it’s hard to consider them real allies because they’re putting the institution of the Church above human beings. I’m aware that some progressive Christians care about both and I recognize that, to some extent, framing these issues in terms of how important addressing them is to the continuation of the Church might be a strategy to get more people on board with a progressive, in this case, pro-LGBT agenda. But all the same, it is a disappointing trend that I see and it’s very alienating. You’re not really into social justice if you don’t see it first and foremost as actual justice, as opposed to some annoying thing that isn’t going away that might be an impediment to your ultimate goal of having as many people as possible believing in Jesus and not fighting with each other.

    • Gillianren

      It’s not like the Church has ever been truly unified anyway.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=141304249 Sarah Jones

      That’s been a major personal concern. I’m a feminist, and I’ve watched so-called progressive Christian men de-emphasize gender equality so many times that I’m actually surprised when it doesn’t happen. Ditto for LGBT rights. People in privilege do not want to step back and let someone else steer the conversation, and ‘unity’ is a convenient excuse.

  • Hilary

    It’s one thing to dissect his apology; I’m waiting to see what he actually does and how he goes from here.

  • Kagi Soracia

    This, so much this. I really wanted to believe this was for real and all, that someone who had done so much damage had actually realised it and was sorry for it, but when I read more about the apology and a breakdown of what he actually said, I was not just disappointed – my hope was crushed, and I felt stupid for hoping. There’s no real change in attitude, here. They’re rebranding is all. More hypocrisy, more lies, more false concern. My faith hangs by a thread some days, and these people are not helping.

  • http://kathrynbrightbill.com/ KB

    Personally, I’m willing to give Chambers the benefit of the doubt, at least for now. Not that I’m not going to be watching him and the rest of the Executive crowd like a hawk, but I think that right now he’s in the process of his own personal journey and is in the midst of dealing with his own massive amounts of baggage. It looks as though he’s where John Smid, formerly of Love in Action, was a couple of years ago, and Smid has ended up doing a 180.

    Maybe my general efforts to stop being so cynical about everything have gone too far and I need to an extra dose of the cynicism on this one, but I think this is more than just marketing and rebranding. It looks to me like someone who is finally starting to deal with his issues and is trying to figure out a way forward.

  • Alice

    (BTW, this is critiquing Kinnaman, not Jones).

    “Prodigal generation” is quite a biased and loaded term. The prodigal wasted all his father’s money on wine, material goods, and prostitutes, then his life fell apart, and he eventually returned home in abject shame. That is exactly how many fundamentalists portray the people who have left the church. Also, the father the prodigal left behind was God, implying that fundies are the only ones living with God. This term might be even worse than the “spiritually homeless” crap a Barna study used. Can anyone think of something more neutral?

    • Gary in FL

      I’d need ave to give more thought to what would be a “more neutral” alternative, but I will point out your take on the parable of the Prodigal Son is off. While the younger son had _anticipated_ his return would be marked with scorn and abject shame, in Jesus’ story the exact opposite happens: The father welcomes him back into the family with open arms and then celebrates his homecoming (that involved no conditions, apologies or judgments) by throwing a party. As usual, fundamentalists don’t really get this.

      • Alice

        I know the son wasn’t treated that way, but he still returned feeling ashamed and preparing to admit he had done wrong. Similarly, fundamentalists hope progressive Christians will realize the “error of their ways” and return to the fold repentant of their “sins.” Even if fundamentalists rejoice and 100% forgive when this happens, they are still calling the action of leaving fundamentalism “sinful.” It is impossible to say “I forgive you” without implying the other person did something wrong. They can accept the repentant progressives with open arms, but many cannot agree to disagree with the progressives who never want to go back to fundamentalism.

      • Gary in FL

        “he still returned feeling ashamed and admitting he had done wrong.”

        Well, I know a fair amount in this area, and what you’ve stated as fact is an ill-informed (but all too common) interpretation of this text. But let’s leave aside New Testament interpretation and focus on what appears to be your real displeasure with Kinnamen’s term, “Prodigal.”

        David Kinnamen (and yes, I’ve read his book, and only been so-so impressed with his analysis) uses the term “prodigal” for one reason and one reason only–it expresses a hope that those who’ve said sayonara to the Church (who were once definitely inside it), may yet return. It is the prospect of the _return_ of one who has been connected to the family that is at the root. It is not, as you apparently assume, the prospect of prodigals feeling guilt and low self-worth that prompts him to use this term. Kinnamen could hardly be described as a fundamentalist. _I_ could even less be described as a fundamentalist. If you care to really engage the question, don’t pull in the strawman of fundamentalism.

        “fundamentalists hope progressive Christians will realize the ‘errors of there ways’ and return…”

        I don’t know that that’s true. You’d be obliged to back that assertion up. And in any case, as Kinnamen defines what a “prodigal” is, it has absolutely nothing to do with a “progressive” Christian. I seriously doubt whether you’ve read his book.

      • Alice

        I realize now that he was talking about those who have left Christianity entirely, not progressives. I jumped to conclusions because I am too accustomed to fundamentalists hijacking this Bible passage.