Within twenty-four hours of last week’s Orlando attack, I saw an evangelical Facebook friends post that this is the difference between Christians and Muslims on LGBT issues—that Christians love gay people while Muslims try to kill them. In a sick, twisted way, last week’s brutal attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando is a boon to evangelicals. Now every time someone calls them out for their opposition to gay rights or their homophobia, evangelicals can now point to Orlando and say “no no, that is what hating gays looks like, we don’t hate gays” or “we’re not the ones who are killing you, go deal with Muslims, we’re not like them, we love gay people.”
People often try to get a pass for something sketchy they’re doing by pointing to someone who has done something worse and and insisting that they’re not like them. The Orlando shooter has given evangelicals that in spades. Amethyst Marie made this same point in 2014 when she wrote a post about Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, of the infamous anti-gay funeral protests and “God Hates Fags” signs. Here is how Amethyst put it in her post, which she titled “You Are Better Than Fred Phelps (and that’s why he was so dangerous)”:
I’ve heard people say that we can’t grant homosexuals the right to marriage and families because we have to protect the institutions of marriage and family. But they would never say “God hates fags.”
I’ve heard people say that, while they believe in reaching out to unsaved homosexuals, they couldn’t continue to fellowship with unrepentant homosexual Christians as believers. But they would never say “God hates fags.”
I’ve heard people go out of their way to find something, anything, in someone’s past to which they can attribute the “brokenness” of same-sex attraction, to explain away as dysfunction something they’d see as beautiful and healthy if it were between two people of the opposite sex. But they would never say “God hates fags.”
I could go on for a hundred pages. If you think I’m saying that all these people are really no better than Fred Phelps, you’ve completely missed the point. These people are better than Fred Phelps. These are nice people. These are people who don’t want to hurt anyone. These are people who sincerely want the best for their neighbors, for their nation, for the poor broken homosexuals. These people feel sincerely torn over how to discriminate in the kindest way possible. They might be you. They have been me. You, most likely, are better than Fred Phelps. I was and continue to be better than Fred Phelps. And that’s his true danger. Fred Phelps and others like him let us believe that being better than them is good enough.
I recently attended my parents’ solidly anti-gay evangelical megachurch for a service. Oh, I’m sure both my parents and the church leadership would say the church isn’t “anti-gay.” That sounds so mean, after all, and they love gay people! They’d probably say the church is “pro-marriage” or “pro-family,” but by that of course they mean pro-heterosexual marriage, and pro-heterosexual family. Actually, there’s a way to check this—hang on—oh hey, the church’s online “what we believe” section condemns both homosexuality and transgender identities, both in the context of their section on creation and marriage. Classy.
Anyway, halfway through the worship period, loaded down with praise choruses with highly repetitive phrases like “He loves me” and “I love Him,” I stopped to wonder what it would be like to attend this church as a gay person. I was immediately struck by the insistence—both in the music and in the announcements—that we are loved by God. I remember hearing this refrain over and over as a child—God loves us, God loves us, God loves us—and I remember finding it comforting, this feeling that I was loved by an all-powerful supernatural entity, that this entity actually cared about me and my wellbeing. But then, I’m not gay.
What would it be like, I wondered as I stood there, to be gay in an evangelical church? What would it be like to be gay and to grow up being told that God loves you, but also that God hates sin, and that homosexuality is sin? What would it be like to grow up believing that your love, your romantic and sexual attractions, were disordered, condemned, and forbidden, but that somehow, despite that, God loves you? What would it be like to grow up to realize that you could never have what everyone else has—romantic love, companionship, and a family—but that God loves you? What does love even mean, in that context?
What does this have to do with the Orlando shooting, or with Fred Phelps? Namely, evangelicals have increasingly sought to find a path across a culture war fast turning against them by claiming that they love gay people, and having individuals actively claiming to hate gay people (i.e. Fred Phelps) or engaging in acts of terror against gay people (i.e. the Orlando shooter) allows them to point to and differentiate themselves from those who hate gay people. But what does that love look like, exactly? And are evangelicals aware that hate doesn’t always come at the point of a gun?
I’ve written before about evangelical opposition to marriage equality. Evangelicals have also opposed gay adoption and the very existence of gay-straight alliance clubs in public schools, despite the importance these clubs have in safeguarding LGBT teens against suicide. In some cases, prominent evangelicals have openly called for bringing the “yuck factor” back into discussions of homosexuality. It’s no wonder a former coworker of mine attempted to commit suicide as an evangelical teen. How many other evangelical teens have toyed with the idea that that might be their best option, all things considered? Is this what love looks like, really?
In a recent post, blogger Samantha Field took on evangelicals’ contention that they hate the sin, but love the sinner. As usual, Samantha is deeply insightful.
Not only have they twisted the definition of hatred into something so deformed it’s beyond recognition, they’ve done the same thing to love. Here’s the thing, though: when Jesus said they shall know you by your love, it comes with the pretty basic assumption that your “love” should be recognizable to people who don’t share all your pet theories. If people who don’t share your interpretation or your faith look at your actions and say “that looks an awful lot like hate to me,” your response shouldn’t be “oh, it only looks that way to you because you’re not a conservative evangelical like me!” It doesn’t make any sense.
Seriously, read her whole post.
As for me, the next time an evangelical tells me that homosexuality is sin but that they love gay people, that they don’t hate gays like those other people, I’m going to remember that moment, sitting in my parents’ anti-gay evangelical megachurch, listening to the congregation sing songs about how much God loves us, and considering what all this would do to the psyche of an evangelical gay teen sitting in those very seats. Evangelicals may not have shot anyone in Orlando, but they’ve mangled countless young people in their own pews.