The Anatomy of Doublespeak: That ACBC Conference.

The Anatomy of Doublespeak: That ACBC Conference. October 13, 2015

Last time I talked about a recent conference held at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. At the time I was concentrating more on a speech given there by Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leader Al Mohler regarding reparative therapy. Today I want to delve more deeply into the errors of the conference itself because I think it serves as a firm declaration by evangelicals that despite being consistently defeated in every single way imaginable, they still aren’t ready to give up on the idea of bigotry-for-Jesus.

Amazingly, nobody at this Houston-area shindig noticed how offensive this was. I'm guessing the blow-up Challenger slide was already spoken for that day. (Credit: Jason Eppink, CC license.)
A propos of nothing, have a Titanic. Amazingly, nobody at this Houston-area shindig noticed how offensive this was. The blow-up Challenger slide was already spoken for that day maybe? (Credit: Jason Eppink, CC license.)

The conference was called “Homosexuality: Compassion, Care, and Counsel for Struggling People.” It was accompanied by a pre-conference of a similar nature about transgender people*. The group sponsoring this exercise in desperation was the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC), so before we get started I want to talk about exactly what goes into becoming a bona fide Certified Biblical Counselor.

To achieve this lofty distinction, you need to spend about a thousand dollars on their special training, take a test, and fill out a $100 application fee; it takes about a year to complete all the steps, which includes 50 sessions of “supervised counseling,” which can be completed by email or telephone (seriously) and ends with the candidate signing an “ACBC covenant” which specifically denies that “the findings of secular psychology make any essential contribution to biblical counseling” and which goes on to insist that secular psychology “cannot be integrated” with their brand of Jesus-flavored sugar water.

Once candidates agree in writing with that covenant and are approved by an unnamed agent within the ACBC, a shadowy process which itself is not specifically detailed in any way that I can find, they get their certifications and are thereby all set to start “counseling” people about the most intimate personal problems anyone can face.

By contrast, to become a licensed professional counselor in the State of Kentucky, you’ll need quite a lot more: a graduate degree of 60 semester hours that concentrates on material relevant to counselors, plus 400 freakin’ hours of internship and then 4000 hours (that was not a typo) of supervision before you’re fully licensed, 1600 of which has to be actual counseling.

And that’s not even becoming a full psychologist, which requires considerably more time and money–including a doctorate and 3600 hours of supervision.

The kicker?

Here are the requirements for becoming a licensed interior designer in Kentucky. (I’m using Kentucky because that’s where this blighted conference was held.) They want seven years of experience and education, with a minimum of a 4 year degree in interior design and two years of actual experience.

Yeah, it’s harder to become an interior decorator in Kentucky than it is to become an official Certified Biblical Counselor there.

(So if you have a significant other who keeps trying to drag you to one of these people as some kind of grand compromise to your request for couples therapy, now you have a solid reason to be very suspicious of this offer. They’re absolutely not “just like real therapists” except Jesus-flavored. They literally eschew and deny any and all advances in real therapy and findings in real psychology that contradict fundagelical talking points.)

Certified Biblical Counselors do have one advantage over licensed professional counselors and psychologists, however: they enjoy the clear blessing of the Southern Baptist Convention, which allowed them to have this little hoedown in the middle of the SBC’s largest seminary.

We’ve talked before about the uneasy relationship that right-wing Christianity has with psychiatry as a field. We’ve also talked about their need to inject Jesus into everything they do, whether Jesus really belongs there or not. And we’ve even talked about that time when the SBC spoke out against charlatans David Barton and Kenneth Copeland when they tried to claim that PTSD doesn’t really exist because the Bible doesn’t talk about it (no, really).

The SBC’s leaders know that PTSD exists and that real therapy rather than prayer helps people suffering from it, but for some reason they’re still clinging to the idea of “curing” gay people long past the time when reputable bodies of therapists and psychologists discarded the idea that orientation can be changed at all. I suppose PTSD doesn’t challenge evangelicals’ entire paradigm of how society should work in the same way that being gay does. PTSD sufferers don’t contradict evangelicals’ conceptualization of maleness and femaleness, of gender roles, of family, or of sexuality in quite the same way that LGBT people do simply by existing. There might be twice as many PTSD sufferers as LGBT people (8% of Americans have PTSD, versus 3.5% of the country identifying as LGBT), but PTSD sufferers still fit within the SBC’s worldview.

There’s another big difference between having PTSD and being gay: demonizingPTSD sufferers isn’t one of the SBC’s primary marker beliefs. The SBC refuses to establish a sex offenders registry because of its mewling insistence that their churches simply couldn’t do that because they are so innnnnnnnnnndependent and all, but the second someone tries to lead a church into truly accepting and loving gay people, the gloves come off and it abruptly turns out that SBC churches aren’t quite so independent after all.

So it makes sense for a conference like this one to be held on hallowed SBC ground. This venue choice makes a very strong statement about the denomination’s continued dedication to its own culture war–even as its own discriminatory policies continue to drive off young Christians by the truckload and alienate the church from American culture to the point where they’re having to export their hate to Africa and other parts of the world that aren’t quite as far along as the United States is with regard to human rights because hatred and discrimination just doesn’t sell as well here as it used to.

So now we’re all set to talk about the conference itself. And here I want to make something crystal-clear:

This conference is nothing but a series of vapid, ignorant talking points reinforcing evangelicals’ stance on matters related to gender and sexuality.

This is the wackiest anti-gay conference I think I’ve ever seen. Check out the conference schedule: they have six 75-minute-long “plenary sessions” that are each about some aspect of the evangelical culture war on gay people, but almost all the “breakout sessions” (which are optional talks peppered all through the day) are about totally unrelated topics. Ignoring for now that none of these people actually sound qualified to speak about any of this stuff, one can learn quite a lot about what went on from this schedule.

For $200 or so, seminar attendees could sit through a series of excruciating-sounding sermons about how awful and sad they think gayness is, interrupted by numerous “breakout” lecture topics that are little more than sermons about evangelicals’ various positions on other topics like drug usage, eating disorders, making wives more content with their lot as second citizens, counseling wives on how to put up with non-Christian spouses, finding ways to shame wives out of getting ickie abortions, making wives forgive adulterous husbands, making wives totally want more sex from their husbands, and of course “Strategies for Completing the ACBC Exam.”

I counted three breakout sessions that sounded like they had anything whatsoever to do with homosexuality at all, all with really gruesome titles: “Is Same-Sex Attraction Sinful?”, “Counseling and Homosexuality: A Case Study,” and “What if My Child Says They Are Gay? Counsel for Parents.” I’m not even sure I want to know what these bigots told parents to do if or when a child comes out to them.

The conference organizers take for granted that gay people are very sad about being gay, that being gay is just the worst, and that it is totally possible to “fix” gayness by either living a totally celibate life or becoming straight.

Indeed, that exact sentiment formed the opening of the video advertising the event:

Imagine being trapped behind a door you can’t open. You’ve tried looking for a key, but you can’t find one. You’ve tried forcing the door open, but you’re not strong enough. You begin to lose hope as fear and frustration overwhelm you. You begin to believe that no hope exists for a problem that you can’t solve.

How utterly offensive is that? (I’ll answer, because I’m just helpful that way: it’s really fucking offensive.) The video goes on to state that tons of gay people really “want to change,” and then blames “the cultural battle over homosexuality” as one big reason why gay people totally want to become straight. The conference organizers are utterly indifferent to the fact that right-wing Christians like them are actually the ones who started that war and perpetuate it even in the face of utter defeat, and that if some gay people do want to become straight, it’s largely because of Christian bullying like theirs.

The whole video is one demonstrably false and misleading talking point after another, all of it liberally sprinkled with dogwhistle terms like “same-sex attraction” and talk of being gay as “a sinful way of life,” and messianic imagery seasoned with hints of “Christian persecution” fantasies. It’s hard even to watch this much willful ignorance and blind hatred disguised as love. Worst of all, however, is their blithe assurance that Jesus Power can totally change someone’s sexual orientation.

I don’t think these “Certified Biblical Counselors” actually realize what they are really communicating in this video:

* They are saying that anyone who wants to be straight can be, by wishing hard enough.
But it can’t be just any kind of wishing. The person doing the wishing has to believe certain types of nonsense and say the nonsense in the correct ways to make the spell work. And the wish has to be the right kind of wish. If someone wishes, say, for the SBC to finally affirm gay rights or for the ACBC to figure out that their core assumptions about homosexuality are totally false, then the spell won’t work.

* Their magic spell incantations actually work.
It’s flabbergasting to me that Christians put so much faith in their religion’s teachings when there is no solid proof whatsoever that anything these leaders teach and preach about anything related to marriage, family, or sexuality actually consistently and reliably works out in reality the way they keep saying it does. I suppose double-blind, peer-reviewed studies are for all those ickie real psychologists, not official decoder-ring-equipped Certified Biblical Counselors.

* If people who wish the correct wish very hard but don’t become straight, then it’s their fault.
As with Christians’ usual song and dance around prayer, if the wish doesn’t come true then obviously the person doing the wishing didn’t do something correctly. So all those gay people who have spent nights crying aloud to “God” to make them straight by magic either didn’t really want to be straight after all, or they wished wrong, or they didn’t wish enough, or they had some shortcoming that made the wish impossible for an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent god–one who, remember, desperately wants all of his children to be “saved” and to live as sinless a life as possible–to fulfill.

They’re not ending the culture war, either–oh no! Never! They’re still 100% invested. They’re just restating their decades-old hatred of gay people in a slightly nicer way, with raised-up and knitted-together preacher eyebrows, Southern-accented whining about faith, and tons of big ol’ Jesus smiles. They might lament how saaaaaad they are that there’s this “cultural battle over homosexuality,” but these hypocrites aren’t saaaaaad enough to stop demonizing and lying about gay people or to stop bullying them.

What I am describing here is nothing less than the mythology of the entire “ex-gay movement,” all packed into a two-day conference celebrating willful ignorance and bigotry.

This, right here, is the narrative that evangelicals like the SBC enthusiastically embrace: that a gay person is particularly and peculiarly broken, that this damage is either chosen or inflicted by some injury or short-circuiting early in life, that this damage can be corrected so the gay person can be either cured of “same-sex attraction” to be left living a cold, lonely life of celibacy–or, in best-case scenarios, lying to some poor straight person about being cured, and that Jesus totally works miracles all the time.

It’s a convoluted mythology with way more failures than success stories, but you can imagine that the few people who can make claims about being success stories get trotted around like prize-winning show ponies even though, as one former “ex-gay” activist put it, “I’ve never met an ‘ex-gay’ man I thought was not still attracted to men and would not go back to gay relationships under the right circumstances.”

The ACBC and the SBC are not advocating anything really compassionate–or even, by their own standards, effective. They still think magic can cure gay people of their gayness; they just think they were using the wrong kind of magic before. Reparative therapy’s magic didn’t work, but Jesus magic is foolproof–except when it isn’t, at which point it’s all the gay person’s fault. Above all, the mythology and narrative must be preserved and defended.

All in all, I think I’d rather that Christians like the ACBC and SBC keep their relabeled “compassion” to themselves.

From what I can see, all fundagelicals have done is appropriated yet another big word they don’t understand and then distorted it so they can make their brand of hate, control, abuse, and bigotry sound more acceptable. The only thing their type of “compassion” has in common with real compassion is the general order of the letters making up the name.

But nobody but them has been fooled by these attempted redefinitions for a long time, and we sure aren’t going to start being fooled now. Fundagelicals can call what they’re saying and doing “compassionate” all they want–that doesn’t make it so. No amount of magical thinking, incantations, fancy apologetics, pure intentions, constant vain repetition, and vehement insistence will make something false into the truth. They’ll keep lying to themselves with the biggest, sweetest Jesus smiles they can muster, and we’ll just keep thinking less and less of them and their entire noxious ideology–and if we’re sitting in their churches, then we’ll keep leaving their ranks in greater and greater numbers.

Only honesty, contrition, repentance, and true compassion could save them now, which is why they are going to fail: their entire religion and worldview is constructed around the dead opposites of those attributes, and they only value them in the abstract redefined way they have now. Real change would involve the total dismantling of the entire fundagelical machine, starting with its bizarro-world and demonstrably false ideas about gender, sexuality, and relationships–as defined perfectly by this conference’s lecture topics. But that’s the one thing their leaders are simply not willing to do even as their religion crashes and burns around their ears.

This conference tells us that evangelicals are heading straight for irrelevance without a single pause in their steps. They are nowhere near examining themselves for error yet. They still think they are in the right, and that extra-hard magical thinking will make everyone else realize they are.

In our dreams, we are free indeed.

Enjoy these days, friends; this conference is a visible sign of the roller coaster’s first big drop.


* A transgender person is someone who identifies as a different sex than the assignment they were given at birth. If you were assigned a sex at birth that you still identify as later, then you are cisgender. Here’s an interesting related post from Dan Fincke about these and other labels.

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