Recently, a hate-filled religious extremist walked into a nightclub in Orlando, Florida and shot dozens of people because he’d internalized his indoctrination’s ideas about them. My heart goes out to the victims of this senseless assault and to the LGBTQ community.
The gunman involved was a Muslim, but his beliefs echo that of any fundamentalist Christian and may well have opened a lot of necessary conversations about exactly what Christianity’s anti-gay bigotry is doing to gay people in America. The death toll was already inexcusable thanks to Christians’ continued polarization and hostility toward LGBTQ people in the wake of their own continued losses of power and dominance.
As we discussed last time, Christians’ condemnation and persecution of gay people is not only quickly becoming one of their core distinguishing beliefs, but it’s also becoming one of the beliefs they’re fighting the hardest to protect–and arguably the belief that is costing them the most in terms of both adherents and credibility. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a single other belief for right-wing Christians that is costing them as much as this one is. Today I’ll touch on why this belief is so hard for right-wing Christians to shake–and why Preston Sprinkle, in his book People to Be Loved, is starting his quest for understanding by asking the wrong question.
A Backfired Culture War.
When one considers all the liabilities associated with Christians’ beliefs about homosexuality being morally wrong and how much it’s starting to cost them, one might imagine it’d be an easy one to dial down. Anti-gay bigotry has, after all, nothing whatsoever to do with loving one’s neighbor or worshiping Jesus. But to the contrary, one only has to visit any right-wing Christian blog or any comment section about anti-gay Christian bigotry to discover hordes of Christians who are all vehemently defending their religion’s anti-gay stance and confusing it with “religious liberty,” a code-word that people are increasingly learning is simply a dogwhistle for bigotry-for-Jesus.
The more people accuse bigoted Christians of being, well, bigoted, the more upset those Christian bigots become at that characterization. And I can see why, for what it’s worth. They’ve learned that bigots are bad people, and they certainly don’t want to think of themselves as bad people. They think that Jesus himself told them to be bigots, and anything Jesus orders them to do is good, right? So how can they be fulfilling his commands and still be bad people?
They can’t, obviously.
So a peculiar sort of mental gymnastics gets done in Christians’ heads that allows them to think of themselves as wonderfully good people while at the same time believing in truly awful ideas that inform their behavior in truly awful ways. They decide that as long as they say the horrible things they want to say with big Jesus smiles painted on their faces, and as long as they have their eyebrows drawn up appropriately squinchy and their heartache is obvious at having to be so cruel and judgmental, then it’s okay to behave in horrible ways to certain groups of people. Why, it’s for their own good! And if all these poor sinners don’t hear the Truth from TRUE CHRISTIANS™, they might not ever hear it at all! (You’ll notice that “Jesus” needs a lot of help getting his message out. It’s so weird.)
As long as Christians can redefine this behavior as “loving” and it fits within their leaders’ carefully-outlined instructions and their culture’s expectations, then they can keep doing the horrible things they wanted to do anyway and yet still believe that they are wonderful and good people. They’ve lowered the standard far enough to meet it.
The problem, they are sure, is never their beliefs. The problem is how those beliefs manifest in the Christians who are behaving violently and advocating violence. No proper TRUE CHRISTIAN™ would ever, ever, ever actually want to see violence erupt toward anybody, we hear every single time exactly this occurs. Anybody who’d take their teachings and think it means “go be cruel to gay people” is obviously doing Christianity all wrong, they’d be the first to tell us, and is therefore not a TRUE CHRISTIAN™.
No, proper Christians take those teachings and restrict themselves to squinching up their eyebrows and looking pained while informing gay people that they are going to Hell–delivering “the truth in love,” as you’ll hear them say, often and passionately, because obviously they cannot be loving without loudly proclaiming that gay people are intrinsically broken and screwed-up and that their “lifestyle” will result in meteors hitting the planet, in America turning Communist, and quite possibly Armageddon to erupt everywhere. Nor can Christians think of themselves as “loving” without being allowed to legally discriminate against gay people for their sin of wanting full equal civil rights as straight people get and full protection from these TRUE CHRISTIANS’™ harassment and cruelty.
“Love,” as Jesus laid it out, obviously means that they must do all of this, and more, and worse.
A Rotten Tree Bearing Corrupted Fruit.
Christians don’t approach moral questions the same way other folks do. They see the world in terms of “stuff Jesus said to do” and “stuff Jesus said not to do,” with varying degrees of strictness regarding exactly what Jesus said since he didn’t actually say that much about anything, and we have no way whatsoever to know for sure that he, if he existed at all, said anything in the Gospels that is attributed to him by anonymous authors writing many decades after his supposed lifetime. A lot of what he’s thought to have said is stuff that is taken on faith that he really said it.
Add to this existing confusion the further confusion of countless fragments of Bible shards and translations of translations of translations of translations that we’ve cobbled together into various Bible versions, and you have quite a mess on your hands.
It’s all but impossible to say for sure what this hodgepodge of a book really says about anything at all.
So two groups of Christians can start with the Bible and decide that it should settle all modern questions of morality for everyone, and both of them might be equally fervent about doing what the Bible has Jesus commanding, and they can both still come out with radically different interpretations of the material. One group might decide that Jesus meant to affirm some ideas, while another might decide that he obviously meant to condemn those exact same ideas.
It used to floor me to see Christians referring to the exact same Bible verses at times to justify their differing opinions–and to condemn other opinions as inferior and obviously “rebellious.”
Best of all, though, these radically differing interpretations can come from using the exact same version and translation of the Bible. Many churches smugly and thunderously idolize a particular type of Bible–usually the King James Version (KJV)–and consider their favorite version the only divinely-approved Bible. Using anything else gets seen as rebellion or worse. And even then, working from the exact same verses, denominations can still face schisms over arguments about what it all means.
About the only thing that such Christians tend to agree on is that a “good tree bears good fruit,” as the Bible says in Matthew 7:17 and elsewhere, while a rotten tree bears corrupted fruit that isn’t fit for eating. The idea is meant to be a sort of catch-all examination standard that lets Christians test their ideas. Someone who is angry, aggressive, violent, dishonest, and cruel is showing “bad fruit,” meaning that whatever theology or doctrines that person is following are in error. By the same token, a Christian who is kind, loving, devoted, and compassionate is considered to be showing “good fruit,” meaning that this person is obedient to a properly-correct theology. (Non-Christians who show “good fruit” are often considered to be secretly Christian.)
The problem is, none of these Christians can compare that verse to anything they really want to do to see what its results are in the real world. Reality itself is no friend to fundagelicals or other extremists; they can’t measure their ideas up against the real world to see how they play out. If the ideas are thought to be divinely-mandated, then the ideas cannot be examined in such a way because they are always perfect and above reproach or even criticism. The problem is always going to be in execution, not in the concepts behind the actions. Extremists are forever chasing along behind after-the-fact cosmetic changes to the corrupt core of their broken systems. That is why Preston Sprinkle characterizes his tribe’s treatment of LGBTQ people as a “posture” problem.
But the concepts behind fundagelicals’ theology are, themselves, what get executed in actions and inform their posturing. More and more Christians are seeing what the rest of us saw years ago: when they create a gospel of separation and exclusion, when they say that a particular group isn’t “allowed” to do the same things that the most exalted group can do, when they try to set one exalted group up as the group that determines the rights and protections all other groups receive, there’s no way that can result in anything except those other groups being seen as inferior and contemptible. As lesser. As undeserving of respect or protection–or even of basic human dignity.
As a target.
But the more right-wing the Christian, the more of those groups exist in their worldview. Women. Children. People of nonwhite races. LGBTQ people. The disabled. The elderly.
There’ll always be hate-filled people who seek legitimacy, validation, and encouragement for their desire to rule over and hurt other people. “Jesus” sure isn’t helping lessen those numbers in the ranks of Christianity. Christians need to ensure that absolutely nothing they teach or preach gives those hate-filled people anything they need to keep abusing others.
So the question becomes, for non-affirming Christians*, whether or not their theology gives that ammunition to hate-filled bigots to mistreat the groups that have been excluded by their worldview from full rights and protections.
That, however, is not a question they want to answer–or even ask.
If you expect someone who makes his money from right-wing Christianity to even start asking that question, you’re going to be disappointed by this book.
“Am I Sure We’ve Got This One Right?
Preston Sprinkle, in the first chapter of People to Be Loved, describes a horrifying series of anecdotes told by young gay people, all of them detailing these people’s fear of Christians. He uses very strong words to describe their feelings (in all blockquoted material, emphases are in the original):
A gay friend of mine. . . told me that all the participants of his [Bible] study are hungry to know God’s Word but they are too scared to go to church. My friend didn’t say “uninterested” or “turned off” or “too busy.” He said “scared,” as in frightened. They feared they would be harassed or harmed, beat up or bullied–verbally or physically–if they stepped across the holy threshold on Sunday.
After hearing story after story just like that one, Dr. Sprinkle began to wonder if his indoctrination was correct about homosexuality. He relates that as he reads the Bible, he sees all kinds of people draw close to the message of Jesus, and no matter how broken or unclean or impure they are, “none walk away wanting to kill themselves.”
Alas, that’s exactly what he sees happening in Christianity: the people that experience the most concentrated doses of Christian “love” walk away “wanting to kill themselves.”
Instead of Christianity drawing close all the marginalized people and repelling the religious hypocrites of the day, as he sees in the Bible, his religion is instead repelling all the marginalized people and delighting the religious hypocrites of his day. He perceives this situation very clearly.
But then a curious thing happens in his head.
As the Night the Day.
This is important. This is exactly where a fundagelical goes wrong.
He sees all of the harm his religion is doing to LGBTQ people and all the horrible things happening to them as a direct result of what his religion is saying about and to LGBTQ people, and he comes out of it with the exact wrong question to ask.
His only questions are these:
Has the church handled the question of homosexuality with Christlike love? Are we sure we’ve understood what the Bible really has to say about same-sex relations?
He wants to make sure that his theology is correct on this matter, because if his theology is correct then the rest of the equation has to follow as the night the day. He writes that Christians “need to be thoroughly biblical because we desire to thoroughly love people.”
Right after that, he outlines what this book is going to cover: What exactly does the Bible have to say about a same-sex couple that follows the exact life script that an opposite-sex couple is expected to follow in his doctrine?
He decides that the real problem here is that people don’t know exactly what the Bible says about same-sex relationships. Once they know exactly what it says–either condemning or embracing these relationships, or even being totally silent about them–then they’ll obviously fall into line by becoming loving, gracious Christians just like he is.
He’s not asking “Why does my tribe’s doctrinal stance keep erupting into terrible treatment of the very people we should be embracing the most?”
He’s asking “Am I totally correct with my theology?” because he assumes that if he gets that answer correct, then he can teach his people to “responsibly address” all the questions his tribe asks about same-sex relationships. As we will see, his idea of “responsibly addressing” these questions consists of how to show bigotry without being outright labeled a bigot, and how to gain control of other people’s lives and express condemnation of them in a way that they won’t resent and reject.
But the time to “responsibly address” other people’s lives is long gone.
Christianity, along with other world religions, bears responsibility for creating a religious environment that treats LGBTQ people’s lives as collateral damage in their culture wars for supremacy over the world. The hate and vicious violence that extremists draw from Preston Sprinkle’s religious message can no longer be put down to a posture problem. Even characterizing Christian bigotry as simply a posture problem is offensive to the hearts of all good and moral people.
We’re going to talk next time about this weird disconnect and where he’s completely wrong about theology having nothing to do with the expression of hatred. See you then.
* Non-affirming Christians do not like the idea of giving LGBTQ people full rights and protections, and preach a theology of exclusion against them. They especially don’t like equal marriage and non-discrimination laws and campaign fervently against both. Affirming Christians are on board with LGBTQ rights and protections and do not agree with discriminatory practices or laws. Sometimes these two groups are called “Side A” and “Side B,” with Side A being affirming and Side B being non-affirming. And heartbreakingly, gay Christians themselves sometimes even show up on the non-affirming side.