Fred Phelps and conservative Christians: Not so different

I recently watched The Education of Shelby Knox, a documentary about a high school girl of the same name from Lubbock, Texas, raised in a very Republican and conservative Southern Baptist family.  (Definitely recommended, and it’s on Netflix instant watch.)  The film tracks Knox’s unlikely evolution into a youth activist for comprehensive sex education in high schools and LGB rights.  It was pretty interesting to watch another young woman work through some of the same questions that forced me to reconsider the beliefs I was raised with, and end up in more or less the same place (Knox is now a feminist organizer and blogger).

In one of the key moments in the film, Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church comes to Lubbock to “protest” student attempts to form a gay-straight alliance in the local high school.  Out of the myriad hateful comments and signs there, I was particularly struck by a young woman smiling widely, carrying a sign with a picture of Matthew Shepard, whic read: “Matt: 5 years in hell.”

I’ve heard a lot of conservative Christians claim that Fred Phelps doesn’t speak for them, that they don’t agree with him, that his church preaches a God of hate, while “true” Christianity – their version of Christianity – preaches a God of “love.”  And ok, there are some differences in belief, but these distinctions aren’t terribly impressive, unless one believes that cookies should be handed out for not yelling at people who are mourning their dead.

In it’s essence, what “mainstream” conservative Christians believe about LGB people is no different from what Fred Phelps believes about them.  I don’t know (or at least, I don’t think I know) anyone from my old fundamentalist life who would walk around with a sign stating that a brutally murdered gay man is in hell, much less openly gloat about it.  But apart from a very small handful of people, everyone I know from my former churches certainly believes that Matthew Shepard is in hell, along with anyone who died while living a “homosexual lifestyle.”  The fact that they don’t walk around with signs declaring this doesn’t make their beliefs any less hateful.

I grew up around these folks.  Many of the Christians I knew were willing to state openly their beliefs that homosexuality should be a capital crime, that LGB people are child molesters or rapists given the opportunity, or that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality.  This wasn’t so long ago.  Not everyone I grew up around believed such things, and I think it’s probably the case that such beliefs are on the decline in fundamentalist evangelicalism.  However, I have no doubt that many in these circles still think similar things today, in private (they’re homophobic, not clueless).  These beliefs have never been explicitly retracted or condemned in any of the communities I was part of.

A few isolated people – even some relatively prominent ones – have “repented” of being ignorant and fearful of LGB people, of being deceitful in their representation of them, and have even admitted to sinning in how they responded to the emergence of AIDS.  And many prominent evangelical pastors today are downright skittish when it comes to the once ubiquitous rhetoric of “perversion” and divine punishment, favoring instead phrases like “sexual confusion” and “struggling with same sex attraction,” and talking about how homosexuals need “compassion” and “truth spoken in love” from Christians.  They’re kind enough to teach that it isn’t a sin to be attracted to members of the same sex – just so long as you remain celibate for life or pray away the gay.

Considering how explicitly violent and vindictive conservative Christian rhetoric on homosexuality was not ten years ago, these are pretty significant changes, happening at breakneck speed.  But they shouldn’t be mistaken for changes in core beliefs or outlook.  They’re adaptive changes, made in response to rapidly changing attitudes towards LGB people in “secular” society.  Conservative Christianity is nothing if not flexible.  Fifty years ago pastors in Al Mohler’s position today were railing against racial integration; a hundred years ago it was women getting the vote.  Curiously enough, folks back then also believed that the supposedly inerrant Bible clearly supported their reactionary views.  Nowadays they pretend as though they were always opposed to segregation and always cool with female suffrage, all while citing the same Bible to prop up their homophobia.  They’re incredibly good at erasing and rewriting their sordid history, and covering up nasty realities with a respectable face.

The only difference between WBC and its conservative Christian detractors is that the Phelpses publicly and loudly proclaim their belief that all LGB people will burn in hell, while the rest of the religious right recognizes that it’s no longer socially acceptable to air such beliefs in public, or in polite company.  Given the cover of anonymity, or the privacy afforded by spaces where they are surrounded by like-minded Christians, folks on the religious right are much more candid. I was reminded of this as I was browsing through Jesus Needs New PR’s year end review and came across this comment on a post about Oral Robert’s gay grandson:

I do not believe that GBLT people are going to Heaven, sorry. I am not going to go up to a homosexual and scream and yell in their face that they are wrong. Jesus repeatedly loved the sinner, but hated the sin. If we as a church could show love to the GLBT community, maybe they would give a thought to turning from their ways. If God destroyed Sodom for what they were doing, what makes you think homosexuality is ok?

Which is better, yelling and picketing with a message that God will condemn every LGB person to torture in hell for choosing to be our authentic selves, or holding that belief in private, while claiming that you and your God “love” LGB people in spite of who they are and whom they love?   The latter is no more loving, no more rational.   It’s cynical self-preservation, conforming to accepted social norms in order to maintain the appearance of respectability.  So please, conservative Christians, stop insisting that you’re any less anti-gay than Fred Phelps.  You’re not.

9 Comments

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Fred Phelps and conservative Christians: Not so different « Are Women Human? -- Topsy.com

  2. The “safe space” attitude that comment from Jesus Needs New PR exemplifies is exactly why I stand up for queer folks on there and on SFL. People get on those sites and just assume that everyone else reading shares their views. It’s interesting to watch how they react when the rest of the readership does not rise up to support their hateful opinions. They accuse people of not really being Christians, of being liberal (like that’s a sin), and of course they cry “persecution!” I’ve seen a quote, something like “To the privileged, equality feels like oppression.”

    I think it’s important that the anti-GLBT religious people know that Christians see them for who they are and that we do not approve, and that we will not look the other way while they hate in the name of love.

    I do believe that we are on the edge of a shift in mainstream Biblical interpretation like we’ve had with slavery, racism, and are still in the midst of with sexism. I am optimistic that in 50 years it will be as unthinkable to exclude a gay couple from a church as it now is to exclude a biracial couple.

    • Yes, I think it’s incredibly important that pro-LGBT Christians be very vocal about their support. A huge part of the problem with institutionalized homophobia in the church is that the people who disagree with homophobic teachings keep quiet about this. I’m not pointing fingers – I did the same thing for years before I left the church. I was completely muzzled when it came to speaking honestly about what I believed on LGBT rights and gender equality because of all I’d been indoctrinated into believing Christianity HAD to be. That was one of many reasons I realized I couldn’t be a Christian any more. I’m very grateful for people who are able to speak up from within the church in a way I wasn’t able to.

      “To the privileged, equality feels like oppression.” I’ve seen that quote too. It’s so true.

      I am optimistic that in 50 years it will be as unthinkable to exclude a gay couple from a church as it now is to exclude a biracial couple.

      I think you’re right. I wish it would be a shift that would happen because the church was actually convicted of error, not because of societal pressure . . .

  3. One reason why the “love the sinner, hate the sin” rhetoric doesn’t work (aside from it just being a horrible message anyway) is because it’s purpose is to separate from those like Fred Phelps while still maintaining a stance against gays. I’ve only seen it come out of the mouths of those who try to find the words that will make what they believe acceptable to others.

    I’ve met a lot of “love the sinner, hate the sin” who can listen to a blatantly hateful religious leader and not even bat an eye – but will squirm uncomfortably at a someone preaching love with no qualifiers and consider that person a “weak Christian”. I have conversations with Christians who will concede with me on certain points – until you put them together in a room and then you can almost here the audible sighs of relief like “Finally! We get to say what we really think about all the Evil People Who Aren’t Like Us.”

    The thought process is “Oh, if we speak things ‘in love’ that will win people over to the wonderful news of the gospel – not realizing that you can wrap the message up any way you like – but it still is hateful, and still isn’t love.

    • I’ve met a lot of “love the sinner, hate the sin” who can listen to a blatantly hateful religious leader and not even bat an eye – but will squirm uncomfortably at a someone preaching love with no qualifiers and consider that person a “weak Christian”.

      Yea. Very telling.

  4. Angie the Anti-Theist says:

    Great article, but I just have to ask, why LGB? Are transpersons not part of your accepting world, or did you just separate the T from LGBT because even Christians who accept sexual orientation often don’t accept gender orientation?

    Thanks for answering.

    • Many trans people I’ve interacted with find it to be erasing of their identities when people use “LGBT” when they really are talking only about sexual orientation. It can also confuse issues by implying that sexual orientation has anything to do with gender identity, when it does not. Since this post was specifically about sexuality, I used LGB.

      • Again, thank you very much for answering! :)

      • I understood the distinction you made and why you made it, Grace. It makes good sense to be precise when talking to people who understand such distinctions.

        I personally don’t mind being lumped in with the GLB folks when it comes to combating hateful religious morons. They conflate transsexualism and homosexuality so to them I’m just another fag to hate.