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.