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Clergy Bully From the Pulpit

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Rev. Charles L. Worley of the Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden, N.C., during a recent sermon, argued for the building of a large fence some 150 miles long to contain "lesbians" in one section and "homosexuals and queers" in another section. "And have that fence electrified till they can't get out," he continued. "Feed 'em. And you know what? In a few years they'll die out. Do you know why? They can't reproduce." The Sunday following Worley's sermon going viral on YouTube, his congregation gave him a standing ovation in support for his directives.

Rev. Sean Harris of Berean Baptist Church of Fayetteville, N.C., loudly and vehemently lectured during his sermon on Sunday, April 29, 2012, that parent's must enforce strict gender-role behaviors, their duty before God, on their children. "Dads," Harris commanded, "the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and you crack that wrist. Man up! Give him a good punch." He directed fathers to say to their sons, "OK? You're not going to act like that. You were made by God to be a male, and you are going to be a male." He also instructed that parents should be "squashing that like a cockroach." He warned that "the word of God makes it clear that effeminate behavior is ungodly." And to parents directing their daughters, Harris shouted and flailed, "And when your daughter starts acting too butch, you rein her in, and you say, 'Oh, no. Oh, no, sweetheart. You can play sports. Play them. Play them to the glory of God. But sometimes you're going to act like a girl, and walk like a girl, and talk like a girl, and smell like a girl, and that means you're going to be beautiful. You're going to be attractive. You're going to dress yourself up!'" Though he later retracted and apologized for the tenor of his arguments, he reiterated his basic premise "that parents have a responsibility to maintain the gender distinction that God created in them." This, he said, is a message for which he will never apologize.

Rev. Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., and his followers travel around the country protesting funerals of fallen soldiers (most of whom are apparently heterosexual), claiming that these deaths are God's punishment against a country that tolerates homosexuality. Phelps is also notorious for his 1998 protest of the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a college student from the University of Wyoming in Laramie murdered in a brutal homophobic assault. On his website, godhatesfags.com, Phelps made an ironic and perverse connection, here linking his own version of homophobia with anti-Jewish oppression. Phelps and company directed their protests a few summers back in my home state of Iowa against "the Jews ... [who] arrested, falsely accused, prosecuted and then sentenced [Jesus] to death...," and against the state of Iowa itself, because "God hates Iowa" for being "the first to begin giving $ to little [homosexual] perverts for no other reason than they brag about being little perverts."

While not many would doubt that Reverends Worley's, Harris', and Phelps' words and actions go well beyond civil discourse and represent religious dogma and intolerance taken to an extreme, the critical question to be asked here is: In what ways have some Christian denominations' biblical interpretations of same-sex relationships and gender-nonconformity paved the way for members of the Providence Road Baptist Church, the Berean Baptist Church, and the Westboro Baptist Church, among many other churches too numerous to name, to spew their particularly objectionable brand of invective? In other words, how have other denominations been complicit in promoting institutional and societal heterosexism and transgender oppression?

While a number of Christian denominations have and are currently defending the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, and are openly welcoming them into their congregations, and some into the ranks of their clergy, a number of the more conservative denominations have released official statements, doctrines, and policies in opposition. I include some selective examples:

Catholic Catechism #2357 (1997):

Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life [reproduction]. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

Southern Baptist Convention's "Resolution on Homosexuality and the United States Military" (2010):

RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention ... affirm the Bible's declaration that homosexual behavior is intrinsically disordered and sinful, and we also affirm the Bible's promise of forgiveness, change, and eternal life to all sinners (including those engaged in homosexual sin) who repent of sin and trust in the saving power of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

Evangelical Covenant Church's "Resolution on Sexuality," adopted 1996:

We human beings misuse God's creation of sexuality and distort its role in our lives. In I Corinthians 6:9-10 and Romans 1:24-27, Scripture succinctly declares this sin and God's judgment on it. Throughout the Scriptures we see how sin in sexual relationships damages relationship with God and others. We live in a society characterized by imperfect and sinful sexual relationships of many kinds. ... Evangelical Covenant Church resolution to care for persons involved in sexual sins such as adultery, homosexual behavior, and promiscuity compassionately recognizing the potential of these sins to take the form of addiction.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' "Handbook of Instructions":

Homosexual behavior violates the commandments of God, is contrary to the purposes of human sexuality, distorts loving relationships, and deprives people of the blessings that can be found in family life and in the saving ordinances of the gospel. Those who persist in such behavior or who influence others to do so are subject to Church discipline. Homosexual behavior can be forgiven through sincere repentance.

While these official policies are seemingly less venomous than Worley's, Harris', and Phelps' invectives, are they any less inflammatory? Are they any less capable of inciting, rationalizing, and justifying harassment, bullying, and violence? Next time we want simply to dismiss these and other "extremists" as "just a bunch of crazy fanatics," let us investigate the fuller picture by addressing where these attitudes and behaviors stem from.

The concept of oppression, then, constitutes more than the cruel and repressive actions of individuals upon others, such as the actions and words of Worley, Harris, and Phelps and their followers. It involves an overarching system of differentials of social power and privilege by dominant groups over subordinated groups based on ascribed social identities and reinforced by unequal social group status. And this is not merely the case in societies ruled by coercive or tyrannical leaders but occurs, according to Iris Marion Young, within the day-to-day practices of contemporary democratic societies such as the United States.

Anyone can believe anything they wish, including that same-sex attraction and expression and gender nonconformity allegedly goes against "God's plan" and that anyone who engages in same-sex "behavior" and/or transgender identification and expression are "sinners," "sodomites," "perverts," or any of the numerous other epithets they lodge, and that we will go to Hell unless we "repent." Sure, they may believe what they will. Beliefs are one's rights to hold. However, the expression of those beliefs onto an individual or group of individuals is a form of oppression, especially when intended to deny LGBT people (or Jews or blacks, among many other groups) their human and civil rights, and is, therefore, a form of complicity with those at these offending churches. By so doing, they are exerting power and control by attempting to define the "other." They are attempting to deprive us of our agency and our subjectivity. They are attempting to control our bodies and our minds.

With religious rights come responsibilities, and with actions come reactions. Whenever clergy pronounce and preach their conservative dogma on sexuality and gender expression, they must take responsibility for the bullying, harassment, violence against and suicides of LGBT people in their congregations, communities, and country. Therefore, we have a right -- no, an obligation -- to counter this destructive and, yes, oppressive discourse with all the voices, the energy, the unity, the intelligence, and all the love of which we are capable.

This is no simple "disagreement." It is instead a fight for our very survival, and especially for the survival of our youth, who must struggle on a daily basis in their homes, schools, communities, and, yes, their churches against the negatively and assaults on their identities, their bodies, and their souls. The continuing spate of LGBT youth suicides was only the most visible tip of the continuing long-term epidemic of young people who live in a society that teaches them to hide and to hate themselves.

Many well-intentioned and loving ministers and congregants who diametrically oppose and condemn the words and actions of the likes of Worley, Harris, and Phelps I am sure believe that they may be offering members of LGBT communities "the gift of Jesus" in their attempts to "bring us out of the 'homosexual lifestyle.'" I have met many of these loving people with good intentions. We must, however, separate "intent" from "impact": their intent may be well-meaning, but their impact is, yes, oppressive, going back to my discussion of power, subordination, control, and the denial of agency and subjectivity.

The issue of slavery became a lightning rod in the 1840s among members of the Baptist General Convention, and in May 1845, 310 delegates from the Southern states convened in Augusta, Ga., to organize a separate Southern Baptist Convention on a pro-slavery plank. Delegates asserted as one of their religious "values" that God had condoned the institution of slavery, and to be a good Christian, one must support slavery and not work as an abolitionist. They cited scripture to justify their position, citing, for example, Ephesians 6:5-6:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.

And 1 Timothy 6:1-2:

Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful to them on the ground that they are members of the church; rather they must serve them all the more, since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved.

In fact, many slave ships had on board a Christian minister to help oversee and bless the passage. Slave ship names included "Jesus," "Grace of God," "Angel," "Liberty," and "Justice."

One-hundred and fifty years later, in June 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention officially apologized to African Americans for its support and collusion with the institution of slavery (regarding it now as an "original sin"), and also apologizing for its rejection of civil rights initiative of the 1950s and 1960s:

WHEREAS, Many of our congregations have intentionally and/or unintentionally excluded African-Americans from worship, membership, and leadership; and ... Be it further RESOLVED, That we apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime....

I believe that the prime factor keeping oppression toward LGBT people locked firmly in place and enacted throughout our society -- on the personal/interpersonal, institutional, and societal levels -- is the negative judgments emanating from certain faith communities. Fortunately, however, there exists no monolithic conceptualization, for other faith communities' "values" are progressively welcoming toward LGBT people, our sexuality, and our gender expression, and these communities are working tirelessly to abolish the yoke of oppression directed against us.

A central tenet of liberation is the right of people to self-define, to maintain their subjectivity and agency over the course of their lives. With our loving allies within progressive religious communities in addition to those unaffiliated with religious denominations, we are taking back the discourse and demanding that religious institutions curb their offensive dogma and take their interpretations of scripture off our bodies. I ask, however, how long will it take for conservative Christian and other religious denominations to apologize to LGBT people, and to take responsibility for their religious rights.