On the day of the funeral for Matthew Shepherd, the gay Wyoming college student who was savagely beaten to death outside a bar in 1998, the Westboro Baptist Church showed up with signs that read "Matt in Hell." They marched outside the service held at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Casper, Wyoming. They yelled hateful things at the people there to honor a life cut short. Matthew Shepard's ashes were not interred until nearly 20 years later, when he was finally laid to rest at the Washington National Cathedral. His mother had feared his grave would be desecrated, simply because her son was openly gay.
Religion and the LGBTQ+ community have a sordid history, one fraught with abuse, bigotry, and discrimination. Churches of all kinds are well known for their policing of what they deem to be unsavory lifestyle choices. The LGBTQ+ community has been especially targeted by religious zealots, including abusive conversion therapy programs. Recent crackdowns on LGBTQ+ "lifestyles" from church-based institutions tell a story of deep-seated religious influence in the mainstream population.
Our country was founded, in large part, on the idea of religious liberty. Over the centuries since our Constitution was brought into being, promising a separation of church and state in its First Amendment, the pendulum has swung wildly in terms of religious fervor among the electorate. One constant has been the unspoken supremacy of white, evangelical Christian theism in law-making and moral policing. While it may be easy to dismiss radical religious sects like the Westboro Baptist Church as outliers, that level of extremism seems to gradually become the norm.
Broken Bread and Contradictions
Mitchell Kesller, author of the book “Broke the Bread, Spilled the Tea,” has long addressed what he sees as stark hypocrisies in the Biblical message of Christianity versus the message handed down from church leaders to the LGBTQ+ community. "For a long time, I struggled to separate who God is from the church," Kesller says in his book, "Initially, all the hurt I faced with the church led me to want to abandon God altogether. I felt as though everything I had lived was a lie. I believed God was indeed on their side, even though the church often contradicts so much of what Jesus commanded."
The contradictions between modern church dogma and the teaching of the very man Christian churches profess to follow is one of the main sticking points of LGBTQ+ activists fighting to be heard and released from oppressive church overreach. The main argument of activists is that the Bible doesn't address homosexuality as forbidden by Jesus Christ and when confronted by a deep analysis of cultural and linguistic context, more doubt is shed on the true meaning of the texts that allegedly condemn homosexuality. Jesus never spoke on the subject of same-sex attraction or gender identity. So, when policies and statements being put into place to discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community in schools and other institutions, it’s not based in Christian principles, but in long-outdated dogmas made by man.
Ancient Assumptions for Modern Issues
Recently, Lee University, a private Christian university in Tennessee, had their "Statement of Belief" leaked to the public. This document, which according to the college was under review, outlined and sought to reaffirm the college's position on gay relationships, openly gay faculty and staff, gender affirming dress and actions, as well as the "Biblical truth" that God made only man and woman. A statement from a university spokesperson said that the document was not new policy, but rather a reaffirmation of the school's belief system — one that they maintained was entirely Biblical.
When asked to quote from the Bible texts about God's position on homosexuality, the basis for the document's guidelines, the spokeswoman quoted Genesis: "Lee University acknowledges that God created humans as male and female in His image (Genesis 1:26-27); He himself called what He made "very good" (Genesis 1:31)."
"It was always intriguing to me to consider why Jesus never once said a word on the topic of homosexuality," said Kesller. "In my mind I thought, ‘If it's truly so bad, why didn't Jesus say a single word about it during a time where it was commonplace in Greco-Roman cultures, and in certain circumstances it was even embraced?
The term "homosexuality" was not coined until the late 19th Century. Christian churches have worked under the assumption that Jesus and his Disciples, while spreading the "Good Word" around 1st-century Palestine, would have looked down on the practice of gay sex. However, nothing is ever mentioned about it within the teachings of Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament book of Leviticus, it is stated that "man should not lie with man" and to do so is an "abomination." In his book, Kesller points out a tremendous fallacy of contextualization. He went on to comment, “this is a prime example of modern man trying to ignore thousands of years of history and culture to fit scripture into their agenda.” Likewise, the same book of Leviticus also says eating shellfish and mixing certain fabrics are “abominations,” and people still show up to church picnics with shrimp cocktails in poly-blend church clothes. No one bats an eyelash, as the modern church has established that some abominations outrank others through "Statements of Belief."
The modern Christian church has long cherry-picked sections of the Bible that they found to be the definitive word of God from which devotees should not deviate. The anti-LGBTQ+ stance of the modern church has held fast to this one mention of "man lying with man" in Leviticus, as it's really all they have to bolster anti-LGBTQ+ policies, such as the one leaked from Lee University. The passages from Genesis quoted by the spokesperson from the college do not delve into issues of gender, or even that God stopped at the man and woman binary when he was creating life. The simple scientific existence of chromosomally intersex individuals stands in the way of this interpretation of Genesis. Although, that scientific fact seems to have gone ignored.
"You cannot make one Bible verse law while diminishing the validity of the others surrounding it," says Kesller.
The Truth Will Set You Free
Lee University is not alone in its eyebrow-raising anti-LGBTQ+ statements. In the last decade, the Evangelical Christian church has seemingly doubled down on its assertion that there is only one way to live a Christ-centered existence, and being gay isn't it.
This month, the Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which oversees 101 Catholic schools in the Milwaukee area, released a new policy outlining its approach to homosexuality and gender. The new policy seems to directly address the uptick in anti-transgender rhetoric coming from the Evangelical Christian Right. The policy addresses what sports children are allowed to play (those that align with their sex as assigned at birth), the use of preferred pronouns (forbidden), and the demand that only a person's "biological sex" be recognized. The heading of the new directive? "The truth will set you free."
With the release of statements such as those from Lee University, people may be tempted to say that homophobic policy is the church's right. After all, churches have a Constitutional right to practice their religion as they see fit. However, history has shown us the danger of such policies to the non-Christian population and their influence over legislation. The assertion that the modern Christian church's opinion is the "truth," and the only right path to a full life and eventual salvation, has long bolstered the power of the church. The tentacles of that power have reached far beyond the church walls time and again.
Jerry Falwell, leader of the Moral Majority in the 1980s, heavily influenced the Republican platform during Ronald Reagan's run for the 1984 election. His fiery pulpit speeches against the homosexual community and AIDS led directly to Reagan's lack of action on the AIDS pandemic. Reagan did not even speak the words "AIDS" until 1985. By then, thousands had died. It is not the only example of Christian theocracy melding with politics, ultimately causing harm. The overreach continues to this day with issues affecting LGBTQ+ people, abortion rights, race, and education. The wall between church and state has effectively been eroded. Soon, they may be non-existent.
As Mitchell Kesller finished writing the last pages of his book about his experience as an LGBTQ+ person in the modern Christian church, the state of Florida passed the so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill, which outlines what public schools can teach in terms of human sexuality. In part, the bill reads: "Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards."
The bill further outlines that school administration can approach parents if they feel their children are exhibiting signs of being LGBTQ+. Even though the proponents of the bill stated that the government put it into place not to discriminate against gay people, but to save young children from "grooming" and inappropriate content, the repercussions of the bill to the LGBTQ+ community have already come fast and furiously. The bill has not yet gone into effect, but the serious consequences are already being felt.
After a discussion with middle school students about Pride Flags, a Florida art teacher was fired on April 18. Recently, a group of students from Seminole County, Florida won a fight to keep pictures of a Pride Rally in their yearbook from being censored. The school had wanted to place stickers over the pictures as they found them "inappropriate."
"The terroristic rhetoric of the legislation opens up opportunities for kids to be placed in situations of severe harm if they are forced to come out to their families before they're ready," Kesller says about the bill.
We are living in a time when the pendulum of far-Right Christian power is swinging wildly. Laws, statements, and policies are far more draconian and harken back to the days before the Stonewall Riots. The Evangelical Christian church has not been shy about its intent to make its word nationwide rule. As the litany of anti-gay policies, statements, and legislation has shown us, they are succeeding far more than failing.