Omaha Clerics’ Gay-Friendly Stance Contrasted to Southern Baptists’ Refusal to Apologize to Gays
The two faces of religion with respect to gays could not be more opposed than the efforts by clergy in Omaha, Nebraska, to end faith-based discrimination -- and the refusal by Southern Baptists to issue a mea culpa to LGBTs.
The Omaha clerics publicly introduced a proclamation on June 15 that called for a cessation of persecution and discrimination of gays by churches. While some denominations cite Biblical passages that appear to condemn same-sex relationships, others adopt a wider view of Scripture, taking into account the vagaries of translation from one language to another, as well as from culture to culture.
Moreover, as biblical experts have pointed out, a more comprehensive understanding of Scripture makes clear that even if the Bible issues proclamations about sexual activity between consenting adults of the same gender, the Good Book has far more to say about heterosexual divorce than it does about homosexual commitment.
Omaha area ministers will publicly unveil a proclamation on Wednesday calling for an end to religious and civil discrimination based on sexual orientation.
"[W]e were just fed up with the popular notion that the Christian point of view is anti-gay," said the Rev. Eric Elnes, reported Omaha news channel KETV on June 12.
Elnes, the pastor of Countryside Community Church -- which has a congregation of 1,500 -- went on to tell the news channel that gays are not only born that way, they are part of God’s plan.
"We believe homosexuality is not a sin," Elnes said. "It’s not a birth defect or a choice. God created people this way. And if God created them this way, they need to be honored for who they are, and fully included in church life and wider society."
The proclamation not only stated the validity of GLBTs in an ordered, godly universe, but also issued an apology to sexual minorities on behalf of the faith traditions that have treated them as second-class citizens and, through activism promoting anti-gay laws, sought to keep them that way.
"We felt it was important for us to apologize for the times when we ourselves have been silent," said Elnes, who made the proclamation a public affair in order to show gay-friendly Christians that they are not isolated and alone. "Some of us have not always been on this side of the issue," added the pastor.
But for some faith traditions, religiously based anti-gay sentiment is deeply and passionately rooted -- not to mention an all but intrinsic part of the theology and the hierarchy. Elnes said that when he created a similar proclamation several years ago while at a church in Arizona, he was joined by clerics from other denominations, including several Catholic priests. But the Catholic Church did not take kindly to the gesture of love and acceptance, and ordered the priests to remove their names or face a loss of their priestly status.
One local Catholic, Amy O’Connor, whose son is openly gay, has resolved the conflict between her conscience and the dogma of her church in a manner that many gay-friendly people have faith have done: by putting personal faith and family first.
"It’s not an issue of sexual orientation or gender identity," said O’Connor, who serves as a board member of the local chapter of PFLAG. "God loves everybody."
Though some believers say that they, too, love gays, their actions suggest otherwise. Anti-gay laws and ballot initiatives have garnered strong and vocal support from believers who say that gays should live under laws that reflect the teachings of their religious traditions -- even though other people of faith disagree.
A June 15 meeting between GLBT equality advocates and the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Bryant Wright, underscored the views that anti-gay denominations maintain regarding sexual minorities.
According to a June 15 story posted by the Baptist Press, Wright reached out to demonstrators from several groups, including faith-based groups the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists and Faith in America, and invited them into a respectful dialogue. The Southern Baptist Convention was in Phoenix, Arizona, for its annual meeting at the time.
One leader of the groups that met with Wright was a straight, married man named Jack McKinney, the article said. McKinney, himself a former cleric with the Southern Baptist denomination, is with Faith in America.
"We’re a coalition of groups asking the SBC to acknowledge and apologize for the damage that the convention has done to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people," said McKinney, who delivered a petition with 10,000 signatures to Wright. "We come today to ask for an apology for that and for a pledge that those kinds of teachings would come to an end."
But the gulf of understanding between the two groups -- one relying on the personal experiences of a maligned demographic, the other citing ancient writings -- quickly became evident. Wright declined to offer any such apology to GLBTs on behalf of the denomination, saying that his faith’s stance on gays sprang from biblical teachings about "sexual purity."
"As followers of Christ, our only authority for practicing our faith is Scripture, is the Word of God," Wright said. "As followers of Christ it would be very difficult for us to betray our faith by ignoring what God says about sexual purity."
Wright added that his message was based on love, and that it was the same for all who fall short of the "sexual purity" he cited.
"When I teach from the pulpit about adultery, I don’t hate adulterers," Wright told the group. "Just as we have people attending our local church that are engaging in homosexual activity, we have people attending our church who are engaging in adultery."
One issue Wright did not directly address was heterosexual divorce -- even though the Bible makes it clear that to divorce and remarry is to practice a form of adultery in God’s eyes.
But evangelical faith leaders generally gloss over what the Bible has to say about heterosexual "purity." This, suggested biblical expert Jonathan Dudley, is not accidental, but pragmatic: religious leaders must point a finger at groups that lie outside of their core audience when rallying their flocks, otherwise they risk alienating the faithful.
Under biblical authority, an adulterous wife could be stoned; as for divorce, the Bible condemns it in no uncertain terms, whereas all but one reference to gay relationships are subject to multiple interpretations, and that single uncontested reference to what we now call homosexuality is comparatively mild when held up against what the Bible has to say about straight couples divorcing.
"Although the New Testament contains one uncontested reference to some form of same-sex intercourse, it contains five unambiguous condemnations of divorce," Dudley told EDGE. "The earliest occurs in the gospel of Mark, where Jesus declares: ’Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.’
"This general prohibition is repeated once in Luke and twice in Matthew, where a possible exception is made only in the case of adultery," continued Dudley, who trained as a divinity student at Yale and went on to author a book about how the Bible is distorted by politicians and preachers.
"The Apostle Paul also repeats the command in 1 Corinthians, stating that ’a husband must not divorce his wife.’ And few questions are left about what the God of the Old Testament thinks about the matter. We read in Malachi: ’ "I hate divorce," says the Lord God of Israel.’ "
Dudley went on to tell EDGE, "[A]s I argue in my book ’Broken Words,’ how communities read the Bible, including which passages they emphasize and de-emphasize, and their decisions to construe words this way instead of that, reflect the beliefs they bring to it.
"In other words, biblical interpretations reflect the pre-existing interests and values of biblical interpreters. This applies to conservatives and liberals [alike]."
Dudley offered his thoughts as to why conservative faiths target gays for wishing to have committed relationships, while giving straights a pass for not being able to maintain the same commitments.
"I think there are a number of reasons why more conservative theologians have read condemnations of divorce more loosely and condemnations of homosexuality more strictly, including the fact that there are more divorced people than there are gay people (meaning a blanket condemnation of divorce is harder to enforce)," Dudley said.
"It’s hard to forbid a woman in an abusive relationship from getting a divorce, even though the Bible wouldn’t seem to allow it," the theologian, who is now a medical student at Johns Hopkins, added. "On the other hand, it’s easier to lay such burdens on a much smaller and historically despised minority, namely, gays and lesbians."
Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.