The Religion News Service (RNS) poll released October 21, 2010 found that 72% of Americans believe “religious messages” about homosexuality generate negative views about gay people, and 65% believe these messages and the resulting negative views contribute to gay youth suicide. What factors are driving these results? What can we do to change the perceptions underlying these results?
The first factor is the prevalence of “religious messages” in secular culture that have NOTHING to do with how 99% of churches handle homosexuality. We hear these voices but they do not reflect what is going on in our churches. This likely explains why so many respondents in the RNS poll gave their own church an A or B while giving the church in general a D or F. Let us take a look at how this works.
The most obvious example is Fred Phelps. The Phelps family, operating under the name Westboro Baptist Church, runs all over the country holding up signs that read “God hates fags.” How does this “religious message” impact general perceptions about the wider church?
Over 90% of gay people and 70-80% of secular people that I encounter know of Fred Phelps. They have seen the Phelps family’s vitriolic signs and heard their hateful shouts at high schools and universities across the nation. If you have experienced the Phelps family (as I have), then you know their religious hatred for gay people. Notably, 60% of gay and secular people that I encounter believe Phelps is an evangelical.
In contrast, just 30-50% of campus ministry students and a mere 10-30% of evangelical church congregants that I encounter know of Fred Phelps. Sadly, this suggests that Phelps is parading around the nation as an evangelical while many believers do not even know who the man is. Phelps has become an invisible spokesman tearing at the fabric of our local witness to LGBT+ people.
Thankfully, it is quite easy to show that Phelps is NOT an evangelical:
While 50% of gay people I encounter do not know this, Westboro Baptist Church is composed primarily of Phelps family members. It is not affiliated with any baptist conventions or associations.
Phelps is not on the evangelical speaker circuit. No one within the evangelical community will give him a platform. Ake Green, a pastor prosecuted in Sweden for preaching biblical texts that forbid same-sex relationships, called Phelps’ message “appalling.”
Many grieving military families – including those of evangelical faith – have watched in horror as they lay their son to rest only to be interrupted by the Phelps family shouting “God hates your son.”
After volunteering to join “the human shield” that protected Lexington (MA) High School students from the Phelps family (along with my gay friend, Josh), I thought that would be my only “live” exposure to the Phelps message. Just a year later, however, the Phelps family returned to Lexington to picket and scream their message of hate. Where? At my church! “God hates you,” their signs read.
Fred Phelps is clearly not evangelical. To say that, though, is not enough. We must take action to squash perceptions that Phelps is speaking for the evangelical community. The best way I know to do that is for evangelicals to stand together with their LGBT+ neighbors every time the Phelps family comes to town. If you do not stand up, your local Gay Community will assume you support the “God hates fags” campaign. You can do something: join “the shield” and defend your community from this hateful message.
Some have suggested: would it not be better to just ignore the Phelps family and let them shout into thin air? When possible, yes. The problem is that these people are experts: they know how to schedule their picketing at times and in places where it is impossible to avoid their presence. My point: do not miss the opportunity to resist this message by whatever peaceful means possible. Let your “religious message” be silently heard through your hands and feet.
Here is an action you can take today: call your local police department and take a local LGBT+ leader to lunch. Tell them both that you wish to be notified any time the Phelps family plans to come to your town. This will prevent the situation of you finding out too late and having insufficient time to gather volunteers.
Tomorrow, we will look at other voices that speak “religious messages” on behalf of the wider church. That said, I refuse to place the entire blame on Phelps and other insensitive voices. We have a responsibility for the perceptions that people hold. In the coming days, we will look at a host of other factors driving perceptions in the recent RNS poll. Join me right here on Lead Them Home.
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