Mixed Blessings: Organized Religion and Gay and Lesbian Americans in 1998

If you only get your news through the mainstream media, you probably believe that organized, mainstream religion has only one belief about homosexuality: It’s a sin … period.

Often the most common faces you see representing Christianity are those of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. The media, always enamored with a good talker, a big name, and an easy contact, willingly give these men time to talk. Little, if any, follow up is done to investigate whether these men speak for the majority of Christians.

A new report commissioned by the Human Rights Commission called “Mixed Blessings: Organized Religion and Gay and Lesbian Americans in 1998” shows there is no uniform “Christian” response to homosexuality. These men do not speak as the ultimate voice of Christianity. Instead there is a deep divide forming in organized religion over the question of homosexuality. It’s a divide Lisa Bennett, the author of the study, did not expect to find.

“The extent of rethinking going on in so many denominations was surprising,” she said. “I didn’t find anywhere where there was nothing going on. Even in the Southern Baptist and Mormon Church, where officials took most uniform line on this, there were still people within willing to challenge that.”

Bennett, a former fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and writer who specializes in civil rights issues discovered a definite, “one step forward, two steps back” trend among the nation’s nine largest Christian denominations and the four major movements within Judaism. While homosexuality is being actively discussed within these denominations and movements, setbacks, or “mixed blessings” are occurring. Some of those documented include:

The Roman Catholic church became actively involved in the crusade against same-sex marriage; the National Conference of Catholic Bishops backpedaled on a statement of love and acceptance toward gay people; and the Rev. James Callan, a popular priest in Rochester, N.Y, was dismissed for blessing gay and lesbian unions.

The Southern Baptist Convention amended its creed to exclude gay and lesbian couples from the definition of family and condemned President Clinton for prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation among federal workers.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America defrocked several gay and lesbian ministers for having committed relationships. But at the same time, the church issued a report on how congregations can better minister to gays and lesbians and sponsored a gay and lesbian awareness week at church headquarters.

Even with the win some/lose some battles being fought, Bennett found it refreshing that there were so many even willing to take on such a large and powerful institution as the church.

“I was heartened by the numerous stories of courage within the congregations seeing people who were willing to put some real things on the line whether it be membership in denominations, reputations, budgets or peacefulness in community and stand for what they thought was right,” she remarked.

Rev. Jimmy Creech is one of those who stood up to church authority over the issue of same sex marriage. Creech, a United Methodist minister, was fired as pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Omaha last year for blessing the holy union of two women. The church recently opened another case against Creech for blessing the union of two men in North Carolina, where he now lives.

Rev. Creech was on hand at the press conference the Human Rights Campaign held to release the report. Bennett says a Muslim woman remarked during the press conference, “I hear what you’re saying, but I have been taught to take scripture literally, so the way I read it this must be considered wrong.”

Bennett said Rev. Creech replied by talking about scripture being a living thing. He reminded the woman how scripture was used against women and African Americans and Jews.

“I heard later that someone riding down the elevator with the woman who commented, ‘I think I have some more reading to do,'” Bennett recalled.

That’s the exact response Bennett and the HRC were hoping for.

“I hope it will help to challenge what I think is an inaccurate stereotype that organized religion takes one view on gay and lesbian people. I wanted to draw attention to the simple fact people are questioning that,” Bennett emphasized. “There are a number of different approaches taken in different denominations that deserve to be looked at. The religious right view that assumes homosexuality to be a sin should no longer be the dominant position. There are many other voices to listen to.”

Parts of the HRC press release on Mixed Blessings were used in this article.