Lent is supposed to be a time when Christians engage in reflection, remembrance, and repentance — a practice I wholeheartedly embrace. But just one week into it, I’m already finding it hard to maintain focus amid the now-daily headlines chronicling the mounting societal backlash against LGBTQ+ people.
And as if to truly test me, the Gospel readings outlined in the Vanderbilt lectionary this year are essentially the Beatitudes — which are full of variations on a theme of how blessed we are when we’re under attack. Starting with this week’s:
You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and God’s rule. (Matthew 5:3)
Which all sounds lovely and fine as long as being at the end of one’s rope is confined to things in one’s personal world — things like a car battery dying, or an unexpected expense that throws the household budget for a loop, or the landlord taking one day too many to send someone by to make a repair.
When those things challenge us, we’re taught to give them to God and focus instead on our relationship with God, knowing that what ultimately transpires will be in accordance with God’s will for us. And for most individuals, dealing with life’s usual basket of workaday problems, it’s a spiritual practice that can bring peace and a certainty that, as a friend of mine likes to say, “everything will be okay in the end, and if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
But when you’ve got a state legislature attempting to codify the de-transitioning of transgender youth, and at least 14 other states trying to join them to ban drag, of all things — and a governor witch-hunting college students seeking gender-affirming care — it’s hard not to feel as though we as a people haven’t somehow found ourselves at the end of several ropes at once.
The inevitable backlash
I suppose it was only a matter of time. We’ve certainly been here before as a society; witness the ’80s-era backlash against second-wave feminism. Our own version of that, after 50-plus years of progress, was probably inevitable.
But did it have to be? Or at least to this degree? Is the extent to which people seem to be working themselves into a frenzy over say, transgender athletes in public schools, truly happening this organically? Or is there an actual actor at work jerking on that rope in the hopes that there’ll eventually be less to go around?
I think the answer would be no if it weren’t for one mega-influential institution: The evangelical church.
Sure, the politicians are the ones promulgating bigoted policies — and also showing (off) their extreme ignorance. But where are they getting the message that LGBTQ+ people pose such a significant threat to society right now that our lives should be pushed front-and-center in the national conversation, ahead of say, whether America’s tattered democracy will continue to advance or decline?
They’re getting them from the evangelical church, where our political leaders are either personally warming those pews, or their constituents are. And those constituents are the ones demanding that politicians take stances on things like transgender participation in sports and what books are in the school library.
Like the rest of Christianity, evangelicalism has been a major force in the United States for centuries, often for good. And also like the rest of Christianity, its teachings have all too often fueled the discrimination, oppression and even death that have been visited on LGBTQ+ people who are just trying to live with dignity.
So how did we get here? And why is this version of Christianity suddenly so damaging and deadly in its ability to turn our own government into a secular instrumental of their sectarian will, where something like the overturning of Roe v. Wade is just one of many dominoes to fall.
The truth about evangelicalism
For starters, the evangelical church is fundamentally not about inclusion; they’re about exclusion and the judgment that entails. They’ve also long held a belief system rooted in having power over people and controlling them, as well as in outdated ideas about gender roles and sexual orientation.
This belief system still strongly and unwaveringly views homosexuality as something that is intrinsically evil and seeks to condemn and destroy anyone who identifies as anything other than heterosexual. (Protip: Don’t fall for the lie that once you’re converted you’re saved; once you’ve identified yourself as “struggling with same-sex attraction,” you’ll never measure up in their eyes.)
For years they said our relationships were evil because we were living out of wedlock. Now that we can get married, they want the whole thing overturned. Some evangelical churches have even gone so far as to declare same-sex marriage to be an “abomination” and have denied church membership to LGBTQ+ people. With their blessing, state legislatures are chipping away at the benefits of marriage for same-gender couples while leaving heterosexual marriage alone.
Evangelical churches also tend to focus heavily on traditional gender roles and definitions of gender. They view women as having a subordinate role in society and in the church, where women can’t serve in leadership positions or preach from the pulpit. Violate that and you’re out, no matter who you are; just ask Saddleback Church (yes, that one).
These faulty and judgmental beliefs create an environment where it is darn near impossible for LGBTQ+ individuals to feel accepted, supported or affirmed by their church community.
The impact of evangelical Christianity on faith goes beyond just their opinions about sexuality and gender roles; it also affects how people engage with their faith in general.
When people are exposed to this type of toxic religious rhetoric, it causes them to question their own faith or causes them to reject religion altogether. There were already plenty of empty pews before COVID-19, and this is one reason why.
All of this is especially damaging for young people who may, in the midst of struggling with their identity, seek out guidance and support and safety from the nearest spiritual leader — and that spiritual leader offers only condemnation and judgment while claiming to represent God’s love. The suicide rate among younger folks is heart-breaking.
It is clear that evangelical Christianity has had a negative and deadly impact on faith around the world due to its outdated and wrong views of sexuality and gender roles. It has created an environment where many members of the LGBTQ+ community feel unwelcome or even condemned by their church leaders and peers.
I write about what many of you already know and have experienced because we in the LGBTQ+ community have allowed the conversation to be stolen from us. We have tried to explain away a small part of the church by saying, “Oh, that’s just people expressing their individual beliefs.”
But it’s about so much more than a few people expressing their own beliefs. The evangelical church is organized and stands ready to take out anything and anybody that doesn’t agree with them. I sincerely believe they would welcome an American theocracy.
In short, they’re loud, pushy, old-style bullies — and they have lots of resources — and they’re controlling the conversation. They have no interest in a conversation where there is an expansion of knowledge. With them there is no compromise or acceptance of us. They’re interested in only one thing: To preach and legislate us out of existence.
No more timidity
If I were to express to the average evangelical my sincere belief that Lent is a time for us all to turn our attention and focus back to God’s true nature of being loving and merciful, I honestly don’t know how that message would be received.
So I’ve decided that one thing I’d like to give up for Lent is timidity — and I encourage you to do the same. Or, if you’re one of those who believes Lent is about adopting something versus sacrificing: Let’s adopt a firm stance of blessedness in our conviction that we have a right to be here.
Let’s commit to turning the tide of the evangelical church’s reckless, sickening backlash. Here are four pillars I would rest that commitment on:
- Make more people aware of their activities and their end game. We must call them out for what they are: Hypocrites and power brokers for a failed belief system.
- Ensure that all members of our society are able to practice their faith freely without fear, judgment, or punishment regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
- Create more inclusive spaces within our churches where everyone feels safe and is accepted regardless of who they are or what they believe. This is ultimately the only way we will all grow closer together spiritually.
- Stand strongly, stubbornly, in the face of these daily attacks.
Also, we really have very little to fear from these people. In the words of Rev. Will Horn:
There are 4 reasons to not be afraid or be bothered by these folks:
- We live our lives with INTEGRITY and even if people don’t understand us they need to RESPECT us.
- They know that we know the scriptures and they don’t really want that fight.
- Many of them are DL and we know their stories and secrets. (They really don’t want that message going out.)
- We are CONFIDENT in our calling and in our divine identity. We know we are wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God, and that is more than enough.
Walking this path is not always easy — and it can even be dangerous, but we must call them out for what they’re doing. We must stand up, we must get off the sidelines. We must take back the conversation.
I want all of us same-gender-loving people of God to know that when we have a good heart and live an honest life, there is an abundance of grace that is poured out on us. And finally, for us to always remember these words:
So, what do you think? With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing God’s self to the worst by sending God’s own Son, is there anything else God wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us? And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God’s chosen? Who would dare even to point a finger? The One who died for us — who was raised to life for us! — is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture:
They kill us in cold blood because they hate you.
We’re sitting ducks; they pick us off one by one.
None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing — nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable — absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Savior has embraced us. (Romans 8:31-39)
That’s the God I’m finding at the end of my own personal rope. How about you?
Editor-in-Chief of Whosoever and Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church of Atlanta, Rev. Paul M. Turner (he/him) grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994, have been in a committed partnership since the early 1980s and have been legally married since 2015.