In his book Torn Justin Lee, a gay celibate Christian, writes,
“A 2007 study by the Barna Group, a Christian study firm, asked 16- to 29-year-olds to choose words and phrases to describe present-day Christianity. … Out of all of it good and bad – the most popular choice was “anti-homosexual”. Not only did 91 percent of non-Christians describe the church this way, but 80 percent of churchgoers did as well.” (Justin Lee, Torn, New York, 2012, p 2)
I assume the results would be much the same in Australia today. The church’s attitude to homosexuality is arguably the biggest stumbling for many non-Christians to the Gospel. They see nothing wrong with homosexuality and they perceive the attitude of Christians to homosexuality as simply prejudice and intolerance, no different than racism. Many Christians have no idea how they come across.
This is the first of a series of posts about Christianity and homosexuality, beginning with my experience in Tasmania.
Under Sections 122 and 123 of the Criminal Code homosexual acts used to be illegal in Tasmania which was the last state to decriminalise homosexuality, although it had been a long time since the law had actually been used to imprison homosexuals. A March 13 1976 article in The Examiner cited a case in 1958 where a gay man was given a 3 year jail sentence. Couldn’t they find any more recent examples?
In 1988 the Tasmanian Gay Law Reform Group held a stall in Salamanca Market in Hobart calling for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. They had a sign which said, “Steve slept with Mark on the night of his 21st. In Tasmanian he could be in gaol until he’s 42.”
I once walked past two women reading that sign and one of them said, “Gee, a guy can’t even any fun on his birthday.”
The Hobart City Council decided to ban this stall, resulting in an even bigger protest and arrests. I sometimes used to sell books at Salamanca Market and one morning during the protests a woman came up to me while I was setting up and quietly asked me if I was “one of those human rights people”. I learnt that some of the other stallholders were not happy because the crowd watching the protest and arrests were stopping customers from getting to their stalls. They were planning to “persuade” the protesters not to set up near them. In other words, she thought I was a gay activist and she was concerned for my safety.
Fortunately, that very day the TGLRG decided to move their protest further up to the end of the market out of the way, so an unpleasant incident in front of the television cameras was avoided.
These protests led to several years of sometimes nasty debate over gay law reform in Tasmania, including mainland boycotts of Tasmanian goods, the Federal Government, High Court and United Nations getting involved until the law was finally overturned in 1997.
I was a student at the University of Tasmania in the late 80s when the gay law reform debate began and was involved with two evangelical Christian groups, Christian Union, now called University Fellowship of Christians, and the Navigators. It is a bit embarrassing because even though there was this major event going on with some of our fellow University students getting arrested, I cannot recall the ongoing controversy ever being discussed in these groups. We were not that interested.
Gay law reform appeared to pose a dilemma for many Christians. Tasmania’s law was discriminatory and singled out homosexuals while ignoring all the sinful fornicating heterosexuals, but there was the concern that supporting gay law reform would appear to be condoning homosexuality. Actually back in 1977 the Tasmanian Council of Churches passed a resolution which called for the decriminalisation of homosexuality while still acknowledging it did not have “the same moral status as heterosexual relationships.” (Miranda Morris, Pink Triangle, UNSW Press, Sydney, 1995, p 55)
In an article “Green light being given to homophobia and every bigot with a bible” in The Mercury, gay activist Rodney Croome claimed that during the 1990s some Christian ministers in Tasmania “advocated gay bashing”. Seriously? Unfortunately, he does not name them.
In the last 30 years I have lived in all three regions of Tasmania, attended churches of several denominations and I can honestly say that I have never heard a minister preach an anti-gay sermon where they went on about the sin of homosexuality. (However, one Sunday night at a Presbyterian church the minister asked us not to watch the Gay Mardi Gras on television that night. I watched it anyhow, just to see if there was anything which would offend me.) Maybe I have been going to the wrong churches (or the right ones), but I have found that Christian ministers have more important things to talk about in the pulpit than homosexuality.
The 1995 book Pink Triangle on the gay law reform debate discusses the role of the churches, but it does not give any examples of ministers advocating gay bashing. It does quote Rodney Croome back then saying that some ministers felt that anti-gay proponents from outside the churches were using the churches to promote their agenda,
“There was a sense that the people who are being bussed in aren’t members of the Church, or they haven’t been to Church for years. Their primary allegiance is being anti-gay and they use their nominal allegiance to the Church to express this anti-gayness. There was … a resentment that people were using the Church for their political purposes.” (Pink Triangle, p 61)
In 1988 31% of Tasmanians supported gay law reform. As already mentioned, the Tasmanian Council of Churches called for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1977 so this 31% would have included some progressive Christians. However, if 20-25% of the population were Christians in the sense that they attended church on a regular-ish basis, this must mean that the majority of those who did not support gay law reform in 1988 were non-Christians.
Christians and gays have something in common in that they are both on the fringe of mainstream society. In 1988 we were already talking about how Australia was a post-Christian society. 30 years ago the mainstream majority (neither Christian nor gay) were more likely to side with Christians and believe that homosexuality was wrong. Since then, there has been a cultural shift and the mainstream majority now sides with the gays.
Until recently Western society has traditionally condemned homosexuality, but does this attitude really come from the Bible? Christians need to discern which of their beliefs actually come from the Bible and which come from the culture around them. In the United States the Religious Right thinks their support for capitalism and increased military spending is Christian. They have confused their political beliefs with Christianity. There are Christians on the Left who make the same mistake on different issues.
The Bible says very little about homosexuality. My favourite Bible is a 1763 page New King James Version with 2 columns a page. Everything the Bible directly says about homosexuality would fill less than one column, half a page. This works out that 0.028% of the Bible deals with homosexuality. It does not justify the obsession which some Christians seem to have on the subject. There are other factors going on.
The Bible does not discriminate against homosexuality. It says they are sinners (Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10), 1 Timothy 1:10), but so is everybody else (Romans 3:10-12, 23), including myself (1 Timothy 1:15). If I say homosexuals are sinners, I am basically saying they are just like me.
If any Christians feel differently, they should ask themselves where do their views come from? Are they really from the 0.028% of the Bible or are they psychological or cultural in origin?
In an article “Is Homophobia a Religious or a Psychological Issue?” Roger Covin writes,
“First, as with other forms of prejudice those who hold anti-gay beliefs are more likely to be older, lesser educated, live in a rural area and have less contact with homosexuals. If religious values were the sole determinant of homophobia, we would expect all religious individuals to hold the same view, regardless of these factors.
[When I moved from the capital Hobart to Launceston in northern regional Tasmania in the early 1990s, I noticed that Christians tended to more actively oppose gay law reform.]
Second, those who hold authoritarian beliefs are also more likely to be homophobic. People who are highly authoritarian hold a strict belief in the need for social order and conformity to rules. They also tend to be especially intolerant of people who violate their concept of social order, and having this personality trait – which is related to, but distinct from religiosity – increases the likelihood of sexual prejudice.
Third, there is an interesting gender difference when it comes to homophobia. Heterosexual men are much more hostile and prejudiced toward gay and bisexual men than are women.
There is good reason to believe that this bias occurs because heterosexual men are often highly motivated to protect their masculine identity. In fact, experimental studies have shown that when you intentionally threaten men’s sense of their own masculinity, it causes them to act aggressively towards gay men.
This psychological tendency may help to explain the homophobic reactions of men who play football,. They very idea that a gay man could out-play and even out-hit you must be very threatening to men who idealize masculinity.
Given that homophobic men tend to overcompensate in response to masculinity threats, I leave it to the reader to supply their own analysis of what motivates Vladimir Putin’s predilection for shirtless photos.”
I have not researched the subject extensively but other studies, such as Violence Against Lesbians and Gay Men and Homophobia, Hate and Violence against Lesbians and Gays in NSW and Homophobic Violence and Masculinities in Australia also attribute violence towards homosexuals to young men looking to prove their masculinity, rather than religious factors.
In an earlier post I cited David Marrow author of Why Men Hate Going to Church about how women usually outnumber men in a lot of churches. Young, blokey males, the sort who are likely to go out and bash gays, are often under-represented in churches.
I am not trying to completely exonerate the churches. I know Christians who are simply homophobic bigots but I believe their prejudice is more likely to be founded on psychological or social factors, rather than the 0.028% of the Bible which they use to justify their issues. It is misleading to lay the blame for all the past prejudice and violence towards gays in Tasmania (and elsewhere) on Christians when many non-Christians were also guilty.
To be continued.