Thoughts and Comments


An indecent religion

By Neal Jones, Tom Summers and Carl Evans
Guest Columnists

Thousands of straight and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from across South Carolina and the Southeast celebrated SC Pride Day on Sept. 4 in downtown Columbia. It was a joyful celebration of the diversity of the human family with a parade down Main Street, a festival in Finlay Park, rainbow flags and banners, colorful costumes and families with children and pets on picnic blankets in the warm afternoon sun.

Not everyone was feeling joyful, however. Along the parade route, some protestors shouted angry words and carried rejecting signs laced with biblical quotations.

They represented a fundamentalist strand of religion that is found not only in Christianity but in other religions as well. Whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, fundamentalists share at least one thing in common: relegating women and gays to second-class citizenship.

In South Carolina, this anti-gay version of Christianity is strongly represented by the Palmetto Family Council, a subsidiary of the Focus on the Family media empire founded by the religious right guru James Dobson. Because the Gay Pride Festival receives city and county grants like other events that attract tourists and bring business to our city, Palmetto Family Council president Oran Smith complained that the public expenditures amount to a public endorsement of what he calls the “gay lifestyle.”

What exactly is the “gay lifestyle”? We have asked several of our gay and lesbian friends, and what they report is that they get up and go to work each day, come home and prepare dinner for their families, watch TV, read, pay their bills and taxes, do laundry, go to church on Sunday and go to the beach or mountains for vacation. If this is the “gay lifestyle,” we all must be gay.

When the phrase “gay lifestyle” is used, there is always an underlying assumption that homosexuality is a choice. Sexual orientation, whether straight or gay, is a biological given. This is a matter of fact, and the major professional organizations in medicine, psychiatry, psychology and many others have indicated that this issue needs no further debate.

But many in the religious right are notorious for disregarding the facts that they don’t like — believing for instance that abstinence-only education is effective at preventing teen pregnancy, that human activity is not responsible for global warming or that evolution is “just a theory.” This group may not like the existence of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people or the fact that young people have sex or that all life has evolved from earlier, simpler forms of life, but liking or disliking the facts doesn’t change them.

Sadly, the Gay Pride Festival was described as being “indecent” by the Palmetto Family Council president. What exactly is meant here? That festival attendees are engaging in sex acts at Finlay Park? Many homophobic groups and individuals seem to be preoccupied with the sexual activity of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Indeed, the religious right as a whole seems to be inordinately engrossed with sexual issues, from homosexuality and abortion to sex education and pornography. With the overwhelming problems of poverty, unemployment and hunger in our society, this continual fixation on sexual matters promotes a blindness to the complex social problems that surround us.

What is “indecent” is when people distort the religion of Jesus and his ethic of love into a political ideology of fear, narrow-mindedness and bigotry. Jesus taught and practiced an unconditional love and compassion that accepts people as they are and affirms their worth and dignity as human beings. Yet homophobic Christians preach a love with strings attached. They say, “We will love and accept you if you will change and be like us.” It’s easy to love a mirror image of yourself. The test of love is accepting and respecting someone who is different from you.

It has become popular in our day for people to wear their religion on their sleeve, literally, in the form of bracelets with the letters WWJD. What would Jesus do indeed?

Dr. Jones is the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, Dr. Summers is a retired United Methodist minister, and Dr. Evans is a professor emeritus religious studies at USC. This column represents the views of 13 other ministers in addition to the authors.

Publication: The State; Date: Sep 29, 2010; Section: Opinion; Page: A11