Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of the diocese of New Hampshire, in a blog for the Center for American Progress, has recently led the charge: "How Religion is Killing our Most Vulnerable Youth" where he laments how religion in American culture has been generally destructive to LGBT youth. Religious conservatives he argues are to be blamed for their public attitudes in creating a culture in which increasing numbers of LGBT youth feel threatened and are at greater risk for attempting suicide then their straight identified peers. Robinson is equally alarmed by the absence of a strong public voice from religious liberals that would expose and challenge the wide-scale religiously sanctioned anti-gay bullying that many teens experience.
"Despite the progress we're making on achieving equality under the law and acceptance in society for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, why this rash of bullying, paired with self-loathing, ending in suicide? With humility and heartfelt repentance I assert that religion—and its general rejection of homosexuality—plays a crucial role in this crisis.
On the one hand, Religious Right hatemongers and crazies are spewing all sorts of venom and condemnation, all in the name of a loving God. The second-highest-ranking Mormon leader, Boyd K. Packer, recently called same-sex attraction "impure and unnatural" in an act of unspeakable insensitivity at the height of this rash of teen suicides. He declared that it can be cured, and that same-sex unions are morally repugnant and "against God's law and nature."
...It is not enough for good people—religious or otherwise—to simply be feeling more positive toward gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. Tolerance and a live-and-let-live attitude beats discrimination and abuse by a mile. But it's not enough. Tolerant people, especially tolerant religious people, need to get over their squeamishness about being vocal advocates and unapologetic supporters of LGBT people. It really is a matter of life and death, as we've seen."
Each semester at Cornell, the LGBT Resource Center along with the chaplains office sponsor Interfaith dinners, seeking to create a supportive space for LGBT students and their allies to explore issues and concerns that lie at the intersection between sexuality and religion. I have attended dinners of this nature for over 15 years and have begun to experience something quite curious about the changing composition of the groups of students who gather. I would venture to say that even five years ago, the dinners were almost entirely subscribed to by LGBT students and allies but that seems to be changing. In a recent dinner, I estimated that there was a sizable minority of religious conservatives present.( primarily Evangelical Christian students and two chaplains from two separate Evangelical fellowships on campus). On the surface of things, there was nothing controversial about the mix of people present. Infact, at my table, I would say that the religious conservatives took special effort to state that their fellowships not only do not actively condemn but are in fact, welcoming communities for all students. It was clear that the students speaking in this way, along with their chaplains were entirely sincere in their advocating for greater tolerance of gays and lesbians. I must confess however, that my head felt like it was full of cotton balls-- since when do religious conservatives, in all due respect, get to carry the banner of "tolerance" in relation to the LGBT community and how shall religious progressives understand and respond to this shift in political expression?
I was interested to read that Robert Moore, in 2007 presented a paper to the Annual Meeting of the The Mid West Political Science Association entitled: "Political Participation and Tolerance: American Evangelicals in Transition". His survey indicated that increasing numbers of younger Christian Evangelicals, who were broadly politically involved (i.e., participating in voting) are expressing increased tolerance of civil liberties for gays and lesbians while maintaining their historic views of the immorality of homosexuality. He writes, "this ability to embrace civil liberties while at the same time showing increading acceptance of homosexual morality suggests a very complicated balancing of moral values and civil norms taking root in the Evangelical tradition."
This slippery slope is made particularly dangerous when accompanied by rhetoric from Tony Perkins, President of The Conservative Family Research Council, who has said in a variety of interviews, including this one on NPR: "These young people who identify as gay or lesbian, we know from the social science that they have a higher propensity to depression or suicide because of that internal conflict," he says. Homosexuality is "abnormal," he says, and kids know it, which leads them to despair. That's why he wants to confront gay activism in public schools."
I can imagine well intentioned Evangelical Christian students wanting to support their LGBT peers to avoid the despair that Tony Perkins speaks of. There is a predatory element to this discourse that I find particularly troubling. It is akin to being hit over the head with a two by four that has been carefully padded beforehand. The damage is hard to account for even as you feel as if you are getting slammed!
And even when the discourse is not overtly predatory, I have certainly witnessed the damagine impact of evasive posturing (i.e., "It is not up to me to judge, I leave that to God." ) And while I know genuine conservative dialogue partners for whom this position allows them to challenge those who would quietly or otherwise condemn LGBT persons, within their own ranks. This position in and of itself renders little to no mercy to those suffering under the weight of religious sanctioned hate speech and bullying.
Sadly, even within Christian communities where there are progressive religious voices, I fear too many of them have privileged their attempts at maintaining civil discourse between themselves and their religiously moderate and conservative peers at the expense of speaking prophetically in a time in which especially our youth need to hear clear affirming messages. We are going to have to keep out eye on the ball for God's sake!
Count me in among those who feel very challenged by Bishop Robinson. This is a time for clear speech. No more hesitation, it's time to hear many more of us speaking openly about our passion for full inclusion of LGBT community members as a matter of religious principle. I thank Bishop Robinson for calling us on the carpet!