by Rebecca Barrett-Fox
Today’s post is written by Rebecca Barrett-Fox, professor of sociology at Arkansas State University. The author of God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right (University Press of Kansas 2016), she researches and writes about religion, hate, and sexuality and gender. Her work has appeared in The Journal of Hate Studies, Thought & Action, Radical Teacher, and elsewhere. You can follow her research at her blog, Any Good Thing, or read her commentary on politics, culture, and family from a (mostly) Mennonite perspective at Sixoh6.
Large numbers of Americans support the right of same-sex couples to marry, of trans people to use public restrooms that align with their gender, and of people of any gender or sexual orientation to serve in the military. They believe, broadly, that one’s sexual and gender identity shouldn’t get you fired, evicted, bullied, beat up, or killed.
That’s not something to be taken for granted, as anyone with even little knowledge of queer history knows, nor does it mean that LGBTQ+ people are safe in America. It just means that, for now, more people than ever are accepting and supportive of their queer friends, neighbors, family members, and selves.
This advancement in gay rights makes the Religious Right attack on gay rights all the more pointed. For the anti-gay Religious Right, public acceptance of gay rights is evidence that America has rejected God and will decline into chaos and ruin because of it and that, along the way, Christians will continue to be persecuted.
Worry that America is going to hell in a handbasket are not new, as Kathryn Gin Lum lays out in Damn Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction (Oxford 2014). Indeed, Gin Lum’s book covers less than half of American history and it’s still over 300 pages. There is a long held fear of our collective, national damnation, and contemporary fears about sexuality feed into that fear.
What is relatively new is the Religious Right’s effort to connect same-sex sexual desire, contact, and identity with our national ruin, in part because, before the movement for gay rights accelerated in the late 1960s, the rest of culture did the work of controlling LGBTQ+ people. Pastors did not preach on the subject, street evangelists did not yell about it, and religious lobbyists did not push on members of Congress to oppose gay rights laws because there was no need. A broader homophobic culture did the work of condemning queer people to hell on earth, so anti-gay Christians didn’t have to worry too much about condemning them to hell in the afterlife.
That changed, though, as queer people began to push openly for civil rights. The Religious Right pushed back, rooting their arguments against gay people and gay rights in the language of sin, then morality, then pseudo-science, and now freedom. Over time, the language shifted from attacks on gay people as immoral to disingenuous claims of opposing gay rights out of love for queer people, whose sexual behaviors and identities were considered to be self-destructive. Underlying all these arguments is the idea that queer identities are not “God’s design.”
Design, of course, is a loaded word for creationists like Ken Ham. Those who oppose gay rights because same-sex sexual orientation is not “God’s design” point to a literal Adam and Eve, who were of two different sexes, as the template for human relationships—“God Made Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve,” as the anti-gay picket sign says.
Out of the Adam and Eve relationship, anti-gay Christians argue, we see the ordering of all social relationships: the rule of men over women, the headship of husbands over wives, the life-long pairing of monogamous couples in a God-blessed relationship, the obligation for people to have children, and the rule of humans over the environment, including over other animals. Later, in the New Testament, the metaphor of a marriage between heterosexual couples informs how we are to understand our corporate relationship to Christ: he is the bridegroom, and the Church is his bride. Sex differences, as defined by primary sex organs, must matter in the marriage of Adam and Eve if they are, as Ken Ham argues, the progenitors of the human race, and in the marriage of Christ and his Church (since the Church must be as submissive to Christ the Head as wives are to husbands), and because sex matters in those relationships, it must matter in ours.
In this logic, same-sex sexual sin (whether that is desire, behavior, or identity) is a worse sin than other sins, not in the fact that it separates people from God (as all sin does) but in its very essence. It is a sin not merely between the individual and God but an effort to undermine both the hierarchy of domination established in Genesis (man over woman, husband over wife, humans over the environment) and the relationship between Christ and the Church. Unlike eating shellfish or wearing clothes of mixed fibers (which, like sex between men, is prohibited in Levitical law), sex between people of the same sex is not breaking a ceremonial law; it is also more significant than breaking a moral law (such as incest, which is also prohibited by Leviticus). It is a worse offense because it is a defiance of the very order that God established for the world. Gay people, thus, are the worst sinners because they are trying to destroy the world God made. We see this homophobic theology proclaimed most loudly and clearly by Westboro Baptists, but it is central to anti-gay teachings in many conservative churches, not just those that show up to picket the funerals of dead gay people.
This framing makes sex acts between people of the same sex incredibly threatening to a Christianity that espouses patriarchy in the public and personal realms and human domination over the Earth. In that regard, Christian homophobia and secular homophobia are very similar in that they are efforts to reassert patriarchy through expressions of misogyny and toxic masculinity.
In the last ten years, even as more and more people, including Christians, affirm LGBTQ+ people and same-sex love, these attacks have relied on a new weapon: claiming that gay rights (and, by extension, queer people) are an attack on freedom itself and religious liberty in particular. In its gentler versions, this argument claims that those who find same-sex sexuality to be sinful have, on grounds of religious freedom, the right not to serve LGBTQ+ clients, a la Masterpiece Cakes, a case involving a baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple that will be heard by the Supreme Court soon.
In its uglier forms, this argument says that gay people are such a threat to our democracy that they are our enemies. Wrote Arkansas State Senator Jason Rapert on August 12—the same day that actual neo-Nazis killed a peaceful protestor in a planned race riot in Charlottesville, Virginia—on his Facebook page,
The LGBT activists who behave as Nazis are trying to ruin anyone who “disagrees” with them – even grandmothers. Simply believing in the Bible is offensive to these activists. They can’t stand it if you disagree. They demand full compliance with their diminished morality. They clearly behave just like the “brown shirts” and “SS” troops that Nazis used to destroy Jews and anyone who disagreed with the Nazi ideology.
This is the ugly end: those who were actual victims of the Holocaust (queer people) are called Nazis in an effort to whip up sentiment against gay rights and for violence against gay people. And it is working. Violence against LGBTQ+ persons in 2017 has already outpaced that committed in 2016, according to a recently released report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.
For Jason Rapert, Ken Ham, and other Religious Right Christians who seem obsessed with homosexuality (and who neglect their duty to care for the sick, visit the imprisoned, welcome the stranger, free the oppressed, or fight the actual, literal Nazis killing people in American right now), we might look at them with pity (provided, I think, that this does not distract us from our work of tending to those people they have harmed). They believe that our collective recognition of gay rights, as observable in our laws, and our increasing acceptance and affirmation of LGBTQ+ people, removes us from the relationship that God designed for humanity. They believe that God will destroy us for it, either by lifting his “veil of protection” or through direct, holy violence aimed at those who openly support, tolerate, or simply do not protest with sufficient vehemence against gay rights.
When people really believe that everything rests on everyone being straight, they live in constant fear and anger—fear that God will condemn them, too, and anger at those people they see as the cause of God’s fury. And you can see that fear and anger throughout their words and work.