More On The AWARE Affair

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29 April 2009

Just an appendix to yesterday’s first entry. Christian ministries and organizations claiming that homosexuals need ‘curing’ and that they can be ‘cured’ through faith and prayer, have been around for a while. But as with so many other things, the gap between their galloping optimism and the reality, is a wide one. Take Exodus International, which seeks to convert homosexuals, both religiously and behaviorally. Three years after it started, two of its original founders ‘reverted’. In 2000 its long-term chairman, John Paulk, was removed for ‘engaging in behavior which has negatively impacted on the credibility of Exodus’; which is another way of saying that he had been caught visiting gay bars. In the 1990’s in the US a man named Michael Johnston, who was HIV positive, was widely promoted by the American Family Association as a sterling example of a homosexual ‘transformed by the Lord’. He spoke widely on radio and TV and in churches. In 2002 it was revealed that he had been having unprotected sex with other males. Another Christian ministry called Love In Action started in 1973 by Frank Worthen, John Evans, and Kent Philpott, claimed that homosexuals could become heterosexual if only they would pray hard enough. McIntyre eventually committed suicide in despair over his inability to change and Evans left the project and denounced it as dangerous. He was quoted as saying: ‘They’re destroying people’s lives. If you don’t do their thing, you’re not of God, you’ll go to hell. They’re living in a fantasy world’. The third of the three founders, Kent Philpott, wrote a book called The Third Sex? in which he claimed that he had ‘cured’ hundreds of gays. Some of these ‘cured’ gays, including Evans, filed a suit against Philpott for misrepresentation (i.e. lying) and he was forced to remove his book from the market. Until 2006 Pastor Ted Haggard was head of the 14,000 member congregation New Life Church in Colorado in the US, and leader of the powerful National Association of Evangelicals. He was also well-known for his strong condemnation of homosexuality. In 2006 Haggard was forced to resign when confronted with evidence that he had been taking drugs and engaging in sex with other men. A year later Haggard announced that he had been ‘completely cured through the Lord’s grace’ and almost immediately new evidence emerged of his homosexual behavior.

One’s first reaction to these and numerous similar incidents, might be to dismiss them as just more examples of psalm-singing evangelical Christian hypocrisy. But they have another dimension, a genuinely sad and tragic one. Because of old prejudices and misunderstandings, homosexuals are from the very beginning up against some very difficult odds. Fortunately, due to better understanding and the work of organizations like AWARE, a young homosexual’s chances of overcoming these odds and gaining self-acceptance and self-respect are much better today. But if he or she happens to have a spiritual yearning and if, due to their upbringing or cultural milieu or because access to information about different religions is limbed, they become a Christian, they will be forced by their church’s teachings to re-adopt all the negativities they had just overcame – pretense, shame, denial, self-loathing, secretiveness, etc. If they confess their homosexuality they will either be asked to leave their church or have to undergo endless sessions of quack ‘conversion therapy’ until they are judged ‘normal’. Both options are a lingering remnant of the cruel victimization of the past. People like Michael Johnston and Pastor Ted Haggard are not so much hypocrites as victims.

A quick check through the internet found that these are just some of the professional organizations in the US that consider homosexuality to be normal and which consider ‘conversion therapy’ to be ineffective or even harmful – the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Assn, the American Counseling Assn, The National Assn of Social Workers, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Assn of School Administrators, the American Federation of Teachers, National Assn of School Psychologists and the National Education Association. Similar medical and psychological organizations in other Western countries take the same stance. But of course, none of this cuts any ice with the evangelicals; to them all it does is prove that these organizations are under the influence by Satan. Welcome to the new Middle Ages!

The priests and pastors who deplore homosexual promiscuity and hedonism are actually partly responsible for it. Deprive a person of the spiritual sustenance and comfort, tell them that the feelings they have are perverted and sick, strongly advocate laws that stigmatize them as criminals, do everything you can to prevent them from forming legally recognized partnerships, tell them that they will go to hell when they die, and is it a wonder that they reject religion and turn to superficial, self-destructive lifestyles?

The phenomena of forcing your moral principles on others and then have it create all sorts of problems, has, sad to say, a long sorry history in Christianity. Take prohibition for example. In the late 19th century American Christians were starting to flex their political muscle. High on their agenda for making society more ‘decent’ was banning alcohol – not encouraging abstinence, not educating people to drink responsibly, that would have taken too much effort – banning it outright! As a Buddhist, I don’t drink and I have never have – I don’t like it. But I wouldn’t try to stop my neighbor from drinking and I would never speak to him about abstaining, unless his drinking was having some negative impact on me. But evangelicals aren’t like Buddhists, they want to force their beliefs and practices on everyone else, even by using the law if necessary. Spearheaded by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the prohibitionists finally got the Volstead Act passes in 1920 and all alcohol was banned. The supporters of prohibition were all the usual suspects, most Protestant sects but also the Quakers and those upholders of moral decency the Ku Klux Klan. Opponents were the wise and sagacious Woodrow Wilson who tried to veto the Congress ratification of the Volstead Act, the Episcopalians, the Catholics and most of the medical profession.

The consequences of prohibition were disastrous. The millions of ordinary people who liked an occasional drink resented having what they saw as their rights restricted, alcohol consumption sored, as did drunkenness and all the problems that go with it. In 1925 there was more speakeasies (illegal bars) in New York (as many as 100,000) than there had been legal bars in 1919. The police wasted millions of man-hours ferreting out illegal booze, prosecuting otherwise law-abiding citizens, and trying to stop liquor smuggling. The mafia could hardly believe their luck. The price of bootleg liquor skyrocketed, they made hundreds of millions of dollars and with that loot established themselves, for the first time, as a potent force in American life. Prohibition was called ‘the Noble Experiment’ in that while it was a complete failure, those who advocated it had ‘good intentions’. But good intentions aren’t sufficient; intentions also have to be thoughtful and well-informed, they have to take into account existing realities, and they have to be guided by accurate information not what ancient books say. The ‘well intentioned’ prohibitionists were nowhere to be seen when the Volstead Act was finally repealed in 1931, as people danced in the streets and celebrated by getting uproariously drunk.

The Christian approach to homosexuality is similar; perhaps well-intentioned but ill-informed, responsible for causing a heartbreak, confusion and suffering, and doomed to failure.

People occasionally inform me that they are homosexual and ask me what the Buddhist stand on this issue is (see my blog of 25th May 2008). With one exception (a man who had very obvious and serious personality problems) all these people struck me as perfectly normal and average. Most of them appeared to have a distinct spiritual leaning, a genuine desire to practice the Dhamma and a determination to live by the Precepts. Several have been members of our society and the ones who still are have been good, helpful and supportive members.

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