The Gay Debate and the Temperance Movement: Not-So-Strange Bedfellows?

Thanks to Michelle Bachmann and her family business that offers Christian counseling which includes “therapy” to reorient gay people, the debate over homosexuality and dubious claims of alleged change ministries have resurfaced once again.  The media highlights ex-gay treatments, theories and ministries that say people can change their sexual orientation, while spokespeople for the ex-gay cause go on television to spout their misinformation and talking points designed to legitimize their position and convince the public that the treatments and theories are beneficial.

As a former leader of a so-called ex-gay ministry, I have had the opportunity to know literally hundreds of “ex-gays” personally.  Though these people were among the most dedicated Christians I have ever met, they are now almost all “ex-ex-gays.”   I witnessed firsthand the despair that resulted for these sincere believers as they tried the ex-gay approach and took part in these ministries and/or treatments.  The long-term consequences were pretty depressing.  For a great many, results were nearly disastrous.  It also proved spiritually catastrophic as scores of these people gave up their faith altogether.  Despite claims to the contrary, God’s concern is not to change the sexual orientation of gay and lesbian people — to bring them in line with social norms — but to help them become secure in Him, assured of His love and acceptance and set apart to follow Him faithfully and responsibly.

I also became increasingly aware of how fearful these ministries were to honestly assess the fruit of their work and admit their staggering level of failure.  They did not dare risk expressing their own disappointment for fear of losing the meager financial support that came from their churches and other contributors.  As Jeremy Marks — the former leader of an Exodus-based ex-gay ministry, but now one who provides realistic support for Christian gay people seeking to reconcile their faith and sexuality — has rightly pointed out: “If these people had been running a business that depended for its survival on the quality and reliability of their product, they would have become bankrupt years ago.  If they had been offering a medical solution for some sickness or disease and had produced as disastrous a long-term effect on their patients as these ministries have, they would have been sued out of existence.”

Seeing the damage these reparative therapy and change ministries were causing people was disheartening.  I could see how this was producing a deep sense of depression and huge inner conflict.  People were trying to get their heads around the notion that: “I’m not supposed to call myself gay even though I feel that I am, because it’s not right to call myself that, so I’ve got to call myself something else in order to fall in line with what the church teaches and what I believe God wants of me.” 

But what this does is create a kind of schizophrenia in people.  Further, it would only work as long as they were within a support environment that enforced this notion.   But as soon as they stepped out of that environment, they realized that nothing had changed at all and immediately defaulted back to the same struggle they had before.  The long-term damage has been incalculable and countless former ex-gays have come forward to testify about the damage that the futile quest for “healing” through these groups has caused them.  In contrast, many of us saw that the only people who were doing well over the long term were those who came to terms with being gay and sought after a same-sex monogamous partnership.

Tony Campolo, a noted evangelical, has interviewed significant numbers of ex-gay people who claim to be reoriented.  He has made a custom of asking them these two questions.  The first: Do you ever have sexual fantasies?  Now, of course, everybody has sexual fantasies.  The second:  When you fantasize, do you fantasize homosexually or heterosexually?   He always gets the same answer.  We fantasize homosexually.  He wonders then how can they say they’re no longer in a homosexual orientation.

The striking contrast between accounts of Jesus’ healing ministry in the New Testament, and what was seen in these ministries also became troubling.   Jesus’ works of healing were never challenged on the basis that perhaps they had not taken place.  On the  contrary, the blind did see, the lame did walk and the dead were raised.  Not even Jesus’ worst enemies suggested otherwise.  Instead, his enemies were incensed by the fact that Jesus’ healing ministry was so obviously effective, because it shamed them, brought to light their own lack of compassion and undermined their authority.

Both the American Psychiatric and American Psychological Associations regularly issue warnings concerning the harm incurred in reorientation procedures, whether religious or clinical.  What these procedures do is actually increase the socially-imposed self-loathing of gay people.  If you pray with gay Christians, you will see God perform any number of miracles.  These often include the expunging of self-loathing, of bitterness toward family and wider society, and relief from previously chaotic or harmful patterns of sexual behavior.  You will not, however, see God reorient these seekers to heterosexuality in either their arousal or their fantasy patterns.  That may eventually prompt you to understand that God does not consider their homosexual orientation a disorder.

Temperance Movement

Is there a parallel in history that might help us to put the current debate over homosexuality into perspective?  I think there is.  Those Christians who use the Bible to justify their opposition to homosexuality and homosexual relationships are very much like another movement that took place within the Church and society a few generations ago.

The Temperance movement of the 19th and early 20th century sought to end the sale and use of alcoholic beverages.  Use of alcohol was seen as the root cause of the ills of 19th century society.   Similarly, among some Christians, homosexuality is blamed for many of society’s ills today.

The rationale behind the attempted and for a time successful criminalization of something as morally gray as the use of alcohol is the same as is employed by those who are at war against homosexuality today.  The leaders of the Temperance movement exaggerated the evils of alcohol and took the few Bible passages that refer to drunkenness and alcohol abuse and applied them to all use of alcohol.

Those Christians who use the Bible to support their antigay doctrine have done the same thing.  They have taken the bad behavior of some gay people and the Bible passages that condemn male-on-male rape and male-on-male pagan temple prostitution and applied them to all cases of same-sex contact.  Furthermore, they have taken the dubious claims of the reparative therapy proponents and ex-gay ministries and made them the acid test for all true believers just as complete abstinence from alcohol became, and still is in some circles, the test of “true” Christians.

While the antigay forces have not achieved universal criminalization of same-sex  relationships as the Temperance movement outlawed alcohol, they have done something just as troubling.  They have divided churches and Christians against one another.  In Galatians 5:20, people who divide themselves into warring factions are warned that, “Those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”  According to the Apostle Paul, factionalism is just as much a “work of the flesh” as is sexual immorality, which he defines as pagan idolatry or cultic prostitution.  Christians who draw lines and shoot at each other from their individual bunkers are playing a serious game of which God does not approve.


About Alex Haiken

Born to a Jewish family in New York City, I came to faith in Christ in 1982 after trying to disprove the Bible. I found so much evidence in support of the claims of Jesus and the Bible that it required more faith to reject it than to believe it. I hold a Master’s degree from Westminster Theological Seminary and among other things am a lecturer, teacher, blogger and conference speaker. I came out as gay at a young age but was taught when I came to faith that I could not be both Christian and gay. I served for a time as a leader of an ex-gay ministry but shifted my views after recognizing that when the few passages generally appealed to in this debate are examined more closely and in context, the traditional anti-gay interpretations do not hold up to scrutiny. I learned that the ex-gay route is a scripturally unsound mirage, a specious illusion that deceitfully draws people not to a life-giving oasis but to a deeper and deeper spiritual desert. Seeing the immense need for education in this area, I began to speak and write about my experience and new-found convictions. I am also passionate about helping the Church better understand her rich Jewish roots; helping other Jewish people understand Jesus as their Jewish Messiah; and helping other gay people integrate a theologically sound, committed Christian faith with their sexuality. It is my hope that the reflections in this blog will prompt you to explore the paths they suggest, leading to your own more eloquent thinking, exploration and action. If you want, visit the “Contact” page and let me know what you think.
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3 Responses to The Gay Debate and the Temperance Movement: Not-So-Strange Bedfellows?

  1. fidlerten says:

    Hi Alex,
    I wanted to go ahead and comment on this article. First, I did find it spot on about those issues. I would also like to point out the drastic cost that the anti-gay legislation that has been going on in this country since the beginning of our civil rights at Stonewall Tavern; the gay teen deaths by suicide, simply because they grew up in a world that didn’t allow them to feel good about themselves. Instead they felt lonesome and afraid and even hated by God.

    A therapist that I was seeing once told me that the problem with me was that; I was very much gay, and I was also very much Christian. She told me that my problem was that I could be one, or I could be the other, but that I would never be happy until I could be both at the same time.

    I will tell you, what she told me was like opening a door before me that said that I didn’t have to try and be something that I wasn’t anymore; that I could be gay and I could be a Christian, all at the very same time.

    Still I am responsible for what I do, and if I follow my flesh instead of walking in the Spirit, I can find myself out of line with my walk with Christ. So I do think that we as gay people as a whole; now that we are beginning to be accepted by society, should show the world that we too have principals and morals.

    The legalization nationally of Gay Marriage is not going to change America that much, as most people will find that we really don’t bite. But the gay community is going change a lot; I think we can truthfully say that once that happens, that we have at least legally; arrived.

  2. Alex Haiken says:

    I think that hits the nail on the head — You were very much gay, and you were also very much Christian. You could be one or the other, but you would never truly be at peace until you could be both at the same time.

    Thank you for sharing that part of your story. Your testimony reflects the compelling need to address this issue in communities of faith. Traditionally the reaction of Christian pastors and therapists has been: “Get rid of that disgusting homosexual habit/desires and you’ll be OK.” However not able to “get rid of their homosexual desires” or orientation no matter how long or hard they try, people turn to secular therapists and liberal religionists who say: “Get rid of that oppressive god-stuff and you’ll be OK.” Christian gay people need a more realistic alternative than either of these two routes and that more realistic alternative must fall within the context of a Christian world-and-life view.

  3. As a gay believer in Messiah who is married to his lovely partner (we have Civil Partnership in the UK since 2004), I agree wholeheartedly with both of you. The more people come to see gay believers living lives of faithfulness and integrity, the more they will be ready to reasess their false theological beliefs. These days, when I am challenged about my ‘choice’ of homosexuality, I usually ask whether they can remember when exactly they started to choose being attracted to the opposite sex. I am usually greeted with a look of utter bewilderment.

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