This week, the Southern Baptist Convention held its first conference on human sexuality, signaling a growing concern over the cultural shift on gay rights in America. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission Leadership Summit focused on a range of topics, including pornography, marriage, and religious liberty, but the centerpiece of the discussion seemed to be homosexuality. Since the summit was intended to empower church leaders to broach these topics with their own congregations, the conference had a dramatic potential impact on LGBTQ churchgoers and their families. Unfortunately, however, gay voices were conspicuously absent from an event weighing their very future within the church.
This should come as no surprise from a summit where organizers contend that homosexuality—lumped under the condescending category of “sexual confusion and sexual brokenness”—“has ravaged our culture and can deteriorate the integrity of our churches.” It should also come as no surprise that all 25 speakers identify as heterosexual. Is it futile to suggest that a frank discussion of homosexuality should include sexual minorities? This doesn’t necessarily require a dissenting viewpoint—many LGBTQ believers are active in the church, including some who choose to fall in line with the denomination’s repressive theology.
As if they felt the need to drive the point home, organizers even made sure to include each speaker’s marital status in their bios, including the names of their spouses and the number of children each couple has together. (While celebrating family is a beautiful thing, it seems rather pointed in this case.) But there must be a gay-supportive minority within the church: Can a denomination claiming more than 15 million followers really feature unanimous support for anti-gay exclusion?
Panelists on Tuesday called for pastors to stop spreading falsehoods about gay people, including the oft-cited assertion that they were abused as children. Unfortunately, this good work was seriously undermined by Tuesday morning’s keynote speaker: none other than disgraced sociologist Mark Regnerus. Regnerus’ infamous 2012 study—claiming that children of same-sex parents fared worse than others—has since been debunked and rebuked by his own university department as well as an overwhelming chorus of his peers. So much for not spreading lies.
Some speakers also called on pastors to be less crass when it comes to gay issues. While this may seem like the smallest possible gesture, curtailing what one speaker referred to as “redneck theology” would at least spare gay-supportive churchgoers from quietly enduring the humiliation of childish “Adam and Steve” references and gay-blaming after national tragedies. Speaking on a panel with five other Southern Baptist pastors, Greg Belser explained: “We’ve run off at the mouth, said things we shouldn’t have said. We’ve run around like a peacock all over the platform. We have said things because we were playing to the home team, and they all liked our act. On this issue, nobody likes our act, except the redneck factor.” Preach!
But play to the home team they did, with a cast of speakers that not only lacked openly gay people, but also included very few women and minority speakers. An overwhelming majority of the speakers were white men, with just two women addressing the audience of more than 200 pastors. To make matters worse, Trillia Newbell’s breakout session “Biblical Womanhood: June Cleaver, Clair Huxtable, or the Proverbs 31 Woman” came with the disclaimer “(for women only.)” (Something tells me Clair Huxtable would definitely want the men to listen.) It’s no wonder church leaders continue to furrow their brows over dwindling membership when they make no effort to include those with differing backgrounds or opposing views.
The majority of ERLC speakers merely reaffirmed their opposition to gay rights before an audience that probably didn’t think much differently. One panelist even suggested that Southern Baptists become a “prophetic minority” after losing the “culture war” for LGBTQ equality. Another speaker, J.D. Greear, made the ludicrous suggestion that “preaching against homosexuality in our day is about as popular as preaching against slavery and racism in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1861.” Yikes. Despite its members’ widespread belief in white supremacy before and throughout the civil-rights era, it took the convention until 1995 to issue a formal resolution and apology. But perhaps this is a sign that things could still change in the future. While the battle for equality outside the church may be won in the near future, a significant battle over gay rights within the church may slowly become reality.