Jan 15, 2011

Evangelicals Coming to Jesus on Gay Rights

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Pastor Jay Bakker

There seems to be a sea change happening in the evangelical Christian community regarding homosexuality. I've long thought that this was inevitable; due in no small part to the massive influx of Christian youth. The born again movement is getting younger and young people are so over this issue.

High profile evangelicals have also been walking proudly out of the closet -- as opposed to being dragged out by scandal. 

A while ago I posted a blurb on singer/songwriter Jennifer Knapp who rode the wave of Christian Rock success in the late 90s. Like many, she had to get real about her own sexual orientation and find her place in the religion she loves. And like others have, she came to realize that the Biblical case against homosexuality wasn't strong enough to prevent her from being who she was.

Last November megachurch pastor Jim Swilley came out to his congregation in the wake of the series of gay teen suicides. This act of compassion was strongly encouraged by his wife of many years, who had known from the beginning about his sexuality. Said Swilley about the inevitable backlash:

“As a father, thinking about your 16-, 17-year-old killing themselves, I thought somebody needed to say something,” he told WSB TV in Atlanta. “I know all the hateful stuff that’s being written about me online, whatever. To think about saving a teenager, yeah, I'll risk my reputation for that.”

But Swilley did not lose his reputation or his ministry and found a good deal of support from parishioners. In the CNN interview posted just below, Swilley comes across as a man comfortable in his faith and in his own skin. As many of us outside of conservative and fundamentalist Christianity have been saying for years, this very well-read Bible-loving preacher found that to rely on a handful of "clobber verses" to justify homophobia is to cherry-pick scripture. Says Swilley:

The Bible says a lot of things about a lot of things that people don't have answers for .... The scripture says if you're given to gluttony, put a knife to your throat. But people seem to be fine with fat Christians in the church .... If you have a son that doesn't work for a living and is rebellious, to take him by the hand and lead him to the elders of the city and let them stone him with stones until he is dead. We don't support that now. If you have an unemployed son, you don't kill him. 

Another preacher who has really gotten his arms around the cherry-picking issue so well defined by the historic letter to Dr. Laura, is Jay Bakker, son of Jim Bakker and the late Tammy Faye Messner. In a recent column, Cathleen "God Girl" Falsani opened up about her gratitude to evangelists like Jay Bakker for addressing the hard questions on the scriptural value, or lack of it, regarding homosexuality.

Simply put, homosexuality is not a sin, says Bakker, 35, pastor of Revolution NYC, a Brooklyn evangelical congregation that meets in a bar.

Bakker, who is straight and divorced, crafts his argument using the same "clobber scriptures" (as he calls them) that are so often wielded to condemn homosexuals.

"The simple fact is that Old Testament references in Leviticus do treat homosexuality as a sin ... a capital offense even," Bakker writes. "But before you say, 'I told you so,' consider this: Eating shellfish, cutting your sideburns and getting tattoos were equally prohibited by ancient religious law.

. . .

"The church has always been late," Bakker told me in an interview this week. "We were late on slavery. We were late on civil rights. And now we're late on this."

Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self & SocietyIt shouldn't come as a shock that the young Bakker is proving to be a leader on this issue. So was his mother. Tammy Faye Messner surprised and impressed me as much as any human being ever has.

I first became aware of Jim and Tammy Faye in the glory days of the PTL Club. I found her comical, with her abrasive singing voice and outrageous make-up. A few years later, I saw her and her husband fall brutally from grace amidst the Jessica Hahn scandal and rumors that he was a closeted gay man. I can still see Tammy Faye in an interview responding to the latter question: "My husband is not homosexual or bisexual. He's a wonderful, caring husband." I'm paraphrasing from memory but that was the gist. She looked so horrified at the suggestion that her husband could be, you know, a homo. For years she was a punchline and frequent SNL caricature. The make-up, the prescription drug addiction, the warbling... She was a goldmine of comic fodder.

Later, I learned that she had become a popular impression among drag queens. I thought it hilarious; a bunch of gay men dressing up in poofy, blond wigs and make-up too heavy by half even by drag queen standards. I heard rumors that she was becoming something of a gay icon. Well, that fit. Bigger than life women whose lives were filled with tragedy, romantic heartbreak, and humiliation have long been adored by gay men. Marilyn, Judy, Liza... I had a hard time putting the provincial Tammy Faye in that class but I could, as ever, see the humorous, campy appeal. I thought, smugly, that she must have been horrified at having her image trotted about by a bunch of sodomites. But those men didn't seem to mind. They appeared not to be so much mocking her as just adoring her. Then something happened that amazes me to this day. She embraced them.

In this 2002 interview Tammy Faye shared her simple message of love and acceptance:

On Sunday, Tammy Faye will appear on the Capital Pride Festival Mainstage. What she'll be doing is still a little unclear: speaking, certainly; maybe singing; and a lot of hugging.

Prepare to be hugged. And loved.

MW: How many gay prides have you done prior to Washington's Capital Pride?

TAMMY FAYE BAKKER MESSNER: Oh, probably six or seven. Maybe more than that. Maybe ten.

MW: What's the typical response when you take the stage?

TAMMY FAYE: Overwhelming love from everyone. Both ways. I love them and they love me. It's just unbelievable. I've never felt such warmth in a group of people. That's the truth.

MW: Do you find a difference between the way gay men and lesbians respond to you?

TAMMY FAYE: The lesbians are taking a little longer to respond to me, but I think that's just a woman thing. Women always suspect people, they all have that sixth sense. But I love them, too, and I want them to know that I accept them. I think they're finally realizing that.

MW: What do you plan to do at our gay pride?The Eyes of Tammy Faye

TAMMY FAYE: Same thing I've done at all the rest of them. I'm going to talk to them just like I talk to straight people. I don't make any differences between them.

My husband and I both found ourselves quite taken with Tammy Faye when she was on The Surreal Life.  No fans of reality television we, but the idea of bunch of D list celebrities in ridiculous situations had just the right kind of train-wreck appeal. But Tammy Faye took me by surprise. Her incredible sincerity sliced right through my cynicism. The humor I'd long associated with her improbable rise as a gay icon evaporated. I began to see why the gay community had so completely adored her; that it wasn't just because of her hyper-real image. It was because the adversity in her own life hadn't destroyed her. She had faced it all with a courage and compassion that was truly inspiring. And it was because she had opened her enormous heart to them.

In a way that my teenage self could never have imagined, when I was watching her rise and fall with horrified fascination, Tammy Faye went on to be a living example of Christian compassion. And the world embraced her. People from all walks of life, in the most unexpected places, expressed deep sadness at her illness and death. I know I cried like a baby. She just couldn't help but touch your heart. And to my great surprise, this simple woman turned out to be a trailblazer; the first high profile evangelist to accept gay people as they were. And now we can see that she won't be the last. A fuller, less judgmental faith is emerging in the very megachurches that have for so long been bastions of intolerance. After all, it only takes a spark.

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