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Larry Gross is the director of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and is a pioneer in the field of gay and lesbian studies....
Inventing Sin: Religion and Homosexuality
No matter their own scandals, religious institutions through history have a consistent scapegoat: homosexuals.
In this ecumenical enterprise, homosexuality’s threat to the “traditional nuclear family” and to heterosexuality itself is constantly emphasized. As the Ramsey Colloquium, a conservative theology group, put it, “heterosexual marriage, despite its divine origins, is a fragile institution in need of careful and continuing support.” And, as Jewish theologian Samuel Dressner worries, acceptance of homosexuality is the first step down a familiar slippery slope: Once “heterosexuality within the marital bond is dismissed, then how can adultery, pedophilia, incest or bestiality be rejected?”
Among mainline Protestant denominations, the United Church of Christ was the first to permit the ordination of open lesbians and gay men, and in July 2005 its rule-making body voted to endorse same-sex marriage. In 1992 the Presbyterian Church initiated a three-year study of homosexuality, which failed to resolve the issue of ordination of gay people. In 1993 a draft statement on homosexuality by a committee of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America set off what a church official called “the most volatile explosion in the life of this church.” In 1996 conservative Episcopal bishops failed in their attempt to force a heresy trial for a bishop who ordained a non-celibate gay man, and in 2003 the election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, as the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire rocked the Episcopal Church in the United States and reverberated through the Anglican Church around the world.
In this, as in other arenas, the issue of openly gay clergy widened a split not only between liberal and conservative factions within the American church but between the Old World churches of Europe and the United States and the fervent, rapidly growing churches of the Third World in Latin America and Africa. Reacting to the election of Robinson in the United States, Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola, who leads the largest church in the 70 million-strong Anglican Communion, set the tone by describing it as “a Satanic attack on God’s church.” In 2004 the leaders of two Southern California Episcopal churches, St. James’ Church in Newport Beach and All Saints’ Church in Long Beach, voted to withdraw from the Episcopal Church of the U.S. and put their flocks under the authority of the conservative Diocese of Luwero in Uganda, with the blessing of the bishop of Luwero.
In February 2005 the leaders of the global Anglican communion asked the U.S. Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada to temporarily withdraw from a key council-a move designed to avoid a permanent schism over differences on homosexuality and same-sex unions.
The issue of openly gay clergy continues to roil most mainline Protestant denominations. In December 2004, an openly lesbian United Methodist minister was stripped of her ministerial credentials by a church trial court. The Rev. Irene Elizabeth “Beth” Stroud was found guilty Dec. 2 of engaging in “practices that are incompatible with Christian teachings.” Stroud’s case was the third lesbian trial in the United Methodist Church since the denomination adopted a law barring “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from the ministry in 1984. On April 29, 2005, however, the denomination’s Northeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals overturned the trial court’s verdict and penalty, citing legal errors, and restored Stroud’s clergy standing. On Oct. 27, 2005, a hearing on the appeal was held by the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, and on Oct. 31, it defrocked the Rev. Stroud for violating the denomination’s ban on “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” clergy.
Beyond the fringe of mainline denominations lies the rapidly growing domain of the Protestant fundamentalists who erupted onto the public stage in the late 1970s, amassing enormous financial and political power through broadcast and cable programming, direct mail and videocassette distribution. Organizations such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America, the Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association, Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, the Rev. Lou Sheldon’s Traditional Values Coalition, and the Christian Coalition founded by televangelist Pat Robertson have made attacks on lesbian and gay people a major attraction of their crusades and their fundraising.
In August of 2003 Jerry Falwell informed his followers that:
Even farther out, beyond the pale for most Christians, lies the website God Hates Fags, created by the Rev. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Phelps and his followers are best known for picketing the funerals of gay people who have died of AIDS or anti-gay violence, such as Matthew Shepard. As they put it on their website:
Meanwhile, back in Rome, the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church gathered to elect a successor to John Paul II. In the shortest conclave in memory they elected as the new pope Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Whether Pope Benedict XVI will, like Nixon going to China, surprise both his supporters and his detractors remains to be seen. What is unquestionable at the moment of his election, however, in the words of Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson, is that “the church fled to yesteryear, hoping to avoid facing today.”
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