Buzzfeed reported last week that HGTV stars of the show “Fixer Upper,” Chip and Joanna Gaines, belong to a church that is “firmly against same-sex marriage.” Of course, it may come as little surprise that an Evangelical church in Waco, Texas holds such a view. After all, no more than 27 percent of white Evangelical Protestants (and 39 percent of black Protestants) support same-sex “marriage.” Of those who actually attend church services weekly, little more than a third favor it. In short, this is not news.
But is this, instead, a religious witch hunt? Is this a refusal to coexist with people who hold traditional views on sexual morality? Does this presage a time in which people holding traditional Christian beliefs will be news? The apparent assumption of this article is that we should be shocked if we were to learn that people are exercising their constitutional right to live out their faith. Intentionally or not—I will not assume one way or the other—the author of this piece, Kate Aurthur, may be contributing to the normalization of popular shock at people for being nothing other than Christian. And her prejudice was echoed by other media outlets.
The question Aurthur ought to be asking is not whether Chip and Joanna agree with their pastor but whether they have ever physically or verbally expressed hatred towards the gay community. If so, then I will happily support any effort to pressure HGTV into pulling the plug on their show. Otherwise, why not leave these people alone?
For some people, harassment is justified not only on the grounds that their pastor, Jimmy Seibert, opposes same-sex “marriage,” but by the supposition that he supports “gay conversion therapy.” Here Aurthur seems to be making a certain logical leap. To note that Seibert claims to know people who have changed their sexual orientation does not imply support for the worst manifestations of what is otherwise known as sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE). The term “gay conversion therapy” conjures images of coercion; of child abuse; of unscientific efforts to change the core of one’s being.
Let me first address the last image. It is certainly true that we cannot change the core of a person’s being. But it is misleading to say that sexual orientation forms part of that core. The American Psychological Association cites research that “has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation,” and they note that “no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles…” Therefore, insofar as “nurture” does play a role, then the claim that sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) are inherently ineffective strikes me as unscientific. Indeed, even the APA, which is otherwise skeptical of SOCE, has acknowledged that “recent studies document that there are people who perceive that they have benefited from [SOCE].”
That is all well and good when we are discussing adults who freely choose to undergo SOCE, but what about children? If children lack the mental capacity to exercise such a choice, then having one’s son or daughter undergo SOCE necessarily involves coercion, does it not? Assuming that premise to be true, my answer would be, “Yes. But what is your point?” For it is my view that force, per se, is not what makes people so vehemently opposed to SOCE. Rather, it is the content of what is being forced. All reasonable people would agree that it is defensible to “force” one’s children not to lie, kill, steal, and so on. Today, certain sexual behavior is removed from this list because it is no longer considered morally or socially relevant; thus SOCE is now considered force in the “bad” sense. But what about parents who disagree with the new consensus? The right to instill our religiously inspired moral values in our children is a corollary of our right to teach them our faith, no matter how hard the forces of secularization try to dictate how we live it out.
But is the potential “harm” to children that SOCE entails not grounds for denying parental rights? Let me be clear: if you condition your love for and acceptance of your child on whether he cooperates with or benefits from these efforts, I believe that you are being a lousy parent, and I genuinely fear for your soul (Our Lord prayed for his own executioners while hanging on the cross, and you wish to withhold love from your own flesh and blood merely because he is attracted to members of the same sex?). But I question the assumption that efforts to change the sexual orientation of one’s child—however futile skeptics believe those efforts to be—necessarily betoken such callousness on the part of Christian parents. Pastor Seibert, himself, believes that “you can lovingly, carefully bring them back to Scripture,” and that you should “be compassionate in the journey.” Where in this comment do we see a suggested threat to disown one’s child? Where does he imply that a parent’s love should be conditioned on his son or daughter’s sexual orientation? Unfortunately, there is little hope that the vilification of traditional Christian parents will cease anytime soon.
On a separate note, attending a church in which the pastor does appear to endorse some form of sexual orientation change—and, for the sake of argument, let us assume that SOCE is unequivocally evil—does not in itself imply that the couple condones it. Pastors are not the mouthpieces of their congregations. Before I converted to Orthodox Christianity, I once attended a church in which the pastor attempted to argue, weeks before our 2003 invasion of Iraq, that the impending war was divinely ordained and fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. It is reasonable to surmise that that war has harmed far more people than SOCE, but I do not consider myself responsible for the war merely because I attended a church in which the pastor’s biblical exegeses were, in my view, utterly ridiculous. I am not George W. Bush. Nor is Chip or Joanna Pastor Seibert. If one stopped attending a particular church because he strongly disagreed with something his pastor preached, then he would be forced to stay at home on Sundays, since no pastor is infallible.
When we reflect on the non-story that a celebrity couple attends a church where the pastor believes what a majority of weekly churchgoers believe, it is difficult not to sense that simply being a Christian is becoming a scandal (whether this is an eschatological omen or a mere historical phase is beyond my knowledge). What, if anything, can the individual Christian do to resist this trend? As far as our conduct on social media is concerned, I believe that it is helpful to recognize that there is a beautiful—dare I say Christian—impulse among liberals to advocate for groups who are (or, at the very least, are imagined to be) disadvantaged, even if they do not always act on this impulse in reasonable ways. I try to keep this in mind whenever I debate liberal friends on controversial issues. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, as it is often said. However, we are more likely to engage peacefully and productively with our liberal friends when we act on the assumption that they at least have these intentions.