This week, I will be standing out in 107-degree heat delivering a petition with 10,000 signatures to the Southern Baptist Convention asking the group to apologize for its treatment of LGBT people. The Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, Believe OutLoud, Faith in America, GetEqual and Soulforce will join my organization, Truth Wins Out, in this action.
Some skeptics ask – Why waste time appealing to this hostile and intransigent group that has no intention of apologizing?
The first reason is to reach LGBT youth who are growing up in Southern Baptist homes. Some of these young men and women have tumultuous experiences like Ben Alley. According to the Des Moines Register:
Ben Alley misses his parents. He’s 18 and just graduated from East Marshall High School in Le Grand, with scholarships to almost cover his costs at the University of Iowa. It’s a time for open houses and pride. But he won’t be getting that from his once-close family — the Southern Baptist minister father and the mother who home-schooled him early on.
They’re not dead; he’s dead to them. In his sophomore year, Ben informed his parents that he is gay. They informed him he wouldn’t be coming home after school the next day — or ever again.
The second reason we are asking for an apology is because it’s aspirational and serves as a map of what the SBC must do to stop the harm it is perpetrating against LGBT people. Clearly, the SBC will not change positions overnight, but the first step to an apology is asking – and that is what we are doing.
Third, it is critical that we hold the SBC accountable for supporting morally bankrupt and scientifically unsound “ex-gay” programs.
“The anti-gay teachings of the Southern Baptist church nearly led me to suicide,” said Dr. Jerry Stephenson, a former Southern Baptist minister and board member for Truth Wins Out. “I entered an ‘ex-gay’ ministry that falsely claimed I could change my sexual orientation and this led to a deep depression. Only after I accepted my true self was I able to reconcile my faith and sexual orientation.”
Finally, the SBC likes to portray its position on homosexuality as an unchangeable moral absolute. The facts, however, show that the SBC has changed its positions on minorities before.
Indeed, June 15 marks the 11-year anniversary of the Southern Baptist Convention’s historic apology to African Americans for the denomination’s support of slavery and segregation. Sadly, it took the SBC 150 years to finally acknowledge the tremendous suffering, death, and devastation caused by their misreading of Scripture. We’ll never know how much better the world might be had this apology occurred in 1895 instead of 1995.
Describing the apology proclamation, the SBC’s Richard Land said:
“Well, it says that slavery played a role in the formation of the convention and that too often we had not acted to promote racial equality, and we apologize for that. We lament that. We grieve over that and we repent of it and we ask for the forgiveness of our African-American brothers and sisters.”
Given the arc of justice and the trajectory of history, there is no doubt the SBC will offer a full-fledged apology to the LGBT community in the future. However, this will take time – considering the SBC did not apologize for the sin of racism until 1989 (They apologized for slavery in 1994).
For those who think an apology is a pipe dream, just remember that it was only 1958 when the late Baptist minister and segregationist Rev. Jerry Falwell preached in a sermon, “The true Negro does not want integration. He realizes his potential is far better among his own race.”
Within years of making this despicable statement, Falwell saw the light and reversed course. Fortunately, times change and old prejudices wither on history’s vine. George Wallace, who for most of his career was the face of segregation, renounced and apologized for his previous views. In our day, prominent political figures as diverse as Bill Clinton, Laura Bush, Ken Mehlman, and Cindy McCain have gone from opposing marriage equality to publicly supporting it.
The big story from the SBC’s annual meeting is the election of Fred Luter Jr. as the denomination’s first African-American Vice President. This would have been as inconceivable only a generation ago. Clearly, it is only a matter of time before a gay man or woman also leads the Southern Baptist Convention.
Each year, polls show more people support LGBT equality than ever. If the SBC does not change with the times, membership will decline and the denomination will wither as the majority of Americans come to view the SBC’s views as immoral and fringe. Two words, “I’m sorry” would show the SBC was ready to leave its spotty past behind and truly enter the 21st century.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”