The Christian Anti-Gay Campaign

Christian evangelicals helped spur Uganda to seek the death penalty for gay behavior—just the latest indication that homosexuals have replaced Jews as the new target for reactionary religious zeal.

Ilmars Znotins, AFP / Getty Images

Last March, Scott Lively and two other Christian evangelicals preached anti-gay diatribes at a conference in Uganda, warning of sexual assault against children and the destruction of the institution of marriage–a homosexual world conspiracy to destroy virtue. Lively wrote on his blog that he prayed his campaign would be “a nuclear bomb against the gay agenda in Uganda.” But then, as The New York Times reported the other day, Lively was shocked, shocked, when a bill attaching the death penalty to homosexuality was soon introduced into the Uganda legislature even though it was drafted in part by the organizers of the conference he had attended and Lively himself had met with Ugandan lawmakers to discuss it. Backing off, Lively said, “Let me be absolutely clear. I do not support the proposed anti-homosexuality law as written. It does not emphasize rehabilitation over punishment, and the punishment it calls for is unacceptably harsh.”

Lively and his kind cannot denounce “evil” on one hand, and claim surprise when actions taken against it are “harsh” on the other.

Lively is only the latest of a long line of preachers of hate who try to distance themselves from the actual consequences of their demonizing sermons. The connection between speech and the behavior it can provoke is a perennial human question, but when the speech is religious, invoking a divine authority and associating objects of denigration with Satan, the problem becomes explosive. It is a small step from labeling someone as damnable to turning their life into hell on earth, and it is time for preachers to be called to account for the way their words encourage listeners to take that step. Lively and his kind cannot denounce “evil” on one hand, and claim surprise when actions taken against it are “harsh” on the other.

Homosexuals are the global scapegoat du jour, the ready vessel into which unsettled reactionaries of all kinds can channel their anguish, fear, and violent impulses. This is true in the United States, where gay marriage is a crackling flash-point in the culture war and gays in the military are still discriminated against. It is true throughout the Muslim world (of the seven nations that punish homosexuality with the death penalty, six are Islamic, and the population of the seventh–Nigeria–is half Muslim). In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, fundamentalist Christians, as well as members of mainstream denominations like some conservative Anglicans, are increasingly defining their opposition to secularism by singling out gays for God-sanctioned hatred. The global crisis of HIV/AIDS has only fueled such denigration. (Twenty years ago, Uganda was leading African nations in promoting rational public-health initiatives to stem the epidemic, but by now homosexuals are as irrationally stigmatized there as anywhere.)

Across the centuries in the Christian West, the master-victims of scapegoating were Jews, and there the tension between preached dogma and the violence it spawned was not reckoned with until too late. Christian mobs often attacked whatever Jews they could find, especially during Holy Week, when the suffering and death of Jesus were commemorated. Just like Lively now, Christian leaders—Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic—often condemned the violence without asking what inspired it. After thousands of Jews were murdered in the Rhineland during the First Crusade, the Pope issued the landmark papal bull Sicut Judaeis: “We decree that no Christian shall use violence” against Jews. That bull was reissued by more than 20 popes over 400 years, but it never seemed to dawn on the popes to ask why such exhortation was so endlessly necessary, as mobs continued century in and century out to launch their pogroms–especially during Holy Week, when what they heard from pulpits was that the Jews had killed Christ.

Anti-Semitism is rooted in theology. Homophobia is rooted elsewhere, but comes with a theological sanction. A few anti-gay Bible verses don’t explain this hatred. Its hidden complexities range from contempt for the material world to suspicion of pleasure to fear of sex itself. These origins are obscure because humans are afraid to look at them. It is enough to bring in a damning God. Among Christians, Evangelicals are at the extreme end of homosexual demonization. The Catholic Church, as it did with Jews, firmly renounces “all forms of violence against homosexuals,” in words a Vatican delegate addressed to the United Nations little over a year ago. The Vatican opposes “all criminal penalties,” as well. But, as it did with Jews, the Vatican still promulgates contemptuous teachings about homosexuality—“objectively disordered,” says the Catholic Catechism. Early in his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI broke with a tradition that had long quietly accommodated homosexuals in the clergy, now forbidding entry into the priesthood of anyone having “a gay orientation” or “deep-seated homosexual tendencies.”

Now Rome complains that the Anglican Communion is affirming gays through blessed unions and full admission to the priesthood. The complaint is no surprise. In 2008, Benedict labeled homosexuality as a “destruction of God’s work” on a par with the ruination of the tropical rain forests. Gays, he said, threaten “the order of creation.” This is less blatant than, say, the “God hates fags” sign carried by Protestant fundamentalists at Matthew Shepard’s funeral in 1998, but the drift is toward the same hateful conclusion.

Religious dogma cannot be preached in a sphere removed from its real-world consequences. Speakers are responsible for what follows from their hateful speech, especially when it is offered as God’s word. It took the Holocaust for Christians to learn that about the teaching of contempt for Jews. What will it take in the case of gays?

James Carroll's recent book is Practicing Catholic, a story of American belief. He is a columnist for the Boston Globe and Distinguished-Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. His other books include An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award, House of War, winner of the PEN-Galbraith Award, and Constantine's Sword, now an acclaimed documentary.