When Exodus International (EI), a group established nearly 40 years ago to “mobilize the Body of Christ to minister grace and truth to a world impacted by homosexuality,” folded its tent in mid-June, EI President Alan Chambers issued an apology to those the organization had hurt. His words seemed tailor-made to illustrate an April 2013 report that likened many of today’s Christians to Pharisees, a political party and social movement that existed from 140-37 BCE and whose members are typically characterized as rigid and narrow-minded.
“I am sorry,” Chambers told his followers, “that so many have interpreted religious rejection by Christians as God’s rejection. I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives.”
This announcement came a month after the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC), the largest Lutheran denomination in the country, elected its first openly gay Bishop to serve the southwest California synod. What’s more, a June ABC News/Washington Post poll revealed that 57 percent of U.S. adults support gay marriage.
While most Americans have greeted these developments with cheers and hosannas, arguing that they are proof that the country is moving in a positive direction on issues of sexual honesty, not everyone is jazzed about the end of EI or the new inclusivity of the ELC. In fact, skeptics wonder if these shifts are opportunistic attempts to fill the pews, sidestep lawsuits, or simply offer image repair for those “pro-life,” “pro-family,” Christians whose careers have been tainted by scandal.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Among the most notorious evangelists are Jim Bakker, Creflo and Taffi Dollar, Ted Haggart, Marvin Gorman, Eddie Long, John Paulk, and Jimmy Swaggart. And of course it’s not just people of the cloth who have been caught with their pants down and their hands in the till. Larry Craig, John Ensign, Vito Fossella, Mark Foley, and David Vitter are just a few of the federal legislators whose pious public personas were eventually revealed to be far different from their hard-partying—and often gay—private ones.
The word sanctimonious comes quickly to mind.
This conclusion prompted the Barna Group, an independent Ventura, California-based research organization started and headed by evangelical Christian George Barna, to launch a survey this spring to determine if self-defined Christians are more likely to favor Jesus or the Pharisees. The nationwide study sought “to identify baseline qualities of Jesus, like love, empathy, and a desire to share faith with others—or the resistance to such ideals in the form of self-focused hypocrisy.”
Twenty agree/disagree questions were presented including: “I listen to others to learn their story before telling them about my faith,” “I see God-given value in every person,” “It is more important to help people know God than it is for them to make sure they know they are sinners,” “I feel compassion for people who do immoral things,” “I avoid LGBTQ people,” and “I think people who follow God’s rules are better than those who do not.”
Leaving aside the centrality of God and the implied judgments woven into these questions, the Barna Group’s findings are a surprising condemnation of Evangelical and born-again behavior. In fact, researchers concluded that a preponderance of people who call themselves Christians “identified as Pharisaical,” and only 14 percent “seemed to represent the actions and attitudes consistent with those of Jesus.” The poll also found that “most Christians lack Jesus’ care for others.”
The study’s denouement is especially critical:
It is a lot easier to point fingers at how the culture is immoral than it is to confront Christians in their comfortable spiritual patterns. Perhaps pastors and teachers might take another look at how and what they communicate. Do people somehow get the message that the right action is more important than the right attitude?
The report does not provide concrete suggestions for behavioral change, and the group refused Rewire’s request for an interview, so it is impossible to know exactly what types of messages and attitudes the authors are referring to. Still, it does not seem far-fetched to think that it might propel Christian anti-abortion zealots to reconsider the wisdom of standing at clinic entrances and berating women as sluts and baby-killers. Similarly, conservative activists might refuse to label gay people as sodomites and AIDS vectors because such words are antithetical to the spiritual values they profess to cherish.
Rebecca Turner, executive director of Faith Aloud, which describes itself as “the religious and ethical voice for reproductive justice,” agrees, but cautions that behaving in a Christ-like manner requires a deep transformation. She references an ideological stance that was articulated by devout believers for years—that they were able to love gay people without approving of their lifestyle, in essence loving the “sinner” but hating the “sin.”
“Maybe some of the people who said this have come around and realized that this is actually not a loving attitude, that to have compassion means putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, especially if they think they are doing immoral things,” Turner said. “Being able to identify with someone relates to how much compassion they feel. If you understand why someone might have an abortion or love someone of the same gender, it can have a profound impact.”
At the same time, the need for increased empathy ups the challenge—not just for people of faith, but for atheists, agnostics, and the spiritually confused—pushing us to move from the expedience of a verbal apology to real, lived acceptance of others. Exodus International is a case in point. Making real amends requires action to undo the bigotry and hatred that was promulgated both organizationally and by individuals; it also requires those who were victimized to begin the slow, time-consuming work of healing. By fading into oblivion, EI is foreclosing the possibility of dialogue with the people it hurt. Perhaps Alan Chambers will make himself personally available. I certainly hope so, for at the end of the day, he has a great deal of power—and he can choose to emulate Jesus or behave like a Pharisee.