A call for a nuanced view of religious leaders
This commentary is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect that of other authors at Box Turtle Bulletin.
January 4th, 2010
Most of us are capable of seeing our coworkers, family, and neighbors as possessing varying degrees of rejection or support.
We know that Aunt Gladys will ask when you’re going to go to Vermont to marry your young man and we appreciate her. But we also know that Uncle Fred will keep his mouth shut but, if asked, will say, “well, any of your special friends are always welcome in my home, but I’m just old fashioned and think a marriage is between a man and a woman”. And Cousin Susan loves you and supports you but really wishes that you were straight because, “the gay life is so much more difficult”.
Somehow we are able to accept Uncle Fred and Cousin Susan and their limitations without denouncing them as vile people. But too often our community views religious leaders through a dichotomous lens; either the minister is a fully supportive political ally, or a hate-filled anti-gay bigot.
But truthfully, most are neither.
Some ministers are fully supportive of political equality, but believe sexual engagement between anyone other that a heterosexually married couple is sinful. Other may be less quick to assign the “sinner” label, but are not comfortable with treating same-sex couples equally in society. Some accept same-sex attraction in their parishioners in the same way they might accept a physical impairment, not necessarily the ideal but also not soul-threatening. Many have never given it much thought at all, believing that homosexuals are like alcoholics or gamblers or those folk who stay home on Sunday so they have no relevance to the church.
Sadly, our community too often has only one description for any of the above: anti-gay.
But this is unfair to them and foolish of us. We can be, at times, too quick to denounce and drive away some who could in the future – or currently on some issues – be incredibly valuable allies if we only would let them.
One such example is in the news today. Joel Osteen, pastor of Houston’s Lakewood Church, gave an opening prayer at the inauguration Annise Parker, the newly elected lesbian mayor of Houston. To some in our community, this seemed unfathomable.
The Advocate opened their article with:
Megachurch pastor Joel Osteen, who ignited a firestorm in November with his comment to The View that gay people were not among “God’s best,” thanked the heavens on Monday for Annise Parker, the newly inaugurated lesbian mayor of Houston.
Queerty (who calls Osteen a “smiling bigot”) chose:
Unlike Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration, the mayoral inauguration of Houston’s Annise Parker did not include any flubbed lines. Except for for anti-gay ridiculous person Pastor Joel Osteen, at an opening prayer, praising god for “lifting up our new mayor, Annise Parker.”
It seems difficult to find in these paragraphs anything about Osteen that would suggest he’s not a raging homophobe. But whether or not it was intentional, it was definitely sloppy and lacking in thought.
Actually Osteen did not say that gay people were not among God’s best. In response to a question on The View from Whoopie Goldberg about whether gay people were welcome at his church, he responded,
We have ‘Everybody’s Welcome’. Gays and straights and all different religions and they’re all welcome. But, Whoopie, I come back to the, ya know, what I believe the Scripture teaches is that homosexuality is not God’s best. So I come from that value system of the Scripture, I can’t pick and choose. I love everybody, I can’t say that I don’t have friends who are not gay, they’re some of the nicest people in the world.
These are not the words of a hater or a homophobe. And they do seem consistent with Osteen’s past comments. In a 2005 interview with Larry King:
KING: Do you ever involve politics in the sermons?
OSTEEN: Never do. My father never …
KING: Never mention President Bush?
OSTEEN: Well, only to pray. Only to pray. We prayed for President Bush, Clinton, all of them. But I’ve never been political. My father hasn’t. I just, I have no …
KING: How about issues that the church has feelings about? Abortion? Same-sex marriages?
OSTEEN: Yeah. You know what, Larry? I don’t go there. I just …
KING: You have thoughts, though.
OSTEEN: I have thoughts. I just, you know, I don’t think that a same-sex marriage is the way God intended it to be. I don’t think abortion is the best. I think there are other, you know, a better way to live your life. But I’m not going to condemn those people. I tell them all the time our church is open for everybody.
KING: You don’t call them sinners?
OSTEEN: I don’t.
KING: Is that a word you don’t use?
OSTEEN: I don’t use it. I never thought about it. But I probably don’t. But most people already know what they’re doing wrong. When I get them to church I want to tell them that you can change. There can be a difference in your life. So I don’t go down the road of condemning.
I also note that Osteen welcomed Jay Bakker and Soulforce when they came to visit Lakewood Church and was not part of the recent Manhattan Declaration. Yet some in our community seem incapable of distinguishing Osteen’s religious interpretation of Scripture from, say, Ken Hutcherson’s crusade of hatred and bigotry.
I think it would be useful for our community to adopt a more nuanced view of religious leaders. By doing so, we might find ourselves with unexpected allies.
Joel Osteen does not agree with my understanding of Scripture; but his disagreement does not make him a hater or a bigot. And I recognize the value in having a lesbian politician – elected despite her opponent’s religion-based homophobic campaign – being given blessing by the pastor of the largest congregation in the nation.