taking the words of Jesus seriously

Sigmund Freud would have something to say about the ways in which we Evangelicals seem to be fixated on homosexuality.  That fixation became abundantly clear to me a few years back when I was doing radio interviews upon the publication of my book, Letters to a Young Evangelical.  The book has twenty-one chapters, yet on every one of the two-dozen interviews that I had on Christian radio stations I had to spend at least 80% of my air time concentrated on the few pages that dealt with homosexuality.

The primary focus of the questioning during these interviews focused on assertions, based on my own research and a survey of literature on the subject, that nobody has come up with a conclusive explanation of what causes a homosexual orientation, and that it develops so early in the bio-physical and social development of children that there is no way that it could be something that is deliberately chosen.  It seemed to me that the interviewers were not willing to accept what I had to say and wanted me to commit to one of two other options which I believe to be erroneous.

The first was the suggestion that the homosexual orientation is the result of poor socialization.  This is the commonly held belief among those Evangelicals who head up ministries that propose to “deliver” homosexuals and make them into heterosexuals.  The most cited version is that a boy overly identifies with a dominant mother, while his father is either absent from the household or is a somewhat weak personality.  This theory puts already upset and confused parents of gays on unnecessary guilt trips.

The other theory often proposed in these interviews was that being homosexual is somehow the result of trauma resulting from the gay person being sexually molested as a child.

The reasons for these unsupported beliefs were all too obvious to me.  If either of these theories had validity, then it could be said that homosexuals who wanted to change could do so by making the decision to be open to the work of God in their lives and getting some good Christian counseling.  When I questioned such conclusions, the interviewers usually came back at me by claiming that if I did not accept what they were saying I must be implying that the homosexual orientation was inborn.  That, to them, was unthinkable because, accordingly, this would lead to the assumption that God created homosexuals the way they are, and that we should accept them as such.  Over and over, I would have to repeat that nobody knows what establishes same-sex attraction in persons—and again I would have to assert that what we do know is that it is not the result of any conscious decision.

The interviewers immediately sensed that I was suggesting that there are no easy answers that we Evangelicals can offer to gays and lesbians who ask us about changing their sexual orientation.  I added to their anxieties when I went on to say that it is very rare that sexual orientations ever do change. I make it clear, however, that barring miracles, we Evangelicals have little to offer in the way of positive suggestions for those who are struggling with being homosexual in a homophobic world.  In reality, we only have two proposals—celibacy, which is my answer; and monogamous partnerships, which is an answer posed by my wife.

In my book, Letters to a Young Evangelical, I point out that there is an emerging new generation of young Evangelicals who are still conservative on their views on homosexual behavior, but refuse to make gay marriage the defining issue that it has become for older Christians.  Instead, these young people are more concerned with such issues as poverty, the AIDS crisis, the environment, and war.  It is no surprise, therefore, that they take Bono as their model for Christian activism.  This rock singer who has raised their consciousness about the crisis in Africa, is working hard to eliminate Third World debts.  Bono is committed to the causes that young Evangelicals deem significant and they are joining with enthusiasm in his crusade to “Make Poverty History.”

In many instances, those in this new generation are even reluctant to accept being called Evangelicals.  They sense that the label “Evangelical” is commonly thought to be synonymous with right wing politics and suggests a gay-bashing, anti-environmentalist, anti-feminist, and pro-war mindset.  Instead, they are increasingly calling themselves Red Letter Christians.  This name, of course, associates them with those verses in Scripture which record the words that Jesus spoke, which in many Bibles are printed in red.  That I affirm this designation and promote this new label in my book often greatly disturbs my interviewers.  They quickly remind me that Jesus never mentioned homosexuality.  “That’s right!” I respond.  “He undoubtedly maintained ancient Jewish laws on the matter, but condemning gays was not on His big-ten hit list, while attacking judgmental religious people was.”

In Letters to a Young Evangelical, I call young people to move beyond the preoccupation with sexual issues that have so absorbed the discussion of the over-50s crowd and coalesce into a new movement that is committed to also include a whole range of other crucial social justice issues.  I let them know that, while they ought not to neglect sexual issues, they really must move beyond them and overcome the fixation on homosexuality that I found so evident in my recent radio interviews.  Embracing a Christianity that deals with the broad spectrum of social concerns that are relevant to living out love and justice in the 21st century is required for an emerging church of young Evangelicals.  Any other kind of Christianity will prove irrelevant to them.

About The Author


Tony Campolo is Professor of Sociology at Eastern University, and was formerly on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. For 40 years, he founded and led the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, an organization that created and supported programs serving needy communities in the Third World as well as in “at risk” neighborhoods across North America. More recently, Dr. Campolo has provided leadership for the Red Letter Christians movement. He blogs regularly at his own website. Tony and his wife Peggy live near Philadelphia, and have two children and four grandchildren.

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