Religion-Based Bigotry

Religion-based bigotry is the foundation of anti-gay attitudes in our society and in the minds of a majority of Americans, particularly persons of faith.  The term religion-based bigotry was coined because it best fits the description of the problem. The term religion-based bigotry encompasses the attitudes of prejudice, hostility or discrimination that are falsely justified by religious teachings or belief. We will never see full and equal rights unless we address the root of people’s anti-gay attitude.

Religion-based bigotry is not synonymous with bigotry. It is a uniquely vile form of bigotry as the prejudice, hostility and discrimination behind the words are given a moral stamp of approval.

Faith in America’s core message is that religious-based condemnation and rejection of LGBT people cause great harm to LGBT individuals and our society.

We have learned that when we focus on the harms caused by religious hostility toward gay people – its destructive role in the lives of gay and lesbian Americans and explaining that being gay is not a lifestyle choice but is how you are born– persons of faith can understand why religion must no longer be misused to justify hostile attitudes and actions toward LGBT people. These stories, told by the people who have been the subject of or witness to religion-based bigotry serve as a powerful tool to begin changing the hearts and minds of persons of faith.

Faith in America’s efforts—and those of many other LGBT organizations—are working. A recent Gallup poll that showed a majority of Americans no longer consider homosexuality as immoral and we believe this is in large part due to the efforts to show Americans that being gay is not a lifestyle choice. Personal stories move people.

The following are core messages you can use when addressing those espousing religion-based bigotry.

1.     Religion-based bigotry causes enormous harm to LGBT people, especially young, vulnerable teens.

More than a million LGBT teens are suffering debilitating depression because their families and religious institutions see them as deviants. Suicide rates amongst LGBT youth are four times higher than those of heterosexual youth.

LGBT people are victims of discrimination and bigotry, which are often justified and promoted by religious teaching that says homosexuality is immoral, sinful or abominable. If we don’t talk about it, no one will know how much hurt and suffering it causes. It is particularly important for those in the religious movable middle to hear this, because no concept is more antithetical to the faith values of love and compassion than causing harm to others.

In 2008, Faith in America published CRISIS: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America. Traveling the country promoting CRISIS has allowed us to see firsthand the transformative power of telling stories about our youth. People don’t want to hurt children. They may not have sympathy for an adult advocacy leader talking about job discrimination or marriage, but they do sympathize with vulnerable teenagers.

For example, Dr. David Gushee, a Christian ethicist, author and Southern Baptist minister, wrote the following about CRISIS in the June 2009 issue of Christian Century (a mainline Protestant publication going to 70,000 members, largely clergy): “As an evangelical Christian whose career has been spent in the South, I must say I find it scandalous that the most physically and psychologically dangerous place to be (or even appear to be) gay or lesbian in America is in the most religiously conservative families, congregations and regions of this country. Many of the most disturbing stories in this volume come from the Bible Belt. This marks an appalling Christian moral failure.”

When people of faith understand they are causing harm, it creates a conflict or question – can causing such harm to others exist comfortably with the core faith principles of love and compassion? That inner conflict will be resolved in two ways: 1) Avoidance that results in unresolved inner conflict; or 2) Analysis and reconsideration of their attitude or belief.

It is this conflict – a deeper analysis, process or journey – that our messaging guidelines can help foster in the minds and hearts of the religious middle. This process of change does not happen overnight. But by sharing the harm caused by religiously based rejection and condemnation of gay people, we can plant the seeds of change.

2.     Sexual orientation is a natural part of a human’s being whether it be heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual.

Studies have shown that if a person believes sexual orientation is a choice, they are 70% more likely to be against LGBT equal rights (2007 Gallup’s annual Values and Beliefs Survey). Conversely, if a person believes sexual orientation is part of how you are created, they are 70% more likely to be in favor of LGBT equal rights.

We’ve learned there is something much deeper here that we need to address. The religious teachings that many people of faith embrace play an important role in whether people see being gay as a choice. Many people of faith believe:

  • Heterosexuality is for all people the normal and natural expression of sexuality. Homosexuality is a conscious choice to deviate from this norm.
  • Gay people, according to religious teachings, are committing a sin and are an abomination.
  • Gay people are making a conscious choice to go against God’s will or order.
  • If it is a conscious choice, children who are exposed to gay teachers or gay married couples might CHOOSE to be gay.

We must educate Americans on the scientific facts about sexual orientation. Homosexuality is not a deliberate choice. It is innate to some people. One’s sexual orientation is not a deliberate decision to act against God’s will.

Just as religion-based bigotry underlies most anti-gay attitudes, the belief that homosexuality is a sinful choice is the cornerstone of religion-based prejudice against gay people. We cannot ignore it and hope to change the attitude of someone who has been taught that homosexuality is sinful. But when we offer someone a better understanding of sexual orientation, we can affect their mindset without getting mired in a never-ending theological discussion.

Rebutting the argument that being gay is a choice is important for another reason as well. Most persons of faith, conservatives in particular, are familiar with how church teaching in the past has justified treating women and African Americans as inferior. They know that religious communities have, for the most part, rejected such prejudices as harmful and misguided. By emphasizing that being gay is an innate condition, we can get them to understand that it is equally wrong to treat others unfairly based solely on their sexual orientation.

3.     Religion-based bigotry against LGBT people is wrong…just as it was wrong to use religious teachings to justify discrimination against Native Americans, African Americans, minority religious groups, woman and interracial couples.

Connecting the dots between historical bigotry against other groups and the attitudes of some people today toward homosexuality is one of the most effective ways to educate people about the denial of equal rights to the LGBT community.

Most people know that, historically, religion has been used to justify discrimination against women, religious minorities and people of color. Putting anti-gay religious beliefs in this historical context can be a powerful tool in connecting discrimination that most Americans today accept as morally wrong and the discrimination faced by LGBT people. By citing historical instances of religion-based bigotry and prejudice, you allow people to be more comfortable with attitudinal change – they realize they are not stepping out alone against a commonly accepted viewpoint but rather following historical progress toward justice and equality.

When talking about the misuse of religion to justify discrimination in the past, it is important not to say that the LGBT community’s struggle with discrimination is exactly the same as the Civil Rights Movement. Rather, the point is that religion-based bigotry has been a common denominator of injustice toward many groups in American society’s past. When given a chance, many people will see the underlying historical pattern of using religious teachings and beliefs to justify harmful discrimination.

There is another benefit to citing other times in the past when religious teachings have been used to justify discrimination. Many times, when people of faith are challenged about their anti-gay views, they cite biblical verses or other religious texts as a safe haven when they are unable to articulate why they hold prejudiced attitudes toward LGBT people. Instead of telling people that their interpretation is wrong, you can remind them that other religious texts have been used in the past to justify attitudes and laws that are recognized today as morally wrong and unjust – such as discrimination against women, people of color and religious minorities.

History provides the moral judgment, and we do not have to be theologians engaged in scriptural debates to point people to the judgment rendered by history.

Explore our site for more information on how to confront religion-based bigotry in your community.