If you’re looking for high drama and political intrigue, you’re not likely to find much of it here in Tippecanoe County, Indiana. Our humble little slice of America isn’t exactly the most exciting or influential of places. But in the past few weeks, a notable controversy has captured headlines and caused quite the stir.
It all started when word got out that the West Lafayette City Council was entertaining legislative action that would essentially prohibit the use of conversion therapy in counseling settings with minors. Although the ramifications of such an ordinance would be broad, at the top of the list of those most affected would be evangelical faith communities where LGBTQ lifestyles are believed to be sinful.
The fact that such a proposal would surface here, of all places, is no coincidence. As it happens, our county is home to a Baptist megachurch that has established itself as a national giant in the biblical counseling movement. For years, this church has trained and mobilized dozens upon dozens of (unlicensed) counselors who exclusively use the Bible to shape the behaviors of their clients. And when accompanied by a theological framework that involves an unshakable commitment to heteronormativity, it’s not hard to imagine what sort of counsel might be given to gay teenagers who walk into one of their offices. They don’t like to use the term “conversion therapy,” but it is what it is.
Needless to say, the response to the ordinance was fierce. Led by the efforts of this congregation and its very public pastor, a local evangelical coalition quickly formed to fight against the proposed legislation. They invoked the principle of religious freedom and decried the government’s targeted persecution of Christians.
Several weeks later, after lots of heated exchanges, newspaper op-eds, petition signatures, and anxious hand-wringing in conservative churches, it appears that the resistance has been successful. In a recent meeting, the City Council officially withdrew the proposal. For now anyway, the storm has blown over.
But here’s the detail that particularly interests me. As the dust settles and evangelicals celebrate the victory, it’s being reported that one of the chief reasons behind the City Council’s change of course is the threat of a lawsuit from the faith communities who so strongly opposed it. In fact, one of the councilmen behind the legislation indicated that he was withdrawing it in order to spare the city the inevitable legal costs of defending itself.
That’s a fascinating piece of information. And it reveals the degree to which this whole debate ultimately came down to a power play.
From an outsider’s perspective, this makes it look like the local church community effectively bullied their way to victory. While rallying their constituents around a shared fear of being mistreated by the government, they leveraged their own political capital to shut down the possibility of having to rethink their practices.
I consider this a massive fail. Whatever one believes about human sexuality, the role of government, or the regulation of unlicensed counselors, it’s not a good look for any community of faith to win a debate by telling their opponents, “We’ll sue you if we don’t get our way.” It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with voicing concern about a proposed piece of legislation. But there’s a way to walk through this world with conviction, and that ain’t it.
Being a person of faith at times requires offering a contrarian voice. In Christianity and plenty of other religious traditions around the world, there is a rich history of conscientious opposition. But at its best, this opposition has been directed toward the oppressors, toward those who use their wealth and power to exploit the vulnerable. Religious resistance, therefore, is an act of solidarity with those who are downtrodden. It is a commitment to advocate alongside the marginalized for justice in the places where it has been denied.
In other words, people of faith should stand in the way of those who would seek to litigate their way into a position of influence, not adopt their strategies. Something has clearly gone terribly wrong when spiritual communities begin to resemble the very institutions of power that they’re supposed to critique.
All of this leaves me wondering, what if?
What if, instead of immediately mounting a defense, the faith community stopped to listen to those who are concerned by its methods?
What if, instead of doubling down on their commitment never to change their convictions, church leaders asked to hear from LGBTQ youth who have been harmed by conversionist counseling practices such as their own?
What if, instead of having lawyers on hand to preserve their interests, biblical counseling volunteers invited psychologists and mental health experts to independently assess their policies and offer suggestions for occupying a more positive role in the lives of young people?
Regardless of whose side you’re on, there’s a good reason for local leaders to be concerned about unlicensed church counselors telling fifteen year-olds that their feelings about people of the same sex are deserving of God’s unending and unrestrained wrath. That sort of thing can’t help but have an effect on people. And the effect is rarely good.
Research now indicates that suicide is the leading cause of death among people between the ages of 10 and 24 in our society. And one of the greatest tragedies of this situation is that LGBTQ youth are four times more likely than their peers to attempt to take their own lives.
Without support, love, and affirmation, our children are dying. And conversion therapy isn’t helping matters. If anything, it’s doing the opposite. It’s pushing teenagers closer and closer to self-shame, self-hatred, and ultimately, self-harm.
So when a local government considers cracking down on conversion therapy among minors, maybe it shouldn’t be written off as merely a secular agenda to persecute the church. Maybe it shouldn’t immediately be turned into an us-versus-them fight over politics, religious freedom, or the authority of the Bible. This is about protecting the lives of a vulnerable population. Those who think their own religious freedom is the only thing at stake need to make room for larger considerations.
Our spiritual convictions, like all of our convictions, need to be scrutinized. They aren’t infallible just because our parents taught them to us, or because our pastor told us they were true. They are subject to critique, and we must hold them up to the light, honestly evaluating whether or not they promote the wholeness and flourishing they claim to.
Here in our town, I can’t help but think that an opportunity to do just that has been sadly missed. Where there was a threat of lawsuits, there could have been an invitation to find common ground. Where there was a response of defensiveness, there could have been a willingness to learn.
The world will not be made new by power struggles and litigation. It will be made new by the transformative potential of humility and love.
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