Groundhog Day and Religious Hate Speech: Time to Break the Cycle

A recent CNN blog post by the Rev. Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. about the Bible and sexuality reminded me of the funny though poignant Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day. You might recall that Murray’s character in that film finds himself reliving the same day over and over again.

Whenever I read yet another article, essay, book, or blog on the Bible and homosexuality, I feel exactly the same way as Murray’s character did – caught in an endlessly repeating loop of Bible bashing. This cycle must end, now, so that our churches and the wider society can actually get on with addressing a host of other issues that really matter.

Rev. Mohler’s point, of course, is that “homosexuality” is not a distraction from more urgent concerns but instead the most “pressing moral question of our times.” Really? Now that is stunning. Does Rev. Mohler really consider whom people choose to love to be a more pressing moral issue than, say, global climate change, nuclear weapons proliferation, grinding worldwide poverty, epidemic starvation, or genocide? The list of possible issues that just might be a bit more pressing is actually quite long.

To that list I would add this: religious hate speech. And it’s high time that religious leaders across this country held our colleagues accountable for their poisonous rhetoric.

There’s no point in rehearsing yet again why Rev. Mohler’s approach to the Bible is seriously misguided. I have had enough, more than enough, of living in this biblical Groundhog Day. Biblical scholarship on these questions has been, for more than fifty years now, resoundingly clear: biblical writers and their communities had no experience with what we today mean by LGBT people. (For those who are genuinely concerned about these topics, read a short summary of that scholarship here).

This too is clear: it’s not the Bible any of us needs to worry about but instead how people use the Bible to shore up their cultural prejudices. This has been happening for a very long time; many of us are guilty of it. But when people are dying, it’s time to stop.

As a Christian, an Episcopal priest, and a theologian, I am dismayed and appalled by the lack of moral responsibility demonstrated by Rev. Mohler in his cavalier religious condemnation of a whole segment of the human family, as if these condemnations have no social consequences. And he is certainly not alone. Consider the pastor who recently suggested corralling LGBT people behind an electrified fence and waiting for us to die out. Or consider another pastor who advocated prosecuting and punishing LGBT people like there were “historically” (read: stone them to death).

This kind of vitriolic and hurtful religious rhetoric leads far too many of our young people to commit suicide. Too many? One would be too many.

Consider how Rev. Mohler lumped same-gender affection together with bestiality and incest. So imagine you’re 15 years old, a devout Christian, and coming to grips with your same-gender attraction. Adolescence is arduous enough without a religious leader comparing you to someone who has sex with horses and your siblings. Throw peer bullying into that mix and it’s not so difficult to see why our teenagers are killing themselves. (Read this heartbreaking account of just one town’s struggle to keep their kids alive and the appalling lack of religious help they received.)

I am no longer interested in reasonable debate about diverse interpretations of ancient cultural sensibilities with religious leaders who refuse to do their homework. We don’t have time for that anymore. I want our teenagers to stop killing themselves. And I want our religious leaders to take responsibility for their hateful religious rhetoric.

Samantha Johnson (1996-2009)

Rev. Mohler, the blood on your hands comes with names: Jay “Corey” Jones, Jack Reese, Kenneth Weishuhn, Eric James Borges, Seth Walsh, T J Hayes, Samantha Johnson, Aaron Jurek, Justin Aaberg, Raymond Chase, Tyler Clemeti, and far, far too many more. Rev. Mohler, how do you even sleep at night?

In this country built on freedom and liberty, we are actually not free to yell “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater when we know there is no fire. That’s called “reckless endangerment,” and to put people in danger knowingly and without justification is illegal in all fifty states. It’s high time we realized that yelling “Leviticus 20:13” in a crowded high school has the same, reckless, dangerous effect.

How many more teenagers have to kill themselves before our courts of law prosecute these irresponsible and reckless clergy? Isn’t it past time that we file a class-action lawsuit against these purveyors of religious hate speech? How many more cycles of this biblical Groundhog Day must we endure?

Phil, Bill Murray’s character in that film, eventually uses that repetitive day to his advantage. He improves his life, learns new skills, and he even saves people’s lives. And yes, love actually breaks the cycle.

That sounds like the Gospel.

Author: The Rev. Dr. Jay

I'm an Episcopal priest, parish pastor, and Christian theologian as well as a writer, teacher, and occasionally, a poet. I'm committed to the transforming energy of the Christian gospel and its potential to change the world -- even today. Now that's peculiar, thank God!

7 thoughts on “Groundhog Day and Religious Hate Speech: Time to Break the Cycle”

  1. Thank you for this. The thing that many moderate Christians who do not feel personally affected by this issue don’t seem to understand is that — by not speaking up — you are basically handing the microphone to people like Mohler, and doing so at the peril of the future of the church. Recent polls (and the vast majority comments to every news article on the subject) indicate that people, especially the young, are disgusted with the church’s heavy-handedness on social issues (let alone extremists like the ones in North Carolina) and are walking away in droves. If we are to exist as an institution in fifty years, the progressive church has got to start turning up the volume on the gospel case for inclusion.

    1. Thanks for taking time to reply, Christian! And I totally agree: On so many topics, silence is actually a form of speech. We end up ceding the religious arena to those who are doing harm. I try to remember that about lots of things, from the war on women to intractable white supremacy. There’s so much work to do!

  2. My own Episcopal priest at a “welcoming” church instructed me to practice DADT. My dream is to have an inclusive church which provides a safe space for anyone to enter and explore their spirituality. With the kind of hate speech and the DADT platform of so many we are driving away those who are seeking faith as well as those that feel they can no longer be associated with this kind of attitude. I’m staying though to help bring about change.

  3. Dear Rev. Dr. Jay,

    I’m a gay Christian and have been intensely interested in the Episcopal Church for over 10 years, mainly because of its charitable and welcoming stance towards homosexual people. Even though the parish I attended back in 1998 when I first began learning about the Church was actually pretty conservative, I still felt welcomed even if not entirely affirmed in my homosexuality. So I attended every Sunday for over a year (which for many people may not sound like a long time, but for me to do it on a regular basis was kind of out of the ordinary—I’m not usually able to keep at something so regularly for such a long time).

    Anyway, I just wanted to comment briefly on your post “Groundhog Day and Religious Hate Speech: Time to Break the Cycle” from May 22. I should begin by admitting that I know next to nothing about Dr. Mohler, but I was baptized in a large Southern Baptist Church in 1996 (and I didn’t stay long after that), so I do know something about the SBC and its stance on homosexuality.

    My main reason for writing is to offer a reminder, for all who take the name Christian—and it may (and should) seem obvious at first glance: namely, that for all the necessary points you make in your post, it still needs to be said that for Christians it remains necessary for us to try and see why those with whom we disagree say what they do… to try and see “from the other’s point of view” and put the most charitable interpretation to their words. I don’t believe it does anybody any good to mischaracterize anyone’s viewpoint by failing to “walk in their shoes” (so to speak) and try to “see what they see” and why they say what they say.

    It seems to me when we forget to do this, we’ve failed in our charity as Christians.

    I followed the link to Dr. Mohler’s post that you included, and after reading it I can’t say that I found anything there that I would characterize as “hate speech.” You say you’re “appalled by the lack of moral responsibility demonstrated by Rev. Mohler in his cavalier religious condemnation of a whole segment of the human family”—but it’s not obvious to me, after reading his post, that he is “condemning” anyone. When I try to see what he’s saying, from his own point of view, he is voicing his particular understanding of the Bible’s own “condemnation” of certain human sexual acts—not persons. And I for one am still able to see a distinction between acts on the one hand and persons on the other.

    You mention “how Rev. Mohler lumped same-gender affection together with bestiality and incest” and wonder how a 15-year-old discovering their homosexuality would be affected by such a comparison. Help for such a person should surely come from religious associations, as you suggest—but hopefully from parents as well. I would hope that kids would be able to look to their parents for help first, before anyone else—and if we’re living in a world where that’s not the case, we’re in worse shape than I’d thought.

    So before we think the solution to gay teen suicide lies in criminal prosecution of any form of speech, let’s not forget to teach our kids how much God loves them. Then, when they hear so-called “Christian” leaders and preachers advocating criminal prosecution (or even physical abuse) of homosexual persons, they’ll know just how far from truly Christian such a message is.

    1. Thanks, Jay, for taking the time to reply to my blog! I appreciate your comments and perspective. Please know that I did not write in haste and considered carefully what I was trying to communicate about the religious rhetoric. I’ve been working on these issues for a good number of years now. I also grew up in Evangelical Christianity. I know what it’s like to “walk in their shoes.” I know the arguments inside/out. I also know that rational persuasion will not change their minds. I also know how deeply affecting religious pronouncements can be for teenagers — and seeking help from parents does not always (if ever) mitigate the power of that rhetoric. I am also a firm believer in learning from those with whom we disagree and I also truly believe that differences of opinion ought to be embraced and welcomed in a diverse Body of Christ. However, when teens are killing themselves, the room for disagreement is over, in my view.

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