Does religion breed homophobia?

by Russell Pollitt SJ

“Sadly it is religion, including our own, which targets, mostly verbally, and also often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people,” Bishop Robert Lynch of St Petersburg, Florida, said on his blog after the mass shooting of 49 people in a gay bar in Orlando.

We have to face the fact that gay-bashing is often encouraged, perpetrated and justified by believers. In the aftermath of the heinous crime committed at Pulse nightclub, many so-called religious people took to social media suggesting that this was a punishment from God. I was shocked to read these reactions from “Christians”. Sadly, most of the US bishops who issued statements about the killing could not even bring themselves to mention the word “gay” in their statements when, quite clearly, this was more than just terrorism. It was also an abominable homophobic attack.

It’s an uncomfortable question but one that we have to courageously face and take responsibility for: What role has religion (across the board) played in fueling homophobia? The answer is just as uncomfortable.

When I was working in a parish community I remember being called to the emergency room of a local hospital one night. A young man had been admitted, hardly recognisable, because he had been beaten to a pulp. Earlier that evening he had “come out” to his family. His father justified the assault saying that it was against his religion to have a “moffie” in the family. The family was deeply involved in the Catholic Church.

While religion and religious language cannot be used as the sole motivating factor for this killing, it seems appropriate that believers interrogate the words they use and the positions they take. Religious positions and language contribute to a cocktail in which homophobia is incubated and bred. The kind of language, for example, which is used in official texts of the Church powerfully shapes perceptions, attitudes and actions. After all, isn’t that what religious teaching strives to do – shape perceptions, attitudes and actions – hopefully for the good? Phrases such as “objectively disordered” are not helpful.

Many bishops at the Synod on the Family called for a re-look at such language. Others – unfortunately a number from America and Africa – were vociferous in their objection.

The man who pulled the trigger might have been Muslim. However, it is not uncommon for gay people to feel that the trigger is pulled, repeatedly, in the Christian community. Many feel unwanted and unwelcome in our church. Sometimes families feel too embarrassed to go to church, or in worst case scenarios, are shunned because of their gay family member. Gay people and their families have been treated as second-class citizens. Many gay people were never physically driven away from a church – the language alone was enough.

Bad religion, which includes bad religious language, is an assault rifle – and it is used often. Some pulpits are assault rifles. We need an urgent discussion in our church about the way we speak about and treat gay people. We need a conversion of mind, heart and language.

The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, said that homophobia is actually God-phobia because God loves everyone. That’s food for thought.

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church. @rpollittsj
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