This week, a group of the country’s most prominent evangelical figures released a document condemning lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and those who affirm them in what they called the Nashville Statement. Read the list of signatories and you’ll recognize the names — presidents of some of the country’s largest seminaries and pastors of burgeoning evangelical churches.
I spent three years writing a Ph.D. dissertation on the religious and spiritual dimensions of suicide among LGBTQ people, and aside from the interesting nuances of the research and the elegance of the theory that developed from that work, there’s one cruel fact that became clear: this type of theology is brutalizing the bodies and berating the souls of LGBTQ youth. In fact, it is literally killing many of us.
Take a look at a few recent statistics:
- In 2015, GLSEN surveyed 10,528 students and found that 57.6 percent of LGBT students studied felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, 43.3 percent felt unsafe because of their gender expression (an increase from 2013).
- 82.5 percent experienced verbal harassment at school because of their sexual orientation or gender expression (another increase from 2013).
- 57.6 percent of LGBTQ students who were harassed or physically assaulted at school didn’t tell a staff member because they thought it would not help or would even make the situation worse.
- LGBT youth represent about 5 percent to 7 percent of the total youth population, but comprise up to 45 percent of homeless youth in the U.S. (Seeking Shelter report)
- The Surgeon General reports that around 30 percent of LGBT adolescents report attempts at suicide compared with 8 percent to 10 percent of all adolescents. And the National Transgender Discrimination Survey shows a 41 percent suicide attempt rate for trans people.
But those are cold statistics, facts on a page, representable in a flat pie chart or bar graph. I spent hours upon hours sitting face-to-face with LGBTQ people who have attempted suicide in their past and survived — people for whom suicide became a thinkable option largely because of theologies that suggested that living as LGBTQ people in their churches and families and communities was impossible.
One participant described her religious beliefs about lesbian sexuality leading up to suicide attempt, saying,
And these are things I thought because of my Southern Baptist upbringing and all those things I had heard preached from the pulpit and the scriptures that I had learned. So there was no way out for me if I wanted to be accepted by the church, accepted by my family, and accepted in the public. There was no way I could come out. Because I didn’t want to be alone out there.
Another told me about living his entire life until nearly the age of 50 without knowing that Christian churches which affirmed LGBTQ people even existed! He described the religious messages he received in the years leading up to his two suicide attempts in his teens and 20s with these words:
As a kid, if you’re told you do something [that’s] an abomination, you can’t tell the difference being told what you do is an abomination and who you are is an abomination. I think it’s impossible for kid. And the primary message about that was so concerned with whether or not you had sinned that the fact that Jesus loved me no matter what, now and forever, was lost.
The signatories of the Nashville Statement see this as a fight for the soul of evangelicalism. But in reality, this is a struggle for the souls of our LGBTQ family and friends and neighbors. The souls of LGBTQ people have been assailed for far too long by the largest and loudest Christian leaders in the U.S. while so many progressive churches with scads of LGBTQ people in the pews have contented themselves to affirm LGBTQ people but “not make a big deal about it” — debating whether to display a rainbow flag on their sign or state their affirmation on their website or consigning their celebration of LGBTQ lives to one week in June.
The statistics and the voices of LGBTQ people are enough to convince me that the Evangelicals are still succeeding in killing LGBTQ from the inside out — soul first. If those of us who stand in contradiction to the theology represented in the Nashville Statement are going to make any lasting difference, we must stop being content to affirm in subtlety and silence or with once-a-year celebrations. We must add to our LGBTQ affirmation the knowledge and skills to competently work alongside LGBTQ people to increase their livability and flourishing of life (that’s the impetus behind my new book on ministry with LGBTQIA youth).
It is not enough to denounce the theology represented in this heinous statement on social media, convincing ourselves that “most people know this doesn’t represented mainline Christianity,” or contenting ourselves with the small, affirming bubble we’ve created. Churches that seek to cultivate the abundance of life for LGBTQ people have work to do, and that work will be lifesaving.