Signed, Cautious and Confused Scholar: The Perils of Writing a Religious History Column

Charity R Carney

I probably have no business writing for the local paper. But here I am, in rural East Texas, spreading the gospel of religious history in a region that thinks it already knows everything about that subject. For today’s post, I thought I’d share my most recent column (featured on the Religion page of Nacogdoches’ Daily Sentinel) and to ask how others handle writing for a non-academic audience. The following did cause a bit of a stir at the paper and adjusted placement because of its subject, which pushed me to consider how to best handle future articles and to seek the advice of others.

“More churches evolving to society, accepting LGBTQ church members”
Daily Sentinel, 7/13/2013

You can no longer “pray away the gay”—at least not according to leaders of the former Exodus International. In June of 2013, the same month that the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), Exodus International closed its doors. This decision is huge news for the religious right and gay rights advocates, alike. The organization was the leading provider of “reorientation therapy” for gays and lesbians in an attempt to make them straight or celibate. In an open letter, the leader of Exodus, Alan Chambers, apologized to the gay community “for years of undue suffering and judgment at the hands of the organization and the Church as a whole.” Chambers admitted that Exodus hurt many people and did not defend the rights of gays and lesbians when it should have. Some groups have lashed out against Exodus, but the announcement has also received considerable support from some evangelicals. Christians can be gay, too, they proclaim, and the ranks of homosexual believers is growing.

While many Christians are still openly anti-gay marriage and culture, lately many major pastors and evangelical leaders have come out in favor of it. And they may be on to something. One of the most impressive things about evangelical history is that the church always adapts—its rapid and impressive growth is largely due to the adaptation to current trends and to societies’ needs. This recent move towards inclusion may draw the ire of fellow Christians, but it will also help expand the congregations of gay-friendly churches. In a March interview, Rob Bell (former pastor of Mars Hill Baptist Church and a popular Christian speaker) urged Christians to love and accept all individuals despite sexual orientation. Bell argued, “I am for marriage. I am for fidelity. I am for love, whether it’s a man and women, a woman and a woman, a man and a man.” No matter the feelings of some opponents of gay rights, he said, ultimately “the ship has sailed” in terms of trying to prevent homosexual marriage. And the recent Supreme Court decision has proved his statement. “I think this is the world we are living in,” Bell insisted, “and we need to affirm people wherever they are.”

To be sure, Bell and the folks at Exodus International (which is reforming as Reduce Fear to promote an open dialogue about sexuality), are not representative of the entire Christian community. There are rifts in the evangelical ranks, especially when it comes to homosexuality. When the Boy Scouts recently altered its policies to allow gay members, churches across the nation severed their ties with the organization. But there are growing numbers of Christians who embrace gay rights and who are organizing to try to impact other believers. The Gay Christian Network, for instance, offers “safe spaces” for straight and gay Christians to build friendships and, simultaneously, compassion for each other. The Alliance of Baptists joined with the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists to publish a huge volume on accepting LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer) members, which includes biblical justifications for inviting homosexuals to share their pews. Across the country, more and more churches are opening their doors, hearts, and minds to gays and lesbians. Some pastors, like Sandra Turnbull, have made inclusion their mission and Rev. Dr. Mel White and his partner Gary Nixon started SoulForce—a Christian organization that relies on the nonviolent resistance taught by Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi to promote gay rights. Christian colleges are the sites for much of this change, too, as LGBTQ support groups have sprouted on campuses like Wheaton. Baylor University has shifted its policies to be more open to students with different sexual preferences, as evinced by its acceptance of star (and out) lesbian basketball player, Brittany Griner,

Despite varying and extremely conflicting viewpoints, it is apparent that the larger culture is changing and many Christians are adjusting their rhetoric and beliefs regarding homosexuality. This adaptation and the myriad of evangelical responses to it is not a divergence from evangelical history but is perfectly in line with past trends. Evangelicalism particularly is a malleable faith and is very good at adjusting to the needs of the larger culture—perhaps the shift towards gay marriage is simply representative of some of that adjustment. Although there is conflict and disagreement, it is apparent that instead of “praying away the gay” some Christians have decided to pave the way for gays and to bring them into the already diverse evangelical family. And that decision will certainly determine the next phase of church history.

Admittedly, I’m not too far into the columnist gig. This recent publication is the fourth one I’ve written for the paper, which serves a community of about 30,000 near the Texas/Louisiana border. Even with a fairly small distribution (8-9,000), there is a degree of anxiety that accompanies writing for a non-academic audience. I think my first three columns indicate that I’m fairly gun shy (I kept to evangelical themes and wrote about the history of the local Methodist congregation and one about Baptist schisms) but the lack of recent religious news in the local paper drove me to write one on a more contemporary topic. My question for you loyal bloggers and blog-ites is: how do you handle relating to the local community, if you have taken on that particular challenge? I know many of you give talks, lectures, write for the general public—do you find any challenges particular to discussing religious history and how do you write around or address local prejudices/ideologies/misconceptions regarding certain faiths or beliefs? I’m intending for the column to be more inclusive and cover other non-Christian groups in the region but have not introduced that element yet [knees knock]. Texas is admittedly a Lone Star in many ways with its own unique challenges but I would be interested to hear how other professional religious historians interact with “lay” communities. Also, if anyone would like to toss around an idea for the column’s title, that would be much appreciated. I’ve toyed with some lame ideas like “Faith Traditions.” Savvy names like “Juvenile Instructor” are already taken (because Chris is brilliant) and “Charity’s Religion Corner” sounds like a Nickelodeon special or early morning TBN show. Advice and suggestions welcome.

Signed, well you get the point. 


It's July and no one is jumping in ... what about "Spaces of Faith" or "Religious Perspectives"?
Christopher said…
Nice article, Charity. I'd be interested in hearing more about the "bit of a stir" the column caused. I can obviously imagine the reasons for the stir and how it might've played out, but I'm curious to know details if you're able/willing to share.

Re: the title: I think "Faith Traditions" is actually pretty good, in part because of the multiple meanings one could read into it.

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