The ad appeared in the Pella Town Crier on Wednesday, May 8, 2019, publicizing the premiere of a documentary entitled “Fire and Brimstone,” at a church in nearby Oskaloosa, Iowa, on May 11. “After 32 years of homosexuality and transgenderism,” the ad text said, “this documentary about David Arthur presents a powerful testimony of deliverance from sexual perversion, prostitution, drug addiction, gambling, alcohol and more.” Local pastors were invited to meet with Mr. Arthur before the film showing.
The event was sponsored by Iowa Huddle, which is affiliated with Dave Daubenmire, or “Coach Dave,” the Ohio high-school football coach turned Christian Right provocateur, who urges his on-line flock to take America back from the forces that assail it: the “Clinton crime family,” the “homosexual agenda,” weather terrorism, vaccination, Jewish bankers, etc. He seeks to “re-stigmatize homosexuality.” He warns that the need of the hour is the defense of “the white Christian heterosexual American male,” and says we need more “violent Christians.” “Don’t love your enemies, CRUSH THEM!” he exhorts. “Then lead them to Jesus.”
Responding to the provocation, the Oskaloosa chapter of PFLAG hastily organized its own event, a “Rainbow Huddle” at the gazebo in nearby Rotary Park, and invited David Arthur to drop by for a chat. Perhaps to their surprise, he did so. The encounter was closely covered by the Oskaloosa Herald, which devoted three articles to the “Tale of Two Huddles” the following week. Arthur proved to be a gentler soul than Coach Dave, even complimenting the PFLAG folks for their friendliness and sincerity – though not without a barb. “They’re sincere. They’re just as sincere as Saul was sincere before he became Paul,” he told the Herald. For their part, the PFLAGers dispensed hugs and handshakes with their opinions.
Back in Pella, retired Central College music professor Anne Petrie composed a response to the “Fire and Brimstone” event for the May 15 Town Crier, which was published with thirty co-signers (including the present writer). “We reject any notion that homosexuality or transgender status is inherently linked to sexual perversion, prostitution, or addiction. We accept the position of the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association that homosexuality and gender nonconformity are not mental or physical illnesses. We accept the findings of the AMA and the APA that ‘conversion therapy’ has not been shown to be generally effective, and that it can be harmful. We share their opposition to such treatment. We reject any concept of the Body of Christ that excludes persons based on their sexual orientation or gender expression. Most of all, we assert that LGBTQ persons are entitled to all the rights and privileges of other persons: the right to love, the right to marry, the right to live free from discrimination, and the right to express the fullness of their humanity.”
The story was not over. On the very day the ad was published, the Rev. Michael Shover, pastor of Christ the Redeemer Church (a congregation of the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches), preached a fiery sermon at their Wednesday evening vespers service entitled “A Letter of Love to Pella.” But as he made quite clear from the outset, the sermon was actually directed to the signers of the statement, who were called out by name. Based on Romans 1: 18-32, the sermon arraigned the “open and affirming” signatories as “Orwellian” perverters of language and morality, who deny the self-evident facts of binary gender and heterosexual normativity. They do so, he argued, because they love their own sin and seek to justify it; and because they hate their community and seek to draw the judgment of God down upon it. Hence, he concluded, “God has left you and abandoned you to your own destruction.”
As far as I know, Rev. Shover knows none of the signatories, the majority of whom are straight, married, church-going, and rather conventional. (I include my wife and myself in that description.) But he assumed that he could infer our character and motives by mapping us onto Paul’s description of “those who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1: 18). Likewise, he assumed that what seems self-evident to him about sexual biology and psychology must be equally self-evident to everyone, rendering us “without excuse” (v. 20) for holding another opinion. Hence, God has given us up “to a debased mind and to things that should not be done” (v. 28). With such as us, then, there can be no fellowship – only repudiation, unless we repent.
So, not a lot of encouragement for dialogue there.
It is difficult to assess the impact of such divisive rhetoric. One gay couple who signed Professor Petrie’s statement has noted a conspicuous display of coldness recently from a neighborhood family with young children. Whether that behavior is linked to David Arthur’s film or Rev. Shover’s sermon, I don’t pretend to know. But it seems clear that even as some on the traditionalist side of the issue seek to de-escalate the rhetoric and appreciate the arguments and motives of the affirming side, others are ramping up a campaign of demonization, stigmatization, and polarization. I pray that those on the affirming side will show that they are made of better stuff. And I pray that our GLBTQ sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors will be shielded from the danger created by such hatred clothed in Christian rhetoric.