Fred Phelps To the Contrary Notwithstanding

October 30, 1994



I am constantly surprised by how many Kansans stay home, or come back home. I’ve been a Kansan for 35 years now, and I love it, despite the radical ups and downs on the thermometer. I love the people, the Flint Hills, the open sky, the grain eleva-tors, the deep green of winter wheat fields, the golden waves of ripe June wheat. I like being the breadbasket of the world. Unfortunately, we have those hot windy days when the dust blows and one wonders why anyone would choose to live in such a place, and I remember ten days a few years back when the thermometer hovered at 10 below, and a week or so a few summers ago when it got stuck up around 110. But even that has a hidden blessing: it makes us appreciate the good days, like those of October’s blue and gold Indian Summer, with a fervor that surprises our friends on all three coastlines. I can’t find a hidden blessing in one other misfortune of life in Kansas. We have Fred Phelps, whose ugly attacks on homosexual people are a disgrace the vast majority of people in this state find deeply embarrassing.
Nothing much can be done about Fred, except to wish he would move to a nice home in the Galapagos Islands and stop picketing the funeral services of dead gay per-sons with signs reading, “GOD HATES FAGS” and “GAYS GO TO HELL WHEN THEY DIE.” I realize that Fred is an anomaly in the extremism of his hatred, but there are still far too many who silently applaud his actions even if they are too wellbred or too fearful of losing friends or business to do what he does. So it really isn’t Fred I am talking about today, but what is, at this very moment, the most divisive issue in the American church. If you are not aware of that, read around in half a dozen popular religious journals and you’ll quickly be convinced.
John Krueger, conference minister for the Oklahoma-Kansas Conference of the United Church of Christ, felt compelled some months ago to mail a pastoral letter to all UCC churches in response to a letter from their Udall church which branded homosexuality an unacceptable sin, and which threatened to pull out of the Conference unless others agreed. Issues related to homosexuality are literally tearing apart many churches around the coun-try and it is an essential part of your faith and mine to bring up our own feelings from time to time and consider them in the light of Christian principles.
I once heard William Sloane Coffin, preaching minister for the Riverside Church in New York City, begin a sermon like this: “Aside from their extraordinary contributions to human progress and happiness, what did the following have in common: Erasmus, Leonar-do da Vinci, Michelangelo, Christopher Marlowe, King James I of England, Sir Francis Bacon, Thomas Grey, Frederick the Great of Germany, Margaret Fuller, Tchaikovsky, Nijinsky, Proust, A. E. Housman, T. E. Lawrence, Walt Whitman, Henry James, Edith Hamilton, W. H. Auden, Willa Cather, and Bill Tilden, the greatest tennis player of his time?” My sermon title cost me the element of surprise Mr. Coffin enjoyed, but you probably would have guessed, anyway: all of these scholars, poets, novelists, musicians, athletes, heads of state were homosexual. Their sexual preference had been exalted by the Greeks, who put down women, as the highest form of love, and condemned by the Hebrews as a terrible sin pun-ishable by death. We are the heirs of Hebrew culture far more than of Greek, so we have not only abused homosexual men and women physically and psychologically, but we have discriminated against them in a variety of legal and religious ways.
There isn’t time in a brief sermon to do much more than make certain obvious gen-eralizations…obvious, at least, to a church like this one…but it has been a dozen years, I discovered to my surprise, since I devoted an entire sermon to this matter, and my con-science says it is time to do that again. I intend to speak out of experiences as a minister and a college professor who over the years has had occasion to counsel with dozens of deeply disturbed men and women, both young and old. Colleges usually have more ex-periences with homosexuality than churches do, and it was in a college rather than in a church where I was first forced to examine my own feelings in depth. My first teaching job was in a church-related liberal arts school, where we had in my second year a massive scandal involving a group of lesbian students, two of whom were my own and among my very best. I was shocked at the way our administrators dealt with the problem, and equally shocked at my own vast ignorance when I had supposed I knew at least something about homosexuality. I began to read everything I could find, not only from the book-shelves near me, but in thick heavy case histories sent at my request from libraries all over the country.
For one year, I immersed myself in the literature, and came out of that experience convinced that gay men and women no more choose their sexual orientation than I chose my own. I was unconscious of the process going on, but the hormones kicked in, and with-out the slightest sense that I had a decision to make, I simply went with the tide. Before that I felt, as boys tend to do at a certain age, that girls were a kind of accident…destined by some cosmic whim to play with dolls and cook and wash dishes and grow up to become mothers. I preferred the company of boys and our rough-and-tumble games, the wild bike-riding, the schoolyard fights. Girls were out there, somewhere, part of the background, their identities fuzzy the way TV blocks out faces.
And then, suddenly, they came into focus. Something happened that I did not will or analyze. Charles Romine and Jack Sloan and Dwyer Duncan…still good friends…but I began to be curious about Phyllis Robinson and Ruth Cates and Virginia Russell. If some-one had said to me, “Well, Bobby, which way are you deciding to go now as you enter the teens? Are you going to feel “that way” about girls, or about boys?” I would have thought the person was insane. What I was, I simply was. And I can’t imagine it’s being all that different with those who are prompted down another road. No future gay ever tells him-self, no future lesbian ever tells herself, “I think I’ll just go against the majority view and be attracted to those of my same sex.” If there is one thing children want more than almost anything else, it’s to be like the majority, and most of those who discovered they were not like the majority have paid a price the rest of us can hardly imagine. If we had been able to imagine, we would have extended love and understanding a long time ago instead of waiting around until someone woke us up.
Everyone looks back over a lifetime and wishes, I suppose, that certain days could be lived over. I remember the nights in our Quonset huts when some of my army buddies used to laugh about how they had tempted Clyde Quillian into making a homosexual pass at them, so they would have an excuse to call him “queer” and hit him brutally in the face with their fists. They were cowards, knowing that Clyde could never go to the company commander and tell on them. I took no part in that, and thought with most of the guys that it was shabby stuff, but we didn’t care enough to make our feelings strongly known. Except for an occasional hero now and then, most of us are captives of our time, and I don’t recall a hero in that barracks.
Most of us who are somewhere on the heterosexual scale wish all others were like us, of course, which is how majorities tend to feel about minority groups, and some are con-vinced that homosexuals could change if they only wanted to badly enough. I recall reading Bergler’s famous study which claims that change is possible, given time and moti-vation, and then reading equally positive studies which claim a true re-orientation is too rare to be worth mentioniong. Dr. David Kessler, psychiatrist, homosexual, and graduate of Yale University School of Medicine, says confidently in an AMA journal article that “with few exceptions, gay people are satisfied with their sexual orientation and are not interested in converting.” It has seemed to me, from personal counseling experience, that he is right. Homosexuals may wish for acceptance and approval, and be frustrated at not getting those, but deep down their orientation seems natural to them and they resent the failure of others to understand that.
Mr. Phelps, of course, would dispose of this whole matter by quoting a handful of verses from the Bible, so I must explain why I have not done that. It would take hours to demonstrate, verse by verse, what I am about to say, so all I can do is ask you to consider this proposition: that the Scriptures do not address a specifically homosexual orientation. This is not what you normally hear in fundamentalist sermons, so you should think about it very carefully. I am saying that Biblical writers assume that homosexual acts are being committed by people whose basic orientation is heterosexual. They know nothing of that whole complex of attitudes and emotions that make a person a true homosexual, without regard to whether he or she wished to be. It is much the same as the Biblical attitude toward drunkenness; there is never any awareness of such a thing as alcoholism. It re-mained for later times to make the crucial distinction between the two.
Furthermore, if you read the Bible that literally, as a kind of always current road map, then the verses about homosexual behavior leave you absolutely no room for man-euvering. Persons committing homosexual acts are to be executed. So says the Old Testa-ment, and so, some years ago, said the Iranian parliament. So if you base your beliefs on the witness of the Hebrew culture, you have to demand the death penalty. And that, as a matter of fact, was what people did until fairly recent times, which is how we came up with one of the insulting slang terms for homosexuals. Literally, the word “faggot” means a stick used to fuel a fire…and it was the name homosexuals earned while they were burning at the stake.
When the Apostle Paul denounces certain kinds of behavior in his first letter to the church at Corinth, he seems unaware of a distinction between sexual orientation, over which one has no real choice, and sexual behavior. He assumes that those he condemns are heterosexual, but are acting contrary to their real nature. He knew nothing of our understanding of homosexuals as persons whose orientations are fixed early in life, and for whom having heterosexual relations would be acting contrary to their “real” natures.
The Bible, as is obvious to any careful student, is not always helpful. It sanctions slavery, for example, and nowhere attacks slavery as unjust. We excuse it for being the child of its time, as it is in many ways. The overwhelming burden of the Biblical message, for example, is that women are inferior beings. We do not accept that. We realize that some attitudes in the Bible are conditioned by the culture from which they came, and are not useful in all times and places. Revelation is an ongoing process. We believe that more truth has been revealed to us about slavery than had been revealed to Moses, and that we have come closer to the mind of Christ about women than Paul had. I would like to think we understand a little more of the truth about sexual preferences than he did, and that we are therefore not comfortable with his sweeping condemnations.
I close with part of a letter from a homosexual male who wanted to remain anony-mous. “I do not wish to blame God for what I am. I am what I am, though I did not will it. Something has made me as I am. I am not in wilful rebellion against God’s laws, neither do I feel psychologically ‘sick.’ I am not a freak. On the contrary, most people con-sider me to be a talented, creative person….By nature I am sensitive, introspective, intelli-gent, spiritual, loyal, responsible…and homosexual.”
Take my word for it: everything he says about himself is true. As are the things his daughter wrote to one of my dearest old friends, when she told him about herself. I know how inadequate these brief remarks have been, so I will shift part of the burden to your shoulders. Just go away and imagine him as your son, her as your daughter, and what love decides in such cases….Fred Phelps to the contrary, notwithstanding.

Perhaps if we can learn, our Father, to take less credit for what we are, we will be able to see much mroe clearly what others are, and why, and accord them mercy and justice and love in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.