Religious freedom, but at what price?

December 8, 2014 in General

Pastor Logan Robertson wants all gay people dead.

It may sound like something out of Africa, or perhaps the backward south of the United States, but it’s not. Logan Robertson lives right here in New Zealand.

Logan Robertson is the self-styled leader of the Westcity Baptist Church in Auckland.

Logan Robertson is the self-styled leader of the Westcity Baptist Church in Auckland.

The self-styled leader of the Westcity Baptist Church in Auckland has come out swinging, defending an email in which he called community advocate Jim Marjoram a “filthy child molesting fag”, and said he prayed Jim would commit suicide. He’s gone even further in an interview since, saying he believes the New Zealand government should be executing gay people.

“If we had a righteous government, that’s what we’d be doing, instead of letting them go out and pretend to get married when they’re not,” he said. “The Bible doesn’t even say anything about these fags getting married. They should just be stoned to death instead. That’s what the Bible says. And I hope they all die.”

It would be easy enough to shrug Logan Robertson’s hate speech off as the deluded ravings of a religious bigot. We have marriage equality now, and New Zealand is one of the best countries in the world for LGBT rights. Perhaps we should accept there will always be zealots on the fringes who disagree.

Many Christian churches are becoming more accepting of same-sex marriage.

Many Christian churches are becoming more accepting of same-sex marriage.

I don’t believe that’s good enough. Robertson’s outburst is a symptom of a much wider problem – the continued lack of acceptance of LGBT people in many religious communities across New Zealand. Granted, this is changing, as many mainstream churches widen their folds to include a more diverse range of people. Figures from the US show that 62 per cent of Catholics there now support marriage equality, which is great.

But there remain some hardcore churches that refuse to accept the legitimacy of LGBT people. It was something I was acutely aware of growing up in the Exclusive Brethren. (Who have now rebranded as the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, in an attempt to distance themselves from their terrible track record.) The Brethren were staunchly homophobic, and have thrown their weight behind anti-LGBT movements and political parties worldwide.

In 1993, the Brethren submitted to the US federal government on the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell bill, and described gay people as deceptive, perverted and depraved. They championed anti-gay behaviour, stating “discrimination against perverse homosexual behaviour is essential to the protection of perpetrators and their fellow-citizens alike”.

Daniel Hales is the elder brother of the Exclusive Brethren's worldwide leader, Bruce Hales. (Photo: The Age)

Daniel Hales is a prominent leader in the Exclusive Brethren church. (Photo: The Age)

Then, as the movement for civil unions and marriage equality began in the 21st century, the Exclusive Brethren launched a well-oiled campaign to fight back. Committees were formed in various countries such as the US, Canada and New Zealand, and memos were sent to Brethren members encouraging them to write to their local politicians in protest. Daniel Hales, brother of world leader Bruce Hales, said the church’s political actions were in response to increased sin in the world. In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, he reminisced “Go back 50 years when I was a boy, homosexuals went to jail.”

Logan Robertson’s views appear to echo those of the Exclusive Brethren. At the core of their faith is a belief that everyone else should be forced to conform to their idea of morality, their idea of marriage, and their idea of what constitutes good government. It’s an arrogant view, based on the idealist notion that their faith and theirs alone holds the key to religious truth.

Hillary Clinton addresses LGBT rights at a UN meeting in 2011.

Hillary Clinton addresses LGBT rights at a UN meeting in 2011.

Such views have no place in New Zealand society. We’re a secular nation, and the number of Christians here is dropping rapidly. Most Kiwis would agree with Hillary Clinton, who told the United Nations that personal freedom should always trump religious freedom. She said “being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”

The victims here are the LGBT people who are raised in churches that still hold these extreme backward views. Since leaving the Exclusive Brethren I’ve come into contact with all sorts of people whose lives have been ruined by their church’s refusal to accept them as a person.

I’m talking about the grandfather who knew he was gay as a teenager, but has spent the last 30 years in an unhappy marriage to a woman while desperately hoping his sexuality will change. I’m talking about the father who left his church because he was gay, then committed suicide because the priests wouldn’t let him see his children. I’m talking about the teenager with scars over his wrists living rough, because his parents don’t want a gay son.

These are the people who Logan Robertson so callously brushes aside. I doubt he cares that their lives have been ruined. I doubt he cares that some of them are dead, having ended their lives after the torment became too much to bear. I doubt he cares that young gay kids are killing themselves. In fact if he did know, he’d probably celebrate.

I don’t think there’s much point in trying to change Robertson’s views. Some churches like the Exclusive Brethren still forbid interracial marriage, so it could be half a century before they come anywhere near accepting LGBT rights. But we as a community can show young people there’s a better way forward. That there are people who will love and accept them for who they are, and that the hatred and rejection they’ve been taught is wrong.

Because even one gay suicide is one too many.