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Al Mohler is a very big name in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which is a huge denomination of right-wing Christians in the United States–one that is growing more extremist by the year, but one that is also facing a catastrophic and extremely sustained drop in power and membership. He’s been with the organization for a long time and is now the president of its main seminary in Kentucky, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It’s not uncommon for him to issue statements regarding the SBC or to clarify its various points of doctrine. A few days ago, Al Mohler said something very important regarding the SBC’s stance on gay people. The news came and went fairly quietly, so much so that I barely even noticed it until today. But it’s still important. I’ll show you what it is today.

Al Mohler said a few days ago that the SBC now understands that “reparative therapy” is not effective.

One inch forward, many steps back

“Reparative therapy” is a branch of pseudoscience that aims to permanently alter a gay person’s sexual orientation–or at least allow that person to pretend well enough to be straight that he or she can get married to and make babies with a person of the opposite gender. This particular type of quackery used to be called “conversion therapy” but that name’s fallen somewhat into disrepute; now the preferred descriptor seems to be “reparative,” which implies exactly what you think it does: that gay people are somehow broken and need repair, which this therapy is supposed to accomplish.

In reality, reparative therapy doesn’t work. It doesn’t even rise to the level of alternative medicine. It is pure pseudoscience bluster straight from the overtime-earning creaky engines of the Religious Right. Many of its procedures are outrageously abusive and cruel in addition to being totally ineffective. Not only does it not work, but it actively harms many of the people who undergo it (a not-inconsiderable number of whom were underaged, unconsenting teens forced into it by their horrified Christian parents, a practice which many states have banned now).

Eventually various bodies of psychologists rejected the whole idea of reparative therapy because, based on research, they figured out that it is really the worst kind of wishful thinking. But the Religious Right isn’t ready to join them. Reparative therapy fits in too well with their bubble-enclosed worldview, reinforcing all too well their 1950s-sitcom views of how relationships and families should look. Reparative therapy claims that if someone wants to change sexual orientation, then it is possible to change it, and that if someone tries hard enough and has enough Jesus Power, even something as deeply wired as orientation can shift. And it takes for granted the false idea that being straight is the correct–one might even say holy–way to be and everything else is a deviation from that norm. So what if the whole idea of reparative therapy is pure magical thinking? It sure as hell wouldn’t be the first time Christians have clung to magical thinking long after it was shown to be ineffective and even harmful to those undergoing it.

And in an all-too-large swathe of Christianity, if something should be true, then that’s just as good as if it really is true. So as organizations trumpeting reparative therapy’s wonders closed and apologized and scientists responsible for studies that appeared at first to back reparative therapy retracted those studies amid apologies, Christians devised conspiracy theories about some shady gay mafia behind the scenes demanding these apologies to push an agenda that is meant to reshape America for the worse. These accusations have gained a lot of traction in overwrought right-leaning news sites like Christian Post and most of us have likely heard Christians voice similar sentiments. If someone’s saying they’re wrong about something, clearly the pushback is an orchestrated campaign of ZOMG PERSECUTION AGAINST TRUE CHRISTIANS™ and could not be anything else at all.

If this therapy isn’t effective, however, then that realization leads Christians to the uncomfortable idea that maybe orientation isn’t possible to change. That would mean that somehow their god allows or even plans for someone to be born gay.

And that’s not okay with them.

The obvious surface-level reason why evangelicals keep pushing reparative therapy

Out here in the real world, we are quite comfortable with the idea of orientation being inborn. Inside the Christian bubble, though, that idea is still ferociously resisted. It seems downright nonsensical to us to even argue about something so obviously true–all one needs to do is ask actual gay people about it like this linked vlogger did or even consider one’s own personal history–and besides, ultimately it doesn’t particularly matter if orientation is inborn or chosen or whatever, because whether it is or isn’t, it’s still not Christians’ goddamned business what other consenting adults do in their relationships and it never was.

That said, we have trouble sometimes understanding why Christian bigots seem to have a bee up their collective butts on this idea of orientation being a choice. When one of them starts up the merry-go-round by asking about homosexual behavior in animals or the supposed harmfulness of anal sex, it’s hard to resist bursting into laughter. (You try; I can’t, even though this conversation has happened to me so many times and in such a uniform fashion that I think now that it must be a scripted strategy they’ve seen modeled by their preachers and apologists.)

We see them clinging with all their heart to this outmoded idea, however, that orientation is not inborn and so can be changed–with enough willpower, with enough desire, with enough prayer, with enough therapy, with enough magic. It’s often simply mystifying–until we understand what the implications are for them if it turns out that no, actually, their entire worldview about sex, gender, and relationships is not universally true by far.

But it gets worse for them.

Why reparative therapy really destroys evangelical claims

The failure of reparative therapy doesn’t just speak to whether or not orientation is inborn or learned or chosen.

The failure also speaks to the great lie of Christianity: the idea that “Jesus” can change things for believers, that faith can work miracles, that if a Christian wants something Jesus wants too, and wants it badly enough, then anything can happen. Reparative therapy was enthusiastically embraced by extremist Christian leaders, I think, in large part because it felt so familiar.

So when the president of the biggest seminary in the biggest Protestant denomination in the country issues a public statement saying that his denomination has finally acknowledged what everyone else has known for years, that reparative therapy simply does not work to change anyone’s orientation and that it actually harms the people who try it (or are forced to try it), then that’s really big news.

And that’s just what happened.

A surprising speech from Al Mohler

Al Mohler talked about reparative therapy at a conference this past Monday (Oct. 5) called Homosexuality: Compassion, Care, and Counsel for Struggling People that was put on by fundagelicals. Their organizers and speakers list reads like a Who’s Who of People You Will Never Have Heard of in Your Entire Life–but all of whom are very, very sure they are experts in “helping” gay people the Jesus way.

Here is another site detailing this conference that reveals that it was put on by people in an organization called the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC). Remember that group name, so you can avoid any therapist who claims affiliation with them, because the only way they’d seem more incompetent at therapy is if they were actually wearing funny hats in their photos.

The ACBC, in defiance of the real science done by real therapists like the ones in the American Psychiatric Association, takes as given that anybody who is gay is “struggling with homosexuality” and needs their divinely-sanctioned help to change, according to their website–and that anybody who wants to change enough can. The conference they just had featured some truly creepy topics, including “Cultivating a Wife’s Heart for Sex,” which made me shudder just remembering what marriage to a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ was like at bedtime, and something about counseling “the Post-Abortive Woman,” which sounds equally horrifying. Their seminar list could have used a trigger warning (which I am issuing now to you)! The whole conference is clearly just a heaping helping of the usual glurge Christians parrot constantly–lots of feel-good rah-rah and sanctimonious posturing that doesn’t actually take into account how reality works and that utterly depends upon magical thinking to make its trains run, which works about as well as you’d think.

This conference is totally not the place for a Christian leader to stand up and deliver a speech that would be considered contentious or outrageous by his peers, in other words. Al Mohler is no firebrand, no prophet crying aloud in the wilderness. This conference and this speaker is lockstep personified. This is the party line delivered every step of the way in the middle of of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary itself, with that seminary’s president sashaying up onto a podium to say in his out-loud voice that reparative therapy doesn’t work after all, oops, their bad, haha but no really gay people are ickie and need to change before they’ll be acceptable to us–er, to Jesus.

I’m sure as hell not the only person who thought it sounded “confused”–but it was confused for a reason: Al Mohler is in a very difficult position here and I think he’s finally starting to realize it.

Don’t get any funny ideas here or anything

Al Mohler used his bully pulpit to drill down harder on the “traditional” marriage party line of the SBC (scare quotes because what he really means is “straights-only” and possibly even “straight Christians-only;” there is literally nothing about their conceptualization of marriage that is actually traditional in historical terms, especially not in Biblical-era terms). Reparative therapy might not work, but that doesn’t mean that gay people don’t need fixing–only that only Jesus can fix them. And oh, for sure, gay people shouldn’t be allowed to marry or live unmolested by the likes of him and his TRUE CHRISTIAN™ tribe. None of that has changed. He has not taken any responsibility for the serious damage his bigotry has caused by pursuing this dangerous pseudoscience.

Worse, Al Mohler–and by extension his tribe–is still totally convinced that magical thinking can change someone’s sexual orientation. The particular magical thinking embodied in reparative therapy itself was the problem, not magical thinking in general. The hateful bigotry that is showcased by the desire to change someone’s orientation is not at fault, only the way it was pursued in this instance.

He’s been dragged another inch, kicking and screaming the whole way, toward redeeming the great wrong his religion has done in the name of its self-started and self-perpetuated culture war, but in the doing has demonstrated that his denomination has no intention of righting that wrong anytime soon.

We’re going to talk more about the specifics of this conference’s mistakes next time, but for now, I’ll just note that when Al Mohler opines that he accepts that reparative therapy is ineffective, don’t expect him to actually do anything substative to put an end to the culture war he and his friends started and yet seem so very sad about.

Here’s why he made this speech

He’s performing a very elaborate dance here, nothing more: he wants to say words that sound vaguely apologetic and reconciliatory because he knows perfectly well that the SBC’s catastrophic drop in membership, power, and income is largely due to its institutionalized bigotry and misogyny. He knows that when people get asked their opinion of the SBC, “anti-gay” figures very prominently in their descriptions. He knows that people know way more about what the SBC hates and fights than about what it loves and embraces. He knows that his denomination’s very name is so toxic at this point that many of its affiliated churches don’t even use the SBC’s name in their letterhead, signage, or websites because they know that simply learning of that affiliation often chases off prospective guests, especially younger ones.

So it’s perfectly logical for Al Mohler to make chirpy noises from his eating hole that he thinks sound vaguely acceptable to the people who he knows for a fact are, right now this second, making conscious decisions to get the hell away from him and his gang of merry bigots-for-Jesus. He thinks making Jesus smiles and knitting together his preacher eyebrows and saying he’s saaaaaad about something is going to fool those people. He thinks that saying something that has been perfectly obvious for the last decade to anybody lacking his group’s anti-gay bias is going to turn back the tide.

He is wrong.

All he’s done is demonstrate once again that the Southern Baptist Convention is still easily decades behind the rest of us in terms of its progress on social issues. That’s not news; the SBC lags behind the rest of the country in a variety of ways. A large pocket of them still struggle to understand America’s endemic and institutionalized racism problem, and many still can’t handle the idea of women in leadership roles in their churches. And the SBC as a whole has decided that anti-gay bigotry is now the defining feature of their denomination.

The chirpy noises that Mr. Mohler makes cannot override or erase his denomination’s errors and sins, and I don’t think he even wants them to do so. I don’t think he’s trying to reach people outside his denomination, but rather hoping to stem the tide of SBC members rejecting this doctrine and leaving the church by trying to placate all sides with his Solomon-like divinely-granted wisdom. But as we saw from our examination of Kim Davis, a lot of his seminary’s neighboring Kentucky residents are swiftly growing frustrated with this kind of polarized rhetoric–and that includes a lot of Christians.

However, it’s definitely noteworthy that he now realizes that people who embrace gay rights are a side that needs to be placated somehow. That’s something I wouldn’t have expected to see this early on in the SBC culture war, even if he’s clearly not serious about placating his critics quite yet. This statement is a testing of the waters for him. He’s seeing how this attempt at false placation works.

So far, from what I can see, it hasn’t.

So his statement is big news, but not in the way he clearly hoped it would be. It’s painfully easy to see that despite this very minor and meaningless concession on his part, and this excruciatingly obvious attempt to make nice with a society he no longer understands, much less controls, Al Mohler hasn’t actually done anything to change what his church is actually doing. And really, he can’t. The social system his leaders and predecessors set up decades ago is now backfiring on them all.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...