It will take more than policy to ban gay conversion therapy

History has taught us that churches have been able to move dramatically on social issues. Eradicating gay conversion therapy will take pressure and a lot of faith.


FEB 15, 2019

The Andrews’ government announcement that “gay conversion therapy” would be banned was broadly welcomed. There was one big caveat: “It isn’t as simple as ‘ban, ban, ban’.”

Those are the words of Anthony Venn-Brown, an ex-preacher and advocate for survivors of gay conversion therapy. He told the Herald Sun that church leaders and religious communities have “much more to learn about sexuality” and that the “real enemy is ignorance”.

“Indeed, if we’re to stamp out conversion therapy for good, faith-based groups must be willing to be educated,” he said.

Of course, sexuality is far from the first social issue on which religious communities have had to briskly catch up with the rest of society. Time and time again churches have to be pushed to conform with legislation that reflects an increasingly pluralist society. How do these changes come about?

The Mormon example

 Until 1978, the Mormon church forbade ordaining black people as priests. Matthew Bowman, associate professor of history at Henderson State University, Arkansas, said there were factors both external and internal which drove them to change their position on race.

“Of course the black freedom movement in the United States was attracting a great deal of attention by the 1950s and 1960s, and the NAACP was putting pressure on the church in those decades,” he said. “Several prominent Mormon politicians — including George Romney, Mitt’s father, governor of Michigan and presidential candidate — were getting questions about the policy, and George was among those high profile Mormons pressing the church on the issue.”

There were factors within the church, Bowman said. From the 1940s onwards the church spread into West Africa, South Africa and Brazil. In Nigeria, the church’s racial policies prompted the government to deny Mormon missionaries visas. Meanwhile, Mormon conversion in Brazil and South Africa was accelerating, where church leaders found it difficult to determine the ancestry of many converts.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, as official segregation laws in the US were eliminated, the church seemed to many to be far behind the times, and through the late 1960s and early 1970s, university sports teams around the country protested or boycotted playing teams from church-owned Brigham Young University.

“It’s a bit easier for the Mormons, because they believe in ongoing prophecy — they are led by a prophet who can wake up one morning and say ‘oh, we like black people now’,” said Dr Christopher Hartney, a senior lecturer at the department of studies in religion at Sydney University. “With Christian fundamentalism, it’s down to how individuals interpret scripture.”

Changing Catholicism

For the Catholic Church, and it’s fraught relationship with the Jewish faith, it took a change of leadership and ongoing revelations about the pure horror of the Holocaust in blunting the affect of St Matthew’s gospel. That gospel sets out that “the Jews” demanded the execution of Christ and shouted to Pontius Pilate “let his blood be on us and on our children.”

While the charge of deicide was never an official doctrine of Catholicism, according to rabbi and academic A. James Rudin, the “obscene and lethal charge of ‘Christ killers’ had been hurled against Jews for nearly 2000 years … it was no small thing for a global church to eradicate the long-standing pathologies of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism that were embedded in the hearts and minds of many Catholics throughout history.”

Cardinal Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the “accidental pope”  lasted less than five years as Pope John XIII before his death in 1963. But in that time, through the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, he brought about confronting the huge upheavals of the 20th century — including the horrors of the Holocaust, and official Vatican silence on it.

He removed the description of Jews as “faithless” from the prayer that calls for their conversion to Christianity, and in 1964 the church issued a declaration clarifiying that “nothing in the catechetical work of preaching should teach anything that could give rise to hatred or contempt for Jews in the hearts of Christians”.

Hartney said on many levels, religious fundamentalism of the kind that conducts conversion therapy was a reaction to (and only possible within) modernity.

“So what’s interesting is that they can live within modernity while reacting against it. And of course they are using the modern secular state, which grants them religious freedom, to rail against the modern state,” he told Crikey “It’s not so much that non-religious people are trying to change religious groups, it’s just that the world, by the very nature of moving to this modernist mindset provokes a very bad reaction in some people.”