No longer "praying the gay away?"

Exodus International is no longer trying to "pray the gay away." At least that's the word from The Associated Press this week:

MINNEAPOLIS — The president of the country's best-known Christian ministry dedicated to helping people repress same-sex attraction through prayer is trying to distance the group from the idea that gay people's sexual orientation can be permanently changed or "cured."

That's a significant shift for Exodus International, the 36-year-old Orlando-based group that boasts 260 member ministries around the U.S. and world. For decades, it has offered to help conflicted Christians rid themselves of unwanted homosexual inclinations through counseling and prayer, infuriating gay rights activists in the process.

This week, 600 Exodus ministers and followers are gathering for the group's annual conference, held this year in a Minneapolis suburb. The group's president, Alan Chambers, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the conference would highlight his efforts to dissociate the group from the controversial practice usually called ex-gay, reparative or conversion therapy.

"I do not believe that cure is a word that is applicable to really any struggle, homosexuality included," said Chambers, who is married to a woman and has children, but speaks openly about his own sexual attraction to men. "For someone to put out a shingle and say, 'I can cure homosexuality' — that to me is as bizarre as someone saying they can cure any other common temptation or struggle that anyone faces on Planet Earth."

The story prompted our esteemed head GetReligionista — tmatt — to note, "In all of my years covering ex-gays, I've never met anyone who actually claimed they could pray the gay away." Regardless, Exodus International's change in philosophy certainly seems to represent a significant shift, so AP got that part right.

A couple of paragraphs later in the story stood out to me.

-- The first:

Chambers said the ministry's emphasis should be simply helping Christians who want to reconcile their own particular religious beliefs with sexual feelings they consider an affront to scripture. For some that might mean celibacy; for others, like Chambers, it meant finding an understanding opposite-sex partner.

That one was interesting because in 2009 both the Wall Street Journal and Christianity Today reported on the American Psychological Association acknowledging that some same-sex clients may be distressed due to a conflict between their sexual orientation and their religious beliefs. The CT story, which I wrote, noted that the APA's nod to the role of faith exposed a divide in the evangelical therapy community: between those who promote changing sexual orientation and those who embrace "sexual identity therapy," which focuses on helping a person live in a way that is consistent with his or her beliefs.

-- The second:

Exodus has seen its influence wane in recent decades, as mainstream associations representing psychiatrists and psychologists have relegated reparative therapy to crackpot status. But Exodus and groups like it continue to influence many evangelicals and fundamentalists, and gay rights activists said the damage they inflict on individuals can be deep and lasting.

That one was interesting because of the editorialization. At least the term "crackpot" impresses me as an opinionated description, especially without a named source making the statement. To its credit, AP does quote one of the crackpots later in the story (and graciously uses a title other than crackpot to describe him).

The AP story failed to note the 2009 APA statement speaking to some clients' desire to reconcile their sexual orientation and religious beliefs. Nor did AP put the Exodus International shift in the context of the divide in the evangelical therapy community. If it had, a good question for Chambers might have explored the extent to which that debate prompted Exodus to change its outlook. What he told AP this week certainly sounds different than what he told CT in 2009:

Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, said it is wrong to assert that sexual orientation cannot change as a result of therapy.

"That flies in the face of the testimonies of tens of thousands of people just like me," said Chambers, a married father of two who credits God and counseling for helping him leave a homosexual lifestyle. "That's not to say that you can flip a switch and go from gay to straight."

Wire service reporters, of course, deal with a finite amount of space. As a former AP writer, I feel the journalist's pain in trying to report such a complicated matter in so few words.

For a more in-depth treatment of Chambers and Exodus International updating their message to gays, I recommend a recent interview by The Atlantic. The interviewer asks hard questions and provides ample space for Chambers to respond. A nice piece of journalism, in other words.

Image via Shutterstock

Please respect our Commenting Policy