After the attack on the Twin Towers in September 2001, the evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell took some time to tell his fellow Americans that homosexuals (along with abortionists, feminists and pagans) were at least in part to blame. “I point my finger in their face,” he said, “and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”
Later, in a “did I say that?” moment, he apologized.
It was a low moment, but not an unusual one. Falwell is in the hate-filled corner of the religious spectrum. But even those religious leaders at the mild and inclusive end must, more in sorrow than in anger, generally tell gay men and women that as much as they respect them, they can’t officiate at their marriages. That’s a bridge over too-troubled waters.
This past Christmas time has been an active one for those in the Catholic Church concerned that legislation in both France and the UK to permit gay marriage will hollow out their faith. In a pre-Christmas address to fellow Vatican officials, Benedict XVI called for all faiths to come together against a practice that would cancel out the “authentic setting in which to hand on the blueprint for human existence.”
Picking up, more mildly, the theme from his Holy Father, the leader of Catholics in England and Wales, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, said that creativity lay in the bond between husband and wife, and claimed in a BBC interview that the Conservative-led government had no mandate for legislation permitting gay marriage, now being brought forward. In Scotland, Nichols’ brother in Christ, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, argued that same-sex marriage was “a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right.”
They don’t hold a candle, however, to the viciousness of their brethren elsewhere – both in Christ and out of him. Victor Tonye Bakot, the Catholic Archbishop of Yaounde, in the central African state of Cameroon, put a harder spin on the Pope’s message on Christmas Day, arguing at a mass that homosexual marriage was “a serious crime against humanity.” In a reporting trip to Uganda some years ago to write about the rapid spread of evangelical churches, I found that many of the pastors were consumed with what they saw as a pervasive, deadly threat – and have put strong pressure on President Yoweri Museveni, whose wife is an evangelical Christian, to pass stronger laws against the “plague.” The pressure worked: A law that includes life imprisonment in some cases (and had initially included the death penalty) is in front of the parliament now. Discovery of a gay relationship can be – and has been – the subject of a death sentence in Iran; in Egypt, where there are no laws explicitly banning homosexuality, those who are open, or are discovered, can face charges like “debauchery” and are imprisoned for years.