(RNS) To paraphrase “The Sound of Music,” how do you solve a problem like Steve Anderson?
While the nation’s eyes were on Ferguson and Staten Island, Pastor Steven Anderson found time on Nov. 30 to deliver a sermon at his Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Ariz., on the subject of AIDS. AIDS, he said, is God’s punishment for homosexuality, Leviticus calls for “sodomites” to be killed, et cetera. We’ve heard this before.
Anderson did have a way with words, though. “Turn to Leviticus 20:13 — I actually discovered the cure for AIDS. … Everybody’s talking about ‘Let’s have an AIDS-free world by 2020.’ We can have an AIDS-free world by Christmas.” Anderson proceeded to read a common rendition of the biblical verse, which calls for males engaging in anal sexual intercourse to “be put to death.”
“And that, my friends, is the cure for AIDS,” he said.
So, what to do? Is Anderson’s speech “news” that should be covered, publicized and reported as widely as possible? Ought it be condemned by all right-thinking people? Or perhaps, should it simply be ignored?
In fact, there are several ways to respond to such speech — although the most effective one, challenging Anderson on religious grounds, is also the least used.
But first, yes, the speech was widely covered. The story didn’t make the network news or most leading newspapers, but it did get into Fox News Radio, the New York Daily News and England’s The Independent, as well as The Huffington Post and numerous gay blogs.
As the coverage progressed, it became clear that Anderson is not a reasonable man. In addition to calling for the death of 6.9 million “sodomites” (his term), he once got the attention of the Secret Service by calling for the death of President Obama, whom he called a communist “bastard” with a “whore” for a mother.
What was the response?
Nothing from the major LGBT organizations, who reported it on their blogs or Facebook pages but didn’t do much else.
That left the folks at Planting Peace, which once built a rainbow-colored Equality House across from the notorious Westboro Baptist Church. They ran a Crowdrise campaign that has thus far raised over $20,000 — twice its goal of $10,000. For each donation, Planting Peace will send Pastor Anderson a lump of coal on Christmas Eve.
That’s a lot of coal.
In a sense, then, the response to the sermon has been all of the above: some media coverage, some yawning and a clever fundraising campaign.
Conceivably, Pastor Anderson could raise a lot more than $20,000 for the LGBT equality movement. He’s a gay development officer’s dream, and the worst nightmare of those trying to put a human face on the “traditional marriage” movement. Every time an extremist like him makes the news, more people come over to the pro-equality side.
More important, to focus on one Arizona preacher as the embodiment of evil would be tone-deaf in the context of #blacklivesmatter protests rolling across the nation, and severe persecution of LGBT people overseas. The best reason to ignore Anderson isn’t to deny him press coverage, or to acknowledge that gay rights won and he lost, but to recognize that there are more important social justice issues that a broad-based LGBT equality movement should focus on.
By way of contrast, the afternoon of the Eric Garner non-indictment in New York, the Human Rights Campaign tweeted out its celebration of a pro-marriage-equality ruling in Florida. Many gay activists found this offensive. Yes, Florida falling into the equality camp is exciting news, but progressives were not in the mood to celebrate on that particular afternoon. The HRC tweet seemed narrow and misplaced.
One missed opportunity was to challenge Anderson on religious grounds. Here, the media coverage and the LGBT movement both fell down.
Anderson made several common mistakes in his rant. Like most people, he mistranslated the Hebrew word “toevah” as “abomination” when really it means “taboo.” This is relevant not just because of the different nuance of that term, but also because it clearly places the ban on male anal sex in the category of ritual commandments — i.e., those Old Testament rules that were replaced by the New.
If we should reinstate the death penalty for anal sex, then we should definitely reinstate the death penalty for lighting a fire on the Sabbath, which presumably Anderson himself did if he got in his car on Saturday. After all, unlike the penalty for male-male anal sex, the Bible does record the death penalty for Sabbath violation actually being meted out.
Anderson also committed a grave theological fallacy, disclaimed by all reflective religious thinkers, of presuming to know which “acts of God” punish which offensive acts. Is Ebola, too, a divine punishment? And for what? For taking care of the bodies of the dead (one of the primary disease vectors in West Africa)? Maybe chicken pox is divine punishment for children who play too much with others.
For that matter, maybe the extreme climate events that have disproportionately impacted conservative states are punishment for conservatism. Why not?
Of course, Anderson also misstates the purpose of Christianity itself, which seems to have something to do with love and grace, and less to do with rage and disgust. But admittedly, that is a matter of opinion.
To be clear, most of the foregoing does not matter to most Americans — not even to most Christians, who have made their minds up that God loves all people, including gay people.
But about a third of gay kids are growing up in evangelical households. For them, it may not be getting better. And while there are some who are reaching out to conservative white Protestants — the Gay Christian Network, the Reformation Project — one gets the sense that many progressives would prefer that such people simply not exist.
That’s the missed opportunity. The Steven Andersons of the world are losing the battle for public opinion. But for those still enmeshed in the culture of which he is a part, outbursts like this are an opportunity to engage, challenge and trouble the waters.
(Jay Michaelson is a columnist for The Daily Beast and author of “God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality”)