Horrific events like the heartbreaking tragedy in Orlando — the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history — bring out the best and the worst in the American character.
After Omar Mateen murdered 49 people and injured 53 others, many clergy who rarely, if ever, acknowledge the LGBT community in positive terms offered prayers for LGBT people — actually reciting the letters. This one, brief shining moment was unprecedented and heartening.
On the worst side of the ledger, however, a small minority of clergy used the shooting as an opportunity to preach hate in the name of religion.
Mere hours after the attack, two Christian ministers posted videos of their sermons (since deleted by YouTube) celebrating the murder of 49 “pedophiles” and “predators.”
“I wish the government would round them all up,” preached Pastor Roger Jimenez of the Verity Baptist Church in Sacramento. “Put them up against a wall, put a firing squad in front of them and blow their brains out.”
Pastor Steven Anderson of the Faithful World Baptist Church in Tempe, Ariz., declared LGBT people should be “executed by a righteous government.” While claiming not to advocate violence, Anderson celebrated that “these dangerous, filthy predators are off the streets,” adding, “I’m just trying to look on the bright side.”
Disturbingly, advocates of the death penalty for LGBT people are found in any number of religious movements. In some African countries and parts of the Middle East, hard-line Christian ministers and Islamic imams encourage and support laws with severe punishments for homosexuality, including death.
After the Orlando attack, chilling video surfaced of sermons by Sheikh Farrokh Sekaleshfar, an Iranian Muslim cleric, who travels the world advocating the death penalty for “homosexuals.” Sekaleshfar had delivered his hateful message at an Islamic center in suburban Orlando just weeks before the massacre.
Although the motivations of the Orlando shooter are still murky, Mateen claimed to be acting in support of the so-called Islamic State — a terrorist movement that murders LGBT people by throwing them from rooftops in the name of God.
It might be small comfort to families of the victims, but the vast majority of Christians and Muslims in the United States reject ministers and clerics who distort scriptures to advocate harsh and violent treatment of LGBT people.
But hate speech by outliers is the easy-to-condemn fringe of a much larger problem. Many mainstream, widely respected religious voices often indulge in anti-LGBT rhetoric that marginalizes and dehumanizes the “other,” speech that contributes to a climate of intolerance and fear.
“Sadly it is religion, including our own, which targets, mostly verbally, and also often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people,” wrote Catholic Bishop Robert Lynch immediately after the Orlando shooting. “Attacks today on LGBT men and women often plant the seed of contempt, then hatred, which can ultimately lead to violence. Those women and men who were mowed down early yesterday morning were all made in the image and likeness of God. We teach that. We should believe that. We must stand for that.”
American Muslim leaders joined with many other religious and civil rights leaders in speaking out in support of the LGBT community. “Homophobia, transphobia and Islamophobia are interconnected systems of oppression,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, “and we cannot dismantle one without dismantling the other.”
At the same time, some Muslim leaders also acknowledged the need to confront prejudices and silence about LGBT Muslims within their own faith communities. Post-Orlando is a “historic opportunity for us to talk to one another,” Faisal Alam, gay founder of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity told the Associated Press.
It remains to be seen if the unifying post-Orlando spirit will translate into any lasting change in how we speak about the intersection of religion and sexual orientation. But at the very least, we can do more to call out divisive and hateful speech when we hear it.
“You can’t make up the world into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and denigrate and express hatred towards groups because of the color of their skin, or their faith or their sexual orientation,” President Barack Obama said in Orlando recently, “and not feed something very dangerous in this world.”
A modest, but difficult, first step would be to abandon labels and name-calling in the marriage debate — “homosexual agenda” from one side, “religious bigotry” from the other — in service of seeking civil dialogue across deep differences.
Under the First Amendment, every voice has the right to be heard in America — however offensive or disturbing. But a free society that would also be civil requires a critical mass of people willing to answer hatred and intolerance with love and compassion. Unanswered religious and ideological speech demonizing the “other” poisons the body politic and inspires acts of prejudice and violence.
Nothing we can say will bring back the victims of the Orlando massacre. But if we commit to speak about one another with civility and respect, we honor their memory — and represent the best of what it means to be an American.
Charles C. Haynes is vice president of the Newseum Institute and founding director of the Religious Freedom Center.