Prefatory remarks: What follows is a lengthy discourse about both a particular current event, the larger underlying debate, and the broader ramifications for the Christian church. Readers who only want to get the gist of the matter can skip ahead to the “Why It Matters” section.

The Issue: On August 15, 28-year-old Floyd Lee Corkins II walked into the Family Research Council (FRC) and shot the group’s unarmed security guard in a downtown D.C. office. Authorities said in the complaint, citing information from the suspect’s parents, that Corkins “has strong opinions with respect to those he believes do not treat homosexuals in a fair manner.”

The next day, FRC president Tony Perkins accused the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) of fostering the climate that allowed the crime to occur. Perkins says that while he holds Corkins solely responsible for the shooting, he believes the SPLC must also be held accountable for its “reckless” labeling of the FRC as an anti-gay “hate group” in 2010. Was the SPLC justified in labeling FRC—-and other pro-family organizations—-as a hate group? Does the categorization have larger implication for the Christian church?

Position #1: The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) monitors “hate groups and other extremists” throughout the United States and exposes their activities to law enforcement agencies, the media and the public. SPLC includes in their list of “hate groups” racist and white supremacists organizations (the White Aryan Resistance, the White Patriot Party militia, the Ku Klux Klan, etc.) along with Christian and pro-family organizations (Family Research Council, Concerned Women of America, Coral Ridge Ministries, et al.).  SPLC considers FRC a hate group based primarily on quotes made by employees of the organization.

Position #2: FRC’s position has been laid out in a brief paper by Peter Sprigg entitled “Debating Homosexuality: Understanding Two Views.” In this article, Sprigg notes that classification by SPLC of pro-family organizations as “anti-hate groups” is based on

. . . a fundamental misunderstanding (if not deliberate misrepresentation) of the beliefs, arguments, and motives of social conservatives. This misunderstanding arises from the existence of two completely different paradigms, or fundamental ways of understanding the nature of homosexuality.

Sprigg claims the gay activist groups as well as a “growing portion of major social institutions such as academia and the news media” have come to adopt a view of homosexuality he identifies as the “gay identity paradigm.” This viewpoint includes these five beliefs:

1) Sexual orientation is an innate personal characteristic, like race. 2) People are born gay. 3) Gay people can never become heterosexual. 4) Being gay is essentially no different from being straight, except for the gender to which one is sexually attracted. 5) There is no harm in being gay.

Sprigg adds that based on these beliefs, gay activist groups consider any claims that heterosexuality is preferable to homosexuality are “equivalent to believing that one race is superior to another, and therefore represents a form of bigotry and even ‘hate’ toward gays and lesbians as individuals.” The empirical case for the “gay identity” paradigm is extremely weak, Sprigg says, and certainly subject to legitimate debate. The alternative paradigm, he says, is the “homosexual conduct” paradigm:

Social conservatives approach the topic of homosexuality using a completely different paradigm—-one that is more sophisticated, and more consistent with the research on human sexuality and sexual orientation, than the “gay identity” paradigm. This paradigm is based on the reality that same-sex attractions, homosexual conduct, and self-identification as “gay” are three separate (although related) matters which must be addressed separately. For social conservatives, particularly when it comes to public policy debates related to homosexuality, homosexual conduct is by far the most important of the three elements of sexual orientation. Hence, we might refer to the social conservative approach to the issue of homosexuality as a “homosexual conduct” paradigm, in contrast to the “gay identity” paradigm. Understanding these two divergent paradigms is crucial to accurately understanding the position of social conservatives on the issue of homosexuality. Social conservatives do not believe or argue that “gay people are inferior,” as gay activists charge. What we believe and argue is that homosexual conduct is harmful—-first and foremost to the people who engage in it, but also by extension to society at large. Gay activists, and others who have accepted the “gay identity” paradigm, argue that the public policy debates revolve around whether “gay people are treated equally” to straight people. Social conservatives perceive the issues at stake completely differently. They believe, without question, that gay people, as individuals, should and do enjoy all the same rights under the Constitution and its Bill of Rights as any other American. However, social conservatives perceive the key issue in public policy debates as being whether homosexual conduct and homosexual relationships should be discouraged; treated as entirely private (that is, neither discouraged nor affirmed); or actively protected, affirmed, and celebrated. The latter is what gay activists demand. [emphasis in original]

Sprigg explains in detail how the different paradigms affect the way that language is used in debates about homosexuality. For example,

Since, as already noted, social conservatives consider sexual conduct to be the most significant aspect of debates over homosexuality and sexual orientation, when we use the word “homosexual” as a noun it is usually intended merely to mean “a person who engages in sexual relations with a person of the same sex,” and when we refer to “homosexuality,” we use the word as a synonym for “sexual relations with a person or persons of the same sex.” Whether or not a person self-identifies as “gay” or not is immaterial—-it is the behavior which matters most. On the other hand, a person who experiences same-sex attractions but does not act upon them will usually not be labeled a “homosexual” by social conservatives. [emphasis in original]

Sprigg also explains why his organization tends, like other social conservative groups, to refer to “homosexual activists”:

I should also note that in the context of the political debates over issues related to homosexuality, social conservatives do not consider “homosexuals” as such (that is, people who engage in private homosexual conduct) to be their adversaries. We recognize that some homosexuals are content to keep their sex lives private, rather than demanding official government affirmation of their sexual relationships. This is why we will sometimes use the term “homosexual activists” (or “pro-homosexual activists,” since not all are “homosexual” themselves) to describe those people whose agenda—-the forced public affirmation and celebration of homosexual conduct and relationships—-we oppose in the public square.

Assessment: In deciding to classify FRC as a “hate group,” the SPLC lists nine quotes from current and former employees made between 1999 and 2011. Since these are the basis of the dispute, it is worth  examining the quotes in detail. For the sake of brevity, we’ll only consider the four that have been made by current employees (all of the other quotes are 10 to 15 years old).

Quote #1 & #2

“We believe the evidence shows . . . that relative to the size of their population, homosexual men are more likely to engage in child sexual abuse than are heterosexual men.”—- Peter Sprigg, “Debating Homosexuality: Understanding Two Views.” 2011. “While activists like to claim that pedophilia is a completely distinct orientation from homosexuality, evidence shows a disproportionate overlap between the two. . . . It is a homosexual problem.”—- FRC President Tony Perkins, FRC website, 2010

Since both of these quotes are similar, we’ll take them together The first quote is taken from the document referenced above. It is worth quoting from this article at length to provide context for the quote:

One specific claim by social conservatives that is sometimes decried as “hateful” is the charge that, in proportion to their numbers, homosexual men are more likely to engage in child sexual abuse than are heterosexual men. It is important to understand what social conservatives who make this claim are not saying. We are not saying that all homosexuals are child molesters (or even all homosexual men, since child sexual abuse, whether of boys or girls, is committed mostly by males); we are not saying that most homosexual men are child molesters; and we are not saying that most child sexual abuse is committed by homosexuals.

We believe the evidence shows, however, that relative to the size of their population, homosexual men are more likely to engage in child sexual abuse than are heterosexual men. It is neither reasonable nor responsible to simply dismiss this assertion—-it is necessary to examine the evidence for and against it. The first key fact to understand is this—-the percentage of all cases of child sexual abuse which involve a male offender and a male victim is far higher than the percentage of adult males who are “homosexual” by any of the three measures of sexual orientation (attractions, behavior, or self-identification). To put it differently, the prevalence of what is, by definition, “homosexual” (that is, same-sex) child sexual abuse is much higher (in percentage terms, not in absolute terms) than the prevalence of adult homosexuality per se. This fact is not in dispute among researchers on either child sexual abuse or homosexuality. However, homosexual activists, and many researchers in the field, avoid the apparent implications of this by insisting that most men who molest boys are not “homosexual” (or “gay”) in terms of their relationship to other adults. This claim, however, cannot merely be asserted—-it must be supported by empirical evidence.

The evidence usually cited as disproving the link between homosexuality and child sexual abuse is quite weak, while several lines of evidence tend to support the conclusion that a link exists. For example, a study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that “eighty-six percent of [male] offenders against males described themselves as homosexual or bisexual.” In addition, those who challenge the thesis that there is a link between homosexuality and child sexual abuse often resort to narrow definitions of both concepts. For example, they may refuse to identify a molester as homosexual unless he has always been exclusively homosexual on all three measures of sexual orientation—-attractions, behavior, and self-identification. Some also attempt to replace the broader term “child sexual abuse” with the specific word “pedophilia,” and then define “pedophilia” narrowly to include only sexual contact with very young, prepubescent children.

This narrowing of categories makes it easier to deny that “homosexuals are more likely to be pedophiles,” because there is indeed evidence that men who molest underage males tend to prefer adolescents rather than young, prepubescent children. FRC’s view is that any sexual contact between adults and minors is a subject for concern, and any which violates state statutory rape laws should be considered “child sexual abuse.”

Summary: The essence of the dispute is whether men who engage in homosexual contact with male children should be classified as “homosexuals.” The SPLC is firmly in the camp that they should not.

Quote #3

”[W]elcoming open homosexuality in the military would clearly damage the readiness and effectiveness of the force—-in part because it would increase the already serious problem of homosexual assault in the military.”—- Peter Sprigg, “Homosexual Assault in the Military,” 2010

In the report from which this quote is taken, Sprigg identifies all homosexual assaults as being perpetrated by homosexuals and heterosexual assaults being perpetrated by heterosexuals. As Sprigg notes, the most common type of homosexual assault is one in which the offender fondles or performs oral sex upon a sleeping victim. Although the most recent Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response report doesn’t provide a breakdown of same-gender assaults, 14 percent of the victims were male as were the vast majority of perpetrators (in the report only 10 female-on-male and 20 female-on-female assaults were identified).

According to the Christian Science Monitor, a prior DOD study warned that reports of crimes such as forcible sodomy may increase among males in the coming year with the repeal of the law that barred openly gay troops from serving in the military.

Summary: Whether you agree with Sprigg’s quote likely depends on whether you agree that someone who commits a homosexual assault should be identified as being homosexual.

Quote #4

“Since homosexual conduct is associated with higher rates of sexual promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases, mental illness, substance abuse, and domestic violence, it too qualifies as a behavior that is harmful to the people who engage in it and to society at large.”—- Tony Perkins, “Christian compassion requires the truth about the harms of homosexuality,” The Washington Post, 10/25/2010

Let’s examine each of the five claims made in this quote:

Sexual Promiscuity — According to a survey taken in 1997 and published in the Journal of Sex Research, 21 percent of gay men older than 30 had between 101-500 sexual partners over their lifetime. During the preceding six months, 44.9 percent had between 2-10 partners while 26.6 percent had more than 10. Only 28.5 percent had been with only one partner.

Additionally, “monogamy” is often defined differently in the gay community—-a fact that is rarely mentioned, but never disputed. The term monogamy is redefined so that a person can be “faithful” to one partner and, thus, “monogamous,” while continuing to have sexual experiences with others. San Francisco State University released a study in 2010 that found that about 50 percent of those surveyed had sex outside their relationships, with the knowledge and approval of their partners.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases — There is no question that homosexual conduct is associated with higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases. As the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases noted last year, “Men who have sex with men (MSM) have increased rates of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) compared with demographically matched controls.” Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out that STDs ” have been increasing among gay and bisexual men.” In 2008, men who have sex with men accounted for 63 percent of primary and secondary syphilis cases in the United States and are 17 times more likely to develop anal cancer than heterosexual men.

Mental illness  — Numerous studies (see, for example, here, here, and here) have found that homosexuals have a higher incidence of mental illness than the general population.

Even the SPLC doesn’t deny this point, though they claim that the reason is because of the “stress of being a member of a minority group in an often-hostile society.” However, studies have also shown that the same level of mental health problems occurs in areas that are accepting of homosexuality, such as San Francisco, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

Substance Abuse — According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), studies have shown that, when compared with the general population, gay and bisexual men, lesbian, and transgender individuals are more likely to use alcohol and drugs, abuse substances, and continue heavy drinking into later life. They are less likely to abstain from alcohol and drug use.

Domestic Violence — A survey by the Department of Justice found that same-sex cohabitants reported significantly more intimate partner violence than did opposite-sex cohabitants. Among women, 39.2 percent of the same-sex cohabitants and 21.7 percent of the opposite-sex cohabitants reported being raped, physically assaulted, and/or stalked by a marital/cohabiting partner at some time in their lifetime. The survey also found that 15.4 percent of same-sex cohabiting men reported being raped, physically assaulted and/or stalked by a male partner. Additionally, 82 percent of the victims of domestic violence reported to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs identified themselves as gay. Summary: Every claim in Perkins’s quote is supported by social science research.

Scoring the Debate: Explaining why they include FRC and 17 other “anti-gay” groups as “hate groups” the SPLC says,

SPLC’s listings of these groups is based on their propagation of known falsehoods—-claims about LGBT people that have been thoroughly discredited by scientific authorities—-and repeated, groundless name-calling. Viewing homosexuality as unbiblical does not qualify organizations for listing as hate groups.

None of these claims holds up to scrutiny. SPLC cannot win the debate on its merits. (Unfortunately, the media often repeats the spurious claims about the evidence being “thoroughly discredited by scientific authorities” without actually examining the social science research.) Like other homosexual activist groups, the SPLC advances their cause by either claiming that those who engage in certain same-sex behaviors are not really “homosexual” or by distorting the findings of empirical studies that show the harms of homosexual behaviors.

Why It Matters: The debate between FRC and SPLC foreshadows the larger problem between secular culture and orthodox Christians. Why doesn’t the SPLC include all groups that consider homosexuality as unbiblical? Certainly it is safer to use FRC and other groups as proxies to marginalize the biblical understanding of homosexual conduct and vilify those who embrace Christian sexual ethics.

For decades, social science research has documented that men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women have a propensity to be more promiscuous, have a higher incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, suffer from high rates of substance abuse, have more mental health problems than heterosexuals, have higher incidents of domestic abuse, and have less stable relationship that are infrequently monogamous. Despite the dishonest claims to the contrary, these facts have been well-established—-and were, in former eras, more openly recognized. During the 1990s, though, it became unacceptable to acknowledge such truths about the harms of homosexual conduct.

The result is an entire generation of young people who have grown up thinking that the only reason that anyone could oppose homosexuality is because of irrational—-and religiously influenced—-bigotry. Young people today—-including many, if not most, Christian youth—-are almost completely ignorant about the harmful affects of what used to be referred to as “the homosexual lifestyle.” Homosexual activist groups like the SPLC recognize they can win the public relations war by labeling certain organizations as “hate groups.” Because many Christians are often afraid of being out of step with their non-believing peers, they’ll go along with such claims, believing that it will cost them nothing. But once they’ve accepted the premise that FRC and others are hateful bigots, they have to accept the logical conclusions that all Christians who hold the biblical view about homosexual conduct are also bigots. Only those Christian groups that endorse homosexual conduct will be deemed acceptable.

If current trends are any indication, many young Christians will abandon orthodox Christian churches that teach the “bigoted” view of sexual ethics presented in the Bible. This is why the “homosexual issue” is ultimately an issue of both religious liberty and scriptural fidelity. Faux civility, embarrassment, prudishness, and a fear of expressing an unpopular opinion has caused many Christians to refrain from explaining how homosexual conduct destroys lives. Speaking out against “homosexuality” when the secular culture defines the terms is insufficient. We have to explain not only that such behavior is sinful, but destructive. We have to make it clear that the most “hateful” action we could take against our neighbors who have same-sex attraction is to accept the normalization of homosexual conduct.

Full Disclosure: I worked with both Tony Perkins and Peter Sprigg at FRC from 2006 to 2008.