50.50: Opinion

Evangelical Christian groups flout the law – again

Christian Right groups promoting anti-LGBT practices in the US and abroad, despite bans, is nothing new: they’ve been doing it for decades

Chrissy Stroop
Chrissy Stroop
26 November 2021, 9.46am
Illustration: Inge Snip

In recent years, 40% of American states, along with more than 100 municipalities, have begun banning mental health professionals from providing so-called ‘conversion therapy’ to minors (defined in the United States as people under the age of 18).

The American Psychiatric Association, which first expressed its “strong opposition” to this harmful practice in 1998, reiterated its position in 2018 – at a time when anti-LGBTQ sentiments were flaring up amid a general right-wing backlash against democratic norms and civil rights gains. The American Psychological Association has also provided a helpful list of talking points in support of legislative efforts to ban ‘conversion therapy’.

Whether such bans are observed or enforced, however, is another matter.

Chrissy Stroop conversion therapy US map.png
US states that have some sort of ‘conversion therapy’ ban
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Targeting minors

A new investigation by openDemocracy has revealed that one of the US’s most prominent anti-LGBTQ organisations, the Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, has continued to promote ‘conversion therapy’ to minors – even in areas where bans are in place. An undercover reporter posing as a 17-year-old “struggling with same-sex attraction” found Focus-affiliated therapists who were willing to “help” her “change” her sexual orientation in Virginia and Colorado, both states that ban ‘conversion therapy’ for minors.

In addition, openDemocracy discovered that Focus on the Family’s list of approved counsellors includes “dozens” of “licensed professionals who offer specific treatment for ‘homosexuality issues’, ‘gender identity issues’ or both” and “have children and adolescents as clients, including in states where ‘conversion therapy’ is banned”.

Practitioners seeking Focus’s imprimatur must have a “state mental health credential”, which means that the group is not only flouting state and local ‘conversion therapy’ bans, but also demanding that licensed therapists flout the established standards of their fields in favour of fundamentalist Christian ideology that treats queerness as “sin”.

Focus on the Family was founded in 1977 by Dr James Dobson, who believed corporal punishment was required of Christian parents, and who was far more influenced by eugenicist thinking than most evangelicals would prefer to admit. He soon established himself as a public figure, first as the conservative Christian disciplinarian answer to the nurturing style of parenting promoted by the likes of Dr Benjamin Spock, and then as a power broker in the increasingly authoritarian Republican Party.

The group has some unpleasant friends. The Family Research Council (FRC) – designated an anti-LGBTQ “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center – was integrated into Focus on the Family in 1988, as its advocacy arm. They officially split into separate organisations again in 1992 (in a move to protect Focus’s tax-exempt status as a religious non-profit), but Dobson remained on the FRC’s board.

Disregard for legal norms

Focus on the Family’s extreme anti-LGBTQ animus is, of course, not unique on the Christian Right – and neither is its disregard for legal norms. For example, Liberty University, a hardline evangelical institution founded by culture warrior extraordinaire Jerry Falwell, Sr., once penalised law students who argued in an exam that an “ex-lesbian” mother should obey court orders requiring parental visiting rights for her ex-wife. The reason the mother – who was, in fact, not so hypothetical – was supposed to engage in “civil disobedience” was to “protect” her child from exposure to “the homosexual lifestyle”.

As documented by an FBI affidavit, the real-life mother behind the exam question had actually kidnapped her child and fled the US for Nicaragua, where she was staying in the beach house of a Christian Right activist. Which leads to the issue of the US Christian Right’s international reach.

Evangelical missionaries have contributed to the rise of reactionary politics in Latin America, and they are also well known for disregarding laws put in place to protect uncontacted Indigenous peoples. So we should not be surprised that – on top of the new revelations about Focus’s disregard for ‘conversion therapy’ bans in the US, openDemocracy has identified mental health practitioners with links to Focus and Exodus Global Alliance (another US Christian conservative group) accused of prodviding ‘conversion therapy’ in Costa Rica.

Although ‘conversion therapy’ is not yet banned in Costa Rica, it does represent a pernicious export from the US Christian Right, whose influence in Latin America is both longstanding and harmful. Focus’s presence in the region, via its Enfoque a la Familia offices, dates back to 1985.

American evangelicals – white evangelicals, in particular – pursue an ends-justify-the-means approach to their faith

Having grown up in this type of dominionist Christianity, I can’t say I’m surprised by openDemocracy’s findings. At the same time, it is immensely important to document the ways in which American evangelicals – white evangelicals, in particular – pursue an ends-justify-the-means approach to their faith.

They exploit bad-faith ‘religious freedom’ arguments to push a theocratic (and de facto white supremacist) agenda, and evade the law (whether local, national or international) when it doesn’t give them free rein to dominate others. If there’s one thing that should be very clear after the 6 January insurrection against the US government – which was undoubtedly driven by the religious right – it’s that right-wing Christians are willing to give up even a plausible veneer of support for democracy in order to hold on to power.

They will wield that power to harm marginalised people, however and wherever they can, and it is well past time for us to begin holding them accountable.

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