Christians Are Leaving Homophobia Behind - Will Journalists Keep Up?

The majority of Christians in America now believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society. But major media outlets routinely depict homophobia as just Christian or religious belief, giving a pass to some of the most extreme anti-LGBT activists and organizations in the country.

For years, media coverage of the fight for LGBT equality has followed a “God vs. gays” narrative that pits LGBT equality against religious -- and specifically Christian -- communities.

But according to recent polling data, 54 percent of all Christians now say that “homosexuality should be accepted by society.” The data come from Pew's 2014 Religious Landscape Study, which surveyed more than 35,000 U.S. adults as a follow up to Pew's 2007 study. Now, the majority of major Christian groups, including Catholics, mainline Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and historically black Protestants, believe homosexuality should be accepted by society:

Despite the shifting attitudes of Christians in America, major media outlets continue to accept right-wing framing that conflates homophobia with mainstream Christian or religious beliefs.

In fights over LGBT equality, hate groups with track records of disparaging and demonizing gay people are referred to as Christian organizations by mainstream media. This tendency was on full display during the recent controversy surrounding Kim Davis - the Kentucky clerk who refused to provide wedding licenses to same-sex couples. Media outlets described Liberty Counsel, which represented Davis in her legal battle, as a “Christian” organization with no mention of its hate group status or history of anti-LGBT extremism. Hate group leaders like Family Research Council's Tony Perkins are routinely given airtime to act as the voice of Christian voters.

That conflation is even worse in right-wing media, where even blatantly homophobic remarks are spun into testaments of Christian faith. When Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson compared homosexuality to bestiality, Fox News' Sean Hannity defended his “old-fashioned traditional Christian sentiment.” When the Benham brothers, a pair of right wing activists, were criticized for their extreme anti-gay rhetoric, conservative radio host Dana Loesch lamented the "anti-Christian bigotry" at play.

The conflation goes beyond whitewashing bad actors -- it also legitimizes discrimination against LGBT people under the guise of “religious liberty.” “Religious freedom” laws like the controversial Indiana law this past March are built around the right wing narrative that serving LGBT people violates Christians' religious beliefs. Anti-LGBT groups have used the media to popularize stories about Christian business owners who are fined for refusing service to gay customers, depicting them as Christian martyrs who've been victimized by non-discrimination laws.

There's no reasonable limit to the kind of animus that anti-LGBT conservatives can justify under the guise of Christian or religious belief. In October 2014, a pediatrician in Michigan cited her religious beliefs after she refused to work with the baby of a same-sex couple. A former Ford Motor employee filed a complaint with the EEOC claiming that his "religious liberty" was violated after he violated the company's anti-harassment policy with a hate-filled response to an article detailing Ford's efforts to be more LGBT-inclusive. A teacher who was fired from a private school for refusing to accept a transgender child appeared on Fox News recently, and Fox host Megyn Kelly said that the teacher's “Christian beliefs ... don't support this.” 

While it's not the role of the media to question the validity or sincerity of a person's religious beliefs, it is imperative that journalists not blindly follow that self-identification. In the fight against Indiana's “religious freedom” law, religious leaders were some of the most outspoken critics of the anti-LGBT legislation - yet in the media, these religious voices were often drowned out by those of anti-LGBT extremists. Anti-LGBT groups and activists may sincerely identify themselves as Christian, but it's irresponsible and misleading for the media to advertise their views without noting that they increasingly contradict dominant Christian beliefs in America.

Image at top via Flickr user Danny Hammontree using a Creative Commons License.