The White House’s claim that so-called conversion therapy for homosexuals should be illegal has sparked replies from Christian ministers and counselors who say President Barack Obama’s position is based on biased research and threatens religious liberty.
“This is a tragic example of having a president who is fundamentally opposed to a Christian worldview and making statements that are really shaped more by the worldview of exclusive humanism,” said Eric Johnson, a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor who serves as director of the Society for Christian Psychology. The White House’s statement “is reflective much more of the culture wars that we’re in the midst of right now than it is based on good science.”
In response to a petition that garnered 120,000 signatures, White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett issued a statement April 8 asserting that conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy, is “neither medically nor ethically appropriate and can cause substantial harm.” The statement affirmed laws in New Jersey, California and the District of Columbia banning state-licensed therapists from using conversion therapy on minors experiencing same-sex attraction and noted that similar legislation has been proposed in 18 states.
The petition that prompted Jarrett’s statement stemmed from the suicide of an Ohio teenager who identified as transgender and wrote about “Christian therapists” who were “very biased,” Fox News reported.
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Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Barack Obama, said conversion therapy is “neither medically nor ethically appropriate and can cause substantial harm.”
“Tonight, somewhere in America, a young person, let’s say a young man, will struggle to fall to sleep, wrestling alone with a secret he’s held as long as he can remember,” Obama said in written remarks at the top of Jarrett’s statement. “Soon, perhaps, he will decide it’s time to let that secret out. What happens next depends on him, his family, as well as his friends and his teachers and his community. But it also depends on us – on the kind of society we engender, the kind of future we build.”
Some Christians have questioned specific types of reparative therapy for operating on an unbiblical model of change rooted in psychology rather than the gospel. Johnson and others say aspects of reparative therapy may be useful tools to help some individuals battling same-sex attraction and should not be stigmatized as inappropriate.
Conversion or reparative therapy seeks to reduce or eliminate same-sex attraction based on the theory that homosexual orientation is a function of traumatic childhood experiences related to gender formation, according to the website of psychologist Joseph Nicolosi, a leading advocate of reparative therapy. Reparative therapy is only for individuals seeking to reduce same-sex attraction, Nicolosi wrote, and is based on four principles:
Therapists should disclose their personal views on homosexuality but not impose those views on clients.
Therapists should encourage clients to inquire about the source of their same-sex attraction.
Therapists should attempt to isolate and resolve childhood trauma that led to same-sex attraction.
Therapists should educate clients about the causes, motivations and consequences of their same-sex attraction and behavior.
The White House statement references warnings against reparative therapy by the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other groups.
“While a national ban [on reparative therapy] would require congressional action,” Jarrett wrote, “we are hopeful that the clarity of the evidence combined with the actions taken by these states [that have enacted bans] will lead to a broader action that this Administration would support.”
Johnson said the White House statement relies on research by scientists “committed to a humanistic worldview, and they’re interpreting the [data] accordingly.”
“What we need is dozens, if not hundreds, of studies done by Christian researchers who are documenting changes that are occurring in Christians [with same-sex attraction] over the course of their lives with Christ,” Johnson told Baptist Press.
The “primary treatment” for same-sex desires is coming to Christ for salvation and drawing close to Him in every facet of life, said Johnson, a member of Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Executive Committee President Frank S. Page’s Mental Health Advisory Group. Christians should utilize all available resources from God’s created order to become healthy and holy, including helpful aspects of reparative therapy, Johnson added.
No therapy will help all believers with same-sex attraction reduce or eliminate their desire for members of the same gender, he acknowledged, and therapy should never be used as a substitute for battling same-sex attraction with Christian discipleship.
Bob Stith, founder of Family and Gender Issues Ministries in Southlake, Texas, said he does not know many Christians who practice reparative therapy, but he believes restricting the practice by law is an infringement of religious liberty.
“It is … alarming for the government to intrude in this aspect of our personal lives because there are no guarantees that it will stop there,” Stith, the SBC’s former national strategist for gender issues, said in written comments. “Religious freedoms are already under assault and it isn’t unreasonable to think that this intrusion will advance into other areas in the not too distant future. Nor is it unreasonable to think that what begins with regulation of a therapist with a minor will soon encompass adults.”
Stith continued, “I wonder if the President has made any effort whatsoever to discuss this with acknowledged experts who have a different perspective. To not do so would be the height of irresponsibility. While some pro-gay advocates may be delighted at this recommendation from the White House, all thoughtful therapists should be very alarmed at the idea that politicians would be given the authority to determine what is and isn’t permissible.”
SBC ethicist Russell Moore raised religious liberty concerns when New Jersey passed its reparative therapy ban for minors in 2013, prohibiting state-licensed counselors from all efforts to help children under 18 reduce or eliminate same-sex attraction.
“This really isn’t about reparative therapy, but about religious liberty and personal freedom,” Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), said at the time.
Moore said the bill was “broadly and haphazardly written in a way that endangers, among other things, the teenager who seeks counsel for how to live a chaste life with same-sex attractions. His counselor, upon threat of losing a license, can only parrot the state-approved line rather than dealing with him or her as an individual.”
In a 2014 resolution on “transgender identity,” messengers to the SBC annual meeting noted that “the state of New Jersey prohibits licensed counselors from any attempt to change a child’s ‘gender expression.’” The resolution did not mention reparative therapy but pointed out that the American Psychiatric Association allows for transgenderism treatment options that include “cross-sex hormone therapy, gender reassignment surgery, and social and legal transition to the desired gender.”
The resolution stated, “These cultural currents run counter to the biblical teaching as summarized in The Baptist Faith and Message, Article III, that ‘Man is the special creation of God, made in His own image. He created them male and female as the crowning work of His creation. The gift of gender is thus part of the goodness of God’s creation.”
The SBC resolution went on to invite “all transgender persons to trust in Christ and to experience renewal in the gospel.”
Moore, in an October 2014 video posted on the ERLC website, said reparative therapy is counterproductive when separated from the transformative power of the gospel.
Reparative therapy, Moore said, often is used as an “umbrella term” that can mean anything from helping “someone walk through what does it mean to follow Christ” to a “psychotherapeutic model where the end goal is to see to it that the person is … substantially free from same-sex attractions and is now ‘straight.’”
The latter type of reparative therapy “can easily become a substitute for the gospel, which never promises anybody freedom from temptation,” Moore said. “What the gospel promises us is the Holy Spirit to give us the power to walk through temptation faithfully.”
Moore affirmed the ministry of Bible-believing counselors who help believers develop specific strategies for dealing with unwanted same-sex attraction, but he said dealing with same-sex attraction faithfully will not produce the same end result for all Christians who struggle in that area. Some may eventually enter a biblical marriage and be freed from same-sex attraction while others may remain celibate and battle same-sex temptations their entire lives, he said.
Tim Wilkins, executive director of Cross Ministries, an organization that seeks to help individuals with same-sex attraction, criticized the White House’s suggestion that attempts to reduce same-sex attraction can lead to suicide. He said persons with same-sex attraction are prone to mental health struggles regardless of whether they attempt to change.
Wilkins lamented the high suicide rate among homosexuals but said compassion, rather than unjustified attacks against the Christian worldview, is the solution.
“The White House,” Wilkins said, “selects what it wants to believe.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)