Coda — March 17, 2017, 12:16 pm

The Old Prejudices

The war between gay Pentecostals and their pious oppressors has grown uglier with the start of the Trump era.

In a recent issue of Harper’s Magazine, I wrote about an ongoing civil war in America’s black church over the issue of gay rights. For the most part, I was talking about the Pentecostals, who have been particularly vehement in their damnation of gay men and lesbians—despite the fact that these very parishioners have played a key role in building the church. In the weeks since I wrote my essay, this drama has intensified. Indeed, like almost everything else in America, the war between gay Pentecostals and their pious oppressors has grown uglier with the start of the Trump era.

Yet there have also been stark instances of resistance. For example, over thirty years ago, when Bob Dylan became a newborn Pentecostal, he issued heated jeremiads against gay people—targeting, in particular, the latter-day Sodom of San Francisco. He met with virtually no resistance, and his countless devotees have long since forgotten such remarks or swept them under the rug.

How times change. Two months ago, the gospel singer Kim Burrell was caught on tape preaching against lesbians and gay men. “That perverted homosexual spirit is the spirit of delusion and confusion,” she told the flock. “It has deceived many men and women, and it’s caused a stain on the body of Christ.” Unlike Dylan, she was widely condemned. Burrell was quick to excuse herself, declaring in familiar Pentecostal terms that she was fighting the sin while loving the sinner. In the end, she backpedaled even more, declaring that she was addressing only the members of her own small congregation, not her denomination—the Church of God in Christ—at large.

At that moment, Burrell was actually poised to reach a much larger audience: she had been booked to appear on The Ellen DeGeneres Show with Pharrell Williams, her duet partner on the hit recording “I See a Victory.” Williams distanced himself from her comments, and DeGeneres cancelled the appearance. Burrell had also been featured in a recording with Frank Ocean, whose very public coming-out in 2012 had obliged the hip-hop world to choose between its familiar homophobia and a more enlightened attitude. Ocean’s mother, Katonya Breaux, was so disturbed that she wanted Burrell’s voice expunged from her son’s recording. Clearly this was not the mother celebrated in gospel mythology, that maternal storehouse of Old School doctrine who most often shunned her punk son or butch daughter.

Yet the old prejudices soon reared their heads. A large number of gospel fans rallied behind Burrell, declaring, without any apparent irony, “I’m with her!” Her sermon had in fact been prompted by a return to the pulpit by Bishop Eddie Long, a gay-baiting Bapticostal who was accused of dallying with a number of his male congregants. In many ways, Long’s congregation had resembled Trump’s supporters—fully aware of his trespasses, and eager to forgive them all. Burrell and her fans were less forgiving. Long had been struggling with cancer, and on the morning before Martin Luther King Day, he died. At once, Burrell’s fan base flooded the web with its disdain. What the family called cancer, Kim’s people called AIDS. And the Pentecostal saints rejoiced in its exposure, for, as the Bible promised, God would not be “mocked.”

The next day, Bernice King, Long’s habitual partner in sanctified homophobia, preached at her father’s church in Memphis, though without reference to her old friend, much less the gay-bashing war they had waged together. That same day, her brother met with Trump. Their conversation, he later told the press, revolved around the nation’s “broken voting system”—which must have made for a lively exchange, since Trump and his allies like nothing more than systematic voter suppression.  

The week would end with inaugural balls, featuring a few gospel singers, although the president had reportedly objected because African Americans had been so grudging in their support. Jennifer Holliday, a gay icon since her appearance in Dreamgirls, was scheduled to appear, and even boasted about the reconciling powers of her song. But  her gay fans—as she admitted, virtually the only group still loyal to her—exploded in rage, and she withdrew.

There was no such objection from Travis Greene, the current king of gospel, whose songs of deliverance have been claimed as the personal testimonies of ex-gays. Accompanied by  the secular singer Chrisette Michele, he performed with huge confidence. Afterward, it was reported that he had earned $90,000 for his appearance—and she, a mere quarter of a million.

It may have hurt Michele with some parts of her audience; she has subsequently claimed that her family disowned her. Greene encountered some complaints as well, in the thirty-pieces-of-silver vein. But others were more friendly, and quoted the biblical passage, “The wages of the wicked will be spent by the righteous.” Once upon a time, gospel singers would resist as least some of the world’s enticements by saying, “There’s some money so dirty you hate to touch it.” But in the Trump era, any money that falls into saved and sanctified hands is gratefully accepted, if not spiritually deployed.

Inevitably, Donnie McClurkin, the contemporary gospel singer and pastor, was the next to sign on with Trump. He had not voted for the G.O.P. candidate, disapproving of his “misogynistic ideas [and] racism”—quite a loaded phrase, given his own animosity toward lesbians. But he was now ready to march with, say, Michael Voris, the ex-gay Catholic traditionalist who boasts that his prayers to the Virgin have kept him celibate. The black church’s homophobes have continued to find friends in faraway places.

Indeed, the conservative wing of the black church rejoiced in Trump’s victory as the first of many trials for gay America. One fellow wrote that Dr. King’s ecclesiastical opponents had been vindicated. Another pastor posted YouTube clips condemning all the closeted bishops, not merely the doomed Long. All of which is to say that the civil war in the black church is still raging—and will doubtless get worse before it gets better.

Read Anthony Heilbut’s story on black America’s civil war over gay rights here.

Share
Single Page

More from Anthony Heilbut:

From the February 2017 issue

The Number That No Man Could Number

Black America’s civil war over gay rights

From the April 2012 issue

Aretha

How she got over

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2018

Slingshot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Walk Away

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Perfectly Respectable Lady

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Driven to Distraction

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dinner Party

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Exiled

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Exiled·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

It has become something of a commonplace to say that Mike Pence belongs to another era. He is a politician whom the New York Times has called a “throwback,” a “conservative proudly out of sync with his times,” and a “dangerous anachronism,” a man whose social policies and outspoken Christian faith are so redolent of the previous century’s culture wars that he appeared to have no future until, in the words of one journalist, he was plucked “off the political garbage heap” by Donald Trump and given new life. Pence’s rise to the vice presidency was not merely a personal advancement; it marked the return of religion and ideology to American politics at a time when the titles of political analyses were proclaiming the Twilight of Social Conservatism (2015) and the End of White Christian America (2016). It revealed the furious persistence of the religious right, an entity whose final demise was for so long considered imminent that even as white evangelicals came out in droves to support the Trump-Pence ticket, their enthusiasm was dismissed, in the Washington Post, as the movement’s “last spastic breath.”

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj
Article
Church and State·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Just after dawn in Lhamo, a small town on the northeastern corner of the Tibetan Plateau, horns summon the monks of Serti Monastery to prayer. Juniper incense smolders in the temple’s courtyard as monks begin arriving in huddled groups. Some walk the kora, a clockwise circumambulation around the building. Others hustle toward the main door, which sits just inside a porch decorated in bright thangka paintings. A pile of fur boots accumulates outside. When the last monks have arrived, the horn blowers leaning out of the second-floor windows retire indoors.

When I visited Lhamo in 2015, most monks at Serti attended the morning prayers, but not Ngawang Chötar, the vice president of the monastery’s management committee, or siguanhui. Instead, he could usually be found doing business somewhere on Lhamo’s main street. Like all Tibetan monks, he sports a buzz cut, and his gait, weighed down by dark crimson robes, resembles a penguin’s shuffle. When he forgets the password to his account on WeChat, China’s popular messaging service—a frequent occurrence—he waits for the town’s cell phone repairman at his favorite restaurant, piling the shells of sunflower seeds into a tidy mound.

Illustration by Simon Pemberton
Article
The Pictures·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

As he approached his death in 1987, the photographer Peter Hujar was all but unknown, with a murky reputation and a tiny, if elite, cult following. Slowly circling down what was then the hopeless spiral of ­AIDS, Peter had ceaselessly debated one decision, which he reached only with difficulty, and only when the end drew near. He was in a hospital bed when he made his will that summer, naming me the executor of his entire artistic estate—and also its sole owner.

The move transformed my life and induced a seething fury in lots of decent people. I can see why. Peter did not make me his heir for any of the usual reasons. I was a good and trusted friend, but he had scads of those. I was not the first person he considered for the job, nor was I the most qualified. In fact, I was a rank amateur, and my understanding of his art was limited. I knew his photographs were stunning, often upsetting, unpredictably beautiful, distinctively his. I also knew they were under­rated and neglected. But I did not then really grasp his achievement.

Photograph by Peter Hujar
Article
Drinking Problems·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The friendly waitress at the Pretty Prairie Steak House delivers tumblers of tap water as soon as diners take their seats. Across Main Street, the Wagon Wheel Café offers the same courtesy. Customers may also order coffee or iced tea, but it all starts at the same tap, and everyone is fine with that. This blasé attitude about drinking water surprised me: everyone in this little farm town in Reno County, Kansas, knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that the liquid flowing from the municipal water tower was highly contaminated with nitrate, a chemical compound derived from fertilizer and connected to thyroid problems and various cancers. At the time I visited Pretty Prairie, last fall, nitrate levels there were more than double the federal standard for safe drinking water.

Illustration by Jen Renninger.
Article
Nothing But·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The truth—that thing I thought I was telling.—John Ashbery To start with the facts: the chapter in my book White Sands called “Pilgrimage” is about a visit to the house where the philosopher Theodor Adorno lived in Los Angeles during the Second World War. It takes its title from the story of that name by Susan Sontag (recently republished in Debriefing: Collected Stories) about a visit she and her friend Merrill made to the house of Adorno’s fellow German exile Thomas Mann in the Pacific Palisades, in 1947, when she was fourteen. It seemed strange that the story was originally …
Photograph by Augusta Wood

Percentage of US college students who have a better opinion of conservatives after their first year:

50

Plastic surgeons warned that people misled by wide-angle distortion in selfies were seeking nose jobs.

Trump fires missiles at Syria, a former FBI director likens Trump to a Mafia boss, and New Yorkers mistake a racoon for a tiger.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today