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    Separation of Church and Gays?

    Photo By Christopher Turner

    By Dr. Tim Seelig

    In the last couple of years, organized, fundamentalist religion has reared its ugly head again—under the guise of religious freedom. To be clear, it’s been there lurking just below the surface, waiting for an opportunity to pop out and scare the hell out of us like a Jack in the Box with a Bible. And somehow, that “old time religion” has found the most unlikely of mascots in the head of the new administration.

    The grand poohbah has sold his soul to the devil so many times it makes one’s head spin like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. He has surrounded himself with the most frightening array of mostly white, really rich disciples. They have taken over our nation’s capital armed with big erasers aimed at blurring the centuries-old line separating church and state. The move toward religious freedom has nothing to do with freedom. It is their last-ditch effort to reverse the freedoms we have fought for and won. It is their intent to put us back in our places of subservience where we once were.

    What’s a gay to do? If you are not scared to death, you’re not paying attention!

    Any discussion such as this must begin with a thorough inventory of one’s own relationship to organized religion. This is not about being spiritual or deep or thoughtful. It’s all about the huge organizations—that should be for-profits and pay taxes—who live in a world of rules, dogma, bibles and guns. These are my stories, my thoughts. As you read, please take a moment to reflect on your own stories and journey. I am envious when I encounter people who were raised with a healthy relationship with religion. I’m envious that they aren’t schlepping the baggage that others of us have collected over the years.

    I know these people all too well, having spent the first three and a half decades as a devout Southern Baptist and minister of music. At its core, fundamentalism in any form is about forcing others to believe and adhere to doctrine—all or nothing. We had mandatory, organized proselytizing. We were like Mormons without the bikes and badges. We had church visitation every Monday night where we were given the names of “prospects” to visit. We were to hunt down the heathens in our neighborhoods and convince them that there was a “Jesus-shaped hole” in their hearts and they were going straight to hell, not passing “Go” if they didn’t sign up. We were encouraged to keep score of those we brought to a saving knowledge of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Notches in the “Bible Belt,” as it were.

    That changed abruptly when I came out and was thrown out of the very church I had served as a music minister. I have often been asked how I have personally reconciled having been thoroughly indoctrinated into one of the most conservative of all religions and being a BOG—Big Ole Gay. I’ve been working on the most important response for three decades, and there is no magic remedy or one answer fits all. I applaud churches who are willing to affirm our community and attempt to bring religion and gay together. I don’t need religion and gay to merge. I am fine with the concept of “separation of church and Tim.” But that is my own path.

    I have often said that recovery from growing up Southern Baptist (insert Mormon, Catholic, Pentecostal, etc.) is a 24-step program. Twelve is just not enough. You have to rinse and repeat often. Even then, I don’t believe we are ever fully released from its grip. It comes back on you when you least expect it in often debilitating ways. This all depends on how religion was delivered to you when you were growing up as a required course or an elective.

    What has brought this to the top of my mind right now is the chorus’ impending tour to the south. We are traveling to a land where most of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters live under the most incomprehensible pall, subjected to constant rhetoric of unworthiness. They are living lives in fear in states where they have no real rights, and where religion is king and Elvis is alive.

    They are, however, way ahead of us in so many ways. They don’t need Betsy DeVos to order them to put Jesus back in school … he never left. They don’t need an executive order for preachers to tell their flock who to vote for—they never stopped. And according to Mike Pence on Fox News, most don’t need healthcare; they’ll just need to get back to church. God can take the cancer away through prayer, if he wants to. My son-in-law is a pediatric oncologist, and my daughter is a nurse in the same department. I’ve seen way too many examples where this theology defines a god I do not wish to have anything to do with.

    Sometimes, in moments of weakness, I think maybe it wasn’t that bad. Then I am reminded that it was. At my brother’s funeral a few weeks ago, the pastor used the scripture: “In my Father’s house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you.” Steve suffered debilitating and excruciating brain cancer for 4 years after the life expectancy of 3 months. The explanation of this lengthy suffering was that his mansion just wasn’t ready yet. I wanted to jump up and scream out, “Of course it wasn’t ready. All the interior decorators are in hell. The 3 straight ones who made it to heaven are busy, busy.”

    How do we bring light and hope on our journey? How do we give them a sense that it is going to be OK? How do we bring our San Francisco gay bubble experience to the south and make it meaningful and life-changing for them?

    On one hand, we have chosen to sing music that they grew up with, such as a beautiful arrangement of “Amazing Grace.” “I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.” The words placed against a backdrop of authenticity brought by coming out have all new meaning! We are also singing an incredible piece by activist musician Holly Near. “I ain’t afraid of your Bible. I ain’t afraid of your churches. I ain’t afraid of your stories. I’m afraid of what you do in the name of your god.”

    In the early years after coming out, I was shedding the layers of religion like a rattle snake sheds its skin—only to have to do it all over again. I had the chorus sing “Ave Maria” for the holiday concert. Up to that point, they had managed to “take the Christ out of Christmas” and sing only non-sectarian holiday fare. After the concerts, I received a letter I have kept for almost thirty years. Not long after Mark wrote this letter, he died of complications from AIDS. I can’t remember a more peaceful, confident “home-going.” He was not afraid of death, as most of my Christian friends are. Here is some of that letter:

    “I have been an agnostic since I was 18 years old. I am much more comfortable with the question being left open than answered. I much prefer to stand in awe of the sheer mystery of life than to accept or ascribe to any grouping of articles of faith. I won’t say that I didn’t lapse back into that comfort the Christian community affords a person. But once you realize that something, no matter how beautiful a metaphor it is, is indeed only a metaphor, you cannot go back to a literal understanding and accepting of it. I have spent the last 21 years occasionally being so terribly moved by the metaphor that sometimes I weep for its beauty and this has been enough for me.”

    And thus, it is for many of us. There are many parts of the religion of our past that remind us of moments when we felt something so deeply, we weep. It could be an organ playing, a choir, a prayer, the “smells and bells” (for you high church folks), Mormon funeral potatoes, Lutheran one dish, Baptist green bean casserole, Pentecostal green Jello mold, or Catholic bratwurst and beer.

    What does it all mean to us? It’s a journey. Each of us has a responsibility to examine what place organized religion holds in our lives. We must look at it, at its impact on our lives, and somehow manage to put it into its proper place. The bottom line is to come to a place where each of us believes—with all of our hearts—that we are whole and perfect just the way we are!

    As for separation of Church and Gays, that is a personal decision. It’s a matter of choice! As for separation of Church and State, that is not. We must resist. We must fight. Our freedom and our future depend on it.

    Dr. Tim Seelig is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.