Fake Gay Panic News Fools Christians

Christians are just too gullible. That’s the message from Ed Stetzer, writing at Christianity Today, about internet hoaxes masquerading as news that duped Christian readers who then shared them widely.

Believing these stories, Stetzer wrote, and sharing them via social networks, is just embarrassing.

Yet these “news stories” play into fears the religious right has been stoking for years, and with more intensity since the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges two and a half weeks ago. One piece of “news” that Stetzer said many Christians fell for was about a Vermont pastor who was jailed for refusing to marry a gay couple. The story came from a fake news site. Not like Jon Stewart fake news. Or even Onion fake news. Actual fake news.

“By the way,” Stetzer added, “if you are a pastor you should already know that no one can make you officiate anything. In fact, you can refuse to officiate an interracial marriage. You’d be an idiot and a racist, but you wouldn’t be arrested.”

The other “story” Stetzer highlighted claimed “a sodomite ex-con turned author, Bradley La Shawn Fowler” sued two Bible publishers, charging that certain verses were homophobic. Scoping out the facts, Stetzer finds this lawsuit was indeed filed, but back in 2008, at which time “the courts quickly dismissed it as a ridiculous lawsuit. At five different points in the ruling, the court asserts that Fowler’s claims fail and should be dismissed and rejected.”

Stetzer lamented, “That didn’t stop Christians from sharing this story as if it were new and potentially dangerous.”

But religious right figures have been raising fears of jailed pastors and tyranny and worse before and since Obergefell came down. Richard Land, the former chief lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention, raised the prospect of pastors going to jail days after Obergefell (even though just a couple of weeks before the case was decided, the denomination’s Albert Mohler admitted “there’s not really a danger that the sheriff’s gonna show up and say, ‘you have to do this.'”) Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee warned that pro-LGBT activists could “threaten the foundation of religious liberty, criminalize Christianity, and demand that Americans abandon Biblical principles of natural marriage.” That panicked advisory itself was widely shared.

So when people who themselves believe marriage equality is a threat to their religion, or to their culture, or to their pastor are primed with hysterical scenarios from their leaders, is it surprising that a bit of fake viral news serves as confirmation bias?

Stetzer urges his readers to post explicit retractions for sharing these fake stories. “If our friends and families cannot trust us with this type of news,” he warns, “many will not listen when we seek to share the good news of the gospel.