Meet a Renegade Southern Baptist for LGBT Equality

This morning Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) announced that he would be reintroducing the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), which would permit same-sex spouses of undocumented immigrants to sponsor them for immigration benefits just as straight spouses do:

We must also do better by gay and lesbian Americans who face discrimination in our immigration law. Today, Senator Susan Collins and I will introduce the Uniting American Families Act. This legislation will end the needless discrimination so many Americans face in our immigration system. Too many citizens, including Vermonters who I have come to know personally and who want nothing more than to be with their loved ones, are denied this basic human right. This policy serves no legitimate purpose and it is wrong. 

Three years ago, when there was considerably less movement in favor of comprehensive immigration reform in general, evangelical leaders who supported immigration reform threatened that including UAFA in a package would mean losing their support. Not much has changed in that camp; witness the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land’s recent comment to the Christian Post:

“Same-sex partner provisions such as those included in the Uniting American Families Act would be strongly opposed by many in our communities who are otherwise sympathetic or even enthusiastic about the benefits of immigration reform,” said Land.

“[President Obama] needs to understand that’s a deal breaker for lots of us and it needs to not be in there.”

Last year, Land agreed to step down from his post as president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in late 2013, after he was exposed for plagiarizing, among other things, inflammatory remarks about the Trayvon Martin case. At the time, Brian Kaylor, a contributing editor at Ethics Daily, a moderate Baptist publication, told me, “Land is much more influential among journalists as an ‘evangelical leader’ than he is with the average Southern Baptist in the pews. He has more say in newsrooms than sanctuaries.”

Who constitutes Land’ s “lots of us,” then? Meet an average—or maybe not so average, but instructive—Southern Baptist, the Rev. Jeff Hood. Four years out of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the denomination’ s preeminent training ground, the 29-year-old Hood supports LGBT rights (he actually prefers to the term “queer”) and favors immigration reform with UAFA. About Land and other evangelical leaders who say they support immigration reform but refuse to accept it with equal treatment for LGBT couples, Hood told me, “I think it’s disgusting. They are not reading their Bibles or listening to Jesus.” 

Having grown up in a Southern Baptist church, Hood said that when he got into Southern, “it was like I got accepted to Harvard.” He aspired to the archetype. “I wanted to be your average megachurch pastor. I wanted to play the game, have a pretty wife, a lot of hairspray in her hair.” Now, he and his wife live outside of Dallas, where he pastors a house church, works as a hospital chaplain, and volunteers to help death row prisoners and on “queer issues here on the ground.” When the issue of equality in immigration reform came on his radar, he said, “it’s painfully obvious to me. You don’t bust up people’s families.”

Hood’s “road to Damascus” moment at Southern was when a respected mentor (not at Southern) came out to him. “I had no mental ability to grasp that at all. I wasn’t given any space to love anyone who wasn’t heterosexual, and, for that matter, a Calvinist,” said Hood.

Although that revelation completely changed his thinking about God and the Bible (it “blew up boundaries for me”), still, “I will tell people, when they ask me—I say I’m a Southern Baptist, because I still claim that heritage.” Hood is emphatic about another aspect of classifying himself. “I am not an evangelical hipster,” he said. “I’m very distrustful of those people.”

Sure, Hood became, in his words, a “pariah” at Southern, for his questioning of the waging of the culture wars, of the “norms they had with regard to human sexuality.” But Hood also “became someone who was trusted by young men to come out to.” Gays at Southern? Hood told me, “A lot of close friends who are closeted are pastoring Southern Baptist churches.”

His denomination, Hood maintains, realizes it needs to change or face irrelevance. “No one’s listening to them now. They realize they are losing ground, losing their voice. They’re trying to figure out a way to gain it back and be relevant. They thought that Calvinism was going to be the answer, that Calvinism would make it cool… Tim Keller and the new Calvinism guys—they’re trying to make Christianity cool, they’re trying to make their brand of Christianity cool. I’m like, why can’t Christianity just be Christianity. The reason is—it’s hurtful to even say this—because they are concerned with patriarchy and control. By promoting Calvinism and all these theologies of exclusion, they are able to maintain control. To me, Christianty is not an exclusive deal.”

Hood described Land as a “joke, even among Southern Baptists, he is a joke. They look at him as something that represents something they don’t want to be anymore. Nobody wants to be the culture warriors anymore.” They want to be, he said, “something where you can still be a bigot and seem kind of cool in the process. And they don’t think he’s cool.”