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Bethel Doubles Down On Conversion Therapy

Local citizens, including the protest organizer, Sarah King, far left, protested Bethel Church’s endorsement of conversion therapy near the evangelical mega church this past Sunday. Photo by Doni Chamberlain.

One thousand, nine hundred and eighty-eight years ago, on the back of a winged horse (as I like to imagine it), Jesus Christ miraculously returned to the physical realm after being gruesomely executed by the Romans.

Naturally, being the first — and so far only — person or deity to return from the afterlife, he had many interesting things to say, which his apostles dutifully noted for future reference, as in this passage from Mark 16 in the King James Bible:

“Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

Thus, the snake oil industry was born, and two millennia on, it’s still thriving in Shasta County, California.

The first thing you need to understand about the controversy swirling around Bethel Church and its misguided claim that it has a right to convert gay people into straight people, is that its self-appointed apostles actually believe they possess these healing powers and can even teach others how to harness them.

Needless to say, if any of the Bethel elders actually possessed such divine attributes, they’d be a lot richer than they already are, or at least garnering significant scientific attention. The fact that they are relatively wealthy in the first place testifies to the fact civilization hasn’t progressed as much as many of us would like to believe.

But we’re trying, and I was totally humbled by the response to “The Truth Behind Bethel’s Gay Panic,” the story I wrote last month after viewing the video of Bethel apostle Kris Vallotton’s homophobic sermon on Palm Sunday. I had hoped that there were other people out there who feel the same about this issue as me, but I never anticipated folks would take to the streets in protest, as they did this past Sunday.

To be honest, the story had been stewing in my soul ever since I moved to Shasta County four years ago, and discovered I’d have to sign a pledge that I wasn’t living in sin in order to attend Simpson University, which somehow enjoys a federal exemption permitting it to ban openly gay students from attending the school.

Look, I’m not a member of the LGBTQ community, I’m just an old straight guy living outside the bounds of holy matrimony with his girlfriend of 11 years seeking to expand his employment opportunities. But I’m not so desperate that I’d violate one of my own core principals to attend a school that actually litigated for the right to discriminate against gay people based on its interpretation of the Bible. (All apologies to those of you who have grit your teeth for the degree.)

Ironically, the core principal I’m referencing is also biblically based. In my interpretation of the Bible, Jesus Christ is a social justice warrior, a phrase evangelicals jacked up on the prosperity gospel have turned into an epithet. He’s the champion of the poor, the dispossessed and the persecuted. Arguably, there is no group in society more deserving of his protection than the LGBTQ community.

Yet in the very same book, particularly in the Old Testament, there are numerous passages suggesting in no uncertain terms this community should be wiped off the face of the earth. These are the passages Kris Vallotton has chosen to take literally—obviously he and the rest of Bethel’s higher-ups are ignoring the countless verses condemning false prophets who claim supernatural powers to a similar fate—to justify his claim that homosexuality is “inherently immoral.”

Of course, Vallotton doesn’t want you to know this on an intellectual level, which is why last week in the Record Searchlight, he announced in a Speak Your Piece that he was removing the video of the offending sermon from Bethel’s website (note to Bethel: the internet is forever) and begged forgiveness from … I’m not quite sure who. The LGBTQ community? Shasta County? The world? Me?

If he was expecting forgiveness from the latter, he was sadly mistaken.

The sign says it all: Conversion therapy is torture. Photo by Doni Chamberlain.

Inside Bethel’s dark heart

For those unfamiliar with the story up to this point, Vallotton’s now-deleted sermon concerned three bills in the California Assembly that propose to further regulate the practice of Sexual Orientation Change Efforts, also known as “conversion therapy,” AB 1779, AB 2119 and AB 2943.

In his Palm Sunday sermon, Kris Vallotton calls the congregation to action on three bills, including AB 1179. (Bethel.com has removed this portion of Vallotton’s message from its website.)

Virtually every professional mental health association in the United States now recognizes that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is part of the natural spectrum of human identity and is not a disease, disorder or illness. According to the American Psychological Association, there’s a paucity of hard data on SOCE, which are now almost exclusively practiced in a religious setting. The overall professional consensus is that such therapies are ineffective, counter-productive and potentially harmful.

In 2012, California became the first state to ban practitioners in the healing arts, including physicians, surgeons, psychologists, marriage and family therapists, educational psychologists, clinical social workers, and licensed professional clinical counselors from performing sexual orientation change efforts on minors. The legislation falls under the Consumer Legal Remedies Act, which protects consumers from deceptive business practices.

The three bills Bethel is now quite publicly opposing would further protect LGBTQ individuals from conversion therapy. AB 2943 appears to be Bethel’s primary concern. If passed and signed into law, it would prohibit licensed mental health providers from advertising, offering to engage in, or engaging in sexual orientation change efforts with adults, the same protection LGBTQ minors have had since 2012.

In short, the three bills would prohibit the sale of conversion therapy snake oil to adult and juvenile members of the LGBTQ community not protected by current law.

In his Record Searchlight apology, Vallotton acknowledges that his sermon promoting the sale of said snake oil “has caused some to question Bethel Church’s posture toward the LGBTQ+ community and our theological stances” and he was now seeking to “clarify my own opinions and some of Bethel’s heart.”

The “+” after LGBTQ was a nice touch, inferring a modicum of familiarity with the gay community. Who can keep up with this ever-expanding acronym? Certainly not Vallotton, who, steeped in Old Testament wisdom, views homosexuality and anything else falling outside the gender binary norm as a serious spiritual affliction demanding immediate exorcism.

“I believe God created mankind with a free will,” he states in his apology. “He teaches us what is right and yet gives us permission to live our lives as we desire.”

Got that? Identifying as gay or lesbian or transgender is a willful choice—the wrong choice, according to Vallotton, who then informs us that “America was founded on the notion that all people have God-given freedom and inalienable rights. This freedom means that individuals are protected from having ideologies forced upon them.”

He then proceeds to cram his and Bethel’s ideology down readers’ throats.

“But I do believe it’s my responsibility to teach Biblical truth,” he continues. “Bethel Church holds to the scriptural perspective that same-sex sexual behavior is unhealthful and that Jesus offers loving responses.”

From a scriptural perspective, Jesus didn’t have a whole lot to say about same-sex behavior, so Vallatton is presumably once again relying on the Old Testament, which includes loving yet profoundly unhealthy responses to homosexuals such as stoning them to death. Fortunately, Vallotton notes that “Bethel only endorses respectful and humane counseling practices that reflect the dignity of all individuals.”

This is the way people talk about livestock, not human beings. This is the heart of Bethel, this is what its pastors have preached for the entire 50 years of its existence: that members of the LGBTQ community are somehow less than human, unworthy of Jesus Christ’s salvation unless they repent their evil ways.

In “The Truth Behind Bethel’s Gay Panic,” I pointed out that here in Shasta County, we are already painfully aware where this kind of thinking, based on the homophobic verses in the Old Testament, can lead: the murder of two innocent men because they were openly gay, by two brothers who once attended Sunday school at Bethel and took the clobber passages to heart.

Pray the hate away? It’s worth a shot. Photo by Doni Chamberlain.

Bethel as the victim

Vallotton would have us believe that these very same clobber passages offer a “loving” remedy to members of the LGBTQ community, a cure for an illness serious medical authorities no longer recognize as such. He frames Bethel’s apparently ongoing use of conversion therapy techniques as a battle between competing beliefs of equal value in the free marketplace of ideas.

“We respect the right of people who disagree with us to voice their opinion, and we request the same respect for the beliefs that we hold,” implores Vallotton. “We cannot stand by and allow our message, our hope, and our faith to be silenced. Proposed legislation like these Assembly bills ultimately seeks to restrict and control many voices, not only ours.”

But Vallotton provides us with no evidence, other than a couple of allegedly ex-gay counselors in Bethel’s employ, to honor this patently false request for equal billing. The proposed legislation doesn’t silence Bethel or any other religious denomination’s message, hope or faith. If passed, religious denominations would remain free to openly discriminate against the LGBTQ community, as Simpson University does today, with full federal approval.

What would be prohibited is charging money for the scientifically discredited practice of conversion therapy. Vallatton doesn’t present any legitimate research that such therapies are effective because no reputable studies exist. The legislation doesn’t address the broader free market of ideas protected by the First Amendment; it’s narrowly targeted to protect the LGBTQ community from false and deceptive business practices. That’s why it’s filed under the Consumer Legal Remedies Act.

In his apology, Vallatton feigns puzzlement at the reaction of the local LGBTQ community and its allies to his Palm Sunday sermon.

“Bethel Church has been a part of the Redding community for more than 50 years,” he writes. “We have always lived in peace with people of all different persuasions in our community. We have never participated in any protest against the gay community.”

Again, that’s not exactly true. For the past half-century, Bethel pastors, including Vallotton, have been actively protesting against the very existence of the gay community, from the pulpit, if not in public. They have unfortunately been joined by a vast swath of the evangelical community. Such religious persecution is one of the main reasons the LGBTQ community has been forced to turn to the state for protection.

“We also have many friends in this city who are gay, and we do business without reservation with people in our community who are gay,” Vollatton continues, in the time-honored some-of-my-best friends-are-gay tradition some homophobic bigots eventually resort to when they’ve been snake-bit. “Even though we would disagree with some in the LGBTQ+ community, we are not haters but lovers of people, even when we have a different perspective.”

To be clear, the different perspective of these “lovers of people” is that anyone who exists outside gender binary norms is an abomination in the eyes of God. Such thinking is so ingrained in Vollatton he not only claims he “did not realize that I was being disrespectful” in his Palm Sunday sermon, he apparently doesn’t comprehend that his apology simply regurgitates the same arguments, this time gussied up with rainbows and love.

“I ask forgiveness and will be taking the sermon off the internet,” he concludes. “I want to communicate God’s love for all people, and am asking that we create a way forward together in our community by respecting each other in the midst of disagreement.”

Somehow, I don’t think Vallotton’s apology will be accepted by the LGBTQ community anytime soon, if only due to its utter lack of sincerity.

In my case, no apology is necessary. In fact, I’m grateful that Bethel posted Vallotton’s Palm Sunday sermon, because it illuminated an issue that has disturbed me ever since I moved to Shasta County four years ago: the rampant discrimination against the LGBTQ community practiced not just by Bethel, but a significant portion of the area’s religious community.

If Vallotton and Bethel truly seek to create a way forward for the community, they’ll repost that video in its entirety, to remind the rest of us who we’re really dealing with.

Although Bethel.com has removed the controversial video of Kris Vallotton’s Palm Sunday sermon from its website, aNewsCafe.com anticipated this move and secured a copy before its removal. You may watch the video here in its entirety here. 

R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas. He can be emailed at RVScheide@anewscafe.com.

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