Saddleback megachurch pastor Rick Warren and his fellow conservative evangelical leaders are receiving a lot of fame and attention for their new commitment to providing professional services to those with mental health issues. It’s a long overdue conversation, considering that nearly half of all evangelicals reportedly believe mental illness can be cured through prayer and scripture study alone. But while the news media may lavish them with praise, Warren’s programs still put emphasis on discredited and dangerous “ex-gay therapy” for LGBTQ people.
In an article praising Rick and Kay Warren for their new endeavor, the New York Times says:
The Warrens have campaigned for mental health treatment among evangelicals. This spring Saddleback, along with the local Roman Catholic diocese and a mental health advocacy organization, held its first conference about mental illness and faith. Some 2,000 people attended, including 600 pastors.
The church’s website now points worshipers to resources for addiction and mental health. Officials at Saddleback have met with the leadership of an evangelical Christian university to create a program that educates students about mental health. This month, Saddleback held its first gathering for members whose loved ones committed suicide. In January, it will sponsor a weekend addressing suicide prevention in adolescents.
However, nowhere in the article does it mention that dark side of the Warrens’ program. PRA gender justice researcher Cole Parke recently explained:
Warren’s conference was arguably intended to address these attitudes and misperceptions surrounding the need for comprehensive, professional medical and therapeutic approaches to healing and wellness…
The catch, though, is that what Warren considers to be “professional approaches to mental health and healing” includes certain approaches that perpetuate hurt and harm rather than work to combat it, and that rely on homophobic “science” and a conservative Christian worldview. The most worrisome example is Saddleback’s Celebrate Recovery program, offering support to people struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction, as well as a wide range of other issues, including codependency, depression, eating disorders, gambling, and sexual abuse. Yet some churches’ volunteer leaders also offer “support” for people who have “same-sex attraction”—the solution to which, ultimately, is to “face the root causes of our same-sex attraction,” and “acknowledge God’s design and desire for our sexuality.”
Additionally, conservative evangelical commitment and support for these dangerous techniques isn’t limited to the United States. U.S. culture warriors have been documented promoting the use of the practice across Africa. PRA senior religion and sexuality researcher, Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma, has written extensively about how so-called “conversion therapy” is critical to the agenda of the U.S. Religious Right in countries like Uganda and Nigeria, allowing them to advance anti-LGBTQ legislative packages (such as the “Kill the Gays Bill” in Uganda) by propagating myths about choice and curability regarding LGBTQ people.
Speaking at the golden jubilee celebrations of St. Stephen’s Church in Uganda on November 30, [Uganda’s Speaker of the Parliament Rebecca] Kadaga repeated the U.S. culture warriors’ claim that “computers and books donated to (underfunded and technology starved) schools are installed with software and literature that promote homosexuality in the institutions.” She went on to say, “Homosexuals are recruiting members of religious institutions,” and homosexuals are now “adopting” vulnerable children and turning them gay. “Be very careful because gays are here to distort our heritage. We have discovered that they adopt our children and confine them in gay communities abroad to train them on gay practices. By the time they come back home, they are already influenced by homosexuality and are used to influence others in the community,” Kadaga told her audience.
It may be laudable for these conservative religious leaders to take a more active stance promoting professional mental health care for those in need. But we must recognize that for Warren and these other culture warriors, any good they are doing is dangerously tainted by their continued acceptance of practices which the United Nations Committee on Torture is investigating, and much of the Western world is focused on outlawing.
As Cole Parke concluded, “Health care—including care for mental illness—is a human right. So, too, is the right to live freely and fully regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. But until Rick Warren affirms both of these human rights, my own ‘faith’ in Saddleback’s efforts to address mental health remains limited at best.”