The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Hollywood megachurches like Hillsong hide their true teachings

Chris Pratt. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
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Everyone is welcome at Chris Pratt’s church. Or are they? And what does being welcome there really mean, especially if you’re not straight?

During Pratt’s recent appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," the two discussed Pratt’s motivation for undertaking a biblically inspired fast. Shortly afterward, actress and LGBTQ activist Ellen Page took issue with Colbert’s decision not to dig deeper into the theology that guides Hillsong, a hip Australian megachurch with a Los Angeles branch where Pratt often attends services.

“Oh. K. Um. But his church is infamously anti lgbtq so maybe address that too?” she tweeted.

Pratt denied the assertion, and most media reported the situation as a mere disagreement without coming down one way or another on the church’s stance. The dust-up and the coverage of it revealed the ambiguity around sexuality that Hollywood megachurches and their celebrity congregants rely on to avoid scrutiny and criticism of their real beliefs.

Celebrity megachurches have every incentive to obscure where they stand on LGBTQ people. One of the contemporary entertainment industry’s strongest claims to social relevance is stars’ participation in the fight for LGBT equality. Actors posed for NOH8 ads opposing California’s Proposition 8, which amended the state’s constitution to ban marriage between same-sex partners; “Glee” laid down a marker with its depictions of sexuality and gender at an Ohio high school; just last month, Kevin Hart had to step down as host of the Oscars after his violently anti-gay tweets resurfaced. No church that insisted that worshipers publicly condemn LGBT people would be able to fill its pews with entertainment industry luminaries.

So most of these celebrity megachurches — which skew evangelical (and thus conservative) — figure the solution is just to keep their theological teachings about sexuality quiet. So long as LGBTQ people are “welcome” at the church in the sense that they’re allowed to attend or even lead (so long as they remain celibate or don’t transition), why bother with a messy explanation of whether the church actually affirms that their sexualities and identities are not sinful?

Zoe Church, where Pratt is a member in Los Angeles, doesn’t furnish any theological stances on its website. Its “About” tab links only to a contact form. Hillsong, which counts Justin Bieber, Kylie Jenner and Selena Gomez, among other big names, as congregants is similarly tight-lipped. Its “What We Believe” hits the basics of garden-variety Christianity but makes no mention of LGBTQ affirmation.

It takes digging to unearth that these churches are as inhospitable to queer Christians as less-hip congregations. Organizations such as Church Clarity that are devoted to the task of tracking down what these churches actually teach have to plumb hard-to-reach attachments, past press releases and interview transcripts.

For Hillsong, the proof of where the organization stands is in a 2017 statement urging the church’s Australian members to vote against same-sex marriage. Zoe Church’s tell, according to Church Clarity, is Pastor Chad Veach’s participation in a film that equates “same-sex attraction” with “sexual brokenness.”

Veach said in an interview with The Christian Post, though, that he prefers not to wade into “lifestyle stuff,” which can draw focus from Jesus. It’s in keeping with these churches’ tendency to, when pressed, fall back on anodyne Bible verses to insist that they love and “welcome” LGBTQ people, even as they don’t grant queer people full equality.

On Thursday, Hillsong released a statement headlined “Hillsong Church Loves ALL People,” in which it asserted “we are not ‘anti-anyone’” — before dog-whistling that they also adhere “to mainstream biblical values shared by the overwhelming majority of evangelical Christian churches.” When Church Clarity requested some specifics, Hillsong’s lead pastor blocked the organization on Twitter.

Pratt himself has used similar techniques. Responding to Page’s criticisms, he cited a verse from the Gospel of John on Instagram — “Jesus said ‘I give you a new command, love one another.’ ” That’s nice, but it doesn’t answer the question of whether or not Pratt would enthusiastically worship alongside and affirm sexually active, even married, LGBTQ people.

This obfuscation is a win-win deal for Hollywood's conservative Christians and the churches that give their patron stars plausible deniability. The celebrities get a place to worship and still seem woke, and Hillsong and its fellow churches get to raise their profiles. Unsuspecting LGBTQ worshipers, on the other hand, get nothing but the eventual shock that they're surrounded by people who quietly condemn their identity.

Perhaps these pastors and their congregants should keep a verse from Luke’s gospel in mind, too: “For nothing is concealed that won’t be revealed, and nothing hidden that won’t be made known and brought to light.”

Read more:

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Eve Tushnet: It’s hard to be gay and Catholic. It doesn’t have to be.

Julie Rodgers: Conservative Christians and LGBTQ people don’t have to be enemies

Drew Goins: Who died and made Ellen the gay pope?