Recovering from Religious Trauma Syndrome (RRTS)

Rev. Dr. Brice Thomas, Holy Trinity Community Church and Jennifer Strickland, Licensed Mental Health Therapist

In a recent interview on Out and About Nashville Today, Rev. Dr. Brice Thomas and Jenn Strickland talked with host, Chuck Long, about a much buzzed about hot topic, Faith in the LGBT community. It’s a topic constantly in the headlines, most recently as the United Methodist and Catholic churches struggle with the issue with potentially serious and harmful effects on and to the LGBTQ community.  

Brice and Jenn are starting a project together, called RECOVERING FROM RELIGIOUS TRAUMA. Brice and Jenn were recently interviewed by the NY Times about his research into Religious Trauma Syndrome. These were a few topics discussed on the show: 

-What are some of the biggest challenges facing the LGBTQ community when it comes to their faith, their spirituality and the church?

Let me first say that religion's role in coping with the stressors LGBT people face in their lives is a complex one. For our heterosexual, cisgender counterparts, religious and spiritual beliefs and practices can provide strong support during difficult times. Similarly, a healthy and vibrant spirituality can also help LGBT individuals dealing with the stress of marginalization and the search for significance. However, non-affirming religious beliefs about same-sex attraction or gender identity by non-LGBT friendly congregations that are pervasive in our society can actually exacerbate these stressors, specifically internalized homophobia, which itself is associated with increased suicidal thoughts. The good news, though, is that affirming religious beliefs can help ameliorate these stressors and negative outcomes. The challenge for us is the temptation to isolate ourselves from communities that affirm our identities as whole and healthy people.

-What kind of harm have you seen the church do to the queer community?

Many suffer for decades from post-traumatic stress disorder-type symptoms, including anxiety, self-doubt and feelings of social inadequacy. But I believe that biggest harm to us is the shaming of our identity. Shame permeates a huge part of our community’s psyche and emotional connections. Shame is different from guilt. Guilt comes from being confronted by something that you did wrong. Shame is a psychological and emotional response to being told you are not good enough; that your authentic self is depraved, disgusting or just plain sick. This kind of shaming exerts harm on the individual in a variety of ways: alienation, isolation, low self-esteem, depression, and as mentioned before, suicide. Shaming cultures ultimate intent is to eliminate the “other” from existence. 

-I mentioned you were recently featured in a NY Times article called “When Religion Leads to Trauma.” One of the key components in that article was one pastor saying, ‘Some churches “weaponize scripture and religion to do very deep damage on the psyche.” Talk to me about that.

The most obvious ways scripture is weaponized against our community is when ill-informed and theologically shallow religious communities shame and oppress our community with a few scripture passages that inaccurately depict same-sex attraction and homosexual relationships as an abomination to God. A legalistic interpretation of these scriptures suggest that gay, lesbian and trans people are condemned and that they are living in sin. This moral code however goes far beyond a prohibition against homosexuality. In these same codes many natural human desires are deemed evil. Yet the proponents of this moral code don’t even bother to take seriously let alone obey various other scriptures restricting the consumption of pork and shellfish, wearing clothing of different fabrics, engaging in any kind of sex that doesn’t lead to procreation, slave and indentured cultures, and the subjugation of women as commodities for men. The damage to the marginalized and condemned individual is again, the impact of shame and tendency toward isolation on the psyche, which can lead to unhealthy behaviors and mental dis-eases.

-Any thoughts on why people use the bible as a weapon, as a means to make their point?

Well, I believe that a legalistic interpretation of scripture about homosexuality, which leads to judgmentalism and religious trauma, has its contemporary roots in fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism. They seem to be the most threatened by accepting LGBT. Homophobia is inherently a fear of another’s sexual behavior. Persons who express homophobic thoughts and feelings do so not only to communicate their beliefs about the class of gay people, but also to distance themselves from this class and its social status. Thus, by distancing themselves from gay people, they are reaffirming their role as a heterosexual in a heteronormative culture, thereby attempting to prevent themselves from being labeled and treated as a gay person. This interpretation alludes to the idea that a person may posit violent opposition to "the Other" as a means of establishing their own identity as part of the majority and thus gaining social validation. It’s something that Jesus specifically preached against in the Sermon on the Mount, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” And I believe that the conservative evangelical church is being judged for it now. The fasted growing segment of religious affiliation is the “Nones,” those who have no religious affiliation. We have an emerging adult generation who are questioning these archaic views of scripture and are leaving the church in droves in response to it. Many in the LGBTQ community started this exodus long before the hetero-culture recognized the negative impact of religious trauma

-Any thoughts on the best approach to discussing and/or debating inclusivity in the church?

Jenn mentioned a great article on Anxiety.org by Dr. Kyle Ortigo, who works for the Veterans Administration, which spells out specific benefits for LGBTQ folks for staying in the conversation. By potentially contemplating tough questions about one's authenticity, spirituality and existential choices, LGBT individuals may be able to come through the other side much stronger than before. The potential for growth is strong after confronting existential issues openly and honestly. Among other things, a re-examination of faith can allow LGBT individuals to develop:

1. A Renewed Sense of Faith and Deepening of Spiritual Life
Through confronting the beliefs of one's religion, a person may be able to reflect more freely and systematically about important spiritual questions. For example - What is really important to me as a person? What are my values? What kind of person do I want to be?

2. A Discovery of a New Community
Finding a new community of people, religious or otherwise, who have shared values, can be an essential step in the coming out process. LGBT people often ask in some form, "Where can I find like-minded people who are also open to my expression of gender and sexuality?"

3. A Re-connection with Important People and Relationships
Though one's family of origin may be of a different faith, the LGBT individual may still maintain or develop a strong relationship regardless of surrounding circumstances. In addition, many LGBT people find it important to develop new, deep friendships that can result in a family of choice. At the end of the day, people always seek to be accepted for their authentic self by their family, in whatever form it takes.

-What’s the next step w/ RECOVERING FROM RELIGIOUS TRAUMA? 

Our current vision for RRTS would be small intimate groups (6-8 people) that might meet in homes or at restaurants to tell their stories of religious trauma and hopefully experience healing through that storytelling process. In order for the model to work we are looking for facilitators who are trained in caring for individuals through their vulnerability. We are currently developing plans to launch a recovery program in the future, hopefully in the spring. If you would like to learn more about RRTS, contact Pastor Brice through the contact form HERE.