June 21st, 2012
09:40 AM ET
By Richard Allen Greene, CNN
(CNN) – The little boy with a buzz cut shows no sign of nervousness as he sings in front of the church congregation.
Dressed in a pressed white shirt and blue sweater vest, he holds the microphone and sings that the Bible is right, then lets loose the line that brings whoops from the congregation: "Ain't no homo gonna make it to heaven."
Next to him, an adult beams as worshippers rise to their feet and cheer.
The scene was captured on video and anonymously posted online, receiving hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube since the end of May. It appears to show a service at the Apostolic Truth Tabernacle in Greensburg, Indiana.
The church quickly posted on its website that its pastor and members "do not condone, teach, or practice hate of any person for any reason."
But the chubby boy with the buzz cut isn't the only one going viral with harshly worded anti-gay pronouncements in church.
In recent weeks, Pastor Charles Worley in North Carolina preached that lesbians and gay men should be fenced in and left to die out, while Pastor Curtis Knapp in Kansas said the government should kill homosexuals.
"They won't, but they should," Knapp said, according to a recording of his sermon posted online. Worley’s sermon was captured on video and also went viral.
The incidents drew outrage and condemnation from gay rights supporters.
But they also left many Christians uncomfortable – even those who call themselves conservative.
One leading expert on American Protestantism has a simple explanation for why some pastors preach against homosexuality while others go further, encouraging violence against gay people.
"There is a significant percentage who think it's a sin," Ed Stetzer said of homosexuality. "And there are a small minority who are stupid."
Stetzer is president of LifeWay Research, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Worley and Knapp both belong to Independent Baptist churches and are not part of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the second largest Christian denomination in the United States.
Many conservative Christians would agree with pastors such as Worley and Knapp that homosexual behavior is fundamentally wrong, Stetzer said.
But that doesn't mean they support them or their sermons, he added.
"If you asked, they would say that's really unhelpful and stupid," he said.
But the Rev. Robin Lunn said these preachers are much worse than that. She calls such pastors "genocidal."
"If someone is talking about rounding up me and all my kind in a pen, what is the difference between that and what is happening in Syria and Sudan and what happened in Germany and Poland during World War II?" asked Lunn, executive director of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.
"We are talking about people who believe somehow that the Second Coming is connected to a Final Solution," said Lunn, a lesbian, using the Nazi term for the mass murder of Jews in the Holocaust.
"I think these men expressed something that many Baptist preachers think," Lunn said. "We need to stand up and denounce this powerfully."
Her group campaigns for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inclusion across all Baptist churches. It has its origins in the American Baptist Churches movement but is not connected to any one Baptist group or denomination, she said.
"It seems to me that this is an opportunity to show some solidarity around the belief that all people are children of God regardless of what you think about someone's 'lifestyle,' " she said.
One of the most respected voices in conservative Christianity agrees with Lunn, up to a point.
"The Gospel does not condemn homosexuals, it condemns homosexuality," said R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "The Bible makes clear that homosexuality is a sin, in the context of making clear that every person is a sinner."
What preachers such as Worley and Knapp are doing wrong, he said, is that they are "not merely rendering a moral judgment on homosexuality but extending it to the condemnation of people. They are speaking with a certain venom and hatred."
He called their sermons "reprehensible."
And, he said, "they are doing grave harm to the cause of conservative Christianity by speaking messages of hate that obscure the message of the church."
"What you're seeing here is a very dangerous fringe that does not represent conservative Christianity in America," he said.
About one-third of Protestant pastors talk to their congregations about homosexuality several times a year, while another third do so "rarely," data from LifeWay Research suggests.
The rest do so anywhere from never to several times a month, according to a 2008 telephone survey of 1,002 Protestant pastors across the country and a wide range of denominations.
Half of the pastors who preached about homosexuality several times a year identified themselves as "very conservative," while a quarter of those who did said they were liberal or very liberal.
LifeWay’s Stetzer argued that it was important to remember that many Americans – not just Christian pastors – think homosexuality is wrong.
A Gallup Poll last month found that 54% of Americans saw homosexuality as "morally acceptable," while 42% said it was "morally wrong."
"This is not a small minority," Stetzer said. "Are all of those people going to be tarred by the comments of a few pastors?"
The sermons of Worley, Knapp and those like them do not have a great influence, Stetzer said, calling them "isolated."
"I've never heard of or seen a violent confrontation" that resulted from Christian preaching, he said.
But Ross Murray, director of religion, faith and values at the gay rights group Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, or GLAAD, said it's not that simple.
"When pastors preach they want people to listen to their words and pay attention to them," he said. "It's an exhortation to believe and think and act in accordance with the Gospel."
And he said he's not worried only about people who might act on violent preaching they hear in church. He said he's also concerned about young churchgoers grappling with being gay or lesbian themselves.
"You get brought to church; you have told nobody about this and you hear your pastor preaching or this child singing. What this tells you is that the church is not a safe place, not a place where you are going to experience love and grace," he said.
Pastors such as Worley and Knapp "give Christianity a bad name," he said.
And more than that, they are dangerous, he said. There were a record number of murders of members of sexual minorities in the United States last year, he said, citing a study out this month by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.
He conceded that no link has been proven between preaching and attacks on homosexuals, but he argued that preaching matters.
"To say that people shouldn't take you seriously when you say something violent is disingenuous. Our words have consequences," Murray said. "Our words have real meaning."
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.