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Dr. Warren Throckmorton Christian Blog and Commentary

What about church? Does the American Psychological Association recommend a change?

  • Dr. Warren Throckmorton
    Dr. Warren Throckmorton
    Warren Throckmorton, PhD is Associate Professor of Psychology and Fellow for Psychology and Public Policy at Grove City College (PA). He co-founded the Golden Rule Pledge which advocates bullying prevention in evangelical churches. His academic articles have been published by journals of the American Psychological Association and he is past president of the American Mental Health Counselors Association. He is the author with fellow Grove City College professor, Michael Coulter, of the book, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President. Over 200 newspapers have published his columns. He can be reached at ewthrockmorton@gcc.edu.
  • 2009 Aug 29
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Earlier this month, the American Psychological Association approved a task force report which provided guidance for mental health professionals who work with people distressed about their sexual orientation. The report recognized the conflict often experienced by religious conservatives who are same-sex attracted or bisexual. Based on a review of research, the task force said the evidence that therapy could alter sexual responsiveness was insufficient to warrant favorable recommendations to clients. However, they did acknowledge that many gay or bisexual people of conservative religious faith choose not to engage in same-sex sexual behavior, pursuing celibacy or opposite sex relationships instead.  Significantly, the report encouraged mental health professionals to respect the religious views of clients, suggesting that for some, faith takes priority over sexuality as a factor in self-definition. More generally, mental health professionals were advised to allow clients to set the direction of the therapy, with some clients affirming and others not affirming a gay identification. 

Despite the deference to religion offered by the APA, some conservative groups minimized the report saying that the APA really promoted change of religion while at the same time they discouraged change in sexual orientation. One such group was the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). To a OneNewsNow reporter, executive director, David Pruden said about the report:

The suggestion was as a Christian, when your conscience comes in conflict with what's going on in your life—temptations, attractions, concerns, whatever they happen to be—that what you simply do is jettison your standards so that it becomes easier to live with your temptations.

OneNewsNow opined further that the APA guidance "suggests that if a person with same-gender attractions has problems because of their religious beliefs, they should just change churches." NARTH's Pruden and OneNewsNow, who stand by their characterization, make it sound as though therapists informed by APA's new guidance would recommend a church change as a technique for reducing guilt or dissonance. However, according to the APA, changing churches is not some kind of stock solution which therapists are encouraged to promote.

In a guest blog post on Dan Gilgoff's God & Country blog on the U.S. News and World Report website, I discussed this issue and reported the response of Rhea Farberman, spokesperson for the APA to my question about psychologists recommending church switching. Ms. Farberman said,

The APA is not recommending a particular, one size will fit all outcome. To the contrary, the report emphasizes that therapy should be client-centered; different clients will have different priorities and therefore different goals for the therapy. The report does not recommend that people ‘change churches.' The report advises that gay and lesbian people for whom religion is important should investigate all of their spiritual options.

A reading of the APA report will confirm Ms. Farberman's words. While a staunch advocate for gay and lesbian causes, the APA, via this report, recognizes the important place of religion for many people. In a Wall Street Journal article, APA task force chair, Judith Glassgold, said, "We're not trying to encourage people to become 'ex-gay,' [b]ut we have to acknowledge that, for some people, religious identity is such an important part of their lives, it may transcend everything else."

NARTH had more to say about the task force report which requires scrutiny. Although the organization gave passing notice to the religious aspects of the APA effort, they were not happy that the APA found insufficient evidence to support therapies which promise orientation change. To make their case, they claimed in a press release that the APA missed some important studies, saying

They selected and interpreted studies that fit within their innate and immutable view. For example, they omitted the Jones and Yarhouse study, the Karten study, and only gave cursory attention to the Spitzer study.

If this claim were true, it might be persuasive. However, these studies were not omitted from the APA report. A quick search of the report demonstrates that the NARTH assertion is misleading. The study of Exodus International participants by Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse is referenced 17 times; Elan Karten's doctoral dissertation is mentioned three times; and Robert Spitzer's study of those who found benefit from change efforts is referenced 19 times. NARTH may insist that the APA did not give these studies adequate weight, but it cannot claim they were omitted.

In recent times, conservative Christians and the APA have been on opposite sides of many social issues so it is understandable that Christians might approach the APA report with caution. However, a lesson here is that Christians also need to review carefully the statements of other Christians when commenting about the APA.

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Warren Throckmorton, PhD is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Fellow for Psychology and Public Policy at Grove City College. He here at Crosswalk and at www.wthrockmorton.com.