Daniel Karslake’s extraordinary new documentary, named after the final words of Jesus, is a four-part examination of one of the most shameful and contentious parts of modern Christian theology: institutionalized homophobia. Through its 91 minutes, Karslake guides his audience through the most hellish and abominable cesspools of Christian sexual bigotry such as hate-spewing televangelists, funeral-protesting demonstrators, conversion therapy workshops and more. And yet, the film refrains from condemning the faith and instead shows a larger picture of U.S. Christianity as flawed, yet possibly salvageable, finding beauty in its traditions and teachings amid the darkest corners.
There’s a famous story about C. S. Lewis — former Atheist-turned-Anglican, preeminent Christian apologist and beloved children’s author — where a group of comparative religion scholars asked him what unique contribution did Christianity offer among the world’s great faith traditions. According to writer Philip Yancey, Lewis responded simply: “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.” In other words, it’s the notion that God’s love is totally unconditional, regardless of whether people “deserve” it, and also unwinnable through sacrifice or lost through disobedience. Few examples of such uncommon grace in Christian scripture compare with the Gospel of Luke 23:34 where Jesus, self-proclaimed messiah of the Jewish people, is dying on the cross after his disciples betrayed him and the imperial powers occupying his homeland crucified him. He looks down on the enemy soldiers surrounding him, the same ones who’d beaten him, and pleads to God: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (KJV)
These words have echoed throughout 2,000 years of Christianity’s history, down through its greatest mercies and atrocities. The idea of an unjustly executed man begging the Almighty to not avenge him but to forgive his killers still has the power to amaze.
The film focuses on four families representing a broad cross-section of U.S. Christianity, all of whom were thrown into turmoil when one of their children came out of the closet. The first and predominate one centers on Rob and Linda Robertson, right-wing Evangelicals from Seattle who married straight out of college and had four kids in five and a half years. Despite raising their children on a strict diet of Bible stories and Focus on the Family media, their supposedly idyllic Christian lives were shattered when their son Ryan came out at 12 years old. Having already internalized fundamentalist homophobia, Ryan sought out conversion-therapy classes affiliated with the now-defunct Exodus International organization. Desperate to “fix” himself, he shocked even his parents with his tireless efforts to “come out as straight.” But despite years of trying, he fell into drug and alcohol abuse, leaving home and living on the streets for years.
The other three families, while not receiving as much screen time as the Robertsons, are nevertheless equally important for their explorations of other facets of the LGBTQ+ experience. There’s David and Sally McBride, Delaware Presbyterians who were amazed when their son Tim came out to them as a transgender woman named Sarah. Terrified that she’d face a lifetime of ostracization, they tried to convince Sarah not to medically transition at least until she finished college. But she insisted, publicly coming out while still in school, transitioning, and moving to D.C. where she became the first openly trans person to work at the White House. Further south in Florida, Victor Báez and Annette Febo, first-generation Puerto Rican immigrants, found their extended family torn apart when their son Victor Jr. came out as gay, an affront to both their devout Catholic background and their hyper-macho Hispanic culture. And finally, there’s Coleen and Harold Porcher, a mixed-race couple whose tomboy daughter Elliot realized she needed to come out as a trans male after reading the highly publicized 2014 suicide note of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old trans girl forced into conversion therapy by her devout Christian parents.
I’m leaving crucial elements out of each of these four stories: one of these children has a tragic, fairy-tale romance with terminal cancer patient; one of them survives a notorious mass shooting; one develops an eating disorder and begins self-harming; and one of them dies a few years after graduating high school. This is less because I want to avoid spoilers to encourage people to see the film — although I do — but because they redirect attention from the main focus that is the parents’ struggles. It’s not that Karslake denies the children their agency or voice; each of the three survivors are prominently interviewed throughout. But his intention with this film is to examine how these stories reflect the larger experience of homosexuality in U.S. Christianity. It’s how the parents, and their families at large, react to the news of their children’s queerness and reconcile it with their faith that interests Karslake. Many might find this less noble than myopic, a straight-washing of queer narratives by centering the stories on “straight saviors,” but it’s through this creative decision that a larger portrait of Christian grace emerges.
Here’s the ultimate twist of For They Know Not What They Do: Although each family is initially disturbed by their children’s queerness, they ultimately come to accept and love them for exactly who they are, not in spite of their faith, but because of their faith. Many of the families seek out pastoral care and counseling after their children come out; the McBrides’ pastor was particularly instrumental in helping them work through their shock and come to accept Tim as their daughter Sarah. And incredibly, it’s actually the Evangelical Robertsons who received the most immediate and insistent pushback from their faith community after struggling to accept their son’s gayness — their Christian counselor immediately told them point blank that Ryan’s homosexuality wasn’t a sickness or something fixable. (Rob Robertson recalls leaving that meeting feeling offended that such a “pro-gay” advocate could call themselves a Christian.) None of the parents lost their faith, even the couple who lost their child. When asked if they still believe, the three surviving children all seem to have enthusiastically clung to their faith as well.
But the film is far from a puff piece. Karslake has no interest in making a commercial for 21-century Christianity. He pulls no punches with his unfortunately accurate accusations of the Christian right using homophobia as a weapon to maintain and consolidate political control. One of the film’s throughlines involve the explosion of transphobic bathroom bills in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election. Karslake’s assembled stable of talking heads — an assortment of leftist clergy variously involved in social justice programs and radical biblical exegesis —lay out an ironclad case that the Religious Right deliberately chose trans people as new targets for vilification when they realized they’d lost the fight against gays and lesbians after Obergefell v. Hodges. Both they and Karslake understand that, since the birth of the Moral Majority, much of U.S. Christianity has mutated into a moneymaking propaganda machine for the Right, happy to promote murderous hatred in exchange for Washington favors and tax credits. If homophobia is an organized force in the U.S., it is largely Christianity’s fault.
But despite the precipitous decline of organized religion in the U.S. over the past few decades studies indicate that the hunger for spiritual guidance and sustenance is as powerful as ever, particularly among the increasingly economically and existentially destitute millennials. The question is whether churches will rise to the occasion and open its doors to everyone. Many are knocking.
Writing this piece, I was continually reminded of the first time I visited the Gay Pride parade after moving to New York City in 2016. On the subway ride back to Brooklyn, I sat next to a young man wearing nothing but a speedo, a fluffy boa, and several pounds of lipstick and glitter. He’d struck up a loud, lively conversation with a middle-aged woman conspicuously dressed in violet. Trying not to eavesdrop, I kept my attention focused on my book. But somewhere over the East River, I heard the two drop their voices to a barely audible whisper that, if I hadn’t been sitting directly next to them, I wouldn’t have heard it. The two were trading the names of churches in the city that were safe and accepting for gay people. Thinking back, I hope those two found congregations that love them the same way God does. Because there are still too, too many that don’t.