(CNN) - When Peter Sprigg speaks publicly about his opposition to homosexuality, something odd often happens.
During his speeches, people raise their hands to challenge his assertions that the Bible condemns homosexuality, but no Christians speak out to defend him.
“But after it is over, they will come over to talk to me and whisper in my ear, ‘I agree with everything you said,’" says Sprigg, a spokesman for The Family Research Council, a powerful, conservative Christian lobbying group.
We’ve heard of the “down-low” gay person who keeps his or her sexual identity secret for fear of public scorn. But Sprigg and other evangelicals say changing attitudes toward homosexuality have created a new victim: closeted Christians who believe the Bible condemns homosexuality but will not say so publicly for fear of being labeled a hateful bigot.
As proof, Sprigg points to the backlash that ESPN commentator Chris Broussard sparked recently. Broussard was called a bigot and a purveyor of hate speech when he said an NBA player who had come out as gay was living in “open rebellion to God.” Broussard said the player, Jason Collins, was “living in unrepentant sin” because the Bible condemns homosexuality.
“In the current culture, it takes more courage for someone like Chris Broussard to speak out than for someone like Jason Collins to come out,” says Sprigg, a former pastor. “The media will hail someone who comes out of the closet as gay, but someone who simply expresses their personal religious views about homosexual conduct is attacked.”
When is disagreement hate?
Bryan Litfin, a theology professor at Moody Bible Institute in Illinois, says Christians should be able to publicly say that God designed sex to take place within a marriage between a man and a woman.
“That isn’t so outrageous,” Litfin says. “Nobody is expressing hate toward homosexuals by saying that. Since when is disagreement the same as hate?”
'One of the most hated minorities?'
Intolerance may be difficult to define, but some evangelicals say they have become victims of intolerance because of their reverence for the Bible.
A blogger at The American Dream asked in one essay:
“Are evangelical Christians rapidly becoming one of the most hated minorities in America?”
The reluctance of evangelicals to speak out against homosexuality is often cited as proof they are being forced into the closet.
Joe Carter, editor for The Gospel Coalition, an online evangelical magazine, wrote a blog post entitled “Debatable: Is the Christian Church a ‘Hate Group’?" He warned that young people will abandon “orthodox” Christian churches that teach that homosexuality is a sin for fear of being called haters.
“Faux civility, embarrassment, prudishness and a fear of expressing an unpopular opinion has caused many Christians to refrain from explaining how homosexual conduct destroys lives,” Carter wrote.
Some Christians fear that opposing homosexuality could cause them to lose their jobs and “haunt them forever,” Carter says.
“It’s easier to just go along,” says Carter, who is also author of “How to Argue Like Jesus.” “You don’t want to be lumped in with the bigots. That’s a powerful word."
Edward Johnson, a communication professor at Campbell University in North Carolina, says we are now living in a "postmodern" era where everything is relative and there is no universally accepted truth. It's an environment in which anyone who says "this is right" and "that is wrong" is labeled intolerant, he says.
There was a time when a person could publicly say homosexuality was wrong and people could consider the statement without anger, he says. Today, people have reverted to an intellectual tribalism where they are only willing to consider the perspective of their own tribe.
“They are incapable of comprehending that someone may have a view different than theirs,” Johnson says. “For them anyone who dares to question the dogma of the tribe can only be doing so out of hatred.”
Sprigg, from the Family Research Council, says his condemnation of homosexual conduct does not spring from intolerance but a desire to protect gays from harmful conduct, he says. Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the council, wrote in a council pamphlet that homosexual men are more likely to engage in child sexual abuse than are straight men. He also wrote that gay men are also afflicted with a higher rate of sexually transmitted diseases and mental illness as well.
Sprigg says he does not believe homosexuality is a choice and that “personal testimonies" and "clinical experience” show that some people “can and do change from gay to straight.”
“Maybe we need to do a better job of showing that we are motivated by Christian love,” Sprigg says. “Love is wanting the best for someone, and acting to bring that about.”
'That's a lie'
Potok, from the Southern Poverty Law Center, has little use for the love Sprigg talks about.
He calls it hatred, and his voice rose in anger when he talked about the claims by Sprigg and other Christian groups that gay men are more predisposed to molest children and that homosexual behavior is inherently harmful.
He says the Southern Poverty Law Center didn’t designate the Family Research Group a hate group because they view homosexuality as a sin or oppose same-sex marriage, Potok says. There are plenty of Christian groups who hold those beliefs but are not hate groups, he says.
A group becomes a hate group when it attacks and maligns an entire class of people for their “immutable characteristics,” Potok says. The Family Research Council spreads known falsehoods about gays and lesbians, he says, such as the contention that gay men are predisposed to abuse children.
“That’s a lie,” Potok says. “These guys are engaging in straight-up defamation of a very large group of people. There are not many things much worse than you can say in America about somebody than they are a child molester.”
Potok scoffed at Spriggs’ claim that the council and other evangelical anti-gay groups are victims of intolerance.
“That’s whining on the part of people who spend their days and nights attacking gay people and then some people criticize them and they don’t like it,” he says. “That’s pathetic. It reminds me of slave owners complaining that people are saying ugly things about them.”
By John Blake, CNN
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