The church should learn from LGBTQ+ artists deemed “unholy” instead of demonizing them, writes journalist Da’Shawn Mosley, who offered his take on how nonbinary artist Sam Smith’s new album Unholy has been received, saying church people must replace fear with love.
In an essay for U.S. Catholic, Mosley begins by sharing a personal story of growing up gay, listening to sermons about how gay people were going to hell, and not hearing any dissent from the pews. He writes:
“The nodding heads of congregation members I had grown up around, of people I loved and who had said they loved me, told me all I needed to know about my worth and my status in the church. I deserved fire and brimstone. I was undeserving of the pew I was seated in.”
This memory was strong in his mind as he commented on how negatively Christians responded to Sam Smith’s and Kim Petras’ performance of the song “Unholy” at the Grammy Awards this winter, which had allusions to Satan. These two artists, who are nonbinary and transgender, respectively, have faced similar rejection from the church.
Mosley explains that many Christians were “shaken” by the performance, yet, “It amazes me that many Christians have yet to set aside their fear after seeing, for the umpteenth time, these sort of moments of spectacle – set aside their horror to see the true fright and pain that lies behind these cartoonish productions.”
But as Mosley rightly points out, Smith and Petras were only “putting on a play” of something unholy. Meanwhile, he writes, “In real life, words of hate spewed toward the LGBTQ community are transforming into violence and death,” including the deaths of dozens of transgender and gender non-conforming people. “I know of no Christian that has yet to die from seeing artistic, not-by-the-book use and depictions of religious and sacrilegious imager,” he adds.
For Mosley, there was nothing unholy about Smith and Petras using their Grammy Awards performance to assert the dignity of LGBTQ+ people—and he saw something that looked a whole lot like church in the night’s performances, too: Lizzo’s performance of “Special” with a gospel choir dancing behind her. Mosley says that “it was everything I wished church was – everything that church is supposed to be – her lyrics proclaiming unconditional love in the face of imperfection.”
Mosley calls on Christians to replace fear with love, including in the welcome that churches should extend to LGBTQ+ people:
“If sin has not permanently marred the church—if the church is still worthy of God’s love and grace and forgiveness—then why are LGBTQ people not welcome to be loved in the church? I am a firm believer that what we hate is what we fear is in ourselves. We fear we are unworthy of a place alongside God and want to distance ourselves from anything and anyone that bears the blemishes and scars of real life, overlooking the fact that perfection is the Lord’s, overlooking that it was love that guided our Savior and love that thus should guide us, too.”
Mosley brings the piece to a powerful conclusion by noting the ways that the art of LGBTQ+ artists and allies has made him feel at home, in contrast to the rhetoric of damnation that churches have often used against queer people:
“I note the unapologetic existence of fellow LGBTQ people like Sam Smith and Kim Petras and the artistry of allies like Lizzo and feel more than calm; I feel at home, like I did before I heard my pastor say I was doomed to burn, before the heads of my siblings in Christ agreed with nods that may as well have been shouts of ‘Amen!'”
Mosley’s article is both a moving personal testimony and a compelling way to view the spiritual power of LGBTQ+ art. The Catholic imagination is so often shaped by art and music; as Mosley is able to see, that imagination will only be enriched by including LGBTQ+ artists in that canon.
—Grace Doerfler (she/her), New Ways Ministry, May 20, 2023