The Jesus People Movement: A Reaction to 1960s Idealism

Much of the modern ex-gay movement — and a broader rebellion by American religious conservatives against perceived threats to their worldview — are rooted in San Francisco’s Jesus People Movement of the early 1970s. As it happens, my own family spent time in this movement and in San Francisco. The experience reshaped my parents and defined me for life, spiritually and philosophically. In fact, certain ideals inherited from that era — community justice, personal growth, and religious accountability — inspired the creation of the Ex-Gay Watch website in 2002 and the formation of the ex-gay survivor movement.

Now, a fascinating new journal article by Chris Babits explores that almost-forgotten era of conversion-therapy culture, offering a fresh look at the origins of contemporary American evangelicals who misunderstand themselves and their place in a free and rational civic culture that they reject as demonic.

Demons in San Francisco Bay: How a Street Preacher Launched Modern-Day “Conversion Therapy”

By Chris Babits for Pacific Historical Review, Winter 2024

Author and scholar Chris Babits observes that California in the 1960s saw a fusion of spiritual and psychological beliefs, with the Jesus People Movement forming among people from all walks of life who were moving to California for jobs, a fresh start, and personal meaning — at a time of unpopular wars, civil-rights battles, exposures of moral failure in older generations, and younger generations demanding change. Pentecostalism, in particular, enjoyed a strong presence on the U.S. West Coast, and as the state became a post-World War II melting pot, California’s religious landscape included faith healers, Eastern medicine believers, and fundamentalists.

Kent Philpott: Misperceptions and Projections

Kent Philpott, a Baptist seminarian who became a self-described “flaming Pentecostal” and part of the Jesus People Movement, experienced a spiritual awakening in the Haight district of San Francisco. There, he claimed to witness New Age drug use, mystical religious expressions, and what he decided were demonic possessions. Immersed in the Haight, Philpott paradoxically embraced superficially Christianized versions of the same magical practices he railed against, such as glossolalia and miracles. By attributing demonic attributes to unfamiliar people and ideas, Philpott unwittingly rejected restraints against the worst impulses of religious zealotry. He helped establish the Soul Inn — a residential center for conversion to conservative Christianity and, I contend, conversion to a white patriarchal culture that was idolized by evangelicals and scorned by civil rights, antiwar advocates, and survivors of religious and domestic abuse.

Conservative Interviews Reveal Contradictions in Ex-Gay Narratives

In Babits’ examination of Philpott’s work, he finds that as Philpotts’ Bay Area ex-gay ministry took shape, Philpott interviewed LGBTQ Christians for his books “The Third Sex?” (1975) and “The Gay Theology” (1977). Those interviews inadvertently contradicted Philpott’s stereotypical portrayals of the “gay lifestyle” and assertions about demonic possession. Many interviewees had long-term, committed same-sex relationships and expressed a desire for marriage and family. Several ended their same-sex relationships after converting to evangelical culture, attributing this change to spiritual inspiration rather than prior demonic possession. While Philpott emphasized the role of Satan in influencing same-sex desires, only one interviewee mentioned undergoing an exorcism. The interviews also revealed complex experiences with gender identity and presentation, suggesting that same-sex attraction was not simply about lust or “confusion” as Philpott claimed. Many interviewees struggled to develop heterosexual attractions even years after their religious conversions and “ex-gay” counseling, challenging Philpott’s assertion that Jesus could eradicate same-sex desires.

Disregard for Mental Health Research

Critics such as Babits contend that Philpott’s approach to counseling lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients veered far from mainstream mental health practice, even the dated practices of the 1970s. When the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1973, Philpott did not engage with this significant shift in his books. Instead, he dismissed the psychiatric approach as inadequate, believing that mental health professionals avoided addressing patients’ religious needs. Babits boldly states that Philpott’s integration of beliefs in demons, miracles, and divine healing with pseudo-psychological ideas about same-sex attraction and gender identity would have been considered unethical for a licensed mental health professional. However, as a religious figure, Philpott was able to promote conversion therapy to reactionary Christians despite the absence of scientific evidence that these practices ever worked. Indeed, these ex-gay practices were accomplishing the opposite: Reinforcing sexual compulsion and harmful behavior instead of transforming people into happy heterosexual couples.

Where Evangelicals Lost Their Way

Despite Philpott’s personal shortcomings and the downplaying of his role in histories of “conversion therapy,” California remained prominent in the therapeutic and political wars over the practice. Organizations such as Focus on the Family and individuals like Dr. Joseph Nicolosi continued to promote sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts. In response, California became the first state to ban licensed mental health professionals from offering such therapies to minors, with other states in the American West following suit.

The rise of the “ex-gay movement” in the 1970s coincided with white Baby Boomers’ reactionary backlash against Sixties idealism and modern, fact-based understandings of sex, gender, and sexuality. The idealistic vision of community and personal freedom embodied in songs like “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” gave way to a search for new sources of meaning and fulfillment, fueling the rise of evangelical and charismatic Christianity among white Baby Boomers and Generation X. Beginning in the early 1980s and even more true today, contemporary Christian music emphasizes individual spiritual experiences and personal salvation over orthodox hymns or gospel ideals of selfless charity, equity, and justice.

Ironically, the same liberal yearning for authenticity, self-discovery, and escape from the mainstream that had drawn young people to San Francisco in the 1960s drove many of them toward reactionary and illiberal religious movements that often stand in opposition to personal freedom and democratic community values. As the hippie dream of a more just and equitable society gave way to white resentment in the 1970s and 1980s, the focus on personal transformation and spiritual fulfillment that had once been a means to social change became, for some, an end in itself.

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