Sex and Consequence

The spectacular public downfall of Ted Haggard last month continues to reverberate through the media. And now, an aftershock: Paul Barnes, founder of the 2,100-member evangelical Grace Chapel in Colorado, has resigned after admitting he had engaged in homosexual sex acts. (Predictably, Barnes’ former church wasted no time in trying to erase his existence from their website, similar to the major religious right leaders who swiftly tried to downplay Haggard’s importance after his resignation.)

In a taped statement, Barnes said the following to his congregation (source):

“I have struggled with homosexuality since I was a 5-year-old boy… I can’t tell you the number of nights I have cried myself to sleep, begging God to take this away.”

This is a devastating admission. Atheists and other friends of gay rights should indelibly stamp these words into our memories, and bring them up every time some obnoxious religious bigot says that gays do not deserve the same legal protection the rest of us enjoy because their sexual orientation is a choice. Can anyone seriously believe that Barnes “chose” to be gay before the age of 5? And if his sexual orientation is a choice, why did he want to change and find himself unable to? Why did he remain gay even after repeated prayers for God to change him? And the same goes for Haggard.

These people lived at the center of the Christian world, immersed in church and worship every hour of every day, making it their life’s work. According to their own beliefs, no one would have less reason to want to be gay. And even they could not undo what was supposedly a free choice. What message does that send to run-of-the-mill evangelicals struggling with their sexuality? What hope do they have to change if even Ted Haggard and Paul Barnes could not muster the will to do so?

And these two are not alone. As mentioned on Pam’s House Blend, H.B. London, the head of Focus on the Family’s division of pastoral counseling, says that he gets “hundreds” of phone calls from pastors “struggling with the kind of sins that caused the downfall of Haggard and Barnes”.

It is bizarre to think of hundreds of secretly gay pastors throughout the Christian world, all engaged in a mutual conspiracy of silence and repression for no good reason, each of them refusing to say what all of them know, and each of them maintaining his hypocritical public crusade for fear of condemnation by the others. Such is the harm done by bigoted religious beliefs that falsely claim the most basic aspects of people’s identity are chosen on a whim, and that force people to keep silent about who they are and repress their own human desires. The completely needless suffering and self-denial caused by these beliefs must be beyond description.

And it is not just gay people who are harmed by irrational self-repression. Which American city would you guess ranks highest in the nation when it comes to Internet searches for pornographic and adult content? Is it diverse, multicultural New York City? The well-known West Coast liberal enclaves of San Francisco or Los Angeles? Is it that Sodom on the Atlantic, Boston, Massachusetts, which every day thumbs its nose at God by treating gay people like human beings?

Nope. The American city that outranks all others when it comes to search engine queries for sex, nudity and pornography is Salt Lake City, the heart of straitlaced, ultra-white, ultra-conservative, predominantly Mormon Utah, and the site of the Salt Lake Temple that is the spiritual nexus of Mormon belief. This statistic is especially impressive considering Salt Lake City proper has a population of less than 200,000, which means it does not even rank in the top 100 American cities by population. (As of the 2000 census, Salt Lake City was officially ranked 111th.) For it to outrank all others, including major cities more than ten times its size, there must be a lot of searches for pornography going on. Utah as a whole ranks 8th in the nation for pornographic searches, although in population it is ranked 34th.

This amusing statistic was reported by FBI Special Agent Jeff Ross at a recent Child Abuse and Family Violence Conference, and comes my way via Dr. Marty Klein’s Sexual Intelligence newsletter. Dr. Klein astutely notes that Utah residents “obviously have a love-hate relationship with their sexuality”, and the same could be said about Ted Haggard, Paul Barnes, or any of the other hundreds of pastors reported to be struggling with sexual temptation.

Christians often plead not to be judged by the transgressions of a few, but the more cases like this we see, the more likely it becomes that these vivid examples are not isolated aberrations, but instances of a larger pattern arising from a moral system that makes impossible and irrational demands on its adherents. Simply put, trying to deny one’s own sexuality does not work, and the harder a person tries, the worse things will be when it finally does break out. Like water behind a dam, we can let it out in a controlled way and use its power to our benefit; or we can try to shut it up, and be eventually overwhelmed. When sex is shunned and repressed in public and denied healthy outlets of expression, it will find less healthy ones, and that is exactly what we are seeing. How many more will have to fall, and how much more hypocrisy will we have to tolerate, before religious leaders wake up to the fact that their foolish crusade against human sexuality is not working? The more they impugn people for harmless consensual behavior, and the more they demand that gay people remain in the closet and consent to the abolition of their rights, the more Ted Haggards we will inevitably see.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://atheistrevolution.blogspot.com/ vjack

    Excellent post. I love the fact about Salt Lake City. Statistically speaking, there must be many gay Christians hiding their sexual orientation. This means that we can count on an unending supply of these entertaining scandals.

  • Kate

    Here, here. I’ve started to feel bad for Ted, with the incredible amount of internalized self-hatred he must have. A five-year-old loathing hismself, begging god to change him… wow.

    The fact about Salt Lake City is great. Sorry, but Mormonism and its golden tablets and baptizing the dead scares me. That city is like 1950s land, but with hemlines from 1915. The Mormon missionaries who come to my neighborhood occaisionally are like…like bland, cheerful but humorless automatons.

    P.S.
    I thought this New York Times article was obnoxious. The title might as well be “Atheist Grinch Tries to Ruin Christmas For Old Folks”.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/17/nyregion/17jewett.html?_r=1&ref=nyregion&oref=slogin

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    Finally! I was waiting for someone else to pick up this story, and it was actually getting a bit frightening that I was the only one to notice it. (Now I see it likely took you so much longer as you were making quite a good, long post on it compared to my one paragraph.)

    RE: Kate’s NY Times article

    Yeah, that one’s really biased against atheists, especially how it highlights the reply, “Go back to where you came from and shut up.” I wonder how it would be different if instead of religious music, it was some place playing speaches by famous atheists (at precisely the same volume)? Well, it’s not too hard to figure out how that would play out.

  • http://enceladus.wordpress.com/ Babbler

    Could you post the porno stat? Just like to confirm for myself.

  • http://inserttitleblog.com Steve

    Haggard-esque situations make me sick; classic case of self loathing. I think what’s going through his head is that if he demonizes homosexuality enough, he will not be as tempted in the future. To be honest, I feel quite bad for him and anyone else in his position.

    As to the NY Times article, I do think it a bit strange that a guy that doesn’t even live in the town is causing so much upheaval. As long as the music is not offending any of the townspeople that are forced to listen on a daily basis, I can’t really see the harm in it. Right or wrong, this type of situation is what gives atheism a bad name; it feeds the propaganda machine and riles up the Religous Right. It would be a lot more understandable if the person bringing the suit was a citizen of the town.

  • andrea

    Now one of Haggard’s lieutenants has confessed: http://www.wgal.com/family/10566928/detail.html

    It seems these men think that by being really really pious they’ll finally get God’s attention and He’ll remove the “gay”. Funny how that never works.

  • Basilisk

    Will someone put a name to the following logical fallacy?

    “I (and lots of other people) want to do something, therefore that something cannot be morally wrong”.

    Plently of people (Christian or otherwise) struggle with desires they themselves consider wrong. That they are tempted to do something against their beliefs does not make those beliefs false. Would the people here who so eagerly use the incidence of homosexuality against Christianity apply the same logic to other vices?
    Suppose, for example, some pastor somewhere were to publically admit that he had once raped and killed a woman. (I think he could avoid landing in jail for making this admission, if the actions had happended in a different country, or if he had been tried but aquitted) Rape and murder are of course actions condemned by Christian morality – far more so than mere fornication or pornography. Would you use such a man’s actions as an argument against that aspect of Christian teaching?

  • Alex Weaver

    Will someone put a name to the following logical fallacy?

    “I (and lots of other people) want to do something, therefore that something cannot be morally wrong”.

    Plently of people (Christian or otherwise) struggle with desires they themselves consider wrong. That they are tempted to do something against their beliefs does not make those beliefs false. Would the people here who so eagerly use the incidence of homosexuality against Christianity apply the same logic to other vices?
    Suppose, for example, some pastor somewhere were to publically admit that he had once raped and killed a woman. (I think he could avoid landing in jail for making this admission, if the actions had happended in a different country, or if he had been tried but aquitted) Rape and murder are of course actions condemned by Christian morality – far more so than mere fornication or pornography. Would you use such a man’s actions as an argument against that aspect of Christian teaching?

    Ok, I’ll put a name to it: “straw man.”

    First, we are not using the incidence of homosexuality as an argument against “Christianity,” we are using it as an argument against the credibility of hateful, bigoted hypocrites whose behavior puts the lie to their claims that “accepting Jesus as your personal savior,” etc will “cure” these “sinful” urges. The opposite claim above is analogous to calling a person “racist” because that person voices public opposition to the activities of a gang whose members are predominantly black. Our position is that homosexuality is not a “vice,” but merely a variant of an essential aspect of being human, our sexuality.

    Now then, while the prevalence of homosexuality among prominent Christians certainly undermines what credibility their stance on it had, as Adam explained above, our actual argument in favor of permitting and accepting homosexuality is as follows:

    “Activity X harms no one and makes the person or people taking part in it happy; therefore it is not morally wrong.”

    This is why we endorse homosexuality, but do not endorse rape and murder (and the comparison, frankly, is absurd and appalling. Are you just going for shock value, or do you actually believe that these acts are in any sense analogous?). Homosexuality is a state of being; homosexual acts between consenting adults harm no one. Rape and murder harm a nonconsenting victim very, very much.

    Incidentally, opposition to rape and murder isn’t an aspect of Christian teaching, and both are, in fact, extensively endorsed (along with genocide, torture, and slavery) in the Bible, particularly in the first few books of the Old Testament. Or am I to understand that you have an alternate interpretation of Numbers 31:1-54 (as only the most blatant and perhaps most poignant example). Rape, especially, has been mostly ignored by the church for much of history as unimportant except for its effects on the woman’s value as a bride (assuming she was unmarried). The fact that rape, murder, slavery, and (for the most part) torture and genocide are reviled and vehemently rejected today is a strong indication that modern Christians’ morality has become, as Adam put it, better than the Bible.

  • http://pointlessness.freehostia.com/ Rhapsody

    Will someone put a name to the following logical fallacy?

    “I (and lots of other people) want to do something, therefore that something cannot be morally wrong”.

    “Appeal to popularity” sounds right to me. Though homosexuality isn’t really that popular, and I’d wager most people here are heterosexual.

    Would the people here who so eagerly use the incidence of homosexuality against Christianity apply the same logic to other vices?

    We don’t do that, but you have to bear in mind that Ted Haggard was a man who said that homosexuality was ‘curable’ and that he had been ‘cured’. Then it turns out he was having secret homosexual relations all this time. The fact that he really seemed to hate what he was doing just speaks to an obvious conclusion even more.

    Homosexuality is not a condition to be cured, it’s a part of who people are that can’t be changed.

    Suppose, for example, some pastor somewhere were to publically admit that he had once raped and killed a woman. Rape and murder are of course actions condemned by Christian morality – far more so than mere fornication or pornography. Would you use such a man’s actions as an argument against that aspect of Christian teaching?

    If the person was one of those who blasted on about how there are no morals with Christianity and how a conversion to Christianity purifies and fills ones heart with love, it would be something of a blow to find the person had kept saying that after they’d raped and killed someone. Or rather it would be, if more people could see the obvious truth of the matter.

  • Alex Weaver

    The board software seems to have irretrievably eaten my original response to this (of which I was quite proud :( ), so I’ll recreate it as best I can and try to remember why I habitually open ConTEXT before typing something, next time, instead of relying on java/php/whatever it is to ever get anything right. (Adam: if it ever does spit out the original, please delete it and leave this one instead).

    Will someone put a name to the following logical fallacy?

    “I (and lots of other people) want to do something, therefore that something cannot be morally wrong”.

    Plently of people (Christian or otherwise) struggle with desires they themselves consider wrong. That they are tempted to do something against their beliefs does not make those beliefs false. Would the people here who so eagerly use the incidence of homosexuality against Christianity apply the same logic to other vices?
    Suppose, for example, some pastor somewhere were to publically admit that he had once raped and killed a woman. (I think he could avoid landing in jail for making this admission, if the actions had happended in a different country, or if he had been tried but aquitted) Rape and murder are of course actions condemned by Christian morality – far more so than mere fornication or pornography. Would you use such a man’s actions as an argument against that aspect of Christian teaching?

    Ok, I’ll put a name to it: “straw man.”

    First, it is worth noting that we are not “using the incidence of homosexuality against Christianity,” we are using the demonstrated hypocrisy and mental compartmentization of a group of dysfunctional bigots who identify themselves as “Christian” against the credibility of their claims about homosexuality. This is not at all subtle, and the claim implicit in this statement is analogous–both in its underlying “logic” and its absurdity–to accusing a person of racism because that person publicly opposes the activities of a criminal gang whose members happen to be primarily black. Note also that we (most of us, at least) do not believe homosexuality is a “vice,” but rather a less common but perfectly healthy variant of a basic element of being human, our sexuality. The inability or unwillingness of these prominent Christians to practice what they preach on this point suggests this is indeed the case.

    However, our argument in favor of acceptance and tolerance of homosexuals, and permitting their relationships and even sexual acts between consenting adults in private, is not that homosexuality is prevalent, but instead reads as follows: “Something harms no one and makes the person(s) participating in it happy; therefore that something cannot be morally wrong.” This is why we support homosexuality, but not rape or murder; sexual interactions between among consenting adults harm no one and bring pleasure to those engaged in them, regardless of the gender of those engaging in them. Rape and murder have identifiable victims, and harm those victims very, very much. (Incidentally, comparing consensual sex between adults to rape or murder does violence to reason and taste; did you just pick the most shocking examples you could find, or do you actually believe these things are in any way comparable?)

    It is also worth noting that opposition to rape and murder is not traditionally part of Christian morality. The Bible certainly contains no unqualified or unambiguous condemnation of either–the Ten Commandments contain the line “thou shalt not kill,” but are preceded and followed by page after page glorifying the Israelite’s slaughter of “idolators,” “sinners,” and their neighbors, with God’s often explicit approval, as well as acts of cold-blooded murder (Jephthah’s Daughter, for instance), and contains approving descriptions of genocide and mass child rape (unless you have an alternative explanation of Numbers 31:1-54, for instance), while dealing with peacetime rape as follows: if the rape occurs in the city, the woman is assumed to have not cried for help and both she and the man are to be stoned; if it occured in the countryside, she is made to marry her rapist. Christians and Christianity have historically endorsed the cold-blooded murder of millions of “heretics” and “infidels,” and even today many (including most of those upset about homosexuality) endorse capital punishment, wars of aggression, and in some cases even acts of terrorism against family planning clinics and other organizations. Meanwhile, rape has been largely regarded as unimportant, except with regards to the effects of non-virginity on a woman’s perceived “virtue” and her value as a bride, by the churches and Western society for most of history. The fact that modern Christians, for the most part, revile and repudiate rape and murder (and genocide, and torture, and slavery, and subjugation of women, and…) merely shows that the modern Christian’s morality is, on the whole, “better than the Bible.”

  • Alex Weaver

    (Perhaps I should say “no unambiguous or unilateral condemnation of either.”)

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  • http://www.cfnm-heaven.info cnfm

    is it time to draw a line under freedom of choice?

  • Alex Weaver

    is it time to draw a line under freedom of choice?

    Uh. What do you mean by that?

  • Alex Weaver

    Oh. I was thinking on the drive home from field work in San Jose and I remembered the following joke:

    Man goes to psychiatrist to take a Rorschach ink blot test, Shrink shows him the first blot and asks him what it reminds him of. “Sex” replies the man. Shrink shows him the second ink blot and asks him what it reminds him of. “Sex” replies the man. And so it goes on throughout the whole test. Psychiatrist asks the man what the blot reminds him of and the man replies “Sex” every time.

    Eventually, the test finishes and the man asks what the psychiatrist for his diagnosis. “Hmmm….” replies the shrink “It seems to me that you are completely obsessed with sex.”

    “What!? Me obsessed with sex?” exclaims the man “You’re the one with all the dirty pictures!”

    Does this remind anyone of any particular segment of society? ;/


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