We’ve been talking for a while now about right-wing Christians’ culture war against LGBTQ people, using Preston Sprinkle’s new advice book People to be Loved as a starting-off point. I’ve alluded a few times to the life script options that Dr. Sprinkle has generously allocated for gay people in order for them to be acceptable to
him his god, and today I want to touch on one of them.
In this section, the author tells us, quite by accident, that he has no clue in the world what love really is–and thus no standing whatsoever to be giving serious advice to people in really different circumstances from his own.
Pretty Much of a Muchness.
People to Be Loved is one of a growing number of conservative Christian advice books aimed at perpetuating the right-wing Christian culture war against LGBTQ people. A whole bunch of Christians, notably Andrew Marin, are putting out very similar books lately. They all say roughly the same thing: We’re right to condemn gay people. We just need to be nicer about it.
The reason these books exist is because Christians are trying harder than ever to sell their gauzy vision of separate-but-equal, but that’s a vision that works only in their fantasy world. I’ve written before about how groups that follow this dynamic seem to erupt constantly into abuse and scandals, but Christians can’t let go of it.
Once someone has declared that their very god has spoken, it’s really hard to walk that back and say whoops, they must have misheard him. So the message is perfect and always remains so; only cosmetic changes are allowed–which Preston Sprinkle refers to as shifts in “posture.” The bigotry itself is totally okay, even required; his tribe just needs to change how they communicate that bigotry.
Dr. Sprinkle provides gay people with three life paths, which he declares to be “on the side of the angels” and what “Christian faithfulness [looks] like” (p. 157). Really. (I learned a while ago to stay away from scare quotes with this book, so if you see quotes and I don’t say otherwise, it’s straight from the horse’s mouth.)
I realize it’s going to sound a little weird to say that he offers three options. Most people would think he was offering two, since that’s what his tribe most commonly maintains. And indeed, those two do show up.
But he adds a third to that list. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at all to me, and to be sure it boils down to the tribe’s long-established two ideas in the end. For all that he keeps talking about a “posture” change, I haven’t seen anything yet out of this Christian leader that’s really different. That’s why they call such people conservative, I suppose.
Option One: Celibacy.
The first option is, unsurprisingly, going forever without any kind of intimate romantic relationships. Cold celibacy is easily the route the author most prefers, since he spends the bulk of this chapter describing and trying to sell celibacy as a sort of “bonus plan” (as I call it). He seems deeply resentful that so many people regard celibacy in such a negative way, belittling and gaslighting people who “reinforce a secular and rather thin view of love where intimacy is impossible without genital contact” (p. 167).
I’ve noticed a rising number of Christian bigots-for-Jesus who are starting to really push celibacy for gay people. I’m not the only one alarmed by this push, either. These demands have been rejected almost universally, and for good reason: Demands for celibacy do not feel loving no matter how “graciously” those demands are made or how loving the Christian thinks he or she is being while making them, or how absurdly and inaccurately they describe either celibacy or genuine intimacy.
Part of me wonders if fundagelicals actually understand what intimacy is. One progressive Christian writer, Susan Cottrell, schools Dr. Sprinkle and other bigots like him by describing why she sees celibacy as “untenable” for anyone, much less gay people, and what intimacy means to her:
I’m not talking about the sex. I’m talking about the intimate sharing between committed couples, the being there through thick and thin, the sharing of life’s rituals with a partner who loves and supports you. . . Imagine a whole segment of the population forced to face their entire lives without that intimacy. Talk about unnatural! It is supremely unnatural to live life with no hope of that kind of life-sharing with someone you deeply love.
But never fear, naysayers! Preston Sprinkle thinks that church groups, friends, and Christian ministry can totally make up for the lack of that deep, unique intimacy that a life-partner provides to a person who yearns for such connection.
He sanctimoniously lectures, “The gospel never promises happiness to married folk” (p. 169), though he sure didn’t choose celibacy for himself–or even seem to consider it. And I doubt he’d be totally happy with never again having any “genital contact” with anyone else, to use his odious, puerile, and reductionist phrase.
I don’t think even his own tribe would buy the suggestion he presses upon gay people. I’ve certainly never seen any young Christians eagerly describing how they are totally looking forward to a sparkless single life devoid of any sexual expression and how they are totally looking forward to getting all of their emotional and social needs met by friends and their “church families,” which will of course totally be filled with people who will gladly put their own relationships and families on hold to cherish and adore this celibate scion of purity and grace.
I have to wonder just how many churches this author has ever attended or known of, because I cannot think of a single church I’ve ever attended in my entire life that I’d ever consider even close to that ideal. There were some churches that contained a number of close friends and cliques, but if I had to describe Christians as a whole, the words I’d use would be “flaky, inconsistent, unreliable, and two-faced.” Even today I know very few Christians who’d drop everything for anyone who needed them, or make any real sacrifices for anybody–with the possible (but not definite by any means) exception of their own families.
Then we reach the suggestion that Christians get their needs met through ministering to others. To this I can only ask if Dr. Sprinkle actually knows any pastors. I have. None of them were getting their emotional needs met through their ministries. They were being drained and sucked dry. Most of them regarded their partners and families as necessary breaks and reliefs from that work, and regretted that they had to put their families in such a position. There is a reason why burnout in ministry is so serious nowadays, and why pastors are at such a high risk for hypertension, depression, addiction, and even suicide.
Chirping “Just be celibate!” to a gay person probably has much the same effect on them that a forced-birther chirping “Just give it up for adoption!” would have on a woman who is facing an unwanted pregnancy. You can’t plaster on a Jesus smile and brightly tell people to accept a substandard non-solution that violates their boundaries, needs, aches, consent, rights, and liberties when they know you’re largely the person responsible for those violations and that you’re certainly not under the same restrictions you want them to live with. That is totally unacceptable. I’d even call it grotesque.
When he goes on to declare, all wide-eyed, that why gosh, single people can have an even richer life in some ways than poor ole married people like him, who face the insurmountable burden he describes as the “anxiety that accompanies the marriage and child-rearing*,” it comes off as even worse. It reminds me of how men in my old denomination used to whine about how harrrrrd it was to be a man and have to do all the heavy lifting of management and decision-making while women did all the easy stuff like oh, all the housework and childrearing, period, forever. I really hope he’s not expecting LGBTQ people to be fooled if 40 years of complementarian doublespeak didn’t even fool the women I knew in church.
No matter how hard he sells it, he can’t make celibacy sound like a good substitute for a primary lifelong romantic relationship–because people in the real world know better. He can keep trying to call celibacy a “gift” as much as he likes, but this suggestion is nothing but “separate but equal” with a fresher label to hide the stink inside the package.
Why Celibacy is “Separate but Equal” for Gay People.
As I showed you last time we met up, Christian culture is absolutely obsessed with marriage. Single people find themselves alienated if they’re not married by a certain age. Activities are built around families and couples, making singles’ groups feel like “Sunday School with bigger chairs,” as one single Christian put it. She goes on to wonder “if the church really sees [a single person] as a full person.” (The answer is a resounding “no.”) And even Dr. Sprinkle himself describes excluding single people in his own presentations and meetings to the point where one got up and left mid-meeting (p. 170).
(Now, obviously some people make a free choice to be single. That’s not what we’re talking about here, though. We’re talking about Christians demanding celibacy. It’s totally fine to decide on one’s own to be celibate; it’s not okay to force or coerce anyone into that decision.)
If being single in fundagelical culture can make a straight person feel like they simply don’t belong at all among their married peers, imagine what it’s like to be a single person whose sexuality is singled out and blamed for every single social ill in the world, who is constantly labeled defective and disordered, and whose capacity for love is linked to criminality, danger to children, and even a coming apocalypse. That must be lovely. But it gets worse.
Marriage is a big part of how Christians show that they are conforming to fundagelicalism’s prescribed gender roles. By deliberately excluding gay people from this all-encompassing rush to marry, Christians are excluding them from not only their social groups but also from their very conceptualization of what it means to be men or women. Gay people cannot participate fully in this social convention that is considered completely, totally mandatory for everyone else.
They are sidelined. They are marginalized.
They become the frightening, obscure, shadowy Other.
And that’s right where toxic Christians want them.
It might even be where they need them.
The Pecking Order, Preserved.
Preston Sprinkle might recoil from the idea of snarling slurs in the face of a gay person, but he will never, ever be able to convince his entire tribe to follow his example of being nice bigots. They know what it means to separate one group from another, and then to make a rule that the lesser group can’t have this right that everyone in the main group gets. They know what it means when one group is stripped of rights and singled out for exclusion from major milestones by another group. They know what it means when one group gets accused of being intrinsically broken and thus is denied the same privileges and pleasures that the other group gets, while being subject to greatly increased suspicion and scrutiny. And they know what it means when one group is flatly denied the opportunities that another group gets.
They’ve been doing this for many centuries. They have a host of Christianese phrases like “complementary” to describe it, but ultimately even their prettiest words are nothing but a veneer over institutionalized bigotry. The group that gets the most rights, perks, privileges, pleasures, milestones, and opportunities is the superior group; it is blessed; it deserves to rule. And it attracts abusers and predators. The group that gets the least number of rights and privileges is the group that is fair game for abuse and can expect the most grueling domination. From minimum-wage workers to the homeless to LGBTQ people to women to children, right-wing Christians show their true colors when presented with someone in a group they perceive as being lesser than themselves.
It’s never been any different. That’s why secular cultures tend to move toward egalitarianism, why very religious cultures tend to be very hostile toward the very idea of equality for all citizens, and why secular organizations and governments have protections in place for marginalized groups as well as restrictions on what dominant groups can do to them. It’s also why those religious cultures tend to so deeply resent it when organizations and governments stop them from hurting and trampling over the groups they have been taught are fair game for their viciousness.
Celibacy, then, is the main option that Dr. Sprinkle presents for gay people, and little wonder about it. It’s the option fundagelicals like best because if toxic Christians can’t have willing consent, then they’re happy to take grudging compliance. If they cannot outright win the culture war, they’ll settle for pretending as if they have.
Little wonder so many people look at Christianity and decide to opt out entirely from such a “loving” tribe’s membership!
Preston Sprinkle’s book only goes downhill from here, I’m afraid. I’m just warning y’all now.
Reason for Optimism.
I take a little comfort amid my outrage by reminding myself that this book–and the many ones like it–are signals of the coming end to the fundagelical culture war. This book could not have been written without fundagelicals being in panic mode about their increasing losses of power, influence, and membership. It would not have an audience, either, if fundagelicals weren’t frantic to repair their tattered credibility and shore up their devastating losses on political, legal, and cultural fronts.
Fifty years from now, books like this–and attitudes like the ones seen in them–will look like the quaint, strange relics of a bygone age. Even Christians themselves will likely not know that their tribe once vehemently opposed civil rights for LGBTQ people, just as most Christians today aren’t aware of how many of their predecessors opposed civil rights for nonwhite people or just how much of evangelicalism’s history involves fighting tooth and nail against the abolition of slavery in the United States. I hope that helps a bit till we meet again.
We’re going to spend a little time next time talking about some of the reasons why Christian bigots have good reason to be frantic lately, because I think it’s time for a smile break. There is marvelous news.
Come and see.
* Preston Sprinkle should speak only for himself. He keeps talking about marriage in terms that make me suspect he doesn’t see a lot of happy ones or even understand the dynamics involved in a happy one. Mr. Captain and I are two of the sappiest, most blissed-out heretics one could ever hope to meet. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s funny when a fundagelical makes demonstrably false statements about relationships and then attributes those ideas to his or her god.