How did gay-hatin’ come to be the “most-common perception” of Christianity?
Theory No. 1: The Safe Target
“No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to us all,” St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:13.
If you’re a preacher, and if you possess the slightest bit of self-awareness, that’s problematic. It means that preaching against any temptation or sin implicates your entire congregation and yourself as well. That can be really uncomfortable for all involved. Pick any of the seven deadlies or the 10 commandments and you risk alienating everyone in the pews and exposing yourself as less than perfect. Awwwk–waaard.
But lately, many American evangelical preachers think they have found a loophole: Homosexuality. Here is a temptation that does not seem to be common to us all. It seems to be the perfect “sin”* — the perfect safe target. Straight preachers can rail against it without worrying about exposing themselves as hypocrites or, even worse, as fallible humans just like everyone else. And statistically speaking, most of the congregation will be able to say “Amen” without squirming or feeling the least discomfort. It’s all win.
No other sin provides this kind of free shot. Point an accusing finger at gluttony, pride or envy and the proverbial four fingers pointing back at yourself underscore Paul’s point about temptation being “common to us all.” That’s way too Pogo — too “we have met the enemy and he is us.” But here, instead, is the allure of an “enemy” who is not us. This is a unique opportunity, and kind of a rush. It’s the chance to rail against sinners who seem completely other — people whose sin doesn’t tempt us in the least. (And since these others are clearly in the minority, we don’t even have to worry much about a serious impact on the offering plate. Contrast that with gluttony, pride and envy — the foundations on which some of the church’s biggest donors have built their fortunes.)
I don’t think this safe-target dynamic fully explains the motive or the cause of American evangelicalism’s anti-gay obsession, but I do believe it accounts for part of its appeal. That appeal is all the more appealing in the American church, where we’re deeply anxious about the fact that we don’t seem significantly different from everybody else in our culture. Since we expend our lives chasing after the exact same things as everyone else, and since we can’t say with any confidence that “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” we have to latch onto whatever insignificant signifiers we can. We don’t drink (in public), and we don’t dance (well). Still not convinced we’re the elect, the chosen few? Well then, um, we’re heterosexual. Dazzled yet?
As that Barna survey demonstrated, the increasing popularity of railing against the supposed safe target of homosexuality has come at a cost. Evangelical Christians have become famous, or rather infamous, for being anti-gay. It is the “most-common perception” of who we are. The public face of Christianity is not the face of Christ, or even of Billy Graham or Martin Luther King Jr. or Dorothy Day. The public face of Christianity has become that of Fred Phelps and of his slightly more tactful, smiling surrogates like Pat Robertson, James Dobson and Tony Perkins. That is the “most-common perception” of American Christianity, both inside and outside the church.
But there’s another theologically perilous cost to this safe-target preaching. The idea that there are “super-sins” worthy of particular opprobrium and the idea that there are “others” subject to temptations not “common to us all” are spiritually dangerous notions. I don’t have the time or the wisdom to unpack all the ways that these ideas have altered our preaching and teaching, but consider just one example: Fidelity is the virtue at the core of nearly all Christian sexual ethics. Yet our safe-target condemnation of homosexuals treats fidelity and infidelity as indistinguishable. That suggests to me that something has come off the rails.
The passage quoted at the beginning of this post is the central insight of G.K. Chesterton’s delightful Father Brown stories. The priest-sleuth is able to solve these mysteries not because of his keen powers of observation or because he is a Holmesian deductive genius, but rather because he is an expert on human nature, having studied the subject for decades by hearing confessions. The wisdom of Father Brown is that we’re all pretty much alike, that there is no temptation that is not “common to us all.” This was true for the Corinthians, the most screwed-up collection of misfits in the first-century church, and it is true for the Americans, the most screwed-up collection of misfits in the 21st-century church.
Chesterton, like Paul, could be a scold. But also like Paul he was never so foolish as to think that he could exempt himself when he preached against sin and temptation. Seeking such an exemption by taking aim at safe targets leads to self-delusion, smugness and complacency, and it goes against everything the Bible (and experience) teaches us about human nature. That point is worth repeating: The anti-gay preaching that has become the pre-eminent characteristic of American Christianity contradicts what the Bible says about human nature. It is unbiblical.
Anyway, so much for Theory No. 1. (As you’ve probably already guessed, I’m following the hackneyed convention here of dismissing the unsatisfactory theories first, gradually working toward what I think the actual explanation is. Next up: Theory No. 2, Inner Demons.)
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* I want to make a distinction here between two things, both of which I disagree with. The first is the contention that homosexuality is, by definition, a sin. The second is the belief, implicit and explicit, that homosexuality is the worst and most odious of sins. This post is primarily concerned with the latter belief and in order to challenge that here I have accepted here for the sake of argument the language, if not the logic, of the former belief. The larger point is that the belief taught by most Christians — that any sex outside of holy matrimony, narrowly defined, is a sin — does not, and ought not, entail the idea that homosexuality is thus some kind of super-sin or that homosexuals should be singled out for condemnation from which other humans are exempt by the supposed virtue of their heterosexuality.