Gay-Hatin’ Gospel (pt. 1)

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.)

- – - – - – - – - – - -

* 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.

  • Salamanda

    My mom lives there, and it’s where I grew up. Much nicer place than when I was a kid — most of the fun businesses weren’t there 30-40 years ago.
    With the time frame you’ve given me, I can’t help but wonder if you went to school with my stepmom or any of her sibs. Does the name Carrigan ring any bells? Jimmy, Kathy, Mary, Rosie?
    If you want to stop by, I’ll advise my mom. She always likes meeting new people. And I’ll be up in May for her birthday if we want to have a SFlacktoCon.
    Cool. We usually go up around the beginning of December to get a Christmas tree. Garlocks FTW! (And Twin Hills for teh pie!) :) SFlacktoCon sounds like a hoot. Baked goods for all!

  • Ecks

    CJMR’s husband is right. You can fire a bullet at supersonic speeds, but assuming you fire it level with the ground it’ll drop to the floor just as fast as a stone would. The only difference is that in the time it takes to fall it also travels hundreds of meters forward because of all this momentum you gave it.
    The reason planes stay in the air isn’t pixie dust, it’s because there isn’t really nothing between them and the ground. There’s lots of air, and although we tend not to notice it at the slow speeds we move, air is a fluid like water. If you swing your arm around as fast as you can, you’ll maybe begin to feel it though. In a very real sense, planes stay up because they’re swimming.
    The race car’s need reverse wings, BTW, because without them when they went at high speeds, they wouldn’t be able to turn. Think about it. Massive amounts of kinetic energy (mass times velocity SQUARED, remember), that you want to make change direction. And the only thing that can make it chnage direction is a few square inches of rubber that are in contact with the road. That’s not a lot of friction unless you can press it very VERY hard down on to the road. The cars don’t weigh enough on their own (and if they did it would be too expensive to get them going that fast) so you have to make them an upside down wing so the same thing that presses a 747 into the air presses them down onto the road. And conveniently, the faster they go, the harder it presses them.

  • Jeff

    With the time frame you’ve given me, I can’t help but wonder if you went to school with my stepmom or any of her sibs. Does the name Carrigan ring any bells? Jimmy, Kathy, Mary, Rosie?
    The names don’t ring a bell. Did they go to Gravenstein from 1957 to 1968, or Analy from 69 to 73? I may be off by a year…
    Cool. We usually go up around the beginning of December to get a Christmas tree. Garlocks FTW! (And Twin Hills for teh pie!) :) SFlacktoCon sounds like a hoot. Baked goods for all!
    Mom will be coming to LA in early Dec (I think around the 6th). I’ll have to see what her time-frame is. She might know your step-family. Next time I call, I’ll ask.

  • Rozzen

    CJMR’s husband is right. You can fire a bullet at supersonic speeds, but assuming you fire it level with the ground it’ll drop to the floor just as fast as a stone would.
    A bullet isn’t under continuous thrust though. Are you sure it would fall to the ground if it was ? (and I mean forward thrust, not downwards. The reason helicopters need downward thrust is so they can achieve stationary/slow flight, not because they lack wings. I think)
    In a very real sense, planes stay up because they’re swimming.
    Right. And when swimming, when you stop going forward you sink. Not a lot because humans are buoyant, but still.
    The race car’s need reverse wings, BTW, because without them when they went at high speeds, they wouldn’t be able to turn. Think about it.
    Right, when your wheels are just barely touching the ground you’ll have trouble controlling your vehicle.
    I won’t say anything more on the subject given all I’m going on are half-forgotten fluid mechanics courses, and I can’t find anything conclusive on the web.

  • Bugmaster

    Massive amounts of kinetic energy (mass times velocity SQUARED, remember), that you want to make change direction.

    This part is technically incorrect. Energy doesn’t care about changing direction; it’s a scalar quantity.

  • Rozzen

    Oh well. I found this NASA thingy from 1959 that talks about a wingless plane :
    http://tinyurl.com/33sh2s
    I only read the first two pages, in which they implied that for cruise flight engines providing horizontal thrust are enough, but you need wings for take-off and landing so to have a wingless plane they needed special engines to provide downwards thrust at those times. Which makes sense given take-off and landing are when you’re going slow, so wings would be more important then.
    Make of that what you will, those wingless planes never seem to make it past the drawing board but I don’t know if it’s because I’m wrong about the physics, or if they’re just too expensive/energy gluttonous/impractical.

  • mmack

    The race car’s need reverse wings, BTW, because without them when they went at high speeds, they wouldn’t be able to turn. Think about it. Massive amounts of kinetic energy (mass times velocity SQUARED, remember), that you want to make change direction. And the only thing that can make it chnage direction is a few square inches of rubber that are in contact with the road. That’s not a lot of friction unless you can press it very VERY hard down on to the road. The cars don’t weigh enough on their own (and if they did it would be too expensive to get them going that fast) so you have to make them an upside down wing so the same thing that presses a 747 into the air presses them down onto the road. And conveniently, the faster they go, the harder it presses them.
    Ecks,
    It isn’t that the cars can’t turn, it’s that without “downforce” (the opposite of lift generated by an airplane wing), a race car driver would have to brake harder and downshiftupshift entering and exiting corners, and in losing the momentum they would slow their lap speeds. With aerodynamics you can turn faster. The key is you want a car with a very low ride height and center of gravity close to the road surface. EX: think of how fast a Corvette or Ferrari can take a corner vs. an SUV. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the early 1970′s, the pole position speed average for the Indy 500 jumped from 171 to 199 mph from 1970 – 1973. The change? Front and rear wings at the extreme ends of the chassis were allowed for cars in 1972. That allowed them to go almost full throttle through all four turns and the pole position speed shot up from 178 to 195 in one year. The “wing cars” were actually slower on the straights than the rear engine cars that immediately preceded them (a by-product of dragging those wings through the air), but since the older non-winged cars had to slow for the turns and the wing cars didn’t, the wing cars kept their momentum through the turns. Since cornering speeds were close to straightaway speeds the speed averages went up (too fast in some people’s opinions). The wings were trimmed but engineers came up with a new fix: ground effects.
    In open wheel cars raced in the Indy Racing League, Champ Car, and F1, and some sports cars, they use the concept of ground effects to get the car closer to the track. The wings you see on these types of cars are used to trim the “downforce” at the front and rear of the car (mainly combatting understeer and oversteer), but the heart of the chassis are the ground effect tunnels that turn the center of the car into a big inverted wing. Using a “reverse Bernoulli effect”, as the air flows through the tunnels the car generates suction rather than lift, and the amount of suction goes up as the car speeds up. With ground effects the front and rear wings create no suction, but actually force the air to press the front and rear end closer to the track. In F1, ground effects were banned in the early 1980′s (it worked too well), and but with a nod and a wink an engineer may tell you that they are able to generate downforce using limited ground effects in today’s cars.
    And I promise never to bore Slacktivist posters by talking about racing aerodynamics again.

  • Salamanda

    @Jeff: Ok, you’re ahead of them by a few years. :) My stepmom graduated in ’79 from Analy (and oh, how we tease her in the most juvenile manner for that name…)

  • Ecks

    There you go, a far more authoritative account of things.
    Question Mmack: assuming that ground effects also create drag like wings do, for the races where they’re legal, do any teams try to think about ways to change the shape between the flat and turning sections to dynamically increase and decrease it?
    Anyway Rozzen, the part I do know is that, yes, wings have to be moving through air in order to generate lift. A helicopter can hover because it’s wings are rotated so they move fast through air even when the rest of the helicopter doesn’t. Here’s the first explanation of how wings produce lift that I could find . It was interesting actually, I learned some more misconceptions I had (I had heard it described before as their debunked theory 1).

  • mmack

    Question Mmack: assuming that ground effects also create drag like wings do, for the races where they’re legal, do any teams try to think about ways to change the shape between the flat and turning sections to dynamically increase and decrease it?
    Ecks, you’re going to make me break my promise:

    And I promise never to bore Slacktivist posters by talking about racing aerodynamics again.

    I will try to keep it quick. All forms of auto racing where aerodynamics utilizing wings and ground effects are allowed DO NOT allow the aerodynamic aids to be adjusted by the driver when the car is racing on the track. So the tunnel shape is fixed, and the wing angles are fixed when the car is on the track. But in the Indy Racing League and Champ Car, the teams CAN change the wing angles when the car comes in for a pit stop. Changing the angle of the wing can add or reduce downforce at the front or rear of the car. Increasing the angle of the front wings adds more downforce at the front of the car to cure an oversteer condition, where reducing the angle of the wing can cure an understeer condition. (Understeer: Turn the steering wheel and the car still wants to go straight. Oversteer: Turn the steering wheel and the car’s rear end wants to keep coming around when you want it to stop turning.) For the front wing a pit crewman can turn a little allen wrench style key that sticks up by each wing at the nose of the car to increase or decrease the angle of the wing. If you watch a race like the Indianapolis 500, the announcer might say the pit crew “Added a turn of wing”. That means they turned the little key and raised the wing angle, adding downforce. “Took out a turn of wing” means they decreased the angle. At the rear of the car, the team can add or remove a wickerbill (or Gurney Flap, named after Dan Gurney, the car builder who discovered it) to the trailing edge of the rear wing to add or reduce downforce on the rear of the car. But the tunnel shape cannot change.
    HTH

  • Ecks

    thanks. I’m guilty of giving way too many lectures on stuff here myself, but that’s because I egocentrically assume others like learning stuff like this as much as I do.
    If nobody else appreciated it, *I* did :) Thanks.

  • cjmr

    It was kinda interesting, even though I’m not into auto racing.
    As far as flight goes, I’m just glad that the physics it depends on is explicable by math I understand, so that flying isn’t a faith-based experience.

  • cjmr

    It was kinda interesting, even though I’m not into auto racing.
    As far as flight goes, I’m just glad that the physics it depends on is explicable by math I understand, so that flying isn’t a faith-based experience.

  • http://d-84.livejournal.com cjmr’s husband

    For extra credit, explain why it is vitally important for a front-wheel-drive Honda to have a spoiler larger than the car itself.

  • http://d-84.livejournal.com cjmr’s husband

    For extra credit, explain why it is vitally important for a front-wheel-drive Honda to have a spoiler larger than the car itself.

  • mmack

    For extra credit, explain why it is vitally important for a front-wheel-drive Honda to have a spoiler larger than the car itself.
    For the same reason it’s important that the same car has a “Fart Can” muffler that makes an annoying BrrrrrrrrrrAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAPPPPPPPP-BrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAPPPPPPPPPPPPP-BrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPP!!!!!!!!!!!!!! exhaust note you can hear five miles away. ‘Cuz it makes the car faster, man!

  • mmack

    For extra credit, explain why it is vitally important for a front-wheel-drive Honda to have a spoiler larger than the car itself.
    For the same reason it’s important that the same car has a “Fart Can” muffler that makes an annoying BrrrrrrrrrrAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAPPPPPPPP-BrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAPPPPPPPPPPPPP-BrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPP!!!!!!!!!!!!!! exhaust note you can hear five miles away. ‘Cuz it makes the car faster, man!

  • I’m not a rocket scientist

    The bullet example isn’t strictly correct either because it assumes a flat Earth :)
    If you could actually fire a bullet fast enough “level with the ground” it would go into orbit around our planet, or, if it was going really fast, orbit the Sun or eventually leave the solar system altogether.
    If there wasn’t an atmosphere in the way a “mere” 11-12km/s would be sufficient for this problem. This is called “escape velocity”. Bullets already travel at speeds approaching 1km/s so we could undoubtedly build a machine which would fling small objects this quickly, but since there is an atmosphere here on Earth it would be useless to approach the problem of sending objects into orbit this way, they’d burn up and disintegrate for a start.
    Space rockets and similar vehicles don’t need to travel at 11km/s – they contain a propulsion system, this constantly accelerates against the force of gravity and in this way they could, in theory, travel away from Earth as slowly as they liked, except that obviously the cost in fuel would be outrageous.

  • Ecks

    Actually the bullet example does work. If you fire it level with the ground it still accelerates towards the ground at the regular rate gravity makes everything else fall at. If you fire it fast enough, though, it’ll go so far forward that the amount it drops will be the same as the curvature of the earth. THAT is how you get orbit.
    Or at least, that’s how it happens according to my stunted ass high school level physics.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X