According to research by the Barna Group:
The most common perception is that present-day Christianity is “anti-homosexual.” Overall, 91 percent of young non-Christians and 80 percent of young churchgoers say this phrase describes Christianity. As the research probed this perception, non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians. One of the most frequent criticisms of young Christians was that they believe the church has made homosexuality a “bigger sin” than anything else.
How did such a strange thing come to pass?
Theory No. 4: The Exegetical Panic Defense
In American popular culture, the most accurate and affectionate portrayal of an evangelical Christian is Ned Flanders. Seriously. He’s overly earnest and myopically naive, but overall he is, like the majority of our evangelical Christian neighbors and relatives, a Very Nice Person. Barna’s survey results above thus present us with an odd conundrum: What is it about homosexuals in particular that turns these otherwise Very Nice People into viciously negative people characterized by their “excessive contempt”?
Part of the answer, I think, has little to do with homosexuals or homosexuality per se. It has to do, rather, with epistemology — with the need for certainty and the panicked hostility that surfaces when that certainty is threatened.
“We see through a glass, darkly,” St. Paul said, warning against the temptation to chase the will-o’-the-wisp of certainty. But American evangelicalism is largely based on the idea that certainty is not only possible, but necessary. Mandatory, even. This certainty can be achieved thanks to the one-legged stool of the Evangelical Unilateral.
That’s a made-up term, but it describes something real. It’s a play on the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” — an approach to theological thinking that relies on the four foundations of scripture, tradition/community, reason and experience.
The evangelical approach to theological thinking is exactly like this Wesleyan method, except it doesn’t include tradition or community. Or reason. Or experience. All of those things are viewed, instead, as potentially corrosive threats to the pure certainty offered by scripture alone — by the unambiguous and self-evident, prima facie “literal” meaning of scripture. Such an approach requires not only that the text itself be pure,* accessible, infallible, inerrant and impervious to misinterpretation but also that the reader of the text be pure, insightful, infallible, inerrant and incapable of misinterpretation. It requires that the reader be some kind of Platonic ideal, a blank slate uninfluenced by culture, language, intellect or life experience. That is, of course, impossible. The point here, however, is not to evaluate or criticize this evangelical epistemology, or to point out all the ways in which it does not and cannot work, but rather to acknowledge descriptively that this is how American evangelical Christians attempt to view the world.
When faced with apparent contradictions amongst scripture, tradition, reason and experience, a Christian applying something like the Wesleyan Quadrilateral will attempt to reconcile them. A Christian applying the Evangelical Unilateral will, instead, determine that they don’t need to be reconciled and that any apparent contradictions between scripture and reason, or between scripture and tradition (i.e., how others have interpreted that same text), or even between scripture and their own life experience must be settled by embracing the apparent meaning of the former and rejecting the apparent meaning of the latter.
A rather vivid example of this is provided by our old friend Marshall Hall, proprietor of the Web site FixedEarth.com. Hall believes the Bible tells us that the earth is “fixed” — that it does not rotate or revolve, but sits unmoving at the center of the universe. Reason and experience explicitly contradict this belief, and tradition suggests that Hall is misinterpreting the passages he cites as proof of his fixed-earth theory, but he doesn’t care about any of those things. Sola scriptura! The Bible says it, he believes it, that settles it.**
Young Earth Creationism is another infamous example of this Unilateralist epistemology at work. The starting point for adherents of this belief is that the Bible teaches that the world is only 6,000 or so years old. If science claims otherwise, then science must be rejected.
That’s actually relatively easy to manage if you’re not yourself a scientist. Those of us who are non-scientists rely on the conclusions of expert others, supported by the assurances of their peers. This is all very authoritative and seemingly trustworthy, and rejecting it is no small feat, but it is still somewhat abstract, somewhat removed from our own direct experience. Rejecting science due to its apparent contradiction with scripture is still far easier than rejecting one’s own experience. That hits much closer to home and involves grappling with a far more difficult level of cognitive dissonance.
And that — the dissonance that comes from questioning one’s own conscience and experience — is what underlies what I’m calling here the Exegetical Panic Defense. This is what happens when an evangelical who has been taught to believe in the Big Gay Evil finally gets to know a flesh-and-blood homosexual human being and starts to think that, actually, this person doesn’t really seem like they are evil or a threat or righteously miserable due to their sordid “alternative lifestyle.”
For some other Christian, someone relying on something like the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, this can be an instructive experience. Those kinds of Christians are allowed, and even required, to learn from their experience, from their reason and conscience.*** For such people, this new friend (or old friend coming out with new information) will serve as a tonic against the idea that Christians ought to be characterized by an “excessive contempt” for homosexuals. (For a real-world example of just such a case, see this agonized and agonizing e-mail recently received by Andrew Sullivan.)
But for an evangelical relying on the Unilateral, weighing your own experience against the purportedly crystal clear teachings of scripture is verboten. Something’s gotta give and that something, in this case, is their own experience, conscience and instincts. That’s when the panic-inducing cognitive dissonance kicks in and fight-or-flight takes over. And then anything could happen.
The stakes here are higher than you may appreciate — their faith, and thus also their sense of identity, is on the line. The Unilateral requires a faith that is so inflexible it becomes brittle — it can never bend, only break. The crisis occurring for them is much like the one that happened to my college friend in Jericho — the young-earth creationist who was confronted with the ruins of a neolithic wall thousands of years older than his God. But in addition to the disturbing sense that the certainty they’d been promised is slipping through their fingers, these evangelicals are also forced to cope with the deeply unsettling thought that their own mercy may exceed that of God.
That kind of crisis can result in someone chucking their faith entirely. Or they may try to reassert that certainty even more forcefully. That effort — fearful, desperate, defensive, hostile, a bit too white-knuckled and wide-eyed, and vindictively proclaiming the rightness of withholding mercy from the undeserving — manifests itself as something that looks very much like “excessive contempt.” These Christians may not like the idea of lashing out against their new friend, but it’s less terrifying than the slippery, bewildering landscape of a world in which they can no longer say, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
This dynamic doesn’t account for the larger causes of the phenomenon described by the Barna survey above. It doesn’t explain how it came to be that an excessive contempt for homosexuals is the “most common perception” of American Christianity, for Christians and non-Christians alike. But while it doesn’t explain where this perception and this emphatically anti-homosexual teaching comes from, I think it does help to explain why it resonates and persists among evangelical Christians in particular. So I don’t see this theory as a broader explanation, but as yet another contributing factor.
We looked earlier at the case of other Christians who seem to begin with a visceral antipathy toward homosexuals and then seek a theological justification for it. This is almost the opposite of that — Christians who seem, against their own inclinations and their own better judgment — to adopt this antipathy on the basis of theological teaching they don’t seem wholly comfortable with. I’m really not sure which is worse, but this latter case seems almost poignantly tragic for all involved.
OK, next up, Theory No. 5: It’s the Politics, Stupid.
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* “Pure” here meaning not only reliable and untainted, but also unitary and wholly without internal conflict, tension, contradiction or paradox. This approach requires that revelation must never contradict or seem to contradict itself. Any such contradictions, real or apparent, would have to be resolved arbitrarily, since this approach provides for — and allows for — no principle or mechanism that would enable us to reconcile or decide between competing revelatory trump cards.
** It bears repeating here that Marshall Hall’s claim of the pre-eminence of scripture is bogus. He claims, as all Unilateralists do, that he is treating the Bible with great respect as the final arbiter of all things. But this is not what he is really doing. What he is really doing is making his interpretation of the Bible the final arbiter of all things. Therefore what he is ultimately arguing is that he, Marshall Hall, is the final arbiter of all things. His assertion, in other words, is not really that the Bible is inerrant and infallible, but that he is. The ability to make such a claim about oneself without bursting out laughing requires about six different kinds of denial plus a heavy dose of duplicity.
*** It occurs to me here that this discussion inevitably leads us to the story of “Highway 61 Revisited” and to Abraham’s sacrifice on Mt. Moriah. Here we have the ultimate example of revelation in conflict with reason, experience and tradition (not to mention in conflict with conscience, sanity and every other example of revelation). I can’t find the Kierkegaard just now, so we’ll have to save that topic for a future post.