(I’m collecting and recollecting some older posts in the hopes of possibly bundling some of them into something book-like. So since I spent a chunk of yesterday revisiting the posts below, I figured I’d re-post them here in slightly repolished form.)
A 2007 poll conducted by the Barna Group revealed some remarkable developments in the public perception of American evangelical Christians:
Today, 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. Moreover, they claim that the church has not helped them apply the biblical teaching on homosexuality to their friendships with gays and lesbians.
The respondents identify the key matter here: an antipathy that goes “beyond” any traditional opposition to extramarital sex, an unprecedented and inordinate “excessive contempt … toward gays and lesbians.” And this contempt is perceived as central to the meaning and substance of Christianity — the “most common perception” of the faith for Christians and non-Christians alike.
This is a change, a new thing, a recent and radical alteration. It is an astonishing and deeply weird development.
The great creeds of the church make no mention of homosexuality — let alone singling it out for particular and pre-eminent condemnation or suggesting that such condemnation plays a central role in the faith. Yet now the majority of Christians and non-Christians alike view this as the primary defining characteristic of Christian faith, practice and spirituality.
The Bible gives us the word “shibboleth,”* but the Bible is more than a book of shibboleths. And the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of the kingdom of God, was never supposed to be about just listing a bunch of shibboleths that distinguished Us from Them.
So how did this happen? 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,” 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.
But lately, many American evangelical preachers seem to 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 for comfort — 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, a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people? Well then, um, we’re heterosexual.
Dazzled yet? Just look at us – we’re a community of teetotalling, non-dancing straight people. Who could resist joining us?
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. Chesterton’s parish-priest sleuth is able to solve those 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, 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.)
Theory No. 2: Inner Demons
This theory has the virtue of being true. Or, at least, of being true in some cases — some very notable, high-profile cases.
The idea here is that many of the loudest, angriest and most single-minded preachers of the anti-gay gospel doth protest too much. They are self-loathing closet cases, denouncing homosexuality because they are homosexuals and they hate this about themselves. From Roy Cohn to Ted Haggard and Larry Craig, there are dozens of verifiable examples of this dynamic — and many, many more suspected but unconfirmed cases. Ted Haggard, the former pastor of a Colorado mega-church and former head of the National Association of Evangelicals was forced to leave both of those positions after the public learned of his longtime relationship with a gay prostitute. Haggard’s description of that secret side of his life succinctly summarizes the inner-demons theory: “There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I’ve been warring against it all of my adult life.”
So, clearly, this is a real phenomenon. We’ve seen so many examples of this in recent years, so many self-loathing closet-cases exposed as members of the anti-gay leadership, that it reminds me of that scene in Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, when the protagonist succeeds in infiltrating the secret society of anarchists only to look around the table and realize that every single member of its leadership is, like him, an undercover police officer.
Yet despite the startlingly large number of cases, it’s surely not quite as pervasive as Thursday’s dilemma. It can’t be true that every officer in the anti-gay army is secretly a member of the group it seeks to oppose. The religious right/social conservative movement certainly seems to include a larger-than-average number of closeted homosexuals in its leadership, but even if the movement is gayer than Disney World, we’re still only talking about a minority of its leaders and followers (a significant minority, but still less than half).
A significant number of leading social conservatives also seem to be warring against inner demons that have nothing to do with homosexuality. These folks are tormented by an impressive variety of freaky heterosexual appetites. Consider Louisiana Sen. David Vitter’s alleged diaper-play with prostitutes. Or the deeply sad case of the former aide to Jerry Falwell who was found dead due to a baroque autoerotic asphyxia mishap involving, according to an autopsy report posted on thesmokinggun.com, “two complete wet suits, including a face mask, diving gloves and slippers, rubberized underwear, and a head mask.”***
The interesting thing about these folks is that instead of lashing out at those who share their particular appetites, like Ted Haggard did, they turn their animosity toward homosexuals too. I can’t begin to explain the psychology at work in this bit of substitution, but in their case it seems something like a mix of the inner demon theory and the safe target theory is at work.
The repressed and tortured psyches of Ted Haggard and David Vitter also don’t explain why so many have been willing to follow these leaders in their “warring against” their inner demons. Their followers can’t all be self-loathing closet cases. Nor does this theory explain why others with apparently milquetoast, plain-vanilla sexual appetites — people like Pat Robertson or the late Jerry Falwell — should be even more vociferous in their condemnations of the Big Gay Menace. For them it seems less a matter of self-loathing and projection than simply your garden-variety hatin’ on the outsider.
So while I’m certain that the inner demons theory is valid in many particular cases, I think it’s more of a contributing factor than a sufficient explanation of the entire phenomenon of gay-hatin’s newfound prominence as the central perception of American Christianity.
So let’s turn next to consider the theory favored by the gay-haters themselves.
Theory No. 3: The Innocent Backlash
This theory requires our serious attention because it is so widely held — or, at least, widely claimed.
Before taking a closer look at this explanation, we need to underscore the particular claims made by the respondents to the Barna survey quoted above. American Christianity has come to be perceived, first and foremost, as “anti-homosexual.” This is not simply due to a moral/ethical teaching that precludes any sexual activity outside of monogamous, heterosexual matrimony – Barna’s respondents explicitly stated that the anti-homosexuality that characterizes American Christianity goes “beyond” that, into the realm of “excessive contempt.” The meaning of the word “excessive” here is clear: the contempt for homosexuals that characterizes American Christianity exceeds mere ethical/theological objection; it is inappropriately severe; it is disproportionate, inordinate, intemperate.
Proponents of the innocent backlash theory thus have to begin by arguing that this perception is inaccurate — that nine out of 10 young non-Christians and four out of five young churchgoers have somehow gotten the wrong idea. The contempt American Christianity displays toward homosexuals, these proponents say, is just the right amount.
Christians, this theory holds, do not regard homosexuals as particularly or especially deserving of condemnation, it’s just that homosexual activists have become so vocal in promoting their radical homosexual agenda that — purely in response — Christians have been forced to become equally vocal in reply. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction – that’s elementary physics. Christians have simply been reacting to the radical homosexual agenda, and this reaction has been equal and opposite (and therefore not at all “excessive,” despite the mistaken impression of 80 percent of young churchgoers).
This explanation for the (mis)perception that American Christianity is inappropriately anti-homosexual is thus something that any grade-school child can understand: They started it.
“They” (gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons) started this disagreement and we American Christians are merely reacting, responding, replying — that is the essence of this theory. This explanation is almost universally cited among anti-homosexual leaders of the religious right, but it is also widely cited by go-slow “liberals” who urge homosexuals seeking equal rights to marry or to serve openly in the military not to push too hard for these goals. Push too hard, they say, insist too strenuously that you be treated equally, and you invite just the sort of backlash that Barna records here.
This sounds a great deal like a warning to homosexuals to “remember your place” — a warning that echoes similar counsels of caution against an earlier struggle for equal rights. The best response to such warnings is that of Martin Luther King Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was “well timed,” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the [word] “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
But the more pertinent argument in King’s letter is his correction of the confusion of cause and effect at the heart of every innocent backlash theory:
You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects, and does not grapple with underlying causes.
“They started it,” is a claim of fact. The legitimacy and validity of the innocent backlash theory rests on whether that claim is true or false.
And that claim is false.
“Radical homosexual activists” pushing their “radical agenda” are no more the cause of the current disagreement than the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was the cause of the conflict in Birmingham.
The innocent backlash theory says that “excessive contempt” for homosexuals is a consequence — a predictable, reasonable, defensible consequence — of homosexuals refusing to remember their place. Or, in other words, refusing to accept their place as less than equal. The backlash is thus, inescapably, a defense of inequality. Even if these “radical homosexual activists” lived up to the rudest and most aggressively impolitic caricature drawn by their critics this would still be the case.
Proponents of innocent backlash theory recognize this, and they realize that a defense of inequality is indefensible. Thus they have gone to great lengths to try to reframe the matter not as one of equal rights, but as one of “special rights.” It’s hard to figure out exactly what, if anything, this is supposed to mean. This is semantic sleight of hand, just like the larger attempt here to downgrade “reactionary” to merely “reactive.” Apparently second-class citizens who demand to be treated equally are asking for something “special.”
The effort to relabel equal rights as “special rights” strikes me as an unironic affirmation of Anatole France’s ironic description of “The majestic equality of the law, which forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges or to beg in the streets.”
Ultimately, the innocent backlash theory is incapable of answering our question because it refuses to do so. That question, again, is how did it come to be the case that an “excessive contempt” for homosexuals is the “most common perception” of American Christianity? The innocent backlash theory rejects this question, insisting that this contempt is not excessive, and that this common perception is simply mistaken. The fact that this perception is shared by 80 percent of young churchgoers — people whose understanding of American Christianity comes from direct experience and from what they have been explicitly taught to believe in American churches — apparently only means that four out of five young churchgoers are too stupid to understand what they have been shown and taught.
I find that implausible. The question is legitimate. The refusal to answer it is not.
Rereading the above, I’m not sure I’ve been as charitable as I’d like to have been in evaluating this theory. I have a hard time being charitable toward those who would argue that any degree of contempt can be less than “excessive,” or that blaming the victim is acceptable so long as you do it in God’s name.
Theory No. 4: The Exegetical Panic Defense
In American popular culture, the most accurate and affectionate portrayal of an evangelical Christian is Ned Flanders, Homer’s good-natured neighbor on The Simpsons. Ned is 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 distinguished above all by “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 one of my favorite eccentric cranks, Marshall Hall, self-published author and proprietor of the website 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 reason, experience or tradition. Sola scriptura is his motto. 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
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 can 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. 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.
Theory No. 5: It’s the politics, stupid
In trying to explain this weird new pre-eminence of the Doctrine of Hatin’ Gays it doesn’t matter that most Christians believe homosexuality is a sin or that most Christians believe that the Bible says it’s wrong. That could explain it being a perception, but not the “most common perception.” Mere theological opposition cannot explain “excessive contempt.”
The Bible, after all, says a lot of things are wrong: gossip, swearing oaths, retaliation, lending at interest or even lending with the expectation of repayment. None of those is the “most common perception” of American Christianity. None of those is perceived, really, as having much of anything to do with American Christianity. If you meet an American who does not believe in retaliation, you’re more likely to think she’s a Buddhist than that she’s a Christian. If you meet an American who opposes lending at interest, you’ll probably assume he’s a Muslim. And if you meet an American who lends without expectation of repayment and never engages in gossip, then … well, actually, this being America, you won’t ever meet such a person.
The above examples aren’t entirely fair. All of those things are expressly and unambiguously prohibited and condemned in the Bible, but they’re not really considered sins by American Christians.****** So, OK, lets look at some other examples that everyone still regards as full-fledged sins.
How about lying and stealing? These are prohibited by the ninth and eighth commandments (or the eighth and seventh, for my Catholic and Lutheran friends). American Christians believe these are sins. American Christians are morally, ethically and theologically opposed to them. Yet neither “anti-lying” nor “anti-stealing” turns up as a common description of these Christians, let alone as the most common perception. And in neither case would this opposition be characterized as “excessive contempt” for liars or thieves.
So these moral, ethical and theological considerations and concerns about what the Bible teaches are beside the point. They are neither necessary nor sufficient to explain why excessive contempt for homosexuals should be the dominant attribute of American Christianity.
It has to be something else.
I think it is. I think it has very little to do with religion and everything to do with politics.
The perception that Barna documents is, I think, primarily a perception of evangelical Christians. The Barna Group is an organization based in the evangelical subculture, and while they provide generally reliable data, they are also prone, at times, to the evangelical tendency to use “Christian” and “evangelical Christian” interchangeably. Evangelical Christians also tend to be the most outspokenly sectarian, so this interchangeable terminology is often lazily reflected in the media as well. Barna’s survey respondents clearly weren’t thinking of the Christians who attend Metropolitan Community Churches or the United Churches of Christ. And I think the survey would have produced quite different results if respondents had been asked specifically about the black church, or Presbyterians or even Roman Catholics.
So let’s consider evangelical American Christians in particular. Evangelicals tend to be earnest, generous and accustomed to listening to people in authority. They also tend to be sheltered, ingenuous and suspicious of intellectualism. All of that makes them particularly susceptible to hucksters and demagogues. The history of hucksterism in American evangelicalism is long and storied and sad, but I’m more concerned here with the demagoguery. American evangelicalism in the late-20th and early-21st centuries has been shaped by demagogues.
The most visible and influential leaders in American evangelicalism are not theologians or clergymen like Billy Graham, John Stott or J.I. Packer, but rather parachurch activists and media barons like Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell and James Dobson — the self-proclaimed spokesmen and self-appointed magisterium of the religious right. Such leaders are not mainly about the spiritual growth and well-being of their followers, nor are they about spreading the gospel. They are about amassing and consolidating power.
The religious right portrays itself as a religious movement seeking to reshape politics, but in fact it is a political movement seeking to reshape religion. Its agenda — at which it has been distressingly successful — has always been to turn a church into a voting bloc.
The demagogues of the religious right pursue power — political and economic power — by preying on fears and prejudices. Their power depends upon the perception of barbarians at the gate, on the perception that some menacing Other is on the verge of destroying all that their followers hold dear. This Other, the demagogue’s scapegoat who must die for our salvation, can’t be something that presents a genuine danger, because that would expose the demagogue’s impotence to protect his followers from real threats.
Homosexuals make an ideal scapegoat for the demagogues manipulating and fleecing their evangelical flock. The safe-target dynamic ensures that your scapegoat isn’t someone your sheep are likely to know or empathize with, and the innocent-backlash claim provides a fig leaf that allows the demagogues to claim that the nastiness they’re promoting is justifiable.
The only real difficulty with demonizing homosexuals is that they’re not actually demons. Homosexuals don’t actually present any kind of threat at all to American evangelicals. The demagogues overcome this obstacle by doing what demagogues are best at: lying.
Homosexuals, they claim, are a threat to Marriage (as an institution in the abstract), a threat to The Family (as an institution in the abstract) and a threat to the Word of God (ditto). Reality doesn’t support such claims, so they embellish reality. They claim that same-sex marriage would destroy the institution of marriage because, um, mumblemumblemumble pound pulpit, it just would! Same-sex marriage, they claim, would mean your church would be forced to perform gay weddings.******* They claim that hate-crimes legislation protecting homosexuals from violent intimidation would mean that pastors could be arrested for quoting from Leviticus. They claim ENDA — the bill that would prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation — would mean your church could be legally forced to hire a gay pastor.
Such legal protections would mean no such thing, and the demagogues know they would mean no such thing. The demagogues’ lies are deliberate, intentional and lovingly crafted to nurture fear and the unthinking allegiance that fear can create.
It is no accident that excessive contempt for homosexuals has become the most common perception of American evangelicalism. That contempt has been deliberately nurtured, fed and guided by demagogues seeking to manufacture fear that can be channeled into political power.
By laying so much blame on these demagogues, it might seem like I’m trying to excuse or exonerate the rank-and-file evangelicals who follow them, but I don’t think this really provides them with room to boast. I am suggesting that, left to their own devices, those evangelicals probably wouldn’t be quite as contemptuous and bigoted as they’ve allowed themselves to become due to their unquestioning allegiance to ill-chosen leaders. This contempt and bigotry, the argument suggests, isn’t something they would have pursued quite so single-mindedly on their own. It is merely something they willingly embraced at the behest of leaders who preyed on their fear and naivete.******** They were just following orders.
That’s not much of a defense and it’s certainly not grounds for congratulations.
The suggestion that evangelicals have fallen prey to demagogues presents a difficult problem. It means they’ve been duped, and no one likes to admit they’ve been duped — particularly when, as is so often the case, the con works by exploiting something less than admirable in the victims’ character. This is why crime statistics on scams and con games aren’t wholly reliable. Many victims are reluctant — out of shame and embarrassment — to report these crimes. Admitting that you handed over your money due to greed or foolishness is not easy to do.
Admitting that you’ve been manipulated by duplicitous demagogues exploiting your own fears, insecurities and prejudices isn’t easy to do, either, so I’m afraid my message here for American evangelicals is something of a bitter pill that I don’t know how to sugarcoat. The current situation, represented by the findings of that Barna Group survey, is not something anyone can be proud of. Forced to confront this reality, evangelicals will have to provide an apology of one kind or another.
That word “apology” has two meanings. It can mean an admission of fault, an acceptance of responsibility accompanied by a plea for pardon and an attempt to make restitution. Or it can mean almost the opposite — a formal, defiant defense. The demagogues offer the latter sort of apology for the gay-hatin’ gospel Barna identifies. Whether or not the rank and file of evangelicals will continue to follow them remains to be seen, but the other kind of apology is their only other option.
Hating gay people with “excessive contempt” has become the defining characteristic of American Christianity. American Christians must either repent and ask forgiveness, or double-down and embrace their new identity as contemptuous antichrists.
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* The condensed version of the story, from Judges 12:
“Art thou an Ephraimite?”
“Um, uh … No?”
“Prove it. Say ‘shibboleth.’”
“Aha! Die Ephraimite!”
** 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 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.
*** The easy joke here would be to say of this poor minister, as they always do of mountain-climbing- or skiing-accident casualties, that at least he died doing something he loved. But the truth is that he died doing something he seems to have hated, yet couldn’t stop himself from doing. (The second wet suit, after all, suggests that the first one wasn’t really doing it for him.) Unable to come to terms with his own inner freak, he declared war on everybody else’s. Misery loves company, they say, though the sad truth is that misery is pretty miserable no matter how much of it you manage to inflict or project onto others.
**** “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 he is doing no such thing. 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.
****** These sins were not downgraded due to any conscious theological decision, nor due to any explicit attempt to justify American Christians’ disregarding the clear meaning of the text. They are not considered sins primarily because of cultural reasons that are rarely, if ever, explored by those within American culture.
******* You know, just like when President Clinton sent the National Guard into St. Patrick’s Cathedral to force Archbishop O’Connor to bless the wedding of two divorced Roman Catholics. (To clarify, no, that never happened. And it never could happen. Religious groups are free to perform weddings only for members in good standing of their respective communities, and they are free to define for themselves such membership in good standing however they see fit. The legal recognition of same-sex marriage would not change that.)
******** H.L. Mencken’s ungenerous definition of a demagogue: “One who will preach doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.” In his defense, the old fart was, I think, hoping that by ridiculing suckers for being suckers he might provoke them to stop being suckers.