Apologizing for the culture wars, moving toward secular sexualities

Apologizing for the culture wars, moving toward secular sexualities June 21, 2013

The apology of Exodus International’s Alan Chambers toward LGBTQ+ populations yesterday and the Exodus board’s announcement that the organization will shut down has produced a variety of stunned reactions. As an organization devoted to ex-gay reparative therapy, these actions completely rocked everything for which the organization seemed to stand. Of course, this was only a small surprise for those following the Exodus story since last year, when Exodus issued a statement renouncing Exodus’s commitment to ex-gay reparative therapy as the way through which the church should care for those with same-sex attraction. In other words, the writing really seemed to be on the wall for Exodus since 2012. But still, Chambers and his board’s radical actions might still have seemed to come from out of left field for many who thought that evangelicals staked their identity claim on trying to ‘pray the gay away.’

As a result, there have been a variety of responses. The framework for these responses has been described as the American culture wars. Coined by sociologist James Davison Hunter in a 1991 book, the ‘culture wars’ refer to the attempt by social conservatives and social liberals alike to control the American public sphere and to enshrine their values as normative American cultural values, discrediting their opponents’ ideologies often through scientific evidence that supports their particular ideology. (Surprise! Most evangelicals fighting on the right of the culture wars often used social scientific claims to make their case. Ironically enough, many of the supposedly ‘secular’ people fighting on the left used a ton of theological assertions to justify their positions. How it really was possible for the ‘right’ to be framed as solidly ‘religious’ and the ‘left’ to be framed as solidly ‘secular’ is still a bit beyond my comprehension.)

While Exodus’s decisions might seem itself to be a sort of coup de grace to these ‘culture wars,’ I really wouldn’t be so optimistic. To be sure, many of the responses were congratulatory, though these congratulations seem to read as a list of the usual suspects of progressive Christians such as Christian Piatt at Sojourners, Alise Write, and Rachel Held Evans. In turn, the dissenters read like a list of the usual suspects over on the theologically conservative (and often neo-Reformed) side of things, such as Doug Wilson, Sam Storms, and the Southern Baptist Convention. Christopher Yuan has now also spoken to the Christian Post, saying that because he was not a participant in conversion therapy, he can’t comment on that, though he agrees that sexuality conversion is not a Christian goal in the first place. On the other hand, the secular National Association for Research and Therapy on Homosexuality (NARTH) is now emphasizing that it is a scientifically-based organization (as opposed to a faith-based one), and that since Exodus’s 2012 statement against reparative therapy, NARTH has been at odds with Exodus.

So if this does not signal the end of the culture wars in America, then what does all this mean? In other words: how are we supposed to situate these statements in the larger Christian conversation at present on sexuality?

As with many of these posts, what I’ll try to do in this post is to situate the apology within the larger conversation about homosexuality within Christian circles since 2008. By the end of this post, I hope you’ll see that this is a ripe time for the conversation to move forward past the putative ‘culture wars.’ In other words, Chambers’s comments don’t signal the end of the culture wars, but they demonstrate that the debate has moved now to whether the culture wars are worth fighting in the first place. While the culture wars have been a sort of normative framing for many conversations about sexuality since the 1980s (and arguably earlier than that), it’s gotten to the point where the so-called ‘conservative’ and so-called ‘liberals’ caricatures of each other with neat-and-tidy labels (e.g. ‘pro-gay,’ ‘anti-gay’) are just becoming untenable on both sides.

Just to give away the end to eliminate any chance of being misread and labeled as siding with either of the two putative sides of the ‘culture wars’: my hope is that the new conversation that will push beyond the culture wars will center on the very interesting notion of ‘secular sexualities,’ a concept that many scholars and activists have lamented as extremely underexplored. But there is hope. Scholars have been been revamping the definition of the ‘secular’ altogether as a set of political and theological ideologies that attempt to construct a neat division between public and private spheres in modern life. It is through this new secularization framework that we should be talking about secular sexualities, for this new conversation promises to bring forward directions for how we can stop playing into the polarization wrought by the culture wars and instead bring the culture wars themselves to an end.

In short: of course, Chambers’s remarks don’t bring the culture wars to an end. That’s our job.

Back to the apology.

What you should know is that since 2008, there has been quite a bit of soul-searching and debate about homosexuality within evangelical Christian circles. While the mainline Protestant denominational debates have been widely covered in both the secular and the mainline Protestant press (say, the Anglican Communion crisis, the Presbyterian Church, the United Methodist Church, and the Growing Healthy Churches spat with the American Baptists), the evangelicals might have remained caricatured as all standing firm on their convictions if it had not been for the fantastic journalistic talents of younger writers who began their careers at the evangelical flagship magazine, Christianity Today. Thinking especially of Religion News Service‘s national correspondent Sarah Pulliam Bailey and of the feisty religion fact-checking services of GetReligion, these younger evangelicals have been fascinated by the emergence of debate in evangelical schools regarding Gay-Straight Alliance clubs and the furor around the Boy Scouts’s position changing on homosexuality.

In other words: since around 2008, these younger evangelical writers have noticed that there is not one evangelical position on sexuality. It’s up for debate, and the debate is not between who’s ‘pro-gay’ or ‘anti-gay.’ It’s around the question: how should evangelicals relate to LGBTQ+ populations?

The political context here is the November 2008 federal and state elections, in which many of the themes of the culture wars came to a head in the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama and the passage of California’s Proposition 8 to amend the California state constitution to recognize marriage only between one man and one woman in the state. Fighting ferociously against ‘liberals’ who were caricatured as people who were promiscuous both in their welfare provisions and sexual proclivities (Bill Clinton was Exhibit A), political conservatives attacked Obama’s campaign promises to reconstruct a federal-based social safety net especially in health care, immigration, and education reform. Within California, these campaigns also kept in mind the actions of San Francisco’s Mayor Gavin Newsom, who had kicked off the same-sex marriage debate in 2004 by telling his city clerk to issue gender-neutral marriage licences in the city. These actions were invalidated because of legal procedural technicalities in 2004 (see Lockyer v. City and County of San Francisco as well as the other related cases in the California Supreme Court), but the merits of same-sex marriage became a four-year legal debate in California courts, culminating in the decision in In re Marriage cases to allow same-sex marriage in the state because the court ruled that restrictions that privileged opposite-sex marriage were discriminatory and thus unconstitutional. Anticipating that decision, social conservatives associated with the Family Research Council brought a grassroots petition onto the state ballot to amend the state constitution itself to restrict marriage to an opposite-sex institution. That proposition was Proposition 8, which, after a long campaign from July to November 2008, was narrowly passed by California voters. Two cases were subsequently brought against Proposition 8, one at the state level in Strauss v. Horton (where Proposition 8 was upheld as a valid constitutional amendment), and at the federal level in Perry v. Schwarzenegger (where Proposition 8 was struck down as unconstitutional; the case was subsequently appealed to the Ninth Circuit as Perry v. Brown, and then finally to the Supreme Court as Hollingsworth v. Perry).

The Perry case proved to be a devastating embarrassment to social conservatives. After all, if you remember the Perry v. Schwarzenegger transcripts from the district court trial, organizations like NARTH were implicated as promoting unscientific animus toward LGBTQ+ populations. With the plaintiffs’ star lawyers David Boies and Ted Olson deposing some of Proposition 8’s defenders, Proposition 8’s proponents’ star witnesses for the case pulled out one by one for fear of being publicly embarrassed for some of their unfounded scientific claims about sexuality. Those who were left were framed as not credible as expert witnesses, leading one of the witnesses themselves, David Blankenhorn, to recognize the self-contradictory and unfounded nature of some of his claims on the witness stand, to recant the Institute for American Values’s anti-same-sex marriage stance, and to try to put together a new (albeit very economistic) conversation on marriage. In turn, the arguments that the Proposition 8 proponents have been advancing–namely, that opposite-sex marriage serves a public good by encouraging ‘responsible procreation’–has been increasingly being picked apart because of the very modern circumstances of a) being able to conceive without sexual intercourse and b) being able to act completely ‘irresponsibly’ in sexual behaviour while still being a heterosexual in an opposite-sex marriage.

The fallout from Proposition 8 and the Perry case have provoked a lot of soul-searching among evangelicals. For one, many evangelicals lament the fact that in this political climate, they’re perceived as haters and oppressors, a portrayal that runs completely counter to their evangelical message of love, forgiveness, and liberation. As a result, many American evangelicals have changed course, focusing increasingly on putting an end to economic slavery and sex trafficking while supporting amnesty for undocumented migrants. Moreover, to contest the negative portrayal of evangelicals in the media, many have emphasized their local community work in food banks, community education programs, work with AIDS patients, inner-city poverty work, and recovery groups for alcoholic, drug, and sex addicts. As anthropologist Omri Elisha reports in Moral Ambition, many of these evangelical churches are starting to argue that they have been socially withdrawn for too long and overly focused on politically affecting ‘the culture’ in vague terms without caring for their communities. The push now is toward a radical engagement with local neighbourhoods, leading Martha Pally to herald these movements as emblematic of The New Evangelicals in a very interesting book.

If we want to see Alan Chambers’s apology in a political context, this is it. Indeed, some might take Alan Chambers’s apology and shutting down of Exodus as a wise political calculation in anticipation of the decisions in Windsor v. United States and Hollingsworth v. Perry that many are predicting will usher in same-sex marriage as the law of the land both at federal and state levels. In fact, this is how many political and theological conservatives dissenting from Chambers’s apology are framing the issue: they allege that Chambers has caved into the political pressures of a gay lobby and doesn’t want to be subjected to further political marginalization and outright antipathy when these marriage cases get passed in favour of LGBTQ+ populations.

But typical of the language of the culture wars, these accusations manage to reduce Chambers to a ‘straw man.’ In these allegations, Chambers is like a military traitor, fraternizing with the enemy because he knows he’s fighting a losing battle and finally capitulating to their demands, surrendering himself while the rest of the military is still at war. As a result, these assertions completely ignore the soul-searching happening within evangelical circles and the reframing of evangelical mandates away from doing battle with this vague, amorophous concept called ‘culture.’

In short: American evangelicals themselves have been grappling with what it means to live in a secularizing country and what that means for their evangelical mandate, especially if the way that they were framed in the Proposition 8 campaign and ensuing trial was so embarrassing.

Reframing their mandate around caring for real people in the community and engaging activist circles around what can really defensibly be called ‘oppression’ (that is, human trafficking and economic slavery), many evangelicals have begun to have their own conversation about what it means to care for people if they identify as LGBTQ+. To this end, the publication of several recent books has fueled this debate, especially Jeff Chu’s Does Jesus Really Love Me?, a journalistic search through various evangelical groups over whether they thought God loved him in spite of him being gay. So too, evangelical feminist Rachel Held Evans‘s blog has openly expressed its support of LGBTQ+ people looking for Christians to welcome them instead of condemning them. These developments have been paralleled also by the growth of groups like The Gospel Coalition and the reconsolidation of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood under the leadership of Owen Strachan, which seek to refocus Christians around core evangelical theological tenets, including a firm position that holds that at a theological (not merely social scientific) level, any sexual activity outside of marriage between one man and one woman deviates from God’s original design in creation. For these organizations, anything that affirms ‘homosexuality’ as an acceptable Christian practice is a theological error. (The line between inclination and actual practice seems blurry here, probably partly to do with these organizations’ concerted effort to combat ‘lustful thoughts’ more generally.)

In short: the new question for evangelicals has been, how do evangelicals as self-conscious Christians care for their LGBTQ+ neighbours? What is now indisputable is that self-aware homophobic rhetoric falls far beyond the pale of good evangelical practice, but what is up for debate is how community care can be squared with theological convictions.

In the midst of this debate, we have to pay close attention to the work of Justin Lee’s Gay Christian Network. A self-confessed evangelical, Lee established the Gay Christian Network to promote conversation on sexuality in churches and on university campuses. Refusing to frame the debate as ‘gays v. Christians’ Lee reframes the parties of the conversation as between what he calls ‘Side A’ (it’s OK to be gay and in a monogamous same-sex relationship) and ‘Side B’ (it’s OK to be gay and celibate) Christians. Not only has he published a manifesto with Jericho Books detailing his personal story of coming out and theologically grappling with his homosexuality, but he has reached out to Jim Daly, the new president of Focus on the Family, the archetypal family values organization founded by psychologist James Dobson, Jr., to promote childhood discipline and traditional marriage over against what Dobson saw as a widespread social laxity regarding family cohesion and the emergence of a putative gay movement bent on destroying the family. In an open letter to Daly, Lee argues that while the organization has helped families with their private psychological relations, it has perpetrated unspeakable verbal abuse on LGBTQ+ populations, caricaturing them as their nemeses without listening to them.

That’s exactly where Chambers’s apology is coming from. Chambers’s apology is almost a direct response to Lee’s letter to Daly. Beginning the letter with his account of how he once inadvertently caused a four-car pile-up accident when he was younger, Chambers apologizes on the basis that he thought that he was caring for LGBTQ+ populations, but that the expression of that care was received as hurt and hate by LGBTQ+ people with devastating consequences, such as mental illness and suicide on the part of those for whom they tried to care.

In short: this is not a politically calculated move, although the larger evangelical identity reframing and all of those attendant debates were certainly politically provoked. Chambers is not caving in to political pressure. Chambers is thinking with the bulk of American evangelicals who have been searching their souls in order to examine whether the culture wars in fact led them to be perceived as haters and oppressors when they were trying to care for people. He is not caving to one side of the culture wars. He’s seeking to bring them to an end.

So here’s the next step.

As some groups lay down their arms from the culture wars and cease to caricature each other, what may emerge is a new conversation, one long called for by revisionist theorists of secularization. This agenda would focus on the long understudied conceptualization of secular sexualities (or in feminist theorist Joan Wallach Scott’s clever formulation, ‘sexularism’).

In other words, here’s where academics, whether ‘theological’ or ‘secular,’ have an enormous public good to contribute.

So here’s what’s going on in academia.

The notion of ‘secularization’ in the academy is undergoing a bit of a crisis and a sea-change at present. (Actually, ‘religion’ is doing no better.) While those on the right of the ‘culture wars’ used to frame ‘secular academia’ as a place where students were brainwashed against the religion of their parents and their traditional values, a very interesting conversation within academia that has been going on for quite some time pertains to what ‘secularization’ is in the first place. As a new consensus is emerging (see the SSRC’s Immanent Frame blog), people like anthropologist Talal Asad and philosopher Charles Taylor have said that secularization is really a set of constructive political ideologies that help people divide what’s public from what’s private. In these categories, the public is secular insofar as that’s where you act civilly, have rational discussions, and live your life as a productive citizen contributing to the growth of the economy and to discussions of policies that the state passes. This public life can be completely disconnected from one’s private life, which includes stuff like sexuality and religion, because your private practices of pleasure-seeking and questing for transcendence have little bearing on your secular contributions to the public sphere. Within this framework, that’s why it doesn’t make sense to discriminate against people on the basis of either religion or sexual orientation: these private attachments should have no bearing on whether they can do a job well.

But even though all of this works at an ideological level, academics recognize that life is never so neat-and-tidy. Discrimination happens. Private lives seep into public affairs. People can say one thing and do another. The ideology is never completely enshrined in everyday practice. And it’s to that end that academics have been asking: what does secularization do to sexuality and religion? In other words, when ideologies make sexuality and religion purely private, what does that actually do to sexuality and religion? How does it reshape and reconstitute what ‘sexuality’ and ‘religion’ mean? How are ‘sexuality’ and ‘religion’ put to work in everyday lives within this framework? As these questions need much more further probing, both Talal Asad and Charles Taylor call for the sexuality question to be explored in earnest at both the end of the first part of Formations of the Secular and at the very end of A Secular Age.

It’s around this question that the revisionist theorists of secularization that I just mentioned are coming together with feminist and queer scholars to talk about what the ‘secular’ actually is. Granted, much of the feminist and queer studies project in the 1980s and 1990s focused on building feminist and queer alliances to fight conservative, homophobic powers (thus fighting to the left of the culture wars). A particularly interesting manifesto that has emerged from these efforts is Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini’s Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Toleration, in which Jakobsen and Pellegrini argue that the project of secularization is still incomplete as the state’s regulation of sexual minorities still revolves around conservative Protestant theologies (an argument that they take into their 2008 anthology Secularisms). However, there has been some soul-searching within these activist academic circles as well. Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety questioned whether feminist scholarship was able to grapple with nonsecular, post-colonial populations like the Egyptian women’s mosque movement who were using what might be labeled as ‘social conservatism’ to contest the oppressiveness of secularist regimes that were dumbing down their theological practices in an effort to subjectify them. Similarly, Jasbir Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages challenged the success of gay rights movements as they integrated into national human rights rhetoric (what Puar called ‘homonationalism’), ‘pinkwashing’ nations that were perpetrating human rights abuses especially against ‘Muslim terrorists’ by touting themselves as gay-friendly nations and human rights champions. This has arguably led the senior doyenne of feminist and queer studies, Judith Butler, to question whether progressives have an overly straight-forward account of ‘secular time’ that leads them to marginalize immigrant populations who are purportedly more socially conservative (more on this some other time).

In short: this soul-searching among feminist and queer scholars has led them to join the conversation that questions ‘secularization’ as a set of political ideologies. (For an introduction, see the SSRC’s The Powers of Religion in the Public Sphere.)

This is where academic work on secular sexualities will prove to be an enormous public good. This is not an ivory tower discussion. This is an academic conversation that we’d like you to join because, in a way, you are already part of it.

In fact, this is precisely the conversation that evangelicals have been having. To care for their ‘communities’ is to reframe what they mean by the ‘secular world.’ To care for LGBTQ+ populations is to ask how ‘secular ideologies’ have affected the construction of sexuality. To wrestle with what it means to do this sort of ‘care’ is to have precisely the sort of conversation that academics have been having in the wake of the crisis around ‘secularization.’

In other words, we academics can help.

Unfortunately, even right now, that’s not how things are perceived. The anti-intellectual rhetoric that has often floated around the public square is that taxpayers should not have to pay for academics to study this ridiculous stuff on sexuality because it’s just not useful for the economy, for the public conversation, and ‘for our children.’ But framed in the mode of ‘secular sexualities,’ the whole point of this struggling academic conversation is to reframe the public conversation away from the culture wars to a more productive conversation on how secularization touches all of our lives and every part of it, including our anthropological understanding of sexuality.

So we need your help. Please help us by refusing to spread the rumours that what academics in the humanities and social sciences do around topics like this are wasting taxpayers’ money. Please help us by correcting people every time they say that ‘secular mainstream academia’ has a ‘left-liberal bias’ that is bent on ‘corrupting our next generation.’ Please help us by telling people that because you are already having this conversation, we academics would like to contribute to your conversation by making it more informed about these very complex concepts of secularization and sexuality (among other things).

In other words: let’s move the public conversation away from the polarizing culture wars and toward a more productive discussion on what secularization processes have done to notions of sexuality. That’s what Alan Chambers is doing. It’s not because he has realized that he’s fighting a losing battle and is now caving in to political pressure. It’s because he’s realized that fighting these battles was downright destructive in the first place.

And now, he’s moving on to a more productive conversation on secular sexualities. We academics are there too. Maybe we should talk.


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