Being Evangelical, Being Gay

Being Evangelical, Being Gay June 3, 2020

The rise of a gay rights movement coincided with the emergence of the religious right in the Republican Party — both started in the 1970s and made sizable dents on electoral politics in the 1980s and beyond. Someone might well argue that they fed off each other as positions on opposite sides of the culture wars that allowed Republicans and Democrats — who moved the needle little in different directions over the economy, military, and foreign policy — to campaign as if the party differences mattered.

Maybe more important for the influence that gays and evangelicals had on late twentieth-century American politics was the way both groups challenged and toppled a basic distinction between public and private life that liberal societies have generally assumed. Andrew Sullivan explains the gay side of this dynamic in his 1995 book, Virtually Normal. But his reflections apply almost as much to evangelicals and their own conception of personal identity:

For a conservative politics of homosexualilty to make sense, it has to be able to demarcate homosexuality into two easily distinguishable areas: public and private. It has to operate in a society that is comfortable with htis distinction, in a society in which social norms easily dictate a public discomfort with homosexuality and an easy-going private tolerance. (120)

The same applies to evangelicals in the sense that non-evangelical Americans could well be uncomfortable with religious displays in the office or public school class room or even around the work-room coffee pot. To bring up topics from last night’s home Bible study at work, or even more uncomfortable — to try to evangelize in a professional work setting was to violate the norms governing what was acceptable. (A very good depiction of this dilemma for evangelicals comes from the movie, The Big Kahuna, which is well worth seeing even if Kevin Spacey remains cancelled, since it shows a young evangelical engineer at a sales convention who does a better job selling Jesus than industrial lubricants.) Some parts of a person’s life were considered private and so not mentioned in public spaces. Whether good or bad, that arrangement prevailed for gays and evangelicals until the last three decades or so of the twentieth century.

Sullivan explains why homosexuals became frustrated with this distinction. It applies surprisingly well to evangelicals in the era of Jimmy Carter and the middle decades of Billy Graham’s career:

[The distinction between private toleration and public disapproval] exploded in part because homosexuals themselves challenged the distinction between their private acts and public personae. They argued that homosexuality was an emotional orientation, like heterosexuality; that is presupposed a full and integrated life that could not be easily bifurcated. And the dignity of that full life did not tolerate the notion that it should be shrouded in secrecy, treated with any more discretion than a heterosexual life, or euphemized into invisibility. To tell a homosexual to keep his identity secret in public was equivalent to telling a heterosexual that she should never mention her husband or children in public, or tell of common activities, or relate any stories that might indicate her involvement in a sexual and emotional relationship with someone of the opposite sex. . . . It was, in short, a preposterous burden for any self-respecting human being to bear. [125]

Some may think this is a poor analogy to being born again, but substitute for Sullivan’s words, “sexual” and “emotional,” “spiritual” and “biblical,” and the parallels may look stronger. And think about Sullivan’s point that sexual orientation must not “be shrouded in secrecy” and compare that to the evangelical song which says, “hide it under a bushel? No!” The integrated life that gays wanted to make public was the same point that evangelicals were making when they said that their faith was not merely a part of their identity. Devotion to Christ affects an evangelicals’ entire being. That is why she cannot isolate faith from politics. When an evangelical runs for office or goes into the voting booth, she remains a believer who strives to make Christ Lord of every part of her life.

One point that could be made in light of Sullivan’s argument is that a return to the public-private distinction might be a good way out of some of the predicaments Americans face in these polarized times. A public life that kept private preferences and assumptions private might be a way to negotiate a common life where citizens and residents thought more about their similarities than personal differences.

But perhaps the more important point is that if Americans are much more tolerant of homosexuals than they used to be, maybe they could try to be as accommodating of evangelicals. If not, then maybe someone could explain (or start a conversation that leads to an explanation) why homosexuality is less threatening than evangelicalism.


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