Recently I mentioned offhandedly that I’d run across a fascinating paper about how Christians use something called conditional acceptance to try to maintain control over a culture that is slipping out of their grasp more quickly with every passing day. I wanted to talk more about that paper today, because I’ve been noticing for a while that Christians sure do this a lot–and it’s very far from their stated goal of loving humanity.
Possibly the Best Article Name EVER.
The paper is called “‘Oh My Gosh, I Sound Like a Horrible Person’: Contemporary Christians and the Conditional Acceptance of Sexual and Gender Diversity” and it appears in a peer-reviewed academic journal called Symbolic Interaction. And let’s start by saying that this title alone makes me laugh like a cheeky monkey (second place goes to “You Probably Think This Paper’s About You: Narcissists’ Perceptions of Their Personality and Reputation”).
Symbolic interactionism is a branch of sociology that deals with how people construct personas to interact with others, and then–through that social interaction–find meaning. It’s about how we construct worldviews, create and curate individuality through social actions and then how we view the world through the lens of that interaction. In a real sense, symbolic interactionism says we interpret reality through the symbolic selves we create and the interactions we have with other people’s symbolic representations of themselves–and at the same time, everyone else is doing it back to us and getting the same feedback.
Obviously there are some criticisms of this theory–for example, that it’s quite difficult to test. Nonetheless, it’s got a decent number of sociologists buzzing along pleasantly. Symbolic interactionism seems like a good framework for conceptualizing how we think of ourselves in relation to others. Like everything in the social sciences, the theory may apply better to some environments than others–like in religion.
Religious groups in particular seem to encourage cultivation of a divide between their real selves and that created-self that exists as a symbol that we create and present to the world. One of the folks who is best-known in this area, George Herbert Mead, phrased it as a person’s “I” and “me,” respectively, and each have their place. That said, it’s so easy for that created self to basically be a false front created to fulfill the expectations of others.
You can probably see, as I do, where that concept fits into toxic Christianity as well as the notion of authenticity, that feeling like we are presenting our real selves to the world and honoring our own needs and desires. Perhaps you are as staggered as I am to imagine entire churches full of people all creating carefully-curated “me” selves that they think their group wants to see, that they think their group will approve, while hiding their authentic “I” self away because they know that self won’t be accepted as easily or maybe even at all.
Acceptance is the carrot that church groups hold out to potential new members, as well as the stick that they use to beat into submission their existing members. The offering of it and withdrawal of it, the chasing of it, the marrow-deep aching for it, and the pretense of having it, the crushing realization that it was never there at all–when I look back at my involvement with fundagelicalism, that one theme seems to darken those years like stormclouds.
(People who desperately need that kind of acceptance are such easy marks for Christian evangelists, too. That was me, 100%, in my teens. Egad, I might as well have simply slapped a sticker across my forehead reading RIPE FOR THE PICKING. In retrospect I’m just surprised it took as long as it did for some enterprising fundagelical to bag me.)
But even when acceptance appears to be in sight, there’s a modified form of it that Christians tend to offer instead of the unconditional acceptance they know is desired. Ryan Cragun’s paper in Symbolic Interaction delves into that conditional acceptance to reveal the ways that Christians offer it and why they do it. He bases his research on 20 interviews with cisgender straight Christian college-age women who talked at length with him about their opinions on various topics relating to sex, sexuality, gender, rights, and all that good stuff.
“A Horrible Person.”
This paper is a real roller coaster of a read, especially the part where one of the women finally, suddenly gains a glimmering of self-awareness as she describes her feelings toward transgender people:
It might be too much too soon. I mean, I wouldn’t block them from having rights, but I’m not really sure I’d be standing in the front of that parade marching with them. I’d probably be on the side lines trying to figure out what’s going on, but I wouldn’t openly say, “No, you don’t know what you are or you don’t like what you are or you want to change what you are, no you’re not a human.” No, they’re human. They can get rights, I wouldn’t stop them, but I wouldn’t necessarily help them. Oh my God, I sound like a horrible person.
And yes, she is, by this description. She is a horrible person. That’s how horrible people talk, after all. But I don’t think she realized that until just then. She comes by her horribility (if this is not a word, then I’m coining it now) honestly–her group very likely molded her to be that way, modeling this conditional form of acceptance and then showing her how to deploy it. It wasn’t until she explicitly worked out during her interview what that false love looked like that she realized that it wasn’t loving at all–and even worse, realized how she was undoubtedly coming off to those she was treating to this substitute love. (Oh man don’t I know that feel. And still feel a sharp pang of regret about having been so wrong and hurtful.)
That’s the symbolic interactionism I’m talking about here: the lady in that interview has constructed this her-self to show the world. She can’t really truly accept LGBTQ people because of what her religious tribe says. But she can’t reject them either because she wants deep down to be compassionate and fair. She has to tiptoe between the two poles, and yet also keep in mind the sharp boundaries her church has drawn between their group and this enemy group. Fear keeps her in line–fear of
this battle-station both her church’s disapproval and of an enemy she barely knows except through news and social media.
What she said might have been the party line for third way Christianity,1 but it does not look a tiny bit like love. The construction she’d created, this curated Christian-self she’d been taught to display, wasn’t loving, and this interview may well have been her first flickering of awareness of the difference between that Christian-self she presented and what she really wanted to be.
I really hope she escapes that indoctrination.
When Love Isn’t Love At All.
Off and on for the past few months, we’ve been batting around a blog post by Richard Beck regarding what he saw as a bait-and-switch in Christianity: namely, Christians’ habit of substituting spiritual-seeming tasks for becoming better human beings and pursuing those tasks instead of taking an active role in being a decent person.
He wasn’t suggesting that Christians stop going to church or whatever else Christians think they have to do to be TRUE CHRISTIANS™. Rather, he was suggesting that “working on [one’s] relationship with God” wasn’t just doing that religious stuff, but it was also cultivating personal habits and qualities to become a better person. As he put it, instead of “pouring our efforts into two hours of worship, bible study and Christian fellowship on Sunday why don’t we just take a moment and a few extra bucks to act like a decent human being when we go to lunch afterwards?”
It’s quite the provocative statement (if somewhat lacking in proper grammar), especially to an audience that is not accustomed to thinking about other people at all except in terms of selling them their flavor of Christianity–or rejecting and controlling them for their own good. And he got some flak for it in his comments from Christians who got really upset about the idea that they should evaluate their “Christian walk” (to use the Christianese phrase for their beliefs and practices) in terms of how they’ve positively impacted people around themselves.
I can see why they were upset. If Christians’ grades factored in how the people around themselves perceived them, most of them would see those grades dropping from an A+ to an F-. A lot of the things they do and consider very Christian-y indeed would turn out not to be Christian at all. And they’d suddenly go from flawed saints in excellent standing with Republican!Jesus to, well, what most of us think of them as an overall group.
The difference between Christians’ self-perception of themselves and our perception of them is enormous, even gigantic. The more fervent the Christian is, the greater that gulf tends to be (as even evangelical-pandering Barna discovered).
That gulf may well be exactly why Christians have carefully cultivated a system that peels away and discards others’ perceptions of them. When they stop worrying about how their behavior is perceived, they can get away with a lot more and worse abuses. They can develop a revised, completely one-sided love that doesn’t depend in the least in how their gestures are received. That way, a Christian can be the most hateful sumbitch who ever lived and yet still maintain a self-image of being extremely loving.
Christianity, simply put, doesn’t teach people how to love, in and of itself. It can’t. If someone enters the religion not knowing already how to show love and express it, then they will not learn those things within those walls. Instead they’ll learn a series of substitute interactions that they are taught are loving. They’re told:
Do and say these things we teach you to do and say: that and nothing else is love. If someone does something you don’t like, reject that person, cut them out of your life, and make sure they know that you are doing it out of love. Put whatever pressure you like upon that person to come around to your control and become more like you. And whenever possible, criminalize and pathologize any behaviors you don’t like. The harsher the punishment, the more of a deterrent it is–and punishing people is what you do when you love them.
I’m going into detail about this redefined kind of love because it ties into their habit of offering only conditional love to others. And it’s not like we all don’t set some kind of conditions on our love. We’ve all got dealbreakers of various kinds, and it’s good to know what our boundaries are. But when the conditions are so stark and self-serving, producing a relationship that is as one-sided, unfair, and hurtful as Christians’ definition leads to, one must conclude that what’s being offered is not love at all.
A love that demands that the other person put up with abuse is not love. Nor will love ever demand that someone give up any of their rights.
Love is two-sided, always. Love is respectful of others’ rights and space. Love does not seek to control. Love does not accept rigid hierarchies, either: it cannot exist where there are vast power imbalances.
Love cannot coexist with fear.
This redefined love leads to the creation of groups that the Christian categorizes as acceptable and unacceptable along a scale, with the very highest-ranked group being the one that they themselves are in. At the bottom of this scale we find the groups they’ve designated as their current worst enemies: liberals, atheists, feminists, progressive Christians, people who accept scientific consensus, non-white people, and most of all LGBTQ people. In great part they define themselves as Christians by their opposition to these groups.
But Christian bigots are in quite a pickle these days.
Fewer and fewer people consider Christians to be moral powerhouses. Worse, their one-sided, redefined, abusive love is getting called out as hateful and cruel.
Worst of all, they are being described as bigots.
Bigots are bad people. A large number of Christians are bigots. But they don’t want to be seen as bad people. They might talk about being in the world but not of it, but the truth is that they’re still human beings, and very few people want to be seen as a bad guy. They can’t let go of their bigotry, so they must find a way to reconcile their bigotry with membership in a society that increasingly (and rightly) sees bigotry as evil or at least as a serious personality flaw that negates Christians’ claims to moral superiority.
The solution is to make symbolic jabs at accepting LGBTQ people, jabs that don’t amount to anything really changing about their behavior. Then they can say that they’re totally loving and inclusive toward LGBTQ people, even though they are still exactly as bigoted as they were before. Then if anyone calls them bigoted, they can object and point to their illusory quasi-acceptance as evidence of their inclusiveness. Hooray, problem solved! Hooray Team Jesus! Just don’t look behind the curtain.
That’s what this paper was about: how Christians create conditional acceptance of LGBTQ people and then perform “boundary maintenance” to maintain what they view as their superiority to that group–and to keep LGBTQ folks in their assigned position as an inferior group. Dr. Cragun thinks that sometimes this conditional acceptance is intentional, sometimes unintentional. Either way, it’s still there. And it functions to maintain the status quo that has always benefited groups of bigots-for-Jesus while making them look like they’re virtuously demolishing that status quo.
Here’s How It Happens.
First, the Christians in question have to make a distinction between normal and not-normal. The definition of normal, of course, reflects their idealized me-selves (that created, projected self) in every way. Anything that falls outside that definition is not-normal. Then normal has to become the superior belief, while not-normal becomes inferior. And then those inferior ways must become bad and evil somehow–either through outright criminalization or social censure. The superior group’s members–in this case bigoted Christians–reserve for themselves the right to exert control and heap abuse upon the inferior group’s members–in this case LGBTQ people. Then the group can exert themselves to force their sinful inferiors to change to be more normal–in other words, to become more like the normal group.
It doesn’t take much to leap from this group isn’t like me to I don’t approve of this group at all to this group is sinful to this group deserves whatever abuse I feel like doling out to them–for their own good of course, so they change to be more like me. It’s as easy as sliding one’s fingers across a guitar’s strings to leap through those steps. Indeed, LGBTQ groups have had great success with stressing how very alike they are to Christians’ own relationships: that they live together in harmony with the people they love, that they have children together and raise them, that they stand by their spouses/partners through thick and thin. They short-circuit the process of dehumanization at the first step. Research does confirm that the more LGBTQ people someone knows, the more supportive they are of LGBTQ rights; this level of empathy might explain why even evangelicals are fast coming to accept LGBTQ rights like marriage.
These boundaries don’t just feed into Christians’ self-image as morally-superior people. They also put Christians into the position they like best: that of the dominant voice in all conversations, the opinion that matters the most to everyone, the standard by which all other groups and people are judged, and the arbiters of who will enjoy what rights. It lets them keep the groups they’re marginalizing at arm’s length and striving for their acceptance–which those marginalized people will not get unless they completely comply with those Christians’ demands. Even then, they’ll know that this acceptance is as tenuous as a spiderweb at dawn and can be withdrawn at any moment and for any reason at all.
So Christians who wish to appear inclusive without actually being inclusive will advocate for LGBTQ folks to gain access to some of their rights, but not all of the same rights that non-LGBTQ people automatically have. They’ll graciously allow LGBTQ people to attend their church services and of course tithe, but they won’t allow them to serve in leadership capacities at all or to cast any votes in how the church will be run. And of course they’ll demand that trans people reverse transition and that gay or bi people either date someone of the opposite sex or else remain celibate for life, putting harsh restrictions on their private lives to maintain that strict boundary between us and them, superior and inferior, fully human and probably not quite human at all. Because proper Christians, even the most wackadoodle right-wing nutbars, don’t live under anything close to the kind of oversight they impose on people they view as subhuman–and they never will.
The wonder drug acceptance will ensure that a few LGBTQ people will (heartbreakingly) struggle to fit themselves into those demands, aching even for the halfway sorta-kinda acceptance they gain thereby. Conditional acceptance decrees that the people in the maligned group will never, ever, ever become fully like the normal group. They will always be a breath away from full acceptance. There’ll always be something in their way.
But Christians’ efforts to keep their enemies marginalized will backfire in the end for one simple reason:
We’re Not Fooled.
I believe that I might have come up with a compromise to this whole problem that will make everyone happy! People in the gay community want the same rights as married couples, but dissenters don’t want the word “marriage” corrupted. So how about we let gay people get married, but call it something else? [everyone listens quietly] You homosexuals will have all exactly the same rights as married couples, but instead of referring to you as “married,” you can be… butt buddies. [long silence] Instead of being “man and wife,” you’ll be… butt buddies. You won’t be “betrothed,” you’ll be… butt buddies. Get it? Instead of a “bride and groom,” you’d be… butt buddies.
South Park, “Follow that Egg!”
These boundaries bigots-for-Jesus set up might have the superficial look of acceptance, but very few LGBTQ people seem to be fooled by this display.
That the Christians maintaining those boundaries are reinforcing a system of great inequality and cruelty to their own benefit–at the expense of those they marginalize–doesn’t even occur to them. If it does, it doesn’t bother them. They’ve already decided that LGBTQ people are inferior sinners in need of their “love.” And if anybody objects to this hypocrisy, then these Christians can screech about how their compromise, their olive branch is being refused and gosh aren’t they totally persecuted.
Despite their protests, however, it’s not hard at all to notice that Christians’ conditional acceptance sure looks an awful lot in practice like their complete rejection. It might sound nicer and make them feel better, but it’s still bigotry. It still maintains their boundaries, their us-vs.-them mentality, their sense of superiority over a group they have trouble even conceptualizing as being fully human, and still puts them in a position of rulership that they do not deserve.
I take heart in knowing that every year, more and more Christians break free of that thinking. Even in the most ultra-conservative denominations and groups, acceptance of LGBTQ rights is on the rise. This is one culture war that is already lost; it’ll just take some time before some of the die-hard culture warriors notice it–or enough of them pass away that their younger, more compassionate leaders turn their various Titanics from the looming iceberg.
Next time I want to show you a paper that a colleague of mine just had accepted into a peer-reviewed paper. It’s about ACE–Accelerated Christian Education–and you probably won’t be surprised to hear that he wasn’t thrilled with it. There will be official deets next time. See you then!
1 Generally speaking, Christians fall into two camps regarding LGBTQ rights. One camp, called Side A, respects and demands equal rights for all people. Side B rejects LGBTQ rights. Some Christians try to split the difference by allowing partial rights and inclusion; this camp is often called the third way.