Saturday, October 22, 2016

This Time for Sure: A Kinder, Gentler Bigotry

When bullies lose their edge, they often try to save the situation by presenting themselves as reasonable.  I once read about a gang of queerbashers, driven from their victim by a community self-defense group, who found that they couldn't get back to their car, and began negotiating by saying, "Hey man, we don't want no trouble."  Of course they wanted trouble, but only as long as they outnumbered their victim and could do to him whatever they wanted.

In the US, antigay bigotry has lost much of its social legitimacy, and the hard core of bigots, though still quite numerous, no longer can appeal to a general social consensus that homosexuality is abominable and homosexuals should be outcasts.  Some of them are therefore trying a different tack, trying for a superficially reasonable approach.  I happened on such a person in a year-old article at The Atlantic Monthly's website, after reading a eulogy for the late William F. Buckley as an exemplar of the supposedly moderate and sensible right-wing Republican racist/bigot.  I have no use for Buckley, who is seriously overrated as an intellectual, but he's not my topic today.  A sidebar recommended this equally fatuous piece on conservative evangelicals and homosexuality by the same writer, Emma Green.
In a new book, Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, offers a third way: stand up and debate, even on issues that seem to be moving toward an ever-firmer cultural consensus. In some ways, Mohler neatly fits the stereotype of an evangelical leader who has taken up a stand against queerness. He’s white, he’s male, he’s Southern; he makes no apologies for his view that homosexuality is intertwined with sin. But he could also probably ace a Women and Gender Studies seminar. (He even once wrote an essay for The Atlantic on the Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown.) In his book, We Cannot Be Silent, he cites sociologists like Jürgen Habermas and discusses television shows like Modern Family. He explores the difference between gender and sex and transgender and intersex.

It’s a somewhat novel approach to being an evangelical in public life: engaging debates about sexuality on their own terms. As Mohler himself admits, this hasn’t always been the case. “While Christians were secure in a cultural consensus that was negative toward same-sex acts and same-sex relationships, we didn’t have to worry too much about understanding our neighbors,” he said. “We did horribly oversimplify the issue.” Now that norms around LGBT issues are changing, evangelicals can no longer afford that kind of glibness, but it’s tricky to balance civility with steadfastness. Mohler said he’s not “trying to launch Culture War II,” but he also doesn’t want evangelicals to back down on their beliefs. “Christians have not had to demonstrate patience, culturally speaking, in a very long time. The kind of work and witness we’re called to—it could take a very long time to show effects.”
"Fatuous" might be too mild a word.  Green is impressed, or wants her readers to be impressed, because Mohler cites Habermas and TV shows.  But Habermas is trendy among cultural conservatives, and allusions to popular culture are old hat among evangelicals hoping to show they're not hopeless old fogies.  (I see that one of Mohler's earlier books is called He Is Not Silent, which sounds like an allusion to the Presbyterian apologist and controversialist Francis Schaeffer, who had a lot of influence on the Reagan administration.  Schaeffer also referred to popular culture and philososophical heavyweights, usually inaccurately.)  That The Atlantic published an article by him means little, since they have given space before to bigoted cultural reactionaries.  The Atlantic regular Conor Friedersdorf has been hunting for non-bigoted antigay spokespeople for some time now, without success.  Could Mohler "ace a Women and Gender Studies Seminar"?  Going by her own superficial account of sex and gender a few paragraphs later, I don't think Green is qualified to say.  I'm in South Korea right now, but I'll try to get Mohler's book from the library when I return in November.  For now, I'll examine the quotations Green provides from him.

Notice that Mohler is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  The Southern Baptist Convention, you may recall, split off from other American Baptists largely over the issue of slavery, which the Southern Baptists supported (as well they should have -- it's a biblical value, like polygamy).  Nor did they especially distinguish themselves on civil rights issues a century later.  I mention this not to harp on the past, but as a reminder that far from being moral leaders, conservative Christians have often been flat wrong, and have actively supported evil.  (Returning to Buckley for a moment, remember his famous definition of a "conservative" as "someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.")  The Southern Baptists have apologized for their previous support for slavery; I'd like to ask Mohler why I shouldn't anticipate another belated apology, to gay and trans people a century or so down the line.  The SBC has shown itself to be anything but a prophetic voice in the wilderness on moral issues.

Green stresses that Mohler is "white, he's male, he's Southern," without ever noticing in her article that it's possible and indeed not uncommon to be white, male, Southern, and gay.  The whole article puts "evangelical Christianity," which Green tends to confuse with Christianity as a whole, in opposition to "queerness," accepting the antigay Christian spin that only secularists are pushing for a change in Christian views of homosexuality (or of sexuality generally).  You'd never guess from Green's account that Christian churches have been debating these issues internally for decades, or that LGBT religious groups have been major parts of the movement since the 1960s.  This also is important, because Mohler and his ilk are not just tilting at secular society, but at a large number of their fellow Christians.  As with slavery and other embarrassments, why should I believe that Mohler is right this time?

The same goes for another of Mohler's complaints:
He laments that American teens are surrounded by a “peer culture more committed to tolerance than any other moral principle,” which highlights another fundamental tension: He believes self-derived morality is not sufficient, and that Christians have a moral obligation to guide the acts of others.
Maybe Americans are too tolerant.  Maybe religious groups that try to control ("guide"!) the lives of others should simply be squashed, as they were in old Europe.  The trouble is that they were squashed by other religious groups who wanted to control the lives of others.  That's why religious freedom and tolerance are founding, core principles of our government and our society.  They're not the only principles we have, but they're important ones.  Mohler should remember that before religious toleration was established, many Christians were as outraged by the idea that people with the wrong beliefs -- Baptists, for example -- should be allowed to run around loose, worshiping as they saw fit, and even proselytizing for their sects, as they later were about black men marrying their white daughters, or homosexuals recruiting their sons.

With that in mind, one realizes that what Mohler and his ilk present as a new problem for Christianity actually goes back to the founding of the United States, and the conflicts that led to the passage of the Bill of Rights.  Ironically but predictably, Green later paraphrases Mohler's concern that "Courts are facing new questions of how to balance LGBT rights with religious freedom," which are not new at all.  I see that a few months before this piece, Green published another piece, "Gay Rights May Come at the Cost of Religious Freedom."  I haven't read it yet, but the title says so much.  Not only the struggle for racial justice in this country but the struggle for religious freedom had its cost in the freedom of bigots to persecute other Christians on religious grounds.  But wait, there's good news:
In Utah, for example, lawmakers passed legislation prohibiting LGBT housing and employment discrimination while allowing certain exemptions for religious groups, the result of a collaboration between LGBT and faith organizations. As more cities and states consider this kind of statute, Utah could serve as a template.
Whatever those "certain exemptions" were in Utah, they are also nothing new in civil rights law generally.  I don't know whether it's Green or Mohler who's outrageously ignorant in this matter -- both, most likely, because statements like this are so common in the discourse -- but it shows just how low the level of debate is among evangelicals and their sympathizers.  "Conservative Christians, so long represented among advisors to presidents, and powerful public voices and those who readily embraced discrimination, might seem unlikely recipients of either compassion or intellectual generosity," Green opines.  Compassion should be extended to all, but you'd better do your homework if you want to be taken seriously on an intellectual level.  Green clearly hasn't, and it doesn't sound like Mohler has either.

But back to Mohler and his concern about "self-derived morality," which he evidently ascribes to youth "peer culture."  That seems to be a contradiction, and as far as I can tell, the "tolerance" Mohler objects to (for others, not for himself) is neither self-derived -- it's exercised in a framework that comes from outside the individual, from peers, from adults (including parents), from teachers and diversity managers in the universities --  or indiscriminately tolerant.  It's especially risible for Mohler and Green to natter on about excessive tolerance when the dominant view of young people nowadays is that they are brutally intolerant of dissent beyond the narrow ambit of their fanatical Political Correctness.  There is evidently more tolerance of various sexual and other life choices than there was a few decades ago, not just of homosexuality and gender-variance, not just heterosexual cohabitation and "hookups," but of divorce, single parenting, and interracial coupling -- again, sore spots for Southern Baptists.

When the article gets down to Mohler's views on sexuality and gender, he seems to have little to offer that is new or deserving of respect.  "'We must admit that Christians have sinned against transgender people and those struggling with such questions by simplistic explanations that do not take into account the deep spiritual and personal anguish of those who are in the struggle,' Mohler writes."  This is a familiar setup to anyone who remembers the Southern Baptists' mealy-mouthed and long overdue apologies for its heritage of racism.  If Mohler really means it, he needs to take an aggressive stance against the virulent falsehoods that evangelicals have spread about LGBT people; but it appears that he's more interested in spreading them farther.

A case in point: Green mentions "Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen from Ohio who committed suicide this year, citing frustrations with the religious expectations of her parents."  She does not mention gay and trans kids and adults who've been murdered, beaten, thrown out of their homes.  As often as not their assailants got away with it.  I've often asked antigay bigots how they propose to counter bullying and gay-bashing.  They never have anything serious to offer.  The usual evangelical response to anti-bullying initiatives has been to oppose them, claiming that they would encourage homosexuality in some obscure fashion.  Unless Mohler not only distances himself from this stance but denounces it and makes some positive proposals of his own, he's part of the problem.

In what Green calls one of his "moments of tonal derision," Mohler "recommends using the term 'homosexual,' rather than 'gay,' because it 'has the advantage of speaking with sharp particularity to the actual issue at stake.'"  I can't be sure, but I strongly suspect that the "actual issue at stake" is buttsex; I imagine that Mohler likes "homosexual" because it contains the word "sex," and if so, he misunderstands it.  (No A in Gender Studies for Mohler, then, but then many gay people make the very same mistake about the word.)  I'm not greatly concerned about what word Mohler prefers, and I'm not one of those gay people who want to pretend that we don't have sex, we only Love.  But it's good to know where he's coming from.
In his book, Mohler suggests that people who continuously struggle with same-sex attraction should maintain lifelong celibacy, becoming a “eunuch for the kingdom.” That’s a huge personal decision, one that would radically define a person’s life. Even with all his answers, Mohler did not have straightforward advice for how churches should deal with a transgender person who wants to be saved in an evangelical church but has already undergone gender-reassignment surgery. (“Would surgery now be pastorally required or advisable in order to obey Christ? … Pastors and congregations should consider age, context, and even physical and physiological factors when determining a course of action,” he writes.)
Again, there's nothing new here.  Sexual abstinence for queers has been advocated for a century or more -- including some of the invert/Uranian writers -- and it's the official position of the Roman Catholic Church today.  I'll have to read Mohler's book to be certain, but at this remove his use of Matthew 19:12 is derisory, to put it far more kindly than he deserves.  What I mean is this: it's absurd -- no, make that "obscene" -- to tell homosexuals that we must choose celibacy if you're not going to make the same demand of heterosexuals, who have the option of a licit sexual outlet, in marriage.  It's also unbiblical, since in context, Matthew 19:12 is directed to heterosexuals.  Jesus' disciples conclude from Jesus' prohibition of divorce and remarriage, "If such is the case with a man with his wife, it is better not to marry" (19:10, NRSV).  To which Jesus responds by extolling those who become eunuchs for the kingdom.  Heterosexual marriage is not the New Testament ideal.  But it seems from Green's account that Mohler ignores this.

"Continuously struggle with same-sex attraction" is a giveaway; it's the language used by Christian hucksters to color themselves sympathetic to the people they're trying to scam.  What about people who don't struggle with same-sex attraction, but rather embrace and celebrate it as heterosexuals do theirs?  Don't forget, that includes Christians as well as unbelievers.  From Green's account it would seem that Mohler has nothing to say to any of us.  (His waffling on post-op transsexuals is no more helpful.)  If that's the case, he has a long way to go before he can expect to be taken seriously as a discussant on the role of conservative Christians in contemporary society.

But, Green says,
[Mohler] also recognizes—mildly, mildly—that there is wisdom to be drawn from questioning traditional norms of sexuality. Even though he firmly agrees that men and women should embrace the gender identity that matches their sex, "We do understand that a part of that is socially constructed," he said. "And not only that, in a fallen world, there can be exaggerations and corruptions of what it means to be a man and a woman. There are some very brutalistic corruptions of masculinity, and there are some very trivial and hyper-sexualized understandings of the female that the Bible would clearly reject."
"Mildly, mildly"?  Jesus might have had something to say about that.  However, "Mohler ... believes 'we find wholeness and resolution only in being the man or the woman that God meant us to be, or made us to be.'"

How nice; but how do we know what kind of man or woman God made us to be?  It sounds as if Mohler is ignorant about the Bible, which is a lot more complex about sexuality and gender than today's American Protestants believe.  He could begin by reading Jennifer Wright Knust's Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire, published by Harper Collins in 2011.  (He also doesn't know what 'socially constructed" means, though that doesn't distinguish him from most of his opponents.  So much for that A in Gender Studies.)  "Become eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven" is the least of it; even if Jesus only meant it figuratively, the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 shows that literal eunuchs could be accepted into the church.  (Think again of Mohler's equivocation about post-op transsexuals.  One might wonder why, in a story so full of miracles, Phillip didn't simply restore the eunuch's testicles.  Jesus said explicitly that his followers would have the power to move mountains.  He himself restored a withered hand and restored the dead to life; reparative healing of a eunuch should be doable.)  Look at Jesus' hostility to biological families, including his own, or his extolling of a young woman who left her household chores to listen to his teaching.  Look at the wildly varying views of marriage the Bible embraces, from brother-sister and first-cousin marriage, polygamy and concubinage, to abstinence and becoming a eunuch for the Kingdom.  Look at the depiction of Yahweh as a violently jealous and abusive husband with performance anxiety.  The Christian scholar James Barr wrote that the trouble with modern fundamentalist teaching about sex is not "pathological prurience" but that it is "childishly naïve in a pre-1914 schoolboy-idealistic manner" (Fundamentalism [Westminster Press, 1977], 331).  It looks to me like Albert Mohler is no exception.

Another example of Mohler's and Green's historical ignorance (or missionary dishonesty) is the claim that Mohler's doing something new.  His approach is really as traditional and familiar as Good Cop / Bad Cop.  Antigay bigots, secular as well as theocratic, have long claimed to be moved not by hatred of Sodomites, but by love and compassion for us.  The same goes for racism: back when Bob Jones University forbade interracial dating and declined to admit African-American students, Bob Jones III (quoted in this post) strenuously denied that he was racist, and claimed that "We love the Negro people. Some of the finest Christians I've ever known were Negroes. In fact, they put me to shame. And I have looked at several Negro Christians and wished to God I could be as Christlike as they are. And among Christian Negroes there is no strife between them and us -- we are brothers in the Lord."  But: " Until we have our redeemed, supernatural bodies in Heaven we're not going to be equal here, and there's no sense in trying to be. Here's what I say. The Negro -- and I'm not, it's not my own feeling -- but a Negro is best when he serves at the table, when he does that, he's doing what he knows how to do best."  The Bad Cop is always there, tazer at the ready, to put you back in your place.

I'm fully in favor of the debate Mohler calls for.  I think I'd enjoy taking him on myself.  But Green's article, and the sampling she gives of Mohler's ideas, remind me of something Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about the notion of a "conversation on race."
One of the problems with the idea that America needs a "Conversation On Race" is that it presumes that "America" has something intelligent to say about race. All you need do is look at how American history is taught in this country to realize that that is basically impossible.
The same, I submit, is true of the conversation Emma Green would like us to have on sexuality and gender: she presumes that America, and conservative Christians like Albert Mohler in particular, has something intelligent to say about those topics. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's impossible, but the wrong people are puffing themselves up and claiming they're qualified to tell the rest of America what is going on, how to think, what to believe, and how to live.  On top of that, they want everyone else to feel sorry for them, because they're in a dwindling minority and don't have the cultural clout they used to have.  They've also embraced the Culture of Therapy, with the idea that dissidents shouldn't be made to feel like outcasts -- though they've never adopted that attitude for others, including dissidents in their own ranks.  Yes, being at odds with the society you live in can be uncomfortable; I know that very well, from personal experience.  But aside from the fact that it's also part of the Christian heritage -- something else Mohler and Green want to forget -- being uncomfortable is not the worst thing that can happen to you.  Nowhere is it written that you (or I) must be comfortable. You cannot, in a free and pluralistic society, demand that your views be accepted uncritically, and others with different views be silenced, just so you won't feel bad.  You don't have to feel bad for being different in the first place, and Christians have always defined their difference as a sign that they had the Truth in the second.  Mohler's goal is the normalization (or rather, re-normalization) of bigotry.  Debate, by all means, but if Mohler wants evangelicals to be taken seriously in the discussion, he clearly has a lot of work to do first.