Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Hell Is For Other People

Writing about Bernadette Barton's Pray the Gay Away a couple of days ago, I asked rhetorically where Barton had grown up, that she could be so unaware of the prevalence of antigay bigotry in the US.  Some of Barton's friends asked her the same question.
The most common reaction my gay friends from Kentucky had was a polite knowing air of "Duh, where have you been all this time?"  This response puzzled me.  It lacked what I felt was an appropriate sense of outrage on my behalf.  I began to understand that although it was horrifying to me to have religious based insults said to my face, this kind of behavior was not new or particularly shocking to them ... In contrast, my family members who live in Massachusetts and California, and my gay friends in urban coastal areas overreacted.  They lambasted southerners as backward hicks and urged us to move immediately.  Gay friends from New York City shuddered in horror upon hearing about the abomination incident, and declared they could not visit such a scary place as Thomasville, Kentucky, for fear they would be attacked just for walking down the street [8].
Of course, gay people in "urban coastal areas" never encounter antigay violence or antigay bigotry. There are other ways to react to Barton's experience: one can be appropriately outraged by bigotry even when one knows that it's pervasive in the culture, and still want to know how someone could grow up anywhere in the US and be as ignorant as Barton about such social realities as hardcore religiosity.

On the literal level, Barton soon answered the question:
I grew up Roman Catholic in a politically progressive family.  My parents, especially my mother, taught me to believe that discrimination was morally wrong and that acting with prejudice toward a member of any minority group, including homosexuals, was unacceptable.  My childhood and adolescent experiences of religion were benign: Liberation Theology Catholicism, sprinkled with an education of Buddhistlike Eastern spirituality, compliments of my father.  Northeastern Catholicism, as I experienced it during the late 1970s and '80s, was also in a warm and fuzzy phase.  Post-Vatican II, influenced by the social movements of the 1960s and '70s, the priests, nuns, and other religious teachers I interacted with tended to be pleasant, affirming, and socially progressive.  Further, there was almost no discussion of hell in churches or my home.  I have a distinct memory of being a small child and saying to my mother, "Hell is scary.  I don't understand it."  Her response was, "Oh honey, you don't need to worry about hell.  We Catholics have purgatory.  Hell is only for really bad people like Hitler" [16].
It sounds as though Barton lived a remarkably sheltered life, which I guess is nice for her.  I still find myself wondering how someone grows up to be a sociologist -- that is, someone professionally interested in the workings of human society -- while exhibiting so little curiosity or interest in the world outside her bubble.  Outside her progressive Catholic family, the 1970s and 1980s saw the resurgence of popular reactionary Roman Catholicism, as John Paul II worked to reverse the changes wrought by Vatican II, collaborating with murderous regimes that violently put down Liberation Theology in Latin America, strengthening the latter-day Inquisition to root out liberals within the church where violence wasn't available.  Lay Catholics joined hands with right-wing Protestants in the forced-birth movement, and were prominent in racist crusades to stop the spread of school and neighborhood desegregation.  I'm a decade or two older than Barton, and my personal contact with such developments was essentially nil, but it took no great vigilance to know that they were out there.  I had no religious upbringing, though I grew up surrounded by Christians.  The nearest city was heavily Roman Catholic-dominated.  My family was politically apathetic rather than progressive.  Yet though I was outraged by bigotry of all kinds, I wasn't surprised or shocked by it: I knew it was endemic in the society I lived in.  Everyone's different, of course, but I can't help suspecting there's something theatrical in Barton's stance, the familiar "Oh, how can you say such terrible things?" and "I am shocked! shocked! to learn that there's bigotry going on here!" so beloved of white American liberals.

I was struck by her mother's comforting words about Hell.  I suppose they were appropriate for reassuring a young child, but for an adult they only raise more questions: Catholics have Purgatory, but what about Protestants?  Do they go to Purgatory too?  What about Jews and Muslims, let alone atheists?  Or do non-Catholics have separate Heavens and Hells?  I'm not expert on official Catholic theology, but couldn't even Hitler have escaped Hell --  perhaps after a few eons in Purgatory -- if he sincerely repented?  And what about the Crusaders who, though their body count wasn't as high as Hitler's, participated unrepentantly in the killing of many Muslims, Jews, and "heretics."  Personal goodness and badness aren't relevant to salvation anyhow, since we are all sinners by definition; it's Christ's sacrifice that enables us to avoid the eternal condemnation that we supposedly deserve. 

Nor has she informed herself very well since then, to judge by this book -- not even about Catholicism.  From time to time she pays lip service to the humanity of Bible Belt Christians, but her heart doesn't seem to be in it.  If you're going to publish a book (especially with a university press!), you need to inform yourself, but Barton's bibliography doesn't show much depth.  Her view of conservative evangelical / fundamentalist Christianity seems to come mainly from some rather hostile studies; she'd have done better to look at something like Heather Hendershot's Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture (Chicago, 2004) and Amy Johnson Frykholm's Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (Oxford, 2004), both written by outsiders and relevant to Barton's subject.  Barton also read some tracts and other handouts, but evidently with asbestos gloves and tongs because she felt so profoundly threatened by them.  Which, again, is understandable, but an academic needs to have more intestinal fortitude.

Consider this quotation from one of her informants, a Brother Damien (really?) who was raised Pentecostal but became "a religious brother in the Orthodox Church of America" (11):
My mother was Pentecostal.  The closest religion to Pentecostal Christianity is Voodoo.  Voodoo and Pentecostal are very similar in that the core tenants [sic], of, for instance, Voodoo are possession by the lower spirit, and in Pentecostalism it's the same thing.  The core of the religion is possession.  They believe in two types of possession: the demonic possession and the holy possession of the Holy Spirit.  And everything centers around that.   Pentecostals are obsessed with demonic possession.  I grew up in that.  I kid people, it's like growing up in the Exorcist, because people are constantly talking about demonic possession and holy possession and they're speaking in tongues.  If you go to a Pentecostal service, people will be possessed by the Holy Spirit and they'll start speaking in tongues, they dance around, they gyrate their bodies because they're being possessed [11].
This is inaccurate in several ways, especially in Brother Damien's confusion of "demonic possession" and "holy possession," and compounded by his comparison of Pentecostalism to Voodoo, which is probably racially motivated to put it delicately.  On the other hand, an anthropologist would treat Voudoun and Santeria -- and Pentecostalism, for that matter -- with more respect and interest.  Barton doesn't comment on Damien's remarks, and I suspect she agrees with them, though that too underlines her ignorance about Christianity, historical and contemporary.  Possession by the Holy Spirit (I've never heard "holy possession" before), accompanied by speaking in tongues as well as prophecy and preaching, was an important part of early Christianity: if you went to services in one of St. Paul's churches, you'd see people possessed by the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues.  Paul tried to regulate this, but not to extirpate it.  After all, according to the gospels Jesus himself was possessed by the Holy Spirit after he was baptized by John, and according to Acts possession of believers by the Holy Spirit was a feature of the churches from the day of Pentecost onward.

Like many respectable modern Christians and post-Christians, Barton is also put off by End-Times teaching: "Fundamentalists believe that 'the Bible prophesies the end of the world, followed by the Second Coming of Christ and the arrival of the "millennium"'" (38).  And so it does, if not necessarily in that order. The imminence of the End is central to Jesus' teaching in the gospels, more so even than possession by the Spirit.  Again, if you're going to write about stuff like this, you need to do your homework.

There are other problems.  Early on, Barton invokes sociological Scripture, namely Foucault's discussion of the Panopticon from Discipline and Punish, or as she calls it, the "panoptic prison" (23).  She imposes this concept on the mutual surveillance and discipline conservative Christians exercise on each other -- which they do, but it's not a panopticon.  The Panopticon was invented by the 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, most famously as a model for a prison, to enable centrally-placed custodians to keep constant watch over a captive population.  Michel Foucault used the Panopticon as "a symbol for the modern disciplinary society."  But he explicitly distinguished it from older, premodern regimes of control, which are the real ancestors of the mutual watch conservative Christian communities practice -- like possession by the Spirit and preaching of hellfire, they're as old in Christianity as the New Testament.

So are ostracism, shunning, and expulsion from the community.  Barton collected lots of horror stories about gay people being abused and driven out of their families and churches, which are appalling and outrageous but won't be news to anyone who knows anything about gay history, right down to the present.  She seems to overlook her own evidence that these parents were abusive in general, such as the informant who reports that he ducked his father's blows after coming out to his parents because "I know my dad ... I had a feeling" (46).

It might also be noteworthy that Barton's first two stories of people disowned by their families come from Roman Catholics, though she seems to try to distance Catholicism from the kind of fundamentalism she's writing about.  Back to her upbringing for a moment:
For example, Roman Catholic dogma contains many challenging constraints on sexuality and reproduction.  Birth control, premarital sex, same-sex activity, even masturbation is still sinful within Catholic doctrine.  As a child, though, I watched as all the Catholics around me, including my family, regularly attended Mass and simply ignored the elements of Catholic doctrine unworkable in their lives ... When I queried adults about this discrepancy between dogma and behavior, I was told some version of the following: "the institution had not yet caught up with people's real lived experiences, but it will eventually, so you don't need to worry about it" [16].
There are two interesting bits of jargon (or psychobabble) in this passage: "challenging" and "unworkable."  She uses "challenging" six times in the book; I do not think it means what she thinks it means.  "Unworkable" only turns up once, but it's disingenuous.  Barton admits that her environment "make it especially difficult for me to see Bible Belt Christianity, and unconsciously influenced me to assume that my religious experience was common" (16); in this she's like the young Pentecostal woman I used to work with, who believed that everybody -- Christians, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists -- went to church on Easter.  But it doesn't make for good sociology.

Clearly, not everyone agrees on what is "unworkable" within Christianity.  For many people, the beliefs and practices Barton (and I) dislike are workable.  They didn't come out of nowhere, nor did they fall from heaven: human beings invented them, and perpetuate them.  I object strongly to people who speak of certain doctrines as being out of date (as in "the institution had not yet caught up with people's real lived experiences" above).  This implies that bigotry, physical and verbal abuse, and the like used to be in step with the times.  I see this move as a way of sweeping problems under the rug, and it won't work.  If people's sense of what is "workable" should determine church doctrine, then there's no argument against the Bible Belt Christianity Barton rejects.  Changing mindlessly with the times is as invalid a rationale as clinging mindlessly to tradition.

At one point Barton remarks that though "the Bible Belt gays I interviewed span a fifty-year period in their coming-out stories, the one and content of their stories is oddly ahistorical" (58f).  I suppose she means that the stories showed very little change over time, but that's not what "ahistorical" means.  Barton's take on homosexuality and on Christianity, however, is ahistorical.  I expect better than that from a book written by an academic and published by a university press.  Call it a leap of faith.