Monday, February 25, 2019

A Great Hill to Die On

Now for unChristian's chapter on Homosexuality.

This passage encapsulates Kinnaman and Lyons's approach, not just to homosexuality but to Christian/"outsider" interaction and perception in general.
In our research, the perception that Christians are “against” gays and lesbians—not only objecting to their lifestyles but also harboring irrational fear and unmerited scorn toward them—has reached critical mass. The gay issue has become the “big one,” the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity’s reputation. It is also the dimension that most clearly demonstrates the unChristian faith to young people today, surfacing a spate of negative perceptions: judgmental, bigoted, sheltered, right-wingers, hypocritical, insincere, and uncaring. Outsiders say our hostility toward gays—not just opposition to homosexual politics and behaviors but disdain for gay individuals—has become virtually synonymous with the Christian faith.
Let me begin by assuring the reader that unlike more extreme atheists, I do not hate Christians; I object to their lifestyles but do not harbor irrational fear and unmerited scorn toward them.  I know and love many Christians, some of whom I assume are good people.  I don't disdain them, I only oppose Christian politics and behaviors, and would like to help them, if I can.  That includes David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, whose painful struggle with Christianity is evident on every page of unChristian.  David and Gabe, it's not you, it's your lifestyle.  You can change.

Of course I don't believe that Kinnaman and Lyons would feel warmed by my welcoming words, though I mean them sincerely.  I imagine they'd feel patronized, and recognize that my insistence on my love and concern for them is only meant to distract attention from my principled rejection of Christianity.  My acceptance of them doesn't mean I accept their faith.  In the same way, it's not their surface conduct toward gay people that I, and I presume the young Christians and ex-Christians they surveyed, reject: it's their teachings about homosexuality.  (And about many other issues as well, but they're not my subject here.)

I'm not surprised that many of the young Christians Kinnaman interviewed put their objections to conservative evangelical Christianity in terms of hate and hostility, or in terms of opposition to gays and lesbians.  As Kinnaman admits, hatred and hostility have been hard to miss in Christian antigay campaigns.
Here is an example: one seventeen-year-old churchgoer described her experience bringing a gay friend to church. “The youth pastor knew I was going to bring him, and even though his talk really had nothing to do with homosexuality, he still found a way to insert ‘God created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve’ into his comments. I was sitting there, just dying. This happened more than once. My friend was at a point where he was interested in seeing what Jesus might offer, and the door was just slammed shut” [102].
It will be an uphill struggle for Christians like Kinnaman who profess goodwill toward us to convince us that they really do mean well.  I suggest that merely professing their good intentions and biting back the "Adam and Steve" jokes is not going to be enough; at the very least they're going to have to put more pressure on their leaders and peers to change their attitudes.  Lots of luck with that.

People do have a tendency to confuse opposition to someone's actions with opposition to the person him or herself, which presumably is why so many people told Kinnaman that Christians are "against" gay men and lesbians.  Kinnaman himself slips up on page 103: "Because of our opposition to homosexuals, outsiders cannot picture the church as the loving community of believers Jesus envisioned."  Much if not most of the time, the distinction is made dishonestly, because in practice the distinction doesn't matter.  I suppose there are a few heterosexual "unChristians" with LGBT friends or relatives who'd be reassured by Kinnaman's moderate tone, for a while at least, in some cases long enough to drift back into the churches they'd previously rejected.  I doubt that many gay people or many straight friends and relatives will fall for it.

It's difficult to figure out exactly what Kinnaman and Lyons think the place of LGBT people in their church should be.  For one thing, they and the commentators to whom they give space in unChristian tend to focus less on us than on themselves.  For example, the writer Sarah Raymond Cunningham, who informs us that "I have braved a few real-life conversations with homosexual friends" (113):
There were dozens of tangible traits I cherished about my friend, and I told him so. But—in a voice trembling with nervousness and compassion—I confessed I was afraid my friendship might seem insincere if I couldn’t affirm what he held to be a central part of his identity: his sexuality.

“As far as I can tell,” I gulped, “the Bible only introduces one kind of sexual union, and that is between a man and a woman. So, I have to believe this is the course that leads to the fullest life—the life the Creator intended for us.”

When I spit out these defining sentences, I worried all my friend could hear was Blah-Blah-Christian-Blah-Blah.  But he stared back at me kindly, so I continued...

I think the conversation changed me more than my friend, because it forced me to acknowledge parts of God’s will I sometimes overlooked. To accept that God doesn’t want me to do things even he does not choose to do—to control or hijack someone else’s freedom [113, 114].
It's as if what matters most is her, not her friend.  Given that "he stared back at me kindly," it sounds as if he was counseling her, not the other way around.  Perhaps that's how it was, and should have been.

I've run into my share of people like Cunningham, and I try to reassure them that I don't mind much if they can't "affirm" my homosexuality.  It's not really their business anyway.  But if they keep trying to negate it, if they can't let it fade into the background and attend to other traits or interests that we do have in common, we can't be friends.  That's only a problem if they see me not as a person, but as a notch on their missionary bedposts.  But if they do, and if they can accept that I don't affirm what they hold to be a central part of their identity -- their Christianity -- friendship is possible. 

Or consider Rick McKinley, pastor of Imago Dei Church in Portland:
Recently, I spent a year with a guy who thought he was born gay. We spent time working through what I believed to be God’s design for him. I believe God’s design is clearly male/female union or heterosexuality, however, he concluded that God made him that way (homosexual) and wanted to embrace this lifestyle fully. Therefore, he left the church, but it was a healthy parting. I am not sure how you avoid this kind of messiness when building relationships and loving people who are struggling with sexual identification issues [116].
Here too the gay man fades into the background.  It's all about the "healthy parting" and the kinds of "messiness" a pastor has to deal with.

Third one's the charm.  Chris Seay, of Ecclesia in Montrose, Houston:
As I walked closer to the place where our church was positioned, I realized there were three transvestite prostitutes working on the street corner. I decided to strike up a conversation with them, which led to me going inside and bringing them water. They were thirsty, so I gave them something to drink [114].
That's the whole story.  I suppose I should be glad he didn't tell us that the three transvestite prostitutes were so moved by Seay's Christian charity that they joined his church and in a few short months had become linebackers for the Houston Texans; but as it is, they are just props in a story about himself, his compassion, his courage in going near three homosexuals, braving the peril of homosexual cooties. Just like Jesus. 

Throughout unChristian the writers and commentators give the impression that homosexuals are something Out There, a kind of person they've never met before.  (The chapter following "Homosexuality" is "Sheltered," but I think that's the wrong word; "Closed Off" or "Hermetically Sealed" would be more like it.) You'd think the book had been written in the early 1970s, not the first decade of the twenty-first century.  "Despite widespread mobilization over the last decade, most Christians have become even more isolated from homosexuals," Kinnaman declares on page 106.  It may be true of the circles Kinnaman and Lyons and their commentators move in, but as Kinnaman admits,
Our research shows that one-third of gays and lesbians attend church regularly, going to churches across a wide spectrum of denominations and backgrounds, including Catholic, mainline, nonmainline, and nondenominational churches. Most gays and lesbians in America align themselves with Christianity, and one-sixth have beliefs that qualify them as born-again Christians. Most have been active in a church at one time, such as this gay man: “Sometimes it’s hard for me to reconcile the ‘Christian movement’ I see in politics today with the kind, generous people I knew from my own days in the church. I remember the Christians I knew (and once considered myself) to be students of God, who wanted to serve him and spread his good news and message of hope to a needy world.” The bottom line: some gays are antagonistic to Christianity, but many are not [97].
It appears to me that Kinnaman is being disingenuous here, equivocating in a typically conservative-evangelical way.  He'd like the reader to suppose that the gays and lesbians in America [who] align themselves with Christianity" agree that homosexual behavior is sinful, and so do the "wide spectrum of denominations and backgrounds."  No doubt many do, but not those churches that offer union or even marriage ceremonies to same-sex couples, nor the couples who exchange their vows in those churches.

Going by the gay Christians I've known, it's a safe bet that not even all those whose beliefs "qualify them as born-again Christians" agree that they are sinning when they have sex, in marriage or out of it.  UnChristian was published several years before the Supreme Court legalized same-sex civil marriage in the US, but American churches had been examining and revising their positions for decades by then.  Those gay people who still want to join churches have other options available to them than the brand represented by the writers of unChristian.

Because of the increased numbers of more or less openly gay people around, it takes strong determination for conservative Christians to avoid knowing us, or to pretend that they don't know us.  The rise of fundamentalist-run businesses and spaces since the 1980s might have made it easier for evangelicals to avoid dealing with outsiders, but since gay people are already Christians, we are already inside those spaces.  We are already in their families and workplaces and churches.  Even if we are immediately expelled upon discovery, they still have known us.  Perhaps they repress the unpleasant knowledge.

What, then, do Kinnaman and Lyons and their commentators have to offer to Christian LGBT people?  They are carefully vague.  Even the gay man given space at the end of the chapter, one Levi Walker, who reports that he returned to church four years earlier after "twenty years of depression, twelve years of drug addiction and dealing, and several suicide attempts" (117), says nothing about the kind of church he's in now, how it treats him, his place in it.  Walker's the kind of homosexual Christians like Kinnaman love: the drugs, the suicide attempts, the depression -- only AIDS is missing, but nobody's perfect.  The heterosexual commentators, as I noted, mainly talk about themselves and their spirituality, how bad they feel when they're stereotyped as "gay-hating bigots" (110), how they bravely had "real life" (as opposed to imaginary?)  conversations with homosexuals.

To their limited credit, no one in this book touts ex-gay ministries, at least not explicitly.  Maybe they're aware of what ineffective and scandal-ridden scams they are.  But it's fair to find in their ramblings a belief that change will occur once a homosexual joins a welcoming community, and if not that ...
As a church [writes Rick McKinley of Imago Dei], we have to hold to what Scripture says is true about the practice of homosexuality—the acting out of same sex relationships is a sin. However, we are wondering if it is possible to experience same-sex attraction but give yourself to living a celibate lifestyle. What if we could provide intimate Christ-centered community and accountability for him or her in that pursuit? We believe that community is the answer to everyone feeling loved and human [116-17].
Celibacy may be "possible" for a few, just as it's possible for a few to run a mile in under four minutes or scale Mount Everest, but it is not a realistic option for most human beings. Offering it as a solution -- to gay people, not to straights of course -- is not a good-faith approach.  (It's also Albert Mohler's bad-faith recommendation.)  As for experiencing same-sex attraction without acting on it, Kinnaman points out that "Jesus raised the bar beyond skin-on-skin contact and said even a simple thing like sexual thoughts can defile us [Matthew 5:28].  Our approach should embrace this high standard of sexuality" (104).  So Kinnaman's church, at any rate, can't even offer membership to gays on condition of overt sexual abstinence.

"It is necessary and appropriate for Christians to affirm that marriage is between one man and one woman," Kinnaman declares (105).  Appropriate perhaps, but hardly necessary, since the Biblical model was one man and numerous women, whether wives, concubines, or the odd harlot by the side of the road.  That's the original Biblical standard; the New Testament standard is that marriage is for weaklings who can't cut the mustard, either by self-mutilation (Matthew 19:12) or gritting one's teeth and abstaining from sexual life altogether (1 Corinthians 7).  Monogamy became the Christian standard not because of biblical teaching but because gentile Christians adopted Roman customs.

One would think it necessary and appropriate for Christians to affirm that divorce is not acceptable except under very narrowly defined conditions, but although Kinnaman and his commentators occasionally mention divorce as a problem because of our broken sexuality and our decadent society, they don't discuss its acceptance by evangelicals, both for themselves and their chosen politicians.  Ronald Reagan's divorced and remarried status didn't bother them at all, nor does Donald Trump's evangelical base mind his multiple marriages and divorces.  If they can overlook a lifestyle that was specifically prohibited by Jesus, perhaps they can (and probably will) learn to overlook the conflict between the Bible (though not Jesus, at least not explicitly) and same-sex sexual expression.

The olive branch Kinnaman and his commentators hold out to potential gay converts is that everybody's sexuality is "broken."  "But there is not a special judgment for homosexuals, and there is not a a special righteousness for heterosexuals," writes Shayne Wheeler of All Souls Fellowship in Georgia (page 111).  Rev. Alfred Ells of Leaders Last Ministries chimes in:
And I would add this caution: I have counseled many more straight Christians than homosexuals. Many believers are dealing with significant sexual issues, from marital unfaithfulness to pornographic addictions and other things you would not believe. Don’t underestimate the power of sexual problems—gay or straight—to devastate even the best families and the best churches [118].
That, like the recommendation of celibacy, is not going to win many homosexuals for Jesus.  Heterosexuals are granted presumably unbroken sexual expression in marriage, but homosexuals are a "sexual problem" in ourselves, like "pornographic addictions or other things you would not believe," with no loophole.  Fewer and fewer people, gay or straight, will go along with this anymore, and since there is no real moral argument against homosexuality except a biblical prohibition -- which evangelicals are as ready as other Christians to ignore when it's convenient for them -- conservative evangelicals had better expect to see their numbers continue to dwindle.

Kinnaman doesn't advocate secular laws against homosexual activity, though he's not clear as to why. He does claim that "laws provide significant parameters that determine Americans' behaviors, so lawyers and legislators should work diligently to pursue a biblical perspective that achieves appropriate goals" (105).  This is followed by his remark, quoted above, about one-man / one-woman marriage.  Apparently he hasn't heard of the First Amendment.  He concludes that "You change a country not merely by bolstering its laws but by transforming the hearts of its people" (106), but he and his ilk have failed, thankfully, to do even that much -- they have not, on the evidence of this book, even managed to transform their own.
Christians point out the importance of a father and a mother in child development and reject the claims that gay couples should be able to adopt. And, of course, I recognize that it’s offensive to homosexuals to say that a child needs both a father and a mother; it’s a difficult part of what Christians believe. However, though this is an important conviction, Christians have to avoid rhetoric that dehumanizes people, especially in interpersonal interactions. Our most important concern must be the response of young people to Christ, not merely what type of home they grew up in ... If the people of Christ attack, mock, and criticize a child's parents, the chances that the child will ever commit his or her life to Christ are diminished [106].
There's plenty wrong here, starting with the invalid assumption that gay people only become parents through adoption, and moving on to the assumption that if you can't offer an ideal (by Kinnaman's standards) set of parents you should not be allowed to have or raise children at all.  Children have been successfully raised by widowed parents, for example.  I've known children who grew up in households headed by two women, both widowed or abandoned by husbands, who turned out okay.  Children will also have an easier time if their parents aren't poor, or members of other despised minorities; but I doubt Kinnaman would want to take them away from their parents or tell them they should never have been born, no offense kids but your parents fail to meet our high Christian standards of Family.  Same-sex couples, as far as we can tell, do as well by their children as mixed ones; the absence of both male and female in the parent couple doesn't mean the kids won't have meaningful interaction with other adults.  But Kinnaman has evidently ignored all the research and discussion on this matter; if you have Scripture and Christian-Right publications, what more do you need?

I find myself wondering, though, just how he envisions Christians of his sort coming into contact with children of gay parents.  Surely not because the parents attend his church?  Maybe he just visualizes such kids wandering into his youth coffeehouse or being brought to his church by friends.  (It's a trap, kids! Don't go in!)  He even seems to be aware of the harm done by bullying. But in the end, he sees them purely as targets for conversion, though it's not impossible or unlikely that they will already be Christians, attending with their parents a church that Kinnaman doesn't approve of.

It's easy to see, on the evidence of unChristian and other handwringing writings on the declining influence of fundamentalist Christianity, why young people are staying away from their faction in droves.  (It shouldn't be forgotten that all denominations, including liberal ones, have the same problem, if it is a problem for anyone but them.)  I'm not talking only about their reactionary and harmful politics, but about their lack of engagement with actual human beings.  Despite their talk about being confident and fearless in the Lord, they come across in this book as terrified of just about everyone, to the point that having a "real life" conversation with an outsider (or even another Christian with differing views) feels risky and brave to them.  They recommend listening to others, but there's little indication in their own accounts that they do so.  They have to force themselves to make outreach, which is their right but incompatible with their own missionary platform.  As a queer atheist who's worked and talked with a wide range of people who don't agree with me over the years, I had trouble at first realizing how disengaged Kinnaman and his collaborators are.

Whatever they're selling, there's a dwindling market for it.  (I noticed that one of the more successful ministries touted by the commentators is a coffeehouse in Washington, DC, which is still around a dozen years after unChristian was published.  The commercial front, not the evangelism, probably accounts for its longevity.)  That's no ground for complacency, because even small groups of fanatics can do a lot of damage to a society.

I kept thinking of the prominent evangelical Carl F. H. Henry's remark* that "A redemptive totalitarianism is far preferable to an unredemptive democracy; a redemptive Communism far more advantageous than an unredemptive Capitalism, and vice versa."  This implies what should be obvious from much other evidence: Christianity is about purity (doctrinal and moral) and salvation, not about social justice or ordinary human decency.  Sure, you can import a concern with social justice into your implementation of Christianity (many have done it), but it's not the core of Christian concern.  According to the Gospel, helping others is not an end in itself but a means to getting oneself into Heaven.  (Besides, Christianity is about the Kingdom of God, not the Democracy of God.  Its worldview is hierarchical, not egalitarian.)

As I've said before, I don't advocate the a priori exclusion of Christians (or members of other religions) from public discourse.  But their Christianity is independent of whatever of value they have to contribute.  (I feel the same way about many atheists, who are apt to inject their fantasies about "the visions of Bronze Age goatherds" and other village-atheist bullshit to derail serious discussions.)  As unChristian shows once again, even on their own turf conservative evangelicals have very little to contribute; at best they distract from the serious thought and work that needs to be done.

*In The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, originally published in 1947.  Quoted here.