Sunday, November 21, 2021

Exchanging the Truth for a Lie

The October 2021 issue of the evangelical monthly Christianity Today contains an article on fundamentalists' struggle to come to terms with the homosexuals in their midst.  The author, one Greg Johnson, is gay, which makes the article seem a bit different from similar writings I've seen on the subject; but I think it only seems so.  As usual in such cases, the open-minded stance is really just a facade for the same old crap.

Johnson begins with a reminiscence from 1997:

"You know, Mike, I used to be gay," I said.  Mike stopped moving as the words fell clumsily from my mouth...

He'd asked me about my schooling, and we got to talking about faith.  Mike had explained to me how he felt he could never go to church because he was gay.

"I know they say that's not supposed to happen," I went on, after dropping the bombshell.  "But that's my story."  Mike stared at me with interest as he set the paint can down, gently balancing his brush on its edge.

Johnson doesn't tell us what happened next; I picture some hot gay-to-ex-gay action myself.  (It just occurred to me that it would be fun to rewrite my account of my conversation with a local bartender in the manner of Christian testimonies like Johnson's.  But as in other evangelical writings I've seen, the intention is to tout the missionary's supposed courage in speaking to an unbeliever.)

But here Johnson surprised me.

To be clear, my sexual attractions at the moment were drawn as exclusively to other men as ever.  I was still at the top of the Kinsey scale that researchers since the 1940s have used to classify sexual orientation.  What made me ex-gay was that I used the ex-gay script. I was trying to convince myself that I was a straight man with a disease -- a curable one -- called homosexuality.  A condition that was being healed.

My terminological maneuver was an integral component of conversion therapy.  Alan Medinger, the first executive director of Exodus International, described it as "a change in self-perception in which the individual no longer identifies him- or herself as homosexual."  It was all about identity.  The testimony made the man.  And, within my ex-gay framework, I wasn't lying; I was claiming my new reality.

I was ex-gay.

The emergence of Exodus International in 1976 had set evangelicals on a hopeful path toward curing homosexuality.  Founder Frank Worthen explained, "When we started Exodus, the premise was that God could change you from gay to straight."  What followed was a decades-long experiment on hundreds of thousands of human test subjects.  The movement collapsed after Exodus president Alan Chambers's 2012 statement that more than 99 percent of Exodus clients had not experienced a change in their sexual orientation.

These might seem bold statements to make in a conservative evangelical publication, but they still drip with bad faith.  Johnson denies it, but his tortuous rhetoric can't conceal the fact that he was lying.  He was still gay, even if he managed to abstain from overt sexual activity with other males; and that's doubtful.  The ex-gay movement was wracked by scandal from the beginning, with its "clients" relapsing, with each other or with movement leaders. Those relapses, naturally, were blamed on the subjects' lack of faith, never on God's failure to cure them.

It was always strange that an ostensibly religious movement should have relied so heavily on secular psychiatry.  Christians from Jesus onward have used medical metaphors for sin, but the ex-gay movement didn't bother with metaphors.  Sin took a back seat to sickness in the ex-gay imaginary, and movement leaders adopted discredited psychiatric theories about "confused" gender identity caused by overbearing mothers and absent fathers.  The ex-gay movement took off just as secular psychiatry officially stopped regarding homosexuality as a sickness, and there was probably a connection.  But even clearly physical illnesses, up to and including death, were subject to Jesus' healing power; if God had wanted to change sexual orientation, it shouldn't have been beyond him.  As gay Christians have liked to say, maybe he didn't want to - though that's not necessarily a sign of divine approval, as we'll see.

Even more intriguing to me is Johnson's adoption of relativist identity language: if you adopt an "ex-gay script," if you identify as straight while continuing to burn with lust for persons of your own sex, then that's reality.  Of course this was never the rationale of the movement at its beginnings; at most it has been promoted after it collapsed.  Conservative Christian theology always claims, however falsely, to be about reality, and that it's only unbelievers who live in a fantasy world of their own making.  I'll be interested to see if CT publishes any letters from readers on this theme.  At a time when reactionaries are furiously denouncing airy-fairy postmodernist denial of reality by unbelievers, it's funny to see that Billy Graham's flagship journal has let the devil into its pages.

But speaking of Graham, Johnson goes on to shake the dust of the ex-gay movement from his feet and try to raise "an older orthodoxy that included a paradigm of caring for believers who aren't straight."  (The homosexual-movement rhetoric of gay/straight is still in there, you can see.  And seriously, are we not all -- gay and straight alike -- twisted and broken by sin?)

What follows is a lot more interesting and informative to me.  Johnson tells how numerous 20th-century Christian celebrities taught that "a homosexual orientation was part of the believer's identity -- a fallen part, but one that the gospel doesn't erase so much as it humbles."  He discusses Henri Nouwen, John R. W. Stott, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and Billy Graham, all of whom exemplify this supposed "paradigm of caring."  They regarded homosexual orientation as something inborn, not sinful (though still "broken") so long as it isn't acted on.

Two points about this: one, it confirms my claim that belief in inborn homosexuality is not the get-out-of-jail-free most LGBTQ+ Americans assume it to be.  It's perfectly compatible with the demand for total sexual abstinence that antigay Christians like to make of gay people, though not of straight ones.  Johnson laments what he and fellow gay Christian Eve Tushnet call "a vocation of No": "No sex. No dating. No relationships. Often, no leadership roles."  Spoiler: Johnson never specifies what his paradigm of caring offers as an alternative; he's carefully vague on the matter, though he refers to "celibacy" as part of his prescription.

Second, almost none of the comforting pastoral counsel Johnson reports was made in public during these celebrities' lifetimes.  It comes mostly from private letters and conversations that most of their audiences were unaware of at the time.  In public they took uncompromising positions against homosexual "sin" and the "born this way" claims of the gay movement.  That includes gay Christians, who seem not to have been aware of this concession any more than I was.  (I was aware that the Roman Catholic church regards homosexual orientation as inborn, and of course that concession has never stopped it from practicing antigay bigotry.)  I'd be more impressed by these posthumous revelations if Johnson's heroes had spoken out boldly and publicly while they were alive, instead of jumping on the culture-war bandwagons, to say nothing of endorsing the ex-gay movement.  Johnson shows them privately rejecting vulgar bigotry of the Jerry Falwell variety, but not taking a positive stance in public.

Most of the rest of the four-page article is hot air about caring for the homosexual with specifics left out, but towards the end Johnson quotes a 1978 book, Homosexuality and the Church, by the Christian historian Richard Lovelace,

There is another approach to  homosexuality which would be healthier both for the church and gay believers, and which could be a very significant witness to the world.  This approach requires a double repentance, a repentance both for the church and for its gay membership.  First, it would require professing Christians who are gay to have the courage both to avow [acknowledge] their orientation openly and to obey the Bible's clear injunction to turn away from the active homosexual life-style. ... Second, it would require the church to accept, honor, and nurture nonpracticing gay believers in its membership, and ordain these to positions of leadership for ministry.

(The interpolation of "acknowledge" and the ellipsis before the last quoted sentence are Johnson's.  "Avow" and "acknowledge" have different connotations, it seems to me, with "avow" being a lot firmer.  Or did he think CT's readers wouldn't know what "avow" means?  By the way, Lovelace published another book on this topic in 2003; I don't know if his position changed in a quarter century, but it's fair to doubt it.)

"Tragically," Johnson says, "I write this as a lament for a road not traveled on this side of the Atlantic."  I've seen other American evangelical writers take the same tack in the past several years, though they don't assert the innateness of homosexual orientation, and they're no more impressive than Lovelace or Johnson.  Except for leadership roles, Lovelace offered the same vocation of No -- "No sex. No dating. No relationships" -- that Johnson had seemed to declare unacceptable a couple of pages earlier.

Lovelace also played a little game that nowadays is known as "both-sidesing."  The church must accept, honor, and nurture celibate gays (I don't really see any "repentance" there), and gays must declare themselves openly while embracing a vocation of No (I presume this includes "repentance" for any sodomitical acts they've already committed). This is lopsided, to put it nicely.  It's as if white evangelicals were to "repent" showily for their historical support for slavery and Jim Crow, while demanding that black evangelicals repent for their resistance to and criticism of white Christian racism.  Or as if Christians repented for historical anti-Semitism, while demanding that Jews reciprocate by repenting for killing Christ.

Lovelace continued: 

The church's sponsorship of openly avowed but repentant homosexuals in leadership positions would be a profound witness to the world concerning the power of the Gospel to free the church from homophobia and the homosexual from guilt and bondage.

Except that, as Johnson has acknowledged, the Gospel has no such power.  Lovelace's church is still homophobic, and a vocation of No is not freedom from bondage.

It's not for me to tell Christians what to do, only to criticize their mealy-mouthed paradigm of caring.  I agree that the Bible forbids sexual acts between persons of the same sex, but I don't see that's an obstacle for the church, which cheerfully ignores a great deal of explicit biblical teaching on any number of matters, from slavery to divorce and remarriage.  American evangelicals' embrace of divorced and remarried politicians from Ronald Reagan through Newt Gingrich to Donald Trump shows that the Bible is only as authoritative as they want it to be, which isn't very. I wouldn't criticize the churches for imposing the same official sexual ethic of monogamous marriage on gay believers that they impose on heterosexuals, though gays who slip into adultery and fornication should be extended the same latitude and indulgence straying heterosexual Christians, including clergy, enjoy.

Demanding total sexual abstinence of gays, but not of straights, is not going to witness the saving power of the Gospel to the world -- very much the opposite.  Gay believers will go on doing what they've always done: abstaining and feeling guilty for their desires until they finally give in to temptation, which will set in motion a new cycle of guilt and repentance.  Or alternatively, screwing around as much as they like but neglecting to mention it in church. In other words, exactly what the ex-gay movement produced.

Straights at least have a licit outlet, but there's no such thing for gays in traditional Christianity.  It's not the only reason Christianity has a bad reputation, but it's certainly part of it.  And Johnson's article is merely one more dishonest example of Christians being asked for bread, but offering a stone.  Its only novelty, that it was written by a gay man, is witness to the doublethink that religious belief fosters in all its adherents.  As the philosopher Walter Kaufmann put it, there but for the lack of grace of God go I.

By the way, the CT website has two new articles about denominations splitting over LGBT issues, the Brethren and the Reformed Church in America.  As the RCA article points out, other denominations verge on similar splits.  A book review is also relevant.  And the Southern Baptist Convention -- remember them? -- has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into an investigation of sexual abuse by clergy of their flocks.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Twelve Percent Majority

This tweet:

... set off a predictable and depressing thread in comments.

You can harbor all sorts of doubts about opinion polls, and I do.  The way the questions are worded can skew results in predictable ways.  People will say they want something but reject it when they're faced with its implications; for example, people who support a government-run universal healthcare program may change their minds when they learn that they'd have to give up their private healthcare insurance.  People will tell pollsters what they think they should say.  And so on.

But the comments on this tweet took a different tack.  For example: "Yes, but once it’s framed perniciously as a 'socialist plot against America,' that support evaporates. We are not a nation divided so much on policy as we are polarized due to false perceptions created by the proliferation of political disinformation."  This is absurd: the person seems not to have bothered to read the poll results.  But when you're so much smarter than the Sheeple, when you alone have 'scaped the media brainwashing, who needs to read?

Yes, Medicare has been been demonized as socialism, like just about everything else that benefits most Americans, but despite decades of propaganda against it, most Americans like Medicare and want to keep it and expand it.  There is, of course, intense corporate pressure against these expansions, but they don't seem to rely on ranting about socialism, and it's a bit late for that anyway.  And to repeat: despite the corporate media campaign against it, 88% of those polled favor lowering Medicare prescription drug prices, 84% support expanding Medicare to cover dental, vision, and hearing care; and so on.

This person agreed with the previous tweet: "absolutely. Facts don't matter, what those who you trust say, matter. It doesn't matter what they say since your trust is depending on what you are scared of.
Enough scare will overturn any kind of fact. So you lose."  It makes no sense either, because scare tactics have failed to dent people's approval of these policies.  As Molly Jong-Fast remarked, it's hard to get 88 percent of Americans to agree on anything, and you can't claim that they do so because of a media blitz pushing them to want paid family leave, universal pre-K for children, and the like, because the push has gone in exactly the opposite direction.  It appears that media brainwashing has failed to produce its intended results, except among a select group of liberals and leftists who know that people are stupid and don't want programs that would be good for them.  How they can believe this I don't know, except that they seem to believe the very media that they claim are brainwashing everybody else.

True, some responses went in another direction, such as "I’ll bet 88% would agree that raw cookie dough is delicious," which I presume is meant to imply that just because the Sheeple want something, it doesn't mean it's good for them, they're like children.  This poster claims to be ex-CIA, so of course it bothers him that the masses aren't responding to his firm but brutal guidance.  A reporter for Bloomberg chimed in: "Both raw cookie dough and icing are disgusting," and others agreed.  I don't know; it may not be good for you (it's what we're told), but a lot of people like raw cookie dough, and if icing were disgusting, why would it turn up on cakes and other goodies?

Another genius weighed in: "'Make murder legal' probably polls at 85% against 14% for 1% unsure."  Sure, making medicine more affordable is objectively morally equivalent to murder.  If only the rabble would listen to their betters!

And so on.  I've come up against this before, when I got into a fight on Facebook with my nephew's boyfriend over the same point.  If this poll were telling us something new, the incomprehension wouldn't be as surprising.  But it's just repeating what polls have shown us for decades, and outside the usual suspects (corporations and their bought elites) most people resist the propaganda we've been subjected to all that time.  It seems that the media brainwashing I hear so much about doesn't work, but it's kinda fascinating to see who does succumb to it: the portion of liberals and leftists who fondly believe they're immune. 

I'm reminded of Edward Herman's and Noam Chomsky's notion of manufactured consent, though they didn't invent the idea that a government that doesn't want to control the population by force must rely on subtle persuasion and manipulation: it goes back at least to the American founders.  At this point that manipulation seems less effective than ever before. While that is in many ways a good thing, it gives me forebodings about the future.  Deranged conspiracy theories about elite media lies aren't all on the Trumpian right, they're bipartisan, just like support for these supposedly socialist policies: Republicans like them too.  The trouble isn't so much that people are being lied to and they know it: it's that they know their government is unresponsive to their needs and wishes.  That knowledge makes them cynical and fatalistic, which will make them tolerant of movement towards authoritarianism and ultimately fascism.  

The genuinely populist, people-driven movements represented by Bernie Sanders are a hopeful sign, but they are fiercely resisted and attacked by the Democratic Party leadership as much as by the GOP.  The trouble is less ordinary Americans than it is rich ones and their hangers-on, yet many on the left prefer to blame the majority rather than the few.  I almost called the majority "left-of-center," but by definition the center is where most people are; the few who oppose, e.g., lowering Medicare prescription drug prices, are by definition extremists.  It's telling that the corporate media insist on calling Democrats like Kristen Sinema and Joe Manchin "moderates" instead.