November 20, 2003
Reaction formation

Peter Nixon asks if Virginia Postrel's criticism of evangelicals is fair:

As I've said before, saying that homosexuality is wrong has increasingly become the defining public characteristic of evangelical Protestants. Publicly disapproving of gays separates them from popular culture--and, hence, reinforces religious commitment--while exacting little personal toll. When I was a kid, evangelical churches disapproved of dancing, of rock music, of working women, of divorce. Now they incorporate all of those elements in their church programs. (They still don't like divorce--who does?--but today's evangelical churches not only have programs for divorced members, they even arrange their buildings' security so non-custodial parents can't swipe the kids.) What's left? Gays. That's why pastors tend to talk so much about them.

I don't think gays are the only thing left. From what I can tell, evangelicals still routinely condemn premarital sex, abortion, and explicitly sexual and violent entertainment. My former Pentecostal pastor never sermonized on homosexuality, but he delivered a blistering attack on porn earlier this year. I also think Virginia is making a fairly common error among the nonreligious, in thinking of churches only in terms of what they forbid. Many churches -- and this does include some conservative ones -- distinguish themselves as much by what they do as what they don't do. Think of the Salvation Army, for instance.

But still, she does have a point. Opposing homosexuality is an easy way for straights to declare themselves Against Sexual Decadence without really having to give up anything. Lee Anne Millinger points to a Sojourners article that makes a similar point, that many people are using gays as scapegoats for their general malaise with the decline of sexual restraint and family cohesion.

I think one problem here is that evangelicals and fundamentalists position themselves as the main defenders of the Traditional Values in our society, which is kind of weird since they're actually the youngest major Christian movement around. When Catholics speak of traditional sexual morality, they're referring back to a thoroughly premodern tradition. The current Catholic teaching on sex, which is to basically act like the industrial era never happened, is at least consistent. Many in the Christian right, however, seem to see traditional values as "whatever values I grew up with." A lot of the older leaders, like Pat Robertson and James Dobson, seem to want to freeze the '50s forever, not realizing how many novelties and contradictions that decade's family arrangements actually had. Younger conservatives get an even more contradictory legacy. Yet as "defenders of tradition", they go fighting whatever new thing comes up.

I think this has come down so hard on homosexuals because people tend to assume that, as we get more and more permissive, we're permitting increasingly bad things -- so homosexuality, as one of the last remaining, must be really really bad. But as Virginia suggests, it's probably more a matter of demand. The great majority of sexually active people want to limit their fertility, about half get divorced, the temptation to have premarital sex is always around, but homosexuals make up a measly 4% or so of the population.

This, unfortunately, turns opposition to homosexuality into a kind of last stand: if you accept that, you accept everything! But I see no Biblical nor rational reason to order morality in that way. As one of Peter's commenters pointed out, a lot of stuff evangelicals used to oppose (and still oppose) isn't even forbidden in the Bible. It seems to me that if Protestants are really going to transcend their culture, they have to get over the distortions of the recent past and form a coherent alternative to the modern "follow your feelings" attitude that is leaving so many people cold. I think the Sojourners article takes a decent move in that direction, recognizing the importance of family cohesion without yearning for a mystical and arbitrary point in the past. I trust others are doing the same, but it's easy for them to get drowned in the din.

Posted by Camassia at November 20, 2003 05:35 PM | TrackBack

That Sojourner piece is a joke. The author is not advocating a “middle way.” He’s just trying to pass off the status quo as an advance for gay people. The only actual legal rights for gay couples he mentions are hospital visitation and inheritance rights. But those rights can already be secured between any two adult individuals by private contract. If he is advocating some kind of legal civil union or domestic partnership for gay couples (and he doesn’t use either term), then he needs to spell out exactly what rights married couples enjoy that he would exclude from such legal arrangements for gay couples, and why. And if he believes that same-sex couples should be able to obtain all the legal rights and responsibilities of civil marriage, then he needs to explain why a separate legal institution needs to be created to give them those rights.

Posted by: Peggy on November 21, 2003 09:22 AM

Now, some of the more bitter comments against homosexuality do make me want to reach for Rene Girard. One could, after all, rather easily argue that the sad availability of divorce, adultery, and other forms of sexual excitation has broken down previously existing societal restraints on desire, turning sex into a commodity and all of us into potential competitors for pleasure. In the face of this destructive rivalry, we then seek catharsis by directing all of our feelings of hatred and envy away from each other and towards convenient scapegoats - homosexuals - who we ritually attack for the sake of the resulting societal cohesion.

But I don't think that this is entirely fair. Although it does seem that some homosexual couples do have permanent and loving monogamous relationships, it is conceptually harder (but perhaps not impossible!) to accept them as ordered than even very questionable heterosexual relationships. This is because homosexual relationships are commonly seen or felt to do away with two things that many heterosexuals use to make sense of their sexual relationships:

1. Sexual differentiation. If homosexuality is seen as equally moral as heterosexuality, the distinction between men and women cannot be seen as fundamental. But, for heterosexuals, this gender distinction means that there is a inescapably a sense of communion in sex with someone who is fundamentally different, "other", than oneself. The indisputable "otherness" of one's sexual partner means that he or she cannot be reduced to merely a projection of one's own desires or satisfaction. Sex then necessarily becomes an act of mutuality.

2. Procreation. Now, for better or worse, contraception is commonly used. Perhaps many lifelong marriages only aim for one or two truly procreative acts. However, the point is that the heterosexual act is the act by which children are conceived. Even if a particular heterosexual act does not result in conception, it is by virtue of its very form inevitably associated with the procreation of children. This means that the heterosexual act is not limited to the sexual satisfaction of two people, but has a significance that stretches forth into the future and out into the community, a significance concretized by the birth and raising of a child.

So, for at least some heterosexuals, homosexual relationships threaten to do something that even very questionable heterosexual practices do not: they destroy part of the very hermeneutic which allows heterosexuals to find deep significance, perhaps even sacramentality, in their sexual acts.


Posted by: Neil Dhingra on November 21, 2003 10:01 PM

Yes, homosexual sex does not involve the “otherness” that arises from the gender difference in heterosexual sex. But the converse is of course also true: heterosexual sex does not involve the “sameness” that arises from the gender equivalence in homosexual sex. Perhaps homosexual sex is richer and more satisfying than heterosexual sex precisely because each gender understands its own nature, physically and mentally, better than it understands the opposite gender. Men know how to satisfy other men’s bodies and minds better than they know how to satisfy women’s. Ditto for women. And what does this have to do with morality, anyway? Even if gay sex is somehow superior in some objective sense to straight sex, or vice versa, why would that mean that the other kind of sex is less moral, let alone immoral?

As for procreation, the link between sex and fertility has long been broken even amoung heterosexuals, as you seem to concede. It seems rather unlikely that most heterosexuals would agree that sex is better when it carries a substantial risk of unwanted pregnancy. Even the Catholic Church considers it morally licit for couples to attempt, through NFP, to prevent a pregnancy that might otherwise occur.

Posted by: Peggy on November 22, 2003 12:00 AM

Dear Peggy,

The moral significance of gender differentiation lies in the fundamental 'otherness' of the partners to one another during sex. This, of course, requires some elucidation. From a heterosexual perspective, one considers members of the same gender as essentially similar to oneself - as father figure, brother, possible competitor. For the heterosexual then, sex with a member of the same gender is less communion with someone distinct from oneself than a process of negotiation. It is difficult to imagine "two becoming one" in such a case, because two radically distinct persons with radically distinct desires cannot be delineated. At best, we could imagine two people agreeing to derive pleasure (perhaps "richer and more satisfying") from one another. But we simply couldn't imagine the dynamic of true heterosexual love. As Thomas Nagel has said, "Sex ... involves a desire that one's partner be aroused by the recognition of one's desire that he or she be aroused." This convergence between one's desire and the desire of another becomes unnecessary when one's desires are essentially the same as the other person's - one is simply left with (trapped in?) one's own desires. There is no sense of the expansion that comes with authentic mutuality.

Perhaps this is simply not what goes on in monogamous homosexual relationships. But, if so, we need here a theological description of the role of gender in such relationships.

One can argue that homosexual relationships cause an even greater split between sex and fertility than in heterosexual relationships that make use of contraception. Most Protestant churches would argue, that, even if individual sexual acts can involve contraception, a marital relationship considered as a whole must include at least some procreative sexual acts. And, if individual sexual acts involving contraception are an integral part of a relationship that will later result in some procreative acts, those sexual acts involving contraception can later be seen as derivatively procreative. At least to some extent. Now, there is indeed a split between sex and fertility here, but not nearly as grievous a split as there is in a relationship that can never involve procreative acts.

Thank you very much.


Posted by: Neil Dhingra on November 23, 2003 09:29 PM

I feel I must dispute the comment that men know how to satisfy the desires of men and women know how to satisfy the desires of women. The very un-PC truth is that what men and women most crave (at least in healthy relationships) is differentness, not "skill." Most women are, for example, far more affected by a partner's masculinity, assertiveness, and strength than they are by the knowledge of which activities best stimulate sexual nerves. In fact, most women's pleasure is much more determined by level of arousal before the act begins than by technical skill after it begins.

What this translates to in terms of heterosexuality or homosexuality is the fact that a person's attraction to men or to women is predetermined long before the couple actually engages in intercourse.

The other other aspect of the same comment that I feel needs addressed is that "each gender understands its own nature, physically and mentally, better than it understands the opposite gender" and that perhaps this results in "richer and more satisfying" sex. Part of the richness of sex is the mystery of it. Mystery makes sex a discovery of another person. In the case of two very similar people, either the mystery is absent because there is nothing left to be discovered, or the couple run the risk of assuming that they understand each other when they acutally do not. Either way, the expression of mystery and discovery is lost; sex becomes, then, only an expression of love for the similarities between self and partner... a celebration of self love.

It sounds like little more than masturbation, to me.

Posted by: Christina Martin on November 24, 2003 09:53 AM

Obviously, gay people do not crave the differentness of male and female in their sexual relationships. If they did, they’d be heterosexual. Your premise is simply false when applied to homosexuals.

Mystery may be part of the richness of sex, but so is familiarity, and both mystery and familiarity may exist in different ways and to different degrees between both same-sex and opposite-sex partners. I see no reason to believe that the mystery arising from the gender difference in heterosexual sex provides greater richness than the familiarity arising from the gender equivalence in homosexual sex. The whole idea that either straight or gay sex is objectively superior to the other kind seems to me rather silly, and even if it is true, it wouldn’t render the other kind of sex immoral or “disordered.”

As for masturbation and a “celebration of self-love,” that can also exist in either kind of sex, homosexual and heterosexual. Men have been sexually exploiting women, using women for their own gratification, since the dawn of the species. The idea that gay sex cannot be loving or giving or reciprocal because the partners are of the same gender is as absurd as the idea that straight sex cannot be masturbatory or selfish because the partners are of different genders.

Posted by: Peggy on November 24, 2003 11:57 AM
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