The Problem with the “Gag Reflex”

A couple of days ago, Thabiti Anyabwile put up a post on his Gospel Coalition blog entitled The Importance of Your Gag Reflex When Discussing Homosexuality and “Gay Marriage” (warning: post contains graphic language).

There are a number of problems with this post. Before criticizing, however, I want to make a couple of points.

First, prior to reading this blog post, I knew relatively little about Anyabwile; however, the only contexts in which I had heard of him had been overwhelmingly positive. So I want to be clear that the negative things I say about this particular post are not intended to be an overall judgment of Anyabwile. I know too little to make such a judgment, and, aside from the problems with this particular post, everything else I have heard about him has been positive.

Second,  many of those who have criticized this post have done so because they disagree with Anyabwile about the morality of gay sex. However, I agree with him that gay sex is contrary to God’s plan in creation, and have written extensively on the subject (see, for example, The Great Debate, this speech at Georgetown University, or, for a briefer statement, this speech at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). I share his concern about the way American culture has ceased to respect the sanctity of marriage, and have been defending the traditional Christian understanding of marriage for many years now.

(I will add that as a Lord of the Rings fan who loves to fly, the photo of the Air New Zealand 777 in painted in the Lord of the Rings livery was a pleasant distraction in an otherwise disappointing post.)

Having said all that, however, this post is one of the more problematic discussions of homosexuality I have seen in a serious Christian publication in recent years.

Pastoral Concern

In a recent article in the Washington Post concerning Christian response to debates about transgendered people, Russell D. Moore wrote that addressing the issue “will require a church with a strong theological grounding, and a winsome pastoral footing.” The same point, obviously, applies to discussions of homosexuality and other controversial social issues.

Anyabwile’s stance on winsomeness is puzzling. He describes a conversation where an advocate for homosexual marriage presented his views in a thoughtful, winsome manner, and swayed most of the room to agree with him. Anyabwile then responded in what he recognized was a less winsome manner, and was not well received.

The lesson he draws from this is that he should have been more confrontational, because he thinks that “nice guys” are “definitely going to finish last.” This is a puzzling conclusion, because the “nice guy” in the conversation he describes was the gay marriage advocate, and he, not Anyabwile, succeeded in persuading his audience. In this case, at least, the “nice guy” finished first.

So even on the evidence that Anyabwile presents, his conclusion about how to approach the debate seems not just unwarranted but exactly wrong.

But this is merely a question of the effectiveness of strategies. The actual problem goes much deeper.

Anyabwile is a pastor. He has accepted God’s call and been entrusted with the responsibility to tend His sheep. Among those sheep are many who struggle with same-sex attraction or have joined the gay or lesbian community. Anyabwile spends a lot of time on political strategy (a task which is at best tangentially related to his calling as a pastor), but at no point in the article does he remember that the people he is talking about are created in God’s image, or that his primary calling is to reach out to them with the Good News of Jesus’s redemptive love for them.

Of course, Anyabwile is not the only Christian pastor who appears more concerned about politics than the Gospel when it comes to what he says about homosexuality. But most at least recognize the need to acknowledge the importance of offering pastoral support for those who struggle. At least in this blog post, Anyabwile doesn’t even offer lip service to the importance of balancing a “strong theological grounding” with a “winsome pastoral footing.”

The Wisdom(?) of Repugnance

Unfortunately, in addition to his pastoral failure, he also fails to offer his reader a solid theological grounding.

There is a kind of truth lurking in the background: a virtuous person will be attracted to good things, and will feel repulsion from bad things. Being attracted to bad things is a problem, because it makes you more likely to give into the temptation to do them. Being turned off by good things is also a problem, because it makes you less likely to want them in your own life.

So, as we grow in virtue, one of the things that happens is that we come to desire things that are good for ourselves and for others, and to be turned off by things that are bad.

Unfortunately, this kind of virtue is not common. Most of us, at least some of the time, desire things that are bad for us, and are repelled by things that are good for us. So if we are to progress in virtue, we need to learn to check our feelings against an objective standard. Sometimes, we have to resist desires that seem good, because we know (even if we do not feel) that they are bad. And sometimes, we have to force ourselves to do things that seem like they will be bad, because we know (even if we do not feel) that this is God’s plan for us, and we know (even if we do not feel) that God’s plan is good.

Therefore, a solid theological discussion of homosexuality will not depend either on the disgust that some people feel when they think of homosexual relations, nor the desire that others feel. We need a more objective standard.

For example, Christopher Roberts’ Creation and Covenant: The Significance of Sexual Difference in the Moral Theology of Marriage, gives a careful account of the way that significant theologians in Church history, both Protestant and Catholic, have thought about the complementarity of male and female in marriage. By seeking to explain why sexual difference matters, Roberts gives a deep theological rationale not only for recognizing the good of marriage, but also for recognizing the need to resist the desire for sex between two men or two women.

Such a rationale addresses those of us so tempted as human beings created in God’s image, and by helping us to understand God’s plan for sexual difference, gives us reasons to resist desires which would be contrary to that plan.

If there are times when gay sex seems good to me, Roberts helps me to understand why it is not actually good, and gives me a reason to resist. But if something seems good to me, the fact that it seems bad to other people is no reason at all.

One of the best (though still dubious) defenses of the idea that our gut-level reactions give us important moral insight into right and wrong is found in Leon Kass’s essay, “The Wisdom of Repugnance” (PDF). However, Kass’s arguments need to be weighed in light of the uses he has made of them in other writings. For example, in The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature (University of Chicago Press, 1999, pp. 148-149), Kass writes:

Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone—a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive….

[Eating] on the street—even when undertaken, say, because one is between appointments and has no other time to eat—displays in fact precisely such lack of self-control: It beckons enslavement to the belly. Hunger must be sated now; it cannot wait. Though the walking street eater still moves in the direction of his vision, he shows himself as a being led by his appetites. Lacking utensils for cutting and lifting to mouth, he will often be seen using his teeth for tearing off chewable portions, just like any animal. Eating on the run does not even allow the human way of enjoying one’s food, for it is more like simple fueling; it is hard to savor or even to know what one is eating when the main point is to hurriedly fill the belly, now running on empty. This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if WE feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.

Perhaps, when you see a mother buy her child an ice cream cone, and see the child lick it as the family walks down the street on a summer day, you see America slouching toward Gomorrah in front of your very eyes. Or perhaps you feel a little nostalgic, remember happy childhood days, and wonder if Leon Kass’s heart is maybe a little more than two sizes too small.

The “Civil Rights” Question

One thing I think Anyabwile gets right is the fact that sexual activity and sexual relationships are morally significant in a way that skin color is not. The debate over same-sex marriage raises serious moral issues that were not raised by the debate over interracial marriage.

The odd thing, however, is that despite making this distinction, Anyabwile is actually trying to base the Christian response to gay marriage on exactly the same foundation—the sense that certain relationships are disgusting and therefore wrong—that motivated many of the opponents of interracial marriage.

The more that we focus on this kind of disgust with certain groups of people, the more our response to the gay rights movement is going to look like the irrational response of racists in the past.

If we want to show that our concerns about same-sex marriage are based on much more morally serious reasons than past objections to interracial marriage, we need to offer serious moral arguments, of the kind that Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George offer in What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense

To deal with social issues as sensitive as the debate over same-sex marriage, we need an approach grounded in objective theological and philosophical arguments, and applied with pastoral sensitivity.

Note: Although it does not respond directly to Anyabwile, Carl Trueman’s post about The Yuck Factor also provides an excellent perspective on why disgust is a deeply flawed guide for Christian practice.

ron50Ron Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion. He can be followed on Twitter: @RonBelgau.

19 thoughts on “The Problem with the “Gag Reflex”

  1. Full comment

    Let me first say how deeply I appreciate the care you put in your preface remarks. I’ve read a few blogs today on this matter, and none have been quite as careful to preserve Thabiti’s integrity as you are here. Thanks for coming at this with grace.

    That said, I might encourage just a few considerations in response.

    First, I share your desire to have seen a more explicit pastoral winsomeness. However, as I read his post, he seemed adamant in his distinction between the homosexual, which the piece was not aimed at, and *acts* in which many are engaged. It is the latter Thabiti discussed and made explicit by bringing into light what is often only whispered in the dark. Maybee should have known that such pretty distinction would not sit so readily in the minds and hearts of his readers, but it’s worth considering when weighing his words.

    Second, when you cite Kass’ essay and eating in public as a counter-example, or the subjectivity of whether the onlooker sees gluttony when looking at the child eating ice cream in public, or tender memories–what I hear you to be saying is that gut-level reactions are dubious ways of measuring moral offense.

    The key difference, I think, is one gut-level reaction *is in line with God’s Word as declared in rebellion,* while the other is not. We may say gluttony is sinful. And if said person eating in public does so because of food addiction, then such eating is, for them, sinful. But there’s nothing *intrinsically* sinful about eating in public. There is something intrinsically sinful about homosexual acts.

    There’s a Biblical theology of human sexuality, a BT of Christ and Church (and gender complementarity’s place therein), and an intercanonical coherence to condemnation of homosexuality that is not shared by ice cream eaten during a Sunday stroll in the park. When our gut-level reactions are aligned with God’s Word, they are trustworthy and true, and we ignore them to our peril.

    Could Thabiti have brought to the forefront Biblical texts which affirm that homosexual acts are sinful, evidencing this Biblical theology of human sexuality? Sure. But would that have changed the impact of his article and its dismissal as hate-speech in the blogosphere? I doubt it.

    I should also say, I do find it unfortunate that the main point of Thabiti’s article has been lost beneath a sea of resentment. His broader point seemed less about the grossness of homosexual acts, and more about the need to expose endless euphemisms. Hiding gay sex behind nice words is merely a convenient mask for an ugly reality worn by a culture complicit in its own rebellion. (We all do this at one level, don’t we? Hide our sins behind nice words?) But in public debate concerning homosexuality, our rhetorical naivete now dominates the discourse. And Thabiti has rocked the boat by removing that mask. Insofar as his article begets moral clarity–regardless of whether we agree with him–I confess a part of me wants to say, More power to him.

    Suppose “pro-choice” were synonymous with the following: “take a vacuum cleaner and stick it into a woman, and suck out the brains of the baby she is carrying,” and suppose an effort was made to make this synonym explicit. Even if I were to replace “baby” with “fetus,” are our moral sensitivities not bristling? But is that feeling not *far clearer* than the arguments muddied by endless “choice” euphemisms?

    Of course we need to have empathy for, love, share the gospel with, befriend, build relationships with, those in the gay community. They need to be shown the love of Christ, as we all do. The same could be said for the woman who had just undergone the aforementioned abortion. She is emotionally distraught. Torn apart. Hurting. In desperate need of healing only the gospel can bring.

    But to call her a victim is equally dangerous. To allow her to wallow in “pro-choice” euphemisms is equally dangerous. To coddle those living in sin through unclear rhetoric is equally dangerous (for all of us). We must love those going through deep waters, those who are broken. Jesus loves us the same. But we must also not shrink to call sin “sin” in all of its offensive “grossness”, thereby affirming among all that God is holy, that he stands against us in wrath, and that the gospel is salvation offered as grace gift through Christ’s blood. Without calling out sin for all of its “grossness,” it seems to me we will have a harder time seeing God in all of his goodness.

    • “Hiding gay sex behind nice words is merely a convenient mask for an ugly reality worn by a culture complicit in its own rebellion.” ignores the distinction all people (gay and straight) make between their public and private lives. Generally speaking “gay” is a public label (communicating the fact that someone is same-sex attracted) and not a invitation to think/talk about that persons private life.

      In a similar way, a man who says he is “married and the father of two lovely children” is not making a statement about his sex life. Even if it is reasonable to assume that he has sex with his wife and he fathered his children the normal way, people don’t generally associate the public labels “married” or “parent” with private sex acts (or they don’t crudely disregard the distinction straight people make between their public relationship status and their private life).

      I think it’s OK to make general statements about sexual sin in a sermon but do not assume that every person who says “I am gay” wants to talk about sex.

      • Joe, a few brief thoughts.

        First, I agree with you that just because someone says “I’m gay” does not mean they want to talk about sex. I didn’t mean to claim such, and my apologies if that’s what you gathered from my words. What I’m saying is that when we hide the sin-act of “gay sex” behind nice words, we are masking an explicit sin reality to our peril. But you are surely right. I have many gay friends, and sex is not necessarily on their minds any more than anyone else’s.

        Second (and somewhat tangentially), “family” and “marriage” are not, in my opinion, purely private affairs. The man who says he is married with two children is, from the Bible’s perspective, **absolutely** making a public statement about his sex life: He is saying that his sex life is **exclusive** and to one particular person. At the risk of sounding crude, he is of course not commenting on favorite positions, or the like. He is not divulging intimate details of how the act is done. But he is indeed claiming publicly that the act is done.

        Marriage and family have enormous social components to them. And insofar as the sexual union ought to be reserved to marriage (that is, if we assume a Biblical premise for this conversation, which I am assuming, and if it’s not shared, we need to start further back), the preservation of said union is indeed for the public good.

        Third and more to your point, I have no category for homosexuality or “gay sex” that removes the sexual aspect of the term. I am, personally, a heterosexual man. I love many men. I am close with many men. I have no problem saying certain men are look good. But I am not lusting after them (and need to be careful to give women the same mental courtesy), and I am not engaging in immoral homosexual acts or as I put it, “gay sex”. Your objection removes the word “sex” so that only what you call the public term “gay” is left. But “gay sex” joins both the public and private sphere.

        The “gross” factor in Thabiti’s article is entirely dependent on such explicit acts taking place (the verb that follows the adjective) in relationship between two people of the same sex. Whether that action takes place in public or private is secondary. Sin is sin, and no sin is private before God. That doesn’t mean we can or should police every action happening in private. It does mean that we should not persist under the delusion that some sins, even “private” sins (there’s no such thing), are morally acceptable when they truly are not. I do hope this clarifies?

      • Again the confusion arises from straight people not using key words in the same way that gay people do (I hope that doesn’t sound too critical).

        Gay people generally use “homosexuality” to refer to the orientation. If they want to talk about sex, they name the particular sex act (because they don’t assume every gay person does or likes the same thing!) Anyabwile is also vague on this point as he refers to “President Clinton [who] “betrayed” the pro-homosexuality cause by signing “Don’t ask/Don’t tell”. DADT was about not saying you are gay – not being caught in the act. So what is the pro-homosexuality he is referring to?

        Anyabwile also said “Consider how many times you’ve read the word “gay” or “homosexual” in this post without thinking about the actual behaviors those terms represent.” My response would be “Every time”.

        I don’t disagree with you when you say gay sex is sinful (I’m gay – so I don’t find it yucky). I just disagree that private acts are a relevant point when talking about gay rights, homosexuality (the orientation) or same-sex marriage. Unless somebody is committing an act of gross indecency in public (and I don’t mean “deep kissing”) the only thing you need to think about is how you treat a “gay person” (unless the discussion is about church membership or discipline).

      • Hey again Joe, thanks for your response!

        I think I have a better understanding of what you mean. You’re saying, if I may paraphrase, that for Thabiti to call “homosexuality” or “gay” euphemisms is misleading in the first place, since these terms refer to sexual orientations (a predisposed attractiveness towards a given sex), and not their respective acts. Would this be a fair summary?

        If not, I do welcome correction. But if so, I still believe this will be a tricky argument to make for at least two reasons.

        For a start, Thabiti’s main point has to do with acts and the euphemisms that mask them more so than predisposed sexual orientations (men being generally more attracted to men, and the same for women). You may say that, strictly speaking, he uses the improper terms to talk about acts. Perhaps. (Depends on who you ask.) But that shouldn’t detract from his main points.

        That said, terms are important, and people use terms in diverse ways. I doubt Thabiti would deny that “gay” and “homosexual” refer to sexual orientations. But to say they refer *only* to sexual orientation strikes me as dangerous reductionism. The push of the culture is not merely to make such orientations equally normative, but also the engagement in the acts they elicit. We are not merely being invited to accept that different people struggle with different attractions. The charge of the culture goes deeper–to accept homosexual orientations as healthy, normal and natural as heterosexuality. By doing so, the moral waters concerning acts get muddied. I have many male friends. I love them deeply. Some of them are good looking guys. I might see a shirtless chap walking down the road and notice his impressive physique, but such instance is not what Thabiti has in mind. It is rather seeing the same chap and either approaching him sexually or fantasizing about what such a sexual approach might entail. My saying that certain men are good looking or that I love them does not make me gay or homosexual. It would be for the “acts” of a) entertaining lustful thoughts about them or b) advancing them sexually that such terms may rightly be used.

        In other words, it’s not clear to me what it means for the culture to condone homosexuality as equally morally acceptable as heterosexuality in a way divorced from the acts that elicit the terms.

        Second, even on the hardest premise you lay out–that “gay” and “homosexual” refer exclusively to a general attraction towards persons of the same sex, in a way totally divorced from act or will–even still, we must call this a perversion of God’s good design, and a consequence of sinful creaturely rebellion. Now, this is a sensitive point, and I mean no personal offense against you, my friend. Let me clarify a bit.

        Remember that neither Thabiti does not share the “Gay is the new Black” sloganeering. While heterosexual orientation is in line with God’s design in the garden (or, if you’d prefer, with the processes of natural selection), homosexual orientation has no basis either in God’s design or in nature (where, even while certain species engage in homosexual activity, such activity is aberrant and does not constitute a basis for the flourishing of said species.) Heterosexuality is therefore one basis of God’s good design and human flourishing. To date, according to the APA, no conclusive evidence demonstrates genetic link accounting for sexual orientation. (Statement here:

        That said, let’s again suppose the hardest case–that one day it was shown beyond reasonable doubt that sexual orientation is totally outside of act and will, is finally not a consequence of one’s environment or sexual choices.

        Even still, concerning “homosexuality” as orientation beyond act, will, environment or choice: we speak of a general sin condition if not an explicit sin-act. Living in a condition of sin means that we struggle not only with personal sin issues like lust or greed or racism or self-centeredness (of any sort), but also with a fallen world, entailing things beyond our control–natural disasters, diseases and the like. Hundreds of children die from HIV, not because they themselves have been promiscuous, but perhaps because their parents were. Or maybe their parents weren’t promiscuous at all–maybe they just used the general blood supply prior to the virus’ screening. Not every consequence of our sinful condition is the *direct* consequence of some personal sin-act. I personally know homosexuals who still struggle with same-sex attraction (or homosexual orientation), and live out their lives joyfully, graciously and in perseverance, without sexual union, precisely because their identities are in Christ–not their sexuality. Insofar as human sexuality diverts from God’s good design as described in the Garden prior to the fall, we can rightly say that it is an entailment of the fall; a consequence of sin triumphed over in Christ, making way for our sanctification.

        “I don’t disagree with you when you say gay sex is sinful (I’m gay – so I don’t find it yucky). I just disagree that private acts are a relevant point when talking about gay rights, homosexuality (the orientation) or same-sex marriage. Unless somebody is committing an act of gross indecency in public (and I don’t mean “deep kissing”) the only thing you need to think about is how you treat a “gay person” (unless the discussion is about church membership or discipline).”

        When you say you “don’t disagree that gay sex is sinful,” you could mean a) that you are morally or Biblically undecided about the matter, or b) that you agree gay sex is indeed sinful. If A, then by all means, do continue thinking it through. Read widely, and consider as many angles as you can. But I do pray you would find your final authority in Scripture. If B, and you consider yourself a Christian, then I’m not sure how you don’t find it yucky. All sin ought to be yucky to us, from gay sex to the straight husband cheating on his wife to divorce to racism to greed to pride, etc. When certain such sins are *not* yucky to us, it is not a mark of progress, but of regress–of how far we have fallen away from the omniscient, transcendental perspective of our Creator.

        When you raise questions about “gay rights” or so-called “same-sex marriage,” those discussions are important derivatives of Thabiti’s article, but they are derivatives. His main point was concerning euphemisms buffering sin from our consciences. Proper reflection on the broader issues of “gay marraige” is worthy of another thread entirely, and my own response has been too long already. I’ll spare dear Ron, whose indulgences for blog space I may have already abused!

      • Dillon, I hope this ends up in the right place in the comment thread!

        “Homosexuality” can refer to behaviours but “gay people” don’t all have the same preferences or do the same things. The only thing gay people have in common is the orientation – so gay has (over time) come to mean less and less. Most homosexuals (I hate that word but it serves a purpose here) think “I might be gay” or “I am gay” (maybe they use other words) before they actually have sex with anyone. After all, it is the orientation or attractions that compel people to have gay sex. I know there are individuals who will say they didn’t realise they were gay until somebody else talked them into bed but I think those are exceptions to the rule.

        Because ‘gay’ is now this all-inclusive category – a public identity based on the only thing we have in common (the orientation), it is risky to link the word to any particular behaviour (Thabiti managed to upset a guy who pointed out he was gay, Christian and a virgin)

        It sounds stuffy to keep emphasising the (often blurred) line people draw between their public relationship status and their private life. I’m not trying to say gay people don’t talk about sex. They do. I do. Secular gay life can sometimes seem like a non-stop episode of Sex in the City where every character is Samantha. Gay Christians are a bit different when talking about is stuff – but not much when chatting with close friends. The “with friends” bit is important. Most of my friends know where I stand on this issue but nobody takes offence (or they don’t show it). It’s only one part of who I am – as their sex life is one part of who they are. We all know there is much more to all of us. When conservative Christians reduce gay people to sex acts it is dehumanising.


        I meant b) that I agree gay sex is indeed sinful.

        I am a Christian and I don’t find the’ idea’ of gay sex yucky. I feel a certain unease – which is why I’ve never had sex since I became a Christian. I wouldn’t call it “disgust”. I didn’t read the bible first and then conclude that I should avoid this particular sin. It was a feeling that emerged after I became a Christian (and then I subsequently discovered what scripture had to say about it). I’m not socially isolated from the ‘gay scene’. I don’t look in the mirror and hate what I see. This ‘hesitation’ (backed up by scripture) is the only thing stopping me from dating guys. The same pattern follows with greed, anger, pride etc… except that I am more likely to give in to those other temptations.

  2. I would recommend reading Richard Beck’s book ‘Unclean’ – he is a progressive Christian (from what I can tell) who argues that we need not excise ‘yuck’ reactions in moral contexts but rather train them. His book explains at some length how ‘yuk’ reactions go wrong and how to keep them in check. Mary Douglas’ diagnosis of why the west doesn’t read Leviticus well can also be taken as an argument for retention of the ‘yuck’ category in moral discourse as can Jonathan Klawans’ writings on the defiling force of sin in the Pentateuch. To replace ‘yuck’ with rational argument is tantamount to saying that our public discourse should not let on that we are also a body (not only a rational soul).

  3. I think my main response to both Dillon and aberdeenwriting would be to draw attention to this passage in my original post:

    There is a kind of truth lurking in the background: a virtuous person will be attracted to good things, and will feel repulsion from bad things. Being attracted to bad things is a problem, because it makes you more likely to give into the temptation to do them. Being turned off by good things is also a problem, because it makes you less likely to want them in your own life.

    So, as we grow in virtue, one of the things that happens is that we come to desire things that are good for ourselves and for others, and to be turned off by things that are bad.

    Unfortunately, this kind of virtue is not common. Most of us, at least some of the time, desire things that are bad for us, and are repelled by things that are good for us. So if we are to progress in virtue, we need to learn to check our feelings against an objective standard. Sometimes, we have to resist desires that seem good, because we know (even if we do not feel) that they are bad. And sometimes, we have to force ourselves to do things that seem like they will be bad, because we know (even if we do not feel) that this is God’s plan for us, and we know (even if we do not feel) that God’s plan is good.

    As should be clear from this, I do not think that rational argument should replace gut-level reactions. We want gut-level reactions that line up with the Gospel (although getting such reactions isn’t easy and takes a lot of spiritual growth). Further, I agree that it makes a difference whether our gut-level reactions are in line with Scripture or not.

    I am not arguing that gut-level reactions have no place, but that gut-level reactions are only useful when they are tested against an external, rational standard. The problem with Anyabwile’s argument was that he put too much weight on these irrational emotional reactions, and too little on the rational framework which enables us to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate disgust.

    • Ron, many thanks for a thoughtful response. I still read you as saying that ‘yuck’ reactions are ultimately reducible to rationality and only then are they permissible in public discourse – which in my mind is simply to say that ‘yuck’ has no place in moral discourse. But the writer(s) of Leviticus are famously silent on why certain things are ‘yucky’/unclean. I would argue the same for ‘yuck’ in NT moral discourse. That’s all from me for now. Thanks again for your gracious and thoughtful post and responses to comments. Blessings!

  4. The biggest problem of the “gag reflex” occurs right in Thabiti Anyabwile’s post itself, “I tried to make the case that we were standing atop the slippery slope wearing oil-slicked Florsheims.”

    The gag reflex is inherently hypocritical in this case since many heterosexual couples exercise anal/oral sex too. Is any less “yucky” when it is engaged in by two men or two women as opposed to a man and a woman? Using the “gag reflex” in this way creates a mind set that says “heterosexuality is natural regardless of the manner in which it is practiced while homosexuality is unnatural.”

    On the one hand this creates a huge shame factor even for the celibate gay/lesbian individual. No matter how he or she may stand against same sex intercourse, his/her friends and family are programmed to think and to react, “you want to do THAT? Gross!” So even if the gay/lesbian individual honors celibacy, holds a traditional view of marriage and personally finds anal/oral sex to be “yucky” he/she is condemned to be viewed by friends and family alike a unnatural, perverted and gross.

    At the same time it blinds straight people to their own perversions. I mentioned Anyabwile’s reference to the slippery slope. The fact is we are not standing at the top of that slope at all but are already 3/4 of the way down. That slope started in the first half of the last century when heterosexuals defined their own marriage relationship as built strictly on loving feelings and a sense of commitment. Those advocating gay marriage are merely applying to themselves a foundation that has already been commonly accepted in society. That Anyabwile thinks we are at the TOP of that slope indicates how blind he and other straight people are to their own twisted way of thinking.

    If we want to find the real “yuck factor” then we need to start looking at America’s view of sex in toto. I mean, how sick is our society when we place sexual desire as the prelude of marriage? We tell our kids starting at 12 or 13 that it is “natural” to feel sexual desire for a number of other people. Then we encourage them to feed that desire for the next 7 years or so, sending them out to spend time alone with members of the opposite sex at the most vulnerable time of their live, expecting them to touch, kiss and make out (and then being surprised when they can’t stop themselves from going too far), while filling their minds with sexual images on tv, in music, movies and books. We encourage them to play with lust until they feel lust so strongly for someone they feel they can not live without them and then we tell them “that’s the one for you” regardless of whether they share the same values, morals, religion or lifestyle. And a few years later when they get divorced and a couple of kids are shuttled back and forth between mom and dad, we shake our heads and mourn that “their love died.”

    That is the real yuck factor and the fact that Anyabwile places the gag reflex on 1.5% of the population, claiming that they are the beginning of the slippery slope, instead of realizing that the slippery slope has been part and parcel of straight marriage for almost a century shows just how weird, dangerous and hypocritical this whole debate has become.

    • Matt,

      While I agree with *much* of what you say, I do fear your response may not be as fair to Thabiti as it should be. For at least three reasons.

      1) Your seeping condemnation of American sexual/”love” culture is well-warranted and you’re right to say that we’re already 3/4 of the way down that slippery slope. (Remember, the setting for Thabiti’s article was over a decade ago–he was not saying we’re atop the slope now–he’s not that naive.) You’re also exactly right about when the slippery slope actually started, when we built our relationships on love feelings. But that conversation, about America’s sexual/”love” delusions in toto, *is* happening and *has been* happening. The problem is that it’s been happening in almost every corner of the conversation *except* concerning homosexuality. When it comes to homosexuality, emotions are high, tempers flare–the subject is sensitive. (We’re so desensitized to the sins of divorce and extramarital sex that emotions are far lower. It’s an easier time being a social commentator and condemning divorce than it is for the same commentator condemning homosexuality.)

      And because the subject is sensitive, much of the Church has been tip-toeing around calling homosexuality “sin.” As Thabiti says, homosexuality is a nice word. When our culture champions “gay rights” or “homosexuality” as morally equal with “heterosexuality,” and we say nothing (or object quietly at best), what we’re really doing, at least in measure, is saying, “Hey, this sin isn’t *that* bad.” Because endless euphemisms and the rhetorical naivete they generate now dominate the discourse in popular American thought. That mask needed to go.

      2) I hear in your post a concern that Thabiti’s calling out of sin is too selective. But remember, to call out one sin and not another is not hypocritical–it is the entailment of finitude. Calling out sin can indeed blind us of our own perversions, but that is why we need to lean on one-another for accountability. That is why we need to return to the cross again and again. This is no reason to shrink back from calling sin “gross.” It’s like saying, “Because we can’t talk about every nook and cranny behind an issue, we therefore have no warrant for saying *anything* about the issue.” But one does not need to be comprehensive (impossible anyway) in order to be productive. Suppose one man confronted his brother in Christ about a Solitare-playing addiction. Solitare was becoming an idol in this man’s life, so he was told: “You know I love you, man, and because I love you, I’ve got to tell you, I’m worried for you. I think you’re developing an addiction to Solitare that is unhealthy, and it may be becoming an idol in your life.” It is almost impossible, in that moment, given the ugliness of our own self-centeredness, for that man *not* to feel some subconscious sense of triumphalism as he calls out his brother’s sin, even while the calling out is predominately motivated by love. It’s true that that love is always going to be admixed with poorer motives, blind spots, all the entailments of fallen finitude. Surely, the man holding the Solitare-addicted brother accountable has some idols and addictions of his own–many that he surely does not see! The only one who could separate calling out sin from evil motives was Jesus. But do you see where your objection leads us? It means that no one can finally call out anyone on anything.

      The premise underneath your argument is that *****the abuse of principle should lead to the abolition of principle.***** Because we cannot call out perfectly, comprehensively, or without some admixed sin motives of self-justification, we should not call out at all. But then, charity-giving is sometimes corrupted by politics, or tax exemptions. There are millions of worth-while charities to give to. It’s like saying, How can I only give to one and ignore all the others? This seems to me the same line of reasoning.

      I’m sure Thabiti has much to say about heterosexual perversion. I’m sure Thabiti has much to say about the sad state of American sex/”love” culture. But in this particular blog post, in this particular issue, he addressed that sin that no one really wants to talk about as sin. And remember: his point wasn’t even really about homosexual sin acts as such–his point was about unmasking euphemisms in order to allow our consciences to rub up against raw sin, so that we may feel something of its ugliness.

      3) As un PC as this is going to sound, there is a sense in which I do hope our culture rediscovers a sense of shame–of feeling dirty. That goes for all of us. But if a Christian heterosexual is living in sexual sin, the Church by and large has no problem calling that sin “sin.” But if a Christian homosexual is living in sexual sin, we are much more hesitant to call it sin for fear of offending someone, or making them feel dirty. Maybe that’s not true in all churches. It’s certainly been true in too many that I’ve visited. The “hotness” of homosexuality as a topic is unique. If I get calls or e-mails to comment about this or that from some secular person, I don’t get asked about heterosexual ethics. I get asked about my stance on homosexuality. I don’t get asked about divorce. I get asked about my stance on homosexuality.

      “No matter how he or she may stand against same sex intercourse, his/her friends and family are programmed to think and to react, “you want to do THAT? Gross!” So even if the gay/lesbian individual honors celibacy, holds a traditional view of marriage and personally finds anal/oral sex to be “yucky” he/she is condemned to be viewed by friends and family alike as unnatural, perverted and gross.”

      We are all programmed by God, in conscience, to be offended by sin. When we are not offended by sin, or when we do not find it “gross,” it is not a mark of integrity. It is a mark of just how far we have fallen as a culture. But you infer that this means “he/she is condemned to be viewed by friends and family alike as unnatural, perverted and gross.” Certainly homosexual lusts/acts *are* unnatural, perverted and gross, since they are a perversion of God’s good design for sex in the garden. (And to be clear, I do not believe that “Gay is the new Black”–there is no scientific consensus to date about the cause of sexual orientation; see APA statement here: And even if I’m wrong, such would only be further evidence of our fallen condition.)

      But all of this being said does not mean we infer that said *persons* are gross–at least, no more gross than we are! Grace, as you rightly say, points at self first in condemnation. But it does not then fail to call sin “sin” in all of its ugliness and grossness. What you’re saying that I think is good and true, is that we don’t want to make homosexuals feel as though they’ve somehow committed the unforgivable sin while the rest of us are home and dry. We are not. We are debtors to our Lord and Savior, and the grace that saves us is the same grace that sustains us. Neither that grace nor our need for it is any different than that of a homosexual’s. But part of what receiving that grace entails is repentance. All Thabiti has said is that those engaging in homosexual acts have something to repent *of*, despite what our culture tells them. And his removal of the euphemisms, it seems to me, beget a refreshing moral clarity.

      Again, I agree with much, much of what you say. I would just encourage a reconsideration of these matters in a spirit of reading Thabiti charitably.

  5. Right–then perhaps we are saying the same thing. I suppose my point was that Anyabwile’s emphasis on said reactions depended on their being in alignment with Scripture. Were they not in alignment with Scripture, I would agree that emphasizing them would be dubious. And, in my view, what constitutes a “rational framework which enables us to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate disgust” is provided by Scripture alone. Thus if Scripture condemns homosexual acts as sinful, then Thabiti’s application of conscience-based reaction against them in their fully revealed, explicit nature, is legitimate disgust; comprehensively rational.

    But again, it sounds like we are saying the same thing.

  6. Great comment Matt! I would add that we already have gone through enough shame for things we did not choose. The last thing we need is straight people picturing gay sex every time they see us. As a faithful Catholic with almost all Catholic friends, of the very orthodox kind which can be good and bad, I’ve been put in situations of having to hear otherwise nice people talk and react terribly to gay people or issues. They, mostly men, do this precisely because of the gag reflex.

  7. According to Jonathan Haidt’s Social Intuitionists theory, people make quick, intuitive moral judgments, and only later develop a rationale justifying them. And his Moral Foundations Theory states that our intuitions are driven by six moral components: 1) care/harm, 2) fairness/cheating, 3) liberty/oppression, 4) loyalty/betrayal, 5) authority/subversion, and 6) sanctity/degradation – that is, feelings of disgust and revulsion.

    According to Haidt, it would be hard to characterize a moral theory as liberal if it did not focus on the component of care/harm. Similarly, it would be hard to characterize a moral theory as conservative if it did not focus on, among other things, the component of sanctity/degradation.

    In short, it’s all well and good for intellectuals like Ron Belgau to treat feelings of revulsion as a kind of moral side-dish. But for many people, it’s a big part of the main course.

  8. Pingback: C. S. Lewis on Homosexuality and Disgust | Spiritual Friendship

  9. Pingback: Instincts, Ethics, and the “Yuck Factor”: A Tentative Consideration | Spiritual Friendship

  10. Pingback: Thabiti Anyabwile on Church and Culture | Spiritual Friendship

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