I’ve been following the #ERLC2014 hashtag on Twitter, which links me to updates on the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s 2014 conference on the theme of homosexuality.
Many of the folks tweeting have been voicing frustration, anger, and hurt over what’s being said at the conference. I haven’t been watching any of the livestream, but I imagine some of the frustration is warranted. But, then again, I also imagine much of the hostility to the conference has to do with dismay that the SBC still holds the view of marriage that I do—which is that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman and any sexual activity outside of that context is prohibited for Christians. In other words, I imagine many people’s frustration boils down to (a) incredulity that the SBC still holds this view and (b) fervent desire that it would change.
What I was asking myself today, though, was—once again—why the “traditional view of marriage” provokes so much anger in our culture. I can certainly imagine some legitimate reasons for it to do so, since the people expressing that view have often been hypocritical, upholding “traditional marriage” while also getting divorced at roughly the same rates as more “liberal” folk and behaving with shocking insensitivity toward LGBT people. (The latter is something I know from personal experience, having grown up in the SBC trying to keep my own same-sex desire secret.) But, even granting that, why is it that so many people in our culture, even friends of mine who might otherwise be very sympathetic with much of what the ERLC stands for, are so up in arms about Christianity’s traditional stance on gay sex?
The question is even more puzzling when you recognize that Christianity has a ton of other very difficult teachings that don’t provoke nearly the amount of outrage and skepticism right now that its teachings on gay sex do. For instance, think about what Christianity says to straight single people: “If you never find an appropriate marriage partner, you are expected to go your whole lifetime without sex.” That is, by any measure, a pretty hard teaching! Or consider what Christianity says to people who get divorced for reasons having simply to do with incompatibility: “Don’t get remarried” (see Mark 10:2-12; Matthew 5:31-32; 19:3-12; Luke 16:18; 1 Corinthians 7:10-16). (I have two friends who are recently divorced on what they and I perceive to be biblical grounds [see Matthew 19:9], and yet these friends are both wrestling [in conversation with their bishop, I might add] with whether they are really permitted, on biblical grounds, to remarry. They are seriously contemplating whether God wants them to remain unmarried for the rest of their lives, which is, as I know from my own life’s questions and decisions, a remarkably hard thing to be grappling with.) Why aren’t these kinds of moral commands and decisions treated with the same level of dismay that Christianity’s judgment about gay sex is?
Here’s the key, I think: It’s because gay and lesbian people perceive Christianity as not just asking for a certain modification or a certain disciplining of their behavior but rather for a suppression or erasure of their identities. In modern Western cultures, being gay or lesbian—or bi, trans, queer, or some other parallel or related identity—is perceived as just that: an identity. It is not only a matter of performing or not performing some genital behavior; it’s rather that the behavior that Christians want to prohibit is seen as inextricably bound up with their personhood. And so, unlike Thomas Aquinas who treated homosexuality as just one particular permutation in the broader category of lust (Summa Theologiae IIa IIae Q.154, arts. 11-12), most of us in the West today think of homosexuality as a category of persons, rather than a category of actions. As Steve Holmes has commented (in a forthcoming collection of essays in honor of Stanley Grenz), “For the churches of the West, whatever formal stance they take concerning the ethics of human sexuality, there is (generally) an awareness, often acute, of the cruelty of imposing ethical norms that conflict with personal identities.”
And this, in turn, explains the huge investment conservative movements like the ERLC have in getting Christians like me to stop calling ourselves “gay.” The reason that’s important is that if my identity isn’t gay—if, on the contrary, I’m just another human person just like my straight neighbors—then it becomes easier to see why and how Christianity’s traditional prohibition of same-sex sexual behavior isn’t an intolerably cruel diminishment of my personhood. If I’m just a Christian—if there’s no basic identity difference between me and my “straight” Christian friends—then the same ethical norm (don’t have sex with people of the same sex) can apply to both of us equally without unfairly infringing on the basic identity of one, but not the other, of us.
It would take another post (like Eve Tushnet’s post here, for instance) to explain why I go on using the word “gay” for myself, despite all the complications I’ve just described. But for now, I just wanted to try to articulate—once again!—why we all find this so hard to talk about, and why it’s so easy for conservatives and progressives to misunderstand each other.