I’ve obscured a couple of identifying details in the interest of discretion, but here is a true story.
Just before I came out in my mid-twenties, I had preached several sermons at a church where some close friends of mine attended. Those sermons had been warmly received, and many people who heard them encouraged me to continue seeking to discern whether I had a calling to pastoral ministry.
Then I came out.
I did it, perhaps unwisely, in one fell swoop — by writing an essay for a Christian magazine that was eventually posted online. Soon thereafter, I heard from the leaders of this church that some prominent members were unhappy. Why, they wondered, had I been allowed to preach if the leadership had known I was gay? Well, it turned out, the leadership hadn’t known I was gay. I had kept that to myself for fear of just this kind of response. But I had been celibate in obedience to what I believed God, through Scripture, was asking of me, and, rightly or wrongly, I hadn’t a need to disclose my sexual orientation.
That, apparently, wasn’t good enough for these members. They told the leaders that I was living in violation of Romans 1:26-27 — which, according to their reading, condemned not just gay actions (which I was refraining from) but also gay affections (which, they argued, I wasn’t) — and they ended up leaving the church over the leaders’ failure to censure me.
I thought of this story again this week while reading the Catholic Matthew Walther’s (maddening!) broadside against the alliance between Catholics and evangelical Protestants. In his column, Walther says this:
Among evangelicals, who only recently decided that abortion should be illegal and in many cases grant so-called “exceptions” that permit the murder of children so long as they were conceived in sufficiently barbarous circumstances, this opposition is a crudely fideistic, if welcome, development. It exists in complete isolation from the other propositions about human nature that for Catholics make it comprehensible. This is why it is also difficult to make sense of the Protestant strictures against homosexuality except as a species of bigotry, appearing as it does against a backdrop of tacit, and at times explicit, approval of divorce, concubinage, contraception, and other disordered practices within marriage, fornication, and self-abuse.
Though I think this is wildly unfair and culpably ignorant of the many theologically coherent evangelical Protestant responses to the so-called “Sexual Revolution,” I also think Walther’s punch does land in some instances like the one I recounted above. When those members left their church over the sexual orientation of one of their guest preachers (i.e., me), there wasn’t, I gather, any serious attempt on their part to reckon with what discipleship should look like for someone like me who was endeavoring to be faithful to Scripture’s commands while remaining unable to change my orientation from gay to straight. Their moral theology of homosexuality amounted to simple proof-texting: there was a straight line (no pun intended) from Romans 1 to my heart, with nary a thought for the divorced and remarried couples (for example) who shared the same pews with them.
What Walther says in his column was echoed a while back by one of Rod Dreher’s correspondents, an ex-evangelical who put her finger on the fact that much (certainly not all) evangelical opposition to homosexuality does boil down to bigotry in the absence of any coherent theological account of what sex difference and sexual union is for:
In all the years I was a member, my evangelical church made exactly one argument about SSM. It’s the argument I like to call the Argument from Ickiness: Being gay is icky, and the people who are gay are the worst kind of sinner you can be. Period, done, amen, pass the casserole.
When you have membership with no theological or doctrinal depth that you have neglected to equip with the tools to wrestle with hard issues, the moment ickiness no longer rings true with young believers, their faith is destroyed. This is why other young ex-evangelicals I know point as their “turning point” on gay marriage to the moment they first really got to know someone who was gay. If your belief on SSM [“same-sex marriage”] is based on a learned disgust at the thought of a gay person, the moment a gay person, any gay person, ceases to disgust you, you have nothing left. In short, the anti-SSM side, and really the Christian side of the culture war in general, is responsible for its own collapse. It failed to train up the young people on its own side preferring instead to harness their energy while providing them no doctrinal depth by keeping them in a bubble of emotion dependent on their never engaging with the outside world on anything but warlike terms. Perhaps someday my fellow ex-evangelical Millennials and I will join other churches, but it will be as essentially new Christians with no religious heritage from our childhoods to fall back on.
That “ick factor,” I think, is precisely the kind of bigotry Walther is calling out among us evangelicals.
Now, I suspect most of us Protestants who blog here at SF would disagree with the Roman Catholic Church’s account of sexual ethics in some important respects. As an Anglican, for example, I think my church got it right when in 1930 it declared that in cases where there is a “clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood,” such as when the health of the mother may be in jeopardy, use of contraceptives in marriage may be permitted. In line with many of the world’s Anglicans, I also read the “exception clause” in Matthew 19:9 as allowing for remarriage after divorce in some cases. For Catholic writers like Matthew Walther, perhaps that makes me someone it is unwise to make common cause with. Nonetheless, I think his point is one more evangelicals need to ponder.
Without a “thick,” coherent account of why God made us male and female, why God gave the gift of sexual intercourse to be enjoyed within the bounds of marriage, and why that intimacy isn’t just about the mutual joy of spouses but is about welcoming children into the world and populating the heavenly city of God, then evangelical opposition to homosexuality really does boil down to, “I’m uncomfortable with gay people preaching sermons in my church, even if they’re trying to walk the way of the cross in self-denial.” It really does look and smell and sting like bigotry.