On Evangelical Bigotry

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.


5 thoughts on “On Evangelical Bigotry

  1. This is a very good blog post. I have had multiple kids on the teams which I coach ask me about sexuality issues. I continually try to point them to a 3 fold “division” or partition involving sexuality.
    1) There is sexual action
    2) There is sexual attraction
    3) There is sexual orientation

    I actually differentiate the attraction to orientation. This is because I think many a “straight” person has had gay urges which flash out of seemingly nowhere. There are also those who identify as homosexual that will have “straight” urges that come out of nowhere and do not last. I do not think this is the marking of a pan or bi sexual– I think it is the reality that we live in bodies which are both broken and sexual. Urges = temptation, btw. Married straight people have urges towards someone other than their spouse. What is the response supposed to be to all of these urges: turning the heart towards God and having a conversation with him. Temptation is not sin. Dwelling upon, thinking upon, and action upon temptions– those are sins.

    Sexual orientation, in my (Augustinian?) view is that which we are born naturally inclined to– and all of us are born naturally inclined to a self serving sexuality. It takes a deep theological understanding for ALL of us to realize that God is greater than any sexual relationship. God is greater than physical intimacy. This is where many of us Evangelicals are just plain off! “We” cry out “ewwww!” and “icky” rather than pointing everyone of all sexualities (and genders!) to the fact that Jesus was absolutely fully 100% human (yes… and 100% God… don’t declare me a heretic) male who was complete and whole without ever having a sexual relationship.

    I lament the disgust which was poured upon you. If you are neither acting upon your orientation nor your attractions, then you are in line with Romans 1.

    Thank you for your candor an honesty!

    • @deeplygrateful, I expect you are already aware that your 3-fold division is similar, but not identical, to that found in psychological literature between:
      1) Sexual behavior
      2) Sexual attraction
      3) Sexual identity

      Sexual orientation has generally been seen as comprising some combination of these three.

      As a celibate homosexual man, I have found this division helpful (not saying that your division is not also helpful).

      For more information on this, see pages 7-13 of http://sblog.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/14-556-14-562-14-571-14-574-bsac-McHugh-2.pdf , a brief by a Professor of Psychiatry opposed to same-sex marriage.

      • thank you for responding! Please don’t feel as though I am attacking or trying to impose any authoritative definition (s). I am humbled to be in conversation with you and find your blogs to be thoroughly engaging and edifying. thanks for pointing me to a resource.

  2. @deeplygrateful, I did not feel like you were attacking or imposing at all. I cited a legal brief simply because (a) I have read it and (b) it’s publicly accessible. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Wes,

    I appreciate what you’re saying here. But Walther’s criticisms aren’t merely apposite to the unreasoned objections of those blinded by wrong stereotypes of gay people. They’re also apposite to things like the Nashville Statement, which was authored and signed by nearly every top leader in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. The whole CBMW/ERLC thesis is little more than a dressed-up version of the argument from ick. The view of homosexuality put forth in Burk’s writing is barely recognizable as an actual gay person; it is a straw man concocted merely for the purpose of having a crafting an argument whose conclusion was written before the argument was ever constructed.

    In my view, Walther’s criticisms land squarely on about 95% of the evangelical leadership. Consider too that this is the same leadership that was busy convincing women not to report rape and to persist with spouses who abused them.

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