Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Gay Rights and the Victory of Christian Values

There's been an astonishing cultural shift in the last few years, an amazing and accelerating change in attitudes towards homosexuality. The trajectory is clear: history is moving in the direction of treating gay relationships as warranting the same kind of legal and social recognition afforded heterosexual relationships.

According to the conservative Christian narrative, this trend is a disaster. Conservative Christians typically view America's cultural struggle over gay rights as a conflict between those swept up in the permissiveness and moral laxness of secular culture and those who remain steadfast in their allegiance to Christian values.  An the recent victories for marriage equality are, in this light, a defeat for Christian values.

I think this narrative is dead wrong. Whatever you think of the ethics of homosexuality itself, the cultural shift we are now seeing can only be a victory for core Christian values. Let me say that again, in a slightly different way: Even those Christians who think that homosexuality is morally wrong (which I don't) should see the cultural shift towards inclusion as a victory of Christian values.

I don't mean to say that American society has no problem with permissiveness and moral laxness. We don't help the poor nearly as much as we should. We indulge in meaningless entertainments and luxuries while children are starving. We think the command to love our neighbors as ourselves is satisfied if we take in their garbage cans and bring the new people next door a plate of cookies.

Americans routinely fail to live up to the demanding ethic of Christianity--and even those of us who self-identify as Christian typically shrug off these failures as if they were nothing. Moral laxness and permissiveness are big problems. But they don't explain the cultural shift towards accepting gays and lesbians and their relationships.

They can't. Laxness and permissiveness can account for the gradual bleeding away of standards, but they can't be what motivates an active process of changing our social institutions to include people who have been historically excluded.

I suppose that laxness and permissiveness might, when combined with a sufficiently widespread desire for self-indulgence, motivate people to eliminate barriers to self-indulgence. But gays and lesbians have always been and still remain a small minority of the population. More visible than they used to be, but still a tiny fraction of the US population. And if you aren't gay, none of your self-indulgent motives could conceivably inspire you to work towards eliminating the barriers to same-sex intimacy. Because if you aren't gay, you won't have any desire to indulge in same-sex intimacy.

So even when laxness and permissiveness are combined with a penchant for self-indulgence, we won't get the social energy to motivate the large-scale cultural and legal changes that we've witnessed. There aren't enough gay people out there for that.

More significantly, the vilification of homosexuality has, especially within Christian communities, served as a cover for moral laxness. If homosexuality is the Big Sin, then most of us can avoid the Big Sin without any effort at all, without having to rein in our sinful impulses one whit.

Since most of us aren't gay and have not the slightest desire to sleep with someone of the same sex, a fixation on homosexual acts as exemplars of sin lets us off the moral hook without having to do anything. We can feel good about ourselves even as we buy a new widescreen TV with money that might have saved the lives of starving children. At least we're not gay.

Thus, a deliberate cultural shift towards accepting homosexuality amounts to a deliberate decision to wipe away an easy excuse for moral laxness. Our penchant for moral laxness and permissiveness, our self-indulgent natures, can't explain a shift of that sort.

If we want to explain why homosexuality is coming to be more widely accepted, why gays and lesbians are for the first time in history confronting the prospect of full social inclusion, we need to do it by appeal to the motives of a majority with absolutely zero interest in having gay sex themselves--and who might actually find a convenient mask for their self-indulgent impulses through a continued prohibition.

What could that motive be?

I think it's love. Not romantic love, but the kind of love that Jesus talked about. If there is a reason the straight majority has come to increasingly support a lifting of the historic condemnation of homosexuality, it has to do with our human capacity to identify with and empathize with those who are different from us. It has to do with the fact that not only have gays and lesbians been coming out of the closet to tell their stories, but more and more straight people have been listening with compassionate attention.

Within Christianity itself, there has for some time now been a struggle over the moral status of homosexuality. And there's a common thread to the arguments of those Christians who have stood up for their gay and lesbian neighbors. There's a common theme among those Christians demanding that the meaningful intimate partnerships of gays and lesbians, their loves, be afforded respect rather than treated as an abomination to be torn asunder.

That thread is this: If we listen to our gay and lesbian neighbors, we will learn that a condemnation of their romantic impulses can't be restricted to a condemnation of outward behavior. It cuts to who they are. Sometimes, treating something as a sin is an impediment to love. Conservatives are right to say that you can always love a sinner while hating what really is a sin. But this dictum cuts both ways: if we can't love our gay and lesbian neighbors as we should when we treat their intimate relationships as a sin, we must conclude that homosexuality as such is no sin after all.

If we listen with compassion, rather than stopping up our ears with traditional denunciations, we will hear the serious damage that comes from viewing their love as abomination. If we listen with love, rather than refusing to hear their cries out of fear that they might jar us from our comfortable certainties, we cannot resist the conclusion that condemning homosexuality in a categorical way amounts to a failure to love our gay and lesbian neighbors as ourselves.

That message--which progressive Christians like myself have been voicing in different ways for decades--expresses an approach to the cultural conversation about homosexuality that is rooted in an ethic of love. It is rooted in the ethical seeds planted by a certain carpenter from Nazareth some two thousand years ago. And if anything can explain the seismic shift in cultural attitudes towards homosexuality over the last few years, it is the emergence of this message, not just within the sequestered walls of the church, but within the broader cultural conversation.

We are a far cry from living out an ethic of love faithfully in America or anywhere else, but there are moments when the spirit of love makes itself felt on a national level, when it has the power to tip the scales in favor of hard changes, changes that don't serve the interests of the majority but instead favor a marginalized minority. There are moments when love is strong enough to help us move beyond the deep tribal impulse to preserve the us/them dichotomies, to keep in place ideologies of division that enable us to feel good about ourselves just because we aren't one the them.

If anything can explain the energy for change that has been moving this country on the issue of homosexuality, it is this spirit of compassion, of fairness, of love. You may happen to think (as I do not) that something is amiss in the thinking that has led persons of love and good will to push for marriage equality and gay rights. You may be convinced (as I am not) that genuine love for gays and lesbians is compatible with the continued denunciation of their loving relationships and tender intimacies. Even so, you should not thereby overlook that it is love for gays and lesbians that is fueling the passions of social reformers, motivating straight allies in growing numbers to stand in solidarity with their gay and lesbian neighbors, and shifting the consciences of witnesses.

The fruits of love are here. And even if you continue to believe that homosexuality is a sin even in the context of loving and faithful monogamy, you should not overlook the fact that in the current cultural struggle about homosexuality, a spirit of love is at work among those who are advocating for gay rights, and much of what opposes them is something opposed to love--forces that seek to perpetuate division and scapegoating and easy righteousness.

The fruits of love are here. But they are, as ever, fragile. The darker forces are mustering themselves. They are striking back. The enormous gains, while they put us on a trajectory, do not imply inevitability. Divisiveness and hatred and self-righteousness might still prevail over love.

There is something I beg of my Christian brothers and sisters who are committed to an ethic of love but remain convinced that homosexual acts are uniformly sinful. It is this: In pursuing this belief, don't unwittingly ally yourselves with the dark forces that are striving to silence and marginalize and alienate.

And one of the easiest ways to be drawn into an unwitting complicity with forces opposed to Christian love is to misconstrue the nature of what has happened in the fight for marriage equality. Don't let a confused narrative, one which sees the struggle over homosexuality as being primarily about permissiveness versus Christian values, blind you to the way that the most profound Christian value of all has energized the advocates for equality.

Don't let the battle over homosexuality eclipse the far more important ethical battle: the one between inclusive love and divisive hate.


  1. One issue I see with your argument here: permissiveness and moral laxity, as I have understood them in this context, are complaints not about personal moral behavior, but about societal moral enforcement. So I think your characterization of the elimination of "barriers to self-indulgence" is a miss, here, because you appear to understand them as barriers I should be enforcing that would prevent me from doing what I want to do.

    That doesn't seem to be the logic of the uses of the law here. It is the dominant culture of society that should be enforcing these barriers to self-indulgence upon others in society. Permissiveness and moral laxity describe the failure of the dominant culture to uphold the level of moral opprobrium proper to this minority sin. The dominant culture of our society is failing to enforce moral norms, in the conservative narrative, because it has decided that sin should be allowed, and that rules against sin should not be enforced. It has, in the worst cases, even decided to call it not sin. So the slope down to apocalypse isn't "Let me do what I want," but "Let them do what they want."

    The missing term is the failure of Christian culture in the face of secular culture, and the loss of Christian dominance as understood in terms of the loss of the enforcement of Christian moral norms. So you're right when you say that "Laxness and permissiveness can account for the gradual bleeding away of standards, but it can't be what motivates an active process of changing our social institutions." The "gradual bleeding away of standards," however, is the loss among Christian communities of the will to enforce these moral norms generally. And in the standard conservative narrative, it isn't what motivates institutional change—it's simply what allows the enemies of Christianity in society to succeed at institutional change, by suborning Christians into denying the normativity of the moral law that they should otherwise be enforcing.

    The love argument, combined as it is with the "all have sinned and fall short" argument and the hypocrisy of the enforcers of the law, is not a defeater for the moral-law argument in this form. Human failure doesn't abrogate what is understood to be divinely-given law and order, and the other side of the argument will gladly recontextualize love in terms compatible with moral enforcement. Something more is needed to defeat the claim to this particular normativity for this particular set of rules, and the demand that we (and the culture at large) enforce them generally.

    1. Matthew,

      Thanks for the remark. I have about 10 minutes, which is barely time to begin to compose my thoughts. But let me try in that time to make sense of your critique of my argument.

      A central piece of my argument can be summed up as follows: Permissiveness/moral laxness cannot by itself or in combination with self-indulgent impulses explain the recent social transformations surrounding homosexuality. The former merely erodes standards; it doesn't provide the energy to pursue changes to recalcitrant social institutions and policies. The latter might, if the recalcitrant social institutions are an impediment to indulging oneself--but the self-indulgent impulses of a disempowered minority (a minority disempowered by the very social institutions/practices in question) would be insufficient to bring about such substantial changes. The majority must have a hand in it. Furthermore, (a) the majority's moral laxness/permissiveness alone isn't enough of a "hand" to achieve a change like what we've seen; while (b) the majority's moral laxness would even provide an incentive to resist the change.

      In response to this piece of my argument, you make a distinction between (i) the moral laxness/permissiveness of individuals that is self-directed and (ii) the moral laxness/permissiveness of society that vitiates social enforcement of others' behavior. It's not clear to me if you take my failure to make this distinction as simply a point to be noted or as the basis for an objection. If an objection, it seems to have the following form: "Reitan's argument hinges on reading laxness/permissiveness in sense (i), but fails under reading (ii)."

      Whether that is correct or not, it appears clear that your objection overall rejects/denies what I call (a) above.

      And...I'm out of time.

    2. And...I have a few minutes before an appointment with a student.

      So, continuing from the above, I don't think my argument falls apart under reading (ii) of "moral laxness/permissiveness." My point is that the moral laxness of the majority will not by itself energize a movement for significant social change that involves reshaping social institutions to include historically marginalized groups; and the self-indulgent impulses of a very small minority won't provide the needed energy. Thus, even if the moral laxness is construed as majority laxness relative to the self-indulgent impulses of a minority, we can't account for what we are seeing. The minority must have the support of the majority or a significant segment thereof.

      Another, related argument that I originally intended to include in this post when I was envisioning it (but which somehow got left out) is this: Even if the self-indulgent impulses of the gay and lesbian minority were somehow strong enough to push the mountains of social change, self-indulgence wouldn't be pushing for the most evident social changes that we have actually seen.

      To put it simply, self-indulgence hasn't been hard for gays and lesbians to exercise within their subcultures. In fact, exclusion from the constraints on self-indulgence imposed by the institution of marriage has been an ongoing concern for many in the gay community. By having their entire sexuality systematically condemned in any conceivable expression, they are pushed outside the sphere of sexual ethics that channels and constrains sexual expression. If everything is equally abominable, then total self-indulgence is no worse than committed, faithful monogamy (and may actually be better, since the latter involves a deliberate commitment to so-called "sin"). The practical effect, given that few have the gift of celibacy, is a marginalized community denied of any of the healthy constraints on self-indulgence that most of us see as crucial for human welfare, given our own weakness of will.

      Pursuit of marriage equality has been, in large measure, an urgent pursuit of the sort of social supports that help people resist their more self-indulgent impulses. The recognition of weakness of will (what Christians call our sinful natures) leads those with a desire to promote their genuine good (rather than merely their desires) to seek out means of channeling and constraining and directing their impulses in healthy ways. This is the opposite of self-induglence. And growing access to this constraining and channeling institution called marriage has been the single most remarkable social shift with respect to gay rights. The social good of marriage is the good of having access to social supports for channeling our sexuality into healthy constraints, as opposed to indulging it.

    3. With this further piece in place, I think it becomes even harder to support the view that the majority's moral laxness vis-a-vis the minority, combined with the minority's self-indulgence, can explain the cultural shift we've seen. How is being lax towards sexual minorities supposed to enable them to achieve the goal of imposing the sorts of moral constraints on the expression of sexuality that the majority has been historically imposing on itself? How is self-indulgence on the part of sexual minorities supposed to motivate seeking participation in an institution that constrains self-indulgence?

      I suppose, if you went with reading (i) of moral laxness, you could attempt to construct the following kind of argument: The majority, wanting greater freedom to indulge its own sexual impulses, pursues a general lift on sexual moral constraints, one that by implication erases the constraint against homosexual expression. But THAT could hardly explain marriage equality, given that extending the institution of marriage to the gay community is about extending an institution that imposes moral constraints and expectations.

      The conservative narrative just doesn't fit. And it's poorness of fit is magnified by the other facts on the ground, most notably the fact that so many allies have been so clearly and explicitly moved to take up the gay rights cause by their compassion and empathy and love for their gay and lesbian neighbors. This doesn't spring from nowhere, but from the fact that more and more gays and lesbians have succeeded in articulating their lived experience in ways that resonates with that in us that lives in love.

      The conservative narrative has to either trivialize the significance of these facts, or explain them away as illusory. But as someone who has spent some small amount of time on the front lines of the movement, I can tell you they are no illusion--and they are very powerful. A transformative power.

      To watch my gay and lesbian friends speak of their experience in a way that stirs our human disposition for empathy, thereby moving hearts and minds towards a response of compassionate love--well, it resonates with grace. To watch the love of allies rise up in defense of the marginalized and oppressed is to witness the aura of Christ-in-us. It does not look anything like evil rising up against God's law. It looks like God at work among us. That the conservative narrative has to treat it as the former is a profound testament to just how out of tune with what is going on that narrative really is.

  2. Hi Eric, The "astonishing cultural shift in the last few years" included my recent membership with Accepting Evangelicals :-) Peace, Jim

  3. Hello Eric, you touch on many topics here!

    I think (or hope) I have developed a cogent argument for the acceptance of gay long-term relationships here:

    Sadly enough, many fundamentalists would say that God can command whatever he wishes without any reason, according to His good pleasure.

    Lovely greetings from France.