By David Gushee
Follow David: @dpgushee
Last week I claimed that contemporary behavioral scientists and mental health experts have responded to research evidence, and the lives of LGBT people, by reconceptualizing human sexuality.
I suggested that there is a fork in the road here, between accepting these relatively new but firmly held clinical claims about sexual orientation and refusing to do so. I also acknowledged that the acceptance of research/clinical/factual claims does not resolve moral issues–though it should inform moral reasoning. There is a difference between descriptive-level claims and prescriptive-level claims, as I often teach my students. (Descriptive claims describe what is going on; prescriptive claims prescribe actions and offer moral norms.) I am moving one step at a time in these columns, even if some of my respondents have leaped ahead of me.
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In my next two columns I want to explore the sometimes surprising trajectory of responses in recent years to “the LGBT issue” on the Christian traditionalist side; that is, among those who continue to believe and teach exclusively heterosexual-marital sexual ethics.
The landscape has changed in positive ways for gay people that are important to notice.
When the first major call for social equality for gays and lesbians began to be heard in the United States in the 1970s, Christian resistance was fierce. It is instructive to remember the voices of people like Anita Bryant, who for a few years led a ferocious anti-gay campaign that was picked up later by Tim LaHaye and others. Opposition to gay rights was deep and pervasive in the agenda of the Christian Right, and many of us still remember the way gay people were blamed by some for bringing divine judgment on America through such disasters as 9/11 and Katrina.
Westboro Baptist Church has provided a horrifying example of the continued survival of “Christian” contempt for gay and lesbian people, but their very marginality has been instructive evidence of progress elsewhere.
Discrimination against gays in employment, government and military service, housing, adoption rights, and other sectors was once seen by some Christians as a righteous crusade. All kinds of demeaning rhetoric was employed about gays, sometimes from the pulpit. This overall climate contributed to the conditions for much derogatory everyday language about gay people, or people who “seemed” gay, or who “looked” gay, as well as other forms of direct and indirect bullying, including of children. What was proclaimed loftily from the pulpit was all too often translated less loftily on the playground.
I remember one incident quite vividly. I was at a minor league baseball game, about ten years ago. A player on the opposing team had a last name that was very similar to a commonly employed derogatory term for gay men that I am unwilling to put in print. Every time he came up to bat he was serenaded by a group of clean-cut young men near the third base dugout. They simply sang out his name, over and over, in order to make fun of him and by extension every person who has ever been called by that particular anti-gay slur.
I learned later that these clean-cut young men were fraternity brothers at a nearby Christian college.
I am not at all saying that the situation has been transformed, or that LGBT people no longer experience any of these things, or that there aren’t still plenty of Christians who might pull that kind of stunt.
But still, the landscape has changed dramatically. The vast majority of Christians who could be classified as traditionalists on “the LGBT issue” have backpedaled considerably from the claims, and behaviors, of the Anita Bryant era. This is all to the good.
Breaking sharply with the past, though usually without acknowledging any movement in their own position, leaders of many traditionalist Christian communities or institutions do their best to avoid verbally stigmatizing or demonizing gays and lesbians as their forebears did not long ago.
Previous public policy and culture fights that traditionalist Christians once led have almost been forgotten or abandoned. Remember the Disney boycott? The Teletubbies? The fight over gays in the military? These once gained national headlines. On these, traditionalist Christians largely have gone silent.
After the bruising civil gay marriage battles of recent years, some traditionalist Christian leaders acknowledge that on the cultural and legal front, at least for now, their side is losing. Some are suggesting that the fights over gay marriage are doing the church’s mission more harm than good, and that it is time to fall back from that struggle.
This helps explain the newfound focus on religious liberty for traditionalists; it is a fallback position. It represents retrenchment–“if we can’t win the culture, we can at least protect our right to dissent.” More on that in a later column.
Change is happening in relation to the clinical and scientific claims as well, undoubtedly related to straight people more often getting to know lesbian and gay people. In 1993, 22 percent of Americans reported having a close friend or family member who was gay or lesbian. In 2013, that number had risen to 65 percent. This is certainly my own experience. It is making a big difference.
More and more traditionalist Christians now accept (however reluctantly) that a small portion of human beings simply are of same-sex orientation. Fewer make the ungrounded claim that sexual orientation is willful perversity, chosen and changeable. Many traditionalist Christians understand that millions of their neighbors have adopted a sexual identity as “lesbian,” “gay,” or “bisexual,” and that these core self-identities point to something real and significant that it is counterproductive to ignore. And more and more traditionalist Christians have gay friends. These trends are especially clear among younger Christians.
And so, it is increasingly agreed, even on the traditionalist Christian side:
Gay people exist. It is wrong to call them names or use slurs about them. Their relationships should not be criminalized. They should not be discriminated against in employment, housing, and public accommodation. They should not be bullied. They should never have to be afraid of violence as they go about their daily lives. They should not be blamed for America’s security problems or social ills. They should not be stigmatized or treated with contempt. There should be no space in church life or culture for their dehumanization and mistreatment.
I hope any Christian reader, anywhere in the world, regardless of your views on Christian sexual ethics, can agree with that last paragraph. If you agree, you already support significant change from what the Christian status quo was not so long ago.