I am unqualified to criticize the theology in Robert Gagnon’s hefty essay on the biblical errors in Alan Chambers’ leadership of Exodus International. But what’s at stake here is pretty considerable, and more than just theological. Chambers is president of Exodus, the group that assists Evangelical Christians with “same-sex attraction.” Exodus had famously supported the notion that gays could change their sexual orientation, but Chambers – a gay man who is satisfactorily married to a woman, though he does not deny he continues to be sexually attracted to men – says now that he doubts such change in orientation is possible.
His change about change is important, as the sheer length of Gagnon’s critique (35 pages, with appendices) suggests, because it lets us see what Maggie Gallagher and the NOM Choir try so furiously to obscure: all that is left of the debate over homosexuality is the vestigial tail of a religious question about sin.
Gagnon starts out with religion (the entire first three pages are devoted to the writings of the Apostle Paul), but it’s soon clear he is quite exercised about the fact that Chambers may be removing Exodus from the political playing field. Chambers’ comments have made “homosexualist” groups “smell blood in the water.” They will take advantage of Chambers’ naïve attempt to be apolitical.
Religion vs. Politics is now the gold standard for discussing gay equality, and Gagnon’s invocations of that framework show how closely he has been listening to his brothers and sisters in Christ who don’t wear their theology on their sleeve. Gagnon explicitly adopts Maggie Gallagher’s “they’re out to get us” mentality (perfected by Frank Schubert), charging that Chambers’ abdication threatens “foisting on us laws that will attenuate our own civil rights and coerce acceptance of homosexual unions in the civil sphere.”
That kind of talk, in an essay that purports to be almost exclusively about what proper theology has to say about the sin of homosexuality (and sin, in general) is telling. Chambers’ comments about sexual orientation and change would not be all that consequential but for the fact that they undermine the entire religious foundation of the remaining phantoms about homosexuality. Gagnon frets about “serial-unrepentant homosexual practice,” and sees acceptance of that as sending us all down the slippery slope to committed homosexual unions. To Gagnon, this is a moral disaster in the making because it erodes the moral superiority that religious believers so love to lord over ignorant or vicious homosexualists:
. . . my main concern is that Alan’s comments to those living a homosexual life are ultimately unloving and ungracious. I don’t doubt that Alan intended his comments to “gay Christians” to be otherwise. Yet the actual result is to leave such persons deceived by giving them a message of “peace and security” when instead danger hangs over them (1 Thess 5:1-11). Who is gracious and loving? The parent that assures a child that crossing a busy intersection without looking both ways will produce no harm or the parent that does everything in his or her power to warn the child about the potential harm? Obviously the latter, for the warning is part of the makeup of a loving parent. In fact, state social services agencies count the former as abuse.
The arrogance of such christianity is what drives many truer Christians mad. Lesbians and gay men are not the only ones who have been so lovingly parented by christians who claimed to have only the best interest of fully adult “children” at heart. This is the same brand of tender love that christian men were expected to exercise over their wives (and all women), and that christian whites had toward blacks.
But the toxic paternalism is not just for christians. That reference to “state social services agencies” is another slip where Gagnon reveals that while his concern is religious in concept, he intends it to be civil in application. His religious critique shows that his real interest is secular politics.
It’s certainly fair for religious people to participate fully in American politics. But there is a disconnect between arguments believers find religiously persuasive and those that will change the minds of non adherents. Sin, in particular, has always been a tricky notion in interfaith contests, and leaves nonbelievers cold.
But it’s not just in the political realm where Gagnon overestimates his own brand of expertise. He acknowledges Chambers may be right that homosexual orientation might not be entirely changeable, but says even incremental changes could still be valuable:
It is not necessary that reparative therapy achieve complete transformation from “gay” to straight in order to be helpful. One or two shifts along the Kinsey spectrum or a change in intensity of homosexual impulses can be beneficial.
I don’t know what is known about how or whether sexual orientation can be changed, but I’m pretty confident that no one yet has studied whether something as inherently subjective as sexual attraction can be moved – or measured – fractionally. In any case, I’m not persuaded that theological scholars are the ones best suited to be pronouncing on the prospect.
Gagnon’s primary point is that social acceptance of homosexuality “regularizes the sin.” I can’t judge the merits of his theological case, but this is, in the end, only a theological case, and only one of those. Other theologians obviously disagree, as do other non-theologically inclined Christians.
But that divide within Christianity itself, endangers the monopoly that the fundamentalist brands of christianity demand, and in their worst moments have tried to foist on the general public. While Christian thinking has been all over the map on so many other issues, the more fundamentalist tribes have generally been able to hold the line on homosexual sin. But for them, too, that line is fading, and Chambers exacerbates the problem. If sexual attraction can’t be changed, and if homosexual attraction in particular can’t be stamped out or ignored, then the case for just accepting gay people within the civil law is not just strong, its opposite is inhumane.
This is the turning point for religion today. The possibility that lifelong heterosexual marriage may not be exactly at the center of the moral universe is as threatening to Gagnon as the location of the earth itself was to Pope Urban VIII when Galileo was sentenced to prison. Gagnon is fighting every bit as hard (with more limited resources) for the status quo.
Galileo and Copernicus did not eliminate the earth, they just noticed – and said — that it was located somewhere other than where the Vatican had always placed it. That’s a religious problem only if you are under the impression that earthly religious leaders are as inevitably correct in their scientific thinking as they are in their theology. But the Bible isn’t an authority on everything, and sometimes people use the Bible’s words to make moral issues out of things that aren’t properly moral. The earth is no less important because it circles a larger body, and heterosexual marriage is no less important because it is not in every human’s nature to be attracted to the opposite sex. There is plenty of room in the universe for God, still, and morality — even sexual morality. And maybe God approves when humans acknowledge their errors.
Chambers isn’t Galileo, just as Gagnon isn’t Pope Urban; but today’s evangelical Inquisition is every bit as vainglorious as its Catholic predecessor, every bit as contemptuous of unbelievers, and every bit as likely to expose the sin of its own excess of hubris.