The Sin

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.


The sound you hear is Jay Carney breathing the world’s deepest sigh of relief.

For him, the squirming and hedging and sweating are over.  The President is on record supporting same-sex marriage.  There is an answer now to the question.

Yes, it’s Obama’s personal view, and yes, he’s said he supported same-sex marriage before, and then wandered afield.  But when you’re in any other political office, you can take positions that might play out differently when you’re being asked about the question in the presidential arena.  Ask Mitt Romney about health care.  Or anything.

Of course I think Obama did the right thing morally.  But for those of us who enjoy the chess of politics, I also think it was exquisite strategy.  First, after the loss in North Carolina, Obama’s campaign had a convention to worry about.  In that place and with that political context, any fudging on the bottom line would have been unacceptable to a lot of conventioneers at best, and could have led to some very ugly protests inside and/or outside the convention hall.

That’s taken care of now.  The only possible protests left will come from the motley, disgruntled religious types, who aren’t part of Obama’s base, and don’t figure into a winning electoral strategy for him.  Those protests, if they happen, now come under the heading of So What?

And that leads to the bigger point.  This is fine politics because it boxes Romney in with the worst part of his party.  Karl Rove poisoned the well on this issue, and now Obama is making Romney drink, and drink deeply.

Which Romney promptly did, and from a bigger cup than Obama could have hoped for.  Romney said he is not only opposed to same-sex marriage, but to any legal recognition of same-sex couples that approaches marriage equality — just what the worst part of North Carolina gave a big thumbs-up to.

How can Romney now appeal to the 2/3 of Americans who can no longer abide the complete exclusion of same-sex couples and their families from the law?  What he is stuck with are the politically tone-deaf, like the American Family Association and the Catholic League, who are so blinded by full marriage equality that they can’t see. . . um, straight.  Their hysteria increases in direct proportion to the growing support for full marriage equality, and for the middle ground of civil unions.  They are now 2/3 of the way to Spinal Tap’s famous eleven.

There are, of course, a lot of other issues, and an eternity until the election; lots of things are possible.  But on this issue, Obama just made his life a whole lot easier, and Romney’s a lot more difficult.  Obama has made it clear that he wants no part of the religious right’s intolerance on sexual orientation.  That’s a political strategy, and it’s a defensible moral stance.  But most of all, it’s got to be nice not to have to pretend you need the kind of votes that Bryan Fischer and the sadly devolved offspring of Billy Graham have to offer.

The Repentant Gingrich?

So Newt Gingrich’s ex-wife says that he asked for an open marriage while he carried on an affair with his mistress (now wife) Callista. Meanwhile, candidate Gingrich speaks with a straight face about the sanctity of “one man, one woman” marriage:

“I will support sending a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman to the states for ratification. I will also oppose any judicial, bureaucratic, or legislative effort to define marriage in any manner other than as between one man and one woman.”

His defenders from the religious right—including Rick Perry—claim that Jesus offers forgiveness and redemption to repentant sinners. Presumably, in their minds, anyone in a committed same-sex relationship counts as unrepentant.

But the distinction they’re trying to make between divorce and homosexuality doesn’t hold up, even on their own principles.

Yes, the Bible speaks of forgiveness and redemption. But if marriage really is “until death do us part,” then Gingrich is still committing adultery with Callista. Don’t take my word for it, however–take Jesus’:

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10: 11-12)

This double standard is worth pointing out, frequently, publicly and forcefully.

Where I’ve Been

I’ve been quiet on this site for a while, in large part because I’ve retired my weekly column at, which has since announced that it’s going to shut down.  (I’ll resist the temptation to commit the post hoc fallacy.) Meanwhile I have been working on the book Debating Same-Sex Marriage for Oxford University Press, in which I argue against Maggie Gallagher; we’ve made progress and expect it to appear in Spring/Summer 2012. And I’ll be doing my usual Fall Speaking Tour, so if you’re near one of the venues, come listen, ask questions, applaud, cheer, heckle, or whatever.

Real Political Action at CPAC

‘We’re not trying to … sneak the left’s agenda into the conservative movement.”

Those are the words of GOProud’s Christopher Barron in explaining why the very, very conservative Andrew Breitbart, as well as Grover Norquist, Ann Coulter and others have given genuine support to a group of openly gay Republicans.  Chris Geidner’s first rate and exquisitely fair reporting for Metro Weekly gives both the left and the right — and the really far right — room to make their points.  GOProud obviously isn’t everyone’s cup of Darjeeling, but they are not the enemy of the gay movement.  The only ones who need to worry about them are those Republicans who want to purge the party of any open homosexuals.

The heart of GOProud’s position is this:

“The problem is that the gay left has decided what qualifies as pro-gay and what qualifies as anti-gay, and a whole bunch of the stuff that they think qualifies as pro-gay, I don’t think has anything to do with being pro-gay,” says Barron. ”And, a whole bunch of stuff that they think is anti-gay, I don’t think is anti-gay at all.”

This is clearly anathema to the gay left, which has too frequently tarred anyone who questions any proposal they put forth as acting in bad faith.  But it also teases out the problem Log Cabin has had among Republicans.  In order to get along with the leadership of the gay left — which is pretty much the leadership of the gay rights movement thus far — LCR has supported laws that purport to help lesbians and gay men, from ENDA to hate crimes laws to anti-bullying bills.  These proposals run counter to the genuinely conservative impulses of a strong (and I think the best) conservative philosophy espoused by Republicans.  Government power necessarily relies on politics, and in a culture war, those politics can get corrosive when they’re not outright dangerous.  In a vibrant democracy political power is dynamic; as its contours shift, the changes can intensify cultural divisions rather than resolving them.

Democrats tend to believe government has an extraordinary ability to solve, or at least ease, problems, and we Dems can minimize the consequences those power shifts cause, usually by pretending they will not occur.  LCR was no liberal bastion, but they developed decent working relationships with the Democratic problem solvers.

That coalition had some success in enacting hate crimes laws, AIDS programs and other accomplishments.  DADT would not have been repealed without LCR’s help, particularly in the form of their lawsuit against the federal government.  But DADT, like DOMA, is different in kind from ENDA and its legislative brethren.  ENDA asks the government to help ease discrimination; DADT and DOMA are, themselves, discrimination by the government that purports to be neutral with respect to all citizens.

GOProud can be disingenuous, and that’s clear when it comes to marriage.  Barron says his group opposes DOMA, but on grounds of federalism, not equality.  The implication is that the constitution’s guarantee of equality does not apply to homosexuality. That’s something I certainly don’t agree with, but it would be a good question to put to GOProud.

In any event, the tawdry accusations that GOProud is anti-gay or even self-hating are hard to make stick to Barron and Jimmy LaSalvia, his partner in crime.  No one can accuse them of being closeted or lacking in political interest.  They have a vision of what is and is not a proper role for government that is respectable and (at least what we’ve been able to see of it) fairly consistent.   It is not the Democrats’ vision of government, but why should it be?  Their opposition to hate crimes laws and ENDA and other social tinkering by the federal government is not an attempt to disguise some other political motives, nor are they giving cover to people whose revulsion derives from a fundamental opposition to homosexuals.

GOProud proves that there is no necessary connection between conservatism and homophobia, an assumption that has been the foundation of the religious right’s incursion into the Republican party.  GOProud is short-circuiting it, and the sparks are flying.

How could that not be a good thing?

Brothers and Sisters

Alabama and Florida have new Governors who are actively catering to the Christians in their states.  Alabama’s Robert Bentley explicitly appealed to his fellow “brothers and sisters” in Christ, unaware that this could be taken badly by anyone who is not in the family.  He was subsequently informed that Alabama does, in fact, have a smattering of non Southern Baptists, and did his best to apologize for any hurt feelings.

Governor Rick Scott in Florida is using his government position to further Christianity in the more traditional way – behind the scenes.  His new Secretary of the Department of Children and Families is David Wilkins, who also serves as Finance Chairman for Florida Baptist Children’s Homes, which describes itself as an “organization dedicated to providing Christ-centered services to children and families. . .” That’s hardly surprising for a Baptist organization.  Wilkins test will come when he has to deal with citizens who are not seeking Christ-centered services.

This certainly doesn’t bode well for same-sex couples in Florida.  Gov. Scott has said that adoption should be limited to married couples, using the traditional formulation to exclude homosexuals without saying so.  This goes against a state appellate court ruling, which overturned Florida’s unique-in-the-nation rule prohibiting adoption (but not foster parenting) by anyone who is homosexual, and against simple arithmetic, with the number of children needing adoption, on one side of the equation, and the number of married couples willing to adopt, on the other.

These new governors will be pushing the limits of the distinction between Christians and “Christianists,” the term Andrew Sullivan coined to describe Christians who go beyond believing in and acting on their faith, and attempt to impose it on believers and nonbelievers alike through civil law.

They may want to exercise some caution.  The First Amendment to the Constitution protects religion from state coercion, but it does something else as well: it protects religions from one another.  That’s not necessarily a constitutional matter, but it’s at least as important.  You don’t have to search very hard to come up with examples of religions that hold government power in various nations and leverage their power to disadvantage people of other religions.

But that’s nothing compared to the leverage religious believers have over different sects of their own religion.  Just because Shiites and Sunnis are both Islamic doesn’t mean they have the same view of religion, or of the state.  In fact, divisions within religions may be more intractable and emotionally held than broader religious differences.  Henry VIII didn’t fight Rome in order to start a Jewish sect; he felt he was every bit as much a Christian as the corrupt boys on the continent, possibly more so.

Religion can be a special case of epistemic closure.  Belief is so personal and interior that it’s easy to lose perspective, or fail to appreciate that others believe very, very different things at their very core, not only about obvious politicized issues, but about God’s grace, itself, and God’s own identity.

And that’s not just true across religions, but within individual sects.  Governor Bentley’s Southern Baptist brothers and sisters belong to one of many dozens of Baptist denominations that aren’t always in complete harmony. There are enough Presbyterian denominations that Wikipedia has to alphabetize them.

And individual believers are even more varied.  It’s easy to forget that Al Sharpton is a Baptist minister, and that Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Warren Beatty are all Baptists as well. Catholics are fairly unique in having a single, institutional voice to guide them – one which is widely ignored by actual, practicing Catholics in so many particulars, high among them gay marriage.

The First Amendment is a reminder that a government which can not command religious belief has to be cautious of religious reasoning, itself, which inevitably leads to so many different, but firmly held conclusions.  Gov. Bentley’s religious belief is clearly not something he holds lightly, but even in Alabama, it shouldn’t be surprising that in the civil arena, its assertion by the state’s leading political figure is viewed in political terms.  Gov. Scott can certainly rely on a large cohort of religious believers who oppose any legal recognition of same-sex couples, but he is not the Minister of Florida, he is its governor.

And homosexual citizens are among his constituents.  Religions have the power to deny membership to anyone they wish, but states are different.  Christianist governors (and other powerful religious politicians) can’t ignore or exclude lesbians and gay men from the society; they can only use power to rig their rights.  And as the non-religious reasons for doing so collapse under ordinary scrutiny, the religious motivations are exposed not only to secular review, but examination by other competing religions and religious thinkers as well.

Those religious debates have both enlightened and inflamed centuries of human progress.  But they have not combined well with secular government.  The First Amendment has stood as an excellent guardrail between our nation and a noxious religious nihilism.  Its wisdom is still evident.

Just A Fact

One of the reasons antigay opinion has been eroding in this country is that the (primarily) religious opponents of equality have become so melodramatic and quixotic in their rhetoric, driven by what looks like a maniacal sense of persecution that reasonable observers can’t possibly take seriously.  The distance between observable reality and the comic overcharacterization of that reality is leaving decent people who might not otherwise have made up their mind giving us the benefit of the doubt.  Lesbians and gay men may not all be models of rectitude and moderation, but at least we have some respectable arguments to make that seem to reflect a recognizable real world.

A good example of the self-dramatized hyperbole comes from Tony Perkins.  He has been peddling this line recently, about the danger of the Prop. 8 ruling:  “If this case stands, we’ll have gone, in one generation, from 1962, when the Bible was banned in public schools to religious beliefs being banned in America.”  I heard him make this case at TheCall in Sacramento last weekend, and he is now selling it on religious broadcasts as well.

His grievance is with Judge Walker’s 77th Finding of Fact, which Perkins correctly quotes:  “Religious beliefs that gay and lesbian relationships are sinful or inferior to heterosexual relationships harm gays and lesbians.”  Perkins doesn’t add that the finding is accompanied (as any proper trial court finding of fact would have to be) by citations to the record at trial – 18 of them – supporting the conclusion.  Perkins does complain that Judge Walker ignored all the facts presented by his side, but his real argument is with the lawyers and witnesses who defended Prop. 8, who didn’t exactly offer up a buffet of evidence for the judge to pick from.

Fact #77 doesn’t stand alone (there are 79 other findings of fact, every one also supported by numerous citations to the evidence at trial), nor would its absence make any difference in the conclusions of law the judge reaches.  Perkins cherry-picks that one fact only because it is the one that can be massaged to fit into his persecution.

Even if you believed that civil marriage equality would somehow affect religious believers (because some of them might see the conflict more clearly between what their religion professes and what the civil law accepts), or would even undermine some religions (to the extent that opposing homosexuality is part of the infrastructure of their morality), it is hard to see how this would lead to “religious beliefs being banned in America.”  The same first amendment that prohibits the teaching of particular religions in public schools (without “banning” Bibles, by the way — yet more of the melodrama) also protects religious believers in the exercise of their religion, however much those beliefs differ with civic policy.  Just because Perkins would not be able to prohibit same-sex marriage laws does not mean he is not allowed to believe, preach, or even ban within his congregation same-sex marriage or divorce or abortion or eating meat on Fridays.

It is, I’m sure, a disappointment for these religious believers to hear that their beliefs about the sinfulness of homosexuality are viewed differently by others.  But how insular would your worldview have to be to be surprised by that?  Certainly, they believe they are loving us by trying to steer us to an inner heterosexuality (or celibacy) that will better serve our long-term spiritual needs.  But is it such a shock to learn that non-believers could find that presumptuous and condescending, and even a little bit injurious?

Harm alone doesn’t amount to a constitutional violation, and people who think they’re helping me are as free to hurt me in this way as I suppose I hurt them by saying that I think they hold wrong and harmful positions.  The only reason they’re losing support is because they have so successfully blinded themselves to the idea that differences of opinion – even, and maybe especially religious opinion – is OK.  That’s just a fact.