Gay Marriage and Christian Resistance

What is a conservative Christian to do? The US Supreme Court’s decision in favor of gay marriage has sent shock waves across America. Will conservative Christians accept this decision? Or, as some have warned, does this move our culture war over sexuality one step closer to real war?

More rainbows than a box of Lucky Charms...

More rainbows than a box of Lucky Charms…

Of particular interest at ILYBYGTH these days, the new ruling will likely meet its first test at conservative religious colleges. As we’ve noted (and as the New York Times eventually noticed) the SCOTUS ruling has brought up questions about the limits of acceptable dissent in higher ed. Can schools discriminate against homosexual “practice?” As I’m writing about in my current book, the same tension played out in the 1970s, when Bob Jones University insisted on its religious right to racial discrimination. It seems colleges will be the first institutions to feel pressure to accommodate demands to end institutional discrimination against homosexuals.

The reaction to the SCOTUS decision has been fast and furious among conservative evangelicals and other Christians. Rick Scarborough of Vision America told the New York Times that the decision must be resisted. “If they change the playing field and make what we do out of bounds,” Scarborough said,

we will disobey; we will disrespect this decision. . . . We’ll treat it like Dred Scott and other decisions courts have handed down over the years that counter natural law. God made a male and a female, and no amount of surgery is going to change that.

Similarly, Robert Jeffress told the Christian Post that the decision proves America’s persecution of Christians. As the Rev. Jeffress put it,

I think today’s decision is just one more step in the marginalization of conservative Christians. I made this argument and have been ridiculed for doing so, but I think it is very legitimate. The Nazis did not take the Jews to the crematoriums immediately. . . . The German people would not have put up with that. Instead, the Nazis begin to marginalize the Jewish people, make them objects of contempt and ridicule. Once they changed the public opinion about the Jewish people, then they engaged the [Holocaust]. . . . Once secularists have made Christians objects of contempt, I think it will be very easy to revoke other rights that they have as American citizens.

And in the pages of World Magazine, Ryan Shinkel advocated Christian resistance to an overweening state and society. “The movement for marital restoration is beginning,” Shinkel wrote just before the SCOTUS decision,

and the chance for moral courage and a life daring to be countercultural is at hand. By continuing to speak up for religious freedom, the restoration of a marriage culture, and dignity of the family in the face of potential setbacks at the Supreme Court, we can become the Nietzscheans who hammer the libertine and atomistic idols of our age.

Secular folks like me, progressive people who celebrate the SCOTUS decision, might blanch at these dire warnings. Some of my friends and colleagues might take these statements as proof that conservative Christians will never admit to marriage equality. But folks like us need to listen also to the other voices of conservative Christians.

In the Washington Post, for example, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention suggests Christians calm down. It is a terrible ruling, Moore agrees. And it does indeed push conservative evangelicals into a dissenting position that might seem “freakish” these days. But so what? Moore wants conservatives to “embrace a freakishness that saves.”

Similarly, Mark Galli of Christianity Today worries that evangelicals will react badly. “The temptation,” he writes,

is to go off and sulk in our holy corner. Or to dig in our heels and fight harder. Or to lash out in anger. Or to despair. We can do better.

The goal for Christians, Galli writes, is to take confidence that they are on the right side, God’s side. This decision provides another healthy—if intensely uncomfortable—opportunity for Christians to re-engage with important questions above love, marriage, and the proper relationship between Church and society. Though some conservatives might offer extreme rhetoric, Galli warns, evangelicals in America “are far from living at the margins.”

If we are to make sense of the culture-war rhetoric surrounding this SCOTUS decision, we need at least to remember some historical precedent. As I’ve argued elsewhere, for generations evangelical Christians have been battered by landmark SCOTUS decisions that seem to kick them out of public life. In every case, evangelical pundits have insisted that each new SCOTUS decision changed America from a Christian nation to a persecuting Babylon. In every case, however, evangelicals have continued to wield enormous cultural and political power.

Will this decision be any different? Will this decision really change the balance of power in America’s continuing culture-war debates?


Conservative Warriors and Homosexuality

Where is the line? What can conservatives say about homosexuality that won’t be considered bigotry? The case of Professor John McAdams has lit up the conservative intellectual world with its implications for the eroding respectability of conservative opposition to gay rights and the utterly transformed intellectual environment on US college campuses.

Let’s start with a few caveats. First, full disclosure: I taught one semester at Marquette University, Professor McAdams’s school. I also taught for several years down the street at Marquette High School, which is no longer directly connected to the university. I feel an abiding love for both institutions. More important, I am unapologetically biased in this case. I believe it is legitimate and important to regulate speech in public (and some private) forums, including college classrooms. Hard as it is to hear, some ideas do not deserve to be granted equal status with others. Ideas that dehumanize classes of people are not just as good as other ideas. For instance, if a student in a seminar wants to insist that no white people can possibly understand US history because they are by definition part of an exploitative class, such talk should be ruled out of bounds. It would tend to exclude an entire class of people simply because of their cultural identity. Similarly, if a student wanted to rule that homosexuals were incapable of being moral in their relationships, or that women cannot understand certain concepts, or that non-citizens have no right to be heard in political discussions, such talk should be out of bounds.

Of course, many conservative intellectuals share that basic framework, but they disagree bitterly that traditionalist notions about homosexuality constitute that same sort of exclusionary mentality. In other words, many conservative thinkers agree that public speech shouldn’t be racist or chauvinist, but they disagree that conservative ideas about homosexuality fall into that same category.

The steamroller drive of homosexual rights in recent months and years has put some traditionalist conservatives on edge. A few recent cases have raised hackles among many conservative thinkers. At Mozilla and Gordon College, to cite just two examples, conservative intellectuals attracted instant and furious retribution for statements that have been perceived as anti-gay. In each case, ideas that would have been unremarkable just a few years ago are now taken as beyond the pale of respectable public speech.

In the case of Professor McAdams, college politics and bureaucracy have added new wrinkles into the question of acceptable conservative opinion about homosexuality. In brief, McAdams has been suspended with pay and asked to stay away from campus. Why? He blogged about the statements of a teaching assistant. That TA had told a student that opposition to homosexual marriage would not be considered in a class on ethics. The student complained to Professor McAdams, and McAdams outed the TA on his blog.

As McAdams noted, his support for the student prompted furious condemnation by “leftist academics,” who “demanded our head on a pike.” A group of prominent faculty at Marquette published an open letter on the issue. McAdams’s actions, they write, constituted “harassment and intimidation” of the TA. Other members of the Marquette community, they write, altered their behavior to avoid similar attacks from McAdams.

In the end, McAdams has been suspended with pay. The Fox-News commentariat has had its chance to recoil in horror at the anti-conservative “inquisition.”

There is, of course, more at stake here than intellectual positions about homosexuality and gay rights. We also must consider faculty politics and the unfortunate ways academics learn to teach. How do teaching assistants learn to handle disagreement among students? When does a tenured professor have a duty not to attack publicly a non-degreed teaching assistant? How should faculty respond when a colleague behaves in ways they dislike?

At the center of all these questions, however, is the question of conservatism and homosexuality. Not too long ago, opposition to gay marriage was a common part of our mainstream political discussion. These days, in college seminars, newspapers, technology companies, and public policy, any conservative notion that homosexuals do not have the right to marry one another is often considered rank bigotry.

Is it possible for conservative intellectuals to oppose gay marriage without being branded bigots? Has that culture-war train left the station?

The Kids Are Alright

Want to see a progressive society? Just wait. Each new generation gets less uptight about gay marriage, evolution, abortion rights, and gender equality. Right? Maybe not. Controversy-loving sociologist Mark Regnerus has produced another study sure to provoke more outrage. In this case, Regnerus claims to find that young conservative evangelicals are not swinging toward a glowing progressive future.

Regnerus first came to culture-war attention with his 2012 study of gay-marriage parenting. Unlike most other sociological studies, Regnerus found that children raised by same-sex parents did not fare as well as children raised by their biological parents.

In his new study of attitudes towards sex in America, Regnerus concluded that young conservative evangelicals are bucking the trend toward youthful progressivism. While young Americans in general might be more welcoming toward gay marriage, abortion rights, and gender equality, young conservatives are not, Regnerus claims.

Conservative Baptists Russell Moore and Andrew Walker take great solace from Regnerus’ findings. Moore and Walker, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, celebrate the “sexual counter-revolution” heralded by Regnerus’ study. Conservative Christians, Moore and Walker noted recently in the pages of National Review Online, can trust that the new generation will cling to tradition. As they put it,

Regnerus’s research suggests that younger Evangelicals aren’t hewing to the culture’s expectation that they conform to its values. That’s a welcome reality, especially given the significant cultural pressures that young Christians face in today’s culture. This lines up with what we, as conservative Evangelicals, see happening in our own congregations across America.

As American culture secularizes, the most basic Christian tenets seem ever more detached from mainstream American culture. Those who identify with Christianity, and who gather with the people of God, have already decided to walk out of step with the culture. Beliefs aren’t assumed but are articulated over and against a culture that finds them implausible. Evangelical views on sexuality seem strange, but young Evangelicals in post-Christianizing America have already embraced strangeness by spending Sunday morning at church rather than at brunch.

Certainly, ever since the birth of conservative evangelicalism as a dissenting identity in the 1920s, young evangelicals have stayed true to conservative ideas. In the 1920s, as I argue in my 1920s book, young members of the new “fundamentalist” coalition defied new stereotypes of “flaming youth” to assert a proudly traditional, religiously orthodox youthful conservatism. And as I’m exploring in my current research, in the 1960s conservative evangelical college campuses were hotbeds of a different sort of student activism, the “sexual counter-revolution” noted by Moore and Walker.

An Earlier Generation of Youthful Counter-Revolutionaries: YAF, 1967

An Earlier Generation of Youthful Counter-Revolutionaries: YAF, 1967

But just as Regnerus’ gay-marriage research seemed too pat, too comforting to conservative activists, so this finding does not seem to deserve the celebration lavished upon by Moore and Walker. Young conservatives may be more traditional than their young contemporaries. But those young conservatives might also be more progressive than their elder evangelicals. The times might not be a-changin’ as fast as some progressives have often assumed, but it seems a little weird for conservative evangelical leaders to conclude that young evangelicals are not moving toward the new mainstream on sexual issues.


Gay Marriage Turns Children into Slaves

Will gay marriage lead to child slavery?

That’s the forecast implied recently by George Weigel in a recent column.

Weigel comments on a new bill proposed in Washington DC by the Council’s “most aggressively activist gay member.”  The bill would legalize surrogate child-bearing.  To Weigel, this arrangement treats both biological mother and child as mere commodities to be negotiated over.  As he laments,

The highest local legislative body in the federal capital is considering a bill that would commodify children as fit objects for sale and purchase—which is precisely what happened in Washington’s antebellum slave markets.

A tad histrionic, you say?

The liberal voice inside my head (and yes, I have several contending voices in there) shouts that this is just another cynical conservative attempt to demonize gay marriage.  Calling surrogate parenting a form of human trafficking is nothing but another bald-faced attempt to push irrelevant non-issues to the fore in the contentious discussion over gay marriage.

And I certainly believe that Dr. Weigel is trying to be provocative here.  But there is more behind Weigel’s accusation than just garden-variety demonization.

As we’ve argued repeatedly (see, for example, here, here, or here), questions of child ownership are central in every iteration of America’s blustery culture wars.

Schools have responsibility for children.  So do parents.  But who gets to make which decisions?

Some may assert that no one owns a child; a child is a person and therefore owns him- or herself.

But that sidesteps the issue.

Children, by definition, are not yet adults.  They are not able—legally or developmentally—to take responsibility for themselves.

Until they can, others must assume custodial roles.

When Dr. Weigel insists that non-traditional child-raising raises the specter of slave markets, he is walking a well-trod rhetorical path.

If children can’t quite own themselves, then questions about ownership will remain central to every culture-war discussion.


“I Hope You Rot in Hell:” Greetings from a Liberal Fundamentalist

Are there “fundamentalists” of every political and cultural persuasion?  That is, do some people cling to such extreme and unbending worldviews—from the political and cultural left as well as the right—that they lash out at any dissent?  People—religious or not—who cannot tolerate any deviation from the Truth As They Know It?

It seems we have an example of such a thing from the cornfields of Iowa today.

The Sioux City Journal reported recently on a simmering conflict between an evangelical pastor and a gay politician.

Pastor Cary Gordon of Cornerstone World Outreach complained that Human Rights Commissioner Scott Raasch had made hateful and threatening comments a few years back.  At issue, apparently, was The Reverend Gordon’s opposition to Iowa Supreme Court judges who had supported gay marriage.

A few years ago, according to the Sioux City Journal, their disagreement degraded into the following Facebook exchange:

In one comment, Raasch wrote: “You are haters and bigots and you will get what’s coming to you sooner or later. I hope you rot in hell.”

Gordon replied, “I hope you repent of your sins and accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. I wouldn’t want you or anyone else to go to hell.”

Raasch wrote, “I know Christ and don’t need a snake oil salesman like you to tell me about him. I guess that’s the difference between us because I think there are many people that deserve to burn in hell … including you and your entire family.”


The Reverend Gordon called for Raasch’s removal from the Human Rights Commission.  Someone with such extreme views, Gordon argued, should not be in charge of making rulings on discrimination cases that involve religious issues, as well as issues of race, creed, gender, and sexual orientation.

Raasch has admitted that he made the comments, and apologized for any stress caused.

Is this an example of what we might call “liberal fundamentalism?”  A case where someone feels so morally assured of his own righteousness that he lashes out at dissenters in such an angry way?


The Culture War Is Over: Conservatives Lost

Gay Marriage will not wreck traditional marriage, Rod Dreher argues.  Instead, the rapid mainstreaming of gay marriage simply proves that traditional marriage was wrecked long ago.

In his recent piece in The American Conservative, Dreher channels Philip Rieff to argue that conservative Christians have already lost the culture wars.  The notion that people exist first and foremost as individuals replaced a sense of people as part of a Christian community long ago.

The current debate over gay marriage only serves as a mopping-up action by anti-Christianity.  The Christian sexual ethic, Rieff argued back in the 1960s, was not merely one rule imposed by Christianity.  Rather, the Christian sexual ethic represented the core of Christianity’s revolutionary anti-pagan cosmology.  Sex was not merely an expression of individual desire, but of God’s cosmic plan.  When Western culture abandoned that sexual ethic, Rieff argued, it offered nothing in its place.

Homosexuality and the issue of gay marriage, Dreher notes, do not change this pattern, but only complete it.  Dreher bases his case on data from Robert Putnam and David Campbell.  These political scientists noted in their 2010 book American Grace a striking demographic correlation between acceptance of homosexuality as morally neutral and a rapid decline in church membership.  When young people see homosexuality as just another way to be sexual, they do not switch to a liberal church.  Instead, they leave institutional Christianity altogether.

As Dreher argues,

Gay marriage signifies the final triumph of the Sexual Revolution and the dethroning of Christianity because it denies the core concept of Christian anthropology. In classical Christian teaching, the divinely sanctioned union of male and female is an icon of the relationship of Christ to His church and ultimately of God to His creation. This is why gay marriage negates Christian cosmology, from which we derive our modern concept of human rights and other fundamental goods of modernity. Whether we can keep them in the post-Christian epoch remains to be seen.


In the News: Update–Chick fil A, Traditional Values, Gay Rights, and Boycotting as Culture War

We’ve been reading with interest the developing story of Dan Cathy and Chick-fil-A.  Defenders such as Mike Huckabee have called for a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.  Opponents have rallied for a boycott of all Chick-fil-A branches.  Why?  Cathy’s comments and philanthropic donations have supported what he would call “traditional families.”  His opponents call them anti-gay.

The questions in this story have attracted the attention of everyone interested in today’s culture wars:

  • What does it mean to support traditional families?
  • What role do businesses play in promoting cultural values?
  • Is a consumer boycott a viable tactic for culture war victory?

So far we’ve refrained from posting any more news on this developing story.  But yesterday Darren Grem on Religion in American Life posted an analysis that was so insightful, we thought we’d recommend it.  If you’re following this story, or even wondering about it, Grem’s article is a great place to start.  He offers a cash-flow chart of where every dollar spent at Chick-fil-A likely goes.  We are looking forward to reading more when Grem’s book comes out.


Fundamentalist Fast Food? Christian Chicken? Fresh Hot Hate?

Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy

The interweb has been squawking about Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy’s recent statements.  Earlier this week, Cathy told the Baptist Press that his 1600-strong chain of fast-food restaurants was founded on Biblical principles, and will keep running that way.  Part of this means support for the traditional family.  “We are very much supportive of the family,” Cathy said,

“– the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.”

Chick-fil-A’s committment to Biblical values goes beyond supporting traditional marriage.  Most famously, the restaurants are closed on Sundays.  The corporation also conducts missionary work among its workers, to its customers, and in its advertising.  When asked about his support for such Fundamentalist groups as Exodus International and the Family Research Council, Cathy happily replied, “Guilty as charged.”

Opponents have accused Chick-fil-A of an anti-gay position.  Many took umbrage at Cathy’s assertion that non-traditional marriages “invit[ed] God’s judgment on our nation.”  On Wednesday, Tim Carman asked in the Washington Post if readers would continue to eat there.  Not everyone will.  As Melissa Browning noted in the Huffington Post, “I can’t eat hate.”  But it appears Browning represents a minority, at least among Carman’s readers.  The results of the Washington Post poll (as of 11:00 New York time on Friday, July 20, 2012) showed 62% of almost 19,000 respondents planning to continue their patronage.

Nevertheless, Chick-fil-A offered yesterday a clarification of its position.  It officially noted that it takes no position on gay marriage.  However, it plans to continue its policy of “Biblically-based” management principles.

Does it matter if chicken is processed biblically?  More important, do we need to be sure that every dollar we spend supports only those corporations whose culture-war positions are as palatable as their products?