A Matter of Substance

Jonathan Merritt reports that evangelical ethicist David Gushee is now pro-LGBT.  The move will no doubt be greeted by some as a sign of cultural capitulation and a rejection of biblical authority. Others will regard it as a hopeful sign that evangelicalism might come to regard as legitimate sexual relationships between those of the same sex.  But, while it may be a sign of the times, it is hardly radical or revolutionary.

Homosexuality has a long history.  In ancient Athens and Sparta, for example, it was not considered scandalous but a phase of the life cycle.  Indeed, so routine was it in Sparta that, when the men finally married women, the women typically had to cut their hair and dress like men for the wedding night so as to ease the transition for the men to a heterosexual relationship.  Yet sexuality was not essential to the identity of Spartans in the way it is to people today.  That is what makes the issue of sex into something that transcends matters of private choice and gives it pressing public importance.  Indeed, the current political significance of sexual preferences is unprecedented.  The fact that even the First Amendment now appears to be vulnerable to challenges because of homosexuality is both a remarkable and surely unexpected (if not utterly bizarre) development.  

For an evangelical ethicist to change his mind and embrace the LGBT cause as currently constituted is thus a complicated and highly significant matter which goes well beyond hermeneutics.  According to Merritt's account, in Gushee's case it is also driven by a significant degree of personal experience and emotion, especially an understandable degree of sympathy with and concern for a sister struggling with same sex attraction.  Further, it must arguably involve the acceptance of sexual preference as a -- perhaps even the -- definitive element of personal identity.  Given the huge political significance now ascribed to sexual identity, one cannot take a position on this issue, either pro- or con-, which is not simultaneously a political one.  One might claim otherwise -- indeed, one might intend otherwise -- but in reality to embrace the cause is to embrace the politics.

That this is the case is implicit in what is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Merritt's article:  the polarizing politicized rhetoric he himself uses.  He portrays Gushee as the man of science and sympathy.   He characterizes those who maintain that which is the traditional position on the issue as held by Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox as 'hardline conservatives' and figures of the 'far right' who use 'harmful rhetoric' and who need to 'resist laws [unspecified] that are punitive against sexual minorities.'  This is polarizing political language which serves a polarizing political purpose.  Thus, the ethical stance of mainstream Christianity, as expressed, for example, in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, is suddenly the thinking of the lunatic political fringe.  And we all know that one need not respect, let alone offer arguments against, the denizens of Bedlam.  Mainstream historic Christianity, may I welcome you to the rhetorical world of the mainstream Christian media?

As to sexual minorities, there are a lot of them out there these days.  One wonders what criteria will in future be used to decide which of such minorities represent legitimate forms of sexual expression and which are unacceptable.  With which ones will we be permitted to disagree and not be banished to the tundra of the 'far right'?  As Lesbian critic Camille Paglia opined many years ago in 'The Joy of Presbyterian Sex,' her masterful debunking of the predictable pietisms of the PCUSA's report on sexuality, the problem with liberal Christian approaches to sexual morality is that they tend to be driven by what is deemed permissible by respectable middle-class values and tastes.

The point is still sound.  Indeed, lazy references to how the Bible was used to justify slavery or other egregious political positions cannot hide the fact that the limits of liberal evangelical ethics are by and large determined by what the chattering classes consider to be acceptable.  Among the chattocracy, homosexuality is now regarded as a jolly good thing; transgenderism is becoming more acceptable; but bestiality, incest, and finding dark thrills through collecting old pieces of string are, thus far, thankfully not quite fit topics for conversation over a glass or two of Zinfandel and a couple of canapes at a dinner party in the Hamptons.  Whatever the posturing or the high-blown rhetoric of friend or foe, Gushee's move is entirely conventional, operating well within the boundaries of contemporary taste.  From the perspective of the modern Christian's penchant for respectable accommodation to cultural norms, it is about as radical as a trust fund baby sporting an Occupy tee-shirt and converting to veganism.

Not much seems to have changed since Paglia's broadside except a modest expansion in what constitute respectable middle-class sexual mores and a steady and predictable osmosis of the same into the broad Christian and evangelical world.  One does wonder how these comfy, conformist values of the wider culture will change in the next decade but one can be sure that a polite, sentimental evangelicalism, wedded to the emotivism and bien pensant tastes of the wider culture, will be sure to be changing too.  After all, we would not want to be rude or irrelevant, would we?