Friday, July 12, 2013

Evangelical Tribe, Catholic Tribe, and the Gay Community: Two Recent Snapshots of the (Non-) Conversation

A key contention of John Corvino in his lecture about what's morally wrong with homosexuality which I just uploaded is that, when many opponents of the full inclusion of LGBT human beings in churches and society start talking about homosexuality, a kind of irrational exceptionalism enters their discourse. Though the same arguments they use to condemn homosexuality as immoral apply equally to heterosexuals who don't meet the moral mark of traditionalist Christianity, those arguments are, in fact, seldom deployed against anyone except gay folks.

Gay people claiming their full humanity and seeking to build publicly acknowledged relationships that express their full humanity are accused of sexualizing society, of contributing to the moral decay of traditionally Christian societies by severing the link between sexuality and procreation--though that link has long since been definitively severed in the developed nations of the world, where there are no litmus tests requiring heterosexual couples to procreate as a pre-condition for marrying, or criminalizing them when they marry and fail to procreate. 

Gay people are frequently informed by traditionalist Christians that their lives are all about sex, and their aspirations to marry are about expecting societies to endorse self-indulgent relationships that offer nothing to these societies, since these are non-procreative relationships. These arguments are almost never used by even the most traditionalist of Christians against heterosexual couples who marry and choose to remain childless, or who marry knowing they are incapable of having children, or who use contraception.

I'd like today to recommend two interesting articles hot off the press which, to my mind, prove just how correct Corvino is in his contention that many of those arguing against homosexuality on moral grounds employ an irrational exceptionalism which treats gay folks as totally other than everyone else in the world, a unique case to be examined under a moral microscope that is brought out to peer into no other situations involving questions of sexual morality. The first of these is Fred Clark's "Bebbington, schmebbington" posting at Slacktivist yesterday. And the second is an article by Ed West from the Catholic Herald (UK) last week, to which Chris Morley has drawn my attention.

Fred points out that there's an emerging meme in some evangelical circles that evangelical Christians aren't really noteworthy for their resistance to the full inclusion of LGBT persons in churches and societies. That suggestion is, per this emerging meme, a media creation. Evangelicals love the gays! In condemning gay folks, evangelicals are just upholding traditional norms of sexual morality that apply to everyone!

Evangelicals don't single the gays out in any way at all, you see. All that they say about the gays by way of moral condemnation applies equally to straight folks whose sexual lives don't meet the moral mark of traditional Christianity. So this new meme wants us to imagine.

But Fred Clark doesn't buy it, at least, insofar as this meme refers to evangelicals of the right. As he points out, smear, lambast, objectify, and dehumanize LGBT human beings in the grossest way possible, and you nonetheless retain credibility as a bona fide evangelical representing bona fide evangelical values. But question the smearing, lambasting, objectification, and dehumanization on theological or scriptural grounds, and you will suddenly find yourself stigmatized as a deficient evangelical, a "post-evangelical" who has placed himself or herself outside the tribal boundaries by raising such questions:

The tribe draws its own boundaries. That’s done by the gatekeepers within the tribe — not by some conspiratorial "narrative advanced by the news and entertainment media." 
Those rabidly political types who claim to represent all of white evangelicalism are allowed to do so. The tribal gatekeepers never refer to Tony Perkins or James Dobson or Pat Robertson as "post-evangelical" conservatives. Yet folks like Brian McLaren or Jay Bakker are routinely classified as no longer legitimate members of the tribe.

And as I've argued here ad nauseam, in my view (and mutatis mutandis), the irrational exceptionalism with which many traditionalist Catholics approach the topic of homosexuality (and homosexual human beings) trends in precisely the same direction. In the Catholic tribe, too, there's the same self-serving attempt right now to depict Catholics as deeply loving to and accepting of their LGBT brothers and sisters--though, of course, these deeply loving and accepting Catholics have no choice except to apply to those who are gay the same critical norms they apply to anyone failing to meet the moral mark of traditional Catholic sexual morality. So the argument goes.

Like the tribalistic gatekeepers of the evangelical establishment, the centrist gatekeepers of the normative Catholic conversation find it very easy to place themselves on the side of Justice Scalia and not Justice Kennedy in the recent DOMA decision, even as they argue that Kennedy made the right decision. Scalia is, after all, merely an orthodox Catholic upholding orthodox Catholic teaching.

Whereas all those Catholic dissidents--the gays, women working for equal rights in the church, theologians who refuse to shut up when ordered to do so: they have placed themselves outside the tribe and its normative conversation. This way of thinking, this tribalistic dynamic, is deeply entrenched in the powerful media and academic circles that determine what's considered normative in the public conversation of Catholicism.

As an example of what I'm talking about, read Ed West's article carefully. Read it side-by-side with Fred Clark's posting. West reports on a conversation he had in the recent past with Ben Summerskill of the gay-rights lobbying group Stonewall. West sets his report up by noting (though he seems unaware that he's signaling this) the lens of otherness through which "Catholics" (the article does not acknowledge the significant dissent from magisterial teaching about homosexuality among Catholics in the UK) view "the gays." A lens Catholics defending magisterial teaching about sexuality apply to no other groups transgressing Catholic moral codes . . . . 

They, the gays, "have the ear of all the major parties," West says. They're a "firm fixture of the liberal metropolitan establishment." The media fawn over them. They have money, and they have clout, and they're leaning on governments in various places to ram their gay agenda down the throats of tradition-minded Christians.

Gays ≠ Catholics. Catholics ≠ gays. (And dissident Catholics ≠ Catholics even when they're the large majority of Catholics.) Gays are the other, to be viewed by Catholics through a lens of otherness applied to no other group of human beings in the world. 

And then West goes to Summerskill's office, and finds that it's . . . well, ordinary. Just about as modest, as dilapidated, as the offices of the Catholic Herald. It's nothing like the meme of gay otherness West's Catholicism requires him to apply to the gays has led him to imagine.

Even so, even though his encounter with the reality of Summerskill's office should have given him pause to reconsider his biases, West admits frankly that he framed his entire conversation with Summerskill by asking him just why he (and, by implication, the gays in general) are critics of the church. Gays ≠ Catholics. Catholics ≠ gays. Why, Mr. Summerskill, do you perceive the church as an enemy when "[t]o the best of my knowledge, most Catholic institutions are fairly welcoming of gay people and certainly don’t offer a hostile environment"?

In response, Summerskill seeks to point out, over and over, the irrational exceptionalism with which the Catholic church, at an official level, approaches the gay community (gays ≠ Catholics, Catholics ≠ gays). He does so repeatedly. But Ed West appears unable to hear him, since gays are, after all--and we all know this!--the antithesis of what it means to be Catholic . . . . 

Summerskill notes, for instance, that while the number of children growing up in single-parent households in Britain is enormous in comparison to the number of gay people seeking the right to marry, Catholic officials have almost nothing to say about the former but can't shut up about the latter. And he adds, "I’m not aware that any senior cleric has said anything about William and Kate, or Charles and Camilla. There is an unhealthy obsession with homosexuality."

He might also have noted how the bishops of the UK turned Catholic parishes into political machines in the period in which marriage equality was being debated in the British government--while they never employ similar tactics to mobilize the Catholic community politically to try to outlaw divorce, or contraception, or heterosexual arrangements outside marriage.

The only deviations from the sexual norm that appear to demand attention from those "fairly welcoming" and non-hostile Catholics who focus obsessively on their gay brothers and sisters are the deviations having something to do with homosexuality. They're the exception to the norm that demands the laserlike focus, the unique microscope, the big guns, and the political mobilization of the Christian tribe.

And then there's this--Ed West states,

One of the things I find troubling about the same-sex marriage debate is the level of vitriol people spout against their opponents. This has created an unpleasant atmosphere. 

But guess who West is talking about here? Those creating the "unpleasant atmosphere" in which vitriol is spouted are the gays! Who characterize their opponents as "haters" for opposing gay marriage. And who couldn't possibly be responding to years of vitriolic abuse spewed out by those using religion as a tool of anti-gay condemnation.

This seems to me a conversation doomed to go nowhere, as does the conversation whose contours Fred Clark describes in right-wing tribalistic evangelical circles. Start with the premise that the gays ≠ Christian ≠ human beings, and you simply can't have a meaningful conversation, can you? 

Which seems to me to point to the following conclusion: only when some people of faith choose to stop treating gay and lesbian human beings as the demonized other who are a convenient cipher for "not us," can any meaningful conversation emerge between those people of faith and their brothers and sisters who happen to be gay. In the circles inhabited by the top leaders of the Catholic church today and by many of their allies in the evangelical right, I don't see this shift to meaningful conversation that respects the humanity of a community treated for far too long as the demonic other happening anytime soon. 

Do you?

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