Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Religious Roots of Anti-Gay Attitudes: Two Recent Commentaries

Two noteworthy pieces in the past several days dealing with the significant connection between religion and people’s approach to issues of sexual orientation.  At Religion Dispatches, Constance Chellew-Hodge dissects the divine “chain of command” argument that structures many conservative Christians’ approach to homosexuality.

As she notes, 

Christianity, especially in its most conservative or fundamentalist form, is obsessed with gender norms, and will tolerate little deviation from them. A 5-year-old boy dressed as a girl offends the senses — and breaks, what Soulforce founder Mel White calls, “God’s chain of command.”

In my book, Bulletproof Faith, I quote White from an interview I did with him on this topic. For conservative Christians, he said, the universe falls apart if this chain of command is broken.

Chellew-Hodge argues that what is particularly threatening to some Christians is the notion of women getting out of control: resistance to gay and lesbian folks (particularly to gay men) flows from a more general intent of conservative Christianity to assure that women remain in their place, underneath men in the divine chain of command, because any lapse in that chain will produce social and cosmic chaos that threatens the divine rule of the world.  Chellew-Hodge writes,

Feminist theologian Beverly Harrison has written that the connections between homophobia and misogyny run deep because “the social control of women as a group has totally shaped our deepest and most basic attitudes toward sexuality.”  That control is so complete that society expects “compulsory heterosexuality” and its only alternatives are celibacy or asexuality.

This social control then, Harrison posits, is at the heart of not just the inequality of women, but the inequality faced by gays and lesbians.

“We must acknowledge that it is through our socialization to sexuality that we begin to learn ‘fear of equality’ and either to feel ‘strong’ by lording it over others or to feel ‘safe’ by being controlled by them. By conforming rigidly to ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ roles, we learn, at a foundational level, to tolerate inequality.”

And so, Chellew-Hodge concludes, there is no way effectively to address issues like the bullying of gender-transgressive or gay teens without confronting the religious roots from which hostility to gay and lesbian people grows:

You don’t break the chain of this violence by simply punishing the bully, or his parent, but by working for deeper change within both church and society to end the misogyny — and the homophobia and fear of any gendered “otherness” that arises from it.

Chellew-Hodge’s conclusion closely parallels the conclusion of another significant study released this week by Faith in America, a report entitled “Addressing Religious Arguments to Achieve LGBT Equality.”  As Steve Hillebrand writes in this report’s foreword, the primary reason it has proven so difficult even for a pro-equal rights President and a Democratic-controlled Congress to pass legislation forbidding workplace discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or to abolish the discrimination represented by DADT is “because there is an air of acceptability in America to be against LGBT people based on one’s religious beliefs.”

Hillebrand and Faith in America maintain that, 

For faster, significant change, the mood has to change.

We should keep trying to change laws, but until we deal with core issues causing discrimination, progress will continue to be slow. Religion, morals, harm, bigotry, science, fear, understanding – these are core issues we need to confront head-on if we want to reduce discrimination toward gay people.

Hillebrand notes that “the biggest barrier to achieving LGBT equality is religion-based bigotry, coupled with the failure of the gay community to confront religious arguments.”  Hence Faith in America’s report, which seeks to provide those confronting religious-based bigotry against gay and lesbian persons with a set of “core messages” to use in this educational process, as well as guidelines for dealing with people of faith.

“Addressing Religious Arguments to Achieve LGBT Equality” frames its core messages by noting that “[r]esearch has confirmed that most anti-gay prejudice and discrimination are based on religion. ” The report proposes three core messages for those dealing with religion-based anti-gay bigotry to seek to communicate in discussions with people of faith:

1.    Religion-based bigotry causes enormous harm to LGBT people, especially young, vulnerable teens.

2.    Sexual orientation is a natural part of a human being, whether it be heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual. Same-sex orientation is not a choice to go against God’s will. It is a normal, natural and healthy expression of human sexuality that is innate for some people.

3.    Religion-based bigotry against LGBT people is wrong ... just as it was wrong to use religious teachings to justify discrimination against Native Americans, African Americans, minority religious groups, women and interracial couples.

Sound guidelines for dealing with the objections that many people of faith continue to raise to the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in church and society, and to the eradication of discrimination against people on grounds of sexual orientation.  But, unfortunately, the attitudes of religious communities are not going to change significantly until members of those communities themselves undertake the task of educating their constituents--though I very much applaud Faith in America for continuing to try to educate, and I recommend this report.

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