When the Supreme Court heard cases related to Proposition 8 and DOMA in late March, two realities presented themselves more clearly than I’d ever seen before. The first reality is that popular opinion on same-sex relationships in the U.S. has rapidly shifted to the point where marriage equality seems inevitable and where traditional Christian teachings on homosexuality come across as antiquated or worse. The second is that many conservative Christians are either unaware of this shift in popular opinion or genuinely bewildered to find themselves playing the role of villain (not just “antagonist”) in our culture’s dialogue.
On the first count, most agree that, historically speaking, attitudes about sexual minorities and same-sex relationships have changed quickly, much more quickly than they changed in similar equality movements in the past. (Where people start to disagree is whether these changes represent progress or decline.) Time grabbed attention in the midst of the Supreme Court media coverage with a bold headline: “Gay Marriage Already Won.” The article accompanying that provocative title was a helpful, concise discussion of the factors that accelerated the marriage movement:
"What’s most striking about this seismic social shift — as rapid and unpredictable as any turn in public opinion on record — is that it happened with very little planning. In fact, there was a lot of resistance from the top. Neither political party gave a hint of support before last year, nor was marriage part of the so-called homosexual agenda so worrisome to social-conservative leaders. For decades, prominent gay-rights activists dismissed the right to marry as a quixotic, even dangerous, cause and gave no support to the men and women at the grassroots who launched the uphill movement."
A month later, The Atlantic published a piece describing “How GLAAD Won the Culture War and Lost Its Reason to Exist,” claiming in no uncertain terms:
"Simply put, gays have won the culture war. Social historians can debate when exactly this happened. (Was it Ellen DeGeneres’ "Yep, I’m Gay" Time cover? Or, as Vice President Joe Biden recently suggested, the popularity of Will & Grace?) Rather than being attributable to one instantaneous incident, however, today’s mainstream acceptance of homosexuality came about gradually, assisted by the fact that most people today personally know someone who is openly gay. While the Stonewall Riots of 1969 may seem like a long time ago, in the full sweep of American history, no other social movement has progressed so far and so fast as that of gays.”
Even the numbers tell a story. Back in 1970, before the American Psychiatric Association officially declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973, 90% of its members (i.e., mental health professionals) believed homosexuality was pathology. Three decades after the APA declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder, something like 90% of its members identified homosexuality as a healthy form of sexuality. (The This American Life story from 2002 where I first heard these stats, called “81 Words,” is enthralling and worth a listen. You can also read a transcript of the story.) We can debate all day long whether the changes in our country are positive or negative, but the direction in which those changes are taking us appears to be certain. (Did you count how many of your Facebook friends changed their profile pictures to the red equals sign of the Human Rights Campaign during the Supreme Court hearings?)
On the second count, it’s surprising to me how many conservative Christians seem unaware of the way popular opinion has changed or unwilling to accept how unfavorably many people perceive the traditional Christian position on homosexuality. PEG 2.0 has a rather potent post—the post that inspired this series, in fact—that addresses why the cultural debate on homosexuality is actually about something much bigger than homosexuality and why the traditional Christian view of sex now seems “reprehensible”:
"Gay issues turn out to be a much more momentous wedge because they turn out to be the thread that unravels everything else.
"If sex is connected to a higher order and ordered towards a greater purpose than pleasure and the fulfillment of a cosmic reality of gender difference, then gay sex is immoral.
"If sex is purely self-expressive and material and morally neutral as such, then any disapprobation whatsoever of gay sex is not only incompatible but reprehensible; not only reprehensible but, quite literally, incomprehensible.
"It’s the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. An event that could be inconsequential, if it was not part of a web of iron commitments that plunge us all into war."
Most of the Christians I know aren’t used to being society’s Bad Guys, and they certainly don’t perceive themselves that way; but it’s difficult to deny that as our culture continues to move in a particular direction, Christians often come across as grumpy enemies of inevitable social progress, the Bad Guys of our country’s gay marriage saga. Christians, in turn, feel the pain of whiplash because calling homosexuality sinful wasn’t controversial forty years ago, and they often don’t understand why it should be so intensely controversial today. In the same vein, traditional Christian teachings on many other subjects like money and power significantly clash with prevailing cultural values, leaving many conservative Christians perplexed about why this is the belief that’s become so problematic for people who aren’t conservative Christians. Last year, when Dan Cathy stated that he and his company are “very much supportive of the family—the biblical definition of the family unit,” scores of Christians were appalled and outraged by the negative backlash he received, evidently not anticipating the commotion that would result or not believing the commotion to be warranted. I see a major disconnect between our culture’s perception of Christians and Christians’ apprehension of those perceptions. Here, for example, is how Dan Savage summarizes what the Christian movement represents to many people:
"Those ideas — loving Jesus means hating gay people — are proclaimed in Christian churches and on Christian television and radio broadcasts. The combined efforts of the Family Research Council, the National Organization for Marriage, ‘The 700 Club,’ the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Westboro Baptist Church, and countless conservative Christian activists, preachers and politicians have succeeded in making antigay bigotry seem synonymous with Christianity."
(I’m doing my best to differentiate “conservative Christians” from the broader label “Christians,” but it’s worth pointing out non-Christians like Savage aren’t going to play those subtle language games nor pay attention to the various flavors of a seemingly monolithic movement.)
Let’s make one thing clear: The biggest point of contention in the present cultural debate is what happens when one group votes in a way that directly conflicts with the goals and desires of the other group. From what I can tell, the conservative Christian opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage is the main reason traditional Christian sexual ethics (and the people who profess them) have become so unpopular. Nevertheless, what I’d like to do in this series is momentarily tune out that political conflict and describe why I reckon Christians shouldn’t be surprised to find themselves labeled with words like “hateful” or “bigoted” in light of their behavior throughout the cultural transition of the last few decades. My thesis is that it has much less to do with the content of traditional Christian sexual ethics—people are at least vaguely aware Christians occasionally believe and practice some wacky things, even with sex, and it’s usually no big deal—and much more to do with what Christians have said and done and not said and not done. That our culture’s evolving understanding of sexuality and identity would make conservative Christian teachings less accessible and less appealing was inevitable. That the transition would leave Christians’ neighbors angry and resentful was preventable and is lamentable, but I do believe it is reparable.
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