The Changing Character of the Debate

Tom Krattenmaker, a commentator on religion and public life based in Portland, Oregon, published an interesting piece this week arguing  that sooner or later, most Christians (in North America and Western Europe anyway) are going to have to adapt to a politics and society in which queer people bear and exercise more rights than they have before.  Our rapid political and social progress  on this issue over the last ten or twenty years should not of course be taken for granted—no change is guaranteed, or permanent—but Krattenmaker calls attention to the one and only fact which makes me (very cautiously) optimistic about our near-term prospects inside the Church: a new generation of faithful are coming of age, some of whom are beginning to be ordained, many of whom have quite consciously been formed and educated right alongside their openly queer brothers and sisters.  Pure, distilled, irrational hatred remains real enough, but own experience has been that even the most conservative elements in the Church, who are of my age and background, have substituted for that former hatred a kind of hypocritical and almost regretful condescension.  That may not seem like much just now, but I think it’s telling.  Krattenmaker:

It appears increasingly obvious that social acceptance of gay men and lesbians and insistence on  their equal rights are inexorable. If the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” weren’t enough to signal the turning point, or the classification of several gay-resisting Christian right organizations as “hate groups” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there came news that [the ex-gay advocacy group] Exodus International was ending its involvement in the anti-homosexuality “Day of Truth” in U.S. high schools. “We need to equip kids to live out biblical tolerance and grace,” Exodus President Alan Chambers explained, “while treating their neighbors as they’d like to be treated, whether we agree with them or not.”

Add it up, and you see a decision point at hand for socially conservative Christian groups such as the Family Research Council that have led resistance to gay rights. Do they fight to the last ditch, continue shouting the anti-gay rhetoric that rings false and mean to the many Americans who live and work with gay people, or who themselves are gay? Or do they soften their tone and turn their attention to other fronts?

Prayerful discernment and simple Christian decency would strongly suggest the latter. The alternative looks worse by the day—a quixotic battle more likely to discredit its fighters and their fine religion than win any hearts and minds for Jesus. Christianity has far worthier causes than this.


Two points here re: Krattenmaker.  First, the public discouragement of homophobic groups like Exodus—and the private regret of individual priests who feel compelled to enforce church law on this matter, though they would really rather not—are evidence that the “conservative” party knows, on some level, that it has lost the argument, but does not yet know how to make the admission, or what then to do about it.  Fr. Hopko’s book strikes me as falling into this category, too. The honest conservatives are fearful, above all for Holy Tradition’s integrity.

But fear, by itself, cannot long sustain a belief system, or a policy.  It requires too strained an expenditure of energy, to hold it all together.  Or so I found, at least.  Sooner or later a critical mass of Christians are going to yield to the actual logic of natural law; and to the obvious implications of their otherwise positive and entirely harmonious relationships with actual queer people in their own families, schools, and work places.

Second, the institutional churches are, in the great sweep of history, ruthlessly pragmatic bodies.  (Which is a good thing.)  Christians have successfully lived under, and sometimes taken on the trappings of, a wide spectrum of political orders.  An institutional religion which can come to terms with Byzantine and Russian emperors, Germanic feudal kings and kinglets, Islamic caliphs, the commercial republics of the Renaissance and Reformation, the democracy in America, and even conclude concordats with the likes of a Napoleon, Hitler, or Stalin (however distasteful those concordats may have been), can surely come to terms with this one component of contemporary liberalism.

That is not to say that all those different political forms I have just named are equally just or unjust, or equally useful or unuseful for the preaching of the Gospel.  They are not.  But it is to say that prudent people, ecclesiasts included, do tend to know where their real interests lie, and where and when to compromise.

For Christians, the answer to the question of who Christ is, is (truly) a hill to die on.  (So is the question—pace my more radical Protestant friends—of what is the Church.)

Call me crazy, but sexual ethics is not.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

Published in: on February 19, 2011 at 11:52 am  Comments (7)  
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  1. I cling to your optimism in the hopes that it is contagious…

    With close relatives in very conservative parts of the Church, I see firsthand how folks can compartmentalize, making exceptions for one gay relative or friend without changing their larger view of the matter.

    “You can be ‘gay.’ The rest are f****ts,” a relative once told me.

    He’s grown more socially accepting over time, but a stubborn insistence on a literal reading of scripture through a lens unconsciously informed by modern sexual discourse leaves him, like several other relatives and most of the community I grew up with, in the camp you described as having regretful condescension.

    Yet I choose to join you in the belief that a watershed moment is occurring…


  2. Dear Bryce,

    Thanks for this. I suppose I should clarify, I’m not optimistic about any changes in official teaching, any time soon; the most I’m optimistic about it is our ability to find a practical on-the-ground modus vivendi (again, at least in Western Europe and North America).

    I just now was directed to an article from January making a similar point, about the Southern Poverty Law Center’s classification of the Family Research Council as a hate group. The conclusion is spot-on:

    In the Gospel of John, written within the first century, Jesus is credited with setting up an amazing qualifier by which one either was or was not one of his followers. Further, he empowered this with a commandment.

    John 13:35 – A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

    By the words of Christ, one can either be his follower or be a hater. But not both. You may call yourself “Christian” and have all sorts of views about theology, but the one indicator that is a non-negotiable criterion is that you love.

    And while this is in keeping with the overall theme of Jesus’ message as reported in the four gospels (love your neighbor, etc.), it takes a particular twist that can be quite troubling to those who operate as do FRC. Oddly, here, Jesus put the responsibility – indeed the right – of discerning who were his true disciples not on his followers, but on outsiders. The “everyone” here is not Peter and Andrew but, for example, the Southern Poverty Law Center.

    So to be told by the SPLC that you engage in hate is to be told that you are not a follower of Christ, that your protestations of morality are, indeed, a sounding brass or tinkling cymbal, and that rather than being the Christian you think you are, you are really working for the Enemy of Christ. It is small wonder that that Family Research Council and their supporters are furious.


  3. I wholeheartedly agree with this.

    Due in large part to the advent of social technology we as a species are beginning to see that others share our pain, be it pain from being a sexual minority or even something like having an abusive parent/partner/friend. The churches (of all denominations) are having a crucible thrown at them; the crucible of truth. Being gay has shown me the truth of Christianity more than anything else could ever have, because it helped me focus on humanity. How did my “deviant” sexuality effect my family, friends and church? How awful a person could I really be? Why do I still love these people and groups that hate me so much?

    Now the churches are being forced to re-evaluate sexual ethics because they now know they failed in teaching others to love thy enemy. Christianity, at its core, teaches us to love those whom we would chose to avoid; it teaches us to love the Other. We are social creatures, made in the image and likeness of God.

    It will take time but we have human nature and divine inspiration on our side. I, for one, think its all going to be ok.


    Proprium humani ingenii est odisse quem laeseris

  4. @ithilien: Thanks! People have called attention before to the decisive “advent of social technology” (which as you know I regard as a mixed blessing, lol). Let’s say that the Internet has done this much: global, instantaneous, and relatively anonymous communication has shown not only polite society, but gays themselves as well (if they needed it–which I certainly did), that we are not some sick and small minority, unworthy of serious consideration (except for condemnation) by ethicists and politicians. An essential constituent of what we call “unnatural” is that it be exceptionally rare. Thus (to cite the classical example) Roman Stoics could regard theft as unnatural, even though the Germanic peoples allegedly did not punish it, and thus constituted the exceptional case to be condemned (because the Germans were regarded as such a small, and of course uncivilized, minority). The rhetoric of the more extreme homophobes aside, licensing homosexuality simply is not comparable to licensing theft (or murder). Though many of us have always grasped the naturalness of homosexuality as it were intuitively, the Internet seems to have played a decisive role in disseminating it, and especially amongst the young.

    Which brings us back to your point about hate. The “good” reason for opposing homosexuality–that it is unnatural–is very largely (if not quite absolutely) discredited. Therefore only the “bad” reasons–some combination of hate and prejudice (or irrational fideism and biblical literalism)–remain. Must we of necessity fuel hatreds and nurture prejudices, projecting noxious “energies” (if we are neo-Palamites, lol), in order to justify our guilty consciences?

    What will the Christians do? How will we recognize them as Christians?

    (If you know any studies on the role of the Internet in normalizing homosexuality, or any sociological or anthropological treatments of hatred as a defense mechanism for prior wrongs, please do let me know!)


  5. […] Via The Changing Character of the Debate « The Homodox Confessions. […]

  6. Dear Victor,
    thank you for still another interesting essay. with regards to adaptiation by insitutional Churches, and recent softening of christian rhetoric re: homosexuality, I recently read this almost unbelievable piece of news:
    The head of the Russian Orthodox Church said on Wednesday that the church accepts any person’s choice, including homosexuality, but remains strongly opposed to abortions and euthanasia.
    Patriarch Kirill made the statement at the meeting with Secretary General of the Council of Europe Thorbjorn Jagland in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. “We accept any choice of a human, including the one in the sphere of sexual orientation – this is a private issue,” the Patriarch said.

    He added, however, that the acceptance of the fact does not change the church’s attitude to homosexuality – it will still be considered a sin. “The religious tradition of practically all people testifies to the fact that homosexuality is a sin,” Patriarch Kirill said. “The sin that is being committed must not be punished. That is why we regularly speak against any discrimination of the people with non-traditional sexual orientation,” the RIA Novosti news agency quoted the church’s head as saying.
    What, Victor, do you think of this?
    in Christo,

  7. Hmm. I don’t really see the jump between acceptance of homosexuals as human beings (a very good development)…and change in sexual morality.

    Christian teachings on loving sinners and tolerance and all that…doesn’t really impel anyone to change the abstract moral ideas.

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