Friday, June 30, 2006

Compromise in the Culture Wars?: Maybe There's Hope for a Cease-Fire

Earlier this week I ran into a self-identified Republican Southern Baptist Sunday School Teacher (though he, a good Baptist, would like for me to put as much distance as possible between the words "Republican" and "Southern Baptist," lest people keep thinking that the two are identical) who, remembering that I used to be a pastor and not knowing my political or religious ideology, wanted to talk to me about a subject that was troubling him: gay marriage.

There is no doubt in his mind that the Bible uniformly condemns homosexuality, and as such he sees it as a morally unacceptable lifestyle. However, he was deeply troubled that the issue of gay marriage has come to dominate conversations in both the Republican party and the Southern Baptist Church. He made a few good points which I'd like to relay here. Remember, this is coming from someone who identifies himself as a conservative Republican, a conservative evangelical, and a Southern Baptist.

First, he was troubled about the way in which the issue of gay marriage seems to be encroaching on the very important separation between church and state. Remember, he pointed out, Baptists were the ones who - having long been oppressed by the state - fought so hard for such a separation to exist in America. Now, though, that they are beginning to taste political power they are trying as hard as they can to tear down the wall that they helped built, which is hardly is stand for principle or integrity.

As far as he can see (and I agree with him wholeheartedly, having made this point before myself) there is no civic (that is, non-religious) argument against gay marriage. The closest thing to such an argument falls flat on its face with even the slightest amount of scrutiny. Those fighting so hard to keep the state from recognizing homosexual relationships point to a marriage "crisis," the ever rising divorce rate and the destruction of nuclear families that comes with it. They then declare that homosexual relationships are somehow responsible for this state of affairs, and constitute and all out assault on heterosexual marriage.

This argument is patent non-sense. My Republican, Southern Baptist friend pointed out that marriage in America may have many problems, including infidelity, a pornographic culture, dysfunctional communication skills, economic factors, etc., but that as best as he can tell homosexuality has little to do with those problems. He said that frankly he and his wife find the notion that the prospect of gay marriage might somehow dissolve their own marriage to be somewhere between ridiculous and insulting. They may have their problems, just like everyone else, but none of those problems have anything to do with other people's relationships.

He also said that the whole discussion of how to treat homosexuals is lacking in grace. The legalistic nature of the discourse - this constitutes sin and so can't be tolerated - distracts, in his mind from a couple of key Christian doctrines: universal human sinfulness and the saving grace of God through Christ.

In his mind, many in his church are setting up homosexuals as a special class of sinners, whose sin is categorically different than the sins of others. But this is not in accord with his understanding of scripture or of traditional Southern Baptist theology, which denies any kind of hierarchy of sins (except "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit"). Theologically speaking, assuming (as he does) that homosexuality is sinful, it is no more sinful than any number of extremely tolerated sins, including judgmentalism and gossip. And, practically speaking, those tolerated sins do a great deal more apparent harm than committed, monogamous, homosexual relationships.

His views on the subject were, as is often the case for those of us who have seen our position on homosexuality change subtly or dramatically over time, formed with the aid of experience. He told me a couple of stories about his encounters with homosexuals, which helped teach him that they are persons rather than some sub-human species. One time he and his three boys went camping and fishing. The campsite to their left had two lesbian women, out to enjoy nature. The campsite to their right had some hyper-sexual, alpha heterosexual men, out drinking and carousing. The lesbian women were very kind to him and his boys. The same can't be said for the heterosexual men. In this case it became clear to him that, when judging the values of a person, you need to consider more than just sexual orientation.

Another time he went on a business trip with a man who, by the end of the trip, opened up about his homosexuality. They talked about this man's partner, and showed each other pictures of their loved ones. My friend realized that his gay business acquaintance loved his life partner just as much as my friend loved his own wife. The nature of the relationships was extremely similar, with the only major differences being gender and sexual orientation.

So, when he talked to me, he was really struggling with exactly how he should approach homosexuality. He is convinced that the Bible condemns it as sinful, but he is equally convinced that, as far as sins go, it can't be that bad. After all, Jesus mentioned money how many times, but he never once mentioned homosexuality. So, his religious position is no longer as set as it used to be, even though none of his major beliefs have changed.

However, he was most disturbed about the way in which his fellow Christians deal politically with the issue of homosexuality. He said that while Christians should allow their faith to guide their politics, they should not allow themselves to be used by opportunistic politicians who inflame their passions with powerful rhetoric on symbolic issues with little real significance. He also said, with regard to the separation of church and state, that even if Christianity uniformly condemns homosexuality, we can't codify Christianity in America; it isn't Christian, and it isn't American.

I disagree with him on many things: the moral value of homosexuality, how to read the Bible, the nature of God, etc. But my heart was warmed by our conversation, in which for once I did more listening than talking. I'm glad that he had the courage to publicly discuss such a hot-button issue, and the integrity to admit his own doubts and concerns. If more people on the so-called "right" or "left" are willing to be as open and honest as this man, then perhaps there's room for a peaceful resolution to the culture wars.


Liam said...

Great post, Sandalstraps. It's good to see anyone who doesn't think the way he or she is "supposed" to think, given the tribe they belong to.

I find interesting what your friend said about homosexuals as a "special class of sinners." I think this is a problem with conservative Christianity in general (and not just Christianity): the focus on sexual sins as the most foul of sins. In my Church it's especially bad -- the whole Humanae Vitae argument that sex can only be allowed in marriage and in the situation where conception is possible. Every kind of sex (and there are many) that falls outside of this category, from masturbation to homosexual sex, is seen as an especially foul kind of sin.

Not surprising, considering that the heirarchy itself has dedicated itself to a difficult path of perfection towards sexual matters. Celibate priests seem to have no problem denying the possibility of physical intimacy to anyone who falls outside the limits set by the church -- homosexuals, divorced people, etc. Sexuality is the main focus for many conservative Catholic apologists, who have little time for anyone who does or can not live up to the standard of perfection set forth by the Church -- even though historically, people on the whole have never lived up to that standard.

When Jesus gave he instructions for perfection, he said a person must sell everything he or she has and give it to the poor. Why are we supposed to follow a standard of sexual perfection and not economic perfection?

Sorry for the rant, but your post did get me thinking.

Brian Cubbage said...

Your Southern Baptist friend reminds me of the Southern Baptists I grew up with and who taught me Biblical studies courses in college. The very way of thinking that your friend represents is what Southern Baptists historically stood for on balance. Ever since 1979-80, though, the conservative takeover of the SBC has ruthlessly drummed attitudes like your friend's out of the denomination and done everything possible to scrub Baptist institutions and even Baptist history itself of any trace of their influence.

Your friend, I think, gives us all hope that perhaps the Baptists' true heritage of religious liberty might overwhelm the right's temporary revolution against it. In the SBC the way it used to be, I might be able to disagree about the morality of homosexuality (you know I take a liberal stand on it) yet still be welcomed as a legitimate believer. Not so today. I might still be a Southern Baptist if there were more of them left like your friend.