Andrew Sullivan: The Religious Right’s Suicidal Gay Obsession

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Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

At the end of last month, a group of Evangelical theologians, pastors, and leaders put out what they called the Nashville Statement on sexual morality. The first thing to note is that 50 years ago, it would have been regarded as self-evident to most Christians. Money quote: “We affirm that God’s revealed will for all people is chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage. We deny that any affections, desires, or commitments ever justify sexual intercourse before or outside marriage; nor do they justify any form of sexual immorality.” So far, so conventional, especially for Evangelicals. And some of the immediate rebukes of the statement, in their desire to have Evangelicals embrace the sexual revolution, are a little silly. These teachings go back millennia in Christian thought. To ask orthodox Christians simply to embrace the opposite overnight is to ask them, in some ways, to abolish themselves.

But you immediately wonder if the statement is going to condemn divorce or contraception or multiple successive marriages or pornography or masturbation or countless other questions of sexual morality that heterosexuals grapple with. And you can search the document for any thoughts on these questions. In fact, it has almost nothing to say to 97 percent of humanity on sexual matters.

What it does instead is condemn the 3 percent. In fact, it does more than condemn the sexual behaviors of gay and transgender people. It erases our self-understanding entirely. Money quote: “We deny that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.” It is not just what we do that these Evangelical leaders object to; it is who we are. Our very “self-conception” is a defiance of God’s will. We sure aren’t part of nature, even though scientists have observed variations on the sexual norm in countless other species. We are merely heterosexuals who have chosen to act out our desires in sexually immoral ways. The words gay and homosexual and transgender describe nothing but sin. In this way, Christianity doesn’t have to grapple at all with the testimony or experiences of gay or transgender people, because we don’t, strictly speaking, exist. At best, we are beset with “psychological conditions” that lead us into sin and Hell.

When nature produces intersex people, the Evangelicals therefore have a bit of a problem. It’s very hard to simply say that intersex people have chosen some kind of sin by being neither male nor female, because their identity cannot simply be ascribed to their minds and souls, but to their bodies. Nature, i.e. God, surely made them. So what does the statement say? “We affirm that those born with a physical disorder of sex development are created in the image of God and have dignity and worth equal to all other image-bearers. They are acknowledged by our Lord Jesus in his words about ‘eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb.’ With all others they are welcome as faithful followers of Jesus Christ and should embrace their biological sex insofar as it may be known.” I’m afraid to say I actually chuckled at this obvious cop-out. Even when confronted with the undeniable visible fact that God does not always create human beings who are clearly male or female, they simply say: Well, they are. Pick one.

What Evangelicals cannot seem to accept is the possibility that for the vast majority of humankind, male and female self-conception does indeed come completely naturally, that it is clearly integral to humanity’s reproduction and rearing of the next generation, that the sexes are indeed complementary rather than interchangeable … but that this is not the entire story. A small minority does not quite fit this rubric. God’s creation — a function, we now know, of evolution and natural selection — is more complex, and more wonderful and diverse, than most of us used to understand. This doesn’t mean that male and female do not exist, as some transgenderists and neo-Marxists contend; or that gender is a spectrum, rather than a bimodal distribution with tiny variations at either end. But it does mean that God’s creation isn’t just Adam and Eve period.

The reason so many minds have changed on this question is because we know more about our nature than we ever have before. You don’t have to junk all of Christianity to acknowledge that. Gay people, for example, will be the first to insist that male and female exist: It’s just that we are attracted to our own sex and not the other. Transgender people — by seeking to conform their outward appearance with what they feel is their true gender — are also indirectly paying a compliment to the male-female natural structure and want to fit into it. For a few generations now, gays and lesbians and transgender people, by coming out, have been telling our stories, and those with open minds and big hearts have heard us. It is one of the great tragedies of many Evangelical and orthodox Christians that they are not interested in listening.

And so in the Nashville Statement, there is no advice to gay or transgender Christians, except to be heterosexual, dammit. They don’t even air the possibility of chaste spiritual friendship as a way for such people to lead lives not beset with loneliness, or sexual repression of a kind no human is truly capable of without profound psychological distortion. There is no mention of love at all — as if human attraction is not bound up with that deepest Christian imperative. Instead, we are told that gay and transgender people are deceiving themselves or are incapable of loving each other. All this constant rhetoric of loving us is therefore phony. You can’t love people without respecting them. You can’t welcome people you are simultaneously dehumanizing and writing out of creation.

I understand why orthodox Christians are triggered by the ideology of the far left. I am too. But their intransigence on this question is killing them. It’s particularly damning when so many of these leaders just endorsed, voted for, and threw their weight behind a man who has married several times, claimed that avoiding STDs was his own version of Vietnam, has humiliated successive wives, has bragged about sexual assault, who talks of his own daughter as a sexual object, and touted the size of his dick in a presidential debate. On all of this, most of these same Evangelicals looked the other way. But gay and transgender Christians? We are living rebukes to God’s natural order.

I believe that for an entire generation, this question is a litmus test for whether Christianity really is about love, and whether the Gospels (which have nothing to say about homosexuality) should even get a hearing. I can date my own niece’s and nephew’s rejection of Christianity to the day the priest urged them to oppose equal rights for their uncle. That’s why Evangelicalism is dying so quickly among the young. The latest PRRI survey shows that only one in ten Evangelicals are now under 30. It is no accident that the generation that has come to know gay and transgender people as people also finds it hard to dehumanize us in the way the Nashville Statement does, and see a church leadership that still treats us in this fashion as inimical to their own, yes, Christian values. And they are right to. This is what the signers of the Nashville Statement do not quite grasp. They just signed one of the longest suicide notes in history. Because what they’re saying is not merely callous. It is manifestly untrue.

***

In the debate about what to do about Confederate statues, my mind drifts to Oliver Cromwell. His statue outside the House of Commons is still there, celebrated in the very bosom of British democracy. This is a man who signed the death warrant for a king, presided over a religious dictatorship, fought in a brutal civil war, and committed what can only be called a genocide in Ireland — arguably one of the greatest acts of ethnic cleansing in European history. He brutally massacred Catholic civilians and confiscated their property. Within a few years, under his leadership, the percentage of land owned in Ireland by Catholics went from 60 to 20. The scars of that abomination are still etched in the religious divides of Ireland. Yet there he stands, and there is no move to take the statue down.

But it’s salient, it seems to me, that this statue was not erected until 1899 — more than three centuries after his death. And there was such a controversy about it even then that no public funds were used. A similar statue had been erected in 1875 outside the new Manchester City Hall, and Queen Victoria was invited to open it. She agreed to do so under one condition: that the statue be removed. It wasn’t, and she declined. In the 1980s, the statue was moved to a new location: a Tudor mansion that Cromwell had besieged in the civil war. Similarly, Churchill’s attempt to name a warship after him was scuttled by King George V: too divisive, too inflammatory, too dangerous for Britain’s political stability, which at the time included the whole island of Ireland.

But decades later, Churchill shifted perspective and wrote of Cromwell the following: “By an uncompleted process of terror, by an iniquitous land settlement, by the virtual proscription of the Catholic religion, by the bloody deeds already described, he cut new gulfs between the nations and the creeds … The consequences of Cromwell’s rule in Ireland have distressed and at times distracted English politics down even to the present day. To heal them baffled the skill and loyalties of successive generations. They became for a time a potent obstacle to the harmony of the English-speaking people throughout the world. Upon all of us there still lies ‘the curse of Cromwell.’”

As a Catholic of Irish ancestry, I have to say the Westminster statue never truly offended me. (A plurality of African-Americans in a recent poll also oppose the removal of Confederate statues.) But personal offense is not the issue here. What’s at stake is the core meaning of the country. And the curse of the Confederacy is as acute as Cromwell’s legacy, and much more recent, and thereby much more painful. History cannot and shouldn’t be erased from public memory — that’s what totalitarian states do. But equally you don’t have to actually affirm or exculpate its crimes. It is indeed grotesque that stained-glass windows in honor of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were installed in Washington’s National Cathedral in 1953 — as a way to celebrate the piety of two vicious racists and defenders of slavery under the guise of national reconciliation. And it’s entirely fitting that they now be removed. Including proud advocates of genocidal slavery in a Christian place of worship is a form of sacrilege.

I’d take down almost all of the Confederate statues myself. Move them to Civil War battlefields, or to museums, or private lands. And this is not, contra Trump, a slippery slope. Slavery taints almost every American icon — but not all of them also committed treason in an explicit attempt to retain and even advance the peculiar and despicable institution. We can and should remember the complexity of a man like Lee — just as one can see in Cromwell the inklings of parliamentary democracy and an austere sincerity, as well as genocidal sectarianism. But it is not a form of insane political correctness to remove public affirmations of men committed to evil. Yes, this is a picking of old wounds. But some need to be picked to be healed. I recall G.K. Chesterton’s quip about Cromwell’s legacy: “It was a tragic necessity that the Irish should remember it; but it was far more tragic that the English forgot it.”

***

These September days in Provincetown, where I’ve been privileged to live every summer for more than two decades now, have a particular quality to them. The streets and beaches suddenly empty; end-of-season staff parties arrive; restaurants and cafés unexpectedly close, as their exhausted employees take a day to themselves; there’s a slight giddiness to the townies as they reclaim their neighborhoods and tally their earnings. The light sharpens as the temperature cools. There are days when I swear every single blade of dune grass makes its presence known.

My youngest beagle, a three-legged scamp called Bowie, is finally free to run through the dunes with no one bothering her, her nose constantly to the ground, occasionally letting out something that is a mix of a yelp and a scream as she picks up a rabbit trail, or finds a dead bird and rubs herself in it till she proudly stinks. Tiny little flecks of silver cover the sand right now as shoals of silvery minnows beach themselves in the tides. Swallows suddenly swoop through the skies on their way south; the asters explode with color in the gardens; the evening clouds become even more vivid in their pinks and mauves, purples and iridescent yellows. I know it will soon be time to leave, that very soon, the cold will descend, the evenings disappear, and the town will enter its fall ritual of winnowing. Shops will close entirely; summer houses will go dark at night; and the beaches will shift from wondrously empty to just lonely.

So I make one last pilgrimage to the very end of the peninsula, the strip of sandbar where the first Europeans landed, and try to put all of America behind me, as Thoreau once put it about this place. In the toxic age of Trump, you value this breathing space more than ever. There’s such a simplicity to the vista. It’s just four elements: water, sand, grass, and sky. They have remained constants in the years I have come here, and yet none of them is ever the same. Every time, the light is slightly different, the tides always shifting, the blues of heaven and earth reflecting each other as if they were in constant, changing conversation. You see it all more clearly now that fall is here: the crispening of the cathedral that some of us are lucky enough to live in, and the goodness and godness that lie all around.

See you next Friday.

Sullivan: The Religious Right’s Suicidal Gay Obsession