The Slippery Middle Ground on Gay Marriage
In 43 years of attending evangelical churches, one thing I've never seen is a decent conspiracy.
I have seen really bad Lutheran basement potlucks. I've seen quite a few white guys in hairy sweaters and poly-wool blend pants who insist that you call them "Pastor Bob." I've noticed that a preacher gets electrocuted in the baptismal pool at the rate of approximately one per decade, usually in Texas.
And I've seen that in the Church of God in Christ, my old denomination, it is impossible to start an evening service on time. To those who decry the horrors of organized religion, I say join the Church of God in Christ: disorganized religion.
But I have observed no conspiracies. Just a lot of men and women of varying levels of faith and understanding who are trying to get a grip on the God who embodies with equal passion the concepts of justice and mercy, truth and grace. It's a messy process, this Jesus thing.
Mel White, raised an evangelical, has seen a lot of the same things I've seen. But somehow he has emerged from it with a belief--for rhetorical purposes anyway--that "fundamentalists" are engaged in a massive conspiracy to incite hatred of gays.
And I know he knows better.
White, 67, is the former ghostwriter of evangelical icons Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. (By the way, why can't you guys just admit you don't write your own books and say, "by Pat Robertson as told to so-and-so"? Isn't that part of telling the truth?) In 1993, White announced to the world that he is gay—right here in Dallas, when he was installed as dean of the Cathedral of Hope, the biggest gay congregation in the country. He wrote a book about his coming out, Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America, that jolted the evangelical world and became a national bestseller.
In it, he told of how he'd endured decades of "anti-gay" therapy, including prayer, exorcism and electric shock. Finally, at Cathedral of Hope, he fashioned his own statement of faith: "I am gay. I am proud. And God loves me without reservation."
Now White has returned with a sequel, Religion Gone Bad: The Hidden Dangers of the Christian Right, out just last week, in which he shifts his focus from the personal to the political and investigates the threat of the evil Christian right and its secret conspiracy to stir up the kind of hateful prejudice that gets gays killed.
The timing isn't coincidental. "The whole message is that on November 7, if you don't vote to get rid of these anti-gay Congressmen, you are the enemy of God's gay children," White told me Monday.
White believes that "fundamentalists"—a word he uses loosely, applying it to many people I'd simply call evangelicals—are hell-bent on erasing every civil right enjoyed by gays and abolishing the separation of church and state in America.
He focuses especially on the matter of gay marriage. "There are no moderates on this issue," White said. "You're either for us or against us."
White admits that "most gay people called me a hysteric" until Bush's first election. Now they're listening. "It's the church that took that guy and put him into office with the help of the Supreme Court."
And White is determined to stop him—and the influence of his anti-homosexual, "fundamentalist" followers. He calls on all gays and all Americans to "wake up" and join him in peaceful combat against the fundamentalist threat.
Now White is no simpleton; he's a highly intelligent man, a student of theology and church history, a fine writer, and—to his credit—he doesn't demonize the evangelical leaders that he actually got to know in his ghostwriting days, like Francis Schaeffer and Dallas' own Southern Baptist legend, W.A. Criswell.
But there are no shades of gray in the introduction to his book or in the promotional materials, and White made himself perfectly clear in our conversation. Evangelicals such as myself—who believe homosexuality is not consistent with calling oneself a follower of Jesus Christ, who oppose the legal enshrinement of gay marriage—are the enemy. And, by extension, agents of hate.
"When you hate what I am and whom I love," White writes, "you hate me."
Because I base my beliefs on the Bible, I am also a "fundamentalist" in White's eyes. The word is so punchy and mean, so closely identified today with flakes and fanatics, might as well throw it my way. It's an easy way to discredit my faith.
But back to the grand conspiracy. White opens his book with an account of a gruesome hate crime, the 1999 murders of a gay California couple, Gary Matson and Winfield Scott Mowder, by two Bible-spouting brothers. This "untold story," White writes, "is just one more smoking gun found at the scene of another crime caused directly or indirectly by fundamentalist Christian leaders whose obsessive antihomosexual campaign leads to tragic consequences they will not admit."
White offers no evidence that the killers were in any way influenced by "fundamentalist Christian leaders." The murderers, Matthew and Tyler Williams, just sound like typical nutjobs to me. I used to be a cops reporter for the Dallas Times Herald and The Seattle Times, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who came across several incidents in which some poor, mentally deranged man hacked off his genitals with a scissors, steak knife, whatever, citing Jesus' teaching that "if your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out." Are we gonna hang that on some unnamed fundamentalist preacher too?
Actually, there are quite a few flaws with White's logic. He seems to forget that Protestants are notoriously fractious. It's telling that the root word of Protestant is "protest." While I respect the ministries of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Dr. James Dobson in some ways, I do not march to their orders. Neither does anyone I know. Black evangelicals, in particular—and there are lots of them, way more than you think—generally pay these men no attention at all.
I personally disagree with them on various points. I agree on others. I'd feel queasy too if any of these guys was given too much political control. They're preachers and pastors and teachers, not politicians. Robertson's proclivity for sticking his foot in his big mouth every few months proves it.
Mel White has a point—someone is answering Falwell's and Dobson's direct-mail solicitations; someone is flooding the phones on Capitol Hill when the hot-button issues come up. But maybe it's little old ladies in Poughkeepsie. Maybe it's the same little old lady in Poughkeepsie. It sure isn't me.
Score a few points for White here as well: Falwell and other mass-media preachers who employ high-dollar direct-mail firms--then fail to read their own hyperventilating solicitation letters--are fair targets. In Religion Gone Bad, White reports that Falwell expressed surprise about one such mailing's anti-gay content and admitted to the media that it "went too far."
The evangelical faith loses every bit of its meaning and power when it is separated from love, the eternal principle behind the gospel of Jesus Christ. But this love is not some squishy, infinitely malleable thing that exists apart from truth—the truth revealed in the Bible. It is a love that constrains: from hatred, and from sin.
But let's back up a moment. What is an evangelical? Who are they? First and foremost, they are theologically conservative Christians who believe that the Bible is the Word of God, the only authoritative guide for all matters of life and faith. They do not consider themselves free to pick and choose only those bits that are convenient to follow.
Now because they believe the Bible is the Word of God, and because the Scriptures speak of a literal heaven and hell to which all of us will someday be assigned, evangelicals see an urgency to spread the word about salvation through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They evangelize.
Evangelicals also see a need to live moral, godly lives, according to the standards clearly set in Scripture: to tell the truth; to work hard; to take care of their families; to practice sexual purity; to uphold love as the highest aim of the Christian life.
Simply speaking, all Christians who believe in the full authority of Scripture are evangelicals. They include Southern Baptists; Pentecostals; most Charismatics; fundamentalists (the most conservative branch, favoring a literal interpretation of Scripture); and numerous nondenominational churches. Again, what defines them is a "high" view of Scripture—I can't discard or discount the stuff I don't like. Somehow, it all works into the big picture of the Word of God.
In my church, you will hear folks ask all the time, "Does it line up with the Word of God?" Everything hinges on Scripture, the only perfect record of who God is and what he expects from us; all "truth" is subject to it.
Evangelicals' views on gay marriage derive from their "high" view of Scripture. In the book of Genesis, God establishes marriage between a man and a woman. For an evangelical such as myself, that settles it: The Word is indisputably clear; I follow. I am not at liberty to construct elaborate circumventions.
And while I am not a literalist—neither was Jesus; just check out his applications of Old Testament Scripture—I do believe the Bible's basic principles can be understood by anyone, from the simplest person to the greatest sophisticate, and shouldn't be bid down or gummed up by those attempting to apply novel interpretations. Since we obviously aren't a part of Jesus' native culture, it is interesting to consult the many, many writings of the early church Fathers and chroniclers to see how they understood Scripture in closer proximity to Jesus' place and time in history. Because they were in agreement on quite a few things.
They definitely weren't confused about sexual sin.
The New Testament describes all sex outside of marriage as sin. Sexual sin, furthermore, is considered uniquely damaging to the human soul, according to the Apostle Paul. Homosexuality is specifically singled out as one kind of sexual sin. I know that gay churches hotly dispute this, but no evangelicals accept their tortured exegesis of Scripture. (And no, I'm not gonna get into the specifics here.) Let me say this plainly: You cannot have a "high" view of Scripture and believe that homosexuality is OK with God.
But where does one go from here? What about the mystery of sexual orientation? And what about evangelicals' poor track record in dealing with the men and women in their midst who are trying to reconcile their beliefs with a powerful, inward pull toward members of the same sex?
Is it significant that other kinds of sexual sins are incredibly widespread among evangelicals, yet somehow these seem not to merit equal concern?
All important questions. I will try to address some of them next week.
But in my profession and in my sphere—the alternative press—gay marriage is pretty much a non-issue. Anyone who opposes it—in other words, someone who holds an alternative view--is considered a bigot, a hater and a homophobe. Yeah, I know: irony and all that. But we in the alternative press are pretty good at failing to detect the uniformity of our nonconformity. And in the face of that, I'm just gonna have to risk all of those nasty labels and carve out my own middle ground.
I believe my parents' generation was wrong to advance the idea that men and women are interchangeable parts. I reject the Daddy-optional family plan—the degrading and diminution of men, of women, of sex--so prevalent today.
I don't believe it was a biological accident that, in marriage to a member of the opposite gender, we're forced to embrace the Other. It isn't easy for most of us; it's incredibly uncomfortable at times. But it causes us to wrench ourselves away just a little bit from the stinking self-absorption of this age.
God designed it that way, and it's a good thing for our kids—a life-affirming thing. It affirms the value of their lives, above and beyond our own.
Now do you get this? Marriage is sacred to me. Leave it alone.
There is one last point that constitutes my middle ground. In the alternative press I work and have worked with many outstanding gay and lesbian colleagues. This is my passionate belief as well: They have a right to live and work and prosper in this country.
I will not be found guilty of treating their convictions with contempt.
I ask the same for mine. --Julie Lyons
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