The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on January 5, 2011
Conservative Christians and the Sexual Revolution

It helps if one knows what one’s mission is in life. I am beginning to think that my mission, at least in my new life as a blogger, is to take two separate stories in The New York Times and comment on them together. In the issue of December 18, 2010 there are two stories that deal with religion and homosexuality. (The latter topic, if not the first, appears to be a consuming interest of the Times, both editorially and in its news coverage.)

The first story deals with an episode at Belmont University in Nashville, an institution that advertises itself as “a student-centered Christian community” and as being “among the fastest growing Christian universities in the nation”.  It used to be defined as Baptist, but in 2007 it severed its affiliation with the state Baptist convention over the question of whether non-Baptists could be trustees. Since this severance from its Baptist roots Belmont has defined itself as Christian though non-denominational. In Southern parlance “Christian” means Evangelical, and Belmont’s recent self-definition may be understood in this sense.  While, as we will see in a moment, there is some uncertainty about the boundaries of this religious identity, there can be no doubt about the “fastest-growing” bit. Between 2000 and 2010 the enrollment has grown by 99%, from just under 3000 to just under 6000 students. Ten new buildings have gone up on campus. The jewel in the crown of this budding educational empire is an apparently innovative program in music education, which has given Belmont the reputation of being progressive and artsy, in addition to being Christian—a combination which, one can surmise, would attract the offspring of upwardly mobile Evangelicals in Tennessee and elsewhere.

This onward-and-upward progress was disturbed by an event just before the recent Thanksgiving break. Lisa Howe, the coach of the women’s soccer team who describes herself as a church-going Christian, made an announcement to the team gathered in its locker room. She told the team that she was a lesbian, and that she and her long-time partner were going to have a baby—specifically, the partner is due in May. It seems that the members of the team were not upset by this news, but some parents complained. In the following week it became known that Howe was leaving her job. She reports that the athletic director told her that she would be fired if she did not resign. There were protests among faculty and students, though the state Baptist convention praised Belmont for respecting its “Christian mission”. Robert Fisher, the university’s president, made a statement to the effect that sexual orientation is not a factor in considerations of staff status at Belmont. This left unclear whether this tolerance extends to people in openly homosexual relationships intending to start a family. Fisher also said that he welcomes discussion of the issue. At the time of writing Howe’s future at Belmont is apparently still unresolved.

The second Times story deals with a much less noisy episode. Indeed, it impresses one as a non-story, deemed “fit to print” only by the newspaper’s obsessive interest in all matters homosexual. Eric Ostrow teaches drama at Xavier High School, a Catholic institution in Manhattan. He informed the administration last spring that he intended to stage “The Laramie Project”, a play about the murder of an HIV-positive gay college student. I don’t know whether drama teachers at Xavier must routinely inform the administration about their intended performances, or whether Ostrow just thought it prudent to get an advance approval in this case. Approval was given immediately and, it seems, enthusiastically. The play was staged recently before an equally enthusiastic audience. Many spectators bought wristbands with the inscription “Erase Hate”. Jack Raslowsky, Xavier’s president, said that the play provided a pedagogically useful opportunity to discuss issues of morality, firmly in the Catholic tradition of social justice. I am not sure that the Vatican would agree with this invocation of Catholic tradition. It would certainly agree with the condemnation of murder because of someone’s sexual orientation, but not with any softening of the official definition of homosexual actions as “an intrinsic moral evil”. Be this as it may, neither parents nor students seem to have protested the performance. The Times reporter himself described this as a “case of the dog that did not bark”. Perhaps he had some doubts about filing the story in the first place.

Yet the two stories, taken together, are interesting. Both deal with essentially conservative Christian communities, Evangelical and Catholic, trying to cope with the effects of the sexual revolution.

I think that neither the causes nor the effects of the sexual revolution, which erupted in the 1960s and came to fruition in the 1970s, have been adequately understood. It went far beyond the issue of homosexuality, or even gender in general, affecting the basic relation between individual identity and institutions. As far as homosexuality is concerned, there has been a marked shift in attitudes in Western societies from hostility to acceptance, not only but especially among people who consider themselves progressive. I think I should say here that I, for one, believe that this shift has been a moral good. In my early writings, some years before there was a gay movement, I described the “precarious vision” resulting from a perspective on human beings as both free and immensely fragile (I thought, and still think, that a humanistic sociology can help bring about this vision). I further asserted that a decent moral response to the vision would lead to three abhorrences—abhorrence of capital punishment, of any form of racism, and of the persecution of homosexuals. I have not changed my mind about this. This does not mean that I agree with every item on the agenda of the gay movement. But that is another story.

The increasing acceptance of homosexuality in the general culture has posed an important challenge to conservative religious communities, at least those within the Abrahamic tradition. Traditional Jewish, Christian and Muslim moral teachings have univocally condemned homosexuality. In America religious conservatives have been important supporters of movements in the so-called culture war opposed to the acceptance of homosexuality. The opposition has been legitimated both in terms of scriptural texts and of a religiously based understanding of human nature. Given the drift in the overall society, the opposition to homosexual emancipation has been distinctively counter-cultural. The issue continues to be a hot-button one between conservatives and progressives, though its specifications vary over time—right now same-sex marriage and gays in the military are the prominent specifics.

Different religious communities have reacted differently. I think it is fair to say that mainline Protestantism has been most susceptible to the progressive trend. One denomination after another in this community has joined the progressive camp, both with regard to the general acceptance of homosexuality (notably blessing same-sex marriage) and with regard to internal church issues (notably the acceptability of openly gay clergy). To be sure, there have been significant resistances to this progressive trend. The current schism in the Anglican communion is an important case in point, with the majority in the Episcopal Church in America adjusting to the progressive trend. There are some piquant ambivalences here—as when progressives insist that openly gay individuals should be able to fight in wars that progressives strongly oppose. Or when conservatives oppose same-sex unions in the name of “traditional marriage”—the “tradition” being that of the bourgeois family, which is roughly as old as the steam engine. The Biblical texts to which conservatives like to refer on these matters certainly do not endorse the modern bourgeois family.

Over twenty years ago the sociologist James Davison Hunter published Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, an empirical study of young Evangelicals. While the picture resulting from this study is nuanced, the main conclusion is that a new generation of upwardly mobile, college-educated Evangelicals is straying from the traditional faith of their community. This is not exactly what has happened—at least not yet. Two developments have occurred since the late 1980s, the period from which Hunter’s data came. The move of Evangelicals into the upper middle class and higher education has accelerated, as a result of which this community has become more socially visible and politically influential. This has obviously made them more susceptible to the culture of the larger society. But at the same time Evangelicals have fortified their own subculture, providing support for young people not to stray from it. An important part of this fortification has been the rise of a new Evangelical intelligentsia, based in a network of Evangelical academic institutions and publications, but spilling over into the wider intellectual culture. Thus Mark Noll, a highly respected church historian and a leading Evangelical intellectual, has moved from Wheaton College, a firmly Evangelical college in the Middle West, to Notre Dame, itself an institution of the Catholic community opening up to the wider culture. This entry of Evangelicals into the higher reaches of American society curiously resembles what happened to Jews in America beginning sometime in the 1930s and then swiftly accelerating after World War II. The view of Jews in the wider American society was that of workers with Yiddish accents in the garment district of New York, their pushy offspring kept from entry into the bastions of the Wasp elite by an effective set of barriers. Suddenly, presumably with some dismay, this elite saw its bastions, from Ivy League colleges to exclusive clubs, invaded by Jews—to the point where politicians routinely referred to the “Judaeo-Christian” foundations of American democracy, and American humor acquired a Yiddish accent that has become a mark of sophistication. Not so long ago the general view of Evangelicals was the one conveyed by H.L. Mencken in his report on the “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tennessee—a bunch of illiterate provincials, who chewed tobacco, slept with their sisters, and did lynchings for weekend recreation. This caricature has not disappeared completely, but it is now so much at odds with reality that it is increasingly hard to sustain.

Thus the travails of the women’s soccer coach at Belmont University reflects a much broader tension within the Evangelical community. The issue of homosexuality is, of course, only one item of contention between the Evangelical subculture and the larger American society. Evangelicals constitute the most dynamic component of American Protestantism. Their self-confidence has been strengthened by the knowledge that they are part of the fastest growing version of Christianity worldwide. A plausible trajectory a few decades ago was that Evangelicals would in the near future lose their vitality and become as boring as their mainline cousins. This trajectory has been slowed down, perhaps prevented, by the establishment of a socially robust and intellectually assertive Evangelical subculture. But the very prominence of this subculture necessitates what I have called a process of cognitive bargaining with the wider culture. As in all bargaining, there will be compromises. For example:  Okay, we’ll agree that homosexuality is acceptable. But no, we will continue to insist that salvation comes only through Jesus.

The story about the play at Xavier High School is hardly worth telling as news, but it too reflects a much broader phenomenon—marking the boundaries of the Catholic subculture in America. Up to the Second Vatican Council this subculture was very robust indeed. In much of the country an individual could spend much of his life within its confines, supported by a network of Catholic institutions from his home parish, through a system of Catholic elementary and secondary schools, various associations (like the Knights of Columbus), multiple media, and, last not least, an impressive array of Catholic colleges and universities. Unlike Evangelicals, American Catholics could feel themselves part of a highly sophisticated, centuries old intellectual tradition. This subculture was rapidly weakened by the (surely unintended) consequences of Vatican II. The latter’s aggiornamento wanted to open windows to the modern world. It did. But the church could not control the turbulent pluralism that poured in through these opened windows. The sexual revolution came in too, and the moral authority of the church in matters related to it was greatly weakened. Needless to say, the sexual abuse crisis has not helped.

Here too, then, a process of cognitive bargaining is taking place. Conservative and progressive Catholics will disagree on the compromises to be made. Of course such compromises are possible: Okay, we’ll accept that homosexuality is not an “intrinsic evil”. But we will insist that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist. That much is similar to the Evangelical situation. But there are two important differences. Catholicism does not have the flexibility of the Protestant denominational system. An individual who is unhappy with the moral rigor of his Baptist church can cross the street, join a more liberal Methodist church—and still remain within the broad Evangelical world. A Catholic is more or less stuck with the church he has, unless he wants to become an officially designated heretic, or to become a Protestant (or, for that matter, a Buddhist). And Evangelicalism has no equivalent of the global Catholic headquarters. The old Catholic maxim “Rome has spoken, the matter is closed” (Roma locuta, causa finita) has lost much of its authority, but what Rome says is still very important even to Catholic dissidents. Thus many American bishops would like to go much farther in accommodating to the progressive agenda, in sexual as in other matters, but they know that Rome is looking over their shoulders—and, for them if not for lay Catholics. Rome is still the boss. I think Xavier High School was stretching the Roman envelope, but without straying out of it altogether. So, in a sense, the dog did bark.

  • John Barker

    The movement of the evangelicals to intellectual respectability may stimulate some cognitive bargaining on the part of the today’s secularists, who may be less inclined to dismiss the claims of those who sense a spiritual presence in the world. Perhaps we will see that there needs be no disjunction between faith and reason.

  • Tim Brynteson

    As fundamentalist/Charismatic who converted to Catholicism in my 40′s I have seen both subcultures. I have come to believe that the moral content of these subculture’s motivates to a degree, but I observe that grinding “political” axes are what is motivating most of the real energy. The “culture wars” have become more a tool of political parties intent on raising money than serious discussions among Christians about the fragility and humility of human existence and our need for God’s grace. As someone who sympathizes with both the views of progressives and conservatives, I feel that the potential for productive and insightful conversations is lost as people tend to view these issues through the prism of their favored political viewpoint rather than the love of Christ as expressed in the Gospels and the insights in to human nature from 2000 years of tradition.

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  • http://empirethebook.com Russ Neal

    Cognitive bargaining is an interesting term for selling out. Contrary to the opinion of many, the Zeitgeist is not the Holy Spirit.

  • please respect us as you would want to be respected

    I do not understand why Christians cannot be allowed to live according to their faith.

    Christians are not beheading anyone. We simply do not want to embrace the assumptions of your humanistic faith.

    Why can the keepers of “tolerance” not extend any tolerance for Christians who want to build Christian communities, without any trolls coming in for the express purpose of forcing us to embrace humanist beliefs about how sex is so important, how family bonds are not, and how we should and should not live?

    I realize that you are sincere in your beliefs, but when “tolerance” becomes us tolerating you – without reciprocating respect – then it isn’t very “tolerant”, it is only your side demanding that we embrace your beliefs.

    Be as gay as you want, but do not ask us to teach our children your beliefs. We do not believe that sexual pleasure is a higher priority than honoring one’s obligations to family kinship bonds, and as long as freedom of religion exists in America, that is our right.

  • Stephen Hoffmann

    A much more likely kind of “cognitive bargaining” on the part of orthodox Christians–whether evangelical or Catholic–is one that recognizes homosexual orientation as a condition unlikely to change and rejects demonizing homosexuals but that holds that sexual relationships and marriage (which need not be identified with “bourgeois marriage, any more than Christmas need be identifed with Dickens) between gays or lesbians is not to be encouraged or affirmed. Based on trends within the Episcopal Church, whatever bargaining affirmation of such homosexual relationships involves is more likely to concern the preservation of certain traditions than of orthodox beliefs (such as salvation only through Jesus–the example the author suggests in the discussion of the Belmont case).

  • http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com M. Simon

    The coming end of Drug Prohibition in North America will strike a serious blow to the Evangelical’s claim to authority.

    It will be difficult to claim to be bearers of the “TRUTH” while being so seriously wrong on that issue. People will start asking (again) why Baptists are the bootleggers best friends.

    When the prohibition regime falls there will be a serious accounting of the costs. The lives wrecked by prison. The deaths in the Drug Wars. The people denied medication. The trillions of dollars wasted (it only takes 20 years to waste a trillion at $50 bn a year). etc. etc. etc.

    Maybe that is why Pat Robertson has at least questioned marijuana prohibition recently. He didn’t move far from his previous position. But any movement at all is remarkable.

  • Glen

    Very interesting article. Fascinating to read as a college educated evangelical in Australia – striking similarities and differences – the main difference being a much less politically charged atmosphere here regarding all things religion. I’ll read the other posts on this blog.

    This seems a good companion piece to David Brook’s NY Times column on the roots of civility, which he argues comes from a recognition of our weakness, sin and fallibility. Recognizing the limits of our own wisdom and ability to see things as they are means we’ll engage in conversation and truly listen, rather than try to shout above each other. And this means the rather painful process of cognitive bargaining can slowly proceed.

    The point about defending the ‘traditional’ family is a good one, most are shocked to find out how recent and western it is.

    Some of the valuable aspects Christians emphasize to the wider culture is the importance of commitment to marriage and family and self-sacrificing love. Unfortunately, this so often gets caught up in heated political debate regarding homosexuality that it becomes a debased term.

    In my community, i see Christians much less willing (and able to) barely disguise homophobia by appealing to christian traditions. I hope that trend continues.