What exactly is the issue? The LGBT issue, part 2

Historic Christian understandings of sexuality are being reevaluated due to evidence offered in the lives of those who do not fit the norm, together with associated research and mental health efforts. 

Gushee David croppedBy David Gushee

Follow David: @dpgushee 

My topic in this new series for ABPnews/Herald is the fierce conflict in culture, religion and law related to what I have initially called “the LGBT issue.” My goal is to think through this issue from a Christian perspective and in public with the hope of increasing “convictional clarity,” especially for Christians and churches. As an opening effort at labeling two main “sides” in the argument, I followed evangelical biblical scholar James Brownson (among others) in using the terms “traditionalist” and “revisionist” to describe the more conservative and more progressive camps, respectively.

I appreciated the robust reader-response last week, and will say in general: a) I do not believe it terribly helpful to fixate on slightly better or slightly worse terminological choices. I would rather talk about the issues than talk about what labels we will use to talk about the issues, though of course language does matter and I am being as careful as I can be; b) for those readers who have already worked through these issues and come down firmly on the full affirmation/acceptance/revisionist side, please try not to lose patience with those who have not made that journey and/or need to think about these issues from the ground up, and maybe for the first time. That is the audience I am primarily aiming at in this series. If that’s not you, feel free to ignore my rudimentary efforts.

* * *

So: What exactly is the issue that everyone is fighting about?

One starting point might be to say that historic Christian understandings of sexuality are being reevaluated due to evidence offered in the lives of those who do not fit the historic heterosexual norm, together with associated research and mental health efforts.

The historic Christian sexual norm was exclusively heterosexual (some call it heteronormative, or more pejoratively, heterosexist). It declared on the basis of Scripture that all human beings exist in two distinct sexes, male and female, and that they are divinely commanded to have sexual relations only with the opposite sex. Further, the church taught that sexual behavior should be constrained to lifetime monogamous marriages and, often, emphasized procreation as the central divine purpose for sexual activity. This heterosexual-marital-procreative norm was also generally linked to a patriarchal understanding of gender, that is, differences in men’s and women’s (divinely prescribed) roles and behaviors that gave men greater power.

The Bible was, and still is, cited as authority for some or all of these norms related to gender and sexuality. A wide range of associated cultural and legal practices reflected and reinforced these theological and ethical beliefs once Christianity became the official or dominant religion in many lands, as it did here in the United States.

These powerful sex-and-gender paradigms have been challenged in many ways in recent decades. Many of our most intense religious and “culture wars” battles have been fought on this broad front between advocates and resisters of change. (Failure to disentangle and treat specific issues separately has engendered unnecessary confusion and conflict. More on this in a later column.)

Our topic in these columns, of course, is the particular challenge to the norm offered by the discovery/acknowledgment of a persistent presence in human societies of women and men who experience permanent, exclusive same-sex attraction rather than opposite-sex attraction — as well as those who report attraction to both sexes; or fluid desire patterns; or biologically indeterminate or uncertain gender identity. Several recent studies for the U.S. suggest a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender population ranging from 3.4 percent to 5 percent.  

If they have not been simply ostracized or rejected outright, young adults reporting any level of same-sex attraction, especially in religiously conservative families and congregations, often have been told that their “struggle with their sexuality” can be resolved through prayer, repentance, moral effort or therapies designed to change their sexual orientation. They often have also been told that their continued acceptance in family or religious life requires (the success of) such efforts.

Probably many readers personally know people — I certainly do — who have attempted without success and with great distress to change their sexual orientation under external or self-imposed religious pressure, perhaps through some form of sexual orientation change therapy. One heartrending collection of such testimonies is in Mitchell Gold and Mindy Drucker's book, Crisis

But the total failure of the “ex-gay” movement — as evidenced most recently by Exodus International’s closure and apology in 2013 and its leader Alan Chambers’ statement the year before that “99.9 percent” of the people they had tried to help had not experienced a change in their sexual orientation — has destroyed the plausibility of such efforts. Already in 2009 the American Psychological Association and U.K. Royal College of Psychiatrists warned against sexual-orientation-change efforts as harmful, and some U.S. states are now moving to outlaw them altogether. It is hard to see how responsible Christian ministries can any longer offer, or refer to, sexual-orientation-change therapy. 

Research and clinical results such as these have resulted in a dramatic reconceiving of sexuality in the social and behavioral sciences and the mental health professions.

The accounts offered in widely used psychology textbooks, such as the text offered by David Myers (Psychology, 10th edition, pp. 427-434), reflect current research. Myers begins by accepting human sexual orientation diversity as a fact. He distinguishes between sexual orientation (the direction of enduring sexual-romantic desire and attraction, largely biological in origin), sexual identity (socially influenced self-understanding/labeling), and sexual behavior (choices and patterns in sexual activity).

He notes the crucial role of culture in creating a context either for rejecting or accepting those of different sexual orientations, concluding: “Yet whether a culture condemns or accepts homosexuality, heterosexuality prevails and homosexuality survives.” Myers claims that “sexual orientation in some ways is like handedness: Most people are one way, some the other. A very few are truly ambidextrous. Regardless, the way one is endures” (p. 428). Myers, by the way, is an evangelical Christian who teaches at Hope College.

Even if one accepts these claims, it does not resolve theological and moral questions raised by Scripture and the Christian tradition. It does, however, give us a crucial understanding without which we cannot adequately wrestle with those theological and moral questions. Perhaps this is the first major fork in the road — some will take seriously the personal narratives, psychological research and clinical conclusions just outlined, integrating them into further Christian reflection and ministry; others might choose to dismiss them. I cannot take the latter path. 

In my next column, I will explore how traditionalist Christian communities and their leaders are currently attempting to navigate these waters. The picture is much more complex than you might think.

Previous column:

Starting a conversation: The LGBT Issue, part 1

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.