The Supreme Court, this past week, did three faithful and honorable things, one on behalf of housing for the poor, one on behalf of medical care for all, and (what interests me particularly here) one on behalf of marriage. I say “marriage” rather than “same-sex marriage” because this will actually prove a gift for all Americans by helping to create a public understanding of marriage that doesn’t depend on ideas of sexual hierarchy that are no longer meaningful in our world. It will become easier for all of us (heterosexual people included) to think of marriage as a union of two equal partners.
There will, of course, be a period of backlash, and I don’t minimize its danger. Backlash has an intrinsic weakness, since it is always more a stance against than a stance for something. No matter how much the radical right claims that they’re defending marriage, it will only get harder to see them as doing anything more than attacking a historically marginalized group. Still, we know from the recent murders in Charleston that backlash can continue exacting a mortal toll even after 150 years. There is no expiry date on human depravity.
But my question today is whether Evangelicals will be able to separate themselves from their recent history of making homophobia a stand-or-fall article of religion. There is a laudable effort in this direction on the part of some younger leaders. Older ones mostly seem to be digging the trenches deeper and raising the barricades higher. Given the direction of the population at large (including younger Evangelicals), they may well find themselves leading a much reduced army; but they have loud voices and plenty of money. Will the the rest of us simply have to wait for their decease? (Being pretty much of the same age as they, I do not expect that I will live to see that.)
I have always been perplexed that Evangelicals have committed themselves so intensely and irrevocably to this attack on same-sex marriage. The Biblical case for their position proves tenuous when examined closely, as I argued in the 2nd edition of Dirt, Greed, and Sex (the 12th Chapter, new to that edition). It is stitched together from a patchwork of texts in a way that ignores their substantial differences. It gets much of its power from the fact that it aligns so readily with homophobic feelings, a fact that even some conservative Evangelicals seem to be on the verge of recognizing.
Homophobia is a particular form of the basic human reaction of disgust—a reaction that has proven remarkably malleable, both for good and for ill. It was fundamental to the Nazi campaign to dehumanize Jews, but it has also been used historically to summon emotional energy on behalf of civic morality. The mistake is in assuming that disgust is, in itself, a warrant for an ethical judgment. Sometimes, it is something we need to unlearn or at least disregard. It would be very helpful to the whole conversation if every one involved were to read Rachel Herz’s fascinating and informative That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion (Norton).
Another part of the difficulty for Evangelicals is that they are prisoners of infallibility. (Yes, I know “infallibility” isn’t their preferred terminology, but it’s the everyday word.) Evangelicals, like other Protestants, like to think of themselves as the opposite of Roman Catholicism, but they’re very close to it in this respect. Both groups have, at least in theory, a source of infallible divine knowledge. And people who have committed themselves to this principle do not like it if their leaders start making strange noises about what the infallible source teaches. After all, what ‘s the good of an infallible source if it can change?
Witness the current conservative resistance to Pope Francis (God bless him with long life and health) as he begins to push back against the infallibilities of his predecessors. (Yes, I know that that’s not the right language from a Roman Catholic perspective, either, but I think it describes the current dynamics.) In Evangelical circles, the reaction will typically be even more sweeping and trenchant. For it is not, in practice, the Bible that is their infallible authority, but their received interpretation of the Bible, an interpretation of which the leaders of the churches are custodians. To change that is felt as virtually equivalent to changing the Bible itself.
In my less hopeful moments, I sometimes think that Evangelicals will prove to have killed Christianity in the US with their intransigence on this topic and such other issues as evolution and global warming (against), and laissez-faire capitalism and Armageddon (for). They have, after all, succeeded in christening themselves as the only real Christians—and the secular press has implanted that identification firmly in the public mind. It is hard to imagine a future where this kind of proud intransigence can continue to flourish. Even the durable myth of the glories of the Confederacy is beginning to crumble after 150 years.
God, to be sure, has pulled Christianity through other self-induced disasters, finding the right agents and the right times. But it won’t be easy to deconstruct the current entanglement of faith and unreason, whether in Evangelical reality or in public perception. God prosper those Evangelicals who are trying to do exactly that. For a long time now, the word “gospel,” which once meant “good news,” has sounded on Evangelical lips more like a threat than a source of hope. That was not always the case. I pray they can change it for the future.