In Part I of our discussion of Pray the Gay Away by Bernadette Barton, I discussed her basic approach to researching the experiences of sexual minorities in the Bible belt. I shared that there is a lot of important information and experiences to appreciate here, particularly for those who identify as Christians. I did note, however, that her book was limited in important ways by her approach to data analysis that drew so heavily on Foucault and theories of power and domination. Let’s pick up our discussion.
In reading Pray the Gay Away, I was reminded at times of Michelle Wolkomir’s ethnographic study that was published in book form as Be Not Deceived. It was a study of gay and ex-gay Christians. In that study, Wolkomir offered an analysis of how both groups of men had to make a maneuver that allowed themselves to remain Christians. She described how gay Christians who were part of the Metropolitan Community Church utilized a hermeneutic of inclusivity and love to facilitate a way to retain a Christian identity. In contrast, ex-gay Christians who were part of Exodus International affiliated ministries followed a hermeneutic of righteousness–denying themselves same-sex intimacy/behavior–in order to retain a Christian identity. According to Wolkomir, both groups utilized similar strategies, such as small groups, to create the necessary emotional atmospheres that fostered the kind of identity and community needed to make the transition.
In some regards, Wolkomir critiques both groups of men out of a comparable lens (drawing on elements of queer theory). But the steps she took to critique both ways of navigating being a sexual minority and a Christian offered important insights. Neither group was demonized, though she pointed out concerns that she had for both strategies and clearly held to a different worldview altogether.
This reader ended Pray the Gay Away wondering if Barton understands the faith and belief structure of Christians. She seems to understand, identify, and articulate ways in which abuses of sexual minorities can result from specific beliefs held by some Christians and encounters with those who identify as Christian. These stories are powerful and sobering. They need to be heard. But it is unclear the extent to which she understands the beliefs themselves and why they might matter in the life of a Christian or of a church – apart from an a priori commitment to a theory that asserts Christians sustain and protect existing power structures that allow a segment of the population to dominate and control others. I think that would be the result from a different way of conducting the research and analyzing the data, of engaging a region, of participating in the lived experiences of those who identify as Christians, even those who identify as fundamentalist Christians.
Most of you who read this blog know that I am a Christian. After all, this blog is about the integration of Christianity and psychology. I am not a fundamentalist Christian, however. I do know several fundamentalist Christians, some of whom (at least in certain beliefs and assumptions) can be seen in the folks Barton encounters in her book. Others would not recognize themselves in some of the exchanges.So there is likely more diversity and complexity in that region and among even this kind of Christian than is offered, and the reader gets the sense that Barton is aware of that.
Early on in the book, Barton recognizes there are difficulties in defining what she is targeting. There is fundamentalism. There is the Religious Right. There are evangelicals. There are conservative Christians. All of these terms are brought into the discussion from time to time. The problem with this is that by sampling certain experiences with fundamentalists but then muddying the water with all of these other designations, the reader is left with can be a bias against all forms of Christianity that are not explicitly gay affirmative in the way Barton envisions. That is, if a Christian does not view same-sex behavior as a morally good, natural expression of a person’s identity–a person whose very well-being is predicated on such expressions, one is the kind of Christian reflected in the stories of abuse documented here. Yet there are Christian who hold those beliefs and values (that is, a traditional Christian sexual ethic) who are not abusive to sexual minorities. Some may be fundamentalists; many others are not.
“…I now understand that a certain percentage of conservative Christians are unlikely to change their belief systems to accommodate homosexuality no matter what arguments or evidence is offered” (p. 226). Are we speaking, then, of fundamentalist Christians or conservative Christians? Is it the Religious Right? Evangelicals? Conservative Catholics? Well, it’s all of those at this point–but the case is made compelling because of the examples of abuse from some fundamentalists.
A more helpful engagement would have taken the time to reflect on this question: if there are those who adhere to a traditional Christian sexual ethic, why is that? Can the reasons be reduced to power/domination? Is that a true assertion? In other words, it is not an assertion that is argued for; it is assumed, and this leaves the reader with a truncated view of any form of Christianity that is, again, not committed to a gay affirmative position as held by the researcher. The encounters and experiences Barton identifies and (rightly) challenges are those that are abusive to sexual minorities. However, what is ultimately being challenged is not a narrow strip of fundamentalism but a broader expression of Christianity (historic and global) that reaches a different conclusion than Barton about sexual ethics. If we define as abuse any disagreement about complex issues that are tied to broader worldview considerations (such as sexual ethics), then we are not going to have as meaningful an exchange of ideas. That discussion does not occur in this book.
Barton writes: “….some individual and institutions are unlikely to ever embrace homosexuality as part of God’s design…” (p. 227). The focus, then, is not, “What is a Christian sexual ethic and how can we better understand why that matters in the lives of Christians, including gay Christians (e.g., Wes Hill, Ron Belgau, Eve Tushnet). Nor is the focus on coexistence in a society with diverse view of a complex matter in which people may reach different conclusions (matters of ethics and morality). Rather, the impression I had was that any lack of movement toward Barton’s perspective is the result of a kind of fundamentalism associated with a literal reading of the Bible, belief in Creationism, and violence toward sexual minorities. It is one conclusion that can be reached from the kind of analysis Barton relies upon–an analysis of power and domination–but it is not the only analysis available, nor is it the only conclusion that can be drawn from an intimate knowledge of both the mainstream gay community and conservative Christianity.
This may seem like an aside, but let me also comment on one of the more memorable chapters. It was the one on creationism, which seemed out of place in the book, but I think I understand why it was included. I think it was meant to illustrate the kind of mindset that fuels the very abuses documented in the book. It was fascinating to read the visceral reaction of Barton’s students to the Creation Museum. (I have to say I’ve never visited it, so maybe I would also have a strong reaction.) This was probably the most difficult chapter for me to fully appreciate, and I cannot quite put my finger on the issue. It seemed that the very exposure of the students to this way of thinking (fundamentalist Christianity) was a significant threat to their well-being. (I have witnessed this with other sexual minorities who were not from the Bible belt and were actually in significant positions of influence.) I don’t think there is any one explanation for this; I suspect there could be many contributing factors. The obvious one presented in the book is the power/domination of the form of Christianity on display. I think that is definitely part of the explanation. If a person believes they are condemned in the eyes of those around them, exposure to institutions that represent that power will draw a strong, negative response.
I also wondered if the response is in any way primed when students are taught out of a worldview that frames these exchanges in power and domination rather than other explanatory frameworks. (Yes, I recognize that from the power/domination framework, I will be viewed as simply defending and justifying the power structures under scrutiny, but then there is no possible critique–the power simply shifts to those who keep others silent.) I don’t know, but if there is any possibility of moving forward as a culture, there might be something here worth exploring further. Can we be cued to interpret data as a threat in ways that actually gives that person/institution more power to do greater emotional damage to sexual minorities? Take this as me thinking out loud here. Again, I’m struggling to understand. What I do know is that we are left an important need that has not yet been met: how to talk with one another about these differences, as well as how we create better atmospheres for substantive diversity. I recall one author sharing that substantive diversity will have elements in it that are really difficult for us, sometimes so much so that we experience it as offensive. The way forward, it seems to me, is not to excuse, minimize, or defend abusive actions toward those who are in the minority; nor is it to reduce the diversity by demanding consensus on matters reflecting formed judgments about complex issues such as morality and ethics.
I will close with this: I am frequently exposed to people who believe that by virtue of being a Christian, I am a bigot. I have seen Christians equated with Nazis (this happens in Barton’s book). I have seen Christians equated with the KKK (also in this book). These are not ways to move society toward greater mutual understanding and respect. Christians would do well to study if there are changes that can be made so as not to contribute to that emotional experience. But critics of Christianity would do well to understand a sexual ethic out of that religion (and many other world religions) rather than reduce it to caricature. We need to find ways to foster the kinds of relationships that can sustain extended discussions of genuine differences in a diverse society. I doubt that drawing on theories of oppression to “unpack the mechanisms of domination” will aid in that process, if that is the only step taken, and if all of our recommendations are derived from that without any consideration for other perspectives. I suspect such a maneuver will do the opposite, that is, it will contribute to the culture wars in ways that have real consequences, such as when religious liberties are curtailed in the name of the tolerance that is being asserted.
That is another topic altogether. It is one worthy of its own post or two. For now, let me bring this to a close by saying I genuinely appreciated reading Barton’s book. It is thought-provoking to say the least. As in any similar endeavor, it is important to identify what can be learned from these kinds of analyses. To reject these experiences out of hand would be a mistake for the church. At the same time, there is much that needs to be done to foster mutual respect and understanding, and everyone is going to need to contribute toward that end if we hope to move forward on these complex matters.