Convicted Civility

Here is an excerpt from my new book, Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry. The book can be pre-ordered here and will be available from Zondervan in October.

Several years ago I came across a phrase that has helped me in my professional role as a psychologist who studies sexual identity issues from a Christian worldview. The phrase is “convicted civility.” It comes from Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary. I recently spoke at Fuller and had the opportunity to talk with Mouw at length. He credited Martin Marty for the phrase. Its origin was tied to the observation that we have far too many Christians who are strong on convictions but do not represent Christ in a way that is respectful of others. At the same time, we have Christians who are so concerned not to offend anyone that it is hard to know what they hold convictions about. So the phrase “convicted civility” reflects a balance between holding convictions as a Christian and communicating those convictions with civility.

zondervanGiven the controversial topic of sexual identity, I’ve adopted “convicted civility” as my professional brand.  This has helped me make decisions about speaking engagements, consultation opportunities, writing projects, bridge-building, working with others to meet superordinate goals, and so on.

For example, a few years ago I was presenting data from a seven-year longitudinal study that considered whether sexual orientation could change through involvement in a Christian ministry. This is not a question that is of interest to the mainstream field of psychology; and it is a question that is offensive to ask within the mainstream of the LGBT community. But for some conventionally religious people, such as conservative Christians, it is a relevant question. So I was co-principal investigator of a study that examined the question of change and also of harm. It was published in book form in 2007 and as a peer-reviewed journal article in 2011 (Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy).

When I was asked to present the findings at a colloquium at Regent several years ago, a local person who identified himself as an activist, put out a call for others in the LGBT community to join him in staring down this “son of a [gun]” in protest of the study. The stage was being set for a rather heated encounter.

What does someone who is committed to “convicted civility” as a brand do in these moments?

I called him.

We spoke by phone a couple of days before the event, and I invited him to be my guest. (He was coming anyway, so extending an invitation did not seem too risky.) We shook hands and met before the presentation, and I met several of the other protesters. The filled the first couple of rows and indeed did stare at us as my co-presenter and I went through the data and implications for those in attendance.

We spoke again immediately after the presentation and actually several times after that. I’ve also met with others who came that day. Those exchanges led to an invitation to speak in Norfolk to a gathering of LGBT individuals on the topic. In the intervening weeks, I remember having coffee with one of the other protesters. He said, “You are nothing like what I expected. From what I had heard about you, I expected to see horns growing out of your head, and I thought you might have steam coming out of your nostrils.” He smiled. No steam here.

This exchange, and many others like it, is the fruit of convicted civility. If we agreed on everything, we would have nothing to talk about. We would likely try to find another common enemy. But in disagreeing on some topics, we can still communicate about the nature of that disagreement. That is only achieved by treating one another with respect, by being civil in our exchanges.

I am not particularly invested in the question of whether sexual orientation can change through Christian ministries. In my own clinical practice, I do not provide reorientation therapy; rather, I help people explore their sexual identity so that they can live a life that is consistent with their beliefs and values. Also, most of my research is centered on how sexual identity develops and how people navigate the conflict they sometimes feel between their same-sex sexuality and their religious faith. By far, most of my research is on the experiences of sexual minorities who are navigating that terrain.

However, I am committed to identifying and researching topics of importance to the Christian community. We need psychologists who will ask the questions that are of concern to the Body of Christ. We cannot expect the broader, secular field of psychology to ask those same questions or have those same interests. Further, we need to ask those questions using the methods and procedures used by our peers in the mainstream of psychology. We have to allow good research to help us translate Christian considerations into meaningful points of dialogue with those in the mainstream of psychology and also the broader culture.

My point is this: How we discuss Christian considerations will be just as important as having those distinctively Christian questions and convictions. “Convicted civility” is one brand that might help us do just that.


Adapted from Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry. Pre-order your copy today!

8 thoughts on “Convicted Civility

  1. Dr. Trista Carr once described you as one of the most Godly men she’s ever met. All I can know you by is your work which has been used, and continues to be used, to marginalize gay people. How do you reconcile the way that your work has been used to oppress sexual minorities with your desire for civility (and/or coexistence) within a culture that is increasingly intolerant of the maltreatment of people who are gay? Your work does not seem to be engendering the civility you desire.

  2. I think that’s a fair question, David, and it is one I’ve wrestled with from time to time. There is a tension that exists with research; researchers do not have exclusive say over how their results are interpreted (to this day, people disagree with me over how I interpret the results from the ex-gays study), nor how others will use that research to serve their own purposes. We are charged with stepping in when we see the misuse of our research (which can be subjective), and I have done what presumably other researchers have done by contacting organizations that do that. I do not doubt that gay people are being mistreated; however, from within the more conventionally religious communities of which I am a part, the perception is often that our society is increasingly supportive of sexual minorities in ways that is perceived as restricting religious liberty. I think that is part of the explanation for the misuse of science – people do not read and interpret findings as dispassionately when they have strong emotional investment and reactions (which occurs on both sides of the culture wars). In any case, thank you for your question.

  3. David – what you consider to be oppression?
    1 Inequality resulting from the differing the privileges and rights reserved until now for marriage?
    2 Inequality resulting from breaking civil rights and individual?

    Some other oppression? What?

    Oppression is a big word (very roomy and very flexible), such as stress.

    Is the elimination of stress or privileges and powers of the struggle against oppression?

    • Arthur,

      I consider the Church’s continued maltreatment of people who are gay to be oppression.

      Dr. Yarhouse’s work is, for example, a footnote to the FRC’s first three “10 Myths About Homosexuality”. Their clear message is that gay people are really just straight people making a depraved choice. This willfully ignorant perspective enables the “just” mistreatment of sexual minorities. It dehumanizes gay people and reduces them down to godless hedonists to be fought against.

      The Church has worked to oppress people who are gay because they posit that being gay is a form of rebellious immorality.

      It is not OK for a person to be deprived of a roof over their head or a paycheck just because they are gay. Yet Evangelical and Catholic church leaders are actively working to keep housing and employment discrimination legal. They say they are fighting the “normalization of homosexuality”.

      In another example, the conservative church was downright apoplectic at the notion that gay, non-sexually active boys would be learning to tie knots alongside their straight schoolmates in the BSA. Presumably, these kids are just “confused” and should not be legitimized.

      In a severe example of oppressive behavior, Scott Lively did a fifty city tour of Russia in 2007 to advocate for the recently-passed anti-gay propaganda legislation. He describes homosexuality as “a personality disorder that involves various, often dangerous sexual addictions and aggressive, anti-social impulses.” He advocates criminalizing displays of homosexuality.

      In addition to the intolerance outside the Church, there is also maltreatment within conservative faith communities. Pew-sitting Christians have picked up on Dr. Yarhouse’s “scripts” for forming sexual identity and are using them to judge and shame Christians who are gay. They often say things like “You are making your sexuality your identity when you should be making your identity in Christ” or “You are making your identity something that God calls an abomination.”

      There are religion-based abuses of sexual minorities that extend far beyond equal access to civil marriage. Oppression is a “big and roomy word”; that makes it an apt word to describe the myriad abuses suffered by a despised minority.

  4. Mark, just a FYI this leapt out at me,
    “But for some conventionally religious people, such as conservative Christians,”
    I think that is kind of a slap in the face, unnecessarily confrontational.

    I am sure Episcopalians consider themselves conventionally religious.
    You have tied Conservative Christian to Conventional Christian.
    The converse being, if you are not a Conservative Christian you are Unconventional Christian.

    I hope this information is of help to you.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, SG. I appreciate your perspective. It’s been difficult to find the best way to convey the idea here. I sometimes say “traditional”; other times I say “conservative” or “orthodox.” Still other times “conventional.” I’ve received feedback at different times from different people who have had a negative response to each and every word. My thinking is that by conserving teaching it remains part of that tradition or convention. I also think Christians who hold that view see their view as orthodox. But I also recognize that no one term will seem quite right to all.

  5. “the perception is often that our society is increasingly supportive of sexual minorities in ways that is perceived as restricting religious liberty.

    Which is BUNK! It is a way of telling (lying) to Christians that they are the victims of the vicious gays. It’s is a play on words.

    The fact is the First Amendment protects everyone’s Freedom to Worship, NOT Freedom to practice their religion. Freedom to practice your religion can be regulated by the States. This is why Native Americans are not permitted to use peyote during their worship rites.

    The courts – including the Supreme Court – have specifically ruled as such. For instance,
    Reynolds v. United States (1878) stated:

    “A party’s religious belief cannot be accepted as a justification for his committing an overt act, made criminal by the law of the land.”

    This has yet to be overturned by the Supreme Court and as such still stands. Anti-discrimination laws where they protect sexual minorities from discrimination, is the law of those locals, and as such a person’s religious belief is not justification for breaking that law.

    The courts have also ruled that anti-discrimination laws are not a violation of either the 1st Amendment or the Constitution. A business that is open to the general public is open to the ENTIRE public and cannot discriminate against protected classes. There are no religious exemptions. Regardless or whether you agree with the laws or not, it is the law of the land in many locals and has survived the court system in many states.

    The Christians are being told (falsely) by their religious leaders that they are loosing religious protection under the law. They are not. The Constitution NEVER granted everyone the right to practice their religion any old way they want to. You have to differentiate Freedom to Worship & Freedom to Practice which are in fact two different things. Do you want to go back to “No Jews Served?”

  6. No “traditional”, “conventional”, “conservative” or “orthodox”. Realistic orientation (Aristotle, St Thomas, M.D.Philippe).

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