Foster Stuart is a friend who is currently engaged in graduate studies examining the rise of modern individualism in Western society and its impact upon social structure, education, and evangelical Christianity. In this article, Foster makes the case that the broader Christian community is struggling to find a consistent bearing in the debate over sexual ethics because the Church itself has (unknowingly?) advanced in Western society by accepting, and encouraging, the same kind of individualism embraced by the GLBT community and Queer activists. This leaves the Church with no ground to stand on when arguing for a communitarian and theological sexual ethic, and leaves Christians unable to receive helpful critiques exposed by the rise of Post-Structuralism and Queer theory. Stuart helps us start to see that a step back from the immediacy of our current cultural context may force both sides of this debate to consider their roots in modern individualism. Without this understanding both sides of the debate will become increasingly embattled, and the position of “family values” churches will become increasingly irrelevant within culture, and even more confusing for those Christians who continue to hold on to modern Western notions of the individual.
This post may prove to be a challenging and worthwhile read for those who follow this blog, and are interested in sorting through some of the systemic issues involved in the debate over same-sex sexual ethics. Take some time to reflect upon Stuart’s direction. I hope to provide more on this topic in the future and welcome the opportunity to interact in person over some of these ideas.
Christians and the GLTB Debate
The Church is struggling to find its bearings as “Western” society moves from the abolition of taboos against same-sex behaviour to the full legitimation of a whole cluster of behaviours that up until recent years were thought to be disturbing if not deviant or criminal. This is confusing for many Christians because at least in part these Christians are focusing upon the “sinful” behaviour rather than upon the drastic changes that took place in sexual ethics over the last century. These changes in sexual ethics are themselves part of larger sea-changes in regards to the rise of the autonomous individual and the decline of older corporate orders. What is more, many Christians that attempt to resist the legitimation of same-sex behaviour do so with little or no attention to the overall sexual ethic that supports same-sex behaviour, in part because that sexual ethic is so prevalent, that it has become transparent.
The GLBT community, like most communities, developed in the heat of conflict. The Stonewall Riots were the defining moment if not the actual beginning when Gay men organized around a collective resistance to the criminalization of their desires and relationships and the accompanying police abuses. Developing a group identity around Liberation, the movement/community widened to embrace Lesbians (who for a number of reasons had not experienced the same criminalization and stigmatization as Gays) then somewhat reluctantly Bisexuals and more easily after that the Transgendered. This broadening of the community happened as objectives of the movement shifted from Liberation to Rights, in part because of the success of the Liberation movement and in part because of the growth of Identity Politics in the last part of the twentieth century that redefined the “progressive” agenda from redistribution to recognition. While the GLBT Rights movement sought after expanding recognition and legitimation, a parallel (and sometimes oppositional) movement arose that was simultaneously both more expressively radical and more academic. This movement made up of Queer theorists and Queer activists formed a Queer praxis that is related to GLBT Rights in a similar fashion that the Nation of Islam is related to the NAACP.
While the GLBT Rights movement argued, “I was born this way,” Queer theory working within the context of critical race theory, Postcolonialism, and Poststructuralism, isn’t looking for acceptance or recognition, but is challenging the foundational discourses of nineteenth century Eurocentric society regarding racism, sexism and the very notion of sexual identity. Queer praxis would resist not only homophobia (as did Gay Liberation) and heterosexism (as does GLBT Rights) but would want to transgress the colonization of sex and gender by heteronormativity (the underlying assumption that people are defined by their complementary gender roles and by their sexual desire/activity). In Queer praxis, everyone is queer, and the queerest thing of all is to think there’s a normal.
Simultaneously and independently (but not without correlation) a whole new sexual ethic was developing in the twentieth century. For a number of reasons procreation has become unimportant if not entirely irrelevant to sexual ethics. Technologies like condoms and the Pill and the prevalence of pornography both reflect and contribute to this change. Similarly, the availability of medical abortions and the proliferation of no-fault divorce have made raising children an option in marriage. Beyond this, a global perspective on “population explosion” and the more localized correlation of affluence with smaller families have both resulted in devaluing of procreation in marriage. Altogether these and various other conditions have resulted in sex being reduced to a leisure activity. The sexual ethic that has arisen out of this less procreational, more individualist and leisure focussed culture is an ethic of consent that could be summed up as: Whatever happens between two consenting adults is their business. In the current context, there are debates over different parts of this ethic: Should it just be “two”? When does a person become an “adult”? For the really brave, why adult, why isn’t consent enough?
This ethic is reworked somewhat for those who believe that sexual activity requires more responsibility than consent. For these more “traditional” types a loving/caring relationship is a prerequisite to sexual activity. In this case, the ethic becomes: Whatever each partner consents to is their business, where “partner” refers to a person in a loving/caring relationship up to and including marriage.
For “family values” (read “heteronormative”) people this means that consent is always compromised when it is outside the context of marriage and marriage is only possible between a man and a woman. This ethic hearkens back to a less individualistic approach to sex, inasmuch as marriage is a publicly sanctioned activity; the married couple’s responsibility is not only to each other, but to their family, their community, and ultimately to their god(s). And this is one of the points of departure for Queer praxis from the GBLT community. At least some in the GBLT community accept the “traditional” sexual ethic and desire the right to same-sex marriage not only for the civil benefits attached to marriage but for the complete legitimation it gives to sex within marriage. Queer praxis would tend to understand that any public sanction of sexual activity is an outworking of heteronormativity.
Christian (and other) institutions that espouse “family values” have also promoted a life-style that includes accepting restrictions on leisure time/activity; think of certain rules around Sabbathing, entertainment, and consumption of ‘leisure’ products. These restrictions were intended to safeguard the family from the harms inherent in certain leisure activities (including the loss of time to other corporations than the family). If we were to take the view that many of the moral and legal debates in the twentieth century were about the level of freedom people had over their own leisure time/activity we would begin to understand why “family values” institutions that resist GBLT Rights appear to be merely trying to extend their control over other people’s leisure choices; especially in the absence of a genuinely alternate sexual ethic. Further, as western society has continued to become highly individualized (starting with compulsory state education and culminating with the defeat of Facism) most people and contexts (whether religious, educational, legal, or political) privilege the freedom of the individual and resist the right of traditional corporate structures (whether religious, educational, ethnic, or national) to limit an individual’s leisure time/activity. As a result, GBLT Rights and even Queer praxis have gained cultural capital at the expense of those traditional corporate structures that resist them so that in the end, the “family values” crowd is construed as silly if not dangerous.
Dangerous, because many Christian organizations have been engaged in culture wars, not realizing that they have been overwhelmed by their own participation in contemporary autonomous individualism even as they have been undermined by an unwillingness to name their complicity in nineteenth colonialism (and the accompanying privileging of straight, white, male, Christians). These conditions (along with latent homophobia) make such organizations easy targets for a Queer praxis that can easily highlight the resulting confusion and hypocrisy. In the dominant discourse, welcoming is not enough, and any Christian organization that does not affirm the GBLT community (and at least give a nod to Queer praxis) is made out to be unloving and unjust. And from there, the lack of affirmation is associated with the vitriolic homophobia that has been found within ostensibly Christian organizations up until this day.
In the context of Queer praxis, it is not enough to repent of homophobia and heterosexism; unless Christian organizations are willing to accept that heteronormativity is dysfunctional they will continue to be seen as in need of enlightenment and reform. As this shift continues, the best that “family values” institutions can hope for is that their resistance to affirming the GLBT community will be regarded as the actions of weaker brothers (Romans 14) in need of emancipation from their ties to an outmoded corporate identity that allows weaker brothers to sit in judgement upon those with a more progressive understanding of self, leisure, and sex.
Over time, “family values” organizations will find themselves increasingly marginalized from other institutions (including through government sanctions). In response to such marginalization and with no real sexual ethic or genuine difference on autonomous individualism (or leisure for that matter) to counter the dominant discourse, more and more Christian organizations (and other religious institutions) will line up their notion of “family values” to be in keeping with the new dominant discourse. On the other hand, some “conservative” Christian organizations with a purportedly high view of biblical authority and with a low understanding of the way the dominant discourse has framed the problem will actually embrace the equation put forward by Queer theorists. As conservatives, they will be tempted to embrace heteronormativity full on and they will be suspicious of many of the moral advances against colonialism, racial discrimination, patriarchy, and classism as part of a “progressive” matrix that leads inexorably to an acceptance of GBLT rights.