The New York Times, which many years ago (when I came to America as a young man) was known as the Grey Lady of political and cultural conservatism, has more recently become an icon of progressive virtues. Its coverage of events dealing with homosexuality is extensive, possibly compulsive. One may expect, sometime between Labor Day and November 6, an issue of the newspaper with two equally large headlines on page one – “Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities” and “American Samoa legalizes same-sex marriage”. (The exact date of this issue may depend on when the Mossad concludes that the election will be won by Obama, whose concern for Israel (or so the Mossad thinks) may equal his concern for the fate of Hosni Mubarak.)
On July 7, 2012, the Times contained two stories with homosexual relevance. The longer story, the lead in the section on national affairs, concerned a rift in Exodus International, a network of Evangelically inspired ministries with the aim of “curing” individuals with homosexual proclivities. Founded in 1976, the mission statement of the organization describes it as “mobilizing the body of Christ to minister grace and truth to a world impacted by homosexuality”. The statement goes on to affirming the Bible, both Old and New Testament, as the “final authority for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction for right living”. The method to accomplish the desired “correction” – from a homosexual to a heterosexual way of life—is to be “reparative therapy—a holistic, counseling approach”. I have not explored the details of this procedure, but I gather that it is a very directive psychotherapy coupled with intense spiritual practices. There have been a number of studies about the outcome. The results vary considerably. “Success”, as measured by a real change of sexual orientation, varies between 15% and 29%, not exactly a staggering result (though a more moderate form of “success”, with also less than impressive percentages, is defined as a new lifestyle of celibacy).
The Times story concerned an event that caused great dismay at the annual meeting of Exodus in early July 2012. Alan Chambers, the president of the organization, stated his conclusion that there is no “cure” for homosexuality, that one should stop making this claim, and that instead one should admit that, despite the much-vaunted therapy, same-sex attraction typically continues. He cited his own case—he had left the gay life, married a woman and has two children with her. But he opined that such a happy outcome was not to be expected for everyone. He re-affirmed that “any sexual expression outside heterosexual, monogamous marriage is sinful according to the Bible”. People inclined toward such sexual expression should struggle against the urge to act accordingly, just as Christians should struggle against other temptations. Chambers capped all this with saying that practicing homosexuals could also be saved by Christ and go to heaven. No wonder that his audience was dismayed. It was a bit like the Pope issuing an encyclical renouncing the entire Roman Catholic magisterium and declaring that, as of now, he considered himself to be a Lutheran.
The other story in the same issue of the Times dealt with an event at the biannual convention (known as the General Assembly) of the Presbyterian Church (USA). At an earlier convention it was approved that non-celibate homosexual individuals could be ordained, but the decision to do this was left to regional presbyteries (thus avoiding a breakaway by more conservative ones). But this time around, on July 6, 2012, the convention voted not to change the church’s definition of marriage as “between one man and one woman” to a gender-neutral “union between two people”. The vote was very narrow – 338 to 308, with two abstentions. There was a very sharp generational divide at the convention. In a separate, non-binding vote by seminary students and young adults, 82 to 18 voted for the contentious change. This reflects the general finding of greater tolerance of homosexuality among younger Americans. The official vote was taken after three hours of often passionate debate. One conservative delegate said: “Shame on us for even considering asking God’s blessing on a relationship that is detestable to God”. Against this, a more liberal delegate spoke of an “urgent pastoral crisis”, especially in states where same-sex marriage is now legal.
The sharp differences in this matter is not surprising. American Presbyterians mostly derive from the Scottish Reformation, which had staunchly Calvinist origins. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States, with close to two million members. It resulted from a 1983 merger of a mainly Southern (and theologically more conservative) denomination with a larger (theologically more diverse) national body. The resulting church is a large tent, though the more bloody-minded Calvinists left long ago to form their own denominations, leaving the merger as an uneasy alliance of moderate conservatives and moderate liberals. (The embarassing fact that the Southern group originally separated from the Northern denomination because it supported slavery has ceased to be relevant. Sex, not race, is what inflames Presbyterians these days.)
As was also reported in the Times a few days earlier, the same Presbyterian convention also made news of a different kind. In 2004, by a vote of 431 to 62, the convention had approved a policy of “selective divestment” from corporations operating in Israel in order to put pressure on that country to end the occupation of the Palestinian territories; the motion referred to the alleged success of divestment policies in ending apartheid in South Africa, thus implying a pariah status for the Jewish state. This action resulted in a storm of controversy, within and outside the denomination, with Jewish organizations charging the convention with anti-Semitism. The resolution was effectively rescinded in 2006. This was not the end of the matter. In the years since then the anti-Israel boycott movement increased its activities in American churches. And here is a very curious fact: This year, the same convention, which refused to redefine marriage, a few days earlier had also rejected a motion to divest from corporations providing goods or services aiding the Israeli occupation—by an even narrower margin of 333 to 331, also with two abstentions (one wonders, the same ones?). This particular action was suggested by a Presbyterian study group, described by the Anti-Defamation League as a “toxic mix of bad history, politically motivated distortions, and offensive attacks on Judaism and Israel”. Once again the suspicion of anti-Semitism haunted the corridors of the Presbyterian General Assembly.
These developments merit mention in a blog devoted to religious “curiosities”. But I will allow myself some additional observations.
On the Exodus affair: I have no way to assess the reported successes and failures of the “reparative therapy” intended to divert the sexual tastes of homosexuals. I am skeptical of the studies, which may have built-in biases. Based on what we know about the social psychology of conversion, I would not be surprised if some of these exercises are successful: Put in place a conversion program which is not at all mysterious (I could describe it in minute detail), you can convert anyone to anything—a Presbyterian to become a Buddhist, a lover of Mozart to change into a fan of hard rock—or the reverse—why not induce an individual to redirect the libido from men to women, or for that matter the other way around? (A few stubborn individuals may resist the Berger conversion program. The majority will succumb. Perhaps I should interject here that I have strong moral inhibitions against putting in place such a brainwashing scheme, and no interest in the purposes to which it might be applied—certainly not the purpose of resetting the trajectory of gay and lesbian lust.) But something else intrigues me here: A shift in the advocacy of homosexual rights from freedom of choice to respect for destiny.
A number of biographical experiences had made me aware of the barbarous treatment of homosexuals in Western societies, and I had written about the rights of homosexuals before this had become fashionable. I lived in New York at the time of the so-called Stonewall Inn Rebellion, when in 1969 the police, who had enjoyed harassing the patrons of gay bars, found themselves confronted by physical resistance when they repeated this deplorable pastime at such an establishment in Greenwich Village (actually, my office at the New School for Social Research was just a few blocks from the Stonewall Inn). I cheered the rebels. About this time I was visited by an individual who had read something I had written on the subject; he came to express his admiration. He was connected with one of the early gay organizations, the Mattichine Society, which had been founded in 1950 (the lesbian equivalent was the Sisters of Bilitis), and I read some of their literature. It struck me much later how the relevant discourse had changed since then: At the time homosexual rights were advocated by a discourse of individual freedom, basically freedom to choose one’s values and way of life. In other words, the discourse was in terms of the first amendment to the US constitution. The discourse now is very different: Homosexuality is not a choice, but a destiny—an individual does not, cannot choose to be gay—one is born gay—and society should acknowledge and respect this congenital fate. I think it is very clear why this change in discourse occurred: If homosexuality is destined not chosen, it is analogous to race—and thus the movement for homosexual rights can wrap itself in the mantle of the Civil Rights movement. Let me reiterate: I have identified all along with the insistence on the rights of homosexuals, and I think I understand the rhetorical logic of the changed discourse. Is it based on good scientific evidence? I don’t know. My hunch is that some individuals are indeed born homosexual, others choose to be. One way or another, being black and being gay are two rather different personal situations in America.
On the Presbyterian preoccupation with Israel: I find very curious indeed the similarities between the two votes in the same General Assembly—338 to 308 against changing the heterosexual definition of marriage, and 333 to 331 against treating Israel as if it were apartheid South Africa. One would love to know to what extent the two votes overlap, or whether the voters on the two motions are theologically and politically diverse. But leaving that intriguing question aside, are those who voted for divestment anti-Semites? Of course being critical of Israeli policies is not proof of anti-Semitism. But there may be such a thing as subconscious anti-Semitism, which would explain the enormous discrepancy of people focusing on Israeli misdeeds while remaining morally un-aroused by the much more severe atrocities in the Arab world. Nevertheless, from what we know about attitudes toward Jews and toward Israel in America, I rather doubt whether many of these good great-great-grandchildren of John Knox are anti-Semites. I think that something else is involved here: A tension between two orthodoxies existing in the mind of many Protestant individuals. A theological orthodoxy: Among the more Evangelical and residually Calvinist, there is a literal understanding of the Bible, which takes seriously God’s promises to the people of Israel (which of course is also the basis of so-called Christian Zionism). And a political orthodoxy: Among liberal Protestants there is a progressive political correctness, which includes identification with Third World liberation movements (and which naturally leads to identification with the Palestinian cause). I think that neither orthodoxy is a helpful contribution to a possible resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obviously the same tension between a theological and a political orthodoxy is likely to be a factor in how Presbyterians and other Protestants approach the topic of homosexuality.