Monthly Archives: June 2012

Mr Deity on Jonathan Edwards

Earlier this month, Mr Deity, the rationalist-skeptic comic team, produced a biting satire of historical Christian teachings about hellfire. The skit concludes with some suitably appalling quotations from the 18th-century Congregationalist preacher Jonathan Edwards, whom some evangelicals today hail as one of America’s greatest theologians.

I have to confess that I don’t really understand the appeal Edwards holds for American evangelical intellectuals, apart, of course, from the cachet of his historical prominence. (“You’ve heard of Jonathan Edwards–you must have read about him back in American history; he’s important enough there was probably even a picture of him in the textbook. Well, he was one of us.” Preen, preen.) I suppose that for contemporary evangelical scholars like George Marsden and Mark Noll, Edwards must represent the good old days, when hellfire-believing evangelicals were part of the furniture at elite institutions like Yale and Princeton and didn’t have to feel defensive about their belief in biblical inerrancy.

Okay, so I “get,” cerebally, why Edwards matters to them. I just don’t feel it myself. Even setting aside the hellfire business, which doesn’t exactly endear me to him, what I’ve read of Edwards’s theology–Freedom of the Will–strikes me as arcane. This is what you’re holding up as some of America’s best religious thinking? Yawn. But then, I’m not a Calvinist, so I’m not invested in the particular theological muddles to which he was working out apparently clever and elegant solutions.

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Mormons as the face of homophobia

I marched this weekend in a Gay Pride parade behind a “Mormons for Marriage Equality” banner. Contingents of Mormons have been marching in Pride parades all around the country over the past few weeks, creating some media buzz. I’ve seen some suspicious observers speculate that this is an orchestrated public relations move on the part of the LDS Church, hoping thereby to mitigate resistance to Mitt Romney. That theory’s unduly conspiratorial: in fact, a major issue for the grassroots organizers has been deciding on messaging that will feel “safe” to Mormons who worry about their church standing. The message my contingent marched with, “Mormons for Marriage Equality,” was too bold, and overtly politicized, for groups in some other cities, who have opted for more general expressions of goodwill–“LDS heart LGBT,” that kind of thing.

I’ve blogged elsewhere about how I think these marches relate to Mormonism’s internal politics vis-a-vis homosexuality. Here I want to comment on what these marches seem to symbolize for observers.

In the march I participated in, our little “Mormons for Marriage Equality” contingent–which was basically one family with kids plus a handful of other adults–got an undue amount of attention for its size. People ran out into the street to take photos; we got some very emphatic “thank you’s” from observers as we passed. I’m sure the marching contingents of Unitarians, and Presbyterians, and UCC got warm receptions, too. But Mormons–that’s something else entirely. The symbolic significance of Mormon participation is much greater than that of UCC because Mormons are so associated with anti-gay politics.

Although appreciative, people’s reactions to our marching made me feel something I felt also during the protests outside Mormon temples in the wake of Proposition 8: Mormons, it seems to me, have been made to carry a disproportionate share of the weight of American homophobia.

Let me hasten to nuance that statement. Mormons have been disproportionately influential, for their size, in supporting defense-of-marriage campaigns, Prop 8 being just the most intensive and well publicized example. So it’s entirely reasonable that Mormons should have become one of the leading faces of anti-gay politics in America (and that they should have been a primary target of Prop 8 protests specifically). Indeed, if the blowback from Prop 8 hadn’t been so severe, Mormons themselves might be boasting right now about their contributions to defending traditional marriage; in friendly conservative circles, they may well be.

But I want to analyze the politics of representation here. Let’s do the hermeneutic of suspicion. How do pro-gay political movements benefit from linking anti-gay politics in America to Mormons? After all, Mormons aren’t the only religious conservatives who oppose gay marriage. There’s Catholics. There’s evangelicals. And certainly they come in for criticism from pro-gay groups, too. It seems to me, though, that opposition to Mormons has a different level of intensity to it. Maybe this is just my own residual Mormocentrism talking (the tendency of Mormons to place themselves at the center of the universe and to imagine that they’re specially persecuted). But I propose that opposition to Mormonism within the gay community involves an element of scapegoating that Catholics and evangelicals have not attracted.

Think of it this way: Imagine that in the same Pride parade I marched in, there had also been a contingent of “Catholics for Marriage Equality.” I’m arguing from a hypothetical here, which is weak, of course. But would “Catholics for Marriage Equality” have had as much symbolic force as “Mormons for Marriage Equality”? I don’t think so. And the reason for that, I’m suggesting, is that Mormons have come to be more strongly equated with homophobia than Catholics have been.

And, I’m suggesting further, the reason Mormons have been made to bear that disproportionate symbolic burden is that Mormons are perceived as more culturally marginal than Catholics. It is therefore more politically useful to make Mormons, rather than Catholics, the face of homophobia: If you associate anti-gay politics with Mormons, and if Mormons are culturally marginal, then you can represent anti-gay politics as culturally marginal. A similar effect is achieved when the Westboro Baptist Church is held up as the face of homophobia. It’s harder to produce that same effect, though, when you’re dealing with Catholics or evangelicals; there are too many of them to marginalize in the same way you can marginalize the WBC or Mormons. So if you want to portray homophobia as culturally marginal, you don’t want to associate it with Catholics and evangelicals: pick Mormons instead.

For Mormons, this is bad news because their role as the face of homophobia (a role they have certainly been complicit in creating for themselves) has the effect of reinforcing their late 20th-century relegation to the cultural margins. Mormons have been resisting their marginalization for a few decades now with limited success. Their association with anti-gay politics doesn’t help.

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Leather spirituality

I was working this morning on a public presentation I’ll be giving soon about how conflicts around homosexuality have played out in different American Christian groups. I was reading online, brushing up on the history of Dignity, the Catholic LGBT advocacy organization, when I discovered Defenders, which Dignity describes as a “ministry” that does “outreach to the leather/levi community.” Defenders describes itself a bit more prosaically as “a leather club with a focus on Christian spirituality in the Catholic tradition.”

I confess that my personal reaction is to find this mildly, laughably scandalous. (“OMG, you are not going to believe this…”) This, of course, is precisely the reaction the group wants to counteract.

Responding more analytically, I suppose the existence of a group like Defenders is predictable given that sexuality and spirituality are both regarded in modern culture as fundamental seats of identity. It follows that some individuals who have organized their sexual identity in ways promoted by the leather subculture would be interested in integrating that identity with whatever spiritual identity they’ve claimed for themselves.

I wonder if it’s significant that this is a development within the world of Catholic spirituality, specifically. That is, could you draw continuities between the Defenders and Catholic traditions like the Flagellants?  (Yes, I know, “leather” isn’t necessarily synonymous with BDSM–please don’t, um, castigate me.) I haven’t seen Defenders’ literature, but I’d be curious to know if they draw such historical continuities for legitimacy–or if their discourse is more about the gift of sexual pleasure, etc. I’d also be curious to know what other (i.e., non-Catholic) varieties of “leather spirituality” may be out there.

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Meet the Hutterites

This past week, I happened to catch part of an episode of NatGeo’s new reality series American Colony: Meet the Hutterites. Hutterite authorities are none too pleased, though I haven’t yet seen commentary from the Hutterites who actually participated in making the program. While reading up on the subject, I was intrigued to find that there is a surprisingly savvy Hutterite website, which includes links to Hutterite blogs. (“Hutterite blog”–there’s a term you expect to be an oxymoron.)

Here are some questions that occurred to me as I watched the NatGeo program:

1. How self-consciously is this show intended to counterbalance another NatGeo reality series, Amish: Out of Order? I’ve commented in an earlier post about that series: it follows young Amish who have left their communities and puts the Amish in a quite critical light–closed off, repressive, dogmatic, willing to sever ties with family members rather than compromise on their religious standards. Is American Colony supposed to be a more positive representation of an Anabaptist community?

2. How aggressively do American Colony‘s producers manipulate the reality that the show professes to transparently reflect? I’d wondered that even before reading the Hutterite bishops’ complaints along that line. Dramatic turns pop up suddenly and get resolved in a suspiciously pat way; at times the participants give the impression of reciting lines from memory. When the bishops complain about the show’s “distorted” representation of Hutterite life, to what extent is that because the show depicts actual Hutterite lives that the bishops don’t consider normative–and to what extent is it because the producers are coaching participants to craft storylines that don’t actually reflect their lives but do satisfy a certain politics of representation?

3. How familiar were participants with the reality TV genre and its conventions–like those cutaway interviews where individuals comment to the camera, in the present tense, on what was happening in their heads during the action we’re presently watching on screen? To what extent did producers have to teach participants these conventions vs. their having already seen them in other reality shows they’d watched? Related to this question: Why did the participants agree to participate? What work did they hope the show would accomplish for them–or what pleasure did they hope to derive from it?

4. What is the appeal of this show to viewers (assuming it proves to have one)? Is this intended to be family-friendly reality TV–a version of the genre that can be enjoyed by conservative Christians who would eschew Jersey Shore? In other words, is this show a television equivalent to the Amish romance novels that I see for sale in my local grocery store–another risque genre tamed for conservative Christian consumption?

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God hates shrimp

With Gay Pride parades occurring in various parts of the country, it seems like an appropriate time for a little soapbox I’ve been saving up on the “God hates shrimp” phenomenon.

“God hates shrimp” is a parody of the Westboro Baptist Church’s famous “God hates fags” messaging. The point of the satiric counterprotest is to say: Hey, if you folks are so committed to a literal reading of the Bible’s prohibitions on homosexuality, shouldn’t you also be observing its prohibition on shrimp? (Or wool-linen blends, or whatever–pick your favorite absurd-sounding Levitical proscription.)

As a gay man, I have really mixed feelings about this. Yes, it’s nice to see folks standing up for my people. But “God hates shrimp” signs make me more uncomfortable than anything else.

Two things: First, “God hates shrimp” relies for its rhetorical effect on the presumed absurdity of biblical injunctions against shellfish (or mixed fabrics, or whatever else is being held up as the other thing God supposedly disapproves besides sodomy). To folks of a secular frame of mind, that absurdity may seem self-evident. Christians who don’t regard themselves as bound to keep kosher may perceive the requisite absurdity. But it’s rather a spit-in-the-eye to observant Jews, no? I get that the intended target of “God hates shrimp” is fundamentalist Christians. But unintentionally, those satiric “God hates shrimp!” signs are also saying, in effect, “Kosher is stupid!” I, um, can’t march behind that banner.

Second, the “God hates shrimp” parody isn’t really fair to the Christian biblical inerrantists it’s targeting. In its more sophisticated form, the unspoken logic of the parody is: “If you Christian fundamentalists are going to go around quoting Leviticus to condemn homosexuality, don’t you have to also accept all the other prohibitions in Leviticus? But you clearly don’t, which shows you don’t actually believe the Bible is binding in all it says after all. So why can’t you accept that the prohibition on homosexuality isn’t binding, just as you accept that the prohibition on shrimp isn’t binding?”

The problem with that line of argument is that a smart biblical inerrantist has a ready answer: “We’re not bound by the prohibition on shrimp because the New Testament says so. But,” they continue, “the New Testament does reiterate God’s disapproval of homosexuality. And that’s binding.” Smart biblical inerrantists don’t quote Leviticus to explain their opposition to homosexuality. They quote Romans 1. And the “God hates shrimp” parody doesn’t really work as a response to Romans 1.

If your eyes are glazing over at this point–too much biblical prooftexting for you? You just wanted a quick laugh that would let you feel intellectually superior to fundamentalists, and now you find yourself out of your depth?–let me sum it up for you this way: The “God hates shrimp” parody is poking fun at a straw man. Christian biblical inerrantists make a more sophisticated argument than “God hates shrimp” gives them credit for. “God hates shrimp” says, in effect, “Conservative Christians are stupid.” But they’re not.

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Josiah Strong’s stomping grounds

Last night I was preparing materials for the intro to American religious history I’ll be teaching in the fall. I was selecting a reading from Josiah Strong’s Our Country(1885), which I’ll be using to exemplify the ideology of WASP supremacy. At one point, I flipped back to the title page–and blinked to see Strong credited as:


I hadn’t realized I was living so close to Strong’s old stomping grounds. So I poked around a bit online to see if this church is still standing. If so, I’d be eager to visit as a kind of morbid pilgrimage.

My understanding after a quick search is that Central Congregational Church is no longer with us but used to be located on Vine Street between 8th and 9th East. The public library now stands at or near that spot. That’s so sad. That the library’s tainted, I mean. It ought to be a warm-fuzzy place, where children are initiated into the joys of reading–but I’ll never be able to picture that without thinking that on this spot Josiah Strong used to preach. That on this spot, possibly, he penned these words:

It is not necessary to argue to those for whom I write that the two great needs of mankind, that all men may be lifted up into the light of the highest Christian civilization, are, first, a pure, spiritual Christianity, and, second, civil liberty. Without controversy, these are the forces which, in the past, have contributed most to the elevation of the human race, and they must continue to be, in the future, the most efficient ministers to its progress. It follows, then, that the Anglo-Saxon, as the great representative of these two ideas, the depositary of these two greatest blessings, sustains peculiar relations to the world’s future, is divinely commissioned to be, in a peculiar sense, his brother’s keeper….

This race is multiplying not only more rapidly than any other European race, but far more rapidly than all the races of continental Europe…. It is not unlikely that, before the close of the next century, this race will outnumber all the other civilized races of the world…. Then will the world enter upon a new stage of its history—the final competition of races, for which the Anglo-Saxon is being schooled…. Then this race of unequaled energy… will spread itself over the earth. If I read not amiss, this powerful race will move down upon Mexico, down upon Central and South America, out upon the islands of the sea, over upon Africa and beyond. And can any one doubt that the result of this competition of races will be the “survival of the fittest”?… Some of the stronger races, doubtless, may be able to preserve their integrity; but, in order to compete with the Anglo-Saxon, they will probably be forced to adopt his methods and instruments, his civilization and his religion….

Nothwithstanding the great perils which threaten it, I cannot think our civilization will perish; but I believe it is fully in the hands of the Christians of the United States, during the next fifteen or twenty years, to hasten or retard the coming of Christ’s kingdom in the world by hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of years.

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Eaton, OH city seal

Whenever we have occasion to drive to the airport or to visit friends in Cleveland, my husband and I pass through a town called Eaton, the seat of the county north of us. A population of 9000, according to the town’s website. As we come into town, we pass a water tower that has the town seal painted on it.

As you’ve probably guessed, my attention is drawn to the cross and open book–presumably the Bible–that appear on the upper left.

I don’t have much info ready to hand about this seal, not even when it was adopted. (I’m intrigued enough to wish I had such info at my fingertips, but not invested enough to go dig it up.) But whenever we drive past, I wonder: What message did the people who initially designed and adopted this seal think they were sending by including a cross? Was it…

  • “In this town, we believe in a high standard of public morality”?
  • “Whatever may divide people in this town, we all share a Christian [Judeo-Christian?] heritage”?
  • “We honor the heroic founders of our town, who fought against Muslims in the Barbary Wars”? (That info was ready to hand.)
  • “We would really prefer that no Jews move into our town, though we could probably tolerate them since at least they use part of the Bible”?
  • “We oppose godless Communism”?

Whatever may have been the original intentions, in the current political-cultural climate, the seal takes on the additional meaning of

  • “In your eye, ACLU.”
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