Tag Archives: LGBT

Stephen Prothero on Indiana’s RFRA

There’s been some discussion on my Facebook wall about this USA Today editorial by American religious historian Stephen Prothero in support of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I haven’t been able to pin it down yet, but something strikes me as “off” about this particular analogy Prothero makes:

We would not force a Jewish baker to make sacramental bread for a Catholic Mass. Why would we force a fundamentalist baker to make a cake for a gay wedding?

And then there’s definitely a longer conversation to be had about why Prothero is willing to let a fundamentalist baker refuse to bake a cake for a lesbian couple, but would not let a fundamentalist restaurant owner refuse to serve those same lesbians a meal:

There is no excuse for refusing to serve a lesbian couple at a restaurant and to my knowledge no state RFRA has ever been used to justify such discrimination. But if we favor liberty for all Americans (and not just for those who agree with us), we should be wary of using the coercive powers of government to compel our fellow citizens to participate in rites that violate their religious beliefs. We would not force a Jewish baker to make sacramental bread for a Catholic Mass. Why would we force a fundamentalist baker to make a cake for a gay wedding?

I understand the logic of the distinction Prothero wants to draw: The fundamentalist who has to bake the lesbians a wedding cake is being compelled to “participate” in a “rite,” whereas the fundamentalist who’s compelled to serve them dinner is not. But three questions about this distinction:

First, is baking a wedding cake participating in a rite? (I guess this is part, at least, of what feels “off” to me about the analogy to sacramental bread.)

Second, are we sure that serving the lesbians dinner is not participating in a rite? (What if they’re celebrating their wedding anniversary?)

Third, would this distinction hold up in court–ergo, is it even relevant?

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Homosexuality vs. Polygamy

This past July, I attended a luncheon in Salt Lake City–I’ve referred to this before–where I rubbed elbows with foreign scholars who were in the U.S. for a seminar on religion in American society. I was there as an expert on Mormonism, and the conversation turned for a while to Mormon polygamy, historical and contemporary. An Egyptian scholar asked me: If Americans accept gay marriage, why don’t they accept polygamy? I replied that, actually, there does appear to be some measure of increasing sympathy for contemporary Mormon polygamists, as indicated by their positive treatment on TV (Big Love, Sister Wives, Polygamy USA) and by states’ general reluctance to prosecute polygamists for polygamy per se. If, I hypothesized, the Supreme Court ended up ruling in favor of gay marriage, Mormon polygamists would look very closely at that decision to see if its principles could be applied to their case.

In retrospect, I realize that I probably missed the point of the scholar’s question. I suspect, now, that the point of his question was to register surprise that Americans are proving more tolerant of homosexuality than of heterosexual polygamy. Which, when I think about, is certainly not a self-evident state of affairs. Until I started reflecting on this outsider’s question, I had taken for granted, as an American cultural insider, that social acceptance of polygamous relationships represents a “next step” beyond social acceptance of homosexual relationships. But why is that? Why isn’t it the other way around? Why aren’t heterosexual polygamous relationships–because they’re heterosexual–more acceptable than homosexual couplings? I presume that for my Egyptian interlocutor, that last is the more logical way to think about the issue.

I guess what this shows is that for Americans, monogamy is a more fundamental cultural value than heteronormativity. Increasing numbers of Americans–I think polls indicate it’s a narrow majority at this point, yes?–are prepared to re-imagine marriage as the union of two women or two men. But a greater number of us are still inclined to think that a marriage should consist of just two people. Presumably this has a lot to do with the popularization of romantic, companionate models of marriage during the 19th century, which is itself related to the slower shift toward equality for women in modernized Western societies, which in turn is related to the West’s self-perception of its superiority over peoples whom it had or was colonizing–Egyptian Muslims, for example. Eventually, the romantic, companionate model of marriage was expanded to include gay/lesian couples. It’s taking more work to stretch the model to include polygamous couples.

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Fred Phelps

Some contrarian thoughts in the wake of Fred Phelps’s death:

1. Fred Phelps and the WBC have not been good for gay rights. I’ve seen gay folks asserting otherwise in the past few days, the logic being that Phelps’s vehement homophobia generated sympathy for gay/lesbian people by reaction.

Speaking as a gay man, I’m not really buying that argument. Certainly I’m appreciative of the straight allies who have participated in counterprotests against the WBC to show solidarity with gay/lesbian people. But I’m not convinced that we’ve done ourselves a favor by turning Phelps and the WBC into the number-one symbol of homophobia in America. Precisely because the WBC is so extreme, it’s easy for people who aren’t so vehemently homophobic to assure themselves–and the public at large–that they’re not homophobic; they don’t hate gay/lesbian people; their opposition to homosexuality is motivated by love, etc. But we’re trying to convince people of precisely the opposite.

If the goal is to stigmatize homophobia, keep the spotlight on the more mundane varieties of homophobia, the varieties that still enjoy mainstream cultural status, not on figures who are clearly marginal. Phelps and the WBC are easy to stigmatize; there are bigger fish to fry.

2. Fred Phelps was right: If you believe in hell, you believe in a God who hates people. That thought occurred to me last week after watching an online video clip in which Phelps justified his “God hates…” slogans by pointing to the Bible. Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated, he quoted. God hates sinners, not just sin. God doesn’t send people’s sins to hell; he sends the people to hell.

I think Phelps’s logic here is right on, with the crucial exception that this logic is why I, as a religious liberal, reject the notion of hell. Phelps, on the other hand, embraced the notion and then, unlike most contemporary American believers in hell, did not scruple to follow it through to its logical conclusion: a God who wills for people to suffer eternal torment has to be said to hate those people. If you believe otherwise–if you believe that the statement “God consigns individuals to eternal torment” is consistent with the statement “God loves those individuals”–then you have, in my opinion, an extremely twisted understanding of love. You therefore should not, as far as I’m concerned, be trusted to raise children for fear of what violence you might inflict on them in the name of love.

3. I, too, might be willing to carry a sign that begins “God hates…” Or at least I feel I ought to have the guts to appear in public carrying such a sign.

When the WBC protested at my university a couple years ago, I didn’t join any of the public counterprotests because of the position I laid out in point 1, above. But I felt agitated enough to want to generate some kind of counterdiscourse. So on the day of the WBC’s protest, I pasted the walls of my office with signs declaring things like “God hates homophobia,” “God hates poverty,” “God hates oppression,” “God hates racism,” “God hates slavery,” “God hates abuse,” etc. The objects of those statements were all abstract things, not people. But they are all statements that I consider theologically correct.

When I walked over to the student center to observe the WBC protest and counterprotests, I was unnerved by how angry the crowd was. Kudos to WBC for standing their ground in the face of that anger and for having the discipline to silently take it. It quickly became clear to me that most of the counterprotesters, including the honor guard vrooming back and forth on motorbikes, were outraged not by the WBC’s “God hates fags” message but by their “God hates America” message. “USA! USA!” the largely male crowd kept chanting.

So, I thought… The WBC’s great offense is that they have wounded your nationalistic pride. That realization put me in a bind, because I could envision myself in a situation where counterprotesters were shouting me down with patriotic cries of “USA! USA!” I don’t think God has a problem with America’s increasingly liberalized laws regarding homosexuality. But I do think there are plenty of things God is displeased with our nation for. I wouldn’t say “God hates America.” But I’ve stood in public to declare that “God deplores America’s use of a doctrine of preemptive strikes to justify going to war in Iraq.” I was standing in front of a friendly crowd when I said it, though. Fred Phelps has me beat on that count.

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Muslim Punk

The_TaqwacoresLast week, the Comparative Religion Student Association at my university showed the documentary Taqwacore, about Muslim punk bands. My understanding–i.e., this is the impression the documentary gives–is that these bands were inspired by an imagined Muslim punk subculture created by writer Michael Muhammad Knight in his novel The Taqwacores, which has also now become a film (not to be confused with the documentary). Both films are, for the moment, available on YouTube; click the hyperlinks.

Watching the documentary–which you should see for the segment where the bands crash open-mic night at the annual ISNA convention–I found myself wishing that the filmmakers would tell us more about the grounds on which these young people identify themselves as Muslim. It’s a variation on a question I explored in one of my first AAR presentations: How do people with unconventional religious identities go about persuading people to ascribe the desired religious label to them? I examined that question in the context of gay Mormons: If people are going to call themselves gay Mormons, what do they need to do–or what do they think they need to do–to convince people that they are, in fact, entitled to the label “Mormon”? By the same token, I wondered: If you were to ask these self-identifying punk Muslims on what grounds they can be considered “Muslim,” what would they say? What, in their minds, defines “Muslim” identity?

I’ve begun watching the fictional film The Taqwacores, which does more with the “What makes you a Muslim?” question than the documentary did.

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Your polygamous ancestors would NOT approve of your gay marriage

Bb9g8niCQAASYkRFederal judge strikes down Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage (Salt Lake Tribune)
Breaking: Utah’s first gay married couple? (QSaltLake)

I am, I must say, floored by how suddenly this has happened. An appeal is certain, and who knows what will happen at that point, which makes it premature to be issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, except for political/public relations purposes. But still… wow.

As a fussy historian, though, I feel I need to rain on the parade a little. One of the men who are now being touted as possibly the first gay couple married in Utah tweeted the following, accompanying a photo of the couple posing with their marriage certificate:

Me and my new husband!! My polygamous Mormon great grandparents would be so proud!

Ehhhh… No. And it’s worth saying “no” because this rhetorical move is likely to be thrown around a lot in the wake of this news story–i.e., people are going to want to suggest that Mormon polygamy and same-sex marriage are analogous. The analogy is usually drawn in the context of suggesting that it’s ironic for the Mormon church to practice polygamy in the nineteenth century but to oppose same-sex marriage today. In a variation on that move, Seth Anderson is invoking the analogy in his tweet to suggest that same-sex marriage is an extension of the values reflected in Mormon polygamy.

That analogy works if same-sex marriage and polygamy are both understood as “alternative relationships”–at which point Anderson can imagine that since his great-grandparents favored one kind of alternative relationship, they would approve of his as well. But that’s a very dubious historical proposition. Mormon polygamy is (was–take your pick, both verb tenses are defensible) deeply implicated in an enthusiastically heteronormative theology. Mormon polygamy is (was) about men and women coming together to multiply and replenish the earth, on the premise that multiplying and replenishing the earth is what God created men and women to do–and if they’re faithful, they’ll get to go on doing it forever, which is the greatest human bliss attainable. It is, literally, divine bliss. It is far from obvious that a couple committed to that theological vision of family and sexuality would approve of a same-sex marriage.

I’m just saying. The sprinkle of rain has now passed. The parade may continue for those folks who feel inclined to celebrate in the streets.

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Lucky Charms and fundamentalist Christians

luckycharmsA while back, my husband saw me eating a bowl of the generic Kroger-brand equivalent of Lucky Charms cereal. (When I indulge in my vices, I indulge cheaply.) Because my husband and I are nerds, talking about the cereal prompted one or the other of us to wonder if there are fundamentalist Christians who don’t want their children eating Lucky Charms for fear of promoting magic–like the fundamentalists who famously disapproved of Harry Potter.

I became genuinely–not cattily–curious about this. Is boycotting Lucky Charms, in fact, a symbolic boundary that some fundamentalist Christians have erected to distinguish themselves from mainstream American culture?

So I went to the Internet, source of all arcane knowledge, and Googled “lucky charms cereal bible.” I figured if there was a website out there citing biblical authority to urge parents  not to buy Lucky Charms for their children, those search terms would turn it up.

Well… It appears that a month ago there was some media flap, to which I was oblivious, about conservative Christians expressing dismay about a Lucky Charms ad released by General Mills in connection with gay pride. So most of my hits were about that. If you, too, missed out on this little cultural fireflash, you can get quickly up to speed over at Mediaite.

But digging through the hits further, I did turn up some curiosities:

* A December 2010 blog post by an evangelical who uses Lucky Charms cereal as a hook to explain why belief in luck is unbiblical:  “Lucky Charms! They’re magically delicious. . . . Do you believe in lucky charms? No, I am no longer talking about the cereal. . . .” He disapproves of lucky charms (lowercase), but if he extends that disapproval to the cereal, he doesn’t actually say so.

* A March 2011 blog post from “The Christian Nerd,” who complains that on St. Patrick’s Day, “everyone focuses on Lucky the leprechaun instead of looking at St. Patrick and his mission and ministry to the people of Ireland.” This post is hard for me to interpret, even after reading more of the blog to get a feel for its tone. I assume there’s an element of tongue-in-cheekness here; but I think he’s sincerely lodging his basic complaint. Again, he’s not actually disapproving of the cereal, but the Lucky Charms leprechaun serves for him as an icon of society’s inattention to the things of God.

* A 2012 memoir about a very young child’s out-of-body visit to heaven. During the visit, Jesus asks her “what I would want if I could have anything in the world.” The child replies that she wants Lucky Charms. Jesus promises her Lucky Charms. Her mother tells her she can only have them if they’re on sale–and the next time they go to the store, the cereal is on sale. This is not parody, in case I need to clarify that. The moral of the anecdote is that “Jesus cares about the thoughts and desires of a two year old. I am grateful for all the Lord provides, with or without Lucky Charms. If you could have anything you wanted, what would you ask the Lord for?”

* The closest I found to an online fundamentalist voice disapproving of Lucky Charms cereal is a countercult website which claims that Jehovah’s Witnesses (who aren’t what we normally mean by “fundamentalist Christians,” I know) won’t eat Lucky Charms because of the association with magic. That sounds plausible to me, but the countercultists don’t provide documentation for the claim.

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God, Chick-fil-A, and “Feeding Equality”

This Chick-fil-A kerfuffle has mushroomed in a way that I attribute largely to the upcoming November election: folks on both sides are looking for occasions to get their electoral bases fired up. I’ve been struck by the way business, politics, and religion converge in this symbolic conflict. That’s a pretty powerful trinity.

I’m not used to seeing CEOs speak publicly on God’s behalf. It’s hardly unprecedented, of course: oil magnate Lyman Stewart pops immediately to mind, who underwrote The Fundamentals (the publication from which we get the word “fundamentalist”). Or the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship. Or adman Bruce Barton, author of The Man Nobody Knows. (Even if you’ve never heard of the book, you won’t need more than 3 guesses to figure out who it’s about. It’s somebody really famous. Like, bigger than the Beatles.) Still, I would have expected this kind of political energy to be generated by a comment from, I dunno, Pat Robertson or Rick Santorum.  But maybe this kind of rhetoric from those kinds of figures is so familiar it’s lost its newsworthiness. It needs to come from the head of a fast food chain to make waves.

And now pro-same-sex-marriage folks are organizing “Feeding Equality” as a counterprotest. On August 25, we’re supposed to donate to food banks.  There’s an explicit bid here to claim moral superiority, as illustrated by this publicity image:

I’m sure that what I’m about to say puts me in the company of conservative pundits I normally would want to keep well away from–but this is icky. By all means, donate to your local food bank. But doing it as a political demonstration? Ehhh…. You’re using hungry people as pawns. Spin away at that one, folks. But–if you’ll allow me to get all unprofessional and preachy for a moment–I’m reminded of a proverb from a certain man nobody knows, about how you shouldn’t blow a trumpet in the streets when you give alms.

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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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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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