Why Now? Lutherans Join a Mainline Debate

[1] As Lutherans move toward our Churchwide Assembly in Orlando, it may be good to reflect on our historical context. For Lutherans are hardly alone in being driven to debate sexuality over the past decade. Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians–among others–have been rocked by questions about ordaining gays and lesbians and blessing homosexual unions. Why now? Why at this juncture in history have these questions become so urgent?

[2] Needless to say, no answer to that question can be neutral or unbiased. I write as an advocate for the careful, paradoxical recommendations of the ELCA Task Force on Human Sexuality, which I interpret as bearing deep wisdom and strong integrity. In effect, the Task Force recommends that the church move in two directions simultaneously. The first is that the ELCA deepen its commitment to heterosexual monogamy as a social good. The second is that the ELCA allow local, pastoral flexibility to bless gay unions and ordain gays and lesbians. Such a paradoxical recommendation may seem impossible for flesh and blood to implement. It makes great sense for a church.

[3] For underneath these paradoxical-appearing resolutions was a third, deeper conviction. Basically, the Task Force members concluded that these matters are not central to the historic work of the church. Committed Christians can disagree about them. Consequently, they do not call for ecclesiastical policies. The wisdom of this course will become apparent when the five broad causes for these mainline debates are examined. All of them have less to do with historic Christian debates over Christology, the Trinity, or salvation, than with Western, and specifically American, moralism and cultural politics. Understood in context, these debates lose some of their hyperbole, and the wisdom of the Task Force gains sharpened clarity.

Gay and Lesbian Identity-Politics
[4] It is easy to forget that a homosexual identity is a relatively recent historical invention. While there are ancient references to behaviors now associated with gays and lesbians, an identity centered in these behaviors is quite new. Historian David Halperin traces roughly a century of existence to homosexuality as we know it. In the U.S., identity politics associated with gay pride undoubtedly burst on the public scene in 1969 with the “Stonewall Riots” in New York City.

[5] The Stonewall Inn was a Greenwich Village bar that in the early morning of June 28, 1969 was raided by New York City police. Such raids–in this case for alcohol law violations–were common wherever gays gathered, but this one did not end typically with quiet arrests and dispersed queers. Instead, gays fought back–pouring into the streets to march and chant, and in a few cases to throw bottles and start fires. Four police were injured during the protests, which lasted four nights. The gay liberation movement was born.

[6] In the decades since Stonewall, lesbians, bisexual, and trans-gendered individuals have joined gays in both political activism and assertions of economic power. One notable standoff came when the Southern Baptist Convention sought to boycott The Disney Company in 1997 for its pro-gay domestic partner policies. In response, gays and lesbians organized to promote, among other initiatives, Gay Day at Walt Disney World to demonstrate economic power in a free market economy (the first Gay Day was actually in 1990). The boycott failed.

[7] Gays have also expressed forms of cultural power–drawing on their historic prominence in the arts and scholarship. Well-known stars who have “come out,” such as Ellen DeGeneres, and shows in which gays play a central role, such as Will and Grace, have solidified the identity of gays and lesbians across America. In the academy, a new discipline of “queer studies” has informed research in the social sciences and humanities, including the history of Christianity, where John Boswell’s controversial Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality read contemporary gay and lesbian identities into the history of the early church. Such activism around identity politics is the first reason mainline Protestants are currently debating the role of gays and lesbians in our churches. Churches are reacting to the gay liberation movement; some in support, others against.

Backlash Against the Revolution
[8] A second reason for the contemporary debates is that a broader backlash against the sexual revolution is underway in American culture. Historians such as Beth L. Bailey and John Modell have documented how sexual mores changed dramatically in the twentieth-century. As Bailey bluntly put it, courtship–a notion that seems distinctly quaint today, went from the front porch to the back seat.

[9] Birth control–fought over by Margaret Sanger and others in the first wave of American feminism, became readily available to women in the second. Between 1971-2, the Equal Rights Amendment overwhelmingly passed both the House and Senate, and quickly gained ratification in over thirty states. Opposition began to organize, however, led by conservative lawyer and Catholic homemaker Phyllis Schlafly. Her grass-roots campaign quickly developed well-connected Washington friends. By 1980 she had the support of Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. And in 1982 the Amendment died three states short of ratification.

[10] Around the same time, religious movements to oppose “radical feminism” began to make news. Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” targeted fornication as a primary sin among a supposed immoral minority, as did (ironically) evangelists such as the Bakkers and Jimmy Swaggart. Scandals aside, the movement to define “moral values” over and against abortion, women’s rights, and homosexuality had emerged–and religious folk led the way. Such movements in reaction to perceived moral decline have been common in American religious history. They have often centered around issues of gender and sexuality, as historians such as Catherine Brekus and Betty DeBerg have shown about the periods of the American revolution and the rise of fundamentalism at the turn of the twentieth-century, respectively.

[11] In the past decade, public panic over pedophilia, the AIDS epidemic, and continued economic pressures that have changed the nuclear family have fueled this latest manifestation of backlash (which, on a global scale, targets women in often ruthless ways). Many see homosexuality as a moral “line in the sand” on which the church must take a stand. Others see the backlash as a way to consolidate power by scapegoating a relatively powerless minority–much as at one time young people who danced were targeted by many mainline Christians as particularly “immoral” for doing so. Along with the rise of gay and lesbian identity-politics, a backlash to the sexual revolution is an undeniable factor in the current debate.

Perception of Mainline Crisis
[12] But the current debate is not only about sexuality and the body. It is also about mainline Protestant fear of declining public influence. Conservative churches have grown for decades. The mainline has declined. So go the numbers.

[13] In this context, both progressives and conservatives within the mainline claim to have ecclesiastical interests in mind. Progressives proclaim a desire to free churches from homophobia and injustice. Conservatives proclaim a desire to support traditional values and defend the sanctity of marriage.

[14] But both of these traditions have little to do with being church, and much to do with American moralism. The two parties actually mirror each other in various forms of rhetoric that can best be described as jeremiads.

[15] As historian Sacvan Bercovitch showed in The American Jeremiad, a rhetoric of moralism has rarely, in fact, produced positive change in American mores. More often, accusations of moral decline and associated panic wind up promoting sins very much like those it seeks to redress (think McCarthyism). More bluntly: Jeremiads keep attention directed to the Jeremiahs. In other words, the people who benefit from moral condemnations are, ironically, rarely those judged “immoral.” The people who benefit are those rendering the judgments.

[16] Something like this may very well be going on in the current debates. Mutual self-righteousness perpetuates contradictory fictions about which elites can “save” (or at least help perpetuate) mainline institutions. A little historical perspective, and a little theological acumen, can suggest that the church will survive these debates just fine–even if elites within various denominations might have to give up some privilege and power in the process, by reconfiguring their institutions or creatively negotiating compromises-which is precisely what the Task Force Recommendations suggest.

Contested Visions of American Destiny
[17] Not only ecclesiastical power is at play in these debates. So is American destiny. It is no coincidence that the ecclesiastical debates have been conjoined with ballot initiatives on the state and federal levels to “defend” marriage. These initiatives, of course, have little to do with historic Christianity, and much to do with American power–especially of a sexual majority over a sexual minority.

[18] Throughout American history, the links between state and church have been contested in the lively experiment that is religious voluntarism. Often, in the absence of a clear, legally-manifest relationship, a “mythic” connection has been presumed between the church’s ability to produce moral goodness and the state’s well-being. In an earlier era, as I showed in my first book, Paradox Lost: Free Will and Political Liberty in American Culture, 1630-1760, various parties formed around debate over free will and predestination in ways that shaped the emergence of a new nation.

[19] Today, something similar is happening, but now the terms are set less by the church and its theological concerns than by the culture and its moral preoccupations.

[20] This ought to give believers pause. The Task Force’s central recommendation emerges from an intuition that these questions have less to do with being church than with demonstrating power. As evangelical gadfly Jim Wallis has insistently suggested of late, it is surely a strange fact that so many Christians are hot and bothered over sexuality when the Bible rather unmistakably emphasizes matters more properly addressed by both ecclesiastical and political policies–like healing, economic justice, and environmental stewardship.

[21] On one level, then, this debate can be a sign of health. For Lutherans, it demonstrates that we join other mainline Protestants in taking seriously our commitment to shaping the common good and civil society. In a deep irony, though, on another level the debate can marginalize mainliners by revealing our disagreements, by making enemies of brothers and sisters in Christ, and by muting the potentially transformative witness of Christians in an increasingly imperial context. It may be the case that this debate divides Christians so that the empire can conquer.

Expanding Religious Freedom
[22] Finally, I see the current debates as a necessary phase in the experiment of religious liberty. As Andrew Greeley pointed out some time ago, “religion and sex are synonymous.” But perhaps it is only now–after the sexual revolution, after the backlash, and as religious pluralism becomes more unmistakably the reality of our time, when we can see how sexual freedom and religious freedom belong together.

[23] Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini have recently offered a cogent argument along these lines, in Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance. Jakobsen and Pellegrini suggest that legal decisions about sexual regulation–notably laws designed to punish gays and lesbians–originate historically in a Christian dominance that is inconsistent with the First Amendment’s disestablishment clause. They also contend provocatively that the First Amendment’s free exercise clause includes the free exercise of consensual sex between adults. “Sexual freedom is the freedom to form human relationships,” they claim, and this means that not only should gay sex be protected, but that “gay sex is good; it does good.”

[24] At the least, these arguments cannot be quickly dismissed. If sexual relations are expressions of the human need for intimacy, and if they take place within broader commitments to a partner that are publicly articulated (a condition I am willing to defend, if Jakobsen and Pellegrini are not), then how are they different from other protected forms of human association–such as speech, property ownership, ritual practices, contracts, or creedal affirmations?

[25] More broadly, it seems to me that those who would seek to regulate consensual adult sexuality–and thereby exclude gays and lesbians from marriage or ordination, need to ask: whose power is being served by such exclusions? Often, sexual relations themselves have been about power. Male dominance and female submission have been coded in countless ways across cultures–and reinforced by churches in our language, in our rituals, and in our institutions.

[26] But now the question is before us: is sex still about power? It seems to me that the greatest lesson this debate over gays and lesbians can teach us is that true intimacy, like any foretaste of the feast to come, is produced not through power as force, but through power as mutual participation. And this is hardly only a historical lesson. It would have a historical precedent. What this debate can teach those of us in the mainline is that when we cling to power, ironically, we lose it, but when we give power away, we find true power.

[27] Needless to say, I have not narrated these five causes of the contemporary debate over sexuality as an “objective” historian–as if this were possible! I have written in the hope that the ELCA can see a healthy way out of this debate that might inform other mainline traditions. And, frankly, I’m hopeful.

[28] For between the “liberationist” and “backlash” extremes, there exist many Christians who yearn for a just and civil society, but who also desire that heterosexual marriage and traditional two-parent families receive privilege and support as social goods. This position affirms full partnership and other civil rights for gays and lesbians, but also reserves marriage for the public commitment between a man and a woman. It asks gays and lesbians to recognize a differentiation in their partnerships from those of heterosexual couples-while not diminishing their social good. And it asks heterosexuals to recognize the social good of committed relationships between gays and lesbians-while not diminishing the social good of heterosexual marriage. Its vision of the church is as an inclusive, and faithful, community.

[29] As a Lutheran, I hope my church will build on the foundation of this emerging consensus. It is consistent with both the Lutheran notion of the “two kingdoms,” and the First Amendment. Luther, in articulating his own break with the religiously sanctioned sexual conventions of his day, recognized that marriage is properly a civil matter. The church shares society’s interest in promoting stable human partnerships, and the church can be a key protector of the sacramental character of human commitments. But marital or partnership commitments, while sharing in the divine mediation of matter that constitutes a sacrament, are also matters of moral practice, and thus are always riddled by sin. They reach fulfillment only by God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness, not by human control.

[30] As C. S. Lewis perceptively observed, when Eros becomes a god it becomes ridiculous. The leadership of the mainline churches–and I have my own confessions to narrate in this regard someday, have been demonstrating the truth of this adage over the past decade or so. Saint Augustine, who also had his own issues with sex, can actually shed some light for us here. He came to recognize during the Donatist controversy that the validity of ordination does not depend on the moral rectitude of the candidate. Thus, we might conclude, even a homophobe can mediate grace.

[31] And surely all parties in this debate can agree that the true Church is God’s creation–and grace will always find a way. These debates will be resolved. And the church ought to be on the vanguard of those who create space for those who are voiceless and oppressed. But first of all, the church should be the church. And matters of sexual orientation and practice are peripheral to the church’s primary mission of preaching law and gospel. Indeed, our frantic quests for intimacy (or to control others’ quests) might someday seem positively humorous, when contrasted with a created world positively ripe with divine grandeur where God embraces us each moment, through the very Light of the World that shines on both the just and the unjust alike.

Jon Pahl

Jon Pahl is the Peter Paul and Elizabeth Hagan Professor of the History of Christianity at United Lutheran Seminary.