Saturday, February 09, 2008

Churches 0, gays 1

Peter Gomes is a high-profile prelate at Harvard University. He is also openly gay. [In my original posting I had mistakenly identified Gomes as Anglican. As Gregory Nigosian points out, he is in fact Baptist.]

Regrettably, I find it difficult to take seriously Gomes' views on homosexuality and Christianity. Here is admirer Bill McKibben’s summary of the relevant chapter in Gomes’ new book “The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News?”

According to McKibben, in his new book Gomes “showed, with benefit of the latest Biblical scholarship, that the texts usually adduced to show that gay sex was sinful were in fact commentaries on sexual violence and prostitution, that they came against a backdrop of biblical prohibitions on everything from hair-cutting to shrimp-eating, and that in general they had nothing to do with what people of that era couldn’t easily have conceived of: committed, caring relationships between people of the same sex.”

Alas, Gomes showed no such thing. Since the days of Canon Bailey a half century ago gay and gay-friendly scholars have labored to erase the antihomosexual content of key cruces in the Bible. For the most part, Biblical scholars have not followed them in this. It is instructive to learn that laypeople, whether churchgoers or not, have come to similar conclusions. These conclusions, based as they are on personal experience, are wiser than those of gay-friendly exegetes.

This evidence emerges from a new book unChristian: What a New Generation Thinks about Christianity . . . and Why It Matters by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. This volume presents the results of surveys by the Barna Group, a kind of Gallup poll for evangelicals. Here we see a portrait of Americans between the ages of 16 and 29 who have turned against a Christianity that they perceive as “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “old-fashioned,” “insensitive to others” and having a single-minded emphasis on conversion that’s irrelevant to their lives. “This is a brand of religion that, for all its market share, seems at the beginnings of a crisis.” Many of those who hold these views have attended churches for some months, and they have been turned off by what they found.

As Paul Varnell notes in a recent incisive column, Kinnaman and Lyons focus in their youthful cohort on those they call "outsiders"--atheists, agnostics, adherents of other religions and the "unchurched." Only a decade ago, the writers opine, Christianity had an overwhelmingly positive image among the young, including outsiders. That is no longer the case. "Our most recent data show that young outsiders have lost much of their respect for the Christian faith."

Homosexuality, it seems, is a kind of Archimedean point in this disaffection. As many as 91% of "outsiders" hold that the churches are antihomosexual, while 80% of church-goers do as well. "In our research, the perception that Christians are 'against' gays and lesbians--not only objecting to their lifestyle, but also harboring irrational fear and unmerited scorn toward them--has reached critical mass. The gay issue has become the 'big one,' the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity's reputation." In short, "A new generation of adults ... now accepts homosexuality as a legitimate way of life."

There is bad news for two groups here. As evangelicals, Kinnaman and Lyons are not happy about the discontent with the churches and the grounds for it. But they are honest enough to state the facts.

There will be unhappiness also in a very different camp. After fifty years of exposure to gay-Christian apologetics, seeking to promote the idea that “true Christianity” is not opposed to gay love, most lay people are not buying the argument. The Gomes-style arguments that it is OK both to be gay and a Christian have little purchase.

The overall finding strikes me as a development of major significance. Some of the outsiders will use this perception as confirmation of their decision to remain unchurched. Some of the 80% in the currently-churched group may move away from their affiliation with particular denominations. Of course, they can be--and some probably are--in a position similar to Catholics who disregard the church's teachings on birth control and abortion, while remaining within the church. But others will stay away or leave.

Anyway, what is momentous is the possibility that some numbers of people, convinced that the churches are antihomosexual, will side with the gays and not the churches.

Americans, together with other English-speaking peoples, cherish a deep commitment to the principle of fair play. And here the perception is that the churches are not playing fair.


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