God, Sex, and Politics: Homosexuality and Everyday Theologies available in Hardcover
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- University of Chicago Press
God, Sex, and Politics examines both sides of the church controversy over homosexuality to consider the ways in which people develop, in everyday thought and interaction, their beliefs about God and justice. Dawne Moon explores how members of Protestant congregations determine what is just and what is not, what is right and what is wrong, what is loving and what is sinful.
Through this compelling work we learn that the considerable turmoil surrounding homosexuality in churches has less to do with homosexuality than with the fear of weakening the church's spiritual, communal solidarity. We learn too how the church mirrors the secular world—the fear of division and politics leads members to avoid conflict in the congregations Moon examines. And so, the Protestants who are the subject of her study avoid debating the key issue of whether homosexuality is sinful because of its potentially polarizing effects. The religious culture Moon uncovers is ultimately critical of politics and of the intense moral and social discord that members believe it entails.
God, Sex, and Politics will be of enormous value to sociologists of religion and anyone interested in religious controversies over sexuality.
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About the Author
Dawne Moon is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.
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God, Sex, and Politics
Homosexuality and Everyday Theologies
By Dawne Moon
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2004 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
In 1996, when rooms full of clergy and lay delegates wrote and revised the policy on human sexuality in a series of quadrennial General Conferences of the United Methodist Church (UMC), the mood was often tense. The delegates came together with widely divergent views, not only about sexuality and its place in Christian teaching, but about who God is and what God demands of people, and the tensions dividing them were codified in the following passage from the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (often called simply the Discipline):
We recognize that sexuality is God's good gift to all persons. We believe persons may be fully human only when that gift is acknowledged and affirmed by themselves, the church, and society. We call all persons to the disciplined, responsible fulfillment of themselves, others, and society in the stewardship of this gift. We also recognize our limited understanding of this complex gift and encourage the medical, theological, and social science disciplines to combine in a determined effort to understand human sexuality more completely. We call the Church to take the leadership role in bringing together these disciplines to address this most complex issue. Further, within the context of our understanding of this gift of God, we recognize that God challenges us to find responsible, committed, and loving forms of expression. Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are only clearly affirmed in the marriage bond. Sex may become exploitative within as well as outside marriage. We reject all sexual expressions that damage or destroy the humanity God has given us as birthright, and we affirm only that sexual expression which enhances that same humanity. We believe that sexual relations where one or both partners are exploitative, abusive, or promiscuous are beyond the parameters of acceptable Christian behavior and are ultimately destructive to individuals, families, and the social order. We deplore all forms of the commercialization and exploitation of sex, with their consequent cheapening and degradation of human personality. We call for strict enforcement of laws prohibiting the sexual exploitation or use of children by adults. We call for the establishment of adequate protective services, guidance, and counseling opportunities for children thus abused. We insist that all persons, regardless of age, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation, are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured.... Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth. All persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. Although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching, we affirm that God's grace is available to all. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.
This passage, known as paragraph 65G of the Social Principles section of the Discipline, reflects the UMC membership's ambivalence about sexuality. On one hand, the authors maintain that "sexuality is God's good gift to all persons," a gift that the church, society, and individuals themselves must affirm for persons to be "fully human." In this way, sexuality is timeless and good. On the other hand, the authors also clearly fear sex's destructive potential. They call on scientists to unpack its mysteries and find the hidden truth of this complex gift. They believe that it is a challenge for human beings to "find responsible, committed, and loving forms of expression," recognizing that even when affirmed in Christian marriage, sex can be "exploitative, abusive, or promiscuous." Such sex has, in their view, the power to destroy "humanity" as well as "individuals, families, and the social order."
In spite of the divergent views of sexuality that are the subject of this study, the authors of [paragraph]65G nonetheless agree to define and delimit sexuality by setting it up as a foil to their concept of humanity. In this passage, humanity comes with intrinsic natural rights on which sexuality may encroach, and humanity is itself a timeless "God-given birthright," which may be destroyed or affirmed by sexual expression. They see full humanity as requiring "fulfillment," which requires fellowship as well as affirmation. Fellowship is deemed necessary so that people may have "reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self." These reconciling relationships must include the affirmation of the gift of sexuality. However, not all "sexuality" is equally affirmed-along with exploitative and abusive sexuality, undefined "promiscuous" sex and homosexuality are seen as "beyond the parameters of acceptable Christian behavior" and "incompatible with Christian teaching." Sexuality serves as a foil for natural and timeless "humanity," as a dangerous threat.
The passage contains another potential contradiction. In stating that "homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth," the authors divide the category of persons into two clearly defined types: heterosexuals and homosexuals. As part of a passage that asserts that full humanity can only be achieved when individuals find fulfillment, which requires the affirmation of their sexuality, this divide plants in the passage a seed of internal conflict. Some readers no doubt read the sentence "Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth" to mean that homosexuals are a distinct kind of person, that homosexuality is parallel to heterosexuality. If homosexuals are a kind of person-rather than a group of potential heterosexuals damaged by sexual abuse, exploitation, and commercialization-then the statement mandates that persons who are of that kind must, no less than any other kind, have their sexuality affirmed by the church. This potential may seem dangerous to those who believe homosexuality to be contrary to God's plan for humanity.
For members of the church, a number of other tensions are embedded in this passage. Notably, the categories of heterosexual and homosexual are made to seem as the fixed, timeless forms of human sexuality; human sexuality is not understood as many theorists of sexuality have understood it, as fluid and contingent on social forces. In fact, by positing "humanity" itself on the God-given gift of sexuality and people's acknowledgement of it, this assertion of categories reproduces what Foucault (1978) observed as emerging in the late nineteenth century: two distinct sexual species of human beings, naturalized in their reference to nature. In the world portrayed in the Discipline, there is no room to imagine the fluid and organic daily lived practice of sexual behaviors, desires, and gender identities. For the UMC, the possibility of a valid nonheterosexual mode of being has called into question the universality and timelessness of heterosexuality. By attempting to include homosexual desire within the range of human experience, the authors attempt in this passage to naturalize an expanded notion of sexuality with two (instead of one) fixed variants, but end up excluding other categories.
There is another notable tension, particularly for those who wish to open the doors of the UMC to gay men and lesbians: if the church is to offer fellowship and guidance as members seek to give "proper stewardship to this gift" of sexuality while maintaining that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching," how can it minister to those who feel that God desires and demands that they be gay or lesbian, or something else? Such tensions emerge partly as a result of the collaboration between groups with very different understandings of God and sexuality. But these tensions and obscurities exist not only in the official policy of the denomination but in what I call the everyday theologies of UMC members.
Is Homosexuality a Moral Question?
God, Sex, and Politics examines the far-ranging effects of what we might call a middle-American desire to avoid conflict. One of the first things one notices about debates about homosexuality throughout the United States today and in recent years is that contenders rarely address each other in the same terms. To illustrate, I'll draw from a story from my field notes.
Late in 1996, City United Methodist Church-a large, diverse downtown congregation with a theologically liberal pastoral staff-reopened the debates, closed two years before, about whether the congregation should publicly and officially welcome gay men, bisexuals, and lesbians and affirm that homosexuality is part of God's good gift of sexuality. Members of the congregation had organized a series of meetings for members to talk about their concerns about this move, or about homosexuality in general. One meeting was particularly heated. At this meeting, Mark Montero, an attorney in his late thirties, presented the viewpoint that the people of God must stand against the practice of homosexuality, both to promote God's will and to preserve social order. He was confronted chiefly by Marsha Zimmerman, a woman in her mid-forties who had a college-aged lesbian daughter.
A third participant remarked on what he described as the church's homophobia, to which Mark replied:
Is someone homophobic if they think homosexuality is contrary to God's teachings? There's a reason not to think homosexuality is okay, and it's not a phobia, it has to do with social order. Is the idea that homosexual relationships will be seen as comparable to, or as good as, heterosexual relationships? Marsha: Excuse me, but do you think they have a choice? It seems like you're saying that they must have a choice. Now, I can tell you as the mother of three daughters, all about the same age, all with the same father-two of them are heterosexual, and the youngest one, well, since she was a year and a half old, I knew she was different. I didn't have a name for it back then, but she is a hom- ... homosexual. And she did not choose it; in fact, she tried very hard to not be. She tried to fight it, and she was afraid to tell us [getting upset]. Are you saying that she chose that? Because she didn't choose it, and having two heterosexual sisters, all about the same age, with the same father ... Mark: Well, if you want to make a genetic argument ... Marsha: But how could she have chosen it? She fought it. Do you know gay people? Mark: Sure, I mean, maybe they haven't been my best friends, but ... yeah. Marsha: But you think they chose it?
In this conversation, we see a dynamic that would continue throughout the discussion and which, in fact, permeated many of the disagreements I observed over whether homosexuality was sinful. When Mark Montero began by stating that homosexuality is sinful because it undermines the social order-not because the church is phobic-Marsha Zimmerman could have responded by saying that homosexuality is not a threat to social order. But she did not. Rather, she began her naturalizing argument against him from the standpoint of "choice," claiming that homosexuals do not have a choice about being homosexual. She cited her experience and expertise as a mother to support her claim that homosexuality is not a choice and that her lesbian daughter had fought against it. Rather than answer Mark's claims in the language of morality and social order, Marsha argued her position in a language of choice, and homosexuals' lack thereof.
As the conversation wore on, members took on Mark's claim about social order by arguing that gay people did not choose to be gay, that church members should love everyone, that to call homosexuality sinful is insensitive to gay people, and that love is not harmful. Yet they did not address Mark's central argument on its own terms. Mark maintained that homosexuality is sinful because Christians must follow certain codes God has laid out to mark themselves as people of God. Most of the people I spoke with in these two congregations, but especially pro-gay liberal members of City Church, did not maintain that definition of sin and righteousness. Yet no one challenged Mark's theology in those terms.
Regardless of whether or not these members were theologically correct, they failed to address Mark's moral concerns. At one point, when Mark asked whether their idea was "that homosexual relationships will be seen as comparable to, or as good as, heterosexual relationships," no one could just say yes. Mark left the meeting more convinced than ever that the pro-gay church members had abandoned God and God's laws.
Pro-gay members repeatedly found themselves unable to respond to their detractors within the language of morality. There is a reason for this particular silence. To respond to a moral claim with an opposing moral claim would highlight the very large differences that exist within the church-differences that members strove to leave unnoticed. In these two congregations, pro-gay members and those who believed homosexuality to be sinful had a great deal in common, but they could define sin very differently, and they could even have radically different understandings of God. But to discuss openly and publicly the very different theologies and moralities that separated members of the United Methodist Church, in general, as well as these two particular congregations, would be to force the United Methodist Church into a fundamental conflict about God and risk splitting the denomination. Either way, members would lose what they strove to maintain most of all: the church, Christian life, as a haven from struggle and politics.
It may seem strange to say that members wanted the church to be free from politics, when they clearly engaged in debates about homosexuality and many other things all the time, and when many engaged in secular political debates as well. This puzzle is solved when we understand that secular engagements could be based in members' foundational beliefs about what was timeless and true, while debates about homosexuality threatened to denaturalize these foundational assumptions by highlighting members' different understandings of them. Members sought to transcend feelings of isolation by coming together in church, yet to perceive themselves as a community they needed to avoid discussing the factors of social power and privilege that separated them. Rather than discuss politics, issues had to be discussed, and experienced, in the naturalizing language of feelings. Paradoxically, although feelings are supposed to be a transcendent language that all can understand, the language of feelings can make people address concerns as the troubles of isolated individuals rather than the concerns of a community. In short, members wanted to overcome the isolation of contemporary American life, but they sometimes reproduced it instead.
These members could not find clear answers in the Scriptures or in church doctrine. Not even what is codified provides a simple answer to conflicts over homosexuality or other controversial issues. Church members do not simply believe what church leaders, doctrine, or even Scripture says. Alongside the doctrinal beliefs of their congregations, which members may not even know, many members see their spiritual life as a growing or maturing in faith-learning more about God and God's will through prayer, Bible study, books, religious and secular radio programs, casual discussions, and everyday experiences. They did not see the church as separate from the rest of life, in that they believed that God is everywhere and that their duty was to be Christian in the world, not just in church. In response, members developed their own evolving everyday theologies as they sought a deeper understanding of God. And because people had had a wide range of different experiences, their understandings of God varied widely, even within the same congregation.
Excerpted from God, Sex, and Politics by Dawne Moon Copyright © 2004 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of ContentsContents
Doing unto Others ... (A Theoretical Introduction)....................1
ONE Debating Homosexuality....................19
TWO Feeling the Spirit in Two Congregations....................36
THREE Scripture and Everyday Theologies....................55
FOUR Community and Dissent....................92
FIVE The Problem of Politics in Church....................123
SIX Body, Spirit, and Sexuality....................147
SEVEN The Truth of Emotions in Everyday Theologies....................180
EIGHT Gay Pain and Politics....................206
Conclusion: The Perils of Pain and Politics....................229