Feminism and Church Patriarchy

I was too young during the Civil Rights movement to appreciate the participants’ sacrifices and accomplishments firsthand. We’re in the midst of another, admittedly more subtle, radical social transformation.

The U.S. is tilting left, in large part because younger voters are more liberal on a host of social issues including gay marriage, women’s rights, immigration, gun control, and legalizing marijuana.  As one especially illuminating example of this transformation, read not-so-young Republican Senator Rob Portman’s explanation of why he now supports gay marriage.

The key word in the previous paragraph was “tilting” as in 55%. There’s still a Grand Canyon-like partisan divide on social issues. Case in point, Portman is getting ripped by the Right for abandoning conservative biblical principles and by the Left for a too little too late conversion.

This is what I was thinking about in church Sunday when Melinda, our twenty-something year-old intern, started her sermon, a history of St. Patrick, and what his life might mean for our church today. It was excellent. I drifted as always, but more purposefully. I was fast forwarding, thinking about how bright her pastoral future is. I was picturing her taking future calls and serving a series of churches extremely well. A life spent modeling the gospel; providing spiritual counseling; teaching and preaching; rallying people to serve those in need; thoughtfully baptizing, marrying, and burying the young and old; and the community and larger Church, being better for it.

And then I thought about a religious organization that’s been in the news a lot lately as a result of a change in leadership. And how, despite accelerating social change in the U.S., that religious organization is passing on thousands of Melinda’s the world over every year. How, I wonder, does any institution in the 21st Century take a pass on the leadership potential of half its members?

Also listening to Melinda was our district’s congressman who flies home every weekend to see his wife. Looking at him made me wonder, what if Congress passed on the leadership of half the population? What if schools of medicine did? Or your workplace? What if (fill in the group or institution of your choice) did?

How do my feminist friends, both male and female deal with the church’s patriarchy? That’s only one of my many questions about the Church in the news. My friends would undoubtedly say that’s just one of a long list of unresolved challenges facing the Church. They oppose the Church’s official stands on a litany of issues, but remain committed to it.

How does that work? Does religious tradition trump discordant hearts and minds? How does it hold together?

The Scientific Roots of Homosexuality

It’s amazing how many things I get wrong. I was sure UCLA’s new football coach, Jim Mora, was a bad hire. He’s on a short list of national “Coach of the Year” candidates. I was certain a book and movie series about humans, vampires, and wolves would be a bust. And I once mistakenly donated appreciated stock shares that I had held less than a year, thus losing the tax deduction. A “friend” of mine often tells me, in the endearing manner only he can, “You don’t know shit!” Maybe he’s right.

But now, thanks to David P. Barash’s challenging and fascinating short article titled “The Evolutionary Mystery of Homosexuality,” I might be right about something of importance. I’ve long had a hunch that scientists would someday prove that homosexuality has a genetic basis. Who, I wondered, would choose to be such a distinct minority in a still relatively homophobic world? My related prediction is that a few decades from now homophobes will be embarrassed by their anti-gay vitriol. Hope I’m not wrong about that one.

Here are two excerpts from Barash:

1) Nor can we solve the mystery (why hasn’t natural selection operated against homosexuality) by arguing that homosexuality is a “learned” behavior. That ship has sailed, and the consensus among scientists is that same-sex preference is rooted in our biology. Some of the evidence comes from the widespread distribution of homosexuality among animals in the wild. Moreover, witness its high and persistent cross-cultural existence in Homo sapiens.

2) . . . a reasonable summary is that, when it comes to male homosexuality, there is almost certainly a direct influence, although probably not strict control, by one or more alleles (defined as one member of a pair or series of genes that occupy a specific position on a specific chromosome). Ditto for female homosexuality, although the genetic mechanism(s), and almost certainly the relevant genes themselves, differ between the sexes.

Beyond the suggestive but inconclusive search for DNA specific to sexual orientation, other genetic evidence has emerged. A welter of data on siblings and twins show that the role of genes in homosexual orientation is complicated and far from fully understood—but real. Among noteworthy findings: The concordance of homosexuality for adopted (hence genetically unrelated) siblings is lower than that for biological siblings, which in turn is lower than that for fraternal (nonidentical) twins, which is lower than that for identical twins.

Gay-lesbian differences in those outcomes further support the idea that the genetic influence upon homosexuality differs somewhat, somehow, between women and men. Other studies confirm that the tendency to be lesbian or gay has a substantial chance of being inherited.

Consider, too, that across cultures, the proportion of the population that is homosexual is roughly the same.

Given some conservatives rejection of global warming data, this research will not cause a collective epiphany on the right. Many on the right will continue to be wary of science and many homophobes will continue to believe that there would be fewer gay men if more households were headed by strong fathers, that gayness will spread if we extend them more civil rights, and that gays and lesbians can be cured of homosexuality through Christian counseling.

On this one, I’m going to side with the scientists and celebrate the progress my gay and lesbian friends are making.

Driving Hate Underground and the Illusion of Progress

I need help in the form of divine intervention, a Pentecostal moving of the Holy Spirit, to feel any kind of Christian brotherhood with Sean Harris, senior pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Here’s an excerpt from one of Harris’s recent sermons:

So your little son starts to act a little girlish when he is four years old and instead of squashing that like a cockroach and saying, ‘Man up, son, get that dress off you and get outside and dig a ditch, because that is what boys do,’ you get out the camera and you start taking pictures of Johnny acting like a female and then you upload it to YouTube and everybody laughs about it and the next thing you know, this dude, this kid is acting out childhood fantasies that should have been squashed.

Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up. Give him a good punch. Ok? You are not going to act like that. You were made by God to be a male and you are going to be a male. And when your daughter starts acting too butch, you reign [sic] her in. And you say, ‘Oh, no, sweetheart. You can play sports. Play them to the glory of God. But sometimes you are going to act like a girl and walk like a girl and talk like a girl and smell like a girl and that means you are going to be beautiful. You are going to be attractive. You are going to dress yourself up.'”

Hearing the hate in his voice makes it twice as troubling. Take two minutes to listen to it here.

I saw Harris interviewed about his sermon on CNN. He didn’t apologize. Instead he backpedaled on some of the words he used, like “punch” by which he meant “shove”. Oh, okay Harris, all is well as long as parents are just shoving their young children for not conforming to your homophobic conception of traditional gender roles.

Harris’s “sermon” has gone viral and he says he’s received tons of negative press including death threats. Responding violently to Harris’s violence makes no sense from either a Christian, Constitutional, or common sense perspective. The best response would be for everyone to stop attending his church, but the most troubling aspect of this saga may be the congregation’s seemingly unconditional support for Harris. They laugh and cheer throughout the sermon and have come to his defense following the media backlash. Are these the only couple hundred of people in the country without a gay or lesbian family member or friend?

Harris presents an interesting case study of hate. Hate crimes obviously have to prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, but what about hateful thinking and speech? Once Harris’s semi-private thoughts and words were made public, he felt a need to temper his hate by offering up a series of synonyms in the hope that some combination of them would appease the media and public so that they’d move on to the next story and leave him alone to pastor his church.

The key question is how do we create public spaces—whether school or church classrooms, community centers, work conference rooms, or public media—where the Harris’s of the world can articulate their fear, anger, and even unadulterated hate without the fear of being tarred and feathered? Because until we shine the light of civic discourse on hateful thinking and hate speech, it will fester, increase, and intensify.

The current way of dealing with hateful thinking and speech is to silence the perpetrators through what often takes the form of “counter hateful thinking and speech”. Instead of leaning more heavily on the First Amendment, we opt for public shaming. Expose them on YouTube and compete to see who can damn them to hell most quickly, creatively, and persuasively. As a result, no one ever learns anything about the underlying causes of the perps’ fear, anger, and hate. And we delude ourselves to think we’re making progress. All we’re doing is driving hate farther underground where it festers, increases, and intensifies.

The CNN interviewer who interviewed Harris looked like he was quite proud of himself. Post interview he was probably thinking, “Boy, I really held his feet to the fire, taught him what is and isn’t acceptable, and caused him to feel at least a little remorse.”

Wrong. I suspect Harris’s only take-away was “I have to be more mindful of the media’s reach.” Worse than not feeling remorseful, I suspect Harris’s fear, anger, and hate towards homosexuals is now coupled with amped up anger and hate towards the mainstream media. Whether Harris likes the media is less important than whether we create public spaces where a wide range of challenging, even hateful ideas can be discussed openly and honestly in the hope that the pockets of hate that prevent the church from fulfilling it’s mission and limit the potential of our democracy can be chipped away at.

We have a very long way to go.

Genuine Social Progress—The Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

From Margot Adler on National Public Radio:

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” is no more. The policy barred openly gay, lesbian or bisexual people from serving in the military.

As to what really propelled the change: changes in attitudes in the country as a whole, shifting attitudes among top military brass, gay activism, legal action and the increasing needs of a military waging several wars.

In Adler’s story, Sue Fulton, a West Pointer and former Army Captain, cut to the chase:

When we’re at war what matters is: Do you have my back? Are you supporting me down range? All of this other nonsense about who is waiting for you back home, or what the color of your skin is, or who you worship, those things don’t matter when you’re down range, when you are under fire. It comes down to do you have the character and the ability to have my back. Gays and lesbians have proven throughout this conflict that they do.

In twenty-five to fifty years, we’ll look at the last few decades of anti-gay posturing and policy in the same way we do Jim Crow-based racial segregation today.