Culture War

Does the Culture War Have Room for Openly Gay Evangelicals?

Sex, faith, and paradox in a changing America


Sex and faith keep evolving, sometimes in ways that may surprise you. Molly Worthen reports that many evangelical Christians

Every heart beats true.

have absorbed secular thinkers' ideas about the fluidity of sexual expression. This is, in part, a counterintuitive legacy of traditional ex-gay ministries. When groups like Exodus promised that sexual desire could change, they pioneered queer theory in the evangelical world. Participants often acknowledged their struggles with "relapse," and their testimonies "point to the instability and changeability of their own identities rather than serve as a testament to heterosexuality," the ethnographer Tanya Erzen wrote in her study of ex-gay ministries, "Straight to Jesus."

In that context, rather than embracing an "ex-gay" identity, many gay evangelicals attempt a life of celibacy instead. "In an era when the right worships the nuclear family and the left celebrates sexual authenticity," Worthen writes, that doesn't give them an obvious political home. Noting that the "idealized image of the heterosexual nuclear family has become the chief conservative rallying point of the culture wars," Worthen asks:

But does liberals' emphasis on gay marriage effectively send the same message? "If you end up accepting the progressive position, you then have a future: Gay people, you're supposed to get married, have romance, have children, and that's how you get security and stave off loneliness," said Eve Tushnet, a celibate Catholic lesbian writer who has a growing following among evangelicals. "But if you don't change your sexual ethic, then the challenge to your cultural mind-set is very deep because you're no longer able to offer gay people the forms of adult love that our culture recognizes." If the ex-gay ministries ironically introduced evangelicals to more fluid ideas of sexuality, the liberal campaign for gay marriage has reinforced the grip of traditional "family values."

And with that double paradox, I suggest you read the whole thing.

Being neither gay nor Christian myself, I have no stake in this beyond my belief that everyone involved should be free to work out their own approaches to these questions, and my hope that as many as possible end up with answers that allow them to be happy. But there's a broader political lesson here beyond any particular ideas about sex and God: Our simple model of a two-sided "culture war" just can't capture the dynamic diversity of the culture we actually live in. Contrary to cliché, we aren't two Americas. We're a big muddy mess of countless overlapping Americas, any of which might take something as significant as spirituality or sexuality in an unexpected direction.