The Public Square
Rapidly changing attitudes toward Christian ministry reflect a cultural incursion into the life of the churches that is getting mixed reviews. In all the churches one hears seminary professors, bishops, and others in positions of oversight complain about candidates for ministry who are obsessed with careerism and self-fulfillment at the expense of discipleship and self-sacrifice. Others, acknowledging the change, say it marks a healthy step toward greater honesty, replacing the pietistic pretenses of the past.
John Cardinal O’Connor of New York recently pondered out loud about the need for a new order of sisters who would be vowed to poverty, chastity, and obedience and would have a special ministry to women with problem pregnancies and old people who (with reason) fear the implications of revived agitations in favor of eugenics. The New York Times picked up on the story and asked, among others, a Sister Ann Patrick Ware what she thought of the idea. She suggested that, to put it gently, the Cardinal is out of touch with contemporary realities. “The face of religious life is very different today,” she said. “People are not about to take vows of poverty and chastity.” The account did not explain why she did not include vows of obedience. Sister Ann Patrick, who coordinates a project called the Institute of Women Today, undoubtedly speaks for many in the ministries of the several churches.
The cultural pressure on traditional disciplines of ministry is evident on a number of fronts. The general challenge perhaps finds its most explicit expression in the proposal that the homosexually active should be fully accepted into the ministry of the churches. Here one discovers claims and arguments that extend far beyond the question of homosexuality. No “mainline” church formally accepts declared homosexuals in ordained ministry, except for the small and getting smaller United Church of Christ. Some observers thought the United Methodist Church might go along with the proposal, but in the last few years the tide seems to have turned against it. Homosexuality and ministry is a topic much discussed today, especially among Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Roman Catholics. Among Lutherans because the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is a new jurisdiction of uncertain leadership that gay activists have been able to exploit to their advantage. Among Episcopalians because, for whatever reason and fairly or not, it is commonly believed that the Episcopal Church has an unusually high incidence of homosexual clergy. And, of course, among Roman Catholics, both because of the cultural stereotype that Catholicism is sexually repressive and because of the celibacy requirement for priests and members of religious orders.
Frequent news stories about scandals and lawsuits connected with priests doing naughty things with altar boys give the Roman Catholic situation high public visibility. But the issues joined in the Catholic discussion of homosexuality and ministry are not that different from discussions in other churches. Nor, for that matter, is it clear that there is a dramatically higher incidence of homosexual clergy among Catholics. Robert Nugent is a priest who heads up New Ways Ministry, an unofficial (and officially frowned upon) group that works with homosexual priests and religious. He notes that estimates of the percentage of homosexuals among male clergy “have ranged from the most conservative 10 percent to a more reasonable 20 percent or even 30 percent, although some have advanced estimates as high as 50 percent or more.” He himself gives credence to the claim that “twenty percent of the clergy are homosexual and half that number are sexually active.”
But these, to be sure, are nothing more than guesses, and they are guesses based on Kinsey’s disputed claim that 13 percent of the male population is “exclusively or predominantly” homosexual. It thus appears that even those, such as Father Nugent, who have reason to accentuate the prevalence of homosexuality allow that the ratio of homosexuality in the priesthood is not that much higher than in the general population. Given the doubtfulness of Kinsey’s data, and given the propensity of homosexual activists to count as a homosexual anyone who has ever had a homoerotic fantasy, it would seem that some media accounts of homosexuality and the Catholic priesthood are greatly exaggerated. To be sure, that is little comfort for those who believe that even one priest breaking his vow of celibacy, with a man or a woman, is cause for grave concern.
The campaign in the church for homosexual rights, as they are called, is by its own definition a frontal attack on church teaching and practice and on cultural patterns that the church is thought to have blessed in the past. Homosexuality in the Priesthood and the Religious Life (edited by Jeannine Gramic, Crossroad) is a useful guide to the campaign’s developing attitudes, arguments, and strategies. It contains eight essays by proponents of a radically changed approach to homosexuality, and fourteen chapters of testimony by lesbians and male homosexuals in the priesthood and religious orders.
Self-declared radical Rosemary Radford Ruether asserts that “homosexuality is the scare issue in the Christian churches today.” Not surprisingly, she portrays the assault in terms of self-defense. Homosexuality “is being used as the stalking-horse of all the current social fears concerning the disintegration of moral And social structures. We should see antigay fear and hatred as part of a cultural offensive against liberal egalitarian social principles generally. Homophobia is a vehicle for the conservative ideology that links the defense of the patriarchal family with the maintenance of class, race, and gender hierarchy throughout the society.” Such a view, she says, is typically tied to “militarism and superpatriotism,” and the whole thing has its roots in “patriarchal heterosexism.” In this way, Ruether helpfully positions the campaign for homosexual rights at the center of the cultural war in which our society is embroiled. The battle in the churches is an extension of that cultural war but, given the role of religion in public life, it is also an effort to capture the churches’ moral authority in that larger conflict. This strategic relationship between church and society seems to be well understood by the authors included in Homosexuality.
This book and similar literature display a number of arguments, perceptions, and attitudes that are important to appreciate if we are to understand a campaign that is likely to be with us for some time. First is the idea of the self and fulfillment. Second is the linkage between homosexuality and a comprehensive agenda of social change. Third, there is an inversion of the virtue of courage. Fourth is the redefinition of authority. Fifth is the conflation of civil and spiritual realms. Sixth is the notion of subculture as church. Seventh is the question of sexuality and personal identity. Eighth is the use and misuse of stereotypes. Ninth is the tension between fate and choice in homosexuality. Tenth is the perception of the sufferings of others. And eleventh is the connection between acceptance and forgiveness. Admittedly, that is a lot of points, and we will only briefly comment on and illustrate each.
On the matter of self and fulfillment, John Boswell, a Yale historian who has written some of the major texts employed by homosexual activists, asserts, “Not only is homosexual eroticism the oldest and most persistent strand in the Christian theology of romantic love, but Christian religious life was the most prominent gay life-style in Western Europe from the early Middle Ages to the Reformation, about two-thirds of the period since Europe became Christian.” Here and elsewhere Boswell contends that today’s negative attitudes toward homosexuality were not there in the Christian beginnings or in the first millennia. His arguments have met with considerable skepticism and resistance from other scholars, and the putative instances of homosexual relationships that he finds in the earlier period tend to underscore how very exceptional they were as a deviation from the norm.
But the more interesting point he seems to be making is that the monastic tradition, presumably premised upon self-denial, was an exercise in self-deception or conscious deception of others. Monasticism was in fact, Boswell suggests, a congenial way of life designed to accommodate the homosexual. The alternative possibility, that most monks would have adopted a life that got in the way of self-expression, and therefore self-fulfillment, is apparently not conceivable to Boswell’s very contemporary mind. Similarly, other writers in Homosexuality insist that celibacy is appropriate only for homosexuals, assuming that “celibacy” does not preclude homogenital sex. (Andrew Greeley, on the other hand, has written that the tolerance of homosexuality among the clergy means that real celibacy, including abstinence from sex, is now being required only of heterosexual priests.)
The necessary connections between self-expression, self-fulfillment, and whatever counts as salvation are assumed in the homosexualist literature. An imperative external to the self that inhibits imperatives intrinsic to the self poses the threat of self-denial, which is the threat of death. So much, one might think, for the call to take up His cross and follow Him, except that several writers do compare the opposition they have encountered in their homosexual activism with the sufferings of Christ on the cross. (A priest celebrating a “liturgy for gay liberation” on the steps of the Supreme Court declares, “I offer up my body; I sacrifice my blood. I am consumed by a political system that refuses to liberate my sisters and brothers.”)
A second striking feature in this literature is the linkage between homosexuality and a total agenda for social and political change. Daniel Maguire, a former priest who teaches theology at Marquette University, contends that discussions of sexuality (“pelvic theology,” as he calls it) would not be necessary in a “healthy” church. Such “micromorality” is a distraction from the “macromorality” that focuses, for instance, on the arms race and capitalism’s oppression of the third-world poor. Since most people apparently feel a greater sense of immediacy about their sexuality than about, say, the international debt, Maguire’s is a lone dissent among the twenty-two writers in Homosexuality. For others, being homosexual, and especially making a public issue of it, is the entree to a culture of insurrection against the established order.
According to these writers, the established order is in very bad shape indeed. In Ruether’s view of a society captive to heterosexist hierarchy, “it is as much a ‘perversity’ to be sexually attracted to persons of another race, religion, or social class as to be attracted to persons of the same gender.” According to Ruether, people are not by nature either homosexual or heterosexual. “We are taught to become heterosexual,” and to refuse to accept that teaching is to strike a blow against an authoritarian social order. In a similar vein, Boswell says that homosexuals are “outsiders,” and as a consequence are like “political dissidents in totalitarian regimes, Jews in Nazi Germany, the left-handed in much of the world.” Typically, the writers affirm that, by virtue of their marginalization, they are in “solidarity” with other marginalized people. Homosexuality, if public and politicized, bestows the moral status of being a victim. As one writer puts it, “I was not black, or Chicano, or poor, or of the wrong social group”but I was gay.” This, he says, enables him to “confront the blatant homophobia in my community, church, and society.”
As was more general in the 1960s, “confrontation” is a key component of homosexual activism today. It has been observed that Oscar Wilde’s love that dare not speak its name has become the neurosis that doesn’t know when to shut up. But that misses the confrontational logic that requires “coming out of the closet” in a manner that forces reaction. If the reaction is negative (“homophobic”), marginalization is achieved, which brings with it both the desired victim status and a vindication of one’s claim that this is an intrinsically hate-full and oppressive society. Some of the writers in Homosexuality seem to believe that persuasion and “openness” can transform church and society, while others indicate that homophobia is so entrenched in the present order that nothing short of revolutionary apocalypse will do. But there is general agreement that being “honest” about one’s homosexuality, which means making a public issue of it, secures one a position in solidarity with the oppressed and their agenda of radical change.
There is, third, the claim that these writers are being terribly courageous in talking about their homosexuality. The fact that eight of the twenty-two priests and religious in this book fear to write under their own names is intended to accent the threat posed by a homophobic church. If these writers are to be credited, the Roman Catholic Church in particular is afflicted by a fear and ignorance that impose a conspiracy of silence about sexuality, and especially homosexuality. Touchingly, if not believably, some writers claim that the conspiracy of silence was so complete that in their twenties and thirties they had not once heard homosexuality discussed, never mind homosexuality among priests or religious. Since it appears none of them were hermits or in secluded orders, one cannot help but wonder where they have been for the last twenty years.
“The present volume,” the editor writes, “is intended to contribute to the further opening of the doors of silence that have blocked a healthy discussion of sexuality and homosexuality in some church circles.” The reading of the book leaves no doubt that a “healthy” discussion is one that leads to “acceptance,” and acceptance means agreement. The working assumption seems to be that a willingness to discuss homosexuality can lead to only one conclusion. A study guide on homosexuality that is officially promoted among Lutherans is titled, “Can We Talk About This?” It is premised upon the belief that talking about it is at least half way to agreement that traditional sexual ethics must be thoroughly revised. That others might study and discuss the issue and then arrive at a different conclusion is not admitted as a possibility. Another definition of courage—the courage of the dissident from the homosexualist position who risks being accused of homophobia—is not allowed.
Among Roman Catholics, Courage is the name of an organization for people of homosexual orientation who support one another in their efforts to live disciplined lives of chastity. In the dominant view of homosexual activists, however. Courage is anything but courageous. Not to give in to one’s erotic desires, and not to declare publicly that one is doing so, is cowardly self-denial and, of course, an instance of homophobia. This curious inversion of the meaning of courage, once it is accepted, must be powerfully intimidating to those who might otherwise think they are called to resist courageously an impulse to sin. Further, we might normally think that engaging alternative viewpoints is a mark of courage, but not in this case. We are asked to believe that courage is the silencing of other viewpoints by peremptorily declaring them to be dishonest, unhealthy, and homophobic.
The fear of being accused of homophobia, what might be called homophobiaphobia, runs very strong in enlightened sectors of our culture. During last year’s Gay Pride Week at Princeton University, the student newspaper declared that the suggestion that the merits of homosexuality might be open to critical discussion is itself an example of homophobia. Two years ago at the annual Erasmus Lecture in New York, Dignity, the Catholic homosexual rights group, disrupted the meeting in an attempt to silence Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who had earlier dared to assert that homosexuality is “an objective disorder” that Christians should face with courage. So it seems that there may be a conspiracy of silence, but it is not necessarily located where the authors of Homosexuality claim to find it.
Then, fourth, there is the question of authority. Here we witness the rather thorough triumph of what Lionel Trilling many years ago described as “sincerity and authenticity” as the final court of appeal in “the adversary culture.” Ms. Ruether, as might be expected, is quite explicit in advocating the displacement of tradition with her “revisionist” sexual ethic. Other authors, while clinging tightly to their “identity” as priests or religious, believe they would be guilty of complicity were they to work within the oppressive structures of the church. Assumed throughout is the “nonviability” of the distinction between the natural and the unnatural. The normal, defined in terms of what a person feels is normal, is the normative. Religious leaders must maintain the doctrines of the community, it is suggested, so long as such doctrines do not get in the way of the truth.
One way to get at the truth is through the sensus fidelium, the community’s discernment of the truth. But the sensus fidelium to be consulted is the sense of those with immediate experience of the subject at hand”in this case, homosexuals. With respect to sexual ethics, it would seem that popes and bishops are excluded. “If the sensus fidelium means anything, it ought to be taken seriously by the bishops in this area in which they apparently have no direct experience,” we are told. The conclusion is irresistible that, in the court of the adversary culture, the sensus fidelium cannot mean anything that might inhibit a person in the expression of his “true self.” A priest writes, “One of the questions that inevitably arises is: why stay Catholic, and especially why remain a priest?” Despite the homophobia, he says he will leave the church one week after the pope does. “The Catholic Church is mine as much as it is Pope John Paul’s or Cardinal Ratzinger’s or anyone else’s. My Catholicism is a deep part of my identity, as is my sexuality. I do not plan to give up either.” In an intriguing inversion, the seat of authority is located in personal identity. One does not belong to a church because one adheres to its authority, in fact one does not belong to a church at all. The church belongs to the supremely authoritative self.
Also of interest, fifth, is the conflation of spiritual and civil realms. That is to be expected from a movement that has imported into the church our political culture’s language of individualistic “rights.” Blacks in society, we are told, have a right to have role models in positions of leadership, and it therefore follows that homosexuals in the church have a right to role models in the form of openly gay popes, bishops, and priests. The idea that individual identity should be subordinated to communal identity is viewed as intolerably oppressive—except, it seems, in the case of the “loving gay and lesbian support community.” As the distinction between church and culture is collapsed, so also the public/private distinction must be overcome by “coming out of the closet.” On the one hand, private behavior is nobody’s business, least of all the business of church or state. On the other hand, what a person privately is and does must become everybody’s business. Church leaders who care about justice will see that the gay-rights agenda prevails in the political arena, or at least will not oppose it. Cardinal O’Connor, a bishop whom the activists seem to love to hate, is guilty of opposing that agenda. This, writes one priest, reveals his inconsistency, if not his hypocrisy. “Cardinal O’Connor has not led a campaign to prevent divorced and remarried men from holding the office of President,” he notes, presumably with reference to Ronald Reagan. It apparently does not occur to him that the rules and competencies appropriate to the body politic are different from those appropriate to the body of Christ.
With the conflation of church and culture, and with such a severely attenuated notion of what it means to belong to the church, one might conclude that the authors of Homosexuality have no church. It would seem, however, that at least for some of them their true church is the homosexual adversary culture itself. That culture maintains a number of “nurturing and networking” organizations, such as Dignity, Coalition for Catholic Lesbians, New Way Ministry, and Communication Ministry, Inc. Similarly, Episcopalians have Integrity and Lutherans have Lutherans Concerned. In the present volume there are repeated and sometimes moving narratives of a sense of “coming home” upon joining the homosexual community, much as Cardinal Newman and other converts have written about “coming home” when they joined the Roman Catholic Church.
One author tells how his priesthood took on “new dimensions” when he entered into “my Holy Communion with the lesbian/gay community.” Participating for the first time in a mass sponsored by Dignity, “I knew that I had found my own people, a family that shared my particular crosses and that promised me a taste of resurrection joys.” Here and elsewhere, the dynamics and language are those of the sacramental rite of initiation. “Dignity,” says this priest, “has been my most immediate experience of church.” Another writer, a male religious in San Francisco, has apparently found not only the church but the Kingdom of God: “So I have come to the ‘new Jerusalem’ with its wide open Golden Gate to complete the healing journey I embarked on many years ago.”
Such expressions reflect a reconstituting of the world around the authoritative, and indeed authorial, self. But on the seventh point, having to do with sexuality and personal identity, homosexual activists appear to be of different minds. Boswell complains that homosexuals are treated unfairly when others think that their homosexuality is the most important thing about them. “In the case of a ‘normal’ person,” he writes, “heterosexuality is assumed to be one part of his or her personality; in the case of a ‘homosexual’ person, sexuality is thought to be the primary constituent of his or her (abnormal) personality.” Yet authors in the present volume repeatedly assert about themselves what Boswell complains is unfairly asserted by a homophobic society. “Being lesbian,” writes a nun, “is my inner milieu, from which I relate with the world.” About her “coming out,” she explains, “I needed to reveal that most important part of myself that makes me ‘tick.’”
It is not possible to explain the intensity of commitment that turns this movement into one’s church apart from the primacy of sexuality in a person’s identification of himself. Here we encounter a conundrum that has become familiar in the cultural wars. A just society, it is said, should treat a person as a person, not as a homosexual. At the same time, justice demands that society should come to terms with, and affirm, that person’s homosexuality. We meet a similar, and similarly contradictory, construal of justice in some feminist literature, as well as in the claim that the society should be both color-blind and have preferential quotas for racial minorities. While many homosexuals are only asking for tolerance, the gay-rights movement is clearly engaged in a power struggle for the redesign of the social order. As in all power struggles, its antagonists need a public differentiation between “them” and “us,” and in this struggle that makes inevitable the primacy of sexuality in personal identity. Thus it would seem that what Boswell and others attribute to society’s prejudices is in fact the necessary logic of the movement they champion.
The definition of allies and enemies unavoidably requires stereotypes. At one level, stereotypes are simply types that conform to a general pattern, but they are commonly much decried as a prejudice that unfairly puts people into preconceived slots. In gay-rights literature, and not least in Homosexuality, stereotypes play a dual role. They are fully engaged in portraying an often vicious picture of a society and church hatefully bent upon the persecution of homosexuals. At the same time, one encounters the stereotypes of homosexuals as unusually sensitive, creative, imaginative, playful, and loving. In short, stereotypes of homosexual superiority, or what is thought to be homosexual superiority, are not condemned but celebrated. In the present book, several male authors, reinforcing a stereotype, relate how in childhood they wanted to play house when the other boys wanted to play ball, and they were as a consequence called sissy, fag, and queer. This is told to illustrate the bigotry of their peers, but there is also a suggestion that a stereotype of deviant behavior must be flaunted if the movement is to achieve its goals. And this brings us to the question of fate or choice.
Gay activists commonly assert that homosexuality is biologically determined, and therefore nobody should be held responsible for his or her sexual condition. Typical is the priest who writes that “our journey has to be as sexual, as homosexual, persons. We have no other choice. God calls us to love and to celebrate who we are. He made us the way we are, and it is good.” Others are not satisfied with this approach, however. They say it implies that homosexuality is a problem or handicap in which one has no say; it is a matter of fate. The implication is that the condition calls for sympathy from others. Rejecting that view, Rosemary Ruether joins Freud in arguing that we are all “originally” bisexual and polymorphously sexual. Against Freud, she contends that homosexuality is not an instance of arrested infantile or adolescent “perversity,” but a choice for personal satisfaction and fulfillment. We should, she writes, “appropriate our sexuality not as something biologically necessitated, or as socially coerced, but as a freely chosen way of expressing our authentic humanness in relation to the special others with whom we wish to share our lives.” The point is that people should not be held responsible for their sexual condition, for “originally” our conditions are the same. The further point is that people should not be held responsible for their sexual choices and behavior (at least not within the context of “a committed relationship”), for they are essential to “authentic humanness.”
In this literature one is also impressed by the pervasive insensitivity and lack of feeling for non-homosexuals who experience discontents and sufferings related to sexuality. It appears that only homosexuals suffer. There is no mention of wives and husbands who, against powerful temptations and disappointments, strive to remain faithful to their marriage vows. Little credit is given celibates, of whatever sexual “orientation,” who understand themselves to be offering up the entirety of their being to God. Indeed the logic of Homosexuality suggests that the difficult path of marital or celibate fidelity is a course of unhealthy denial and repression. Surely many married persons in the throes of temptation to adultery can (and do) claim that acting upon their desire is essential to their “authentic humanness.” It is far from clear why intensity of desire comes with a moral license only for homosexuals. Advocates such as Ms. Ruether are at least more consistent in apparently extending the license to everyone.
In addition to being insensitive and unfeeling toward non-homosexuals who are coping with sexuality and its discontents, the activist literature is typically cruel and slanderous in its explanation of why most people have negative views of homosexuality. Anything other than the “correct” view of homosexuality is attributed to “homophobia,” which is consistently described as the result of bigotry, ignorance, and the fear of one’s own sexuality. If it is an instance of homophobia that parents earnestly hope that their children will not turn out to be homosexual, then almost every parent in the world is homophobic. Books such as Homosexuality, which incessantly talk about the fears, frustrations, angers, and depressions involved in being homosexual, inadvertently reinforce the reasons why parents hope their children will not be homosexual. The dramatically higher incidence among homosexuals of suicide, psychological disorder, and sexually related disease (frequently lethal) suggests that homosexuality is anything but gay. Of course the activists blame these pathologies on society’s intolerance, but it is not intolerance that produces another and very basic reason why people hope their children will not be homosexual. Whatever its alleged merits, homosexuality is sterile. Few things are more fundamental to societal interest and parental desire than the hope for children and grandchildren, for successor generations that will carry on our communal stories. The society’s “failure” to put homosexuality on a moral par with heterosexuality is not a result of homophobia, as that term is now recklessly used, but of a human refusal to accept the end of history.
Finally, one notes in Homosexuality an almost total absence of notions of sin and forgiveness. Sin is mentioned in passing as a hang-up of homophobes. One writer speaks of the experience of being “forgiven and accepted,” but then makes clear that being “accepted” means that there is nothing to forgive. Several writers speak about how they and God feel good about their being gay, the implication being that “God” is some kind of cosmic concurrence in whatever makes human beings feel good about themselves. The Christian tradition’s understanding of the ultimate inversion of “man turned in upon himself” (homo incurvatus se) is celebrated as salvation. “I am gay and happy. I am not neurotic, morbid, or maladjusted,” writes one priest, protesting, one suspects, too much. “There are absolutely no apologies necessary,” he asserts. What the tradition has viewed as disorder is in fact superior virtue, another writer declares. Homosexuals have “the ability to see with different eyes” and to “risk decisions which straight men and women, because of their greater stake in the dominant social system, cannot even consider.” A lesbian nun writes, “I see myself as very much of a prophet among my own sisters.”
Readers might be repelled by the tone of smug self-righteousness in Homosexuality, but that is to miss the underlying urgency in these assertions of self-approval, an urgency that betrays a terrible desperation. Some of the autobiographical sketches are touchingly ingenuous, revealing people who were hurt and confused in many ways and who then found the affirmation they were seeking in groups formed by sexual identity. Others border on the disingenuous, inventing comprehensive schemes of societal oppression which they blame for their unhappiness and which, simultaneously, they defy by flaunting their putative discovery of wholeness in their homosexuality. Some writers have the modest goal of integrating homosexual orientation into a life of celibate faithfulness. But the more frequently stated goal is as revolutionary as it claims to be—to displace the common wisdom regarding human sexuality in both church and culture.
This goal is evident in John Boswell’s efforts to establish the marginal, the sometimes tolerated, and even the furtive on an equal footing with the Christian tradition. “Lesbian and gay religious need to reclaim their tradition, publicize it, rejoice in it, and share it with other Christians and gay people,” he writes. “Models of gay Christian religious life embrace nearly every possibility of service to the Lord, from absolute chastity enriched by passionate attachment to another person, to open enjoyment and celebration of eroticism, to permanent unions, with or without physical sexuality. These models should be discussed and utilized as archetypes of Christian love. They are ancient, authentic, and as fundamental to the Christian tradition as heterosexual marriage.”
Homosexuality and the growing literature of which it is representative leave no doubt that the “acceptance” demanded from the churches is not acceptance as forgiven sinners. Traditionally, that is the only basis on which we are received into the community of the redeemed where we are sustained in the lifelong struggle against our devils, of which unruly Eros is by no means the most fearsome. What is now being demanded is not personal acceptance but agreement that Christian doctrine and morality are fundamentally in error. What is demanded is the formal blessing of libidinal liberation from communal restraints. Advocates of the movement disagree about whether sex should be within a “committed relationship,” however defined, but are one in contending that what used to be called licentiousness must now be viewed as the freedom essential to fulfillment.
Homosexuality ends on the note that the revolution encounters growing resistance from church authorities. New programs are being introduced to screen out the sexually “disordered” among applicants for ministry. The implication is that, for all the homophile agitation, the homophobes may succeed in eliminating even the space that previously existed for deviance at the margins. Alarmed by the radical revisionism of the homosexual movement, it is suggested, the churches may be moved to reappropriate with vigor a traditional sexual ethic. It is a not entirely implausible prospect.
“Homosexuality is the scare issue in the Christian churches today,” writes Rosemary Ruether. Nobody should deny that she and her companions in the cause are doing their best to make it sound scary. One can hope that the churches will decline to be intimidated by such scare tactics, remembering that antinomian challenges to the Christian ethic are nothing new. The current assault by homosexual liberationism should be countered firmly and lovingly by a renewed articulation of the rules by which we are to order our personal and communal life. That done, the churches can get back to their mission, offering God’s forgiving and sustaining grace to all of us disordered and disorderly human beings who are subject to temptations beyond numbering, also in the realm of sexuality.
Had it not involved Jimmy Swaggart, a January 17 Supreme Court decision might have provoked a great deal more comment than it has to date. In a ruling that narrowed the constitutionally guaranteed “free exercise of religion,” the Court said that Swaggart Ministries must pay $18
3,000 in California sales and use taxes for religious materials sold to Californians from 1974 to 1981. In most states such clearly religious transactions are tax-exempt, and Swaggart had claimed that they should be in California as well. The Court disagreed.
After the fiscal and sexual scandals connected with Swaggart and other televangelists, many Americans might be glad to see the government putting the screws to him. Christians and Jews acquainted with the long history of church-state relations in America, however, take a different view. Swaggart’s claim was supported by mainstream religious groups who understand that the rights of the majority depend upon our protecting the rights of the minority, and even the marginal. One of the few consistently worthy enterprises of the National Council of Churches, the office of religious liberty directed by Dean Kelley, knew what was at stake and entered an amicus brief on behalf of Swaggart Ministries. Kelley understands that what we think of Jimmy Swaggart is beside the point. If we only care about the rights of those with whom we agree, we do not care about rights at all.
Historians call religious freedom “the first liberty.” It is the first in the First Amendment, and, many would argue, it is the source of all other liberties. Religion is the institutional bearer of the truth that keeps government limited. It is the public reminder that God, not government, is God. The Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Knowing that the power to tax is the power to control, states have traditionally respected the tax-exempt status of religious property and activities. Likewise, religious institutions (not, as is commonly thought, their clergy) are exempt from federal income tax. Some scholars contend that religious tax exemption is a right and not a privilege bestowed by the government. The most accessible discussion of that argument is by the aforementioned Kelley, Why The Churches Should Not Pay Taxes (1977). Other scholars say that religious tax exemption is simply a matter of good public policy, much as educational, cultural, and other voluntary organizations that render public service are tax-exempt. In any event, Swaggart Ministries v. California raises disturbing questions about the expansion of government control of religion and, at least implicitly, of all the institutions of society.
Writing for the Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor says that the 6 percent California tax is not “onerous.” It is, she suggests, only a “marginal” burden on the free exercise of religion. But one wonders why the free exercise of religion should be burdened at all. In addition, most churches and synagogues operate on a thin financial margin to begin with, and 6 percent could be the margin of survival. The Court’s logic seems to be that it is permissible to infringe upon the exercise of a constitutionally guaranteed right, so long as such infringement does not prevent the exercise of that right altogether. We would not accept that logic with respect to, for instance, the freedom of speech, and we should not accept it with respect to the freedom of religion. O’Connor emphasizes that earlier Court rulings forbidding state licensing and taxing of religious activity were based on the fact that state interference was a “prior restraint” on a constitutionally protected freedom. But the opinion fails to explain why restraint”even a “non-onerous” restraint”of a freedom already being exercised is less objectionable.
It is noteworthy that in Swaggart Ministries O’Connor is writing on behalf of a unanimous court. It may also seem puzzling, since this Court has been sharply divided on state-church questions. In Texas Monthly, for example, a fragile plurality of the Court ruled that tax exemption for a religious book business constituted a violation of the “no establishment” clause. Why did Scalia, Kennedy, and Rehnquist, who dissented from that decision, go along with Swaggart Ministries? The answer may be that Texas was argued on “no establishment” grounds, while Swaggart appealed to the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment. Once again we see the curious way in which the two religion clauses, intended to be mutually supportive, are played against each other. Rehnquist & Co. seem to take a more flexible view of “no establishment” than do their “strict separationist” brethren. But they also seem to be relaxed about “free exercise,” inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the state when its policies run into conflict with a religious claim. In consequence, if not in the intention of the justices, Swaggart is a thoroughly statist decision. Unlike the unfortunate Bob Jones University case of several years ago, the opinion in this case does not even trouble itself to argue that the State of California has some compelling state interest in overriding a serious free-exercise claim.
The present ruling reflects the Court’s growing deference to the decisions of state and local government, a deference that many Americans welcome. The Court, understandably enough, is especially reluctant to enter into the thicket of complex tax structures. It must also be said that Swaggart Ministries does not directly challenge well- established precedents protecting, for example, the tax exemption of religious properties. Nonetheless, even narrow rulings invite interpretations that can be used to justify much broader applications. There is no doubt, for instance, that this ruling will encourage tax-hungry states and localities to explore additional ways to exact monies from religious institutions.
The danger is not that religious institutions will be driven out of business by burdensome taxation and regulation. A danger is that their work will be hampered and curtailed. But the danger is that the Court is obscuring the singular role of religion in our public life. O’Connor’s opinion makes much of the fact that the California tax is applied equally to all transactions, and therefore cannot be accused of discriminating against religion. And it must be admitted that there are also friends of religious freedom who favor the idea that government should adopt a “neutrality rule” with respect to religion. They argue that it should be a matter of indifference to the government whether a particular activity, private or public, is or is not “religious.” While the neutrality argument has certain attractions in relaxing the artificial strictures of “strict separationism,” however, its logic inescapably shortchanges the claims of “free exercise.” If the neutrality rule is to govern everything, the religion clauses of the First Amendment are made superfluous. Then religion can readily be swallowed up by the other freedoms stipulated”e.g., speech, press, and assembly. But even those who are not rigorous proponents of “original understanding” in constitutional law may want to think more than twice before embracing the conclusion that the Founders had no good reason for putting religious freedom at front-stage center in the First Amendment. We believe the Founders knew what they were doing, and their reasons for doing it are as pertinent today as they were two hundred years ago.
The role of Justice O’Connor on state-church questions bears careful watching. On this and other issues, she is widely perceived to be the “swing vote” on the Court. Those who keep a close eye on First Amendment issues have expressed uneasiness about what appears to be her cavalier attitude toward religious rights. She has to date demonstrated a tendency to be dismissive of religious claims. Her attitude seems to be that the government must get on with its business and, if some rights get trimmed along the way, that’s an acceptable price to pay. Historically, the Court has usually recognized the special status of religion in the First Amendment. The “separation of church and state” (a phrase not actually in the Constitution) has meant, above all, that the government should keep its hands off, and that includes the entanglements and hindrances that attend taxation. Between religion and the state, a buffer was fixed. Swaggart Ministries has not removed that buffer, but it now seems much less secure.
Leszek Kolakowski delivered the fifteenth annual Thomas Jefferson Lecture sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Kolakowski is author of the renowned three-volume Main Currents of Marxism and is one of the most distinguished political philosophers of our time. In his lecture, titled “Uncertainties of a Democratic Age,” he had this to say about religion. “[Another] antidemocratic factor is religious intolerance and theocratic aspirations. To be sure, the theocratic tendency, which naturally does away with the separation of the state from religion and establishes an ideological despotism, is most clearly and most dangerously active in Islamic countries, where there are reasons to expect that it will grow. Islamic countries, however, make up a large segment of mankind; while none of them is fully democratic in the Western sense, they differ significantly in the degree of intolerance. We also notice an increase in theocratic aspirations among some Israeli Jews. Analogous tendencies in Christianity do not seem strong or dangerous for the time being, but their seeds are quite alive and occasionally display their vitality.”
Of course Kolakowski is right, and about Islam in particular. One of the most important questions on the “religion and public life” agenda in the years ahead is whether Islam can make its peace with, or even contribute to, social orders of democratic pluralism. (For a discussion of theocratic tendencies in Christianity, see “Why Wait for the Kingdom?” elsewhere in this issue.)
Citing the Kolakowski article is a natural occasion to bring to your attention a fine new publication, Journal of Democracy, in which his Jefferson lecture appears. The journal is a quarterly published by the National Endowment for Democracy (1101 15th St NW, Suite 200, Washington, D.C 20005) and should be of great interest to people trying to understand political and cultural changes in today’s world.
Some English friends of Western civilization have set up a prize for students who can properly declaim by heart the Prayer Book of Thomas Cranmer. Prince Charles presented the prize to the winner, and took the occasion to deliver himself of some judicious observations about language and prayer. He said this: “Ours is the age of miraculous writing machines but not of miraculous writing. Our banalities are no improvement on the past; merely an insult to it and a source of confusion in the present. In the case of our cherished religious writings, we should leave well alone, especially when it is better than well: when it is great.”
The Prince went on to question the premises of the argument for liturgical revision: “What we have to ask ourselves, it seems to me, is whether, by making the words less poetic, you really do make them more democratic. Isn’t there something rather patronizing about the whole assumption?
“Possibly there are more people today who read less well than people in the past, although I doubt it. Most people then couldn’t read at all. But supposing it were true, whoever decided that for people who aren’t very good at reading the best thing to read are those things written by people who aren’t very good at writing? Poetry is for everybody, even if it’s only a few phrases. But banality is for nobody.”
People were wrong, the Prince opined, to complain that the traditional language was “a bit over our heads.” “The word of God,” he explained, “is supposed to be a bit over our heads. Elevated is what God is.” He summed up his case this way: “If English is spoken in heaven . . . God undoubtedly employs Cranmer as his speech-writer. The angels of the lesser ministries probably use the language of the New English Bible and the Alternative Service Book for internal memos.”
While We’re at It
• A strong candidate for headline of the year is this from the Washington Post: “Poll on Future of Churches Stresses ‘Communication With People’: Religion, Community, Young People Are Other Top Concerns.” With religion right there near the top, can another Great Awakening be far behind?
Sources: Homosexuality and the Churches: Sr. Ware, NYT, Nov. 4, 1989; Greeley on celibacy, National Catholic Reporter, Nov. 10, 1989. Kolakowski on religion and democracy, Winter 1990. Prince Charles on liturgical language, The Spectator, 23/30 Dec. 1989. Post headline, Nov. 25, 1989.