Homosexuality and the American Church

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Maybe you were surprised by the news and maybe you weren’t. Ted Haggard, pastor of the 14,000 member New Life Baptist Church in Colorado Springs, President of the National Association of Evangelicals, and a trusted advisor to President Bush, is accused of regularly having sex and doing meth with a male prostitute for over three years now. It’s hard not to be distracted as each new salacious detail is leaked or pieced together. First he denies it all together. Then he admits to purchasing drugs but not using them. Now he admits to receiving a massage from the prostitute, but nothing else. [See Update below.]

We had Pastor Ted, as he’s known to his congregants, on our show last year, talking about how one would actually govern in America according to Christian principles. Now, with the dust of the Mark Foley scandal barely settled, we had to turn to Jeff Sharlet, one of our trusted advisors on matters of religion in modern life, to make sense of the bigger story at work here. Sharlet wrote a long profile of Haggard’s church for Harper’s last May, and in his blog piece about Haggard today mentions a companion essay he wrote about the figure of the gay man in the imagination of contemporary Evangelical Christianity:

The oversexed female as public enemy has been replaced by the oversexed male; and in the worst case scenario, he is gay…”The gay man” is the new seductress sent by Satan to tempt the men of Christendom. He takes what he wants and loves whom he will and his life, in the imagination of Christian men’s groups, is an endless succession of orgasms, interrupted only by jocular episodes of male bonhomie. The gay man promises a guilt-free existence, the garden before Eve. He is thought to exist in the purest state of “manhood,” which is boyhood, before there were girls…

[Christian conservatives] love the gay man because he is a siren, and his song is alluring; and because they believe that the siren is nonetheless stranded at sea, singing in desperation from a slippery perch on a jagged outcrop of stone. The gay man, they imagine, is calling to them; and they believe they are calling back — as if all of human sexuality was a grand and tragic game of Marco Polo.

Jeff Sharlet, Sex as a Weapon, Nerve, 2005

We’re taking Sharlet’s lead this Monday to throw some light on the intersection between homosexuality and contemporary American Christianity. We’re interested in culture, history, symbolism, texts, subtexts, theology, psychology, actual circumstances — everything but politics. A question as a starting point: why is the figure of the gay man so central to ideas about sexuality, sin and redemption?

Update, 11/6/06 12:40pm

A letter from Ted Haggard was read at the New Life Church’s service yesterday. While it didn’t answer every question his previous statements had brought up, it did have a few definitive statements. “I am a deceiver and a liar,” he wrote. “The accusations that have been leveled against me are not all true, but enough of them are true that I have been appropriately and lovingly removed from ministry.”

He went on: “There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I’ve been warring against it all of my adult life. For extended periods of time, I would enjoy victory and rejoice in freedom. Then, from time to time, the dirt that I thought was gone would resurface, and I would find myself thinking thoughts and experiencing desires that were contrary to everything I believe and teach.”

You can read the whole letter here (pdf).

Jeff Sharlet

Contributing Editor, Harper’s and Rolling Stone

Editor, The Revealer

Mel White

Evangelical Pastor

Author, Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America and Religion Gone Bad: The Hidden Dangers of the Christian Right

Founder, Soulforce

Nathan Paxton

Ph.D. candidate in political science, Harvard University

Commenter, Open Source

Blogger, NateKnowsNada

Extra Credit Reading

Jeff Sharlet, Soldiers of Christ: Inside America’s most powerful megachurch with Pastor Ted Haggard, Harper’s Magazine, May 2005: “Colorado Springs is a city of faith…It is a city of people who have fled the cities, people who have fought a spiritual war for the ground they are on, for an interior frontier on which they have built new temples to the Lord. From these temples they will retake their forsaken promised lands, remake them in the likeness of a dream. They call the dream ‘Christian,’ but in its particulars it is ‘American.'”

Jeff Sharlet, Haggard’s Downfall, the Revealer, November 2nd, 2006: “If the story is true, Ted’s a hypocrite of the worst kind; then again, he’s also another victim of the very closet over which he publicly stands guard, as are all the New Life church members he’s led into it.”

Mel White, Open Letter From Mel White to Jerry Falwell, Soulforce, June 5, 1999: “Dear Jerry,

I’ve been reading your autobiography again. It still moves me. And I’m not just saying that because I wrote it.”

Jeff Sharlet, Sex As a Weapon, Nerve, April 25, 2006: “Christian conservatives loathe all forms of homo- and bisexuality, of course, but it is the gay man (singular; he’s an archetype) who looms largest in their books and sermons and blogs and cell group meetings. Not, for the most part, as a figure of evil, but one to be almost envied. ‘The gay man’ is the new seductress sent by Satan to tempt the men of Christendom.”

Karen Francis, Homosexuals vs Fornicators: Both are Sinners in the Eyes of Christianity, Associated Content, October 26, 2006: “I love [my homosexual friends], but I hate the sin, because I know that all sin leads to death and it doesn’t have to be a physical death, but a social and spiritual death will surely come. If it was so lovely being in a homosexual lifestyle you would not see so many suicides and violent relationships within that community; however this does not negate the fact that there is just as much dysfunction in relationships dealing with fornicators.”

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