If you’re gay and Christian, you have one of two choices.

By Jana Prikryl

The intersection of homosexuality and Christianity has all the makings of a bad joke: A nun, a priest and a rabbi walk into a gay bar… The idea of there being people who answer to both gay and Christian seems especially eccentric after this past summer, when in the name of traditional values Bush wasted the Senate’s time with a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage; when the Republican Party radicalized its platform on the gay issue by rejecting even civil unions; when a spate of same-sex marriages wererevoked; and when Cheney expediently tried to soften those hard-right tactics by proclaiming that he was proud of “both his daughters.” For those of us in the country’s secular minority, it seems intuitive that serious Christians and serious gays do not mix.

But that is simply not so: Christianity itself is changing as homosexuality gains an ever more unapologetic place in our culture. This is true even if some Christian denominations are not changing outright so much as struggling to articulate a fair position on homosexuality, and it is true even if some other denominations are resisting a fair position (because even resistance betrays tension). Since the 1960s, Christians have held meetings and issued proclamations about their official views on homosexuality, and many have shifted those views. This didn’t suddenly happen because of Will & Grace or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy; it happened slowly, in large part because of gay Christians in the 60s who were not ashamed to admit their dual citizenship. And they still exist, these religious puzzles wrapped in homosexual enigmas. They exist in large numbers, insisting on their right to love Jesus and love people of their own sex. We should pay attention to these cross-cultural emissaries because, as two recent sociological studies point out, the conflict over homosexuality within churches (and within believers) is one of the most compelling, and telling, back rooms of the debate.

If you’re gay and Christian, you have one of two choices. You can stay in the church and try to change it — a Herculean effort that gets back-up from Dawne Moon’s God, Sex, and Politics, a sociological study of two Methodist congregations. Or you can organize and worship under an LGBT-friendly banner, as do members of the now international, 40,000-strong Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC). In Coming Out in Christianity, Melissa M. Wilcox details the story of the UFMCC and its meaning for LGBT identity. But setting the two books together says more about political action than spiritual development: While a secular humanist can’t fail to sympathize with the members of UFMCC — they are quoted offering painful reasons for joining the fully supportive, explicitly gay church — from a political point of view, one can’t help viewing their project with some disappointment.

Consider this candid testimony from a couple profiled in Moon’s God, Sex, and Politics: Al and Lucy Delacroix begin their interview with Moon by heaping full legitimacy on a lesbian couple they once knew, and mocking Christians who don’t do the same — Lucy quips, “Come on. Some of these people are gonna be so shocked when they get to Heaven and see who else is there. They may not even want to stay!” But Moon presses them on the matter of ordaining homosexuals, and Al puts his foot down: “If somebody wants to be a minister, and they want to be a homosexual, okay, go somewhere else…If you can’t work within the group, get out of the group and start your own group.” In this light, the UFMCC looks like the best-case scenario for anti-gay Christians: The sinners self-segregate, and out-of-sight, they can be out-of-mind.

Of course it’s not that simple. The UFMCC does raise the profile of homosexual Christians even while providing spiritual and emotional support to its members, and part of its mandate is educating the community at large. One of Wilcox’s most interesting ideas is the special importance of ritual in LGBT Christianity. She transplants Jonathan Z. Smith’s definition of ritual to the world of the UFMCC — for the LGBT community, the “ritualized perfection” of religious ceremony offers ballast and support in the hostile world outside of church (a world that includes the unwelcoming churches many UFMCC members initially left). But that tells us nothing about why traditional Christianity is so hostile to homosexuals, or how to improve the situation. Wilcox’s study is informative on its own terms (and deliberately fills a gap in the library of sociological studies), but it includes no grain of transformation.

By contrast, Moon is hungry for change. And to change Christian culture at large, she explains that there’s nothing quite like intra-church debate. When members of a single congregation disagree, their “shared feelings and ideals [keep them] from giving up on each other as quickly as secular neighbors might give up on each other about, say, a state ballot initiative.” Or, one might add, as quickly as secular and religious neighbors might give up. This is what makes Moon’s study so rewarding: People who might ordinarily regard each other as nothing but bigots or buggers are forced to see each other as human beings because, ultimately, they have to face each other every Sunday morning.

And, oh, the pretzels these humans twist themselves into! It turns out that nothing threatens to undermine a millennia-old religion so much as its own adherents giving voice to what they believe and why. Moon captures this paradox neatly: “the sheer number of different sources people used to naturalize their beliefs could risk denaturalizing them all, exposing their social contingency.” Moon maintains a never less than respectful tone throughout, but some of her interviewees’ wilder “gay analogies” demonstrate the instability of their own doctrines:

• Bill Rosario: “In other words, you don’t lock a drunkard out of the church because he drinks, you try to help him. Not that a drunk should be encouraged to drink just because that’s his chosen lifestyle. We’re not gonna back you up in it.”
• Maureen McConnelly: By way of explaining that it’s her Christian duty to love all homosexuals, Maureen explains that God loves Jeffrey Dahmer, too. Then she produces this theory about people whose sexuality is non-hetero: “I think the reality is that there are mistakes. There are handicapped people too. There are people that are retarded. We are not perfect. God does not make us all perfect.”
• Al Delacroix: “Every day I get up and I drive to work and there’s a speed limit. I might want to run eighty miles an hour, but there’s a speed limit. If I choose to go eighty miles an hour, I’m gonna get a ticket. I’m gonna have to obey the law one way or another.”

Drunkards, cannibals, retards, reckless drivers: No wonder Christian gays join the UFMCC. What’s even more striking than the hilarious political incorrectness of such comparisons is the sheer imaginative muscle with which these (well-meaning) Christians think about homosexuality. As Moon points out, the in-church debate over homosexuality is so explosive because it threatens to undermine the illusion of unity that each congregation requires to continue worshipping together. Not only do members’ opinions differ, even when they basically agree, their creative views on sexual morality reveal how imaginative, and artifice-laced, the very phenomenon of faith is.

If you think faith isn’t artificial — hoisted on stilts of metaphor and held in place with glue guns of routine — consider the Christians who hear God’s voice in the media and in the background noise of culture. One church member Moon spoke with, Betsy Meisensahl, equated her “gut feelings” with beliefs endorsed by God; and, she reasoned, if she was wrong in believing homosexuality to be sinful, God would prod her with alternative messages. And where would such messages come from? “Knowing what I believe about God, if that’s something he’s trying to change my mind about, it’ll keep coming up. It’ll be something that sticks in my mind, and it’ll be something, maybe all of a sudden there’ll be news stories about this. I’ll pick it up in magazine articles, and I’ll be overhearing it in conversations. It’ll just keep coming up in one way or another.” All hail the heavenly authority of the liberal media! What we need are more God-instigated, pro-gay op-eds.

Another member of Betsy’s church, Jessica Lake, felt God blessed her choice to have a child out of wedlock — and this blessing came via The Thornbirds. Reading about the birth of an illegitimate son who goes on to become a priest in this potboiler epic, Jessica thought, “‘God, you know what I am thinking about this. You couldn’t possibly want to bring a child into this relationship unless we are married. And you know how I feel about it. But,’ I said, ‘if this is your will, okay!’ I swear, like that [snaps fingers], that second, there was some little sperm floating around in there that got zapped, you know? And sure enough, we had Tammy.”

In both Jessica’s and Betsy’s cases, their feelings and everyday experiences formed a direct conduit to God’s will; and it’s no coincidence that in our culture emotions have taken on revelational status. But by equating feelings with divine approval, these believers imply that people who feel differently…must also enjoy God’s approval? Nancy Cook, for instance, had once disapproved of homosexuality. But then she went to the cinema: “I just saw the movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; [it] is really shocking to see the pain people are in that makes them feel they have to do such wild things just to be able to say, ‘This is who I am.'” The experience convinced Nancy that homosexuality is God-given. But were Nancy to debate the point with Jessica and Betsy, they would stall on feelings whose logic they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, express. Moon, ever the sociologist, is properly suspicious of the ineffable: “Feelings strike us as grander, indeed, transcendent, when we are incapable of articulating them.” In other words, words can appear inadequate precisely when your best strategy is to kill the debate.

And so we get to Moon’s most frightening prognosis — most frightening for this debate, but also for American culture in general. After spending nearly two years in two separate congregations, one liberal, the other more conservative, Moon discovered that anti-gay Christians felt they had a common foe — not your garden-variety pansy, but politics. The grumbling of one congregation member, Dick Featherstone, captures this attitude succinctly. The church has one main purpose, he says, and everything else is secular meddling: “Well, I think one, there’s really only one commandment, Matthew: Go into the world and Christianize the world. Which we do hardly any of, as opposed to, like I say, getting involved with every political issue that comes down the pike.” The political exhaustion of such remarks is not unique to anti-gay Christians; what’s unique to them is the perception that, for instance, the church’s old struggle with civil rights is fundamentally different from its current struggle with homosexuality. Indeed, Moon finds many Christians who debate the niceties between embracing minorities and endorsing homosexuality: Social justice is okay for ex-slaves, but gay men and lesbians are trounced by six disputed passages in the Bible.

For these Christians, it is “political” to suggest that Jesus said nothing against homosexuality, or that his Big Message of “love thy neighbor” might trump the reasons not to love thy neighbor. But Moon points out that the politics/spirituality divide is deceiving. For one thing, it can foster blatant injustice: She reminds us that America’s separation of church and state lends the church “moral cachet and apparent objectivity.” Thus we live in a culture where, for years, Catholics placed implicit faith in their priests’ denials of sexual abuse. For another thing, Moon argues that politics — that is, power struggles in their most basic form — exist inside each congregation. To get to Jesus, you have to go through the disciples, and even they were not free of schemers.

Of course, the idea that church is nothing but a social entity — one fraught with social injustice — is precisely the perception of the LGBT community. Reading Wilcox’s study, what’s most surprising is that UFMCC members feel doubly squeezed: They hide their sexuality from other Christians just as they hide their Christianity from non-Christian LGBT people. One UFMCC member told Wilcox that homosexuals outside his congregation “use terms like ‘hogwash’ and ‘religion is bad.’ They’re very hostile toward the whole idea of religion. They find the idea of a gay Christian almost as contradictory as a gay Republican.” Such reactions understandably increase the appeal of all-gay congregations, where neither your sexuality nor your religiosity is judged. But while it functions as a much-needed haven, the UFMCC, by its mere existence, also reinforces the gay community’s sense that traditional Christians are gay-bashing, gun-slinging, abortion-denying reactionaries.

Judging from Moon’s study, the opposite is true (in fact there are all too many varieties of belief in the church, which is precisely why open dialogue about those differences is usually suppressed). And, what’s more, only one force can remind Christians of their social-justice heritage — other Christians. In that sense, there is one particularly lamentable drawback to God, Sex, and Politics: its writing lacks juice and adheres pretty strictly to an academic style guide (for the good reason that it began as Moon’s Ph.D. dissertation). But given the (potential) richness of the book’s characters, its author’s passion (Moon is herself a lesbian ex-Methodist whose self-doubt forms a poignant subtext), and the complexity of its arguments, God, Sex, and Politics might actually have shaken things up had it aimed closer to that ever-growing category, literary nonfiction.

After all, when Moon makes crucial observations about pro-gay Christians — they should stop endorsing homosexual suffering as a reason for Christian tolerance, and stop air-brushing the physical reality of sex between any permutation of genders, but rather answer the “It’s not moral!” charge very directly with “It is moral!” — she is offering useful information to ordinary people. If Christians are to redress the injustice in their own faith, they need to recognize that faith may be spiritual, but church is a social institution. Moon’s research shows that many Christians are cultivating the cynicism with which they view “merely human” (i.e., political) dialogue and change. Human-authored artifacts like The Thornbirds are encoded by God, but the Constitution is a tainted document in need of Biblical white-out. Until Christians admit that politics is endemic even to Sunday school, they will mistakenly believe that the confusion of church and state — the free-and-easy attitude our President has with the Constitution — is a confusion that errs in their favor.

Jana Prikryl is a writer living in Manhattan. Her work has appeared in Maisonneuve,Salon.com and Books in Canada.