Al Mohler’s Brave New World

By Kathryn Joyce

I’m not totally sure why Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler has gotten involved with the politics surrounding a German zoo and its polar bear cub, Knut, who was abandoned by his mother and is now being raised by Berlin zookeepers in a somewhat-controversial breach of animal welfare protocol. But I think it might have something to do with this: Mohler’s highly controversial (for a reigning evangelical talking-head, that is) assertion that homosexuality may be biologically determined after all, and, if it’s so determined, that Christians should embrace forthcoming technology that might be able to hormonally alter a fetus’s sexual orientation.

For those who missed the controversy, Mohler recently stirred an inter-evangelical & gay-“ex-gay” debate when he riffed off a Radar article on the possibility of detecting sexual orientation in the womb, “Is Your Baby Gay,” and mused that maybe, if parents could tell their fetus was destined to be gay, they could wear some sort of hormonal patch to straighten their future child out (thus saving the fetus from years of “straight” camps and baffling ex-gay ministries).
Mohler’s original article, “Is your baby gay? What if you could know? What if you could do something about it?” also started with animals: gay sheep, specifically, and the scientific speculation that determining the biological components of the sheep’s’ gayness could lead to biological “cures” for gayness. Mohler summarized:

Homosexual activists were among the first to call for (and fund) research into a biological cause of homosexuality. After all, they argued, the discovery of a biological cause would lead to the normalization of homosexuality simply because it would then be seen to be natural, and thus moral.

But now the picture is quite different. Many homosexual activists recognize that the discovery of a biological marker or cause for homosexual orientation could lead to efforts to eliminate the trait, or change the orientation through genetic or hormonal treatments.

In a ten-point mini-study guide for Christians pondering the issue, Mohler then proposed that admitting a genetic cause for gayness, if one were found, need not be incompatible with the Bible, but rather Christians should look at it as a physical manifestation of the Fall: a Satan-shaped difference between gay and straight brains. Mohler also made clear that biologal findings need not interfere with Christian condemnation of homosexuality, as the Bible will hold firm on sin, but suggested that:

8. If a biological basis is found, and if a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation to heterosexual is ever developed, we would support its use as we should unapologetically support the use of any appropriate means to avoid sexual temptation and the inevitable effects of sin.

Unsurprisingly, his suggestions riled both gay-rights activists and evangelicals wary of any attempts to cast homosexuality as anything other than a conscious choice. The Washington Post summed up some of the more contentious points on Friday:

For seeming to contradict a basic tenet of anti-gay thinking — that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, not a state of nature — Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, was inundated with e-mails from readers who castigated him, he said on his blog Friday.

And for expressing his approval of a hypothetical prenatal intervention to change a baby’s sexual orientation, he was verbally attacked by gay-rights advocates. Some of them likened him to the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele for seeming to advocate the manipulation of nature to “basically wipe out gay people,” said Wayne R. Besen, founder of Truth Wins Out, a group that fights efforts to convert gays to heterosexuality.

Since then, ex-gay ministry leader (and member) Stephen Bennett has come to Mohler’s defense, issuing the following statement:

“The reason Mohler’s blog post drew so much media attention was the premise that the reader could walk away with: if someone is born a certain way, who are we to ‘play God’ and change nature?

Before repeating the necessary statement of faith (and redemption):

“The FACT is homosexuality – having NO scientific, biological basis whatsoever – IS ALREADY a changeable trait WITHOUT a patch or injection, one that I have personally received 14 years ago: Jesus Christ.

“No matter the future’s findings or lack thereof, homosexuality is, was and always will be ‘sin’ in God’s eyes – an immoral, sexually behavior based lifestyle that should and can be changed.

Former Operation Rescue head, and current Washington evangelical lobbyist Rev. Rob Schenk, tread a similarly fine line between admitting the possibility of biological cause (and ergo the possibility of a “cure”), while thanking Mohler for beginning an ethics conversation anti-gay Christian activists need to have now, before their “homosexual lifestyle choice” arguments are debunked by new research:

There will never be a quick, easy, strictly physical “cure” for sexual disorders and dysfunctions, hetero or homo. I’m convinced we will learn that spiritual, psychological, relational, experiential and environmental factors all combine with biological factors to produce certain human sexual proclivities and predilections–as is no doubt true of ALL human behaviors. Ultimately, of course, such dysfunctions are linked to the Fall and our resulting sinful state and consequent alienation from God the Creator. The cure for that underlying cause has already appeared.

But Schenk too can see a role for the hormonal “fix”:

In the end it is intent that matters most. If our intent is to help a child develop normally and to enjoy a life designed by God for his or her happiness in service to the Lord and to His moral will–and there is a reasonable and demonstrable possibility of doing so with limited risk, then we should pursue it.

Inundated with hate-mail from his fellow Christians, Mohler himself quickly revised and clarified his position: that no matter its origin, sin is sin is sin:

Let’s get this straight — God’s condemnation of sin is not determined by science, but by God’s Word. The Bible could not be more clear — all forms of homosexual behavior are expressly condemned as sin. In so doing the Bible uses its strongest vocabulary and places this condemnation in the larger context of the Creator’s rightful expectation of our stewardship of the sexual gift. All manifestations of homosexuality are thus representations of human sinfulness and rebellion against God’s express will. Nothing can alter this fact, and no discovery in science or any other human endeavor can change God’s verdict.

So what does this have to do with polar bears? Probably precious little, but what strikes me is Mohler’s common resort in both debates to employing vague definitions of Christian stewardship: a concept that has itself provoked numerous internal skirmishes between evangelicals debating the extent to which the principle implies support for liberal-seeming environmentalism. In lambasting a few German animal rights activists who had criticized the zoo’s decision to hand-raise and bottle-feed a bear cub rejected by its mother, Mohler fell back on stewardship: God gave us animals to eat, wear, and enjoy watching in zoos. Therefore, we can intervene in nature if we want to, especially if it concerns an unmaternal mama-bear.

Now Mohler is similarly loose with his applications of the stewardship rule, citing sexual stewardship – that is, guarding God’s gift of sexuality – as containing not just brow-beating anti-gay sermons, but also potentially the prenatal, hormonal manipulation of a fetus so that it is less inclined to sin, and more ready to enjoy God’s plan for heterosexual fulfillment. Belatedly aware of how creepy and dystopian this sounds to outsiders (as well as near-blasphemous to his brethren), Mohler has tied the stewardship principle to human intervention with nature’s course with a cute, media-darling bear cub: as though interfering with nature as he has suggested need not be reminiscent of Brave New World so much as “Born Free“. And in fact “born free” is just the promise he’s making: freeing people of the potential to sin, as he defines it. Hopefully the hostile reception he’s encountered is a reminder not just of his own theology, which places great emphasis on free choice, but, among people less-inclined to God complexes, of the near-genocidal implications of promoting such a plan.

Kathryn Joyce, editor-at-large for The Revealer, is working on a book about Christians and reproductive rights. This article is cross-posted at Talk to Action.