The Obscuring of Orthodoxy (or, When Half-Truths Reign Supreme)

A reflection by Sarah

One day eleven years ago when I was a university freshman, some Christian friends and I decided to spend a Friday evening listening to a presentation about faith and human sexuality. We pooled our money for gasoline, piled into someone’s mother’s minivan, and began the two-hour drive to the church hosting the event. All my friends had heard fantastic reviews of the speaker. One had heard his presentation before and considered it near perfection, insofar as that’s possible for a human to achieve. She built up his image as nothing short of a living saint, and though I was skeptical of the high praises I found myself intrigued and ready to hear the message with an open mind and heart.

That evening, I sat in a folding chair on the floor of the parish school’s gymnasium, friends at my side, surrounded by two-hundred other young adults and teens. The speaker implored us to listen for the gentle voice of the Holy Spirit as true, theologically orthodox teaching was proclaimed. He was quite charismatic and used simple metaphors. He explained that God’s plan for human sexuality exists because of the great love our Creator has for us, and that using sexuality as God intended brings an exquisite sense of inner freedom and peace. Enamored gazes emerged from nearly all the girls when he posited that women have a special place in God’s plan, and a woman’s womb is like a tabernacle in that it bears new life into the world. His words painted a romantic landscape of what life looks like when one both believes in and practices a traditional sexual ethic, stating that settling for anything else is like voluntarily drinking contaminated water while having access to a fresh natural spring.

Then, the topic turned to homosexuality…and when it did, the speaker’s mannerisms changed entirely. He proclaimed boldly that homosexuals are confused people who accept comfortable lies instead of the truth, are incapable of seeing their true identities in Christ, and should not be admitted to the sacraments under any circumstances short of repentance for their ungodly identities. He rattled off a litany of statistics and claims that homosexual people are more likely to be pedophiles than heterosexual people, everyone experiencing same-sex attraction was molested during childhood, people choose and can change their sexual orientations, and those in same-sex relationships are unfit parents. At that point, I tuned out completely. “If this is what a traditional sexual ethic means,” I told myself, “I want nothing to do with it. This is nothing but hatred and stereotyping.”

Roll the video of my life forward a decade, and things look quite differently than my nineteen-year-old self imagined they would. But I think back on that presentation once every few months when I see conservative religious news headlines like, “Priest Speaks the Truth in Love at School Assembly; Parents Outraged” and “Pastor Persecuted for Upholding Biblical Teaching at Youth Convention.” In each of these articles the story gets pitched as an injustice: an innocent Christian who is doing nothing more than speaking the teachings of his or her faith gets the shaft because of liberal infidels who want to change the Church. Without fail, every internet combox fills with inane rants of, “We’re living in the last days. It’s time to stand up for morals, values, and the TRUTH of Church teaching!” and oppositely, “The homophobic, misogynistic ‘Church’ is a crumbling institution, and I can’t wait to watch it topple.” Then, I research the details of the stories, I read the conversations about them, and I think back to nearly every experience I’ve had with a speaker promoting a traditional sexual ethic. Why? Because in my estimation, the same problem exists among most conservative Christian presentations on human sexuality: questionable claims, flawed statistics, citations of studies employing faulty methodologies, demonizing stereotypes, a wee bit of valuable catechesis thrown in for good measure…and all of it presented under the banner of theological orthodoxy.

Faith and sexuality speakers claiming theological orthodoxy have a tough task ahead of them. They have set out to sell an unpopular product to a market where the majority of consumers are uninterested. There’s nothing easy about explaining the traditional Christian position on human sexuality to a generation of young people who have likely had far more exposure to an “anything goes” sexual ethic. I appreciate the difficulty of this task, and as a celibate LGBT Christian I believe it is important to discuss openly the reasons that some LGBT people choose celibacy, and the Church teachings that might inspire a person to make this decision. Some speakers–perhaps the minority–do this very well. But most of the time, I’m sorely disappointed in the messages I hear at these presentations with young people as their target audiences. Most of the time, at least in my experience, they’re not simply sharing the teachings of their faith. Intentionally or not, many of them offer misleading representations of homosexuality and intertwine the stereotypes with orthodox Christian doctrine such that most attendees will likely have trouble seeing the difference.

At various chastity and sexuality talks I’ve attended since my teen years, I’ve heard it stated as fact that people gay people choose to be gay, no one is born gay, and homosexuality is a psychological disorder. In reality, there are no conclusive scientific answers about the origin of a person’s sexual orientation, but several studies suggest that both genetic and non-genetic biological factors play a role. And according to the American Psychological Association homosexuality is not a psychological disorder, and most people have no (or little) choice regarding their own sexual orientations.

I’ve also heard speakers pronounce as fact that childhood sexual abuse is an automatic ticket to same-sex attraction as a teen or adult, and that gay men pose a danger to children because of their sexually deviant tendencies. In reality, there is little difference between the numbers of gay/lesbian and straight people who have survived sexual trauma, and gay men are no more likely than straight men to abuse children.

Many a Christian sexuality presentation I’ve attended has posited that we know as fact how terribly underdeveloped, unhappy, and abnormal children turn out when raised by same-sex parents. In reality, no study employing proper methodology has ever come to this conclusion. One reputable longitudinal study has indicated that children raised by same-sex parents thrive at even higher levels than children raised by opposite-sex parents.

Frequently I have heard speakers express as fact that gay men and lesbians have significantly shorter lifespans than heterosexual people. In reality, the study that reached this conclusion was conducted using flawed methodology.

And most harmfully, nearly every Christian sexuality speaker I’ve encountered has preached as fact that gay men and lesbians can change their sexual orientations by undergoing therapy, attending support groups, and praying. In reality, every reputable psychology and mental health organization in the United States has rejected and spoken out against reparative therapy. People who have endured abuses because of reparative therapy have experienced depression and anxiety as a result. Some have attempted or successfully completed suicide.

Why are all these half-truths and outright falsehoods being presented alongside a traditional sexual ethic as though they are not only factually verifiable, but also an integral part of Christian teaching? Why are we okay knowing that there are young people who leave human sexuality talks with, “The Church is against being gay, and being gay is bad for you and others” as their main takeaways? As I’ve raised these questions since making my own commitment to celibacy, I’ve been met with three types of responses.

First, there’s what I call the purity at any price” response. This response usually comes from parents, pastors, and youth ministers who are absolutely committed to ensuring that their children and teens practice a traditional sexual ethic. These folks want what they perceive as best for the young people in their lives, and are willing to do anything to give them the tools for making good decisions aligned with Christian teaching. The “purity at any price” response goes something like, “There’s nothing wrong with the information in these speeches because it keeps my kid from making big mistakes. She won’t try something if she’s terrified of the potential consequences. As far as I’m concerned, tell her anything that will prevent her from having a child out of wedlock or turning out a lesbian.”

Second, there’s the “not unorthodox” response. I’ve heard this one most often from priests, pastors, and other purveyors of “what the Church/a particular denomination really teaches.” It comes from people who are ready to defend the Church against all false teachings, who are especially concerned with conveying correct information so long as it’s about theology. The “not unorthodox” response asserts that the primary responsibility of Christian sexuality speakers is to assure that doctrine is presented accurately, and no claim contradicts any orthodox teaching. Responders of this type have said to me, “The presenter taught correctly that the Church cannot accept homosexual acts. The other claims and statistics they used are from actual studies, and they only added to the main point. What’s the problem?”

The third is the “caricature” response, an ad hominem where the person who hears my question retorts that I’ve not given a fair assessment of the situation. This response typically involves multiple jabs at my credibility and sounds something like, “You’ve imagined a version of what’s going on here that suits your own liberal, lesbian agenda. What you describe is nothing like what young people are being taught about Christian morality. Clearly, you have an axe to grind. I’ll bet you don’t practice a traditional sexual ethic yourself.”

The very existence of these responses makes me angry. Providing questionable claims and flawed statistics about homosexuality in order to keep young people away from the “gay lifestyle” is dishonest and totally inexcusable. Finding and using the fullest, most correct account of facts possible–not just those that align with your thesis–is a basic skill that high school and college students learn when writing research papers. Why aren’t we holding these speakers accountable for the information they are presenting as true? And to the person who offers the “caricature” response, I realize there is nothing I can do or say on my own behalf to change your assumptions about me or my motives. I challenge you to attend a talk on human sexuality from a Christian perspective that’s aimed at teenagers and young college students. Stay afterward and chat with a handful of attendees under the age of 24. See how many of them can tell you what it means to believe in a traditional sexual ethic and what they learned from the speaker about LGBT persons. Ask them why they (or other people they know) embrace a traditional Christian position on same-sex sexual activity.

When some of these kids eventually see through the smoke and mirrors and know they are being told half-truths and outright lies, many will feel betrayed. If my own personal experience is any indication, some will take years to realize that practicing a traditional sexual ethic does not require believing that the LGBT community is a bunch of mentally ill criminals who have chosen to defy the Word of God. Some may be so wounded that they will never be able to consider the possibility that orthodoxy ≠ hatred. Conservative Christianity on the whole has failed to teach a traditional sexual ethic without slandering LGBT people in the process, and has failed to acknowledge us as humans with inherent dignity, created in the image and likeness of God. And that, brothers and sisters, is absolutely shameful. Anyone who orders prime rib at the best restaurant in town would be appalled to see it served on a platter with greasy McDonald’s french fries. If we truly believe that the Church is the best place to receive sound formation, why aren’t we raising hell when we see sacred doctrine being served up with a side of falsehood and fear-mongering? It’s time to hold Christian speakers accountable for peddling half-truths about biology, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. It’s time to bring an end to the obscuring of orthodoxy.

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19 thoughts on “The Obscuring of Orthodoxy (or, When Half-Truths Reign Supreme)

  1. You say in paragraph 6 that “several studies suggest that biology and environmental factors play a role” (in the origin of a person’s sexual orientation).

    In fact, there is a lot of evidence for some effect from both genetic and prenatal non-genetic environmental influences (both of which I would consider “biology”), but there is no good evidence that anything that happens after a child is born has any impact on sexual orientation.

    Your sentence could be mis-read to suggest that it’s a combination of nature and nurture, but according to the best current scientific understanding, that’s not true — nurture plays no role, as far as scientists can tell.

    It might be more accurate to say “both genetic and non-genetic biological factors play a role.”

    • Hi Jonathan. I can see where that might be unclear. Thanks for calling that to my attention. I’ll modify the sentence. -Sarah

  2. Sarah, I appreciate you telling this story. I have often wondered why Christian traditionalist have relied so heavily on statistics and stereotyping rather than the simplicity of the Gospel.

    • It’s a mystery to me, Kathy. It seems to me that a person who truly believes that their morality is rooted in the Gospels wouldn’t need to rely on false external information to strengthen the point. -Sarah

  3. I remember there was a huge hullabaloo recently about some nun who was silenced after doing a presentation on homosexuality to teens at a Catholic school, which the parents found offensive and complained about. The conservative Catholic media presented it as if she were “just laying out Catholic teaching” and was being persecuted by liberal fundamentalists. Three minutes on Google and I found out that her presentation had actually included a bunch of “information” from a Catholic Medical Association pamphlet endorsing NARTH-style junk science, and it was that which the parents by-and-large had objected to.

    • Yes, that’s one of the instances I had in mind when I wrote this. I heard the story and immediately thought back to my own experiences with these kinds of talks as a young person. Quite often I wonder if more people would reach a traditional position on sexual ethics as their own personal conclusion if it weren’t for the terrible ways the traditional position is presented. -Sarah

      • I’m not sure. At a minimum, if we subtracted the terrible presentations, the lies, and the junk science, “the world” would be more likely to see the traditional position as more of a benign eccentricity than a form of hate speech. Which would be preferable to what we have now.

        • Agreed. But I do know personally of at least a few other people who took years, as I did, before embracing a traditional sexual ethic because of the way it had been conveyed. -Sarah

          • My sexual ethic is still in process, and I think it’s a good thing to continue to reexamine ideas related to sexual ethics throughout my life as I gain new experiences and information. Where I am now is the result of trying my best to listen to God, and observing the results of how I’m living (or sometimes not living) into what I believe. For me, it has not been about deciding which argument I accept about the morality of same-sex sexual activity. It’s more about living each day as best I can in a way that draws me closer to God, and taking time to examine what prevents me from that. But I’ll be surprised if I still understand my sexual ethic in exactly the same way a I do now 10, 20, 30 years down the road. -Sarah

          • Thank you for your response! I honestly wasn’t sure if I would get one.
            I’m just trying to figure out right now what church I should belong to and at first I was looking at a perspective of churches that don’t list being gay as a sin or unnatural and even looking to see if there were some that were supportive of same sex relationships but by doing that I’ve limited myself immensely to the point I might not even like the few churches or agree with them on major doctrinal issues.
            So thank you for your thoughtful response.

    • Yes, and I remember the presentation also relied on a lot of “Mars and Venus” stereotypes for heterosexual relationships.

      What is less well known is that the school chaplain apologized, the (conservative) local bishop distanced himself from the presentation, the sister’s superiors (a conservative order) recalled her, and her university put her on sabbatical.

  4. Loved every line of this. Just a couple of days ago I sat through a conversation in which some crap science of the fear-mongering variety was discussed and accepted casually, and I’m still mad because I couldn’t think of anything useful to say. I am such a baby ally.

    It’s great to have some honest-to-goodness quality information to read. Thank you! It’s unfortunate that in contexts like the one I just mentioned, the APA wouldn’t be trusted if the Blessed Virgin appeared over headquarters and smiled her approval–still, if I can assimilate the stuff properly, maybe I can find a way to present it that will at least throw a little wrench in the nonsense machine.

    Your last paragraph was particularly arresting. Christians claim to hold human life and dignity sacred–that’s one of the things that holds me in the faith even when anger and agnostic tendencies set me at odds with all things church. That claim gets particular emphasis among traditional/conservative Catholics, which is a set in which I do a lot of running. It seems like an appropriate response to the LGBT community, in light of such a doctrine, would be protection for the abused, support for needs, and open hearts.

    Instead, we have political reactionaries and defensiveness. I used to be one of the defensive ones. Ignorant, too. My God. I’m so sorry.

    • It’s really unfortunate that the APA and other reputable organizations wouldn’t be trusted. I think part of this is that people have spent decades using questionable information to bolster claims about a traditional sexual ethic. And I find that very, very sad. I think you’re totally right about the connection to human life and dignity here. Why is it okay to stand by and watch LGBT people suffering abuses? Some would say that LGBT people don’t actually face the abuses we say we do, and others would say that it’s justifiable because the end result is making sure everyone is aware of traditional teaching on sexuality. Unfortunately, teachings that compel Christians to stand up against injustice get lost here. This hurts my heart. -Sarah

  5. “Frequently I have heard speakers express as fact that gay men and lesbians have significantly shorter lifespans than heterosexual people.”

    I’d like to push back against your (theoretical) rejection of these sorts of claims, just a little, because, I think, an openness to this sort of claim may actually make your position a little stronger. (Bear with me!)

    If we took the statement above, but replaced “gay men and lesbians” with “black people”, and “heterosexual people” with “white people”, we would have an indictment of racism. The same should be able to be true, in theory, about homosexuality. What is troubling is not so much the claim (though it may not be true), since it could be used to argue that we treat LGPTQ people unjustly, for instance: “This shows that gay men have shorter lives than heterosexual men. It seems that the cause is the added stress of living as a homosexual in a heterosexual society, and the adverse effects of stress on health.”, but that the effect is isolated from culture, and turned into an absolute statement about what it is to be gay; not what it is to be gay now.

    • Hi Matt. Good point. I’m open to any claim for which there is good evidence. The problem is that in these presentations to young people, it is presented as a demonstrable fact that simply being gay means you’re putting yourself at risk for dying young because of sexual sin. -Sarah

  6. Thanks for this article. The church thinks we can “change”. Yes, we can change, if and when God wants us to change. We fail to forget that the “queers” are not the only sinners. Not sinners because of our orientation but sinners none the less. just as every other saint is.
    May God richly bless you,
    Christina Crymsen

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