Homosexuality and Dr. Dobson: What’s at Stake in American Christianity?
It is a staple of my visits to my native Germany to hear friends and family express bewilderment about the protracted controversies surrounding the legal acceptance of gay and lesbian love in the United States. So, I wonder often why American Christians seem obsessed with issues of same-sex love. I sit in the pews and listen to the specter of division in my church, the Episcopal Church, USA.
Given that we, gays and lesbians, are such a minority, and given that nowadays we don’t promulgate the overthrow of capitalism through boundaryless copulation, but that we simply desire participation in the bourgeois institution of marriage, I am befuddled. Are the schools in this county in such good shape that you have to worry about this? What about the state of medical care, human rights abuses, racism, fair labor practices, equal pay for women, and divorce rates? What about instilling a desire for the loving union with G-d through Jesus Christ, and the thirst to find divinity in prayer, meditation, and caritas? Why is the love between two women or two men (and the many shades in between) such an obsessive topic for American Christians?
This question demands an exercise of understanding—and more specifically an exercise of theological understanding. What is religiously at stake? My goal is not to convince religiously committed Christians to change their opinion. Rather, my goal is to make publicly available for broader discussion a position that for many secular people seems utterly alien. As such I wish to translate the religious concerns that I see embedded in texts of conservative Christians. By translating them, I want also to raise the question of whether these theological concerns can be conceptualized and lived in alternate ways. For those of us who are theologically minded, we will see how normative and ideal sexuality is used to express theological tropes. This is an important lesson: for a religious person, the body is never private. The body and how we live sexually are immediately of symbolic importance, and it is the field of experience in which we realize our religious lives. Furthermore, I want to show that we are dealing with an American conversation and with a conversation that has deep resonances between a specific religious discourse and popular American mythologies about masculinity. Why is conservative evangelical discourse about homosexuality so effective? Because it is embedded in American constructions of masculinity, and because it presents a powerful body-theology for the Christian traveler.
Let me begin with a distinction from the field of ethics: the difference between ideal norms and practical norms. We adapt to the constraints of reallife situations and negotiate the meaning and importance of what we consider an ethical ideal. Thus, many Christians find practical compromises in their dealings with their homosexual friends and family members. I am reminded of the Catholic family who invites their lesbian daughter, her life partner, and their children to all family festivities while embracing, in principle, the idea that homosexuality is an unnatural abomination. Whence, however, the need to uphold the “ideal norm” that homosexuality is a sin? What is this about?
First, let me say what this is not about. For starters it is not about the Bible. The sociologist Sally Gallagher, in an examination of evangelical attitudes toward feminism, concludes, “Beliefs about the Bible, on the other hand, have no significant statistical effects on attitudes toward feminism. Neither thinking that the Bible should be interpreted word for word nor the idea that the Bible provides the most important source of knowing how God wants you to live has any independent effect on whether feminism is seen as presenting a competing and hostile set of beliefs and values.”1 Belief in biblical inerrancy alone does not predict whether someone will consider feminism as a threat. Independent of religious affiliation, the amount of hours spent consuming Christian evangelical radio or television serves on the other hand as a strong indicator for aversion to feminism.
I assume that this is true for attitudes toward homosexuality. The lived context—the embeddedness in a politico-religious context—establishes the frame of reference according to which religious texts assume their normativity. The general web of plausibilities about gender, power dynamics, sociological position, and so on establishes expectations according to which texts are considered to be normative (or negotiable).
Secondly, it is not about women. When asked who comes to mind when they think about a homosexual person, most respondents name a male figure. This echoes the somewhat peculiar use of language of Dr. Dobson, the founder and chairperson emeritus of the influential Christian media organization Focus on the Family. Mostly, when he talks about homosexuality, he seems to imagine homosexual men. Women are only an afterthought.
If maintaining the ideal norm that “homosexuality is a sin” is not about the Bible and it is not about women, what is it about? Apparently, it is about some form of threat to the American order and structure of the family—a threat that affects men first and naturally. So what is at stake in the maintenance of the ideal norm proscribing homosexual love?
Looking into the Bible would not help, as we have seen. But we can look into the places where evangelical media organizations produce the structures of plausibility that maintain the ideal norms against same-sex love.
Learning from Dr. Dobson
In the world created by the texts of Focus on the Family, “homosexuality” plays an important role in creating an ideal manhood. We will first meet the “hypermale homosexual” and then the “hypo-male” homosexual and then ask what they contribute to the construction of ideal masculinity.
One of the many examples of the rhetorical construction of homosexuality in Focus on the Family’s literature is Linda Harvey’s “A Checklist to Assess Your School’s Risk for Encouraging Homosexuality.”2 Homosexuality is described as “dangerous” and “risky” behavior and is linked to the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Schools that support gay-straight alliance group meetings become “breeding grounds” for homosexuality, and “students’ lives and welfare are put at extreme risk.” Homosexuality is “dangerous, unhealthy” behavior. By contrast, a school resisting the homosexual agenda “maintains high health standards.”
Homosexuality is associated not only with health risks but, moreover, with predatory sexuality targeting children and youths. “Sexual promiscuity is undoubtedly rising among students and teachers, and academics are likely to be suffering” at a school where the homosexual agenda is far advanced, states Linda Harvey’s above mentioned checklist. Students and teachers wanting to engage in homosexual behavior will feel encouraged to do so at those schools. A gay-straight alliance “club provides a venue where students curious about … [homosexual] behavior, but who have not yet engaged in it, can readily meet students and even adult advisors to begin homosexual relationships — with school support!”
A discussion of gay “special rights” quotes Matt Staver, the president of the Liberty Counsel, as saying: “he predicted that they won’t stop until their lifestyle is totally accepted by society.”3 The next sentence reads: “The ultimate agenda is to dominate—not to have tolerance, but to dominate—the worldview, and that worldview is homosexuality.” In general, the rhetoric of Focus on the Family presents us with a cluster of associations in which gays are linked to disease, violence, and a predatory sexuality.
It seems as if these predatory gays are fulfilling the dominant ideal of a violent masculinity. Indeed, Dr. Dobson writes that men are “designed” to “value change, opportunity, risk, speculation and adventure” and “boys are designed to be more assertive, audacious and excitable than girls.” A real boy has the tendency to risk life and limbs and “harasses grumpy dogs… . He loves to throw rocks, play with fire, and shatter glass. He also gets great pleasure out of irritating … other children. As he gets older, he is drawn to everything dangerous. At around six- teen, he and his buddies begin driving around town like kamikaze pilots on sake. It is a wonder any of them survive.”4 In Dobson’s anthropology, boys and men are chemically hardwired to be risk takers and to be assertive and aggressive.
For Dobson, and in the world of the Focus on the Family texts, the assertiveness of males and the passivity of females are not only biologically given but also theologically mandated. The man is the head, the provider, and the guiding force of the family. Given this gender symbolism, we can see that the threatening force of unbounded sexuality that endangers the American family is, in fact, a masculine sexuality. In the world evoked by the Focus on the Family texts, the image of the embattled Christian family at the frontiers of civilization is co-produced with the wild hypermale homosexual whose normative sexual and physical masculine aggression and risk-taking has gone wild.5
The Hypo-Male Gay
Side by side with the narrative of the hyper-male predator-queer threatening the pure childlike underdog Christians, we find the narrative of the hypo-male gay male. In Bringing Up Boys, Dobson begins his chapter on homosexuality with a letter by a gender-confused thirteen year-old boy: “All through my [(very short) life] I have acted and looked much more like a girl than a boy. When I was little, I would always wear finger nail polish, dresses, and the sort. I also had an older cousin who would take us (little cousins) into his room and show us his genitals. I’m afraid I have a little sodomy in me.”6
Dobson writes in this context that homosexuality is a “sexual identity disorder” related to “cross-gender behavior.” In Dobson’s world, great care has to be invested so that the affected boys and girls learn the proper gender behavior and become comfortable with their sexual identity. Dobson concludes that “masculinity is an achievement.”7 Failure to achieve masculinity, or “nonmasculinity,” is characterized by lack of athleticism, passivity, lack of aggressiveness, and by disinterest in “rough and tumble play.”8
In general, within the context of the narrative of coming out of homosexuality, we encounter over and over again the compassionate plea to understand the confusion that homosexuals are going through due to their sexual identity disorder. The goal is to allow the homosexual to identify with and embrace his or her biologically given and divinely assigned sexual role. Men have to become comfortable being men and identifying with male role models, while women have to become comfortable being women. As we can read in the testimony of Andrew Comiskey, the president of Desert Stream, “As I continued to grow in my security as a man among other men, I began to feel and think differently towards women. God began to release my heterosexual desires.”9
An Embodied Theology of Grace
On the background of Focus on the Family’s gender system, we can see that the rhetorical construction of homosexuality produces an image of gayness both as feminine and as over-masculine. What is the link between these “homosexualities” and the production of normative masculinities?
The rhetorical construction of both homosexualities is located within the rhetorical production of normative masculinity. In this reading, both constructions of homosexuality present the feared positions into which normative Christian manhood could devolve. The over-aggressive homosexual is in rebellion against the divine will and natural order. Reciting this image of chaotic maleness over and over again thus represents the normative vision of submissiveness. The gay hypo-male presents the opposite danger for the normative Christian male. Normative Christian masculinity has to embrace the natural and divinely ordained aggressiveness and assertiveness. Homosexual males are therefore construed as the Scylla and Charybdis between which the normative male Christian traveler has to find his way.
Interestingly, the rhetorical constructions of homosexualities in the world of Focus on the Family’s texts exhibit a clear and deep uneasiness about the foundations of sex and sexual behavior. On the one hand, boys are boys, and they are hardwired to assume their natural and God-given roles. “The sexes were carefully designed by the Creator to balance one another’s weakness and meet one another’s needs.”10 As we have already seen, Dobson explicitly states that “what it means to be masculine” and why “boys are a breed apart” is determined by “testosterone, serotonin and the amygdales.”11 On the other hand, “masculinity is an achievement” and growing up straight takes work.12 Men should not be “feminized, emasculated, and wimpified [sic].”13 On the one hand, less than 3 percent of the population is homosexual, according to Focus on the Family. On the other hand, the threat to our boys is great. Children can be seduced and contaminated by homosexuals.
If what it means to be a man is biologically determined, and if male and heterosexual desire and behavior are hardwired into our bodies, then there should be little room for achieving masculinity, nor should there be room for feminizing men or for luring them into homosexuality. Dobson writes that the feminist agenda of “wimpifying” men will never succeed because “it contradicts masculine nature.”14 Instead of a logical conundrum, I understand these conflicting messages as expressing a deep uneasiness about the foundations of sexuality and our biological nature.
To further this line of analysis, let me finally look into some more theological references to our sexual nature in the texts of Focus on the Family. In connection with homosexual desires we find nature fallen into Godless chaos—hence the allusions to paganism and chaotic lives and sexualities in the construction of both feminism and homosexuality. The values that sustain the family “are continually exposed to the wrath of hell itself.”15 Theologically speaking, the so-called homosexual and feminist agendas are associated with a fundamental corruption of nature. In the construction of these homosexual or feminist movements we see nature as fundamentally corrupted by rebellion and sin.
This threat to God’s natural order, however, reveals at the same time the instability of this very order of things—or the potential for this order to be thrown into chaos by forces of sin and evil. Behind the appearance of a stable order of nature we find a world threatened to disintegrate into chaos at every step. The texts of Focus on the Family construct a double vision of nature: there is nature corrupted and there is nature redeemed. In the textual struggles surrounding both homosexualities, we see nature as cast in the image of sin or nature as created by God. Given this double vision, the Christian life appears as a passage from one form of nature to the other.
It is therefore not surprising to find this double vision of nature at another place in the world of Focus on the Family (a place which does not deal with homosexuality at all)—namely, in Heather Jamieson’s article “Pursuing Holiness in Marriage.” She describes marriage as a struggle for forgiveness and for holiness. “Holiness means that we are to become different from our natures, which have nursed us and comforted us. Our perception of holiness may be intimidating or fuzzy at first. But in time our minds will be renewed with the Truth, which gives us clear perception and a reflection of God’s glory.”16 Jamieson names the different ways in which her own nature and her natural desires hinder holiness and a fulfilling life of marriage. Jamieson concludes that holiness “goes against our flesh. It is in opposition to our natures.”17 This natural resistance to holiness is grounded in our resistance to Jesus’ holiness. To overcome this natural resistance Jamieson advises to “rest in Jesus.”18 She continues, “Adore Him for yourself. When you do, you will soon find that those bull’s-eyes you painted grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace. You will also find that reclaiming intimacy in your marriage is not only possible—it is natural.”19
Resting in Jesus suddenly brings to light a different experience of nature in line with holiness. Nature corrupted becomes nature redeemed through passivity, that is, through resting in Jesus, adoring Jesus, and trusting Jesus to fulfill my needs.
What does all this mean for the production of normative masculinity? The predatory queer homosexual hypermale represents, in the world of Focus on the Family, nature corrupted by sin. More importantly, this homosexual character represents nature refusing redemption. The gender-instability gay, on the other hand, represents nature redeemable and nature redeemed. In his turn to Jesus, the feminized gay finds redemption of his nature. If the feminized homosexual actively embraces Jesus and passively “rests in Jesus,” then Jesus will restore his masculinity.
In this body theology of natural redemption we find an intricate play of agency (a play not unfamiliar to students of Christian theology). On the one hand, the Christian male has to rest in Jesus or submit to the power of God. This submission to other-power itself, on the other hand, is an activity: Submission means to submit yourself. We thus see how this tension between activity and passivity is inherent in the mode of bodily producing normative Christian masculinity. None of this is made explicit. Instead of conceptual theology, we can glean an embodied theology from the texts of Focus on the Family. Folded into the production of an ever-instable normative masculinity is, in other words, a potent discourse on nature and grace.
1. Sally K. Gallagher, “Where Are the Antifeminist Evangelicals? Evangelical Identity, Subcultural Location, and Attitudes toward Feminism.” Gender and Society 18, no. 4 (2004): 468.
2. Linda Harvey, “A Checklist to Assess Your School’s Risk for Encouraging Homosexuality,” (2002), retrieved on March 20, 2003, from http://www. family.org/cforum/tempforum/A0015282.html. Note that this article is not accessible anymore, but it can be found through the following link of the “Web Archive,” http://web.archive.org/ web/20021020141332/www.family.org/cforum/ tempforum/A0015282.html.
3. Steve Jordahl, “New Hate Crime States Released” in Family News, (2002), retrieved on July 9, 2003, from http://www.family.org/cforum/fnif/news/a0023536. html.
4. James Dobson, Bringing Up Boys (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 2001), pp. 27, 2, 4.
5. These findings echo Didi Herman’s readings of the movie The Gay Agenda. According to Herman, for the Christian Right gay desires embody in this movie a “hyper-masculinity, a maleness so extreme it literally (ex)implodes.” Didi Herman, The Anti-Gay Agenda, Orthodox Vision and the Christian Right (Chicago, Ill.: Chicago Univ. Press, 1997), p. 87.
6. Dobson, Bringing Up Boys, p. 113. This letter talks about how the boy tried to “suck [his] own penis,” lusts at himself “wearing skimpy underwear,” and enjoys the “sexual sensation” when he wiggles his “body rapidly, making [his] genitals bounce up and down.” The reader wonders why Dobson prints this piece in detail.
7. Ibid., 118.
8. Ibid., p. 119. Dobson quotes here the psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, who is also a contributor to Focus on the Family’s websites. Cf., Joseph Nicolosi, “Is This Really Good for Kids?” in Teachers in Focus, (2000), retrieved on July 9, 2003, from http://www.family.org/cforum/teachersmag/features/a0013018. html.
9. Desert Stream is one of the “resources” linked to by Focus on the Family as providing “Help for the Homosexual,” (CitizenLink, 1999), 24.
10. Dobson, Bringing Up Boys, p. 27.
11. Ibid., p. 26.
12. Ibid., p. 22. Here Dobson quotes Nicolosi.
13. Ibid., p. 26.
14. Ibid., pp. 26-27.
16. Heather Jamison, “Pursuing Holiness in Marriage (Part 3 of 3),” Husbands and Wives: Sex and Romance, (2003), paragraph 7. Retrieved on July 9, 2003, from http://www.family.org/married/romance/a0019336.cfm
17. Ibid., paragraph 11.
18. Ibid., paragraph 25.
19. Ibid., paragraph 26. Italics mine.
Ludger Viefhues-Bailey is Assistant Professor in Religious Studies and in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University. He is the author of Beyond the Philosophers’s Fear: A Cavellian Reading of Gender, Sexuality and Religious Origins in Modern Skepticism (Ashgate, forthcoming). Currently, he is working on a new book entitled Ethics of Bordering: Philosophy and Religious Diversity in an Age of Globalization.