This is the second installment of a six-part series (read part one here), a first for Church and Culture, on what is arguably the most pressing and divisive moral issue which faces our culture. Rather than follow our normal Monday/Thursday postings, these will be posted every day for six straight days.
A few housekeeping matters:
*Feel free to engage each post individually, but please realize it’s a six-part series.
*As always, keep all comments civil. Anything lacking in civility will be removed.
*Though a six-part series, I am under no illusions that this is a comprehensive treatment of such a very complex subject.
*If you are just joining this conversation, you would be well-served to read the other blogs.
I can’t think of any other change in public opinion as swift as the one we’ve seen regarding homosexuality. It has been breathtaking.
What once was in a closet is now a parade.
What once was whispered behind backs in derision is now the focus of sitcoms.
What once was publicly denounced is now deemed by many as essential to embrace.
Three things have fueled this rapid cultural acceptance:
First, there is the treatment of homosexuality in the media. One of the great powers of the media is its ability to normalize a behavior, attitude or belief. The heart of this power is how it makes us “feel.” When you can get someone to feel a certain way, you can lead them to a certain belief through those feelings.
An example I once offered in one of my books had to do with the death of Princess Diana. In an ABC news story on her death, Andrew Morton said that Diana's death was "one of the most awful tragedies of the late 20th century, if not the greatest...In her death something inside us had died...People are grieving for lost hopes, lost dreams, lost ambitions."
That's a very emotional assessment. When coupled with continual scenes of grief and crying, we were led to feel that this was a loss of historic proportions.
Yet this simply wasn’t the case.
Nothing against Diana, much less those who grieved her passing, but not only was her death far from the greatest tragedy that had occurred to the world over the previous fifty years - eclipsing such things as Vietnam, Chernobyl, Tiananmen Square, or the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger - but even when compared to the loss of other figures, such as Mother Teresa who died the same week, she lived a life of very little significance. As has been quipped on more than one occasion, she was mostly famous for being famous.
Yet according to the media, her life greatly overshadowed Mother Teresa's, largely because we were made to feel that way. So much so that the talk was not that Mother Teresa would be made a saint, but that Princess Diana would.
There are many other ways that the media can lead us how to feel. One of the most powerful is through repetition, by putting certain alternate choices or lifestyles before us over and over again until we have become de-sensitized to such decisions and accept those choices and lifestyles as normal. If the repetitive behavior is exhibited through a character that is particularly likable, the influence is all the more great.
With homosexuality, this has been achieved through such sitcoms as Ellen, Will and Grace, and more recently, Modern Family.
As George Lucas, one of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood history, once said, "for better or worse...films and television tell us the way we conduct our lives, what is right and wrong."
With homosexuality, the verdict has certainly been in for some time; as a result, culture has followed suit.
A second reason for the rapid cultural change has been a very active and organized movement to denounce and demonize anything opposing homosexuality in the name of tolerance and even civil rights. It is not simply a matter of wanting the freedom to openly pursue a homosexual lifestyle, but the demand that any denunciation of such a lifestyle be forbidden from culture.
This is such a vast area to explore that I will simply give a single, but very recent, example as a window into this dynamic. And please note, this isn’t an example that in any way is meant to be political; it just happens to come from our current political election season.
It begins with psychology.
There is a clear divide between the American Psychological Association and the American Association of Christian Counselors on what is known as “reparative therapy,” or so-called gay-to-straight counseling.
The APA, until 1973, listed homosexuality as one of its official mental disorders. Now they say that “efforts to change sexual orientation are unlikely to be successful and involve some risk of harm.” Further, there is enormous anger from the homosexual community toward any type of reparative therapy, as it intimates there is something inherently wrong with the homosexual lifestyle.
The AACC, which has 50,000 members, supports reparative therapy “on biblical, ethical and legal grounds” for patients “with a genuine desire to be set free of homosexual attractions.” The goal is “heterosexual relations and marriage or life-long sexual celibacy.”
Presidential hopeful Michelle Bachman’s husband runs a Christian counseling center. Last month, Truth Wins Out (a national nonprofit group dedicated to fighting “anti-gay religious extremism”) sought out former patients of Dr. Bachmann’s clinic to see how they were treated. The group also sent its communications director, John Becker, who is gay, to the clinic to pose as a patient seeking to become heterosexual. He recorded his conversation with a therapist on two hidden cameras and an audio device.
The media went into a feeding frenzy. The Today Show on NBC ran a report that made it sound like Bachmann’s husband had committed a scandalous act by possibly suggesting homosexuality could be treated. The New York Times ran the headline, “Christian Counseling By Hopeful’s Spouse Raises Questions.”
So what, exactly, was discovered?
Timothy Wiertzema, a licensed marriage and family therapist, said he would be willing to work with Mr. Becker but did not aggressively press him to change his sexuality. When asked about the possibility of “getting rid of it completely,” Mr. Wiertzema replied that some people had, but that for others homosexuality simply “becomes manageable.”
Verdict from Truth Wins Out? “What we found was reasonably professional with a skewed point of view toward homosexuality being a negative and no offering of hope that it is something positive."
Translation: No matter how well-handled, what will not be tolerated is any sense that homosexuality as a lifestyle is wrong. What Bachmann did wrong was little more than to suggest homosexuality as a lifestyle was less than ideal, or at least worthy of treatment if someone so wishes.
“Either you’re with them or you’re a hater,” said Maggie Gallagher, the president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, of gay rights advocates. “They’re trying to exclude you from the public square.”
Third, we have seen very specific and targeted approaches to attempt to appeal to popular sensibility and our views on morality. It began with a focus was on the “rights” of the individual, in an attempt to cast the acceptance of homosexuality in the same way as equality for women and the civil rights movement of the sixties.
When that approach seemed to achieve all it could, the tactic then became lifting up the love and commitment which exists between homosexual couples. Regardless of the approach, the tactic is the same and quite ironic: making the opposition to homosexuality, not homosexuality itself, what is immoral.
“How can people be against love and commitment?”
It’s a deft move.
And it’s working. Or should I say, “And it’s worked.”
New York just became the sixth and largest state to legalize gay marriage; California recently passed a bill requiring the contributions of gay heroes and role models in history classes and textbooks; and for the first time, a majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage.
So complete has the culture-shift taken place that many religious leaders are advocating dropping any and all public opposition to things such as gay marriage in order to put their efforts into religious freedom. In other words, to make sure that any and all legislation protect those who oppose gay marriage from being persecuted and prosecuted for their convictions.
As mentioned, the shift in our culture - in essentially less than a single generation - is staggering.
James Emery White
James Emery White, Serious Times (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press).
George Lucas quote from Michael Medved, Hollywood vs. America(New York: HarperCollins).
“A Tipping Point for Gay Marriage?,” April 30, 2011, Los Angeles Times. Read online.
Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Christian Counseling by Hopeful’s Spouse Prompts Questions,” July 16, 2011, New York Times. Read online.
“Assembly passes bill to require contributions of gays in textbooks”, July 6, 2011, Los Angeles Times. Read online.
“A first: Majority of Americans now supports same-sex marriage, Gallup finds,” May 20, 2011, Los Angeles Times. Read online.
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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