Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Haggard Story: Not Just Hypocrisy, But Lack of Self-Knowledge


The story of Ted Haggard's resignation from the Presidency of the National Association of Evangelicals and the leadership of the megachurch he founded reminds us that our political system and our cultural system have not yet caught up with a simple fact: there are a lot of gay and bisexual people in the United States.

Because in our country homosexuality has long been viewed as deviant and sinful, many of these people do not disclose their sexual orientation to others, while others are not even willing to admit it to themselves.

Instead, like Ted Haggard, they view their sexual orientation as a sin and a moral failing that they must constantly struggle against.

In fact, the very presence of these desires, which they conceptualize as sinful urgings, confirms in their mind how dangerous homosexuality is. Precisely because they possess these feelings, they know how close every human being is to sin. And therefore it becomes all the more important to denounce it, to fight it, and to prevent it from undermining the country.

If you start from the assumption that homosexuality is sinful, and you know that you have deep and powerful feelings of attraction to persons of the same sex, how can you not believe that the Devil himself is perpetually waiting outside your doorstep? How can you not fear that the country is on the verge of sliding into moral bankruptcy, for you are always on the brink yourself. And indeed, in Haggard's case, you have repeatedly fallen, and you can't stop falling.

Many progressives have never quite understood why the most vehement religious opponents of homosexuality view it as such a threat. I myself have always assumed that it is because religious opponents are devoted to the preservation of traditional gender roles, which sustain a male/female hierarchy. But the Ted Haggard story suggests a different reason-- at least for that segment of religious opponents who, like a significant proportion of the population generally, share same-sex or bisexual orientations and desires.

Viewed from Ted Haggard's perspective-- a man who, despite his shame and guilt, is attracted to other men-- gay marriage and the gay lifestyle really are a threat to heterosexual relationships and heterosexual marriage. That is because they are a threat to his heterosexual identity and his heterosexual marriage. He knows the Devil is always tracking him, waiting for him to slip up. That is because he conceptualizes his sexual desires as sin and as alienation from God, and not as the expressions of something that might actually become valuable to him if accepted them as part of himself. If Haggard accepted that he was bi-sexual or even gay, and that it was morally permissible to be either of these things, he would have to change his understandings of his own desires and what they mean. He would have to view himself and his relationship to God very differently. But he has not been able to accept these things, because he is closeted from himself. That is why he has been a vocal opponent of people he has a great deal in common with.

I don't know how many of the fiercest opponents of gay rights in the religious community have some same-sex desires. I only know that it makes perfect sense that among the very religious those with same-sex desires will be among the most vehement denouncers of gays. It is not simply hypocrisy-- it is also lack of self-knowledge.

The Haggard story is a story not only about Haggard, but about America itself. Our country has not yet accepted that it is morally ok to be gay or bi-sexual, even though America has millions of gay and bi-sexual people who are our friends, co-workers, and family members; moreover, we are a country with many gay and bi-sexual people who themselves won't accept that it is morally ok to be gay or bi-sexual. Therefore we as a nation hate ourselves, fear ourselves, fight ourselves and try to banish ourselves from the face of the earth. It should be obvious enough that such a strategy is doomed to failure, but the real tragedy is how long-- and at what cost in human suffering-- it will take us to recognize it.


Well said.

Sara Robinson at Orcinus made a point recently that fits well with this one (paraphrasing from memory): that the gays and lesbians that most of blue America knows are healthy, well-adapted and, well, basically just like the straights we know; whereas in red America, because of the cultural stigma and discrimination and internal homophobia they face, many gays and lesbians -- such as Haggard -- really are in far more morally dubious places. Which is to say, that it's more nearly true in red America to say that being gay/lesbian tracks with deviancy than it is to say so in blue America; and all they don't get is that it is their own bigotry that makes this true, rather than anything in the lives and souls of gay and lesbian Americans themselves.

Excellent. The only thing I would add is that this internal struggle could also explain their insistence that homosexuality can be easily transmitted via teachers, boy scouts, the media, etc. These ideas of easy transmission and irresistible temptation really don't make much sense unless you already have those feelings of attraction yourself.

It may also be that they're panicked by the slight twinges of attraction for the same sex that probably most people on the planet have. Kinsey was surprised that there were any "0"s or "6"s out there, although apparently there are.

This comment responds to the posting below ("Call Me Irresponsible"), which is not accepting comments. The posting below says, "In someways, Democrats who charge that the ad is racist are saying 'How dare the RNC insinuate the Ford DOESN'T discriminate.' The claim is that the ad would have been less racist if it had used an African-American model to say the tag line 'Call me.'" That is not fair to Democrats who make the charge. Their complaint is about the RNC's motivation: the RNC is claiming that Ford should discriminate, and that is what the Democrats are objecting to. If the RNC just happened to have portrayed a white woman, with no racist intent, then the Democrats presumably would not object, as the ad wouldn't be racist.

My mother is a fairly devout catholic, and believes homosexuality to be a sin... but she also believes in a forgiving god, and because she herself is so straight that she can't imagine what, say, another women might possibly see in her, she is pretty much completely unfazed by teh gay. She finds it fairly gross in concept, and doesn't want to think or talk about it, but votes very liberally on the subject moment mostly because she just can't imagine what all the fuss is about.

Good piece.

One added thought: Are fundamentalists who sense a homosexual drive in their makeup more likely to become active in the church? This might be a way to combat one's gay feelings every day, in a way that is less available if one chooses instead to be an accountant, say, or a truck driver.

Ted Haggard must have known he was attracted to men long before he chose to become an evangelist.

So I wonder if there is a higher percentage of closet cases among the fundamentalist leadership than among the general population.

Of course, the argument you make about sexuality could also be deployed to wage a "war" on the "war on some drugs"; another tragically divisive issue in Prozac Nation.

Part of the problem is the demand that we frame such behaviors with the vocabulary of morals and that anyone who has the courage to assert that the very use of moral terms obstructs our ability to effectively discuss the issues -- along with the attendant need to transform the institutional matrix which self-defeatingly attempts to condemn, repress and criminalize such behaviors -- is already lost in a maze of immoral thinking. Such is the insidious reach of contemporary authoritarianism in the US.


I'm not sure I would cast it as lack of self-knowledge, although I think you're right to see the presence of desires for someone of the same sex in a person with this world view as a profound threat to their identity, sense of self, marriage and family.

A couple of months ago, a review article in the NYT Book Review section (I don't have the reference) talked of two sexual world views in America today: the sacred and the natural.

To naturalists, sex is essentially an expression of our animal nature. No one type of sexual expression is right, although heterosexual sex is most frequent (for obvious evolutionary reasons). Morality and ethics are important (the right to consent is very strong, dominion over one's body is important), but one does not condemn another's sexual choices if different and sensitively expressed.

To sacralists, this is nonsense. God HAS ordained the role of sex in human life - in a loving, Christian marriage it is a source of joy and bonding. Outside of this framework, it is (in some cases literally) a tool of the devil.

It's interesting to track over time the types of sexual expression that are seen as legitimate to sacralists. I find Romance novels a first rate social barometer - they aren't all bought in the Blue states.

But I digress. Pastor Ted, and his congregation, have a deeply held world view which allows them to make sense of the challenges of life. He didn't, and doesn't, lack self knowledge. He frames it in a very different way than I would.

For what it's worth, his congregation, and others with that world view, absolutely will not see his actions as hypocrisy. They see themselves as battling the armies of Satan every day, just as our troops are battling terrorist armies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We do not morally condemn a soldier or marine for being killed in Ramadi or Fallujah by an IED. To the sacralist, falling into sin is something we all can do. Provided we repent and abjure the sin, salvation is still held out to us, along with the welcoming arms of the believing community.

So I'd be very surprised if this experience leads Pastor Ted, or others, to rethink their stance. They are more likely to see it as confirmation of the danger: if Satan is strong enough to cause Pastor Ted to fall into sin, how much more do they need to arm for battle.

Andrew, interesting view of that viewpoint. I think you're good at understanding how they got there; however, this leads to self-deception and other deception, to self-hatred and other-hatred, and above all to hypocrisy and condemning others for his sin. Not to mention oppression of gays and women too, especially those poor deluded wives.

Any belief system that leads so inevitably to self-hatred is going to cause the sin of deception. No way around it. (And I ought to know-- grew up Catholic. :) But deception doesn't seem to be a sin for them. Haggard condemns himself for wanting men, not for lying about it all this time. His congregation prays for him to be delivered from sexual desire, not from hypocrisy.

I remember having a discussion with a fundamentalist, around that "What would Jesus do" line, and tried to point out that Jesus had condemned greed and hypocrisy the most. And the fundamentalist just couldn't hear this-- after all, hypocrisy is a necessary defense mechanism if you are expected to deny what's natural. And I exclaimed in exasperation, "You think all sin has to do with sex, that nothing else is sinful!" And she was surprised, but replied that yes, that's what sin is.

And it made me realize that this worldview just is going to lead to self-hatred. Even perfectly vanilla heterosexuals will have to experience sexual desire, after all, and it is not likely always to be "appropriate", and that in itself for them is sin. And nothing else matters-- hence the fight against gay marriage, which Jesus probably wouldn't give two hoots about, and no fight against the war, which would likely have offended Jesus a lot.

This has very very little to do with religion.

Interesting. I agree largely with what you said. What you are referring to is what Freud called "reaction criticism."

One point to add - while you did not say this, I think it would be a caricature to suggest that all people of faith who oppose homosexuality do so because they fear they are gay. That kind of thinking is not only incorrect but prevents meaningful dialogue.

Will: you mean "reaction formation."

nola: you're right, much of Jesus' teaching was against greed and hypocrisy, something which seems to get very little play in the US (btw, I was raised as a British Catholic, but lapsed about 29 years ago).

I have no idea whatsoever what Jesus would have thought about gay marriage. Mark 10:1-12 tells us what he thought about divorce, which curiously enough seems to have had not a lot of impact on ballot initiatives in the US in the last few years.

As for the fundamentalist view leading to self-hatred, I'm not quite there. Fundamentalists (who overlap with, but aren't necessarily contiguous with the group I called sacralists) are not alone in defining away behavior they don't like in themselves. Cognitive dissonance is very powerful - it's likely there precisely to block out the kind of conflicts which might otherwise lead to self-hatred.

Many of these folks likely regard homosexuality and other "deviance" with abhorrence and disgust, while regarding their own actions as moral and natural. Occasional strayings, heterosexual or otherwise, don't change their own self-regard. As with your fundamentalist friend, self-examination may not be their strength.

I like what Andrew is adding, if I understand it correctly. What strikes me as significant is that the members of the congregation do not conclude that Pastor Ted is gay. The heterosexual men in the congregation, for example, apparently do not think to themselves, "You know, I'm not really tempted to have sex with other men at all, so why has a good man like Pastor Ted fallen into this particular sin?" That's a powerful belief system at work, and a lack of self-knowledge doesn't seem to quite get at what's going on.

Well, it's not just fundamentalists/sacralists.

See for a discussion of "black men who sleep with other men but do not consider themselves to be gay. These men live "on the down low," the "DL" for short".

We live in a society where the social construction of "gayness" is associated with weakness, sin, effeminacy, rampant promiscuity, liberalism, libertinism.... Pastor Ted is NOT weak, effeminate, liberal etc... therefore (construct syllogism here).

I think what I'm trying to say is that there's more at work than a failure by one group of people (religious conservatives) to self-evaluate. Having a very different values system, if honestly held, leads to very different results.

It's a subtler, but similar, mistake to thinking all people want Freedom, and all who oppose our version of it are evil.

Here we go again with the "homophobia is primarily a result of self-loathing gays" argument again. Not only does it defy logic, or even statstical probability - but it's an argument that goes on in a contextless circle that ultimately blames gays for their own problems and absolves straights of the weight of homophobia. It reminds me of the "Hitler was half-Jewish" argument - whites don't kill Jews, Jews do. Straights aren't homophobic, gays are. Those people are just doing it to themselves, right?

Homosexuality as a "threat" is a concept that has existed cross-culturally for centuries - amongst Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and yes even athiests (several homophobic communist societies come to mind). Any homosexual who is actively homophobic is only that way because the broader (aka - straight) culture has made them that way. Haggard claims homosexuality as a "threat" because he's heard that argument from church leaders in the past and it's been pounded in his head. Of course he's a hypocrite, of course he's responsible for his own actions, but of course the homophobic straight world has sent him, and many other gays, down such an unfortunate path.

What can be said of a mind afflicted with such a devotion to religion? That it is working naturally? One wonders.

Anytime a thing is seen as something other than what it plainly is, something is amiss. The christian bible is a compilation of literature from dozens of disparate authors spanning thousands of years and arguably multiple cultures. Fundamentalists regard it unconditionally as a unified text given directly from single author - god. Thus, some parts are interpreted literally while others are not. Scriptures claiming jesus as 'the only way to god' are taken literally, and those calling for people wearing clothing made with two kinds of thread to be stoned are not taken literally. Yet, all are believed to be the directly given 'word of god'. It seems that many christian sects have a similarly fractured underpinning to their distinct belief systems.

Could it be that a belief about a 'higher power' occupies a uniquely significant place in the human mind? Is that place significant enough that to introduce such an inconsistent framework inflicts some kind of handicap on a person's capacity for honest self-evaluation? The whole affair seems to give rise to such a question.

Interesting observations, JB.

There is a large literature now on the sociology of homophobia (although we could argue about how well developed it is ...). There is also plenty to do with the psychology of repression (from afar, one can see Foley's effort to pass protection legislation as the urge to get caught and/or as trying to protect his own child-self, which apparently was violated, while so many others were content with more convenient nomers like "hypocrisy" and "creepy").

Anyway, you will find that those prone to violence of homosexuality often are correlated with beliefs that homosexuality is in danger of overrunning them, in some way or another (this can involve stirring up their own repressed feelings or merely flooding their 'space' with what they find loathsome - it's not a cognitive response, "a belief", quite often). In any case, you will find a lot more nuance, perhaps, than the old greek notion that lack of virtue is tied with lack of knowledge (or self-knowledge).

When you write that there are a lot of gay and bisexual people in the United States, that is technically not true, in the sense that they are outnumbered some 10-25:1. There is skant evidence that these numbers increase in less homophobic modern societies (viz. Netherlands).

Some pressure should be brought to bear on Andrew's article's separation of natural from sacred. You may find that many find that the sacred, as they conceive it, is rooted in the natural order (Aquinas ). As such, there is no 'natural order' for homosexuality (what we might call 'orientation'), it is a mere moral choice, like adultery or murder.

"So I'd be very surprised if this experience leads Pastor Ted, or others, to rethink their stance."
This is the core, arguably, of the fundie defenese, to be able to dismiss counter-factuals based on indoctrination.

I would humbly suggest that the removal of this keystone, by coming to recognize through experience that it is itself not the Gospel truth to adopt that attitude, is the beginning of the spiritual breakthrough away from fundamentalism toward a more profound faith.

So, while we might not expect Pastor Ted to re-enter his old flock anytime soon, he might be part of that experience in ways that are part of a plan that we do not know.

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