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.

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.

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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