Ross Douthat, from a really lengthy and great exchange with Slate’s Will Saletan about his (Ross’s) new book, “Bad Religion”:
What I describe as “Christian orthodoxy” is not identical to everything that calls itself conservative Christianity in the United States, and it’s certainly not identical to Christian fundamentalism. Orthodoxy is an ancient thing, dating back to the early centuries A.D., when Christian doctrine was first codified by the various (often-fractious) councils of the Church. It includes most of what you call “the whole ball of wax”—the Trinity and the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth, the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life, the authority of a particular set of sacred scriptures and a particular group of creedal statements. And it includes an adherence to the moral vision encoded in the Ten Commandments and expanded and deepened in the New Testament—the rejection of violence and cruelty, the deep suspicion of worldly wealth and power, the emphasis on chastity, monogamy, and fidelity in personal relationships. … If orthodoxy seems puritanical to you today, maybe it’s less because it’s inherently anti-fun and anti-feelgood than because we live in a society distinguished by such extraordinary excess—gluttonous, libidinous, avaricious—that what a different era might recognize as a healthy balance between asceticism and indulgence looks like hopeless prudishness instead.
That is hugely important to understanding “Bad Religion”: Ross calls out both the American left (political, cultural, religious) and the American right for deviating from historical Christian orthodoxy. You simply cannot understand Christianity in its historical form if you judge it from the point of view of a conventional American liberal or conservative. Anyway, here’s what I wanted to highlight, from Ross’s and Will Saletan’s discussion of Christianity and homosexuality:
Homosexuality may be innate, but recall that one of the core doctrines of Christianity is that sin itself is innate—that our innermost being is in some sense broken and fallen and turned from God’s desires for us. What a traditional Christian morality asks of gay people seems impossibly difficult, but the Jesus of the New Testament asks the near impossible of people quite frequently.
It’s true that Jesus himself does not specifically say anything about homosexuality. But neither does he revise the male-and-female model for sexuality; if anything, his teaching on divorce only strengthens it. He leaves plenty of room for alternative ways of life besides marriage—believers are urged to break family ties if necessary and even to become “eunuchs” for the sake of the kingdom of God, and there are suggestions that friendship rather than romance might be the highest Christian relationship. But he never even hints that there might a kind of “virtually normal” sexual alternative to the male-female paradigm.
Hence the struggle you discern in my own writings, which is a struggle playing itself across the whole of American Christianity. Like many Christians—younger Christians, especially—I have strong personal reasons for wanting to remove any hint of condemnation from my faith’s view of gay sex. But I also want to be faithful to a tradition that I genuinely believe represents a divine incursion into the human plane, and a revelation of God’s intentions for mankind. Christian orthodoxy does not require a blind Biblical literalism, but it requires a respect for the authority of that revelation, and the intellectual honesty to recognize when it isn’t saying what we might like it to say. And for now, at least, I still think that the traditional interpretation of what Christians should believe about sex has the better of the argument. And if I’m wrong—if Christian moral doctrine could develop on this question without betraying the core of the faith—then we’re waiting for an intellectual or theological breakthrough that hasn’t happened yet.
So how should Christianity engage with homosexuality in a post-closet age? I’m not sure. My only definite answer is that orthodox Christians need to extend an enormous amount of charity and understanding on this issue—toward gay Christians struggling to live up to the traditional teaching, toward the many believers (gay and straight) who have become convinced that the traditional teaching simply has to change, and to the many Americans for whom this issue has become a reason to reject Christianity entirely.
I don’t know that I’ve read a more concise statement of my own views on the matter, though the assault on the liberty of Christians to be faithful in their institutional lives to orthodox teaching is gathering so much force that I often believe that attempting to be open to understanding and engaging is pointless and even a sign of weakness. I think it’s right for Christians to approach these matters with charity and understanding. I only wish there were voices on the pro-gay side who were less strident and absolutist about these things, and more willing to try to understand where orthodox Christians are coming from. It really is the case that fewer of us, at least of a certain generation, are unnerved or viscerally put off by gay folks, or carry hostility towards them. But intellectual honesty and fidelity to the core teachings of our faith on what sex (all sex) is for requires us to affirm these hard (for this culture) teachings.
As I’ve said many times before, I think that the reason the culture has shifted so radically and so quickly toward a pro-gay position is because people realized that what gays were claiming for themselves did not contradict what many people — especially those 50 and under — already believed about sex and sexual freedom. The Christian sexual matrix had already collapsed as a prescriptive and binding force in Western culture (see Philip Rieff on this). Everything from about 1964 till now has been simply a working-out of the consequences of that collapse.