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Burnt by the Sol

Gay rights and orthodox Christianity as a 'condensed symbols'

This comment from a religious studies scholar who comments under the name Raskolnik is one reason why I have the best comments section on the web. He’s responding to a comment from another reader, which I have put in italics:

[The reader said:] With that said, why the heck are conservative Christians so freaked out about homosexuality above and beyond virtually every other “sin.” I’m no biblical scholar to be sure, but even if homosexuality is verboten under the Bible, so is divorce, fornication, and adultery. Are there florists and caterers that will not service weddings unless the bridge and groom are virgins? Why do Christians fight against gay marriage, yet don’t fight for laws to prohibit divorce or criminalize adultery?

[Raskolnik replies:] Some variation of this question pops up so frequently that I figured it would be worth writing a fairly involved answer that I could then copy and paste as necessary. On the one hand, the premises of this question don’t really make any sense from an orthodox Christian perspective; on the other hand, you’d have to be an orthodox Christian to understand why, so it’s probably worth spelling out exactly what the issue is.

So: the thing to understand here is that the vast majority of Christians are not “freaked out about homosexuality above and beyond” every other sin, sexual or otherwise. I understand that from your perspective it may appear to be so, but please understand that this is simply a false impression driven by the media and various political interests. Most of the Christians I know, for example (myself included), are far more concerned about the extreme prevalence of pornography than they are about homosexuality. However, pornographers and pornography consumers are not a politically powerful lobby, and as yet there is no one who identifies as “pornosexual,” thus there is no narrative of the oppression of the poor pornosexuals to tap into Selma envy.

Back in the 60’s, the sociologist Mary Douglas came up with the idea of a “condensed symbol.” The idea is that certain practices or ideas can become a kind of shorthand for a whole worldview. She used the example of fasting on Fridays, which the Bog Irish (generally lowerclass Irish Catholics living in England) persisted in doing, despite the fact that their better-educated, generally-upperclass clergy kept telling them to give to the poor or do something else that better fit with secular humanist mores instead. Her point was that the Bog Irish kept fasting, not due to obdurate traditionalism, or some misplaced faith in the “magical” effectiveness of the practice, but because it functioned as a “condensed symbol”: fasting on Fridays was a shorthand way of signifying connection to the past, to one’s identity as Irish, as well as to a less secularized (or completely non-secular) vision of what religious practice was all about. It acquired an outsized importance because it connected systems of meaning.

I bring up the notion of “condensed symbol” because I think that’s the best way to understand what’s going in (what you perceive to be) the “freakout” about homosexuality. The freakout isn’t about homosexuality per se, it’s about the secular world shoving its idea of sexual morality down the throats of orthodox Christians. If you haven’t read Rod’s piece Sex After Christianity, you really should, and if you haven’t, I think you should be able to connect the dots between the Christian cosmology of sex and the Christian opposition to same-sex marriage as a “condensed symbol” of Christian resistance to secularism writ large.

Because the fact of the matter is that, for a variety of reasons, some easily understandable from a non-religious perspective, some of them perhaps less so, participating in a same-sex marriage has become the 21st century equivalent of making offerings to Sol Invictus. A Roman might just have easily asked, “What’s the big problem? Why not just make the offerings? Don’t they want to be a part of Roman society?” A more intelligent Roman might even have asked, “They don’t even believe in the divinity of the Emperor anyway. Why can’t they just burn the incense, which they literally believe has no effect on anything whatsoever?” Hopefully you can see the connection here; Christian opposition to the Roman cult of Sol Invictus, like Christian opposition to same-sex marriage, is about a whole lot more than burning some incense or baking a cake.

That’s really, really helpful. And here, from The Nation, back in 1993, when the successful stage of the gay rights revolution was just getting started, is why it is a “condensed symbol” for so many of us — because it is, for Nation readers and many on the left, also a condensed symbol:

All the crosscurrents of present-day liberation struggles are subsumed in the gay struggle. The gay moment is in some ways similar to the moment that other communities have experienced in the nation’s past, but it is also something more, because sexual identity is in crisis throughout the population, and gay people—at once the most conspicuous subjects and objects of the crisis—have been forced to invent a complete cosmology to grasp it. No one says the changes will come easily. But it’s just possible that a small and despised sexual minority will change America forever.

Absolutely correct. Could not agree more. I think it is also the case that for many liberals in this country, especially among media, academic, legal, and upper management types, orthodox Christianity, in its Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox varieties, is a “condensed symbol” of the things they stand against. The Lamb and the lambda cannot harmonize.



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