THE anti-gay ideology that has long held sway in American evangelicalism seems to be crumbling. Conservatives’ insistence that the Bible proscribes homosexual acts and their claim that protecting gay rights infringes on their own religious liberty have depended on another assumption not found in Scripture: that homosexuality is not a biologically rooted identity but a sinful temptation, an addiction that one must control.
The noisy backlash against the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage cannot mask the signs that this assumption is losing its grip. The most conspicuous indication that something is changing came in 2013 while Obergefell v. Hodges was still working its way up to the court. Alan Chambers, the president of the “ex-gay” ministry Exodus International, apologized to L.G.B.T. people for causing them “pain and hurt” and shut down his organization.
Exodus’s collapse was a media spectacle. It was a huge blow to those who insist that same-sex attraction can be “cured,” and an encouragement to the growing number of evangelicals, particularly millennials, who support L.G.B.T. rights. But some young Christians resist the notion that embracing queer sexuality as an identity — not a disease — permits them to embrace homosexual relationships.
These dissenters proudly call themselves gay or queer or bisexual. But they have turned to ideologies outside the conventional boundaries of evangelicalism — including Catholic theology and queer theory — to argue against both conservatives and liberals. They insist that the church should welcome gay people, yet still condemn homosexual acts. They have provoked a dispute that gets to the heart of the culture wars: a debate over the meaning of vocation that reveals the tension between modern assumptions about living a full life and older ideas about the sacrifices God’s calling requires.
Lanira Postell, who attends an evangelical church in Georgia, had relationships with women for years before God “transformed not only my sexuality but my life,” she told me. I expected her to launch into a testimony of her “conversion” from same-sex attraction, but that’s not what happened. “The biggest hurdle I had to jump over was letting go, submitting my full self to the will of God, and in doing that I had to let go of my desire to be straight,” she said. Surrendering to God meant rejecting a black and white binary of sexual identity. “I’m still mentally, emotionally and spiritually attracted to women,” she said, and calls herself “bisexual with celibate same-sex attraction.”
Evangelicals — particularly millennials like Ms. Postell, who is 26 — have absorbed secular thinkers’ ideas about the fluidity of sexual expression. This is, in part, a counterintuitive legacy of traditional ex-gay ministries. When groups like Exodus promised that sexual desire could change, they pioneered queer theory in the evangelical world. Participants often acknowledged their struggles with “relapse,” and their testimonies “point to the instability and changeability of their own identities rather than serve as a testament to heterosexuality,” the ethnographer Tanya Erzen wrote in her study of ex-gay ministries, “Straight to Jesus.”
Despite coming to terms with her bisexuality, Ms. Postell hopes for heterosexual marriage one day. But for other queer Christians, God demands a life of celibacy. In an era when the right worships the nuclear family and the left celebrates sexual authenticity and gay marriage, celibate gay Christians have no comfortable home on either side of the political spectrum. “There’s little space for them even in Christian queer communities,” said John Bagley, a board member of OneWheaton, a network of L.G.B.T. alumni and allies of Wheaton College, a conservative evangelical school. “Their decision stands as an affront to the decision a lot of people have made.”
Many celibate gay evangelicals look outside the Protestant tradition and reach into ancient history for help in thinking about loneliness and desire. Wesley Hill, an assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Pennsylvania and a celibate gay Christian, told me he draws inspiration from Catholic thinkers like the Dutch priest Henri Nouwen, who was attracted to men.
Dr. Hill left his childhood denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, for the Anglican Communion, which emphasizes its Catholic past and has a monastic tradition. In his most recent book, “Spiritual Friendship,” he followed in the footsteps of historians like John Boswell, who argued that the medieval church was a surprisingly hospitable place for gay Christians. Dr. Hill has called on evangelicals to resurrect the ancient Christian tradition of honoring some same-sex friendships as a holy covenant. Conservatives have reacted with skepticism. “They think it would be a way of smuggling in same-sex erotic attraction, to find an acceptable way of being gay, having a lover,” he told me.
Sarah and Lindsey, a celibate lesbian couple who don’t reveal their last names on their blog “A Queer Calling,” worshiped in Eastern Orthodox churches for several years. They point to the models that non-Protestant church history offers to Christians who don’t fit the hetero-normative mold, like the Beguines, a celibate spiritual movement among Catholic women in medieval Northern Europe. “Words like ‘friend’ and ‘sister’ don’t adequately describe every instance of meaningful relationship between one Beguine woman and another,” they write.
Those who seek to persuade evangelical churches to embrace gay celibacy face an uphill battle, and not only because Martin Luther wrote that “to spurn marriage is to act against God’s calling” and “against nature’s urging.” The idealized image of the heterosexual nuclear family has become the chief conservative rallying point of the culture wars. “Part of why I’ve experienced pain is that I grew up in an evangelical church that elevates the family,” Dr. Hill told me. “You’re told your whole life that it’s the summit of happiness.”
BUT does liberals’ emphasis on gay marriage effectively send the same message? “If you end up accepting the progressive position, you then have a future: Gay people, you’re supposed to get married, have romance, have children, and that’s how you get security and stave off loneliness,” said Eve Tushnet, a celibate Catholic lesbian writer who has a growing following among evangelicals. “But if you don’t change your sexual ethic, then the challenge to your cultural mind-set is very deep because you’re no longer able to offer gay people the forms of adult love that our culture recognizes.” If the ex-gay ministries ironically introduced evangelicals to more fluid ideas of sexuality, the liberal campaign for gay marriage has reinforced the grip of traditional “family values.”
Like other gay celibate Christians I spoke to, Ms. Tushnet uses the language of vocation to explain why she sticks to a path that denies her the sexual fulfillment that most people consider so fundamental. A vocation is not supposed to be easy. “We see in Scripture that God calls people who are uniquely unsuited for the task that he sets them,” she told me.
The question of vocation is not an intramural theological debate. It reveals the essential source of the culture wars: a breakdown in the American consensus over whose demands we should live to serve, and what it means for humans to flourish.
There is a long history here. The German sociologist Max Weber famously argued that the Puritans laid the groundwork. They reinterpreted the biblical concept of vocation as a calling to fulfill one’s duty in the world, where a successful career would signal God’s favor. “The idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs,” Weber wrote.
But today, even Weber’s attenuated idea of vocation is an alien notion in a culture that commands us to “do what you love” and “marry for love,” a culture that celebrates the satisfaction of sexual desire as a good in and of itself. We often conflate passion and pleasure with duty.
The gay Christians I interviewed stick to an older idea of vocation: the call to obey a higher will that is not your own, one that may leave earthly desires ungratified. The idea of loving God above all else, embracing one’s identity as a “bride of Christ,” is fundamental to Christianity. It is woven into medieval monks’ erotic commentaries on the Song of Songs and saturates the lyrics of modern megachurch music. It is also wholly unintelligible to most secular people — and probably remains elusive even to many Christians. “The idea of this higher love, or that you could have a loving relationship directly with the Eucharist, is so remote from most Americans’ experience of church that it’s not hard to see why it’s unbelievable,” said Ms. Tushnet, the Catholic writer. “Lots of people go through life without ever feeling that internal contact with God in the St. Teresa Bernini sculpture way.”
In an era when gay marriage is legal and a range of gay Christians are modeling different ways to reconcile sexuality and faith, are the decisions of young believers like Lanira Postell still a result of coercion and confused self-hatred? I asked her what she thought about those liberal critics who might think so. “I understand where they’re coming from, that to them what I’m doing doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “That’s why being a Christian is not common. It’s weird. It is unnatural for me to deny myself what I desire, but I do it because of the love of God.”
New York Times
Molly Worthen is the author, most recently, of “Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism,” an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a contributing opinion writer.