Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Ex-Gay Movement & Christian Nationalism

Michelle Goldberg's new book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism explores the influence of radical religious right forces on American politics and policy. In a recent interview with Onnesha Roychoudhuri, Goldberg reveals that she first became aware of a Christian world co-existing with the mainstream when she attended an Exodus conference.
One of the first pieces I did on the Christian right was on the ex-gay movement. What struck me going to the Exodus Conference was that it takes place in this whole entire parallel universe. They have their own psychologists, psychological institutions and their own version of professional medical literature. The amount of books, magazines and media, and the way it almost duplicated everything that we have in our so-called reality, is remarkable. What struck me years later when I was reporting on the Bush administration was that the parallel institutions that I had first come into contact with were replacing the mainstream institutions -- especially in the federal bureaucracy.
In the interview Golberg gives examples of how this all works. She also provides a clear definition of Christian Nationalism.
Christian Nationalism is a political ideology separate from evangelicals. Evangelicals are about 30 percent of the American population. Christian Nationalism is a subset of 10-15 percent. It's less a religion than it is an ideology about the way America should be governed. It has this whole revisionist history claiming that America was founded as a Christian nation, that the separation of church and state is a fraud perpetrated by seculars. What follows from that are ideas about Christianization of institutions in American life, and that the courts have vastly overstepped their authority in the enforcement of the separation of church and state.
John McCandlish Phillips, a former NY Times reporter and once a mentor to me for several years when I was an ex-gay in NYC, recently responded to similar charges that conservative religious ideology has infiltrated our government. In his Washington Post opinion piece he claims that we have nothing to fear from a government infused with religion, as long as it is the correct expression of Biblical Christianity. Of course he considers that to be an Evangelical Christian faith that he insists springs from our earliest male leaders. He seeks to assuage any fears about a US theocracy.
In the long journey from the matchless moment when I became "born again" and encountered the risen and living Christ, I have met hundreds of evangelicals and a good many practicing Catholics and have found them to be of reasonable temperament, often enough of impressive accomplishment, certainly not a menace to the republic, unless, of course, the very fact of faith seriously held is thought to make them just that. It is said, again and again and again, that the evangelical/Catholic right is out of accord with the history of our republic, dangerously so. What we are out of accord with is not that history but a revisionist version of it vigorously promulgated by those who want it to be seen as other than it was.
Phillips harkens back to what he sees as a lost era of faithful men in public service advancing the Gospel of Jesus Christ lead by the Spirit of God. I am all for individuals, leaders and ordinary citizens, exercising and expressing their faith. But so much of what Phillips considers spiritual faith is actually culture that is tied into systems of oppression. Somehow these great people of faith that Phillips mentions in his piece (founders of America's greatest universities as well as founding fathers) systematically excluded women, people of color, Jews and non-land owners from their institutions and the political system of voting and serving.

Similarly today's Christian nationalist political and religious leaders, (aided by national ex-gay leaders) aggressively seek to forbid the rights of gays and lesbians to marry, to adopt, to even be safe on the streets--not to mention a gross irresponsibility in addressing the environment, the economy and our own contribution to world violence and oppression.

Back in the early 1990's when I was a member of the New Testament Missionary Fellowship sitting under the teachings of Phillips that I would have rejoiced at the prospect of a government controlled by Evangelical Christians. In fact, for years we prayed for a spiritual coup in the White House, Congress and Supreme Court.

I look at that time and those prayers and see that many were prayed in fearful superstition that if we did not appease the angry God that pulled the strings, our whole society would devolve into a godless morass. Reacting to the terrors of postmodern theory and the liberation of politically and socially oppressed peoples, I now understand that we sought to recapture the "glory days" of the city set up on a hill. Most people though were not privileged enough to dwell on those safe hills and fotresses. Rather they were forced to labor in the kitchens, the fields and in the streets to keep the gods of this world in power.

This all reminds me of the wisdom of T.S. Eliot when reflecting on the birth of Christ he wrote,
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
Time for new wine in new wineskins.


At 2:12 PM , Blogger Jonathan said...

Excellent observations Peterson!!


At 2:42 PM , Blogger grace said...

Would it surprise you to know that I wholeheartedly agree with the points you make here? ;)

I do.


At 4:00 PM , Blogger Plain Foolish said...

One of the things that really infuriates me is when they go stirring up trouble in other people's churches. And things like the IRD are very much part of the structure involved, so that moderate voices won't be heard. If a church is preaching the economic parts of the gospel, or being inclusive, you can bet that either there will be an attempt to marginalize it or else one to divide it into warring factions, just as is being done to the Episcopalians right now.

And of course, all those social bits make it much worse. You can bet these "good Christians" will continue to push policies that marginalize already marginalized minorities.

At 3:29 AM , Blogger Willie Hewes said...

This 'revisionist history' stuff reminds me of something I read a couple of days ago, about Florida. Scared the pants off me.

How wrong is that?

At 10:22 AM , Blogger Peterson Toscano said...

Willie, scary indeed. Thanks for the link.

Grace, well not all that surprised. Goldberg says that only 10-15% of Evangelical Christians adhere to Christian Nationalsim. Plus you are an independent thinker, so I imagine that on several issues you take an independent line.

plain foolish--good points all.


At 7:46 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for dropping by my blog.

I can't speak to whether the USA was founded as a Christian nation -- but I know of at least one person (a lawyer) who insists the spiritual core of the US founding fathers was Deist.

For me (a Canuck -- and therefore a North American -- the question ought to be -- is Christian Nationalism consistent with the Christian faith?

Folks I been reading (Tolstoy, Stringfellow) would answer in the negative.

At 7:49 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Part of the problem is that they don't think there is such things as hate crimes, period. A "regular" crime is a crime committed against an individual. They believe that this is what all crimes are. But a hate crime is a crime committed against an individual as a means of frightening or repressing a group from which that individual comes. But they don't understand that. They just don't understand why everyone else can't be more like them. If we were all the same, it would just make things easier, eh?


At 7:54 PM , Blogger Peterson Toscano said...

Ah kwakersaur, you Canucks are so reasonable. Please invade our country (and recall Celine while you are at it, but leave us Samantha Bee)

At 3:13 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Intriguing profile of McCandlish Phillips. While not apparently ex-gay, I get a sense of him as a guy who could not afford to be intimate with both God and a significant other, perhaps a guy who struggled with the possibility of forming a family of his own unless it was a church family.

I can't pretend to understand his experience of faith and spirituality, and I may be reading him all wrong. To me, a god who requires conformity masked as holy sacrifice risks becoming a small and brittle god instead of a voice of expansive and all-encompassing love.

So, for Phillips and some ex-gay folks, God is the reason that intimacy must be elevated on a pedestal, because letting it down and gently integrating it into one's life would shatter God's ability to bless and those lives.

Similarly, capacity for intellect, critical thinking, and self-control seem to be relegated to their own pedestals by the Christian Nationalists. Humankind dare not let questions about the origin of the Bible compete with idolizing a supposedly inerrant literal text lest God's ability to bless them breaks. In that frame, God is the sole owner of wisdom, and he is too brittle to be questioned or wrestled with. His creations can't be trusted to seek Him or experience their spirituality independently, either, given the opportunity to limit their options via changing public policy or practice.

Call me a nutty optimist, but I believe in love and peace and human potential that are often bigger than human understanding, that don't need to be budgeted or metered out cautiously. I've seen life experiences of intimacy, intellect, heart, and spirit which expansively, illogically defied reasonable human explanations. And I gotta think God is a part of that, an author of the illogical, an inspiration and nurturer of great struggles bearing fruit in unexpected peace and deeply meaningful life.

At 10:43 AM , Blogger Peterson Toscano said...

Steve, interesting insights into Phillips. I don't know if he ever dealt with same-sex attractions. He never shared as much. Such a kind and intelligent man in many ways. He gives so much of his time to college students.

I remember when I first met him and how he always had time for me and would always affirm and encourage me. We talked for a time about me possibly pursuing a career in journalism and he even had me write some pieces for him. He is a genuine nurturer and in many ways can inspire intimacy more than most men of his generation I have met.

Yet he is also a very private person, not only unpartnered, but rarely allows anyone into his apartment. But in worship so very intimate with God expressing joy and wonder and longing. I can still see him in his favorite chair in our little house church meetings, his long lanking arm uplifted, eyes closed and broad smile whispering thanks and praise to Jesus.

But so often the drastic severing of body and spirit creates a world where some love is taboo and smothered.

At 7:25 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nothing to fear from a government infused with religion as long as you're a straight evangelical Christian. I suspect a gay Buddhist like me would have plenty to fear.

Peterson, I've read your blog off and on for a long time, and while I can't relate to much of your experience (I dropped Christianity pretty early on), I admire your patience and energy. :o)


At 11:00 PM , Blogger CrackerLilo said...

I am simply grateful that people like Michelle Goldberg are *getting* it now.

That was what disturbed me about the Christian decorating magazine (which I can't find a website for): the idea that *everything* needs a "Christian version." The way the closure of their media loop is getting so thorough. In other decorating magazines, you might see a New Agey statue in the garden or the gay male couple who owns the house acknowledged as such, you know? It was like, someone thought the blinds to the Christian Nationalist house needed to be so thoroughly *shut* that not even a glimpse of any other kind of life can be seen.

Phillips' protestations aside, I am scared. They want to make that parallel culture become *the* culture, the only culture. You don't need the "time machine" he genially jokes about to make that happen; only an ignorant, apathetic populace and people willing to twist the truth until it squeals.


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