Kevin DeYoung’s Hermeneutic

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Some time has passed since answering DeYoung’s 40 questions. What my friends Keegan, Tapji, and I noticed was that one must accept DeYoung’s hermeneutical framework in order to answer his questions. Each of us, I am sure, felt a sense of emotional exhaustion due to accepting this hermeneutical framework. Likewise, I felt that the who point was that one would throw up their hands and just not do the 40 questions, and in that way, it would make DeYoung’s questions look unanswerable (and in my mind, that seems like a tactic of “look my questions have stumped those liberals!”). John Short offered an alternative 40 questions that get somewhat at some of my own questioning throughout answering the questions. But I just wanted to offer a reflection on answering those stupid 40 questions.

At this point it seems like a broken record, since I have asked this question continually but it is worth repeating, in that listening to a record repeatedly, for me, indicates an important message: conservative Christians focus so much on their queer antagonism being accepted as a legitimate part of Christian tradition, yet rarely speak out against other forms of queer antagonism. There is a significant disavowal on their part that their emphasis on “traditional marriage” (whatever this term really means) they do is marginalize a whole group of people. Yet rarely do they speak out against other forms of oppression against queer people.

Here, I think about the fact that queer people are more likely to be in poverty or homeless than their cisheterosexual counterparts. Moreover, there are more cases of drug abuse, and mental illness, which in my mind correlates with the ways in which society excludes and marginalizes people. Also insert issues like job discrimination, housing discrimination, or the fact that queer people of color still face police brutality. Or that queer immigrants face violence against the US state in detention centers, as Jannicet Gutierrez recently protested before President Obama. I cannot help but think about the racist and transphobic violence inflicted against CeCe McDonald, and that because she defended herself against this violence she still was deemed guilty by the judicial system. Transwomen continue to be murdered. Pastors will say that queer people need to caged up, and unsurprisingly conservative Christians either offer a tepid response or none at all.

These are all issues conservative Christians are often silent on. None of them deal with same-sex marriage. To be honest,  I care little about Same Sex Marriage because of all of the issues enumerate by Dean Spade and Craig Wilse. Nevertheless, it is difficult for me to accept conservative Christians who say their opposition to same-sex marriage is rooted in Christian tradition alone (as if religious tradition is somehow exempt from producing bigotry or enforcing it). Why? Because they’re silent on all the other forms of oppression that queer people face on a daily basis. It is as if their opposition to same-sex marriage symbolizes their opposition of the moral goodness of queer life and culture.

What does not surprise me is that DeYoung asks if one will support Christians who will face bullying and the potential lack of religious freedom. This willfully ignores the violence faced by many queer people today. So it is not just that DeYoung has a rather myopic hermeneutic, but he is also a revisionist, ignoring the actual violence and oppression faced by queer people, as this huffington post article critiques about Christians “being oppressed.” Again, unsurprising because many conservative Christians frame their struggle as somehow akin to the struggles faced by minorities under Nazi Germany (again ignoring that LGBT people were among those persecuted and sent to concentration camps by the Nazis, or even that Nazi ideology was buttressed by the anti-Jewish teachings found in Christianity).

Here is where DeYoung and I differ hermeneutically. The Haggadah plays a central role during Pesaḥ, recounting the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt. The exodus is central both to me personally, and functions as the national founding myth in Judaism (to the extent that Rashi wonders why the Torah begins with creation not the Exodus). The exodus plays a central role in my political imagination, and in my desire to see the liberation of various groups of people. For Christians, Jesus is the image of God’s character. For me as a Jew, it is through the liberation in Egypt and the desire for new ways of life. As Moses says, החיים והמות נתתי לפניך הברכה והקללה ובחרת בחיים למען תחיה אתה וזרעך “life and death I have set before you, a blessing and a curse and you will choose life so that you and your offspring may life” (Deut 30:19). Here, I take life not just to mean a physical way of life, but the way life is conceptualized, in the hopes that lives that are typically not valued will be valued, and advocating for a society that values the lives of those who are marginalized.

Lastly, I think our hermeneutic differs to the degree that Judaism has put more stock in historical experiences than Christianity. For many Christians, it always comes back to “doctrine.” Jews have overwhelming supported SSM, at least I believe, because of the lived experiences of oppression. This in part ties into the experience of exodus, but it also ties into the anti-semitism that Jews have faced in Europe and the United States. As Yitz Greenberg notes, “Judaism is a midrash on history.” Thus, lived experience plays a central role in how one practices Judaism, and lives faithfully to God.

I am sure that these interpretations do not adhere DeYoung’s hermeneutic, but then again, I find his interpretation of Scripture to be rather bland, simplistic, and lacking a depth of flavor like mayonnaise.

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Where I Kvetch About Dreher’s Religious Freedom Rhetoric

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I have long been a critic of Rod Dreher’s. Initially, I found his criticism of big government and big business interesting. While we will likely always diverge politically and religiously, I used to respect Dreher’s more nuanced approach to religious conservatism. What I have realized over the years is Dreher is not that nuanced. It is only that his rhetoric appears much more nuanced. In reality, Dreher often reinforces the rather shallow critiques of religious (read: Christian) conservatives. Dreher’s main defense of religious freedom against what he perceives to be the success of the sexual revolution (even though queers were not participants in the sexual revolution, but rather that even the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s itself was heteronormative) the trope of “it’s not queer antagonism, it is just religion.”
There have always been several ironies that I have found in Dreher’s thought. Most of them relate to Cornel West’s critique of Alasdair MacIntyre (as representative of communitarianism). West argues that while MacIntyre critiques the liberal focus on individualism, MacIntyre relies on a communitarian argument that presupposes the liberal state because it demands religious freedom for believers. Dreher is no different as far as I can tell.
The mantra of “it’s not queer antagonism, it’s just religion” presumes religion as an apolitical sphere of private activity, an activity outside the discourse of public morality (or ethics). Yet, it’s not that simple because Dreher like most religious conservatives demands that a) there should be a robust civic Christianity but b) like religion in the private sphere, this robust civic Christianity should be above the reproach of ethics or morality. Dreher wants Christianity to be the foundation of the political, yet he doesn’t want the contestation and agonism that comes with politics. I also think Dreher ignores we (he and I as religious outsiders) benefits from the freedom of religion because civic Christianity has often been primarily a Protestant endeavor that sought to exclude religious outsiders (both within and outside Christianity).
Reliance on liberal principles is no surprise because the notion of religious freedom applying to individuals is a liberal reading of the Constitution (the importance of the Incorporation Doctrine of the Fourteenth Amendment, an Amendment often opposed by conservatives, if not de jure, then de facto). Again, this only highlights the fact that while Dreher and other conservatives oppose liberal principles, they often rely on those very principles. The issue is that the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution also allows for equal protection, which directly conflicts with how much religious freedom a person has. Where does religious freedom end and equal protection begin? Dreher’s articulation of this and defense of a more maximalist approach to religious freedom leaves his response underdeveloped.
This leads me to another point in the myopic view of Dreher and other religious conservatives. The religious conservatism of Dreher is myopic because it presumes society would be better if Christianity remains the foundation of morality and politics. Yet, even when Christian discourse maintained (I still think it maintains a very public role despite the kvetching of Dreher and people like Franklin Graham), there was no consensus on what those kind of politics should look like. Of all the political debates that US society has had throughout its existence, there have been Christians on both sides of those debates. We might think of the Civil Rights Movement as the great triumph of Christian morality, but we shouldn’t forget that religious conservatives and moderates often supported Jim Crow. Virtually all moral debates have had Christians on both sides of the issue. Civic Christianity doesn’t change uncertainty. While one might attribute Christians who supported Jim Crow to not practicing an “ideal form of Christianity,” this assertion is a deflection, and it fails to address that Christians throughout history have held morally dubious political, moral, and religious public civic positions.
More to the point, Dreher wants to position his version of religion as the ideal form of civic Christianity. Why should anyone accept this premise given the varieties of civic Christianity? Problematically, Dreher wants to position queerness outside of the Church as akin to the secular. Yet, some of the most vocal supporters of queer inclusion (and same-sex marriage) are themselves Christian religious leaders. Again, this is part of my previous point, but emphasizes that Dreher can only imagine a queer antagonistic form of Christianity as a legitimate form of civic Christianity. But this is a problem because those who support queer inclusive Christianities don’t think they are practicing cafeteria Christianity (and if “cafeteria religion” is a credible analytical category, which I don’t think it is, then Dreher’s form of Christianity is just as much a “cafeteria Christianity” as progressive Christians). Rather, they envision queer inclusion as an extensions of the religious obligation and practice.
To conclude, Dreher’s analysis of religious freedom is dubious. For Dreher, civic Christianity relies on being outside of reproach, problematic because Dreher’s form of civic Christianity deemphasizes equal protection while bolstering religious freedom to an unrealistically high precipice. The issue, of course, is that other forms of morality are displacing some within Christianity. As someone identified with queer politics, I question how much this is really the case (queer antagonism won’t dissipate with Same-Sex Marriage). But Dreher’s complaints strike me like how person A is deemed as suppressing free speech when they criticized the racism/homophobia/sexism/etc. of person B’s speech (or actions). It really is like the whiny teenager who claims they’re being marginalized when really they already have everything.

Thoughts on Secular Queer Spaces

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Alex Gabriel argues that queer groups should stay secular, free from pandering by Christian organizations. Gabriel’s overarching reason is purely pragmatic: queer-identified people have faced trauma from religious (read: Christian) institutions and might need a space from religious discourse:

Many in queer communities have histories of religious abuse, whether ordinary queerphobia or physical, sexual or emotional varieties: the mere presence of guests in holy orders, even entirely friendly ones, can make an event a no-go area. There are apostates from all forms of religion who feel unwelcome or uncomfortable in LGBT groups that have been godded-up, as I did at university.

Gabriel goes on to assert that many who are queer-identified persons within these groups who have reservations about the role of religious (again read: Christian) groups have with purportedly non-religious/Christian organizations. Gabriel’s blog has spurred a lot of thoughts I have had about the relationship between queerness and religion (indeed, it has spurred me to start-up my blog once again).

Praise for Gabriel’s Article

Gabriel is correct that queer groups spend significant amounts of time focused on religious (read:Christian) issues, and this lends some credence to religious privilege (specifically Christian privilege). The fact that queer-identified people must focus on religious issues reinforces a narrative that queer-identified people will only be able to gain legitimacy through religious acceptance of queer people. This is not dissimilar to the critique Jasbir Puar makes about what she calls “homonormativity,” drawn from Lisa Duggan, in which queer ideologies that “replicate narrow racial, class, and gender national ideals” (Puar 2010, xxv). Here one might add religious national ideals as well in following Gabriel. In order to gain ascendency, queer-identified persons must cling to the modes of religiosity that are dominant and normative (at least speaking of the United States). For instance, it should come as no surprise voices such as Michael Vines dominates the conversation about queer religious inclusion that panders to white evangelicalism. Even Jay Michaelson’s book, God vs. Gay? reified the conversation around white evangelicalism even while Michaelson himself identifies as Jewish.

What is more is that the feeling I get as a queer Jew is often one of suspicion from affirming Christian groups because it seems as if their larger goal is still to either win converts or to win back souls who have strayed from the Church. Of course, this has no basis in fact, but is rather a feeling. Yet, I think it speaks to the larger issue that Gabriel hints at, namely, the pink washing of Christianity’s past. I am fully aware, following Michael Satlow’s dictum that “there is no history of Judaism but only histories,” applying it to Christianity. This is what Gabriel hints at when he states, “[i]f as liberals claim, Christianity’s impact over millennia has been antithetical to Jesus’ words, the question is not why Christians have missed Christ’s real message – it’s why Jesus was the worst communicator in human history.”

But the sense in which Christianity has failed to fully address this past lends some credence to my suspicion on interactions with affirming Christians. The question I want to ask, “Can Christianity be queer-affirming without some form of radical reconfiguration?” It seems like the model that Vines and Michaelson promote is that Christianity (or more broadly) religion can go on without some form of radical reconfiguration that allows religion to be inclusive in any real way. 

To move forward, the larger part of Gabriel’s point that I worry others might miss is that Christianity has played a significant role in religious trauma. Queer groups, in his opinion should function as spaces for those who want to be removed from that trauma, and thus, religious groups should keep arms distance from queer groups. Thus, Gabriel’s point, and I think it is important concern.

Critique

Although I share Gabriel’s concerns, I believe his position must be critiqued because  Gabriel’s position takes much for granted. First, Gabriel asserts religious trauma as if religious institutions are the only institutions that have (or still do) promote queer antagonism. Second, Gabriel appears to evoke “safe space” without fleshing out a definition of a “safe” space. Third, although Gabriel discusses “the secular” instead of “secularism,” Gabriel presumes that “the secular” offers a neutral ground.

To speak to the first issue, Gabriel relies on the proposition that religion is inherently queer antagonistic. I do not mean to belittle the point: religious institutions have been the dominant force in perpetuating oppression against queer-identified persons. Yet, it is valuable to critique Gabriel here because religious institutions are not alone. It crafts an essentialist history about Christianity in particular and religion more generally. Secular (or explicitly anti-religious organizations) have likewise perpetuated queer antagonism. The forms of queer antagonism that I have faced as an individual were neither implicitly or overtly religious in their tone. Again, this is not to dismiss Gabriel (religious institutions do play a large role in oppression), but rather to ask whether focus on religious trauma obscures non-religious forms of queer antagonism? 

To speak to the second issue, that is the issue of “safe space,” I want to legitimately ask if safe space is actually possible. Here I can only think of my own evolution of the concept of “safe space,” which has been formed in light of drug use within queer spaces (not religion). Some, following Eric Peterson, would argue that the notion of safe space enforces racism and transphobia, where “safety,” the freedom from fear, allows for internalized (and not so internalized) racism and/or transphobia to manifest themselves. Although I believe there are significant issues with Jack Halberstam’s piece on trigger warnings (Halberstam misunderstands what a trigger warning is), Halberstam’s larger point that coalitional politics has given way for neo-liberalism, which focuses too much on individualism. In what ways can the very idea of safe space promote the neo-liberal individualism that Halberstam critiques? Again, I am unsure if I have an answer whether or not we abandon the notion of safe space in general. Yet, I think it is worth questioning the concept of safe space because whose safety is privileged. 

Lastly, I think it is worth questioning whether a secular space actually functions as a neutral space. Again, William Connolly has noted of Asad’s critique of secularism, secularism itself can be a carrier of harsh exclusions. What is more is that by creating a new definition of “religion,” (a private practice), secularism amoralizes problematic aspects of Christianity. In the United States at least, it becomes common practice for religious conservatives to argue, “we’re not bigots, we’re just practicing our religion.” Thus, I am less convinced that the so-called secular space offers a neutral space as Gabriel suggests.

Conclusion

None of the critiques I have provided is to suggest that we should abandon Gabriel’s key points. Indeed, I believe it is imperative that we formulate a discourse of br oader societal queer-inclusion not based on religious rhetoric alone, which I believe only privileges Christian rhetoric. Nevertheless, I am not wholly convinced by Gabriel’s argument, in part, because I study religion in such a way that attempts to avoid essentialist formulations (religion as homophobic). Moreover, I am unconvinced that secularism hasn’t played a role in espousing queer antagonistic ideas and practices. Christianity, in the end, wins only because it’s been around longer than secular movements. Though, as I would continue to maintain, the point of this post was not to come down on either side of the issue.